In the early-to-mid-1980s, Austin was lousy with punk bands, but the most intense of the lot was unquestionably the Offenders. With J.J. on vocals, Tony on guitar, Mikey on bass and Pat on drums, they were such a whirling menace of aggro-brotherhood that everybody gave them the last name of their band. They were dangerous and when they took the stage it was for one purpose only- to kick your fucking ass. If you showed up at one of their gigs to see and be seen, the Offenders exposed you, as you clung to the back wall. Tony Offender’s guitar was like a gush of water- three feet high and rising. “Mommy!”
Tony Johnson, who passed away Saturday after a 20-month battle with lung cancer, looked like a metal guitarist with his long, stringy hair, but he could thrash out hardcore punk rock like none other. He didn’t just play fast, but ferocious, throwing in all sorts of sonic mayhem, like Ron Asheton of the Stooges. Friends told me Tony was a gentle soul offstage, but I had to take their word for it. He scared the shit out of me.
Except for that one night at Voltaire’s, the firetrap in the basement of a bookstore at Lavaca and 3rd, when I joined the mosh pit. First and only time for me, but the Offenders pulled something out of me with a song about hating yourself. Some skinhead blindsided me and taunted as I slid 10 feet on my back. But when I got up, I went back into the fray. You can’t hurt me!
These many years later, I still haven’t seen an Austin band that comes close to that wicked power. Even national acts like Black Flag would come to town and, having seen the Offenders, we’d be thinking, “get that weak shit outta here.” Years before Austin called itself a live music capital, when nobody knew anything about us, we had to find pride in such little, satisfying pieces.
An Army brat, Johnson moved to Austin in 1977 from Killeen with fellow military dependents Mikey Donaldson and Pat Doyle, plus guitarist Davy Jones, fresh out of the Army. The Offenders were fans of Motorhead and the like who fell in with punk rock to create an intense hybrid. The Offenders was Tony’s first band.
More influential than well-compensated, Johnson raised his family by working for 30 years at the Paramount Theatre as the head custodian. The theatre’s marquee honored him Sunday.
He suffered tremendously after being diagnosed with cancer, said Laura Croteau, the mother of his children, spending more than a year in the hospital. He endured several surgeries, radiation treatment and at one point had broken ribs replaced with concrete ribs. Two and a half weeks ago, Tony fell in the shower and broke his hip. Doctors then discovered that his cancer had spread to his entire body and he was put into hospice care.
He is survived by his daughter Natalie, 27, son Alex, 24 and his mother Richardine Koon of Augusta, GA, who was on a plane to Austin on Saturday night when Tony passed away. He also leaves behind all of us who felt more alive when he plugged in, dug in and blasted hair all over the walls.
Thankfully, Tony’s suffering is over and it’s time to celebrate a life lived with integrity. Friends and admirers will host a special tribute to Tony Offender this Sunday at the Scoot Inn. It’ll start in the afternoon and almost a dozen bands will try to do Tony justice. There will be stories, sad and funny, between the sets. A suggested donation of $10 will go towards the hospice that cared for him.
A native of Augusta, Johnson was active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans later in life. His ashes will be shot out of a Civil War cannon at noon June 9 at the Oakwood Cemetery in East Austin. Badass to the end.