Our Daily Bread 273: John Howard ‘Incidents Crowded With Life’

May 18, 2018

Book Review: Words: Dominic Valvona




John Howard   ‘Incidents Crowded With Life’
Fisher King Publishing,   26th March 2018

Enjoying a comfortable revival (of a sort) in what is essentially his semi-retirement, bon vivant pianist, troubadour, former A&R man and now author, John Howard has finally managed, after decades of being misguided and encumbered, to record and release a series of critically successful albums of a cerebral quality on his own terms, without the travails of middlemen and agents. The humble working class lad from Lancashire, Howard’s musical career started off with such potential but was cruelly crushed, hindered by a steady stream of miscreants, businessmen, producers and the BBC, who refused to play his singles – whether, as Howard recounts out of homophobic prejudice, or just plain ignorance we will never really know.

Signed to CBS Records in the early 70s Howard’s glittering debut LP Kid In A Big World was shunted, overproduced than reproduced, passed around and eventually mishandled, until its eventual release in 1975. Rightly revered decades later, with a number of re-releases (including a very recent celebratory version), this debut became an instant cult classic; critically adored but unable to attract commercial success, mainly as a consequence of the to and froing and mismanagement, it was met with general indifference by the public. Despite an obvious talent and potential, Howard’s stop/start career went from bad to worse until he was dropped in 1976 by CBS after various aborted projects and makeovers, including a disco pop crossover with the producer Biddu (enjoying a succession of hit records at the time off the back of Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu Fighting novelty).

Chronicling that burgeoning period in what is the first of a series of autobiographies, Howard candidly reminisces, entwining his family history and eventual move to London with his various musical mishaps and highlights, and his sexual exploits. As much a history of the perils but also free-for-all misadventures of homosexuality as the hardships of making it in the music business, the first part of Howard’s story reads like an ever-horrifying recollection of violent encounters with the most ill suited of partners. Going full circle, the book opens and finishes on one of the most life changing of these ‘incidents’, with Howard’s fateful leap from the window of an apartment he shared with some colourful Filipino gay characters (as it proved, relocating to London to escape the clutches of dictator Ferdinand Marcos), who brought back a mad Russian ‘bit of rough’ intent on murder – Howard would break his back and smash both his feet in the fall. Incidents Crowded With Life then, is recounted via his recuperation; the formative years looked back on with mostly a fondness as a modest curtain is raised ‘on the living-room in a semi-detached council house in Heywood, Lancashire.’






Observations, asides are mixed with the musings on the musicians that inspired him: Dylan, The Beatles, Mothers Of Invention, Incredible String Band, Bolan and of course Bowie. Signs that Howard wasn’t exactly cut from the same Catholic cloth as his family are made abundantly clear when at an early age he develops a crush on PJ Proby – whilst his sister is clamoring and screaming for the Fab Four -, replaces religious symbolism for posters of the elfin beatific Bolan, and as the book’s quote so aptly puts it, ‘swaps the guilt for gilt’. Not that dear Mum and Dad minded; their humble upbringing causing some uncomfortable situations, yet hardly the stuff of fire and brimstone puritanical condemnation. Though they were right to worry about their lad; especially when you read about his stunningly naïve exploits and trusting nature. Incidents that include a savage beating by a thuggish minor East End gangster lover, a lucky escape from a gang rape whilst holidaying in Malta, and an even luckier escape from a serial killer -posing as a taxi driver – in New York. It’s not all bad though, Howard has just as much fun throwing caution to the wind and partaking with abandon in orgiastic gatherings on Hampstead Heath.

Despite experiencing some of the most traumatic escapes, Howard’s accounts are free of victimhood. In a matter of fact way, neither told as a warning or even alluding to the present frenzy of #metoo, Howard’s honesty is unapologetic, with no blame attached to anyone other than himself.

Probably not quite as insightful for those unfamiliar with his work, this 600 page tome details various recording sessions – some of which are at the famous Abbey Road studios -, performances – both as an aspiring artist on his uppers and as a jobbing pianist/singer, making ends meet playing for diners in various hot spots throughout London – and his inspirations; the things that prompted and triggered those beautifully caressed and erudite songs in the first place. It also details all the ensuing rewrites, overdubs and constant bickering – mostly between his management and the litany of producers who were brought in by a label unsure of the precious signing they’d landed. Howard often frames his insights on the creative process with a synopsis on his favorite artists, showing quite a deft passion for music writing. Here’s just an extract from a flowery evocation of Bowie: ‘Setting out surreal, slightly disturbing panoramas like a screenplay writer in a moonlit park at midnight, Bowie intoned each line perfectly. He sang of times gone like a lost Atlantis, while sounding utterly NOW!’

The good times and fatuous nature of the music industry go hand-in-hand with the highlights: such as penning and recording the theme song for the William Holden and Peter Fonda movie Open Season, which started off so well with Hollywood schmoozing and the hint of a brilliant future, but soon turned to shit; the show time TV appearances that amounted to nothing, and the various meetings with iconic songwriters that ended up blindsiding or leading our author down the wrong garden path entirely.

Hardly the first artists to be chewed up and spat out by the corporate fangs of the industry, Howard’s refreshing, witty and sagacious autobiography is an often heartwarming read (especially when talking about his dear old man and dad); absolved and free of regret and bitterness. Coming out the other side, unceremoniously dumped by CBS Records at the end of this first life works volume in 1976, laying in a hospital bed looking ahead lamentably to years of recovery, the reader is left at Howard’s most low period. Without giving too much away, Howard does bounce back, turning to A&R but also continuing to record and play: even though fame will continue to elude him. An entertaining if overlong read, Incidents Crowded With Life is an interesting survey of the ‘nearly man’ of pop, an insight on both the industry and gay life in 70s swinging London.





Previous John Howard posts:








Advertisements

One Response to “Our Daily Bread 273: John Howard ‘Incidents Crowded With Life’”

  1. Hi Dom, I am so behind that I was scared to check my mails or send yu a mail! So sorry! Probably I Missed all the review dates right? You were also off line right? How are yu and Viv doing?

    Sent from my Phone

    >

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: