I miss Davey G. Johnson: Memories of a brilliant friend

UPDATE: Authorities have recovered his body from California river

On June 5, automotive writer Davey G. Johnson went missing at a rest stop along a river in Calaveras County, Calif., while on a motorcycle ride. On Monday, authorities called off their large-scale search for him, saying he likely went into the swollen river and accidentally drowned. Today, we have learned that the sheriff's department in Calaveras County has recovered Davey's body from the river.

Davey was known and admired throughout the small world of automotive journalism, and he helped our Alex Kierstein land his first job in the business. Here is a remembrance Alex wrote earlier this week. — Ed.

I've been lucky enough in this gig to be surrounded by some exceptional talent, brains that fire in an unusual loping cadence and whose unpredictably brilliant thoughts flow after. If you ever met Davey, you were in such company. His brain fired with fine German precision. He also lived a life so full of fantastically relatable but enticingly unusual experiences that he could weave an anecdote for every occasion, even in the most mundane posts he was dashing off a dozen of a day. His knowledge, of cars, music, life, love — and especially the intersections of all of those things — was vast.

He was writing in a moment where everything the people who didn't matter cared about suddenly became the thing that the most brilliant, hilarious, relatable people were all writing about, with no one looking over their shoulder. It was messy, it was uncouth, it was uneven — and endearing all the more for it. Davey was perhaps the purest expression of this period, the most entertaining, the most unexpected, and the most influential.

In a few short, natural, casual words, he'd bridge the gulf between the Benz Patent-Motorwagen and the invention of instant ramen, half-a-novella's worth of interesting contrast in a short paragraph setting up a link out to read a Dan Neil piece in the L.A. Times. If ramen is "the Kia Rio of foodstuffs," these short posts were the ramen of Davey's collective works, and they're not as likely to be remembered as the monumentally important stuff he wrote – his "Fast as a Shark" series, in particular. (And especially when he'd weigh in on the hot rod culture of SoCal.) But for folks like me, refreshing vintage Jalopnik at the tail end of its heyday many times an hour trying to get more hits of Davey's prodigious output (and Bumbeck's, and Spinelli's, and Martin's), these got us through whatever was going on in our lives.

Constraints? I don't think Davey cared much about them; his stories about cars and bikes were really vignettes about love and song and culture, they burst across boundaries and mingled, loosely anchored by some conveyance but never beholden to it.

Given his obvious, esoteric brilliance, you might be intimidated to talk to him if you'd never met him, but his warmth and openness disarmed that feeling before it had a chance to take hold. I spent days on end in the man's constant company, and then years without talking to him, and in both situations there is nobody I'd be happier to hang out with after either occurrence. Some of the time I spent with him felt like a dream, the swirl of references on a backdrop of absurdity, like the time we spent with Toly Arutunoff on a surreal rally that nearly ended early when we boldly but perhaps unwisely decided to take our AMG C63 Black Series Coupe we'd named Lalah offroad in a vain attempt to reach Chaco Canyon.

You see? It sounds like a dream. I'm sure other people have had the same thought about their adventures with Davey.

If you knew Davey, it'd be self-evident that our otherwise insular community would turn out in force, sick to death worrying about him but bursting to recount his singular charm, an entire ecosystem of friendship. One that's birthed a constellation of memories that you should go read. There are more, far more, than I can compile here.

A lot of us got off the couch and into bylines because of him — me, directly because he recommended me to a friend, and others likewise because he made you want to do what you love.

He loved this type of work, he loved his friends in it, and we all loved him. I hope he had some inkling of that. And I hope that you, hearing about Davey maybe for the first time, meet and maybe love him through the words he left behind. Look for his bylines at Jalopnik, Autoweek and Car and Driver.

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