If you have been to the world-renowned music venue Pappy & Harriet’s, there is a strong likelihood that you have seen Dave Johnson, endearingly known as “Big Dave” to locals, either working security, hosting an open mic, or playing with The Sunday Band. Standing 6’4”, he’s hard to miss and even harder to forget. For 14 years, he was the peacekeeper/security guard for the magic little music house tucked into the hills of Pioneertown. A kind and loving giant to those who came in peace, but a brick wall to those who tried to disrupt it. Like many of the desert’s icons, there is much more to this centurion than meets the eye, and solid reasoning behind the love and respect so widely given to him.
Born in Southern California, he spent his most formative years in Karlsruhe, Germany. His stepfather was a military man, so he grew up on the military base. His size made him an obvious choice to play nose guard on the high school football team. At 18, he enlisted in the Army. During the Cold War, as an E-4 Specialist,
Big Dave was assigned to the Bavarian Alps, standing poised next to nuclear missiles aimed at Russia, waiting for orders to counteract Russian threats against American interests. “Around the time Cindy Lauper got on stage with Pink Floyd in Berlin and performed ‘We Don’t Need No Education’ like she owned the place, and after the Berlin wall came down, I was stationed back in the US.” E-4 Specialist Johnson was retrained and then shipped out to the Middle East as a medic during Operation Desert Storm.
It was in this hi-desert place where he ultimately found sanctuary in the early part of 2000, after serving his time in the military. Having lived in Europe, Alabama, Indiana, and Riverside, California, he chose a home on Mane Street in Pioneertown, where he learned to blow glass from his friend, Chris Patyk.
When Robin Celia and Linda Krantz, then owners of Pappy & Harriet’s, needed a security guard, Johnson was, again, the obvious choice. “I have 100s of favorite memories with Big Dave, but one of the funniest was when I fired him during one of the first shows that he worked security! It was one of the first Campouts with Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven. Every time I went to find him to help with something, he was eating an ice cream bar! Every single time! If you are wondering why, there was an ice cream truck at the show. I was so mad! But I got over it quickly and hired him right back.”
Working with Paul McCartney’s security team when Sir Paul performed a pop-up show at Pappy & Harriet’s was the experience of a lifetime for Big Dave. “I would love to work for Paul McCartney. It was one of the greatest highlights of my life.” Working with Swallie, McCartney’s loveable but fierce Scottish security team lead, almost earned him a new gig. They threatened to steel him from Pappy & Harriet’s. It was his job to ensure everything went smoothly out in front of the venue, as hundreds of people waited outside to get tickets. Having to cut off the line at 300 was a job no one wanted, but Big Dave managed it without incident. He was also instrumental in managing some unruly guests, saving Swallie from having to jump the security gate between Paul and the crowd. Due to Johnson’s stealthy yet intimidating interference, the threat was removed with most of the attendance none the wiser. Sir Paul gave him a big hug after the show and told him, “Thank you for all you did.”
During the shutdown due to the Covid pandemic, Big Dave took a break from his job at Pappy’s to work as an electrician, eventually being hired full time by Awe-Bar and Ranch. About that same time, Pappy & Harriet’s sold. Much has changed since his days at Pappy & Harriet’s, but his love for making music remains.
“I’ve always loved music,” grins the bass player/ vocalist/harp blower/guitar player. “I used to breakdance for beer money when I was a kid in Germany. And when the song Low Rider played, I’d paraphrase like Weird Al Yankovic: ‘Eat my cornbread, with a little milk.” He was a natural entertainer. But it wasn’t until moving to the hi-lands that he started turning his love for music into a serious skill set. “When I moved to the desert, I would always go to the Beatnik Lounge. I saw everyone there, freely expressing themselves without being judged, and it took the fear out of it. Brett Balaban got me up on a stage from time to time. I eventually ended up in a couple of bands: Two Lane Blacktop and Shawn Mafia. I could play a little on guitar, but I decided to take up bass because it seemed like something I could do while I was singing. One Sunday at Pappy’s, someone heard me singing along and had me get up with the Sunday Band, so I started being part of that group too.”
In 2019, Big Dave found himself performing for thousands with his current project, Hammer of the Ozz. The band, covering Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, along with original music, features guitar phenom, Lisa Rae Black, bass man extraordinaire, Paul Forrester, and master beat keeper, Greg Gordon. They opened for Sublime with Rome at the King of the Hammers annual event in Johnson Valley. “It was definitely the largest concert of my life,” shared Dave. “The feeling was amazing. It was energizing and encouraging; we were all into it together – the band and the crowd. We were hired again before we even got off the stage.” The response was so fantastic that the event managers have named them their house band and have them returning in February to open for Pennywise. Hammer of the Ozz is currently recording new original music.
Big Dave shines as a front man, singing smoothly with great range and authority. His love for the music is contagious. The next show will be held at Furstwurld in Joshua Tree on January 15th. Tickets are limited and will go quickly. Find them at FurstWurld. com. If you can’t make it then, they’ll be on the big stage at the Winner’s Circle, February 5th at the King of the Hammers event in Johnson Valley. (QR codes for both are below)
Those of us lucky enough to know and love Big Dave, call him that endearingly for a few reasons. Inside the military-trained soldier and capable security guard, is a huge heart. The man you see today, can be firm, when necessary, but is one of the most loving guys you’ll meet. He is loyal, honest, and will never be caught saying anything negative about anyone else. He’s quick with a hug, and slow to judge. They don’t make them much better. But Johnson confesses it wasn’t always like that. “In Germany, I didn’t care about anyone,” he shared. “I was an angry teenage kid who would have pushed the button and launched that missile without a second thought. I’m not that guy anymore. I guess learning from heartbreak, the failures of love, and learning how to forgive changed me. Learning to accept people as they are…that’s how you get a Big Dave.”
Those who know him, love him. We are grateful that we “get a Big Dave.” And hey, if you are lucky enough to run into him, remember to thank him for his service.