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Johnny and the Distractions Just Let it Rock!
Editors Note: Yeah, sometimes we stray away from drag racing but not to far, and this time it's to solute Johnny and the Distractions, a Portland band that made it big, broke up and got together one last time. They played at 32 Funny cars, so there's your drag racing connection.

By Rich Bailey
Photos By Kim Skewis
It was a no frills show with a lot of heart as Johnny and The Distractions took to the Aladdin theater stage for the final time in front of a sold out crowd. The show marked the band's 30th anniversary but it didn't appear that anyone forgot how to rock. One would think the band would be all dressed up for their last ever show but just like in the old days it was jeans and mostly black t-shirts. But even without the frills this was a show that went back in time when Johnny and the Distractions were one of the biggest bands to ever come out of the Rose City. Few of the fans in attendance had forgotten about this band as everyone appeared to know song after song.

After being introduced by KGON's Iris Harrison, who refered to the show as the hottest ticket in Portland, the group walked on stage and opened with a forgotten nugget titled "Rock Me Tonight" followed by "Guys Like Me", "Justine" and even a cover of an old Animals song.

Lead singer Jon Koonce brought it on Friday night as he climbed speakers, sat on the stage, anything to display his showmanship. His vocals were in fine form and his band mates showed no rust. Every song was full of energy and rocked the crowd. Even Iris was in front of the stage enjoying every note from such rocking songs as "Octane Twilight", "Complicated Now", "Forever", "Shoulder of the Road" and of course their signiture song "My Desire" among many others. It was a time to slip back into the 80's and untap a free spirit that more often than not is bottled up these days.

On lead guitar, Mark Spangler didn't look much older than he did when he played with the band at the Memorial Coliseum back in the Fall of 1981 when they opened for J Geils. It appears that time has been good to Johnny as well as he hasn't changed much in 30 years. The concert, billed as the "Last Dance" didn't disappoint as it was just as good as one would hope when the tickets were purchased. The final question is, was that really the last time this great rock-n-roll band will ever takes the stage or was there a spark that will reunite them again?

Looking out over the audience, Koonce was deeply touched and was close to tears reacting to the sold out show, audience reaction to each song and a week of whirl wind of publicity. It was only one night but the stage belonged to Johnny and The Distractions. The last song during the encore was "Complicated Now" which they played earlier in the show, but nobody seemed to mind before the band left the stage for the last time.

A Divine Appointment?
After the concert as we crossed the street in a cross walk, a car suddenly came barreling down the street. Two people next to my wife Susan were talking and didn't notice the car that showed no signs of even slowing down! After saying "stop there's a car" my wife stopped but the two other concert goers didn't react. Finally, I yelled stop and they stopped in their tracks and one of them just missed getting hit by inches. Perhaps, being a Johnny and the Distractions fan and being there at that precise time and place was meant to be.

Johnny and the Distractions History on A&M Records

In 1982, about the same time that Quarterflash came on the scene with the hit single, Harden my Heart, another Portland band came out with an incredible album which is still one of my favorites to this day. This cutting edge album was recorded on the A&M label and was titled "Let it Rock". The cover was cool as it had a sledgehammer with sparks flying everywhere hitting some rocks. The record was very successful locally and it did well enough nationally to put the band on the same tour with the J Geils Band who at the time had the number 1 record in the country called "Freeze Frame".

Not one but five songs on Let it Rock received air time on Portland's best and most listened to rock station, KGON, and Let it Rock was the music of choice at a lot of parties. The blue collar influenced songs included: Octane Twilight, Complicated Now, Let it Rock, My Desire and Shoulder of the Road. After some success, things slowly unraveled for the band as A&M wanted lead singer Johnny Koonce to go solo. And another member of the band, Mark Spangler got a job as a music critic for the Oregonian. Who knows where Portland's best answer to Bruce Springstien would have gone without all of the roadblocks that often come with being a struggling rock n roll star?

A couple of years went by and Johnny cleaned himself up and even had a bout with throat cancer. He went back to his roots and picked up guitarist Doug Fraiser and the band continued on playing local gigs and released a second Johnny and the Distractions record on an independent label that contained one single but it wasn't close to their masterpiece, Let it Rock. My close friend Mike O'neill and I use to drive up to Portland any time we could to see this Portland treasure play up close in downtown clubs such as Eli's. We met Johnny a few times between sets and he was always an entertaining guy to talk to.
Back then you had to grow a pair to go to some of the dumps in Portland to see Sequel, Johnny and the D's and other Portland bands of that era.
-Rich Bailey

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