On June 16, 2012, as he had done for every Radiohead show since joining the travelling British rock ‘n’ roll circus a year before, Scott Johnson spent the hour before stage prep at Toronto’s Downsview Park setting up a practice kit for the band’s drummer, Philip Selway.
A handsome, cheery 33-year-old with dense brown hair, light stubble and lips that appeared to pout when he wasn’t smiling, Johnson had earned his role as drum technician for the world’s biggest art-rock band the old-fashioned way: practice, precision and a good attitude. An only child, Johnson discovered his passion for music early in life, convincing his parents, Ken and Sue, to move to the parish of Hickleton in South Yorkshire so that he could be closer to his weekend job at a music shop in nearby Doncaster, eventually working his way up as a travelling tech for the likes of the Killers, Robyn and Radiohead.
Touring life suited Johnson. As Radiohead’s business manager, Ade Bullock, would later recall, though he had only been with the band a short while, Johnson quickly found his place in the ersatz family of a travelling crew. “He was so bloody annoying because he was so bloody cheerful,” Bullock says, laughing while struggling to hold back tears.
Downsview was slated to be the last stop on the band’s North American tour that year, and many of Radiohead’s crew, and indeed the band themselves, had been looking forward to the performance at the former air-force base in Toronto’s northern suburbs. The city had always been a favourite for the group and, so far, the tour had gone swimmingly. Such was the bonhomie that, rolling down Highway 401 from Montreal the night before, bassist Colin Greenwood decided to ride in the crew bus, eschewing his bandmates to share stories and laughs with Johnson, Bullock and head tour rigger Jules Grommers. But by the time the crew buses drove up Downsview’s Carl Hall Road around 8 a.m. on the 16th, something seemed off. Riding his bike to the stage, Bullock recalls thinking the structure appeared insufficient to hold the band’s sophisticated, and weighty, setup. “I took a photograph. But I thought, What do I know about engineering?’”
Hours later, Johnson lay dead on the collapsed stage, a victim of what Crown prosecutor David McCaskill would later describe as miscalculation of the total gross weight of the stage roof and its attachments by approximately 7,260 kilograms.
Last year, an Ontario justice stayed 10 charges under the provincial Occupational Health and Safety Act against the show’s promoter, staging company and engineer, citing the Jordan ruling – a 2016 Supreme Court refinement of the right to a timely trial, which has seen the dismissal of scores of other cases across the country. It effectively ended the Crown’s prosecution and left questions surrounding what happened that day to plague his loved ones and weigh heavily on those who survived it.
This week, on July 19 and 20, Radiohead is set to return to Toronto for the first time since the incident, playing two sold-out shows downtown, at Scotiabank Arena. On the eve of their North American tour, members of the band and their crew spoke to The Globe and Mail about how the events of that day and the failure to reach a verdict has affected them, sharing intimate thoughts and memories and admitting for the first time they considered packing it in following Johnson’s death. But more than a memorial, the members of Radiohead and Johnson’s family say they want answers. And though a coroner’s inquest into the death is due some time later in 2018, they’re still angry at a flawed judicial system that let justice fail their tour brethren and frustrated at all those involved for not helping to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“It’s not about wanting to punish anybody, it’s about getting someone to take responsibility. To make sure that those lessons are learned so that it won’t happen again,” drummer Selway says. “If people aren’t being protected, there must be something wrong in the system.”
Despite near-perfect conditions that June afternoon, when the members of Radiohead arrived at 2 p.m., work on the temporary stage, a structure owned by promoter Live Nation that had served for decades at the old Molson Park site in Barrie and on which the band had performed a decade earlier, was running behind schedule, and the delay towers had yet to be completed. With only two hours before soundcheck, and another till the gates were to open, allowing 35,000 fans to flood in, tensions began running high. The band was informed their 4 p.m. soundcheck would be pushed back.
As the bulk of the band retreated to their green room to put together the evening’s set list, guitarist Ed O’Brien felt he needed a word with the band’s production manager Richard Young, and went to inquire what was going on. “It was serious. Ed is a beautiful, mellow guy, he’s never been in [the production office] before or since,” Bullock notes.
As their crew continued to mount the band’s equipment onto the stage, Johnson went through his precheck ritual: tuning drums, checking positions.
At the top of the hour, according to a provincial Ministry of Labour report, the stage’s rear scaffolding suddenly buckled, sending equipment and broken alloy beams hurling toward the earth and crew members running for their lives. Struck by a rapidly descending 2,270-kilogram video monitor, Johnson was killed instantly. Three others were injured.
Six years later, the burden left by the day’s events haunt Selway. Seated on the rooftop of his Chicago hotel, the drummer sighs deeply. “We should have been there. We should have all been [soundchecking] on that stage. That carries a weight with it.”
When news of Johnson’s death was delivered to the group, Selway remembers going to the practice drum kit that Johnson had just prepared and taking it apart. “It’s the only way I could make any sense of it. To make any connection to Scott.”
Last September, Ontario Justice Ann Nelson stayed the 10 charges brought against Live Nation, staging company Optex and engineer Domenic Cugliari in the wake of the incident. In her judgment, Justice Nelson wrote, “No doubt this decision will be incomprehensible to Mr. Johnson’s family, who can justifiably complain that justice has not been done.”
Back home in Hickleton, Ken and Sue Johnson did, indeed, find it incomprehensible. Over the course of the long trial, Ken had been back and forth to Toronto several times, at great financial cost, in an attempt to put a human face to the tragedy of their only child’s passing. He had been there to look at the men whose alleged errors led to Scott’s death, watch them plead not guilty to charges. He followed along as Optex fired its counsel, then all but disappeared before selling its assets mid-trial; he cried tears of joy outside the courthouse when original presiding Judge Shaun Nakatsuru denied a petition for the then recently refined Section 11(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the right to a prompt trial; and he was bewildered when he heard the same judge had been appointed to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, forcing a mistrial.
So far away from Toronto’s Old City Hall courtroom, it seemed unfathomable that the saga could end in such a fashion – for the province of Ontario to add such insult to injury for the sake of housecleaning its own failed judicial administration system. “A blind man can see that this was very odd procedure and has a very funny smell about it,” Ken Johnson wrote in an impassioned letter to then Ontario Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi. “Maybe someone could explain and justify to my wife who still cries herself to sleep every night and talks of the only happiness being to join Scott in his grave.” He never heard back.
Now 65, Johnson recently partially retired from his job as the health and safety secretary for Britain’s National Access & Scaffolding Confederation – his expertise and vocation adding a cruel irony to Scott’s death and a further frustration with the specifics of the trial. “Not a day goes by that I’m not involved with an issue that was involved in Scott’s death,” he laments, speaking over the phone from the 18th-century cottage he shares with his wife. It’s still hard for him to speak of Scott without getting emotional, proudly recounting how his son’s sense of fairness would occasionally earn him a black eye, or the joy touring with Radiohead brought him.
Formerly a couple about town, he and Sue have more or less stopped going out. “Whenever we’re in public, if someone’s pointing in our direction we feel they’re saying, ‘Oh, those are the people who lost their son.’ We wouldn’t be introduced as Ken and Sue, we’d be introduced as the couple who lost their son in Canada in that incident.” And both radio and silence create chances for deep sorrow.
Despite this, Ken says he doesn’t hold a grudge against Cugliari or Optex. Rather, he’s frustrated that they don’t echo Scott’s own sense of moral integrity. “I think if they had to come to the church every week to take him some flowers, they’d think they got off pretty light.”
The dressing room in the belly of Chicago’s United Center wouldn’t immediately come to mind as a tranquil spot. Yet, in the hours leading up to the final dress rehearsal before the launch of Radiohead’s first extended North American tour since the Downsview incident, the members of the band and its crew seem downright chill. Bassist Colin Greenwood and his brother, guitarist Jonny Greenwood, mill about, casually conversing with business manager Bullock’s son. Like Ken Johnson, the band members are all fathers now, and family life has given an impressive calmness to what would, in a previous life, invite chaos.
“We’re in a very different space as a band six years on,” Selway says. “These shows, they relate to what we’re doing at the moment.”
But, he admits, in the days following Johnson’s death, Radiohead came close to simply stopping. “The way that it came to an abrupt ending in Toronto…” he trails off, attempting to hold composure. “When we came away, it was, ‘God, do we want to do this ever again?’ If it causes this, can we do it?”
In the days following Downsview, Bullock and two others stayed behind to assess the damage, while Selway and the band flew home and took time to contemplate the state of Radiohead. They chose to attend Scott’s funeral together. Then they chose to keep going.
“Having some time away from it, to discuss it with the crew, for everybody involved it felt important to get back. A way of working through the trauma,” he recalls. “There’s that question: Is it disrespectful towards Scott, doing this? And we can never answer that, really.”
Three weeks later, the tour reconvened in Nîmes, France. There, at a vigil during which Selway, Bullock and production manager Richard Young spoke, they offered the crew a chance to walk away without judgment. They all chose to stay.
“That says something,” Bullock says. “But I know even still there are some people I have to look out for – that are suffering from some symptoms [of PTSD].”
The following night, with a chunk of their equipment still in Toronto, the band performed two encores, closing with the In Rainbows track Reckoner. As the song reached its coda, the screens behind Thom Yorke, Philip Selway, Colin and Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien faded from their live streams to reveal a photo of Scott Johnson – a last-minute tribute by the band’s visual director. Watching in the wings, Radiohead’s crew burst into tears as the crowd broke out into applause.
“There’s something very uplifting about that song, for me,” Selway explains. “There’s something quite cathartic about the playout. That moment of recognition between everybody there. We had this great sense of Scott. ”
“It had to be Reckoner,” an emotional Yorke would say later that evening. Four years later, Radiohead returned to Nîmes on their way to record their next album, A Moon Shaped Pool, which they dedicated to Johnson’s memory.
Everybody deals with death a little differently; in a way that allows them to properly address the emptiness. Every June 16, wherever they are in the world, those who were present at Downsview Park that afternoon get together to remember Scott Johnson with a pepperoni pizza and Peroni beer, “his two food groups,” Bullock says with a laugh.
For the members of Radiohead, tribute happens on stage every night.
“In a lot of ways you could come out of that feeling quite broken, and in a lot of ways people were,” Selway reflects. “but I think if you can then get back up … music goes to the heart of so many people, doesn’t it? And you’re aware of that.
“That’s where it comes from when we’re playing. In that way, it feels like a very natural expression of what everybody had been through and how we’re all feeling. And to actually have that come out through the music, that felt like a genuine expression of how we felt about Scott.”