The chances are statistically ironclad that when your eyes lock on anything related to the Vans Warped Tour, it will be accompanied by a photo taken by Lisa Johnson. She’s not only built a career chronicling participants in America’s rock scene, but she’s also turned into the de facto archivist for the traveling punk-rock road show that Kevin Lyman put together 25 years ago.
When music fans converge on Atlantic City, New Jersey, this weekend, they’ll have a chance to see Forever Warped: 25 Years In Images By Lisa Johnson, Rock Photographer, Johnson’s micro-museum of images and band artifacts celebrating the culture, personalities and accomplishments that the tour has conjured. She’s qualified to wax eloquently on this very subject: Johnson was so prescient that (wait for it) she was going to Warped before it even had a name.
“I have been to every year of Warped,” she says while driving to pick up some items from pop-punk/new-wave outfit the Aquabats. “But not every single show.
“I started going before Warped Tour was even Warped Tour! No, seriously:
Kevin did a little pilot run of benefit concerts with a similar format called Board In South Bay, giving the concept a trial run, so to speak, in May 1995. It was a massive success. A few months later, he was off and running with Warped Tour in August of that same year! A lot of the same bands played: No Doubt, Red 5, L7, Sublime, Quicksand, Face To Face, Guttermouth, No Use For A Name, Fluf, Sick Of It All, Tilt. He even had the artwork done by TAZ, the same artist for the trial-run shows and the first Warped Tour.”
While attending Board In South Bay, Johnson got the premonition that the success of the festival would be the start of a continuum of not only SoCal punk, but a fulcrum for an entire generational movement.
“I knew there was a change afoot, and I decided to document the event and subsequent Warped Tours for the sake of history,” Johnson says. “I knew this was something people wanted, and it needed to be shared with the world. Obviously, we didn’t know if this was going to be one weekend or one year, then later five, 10 and so on. Here we are at 25! As long as there was a Warped Tour, I was going to be here to rockument it.
“I knew there was a change afoot, and I decided to document the event. As long as there was a Warped Tour, I was going to be here to rockument it.”— Lisa Johnson
Johnson has a massive collection of photos, ephemera and personal effects of hundreds of bands who appeared on Warped. The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland leaned heavily on her collection for their Forever Warped exhibit currently running, but Johnson’s pop-up museum will have a lot more photography.
“The Warped museum will be more photography-driven, similar to a mobile gather,” she explains. “The museum serves as a chronological visual gallery. If you walk left to right, you’ll follow a timeline of the tour in pictures. [There’s] tons of photos to look at from the 25 years of the tour. We’ll have setlists from some of your favorite bands and one of my favorite things to pore over: the daily running order from years gone by. Obviously, we’re now down a third of our guitars from our collection since lending them to the Rock Hall, so we’ll be augmenting the guitar collection at Warped with other guitars and swapping out for others to display. But really, we want it to be a surprise, so I don’t want to ruin it! Come and see!”
When Warped majordomo Lyman asked Johnson to create the pop-up museum for these 25th anniversary events, she immediately jumped at the chance to honor the tour’s legacy. Johnson decided to let fans have a chance to say thanks, as well.
“We’ll have a Warped love letter box in the tent for people who would like to send letters to Kevin Lyman or share their stories on how the Vans Warped Tour has impacted their lives,” Johnson says. “It’ll be right in the middle of the tent. People can bring in prewritten letters or write them on the spot. We’ll be ready for the outpouring of love.”
“I started going before Warped Tour was even Warped Tour! No, seriously”— Lisa Johnson
While these last events are top loaded with a great offering of bands, there is the reminder that this truly is Warped’s last stand. When asked what she’s going to do with her summers now, Johnson laughs. “I don’t even know,” she confesses. “Maybe plan a road trip and visit all the parking lots of America that I remember so fondly?”
On the more serious side, she doesn’t feel like the tour’s resonance to future generations could be easily emulated.
“There is nothing that can truly fill the void of the Vans Warped Tour. It was a rite of passage. And it’s sad to think in five, eight, 20 years where the next generation will be. Hopefully it will not regress at the rate at which it is currently regressing.”
Johnson is proud of what she did and what she experienced “rockumenting” Warped. When asked what her proudest achievement on the tour was, she answers with both cracking wit and deep respect.
“To be able to have collected this body of work and to have been able to witness history,” she begins. “To document that history of that cultural revolution right before our eyes. My friends and family would tell you it was me waking up before 10 a.m. in the morning. To that I say: How rude! But I won’t deny it.
“Maybe the Warped Tour can set up a residency in Las Vegas?” she ponders facetiously. “It seems to be all the rage these days. I’ll need to find a new cultural phenomenon to document of the next 25 years.”
Forever Warped: 25 Years In Images By Lisa Johnson, Rock Photographer is on display at the final Vans Warped Tour events in Atlantic City, New Jersey, June 29-30 and Mountain View, California, July 20-21. Click here for ticket information.