Autobiography Review/Dominic Valvona




John Howard ‘‘Illusions Of Happiness’
(Fisher King Publishing) 7th August 2020/510p


The fickle nature of the music industry is of course well-documented in countless embittered and lamentable autobiographies, but you have to feel for the ever candid piano singer, songwriter John Howard who’s second volume of memoirs lays out a repetitive travail of ill advised artistic (re)launches and knockbacks.

We last left the half glass full kind of artist-turn-A&R man-turn-artist-again Howard dejected after the failure of his inaugural solo songbook, Kid In A Big World, in the mid 70s. Signed to CBS Records with an enviable shot at the big time, the critically favoured adroit album should have made him a star. Unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be. In a recurring pattern that the author details throughout his previous, and this latest, volume in those memoirs, the haphazard misjudgments and mishandling by others and a lack of radio play ruined what should have been a gilded ascent in the recording business. CBS for their part (another recurring partner in the Howard story) would unceremoniously drop their burgeoning artist the following just a year later; more or less clueless with what to do with him.

The personal encounters of a formerly suppressed Catholic living in post-war austere Lancashire, escaping a life in the priesthood to fill his boots in gay London, was another of the recurring themes in that inaugural volume of plagued-with-bad-luck stories, Incidents Crowded With Life. It ended with Howard waking up in hospital with a broken back after leaping to safety (or he thought) from the flat he shared with a bevy of illegal Filipinos (living in London after escaping the Marcos regime); escaping his flat mate’s rough trade Russian sailor turn raving blood thirsty robbing manic. Though the author is not one to dwell or lament, this incident would be life changing both physically and mentally. The second volume of what will be a trio of such autobiographical legacies, the sadly entitled Illusions Of Happiness picks up Howard recovering from his injuries, laid-up in a hospital bed. A cast of drop-in visitors however adds some light relief to what is essentially a most traumatic chapter: From one of many gay sharp tongues, “You look like Aubrey Beardsley on heroin.”





In and out of consciousness, recuperating and dreaming of his parents whilst taking on all the legalities of chasing after a compensation claim without dropping his Filipino friends in the shit, this chronological (for the most part) memoir follows a broken, rejected talent clawing his way back, yet eventually finding solace and content, not as a solo artist, but as an A&R man. By the end of this book, the sometime vocalist and songwriter is not only working his way through discount specialist labels and cottage industry reissue, re-licensing specialists but contentedly single, having given the eventual elbow to his forever young and continuously unfaithful Canadian partner Bayliss.

Despite the CBS debacle, Howard persuade a music career throughout; often meeting by chance acquaintances and by design a burgeoning Trevor Horn and Steve Levine, amongst others. Countless tracks are cut, promises made but plagued by the convoluted and scheming nature of the industry, nothing ever quite pays off. Looking like a cross between a Biba fop and Diane Keaton from Annie Hall in the mid 70s, Howard goes through a number of style changes in pursuit of striking the right chord with the record buying public and hitting the trends. In one such transformation, Howard is pushed towards donning a knock-off version of Gary Numan’s visitor-from-the-future look when he tried to launch his space oddity sci-fi musical concept, Cal Mylar. This is when things get insane, as a quasi-Ziggy Stardust, quasi-Superman and his mortal alter ego Clark Kent themed concept grows legs and runs and runs; taking in a host of producers, agents and labels in its wake. Still, songs from the project spring up and are reconstructed and released to no avail.

Despite not taking off, Howard works with various producers, musicians and songwriting partners in the years covered by this book, and quality wise, conjures up some memorable songs. One of which, ‘Don’t Shine Your Light’ even makes in into the Eurovision list of potential entries: reaching multiple stages but losing out in the end to some forgettable dross.





Pushed and pulled in all directions by a host of labels; promised so much but constantly let down, Howard finds himself heckled by the new Turks (the Sex Pistols) whilst playing his pianist lounge set at a pre-New Romantics Blitz, working (badly) the counter at an upmarket deli, laying down guide vocals for artists far less talented, and even taking on the role (again, badly) as a photocopier at a corporate enterprise; all to keep the proverbial roof over his head as he awaits that lucky record deal. Along the way the fleeting and ridiculous nature of the music business is laid bare as the troubadour is wined and dined, or invited to hobnob with bigwigs and the recording stars (at one point surreally invited to lunch with Cliff Richard and a strange entourage of 70s faces).

 

Not just a musical autobiography, Illusions includes all the salacious details of Howard’s personal life, his lovers, partners and vivid accounts of the gay scene in late 70s and early 80s London. This is often handled with a wry, sometimes dark, humour; especially when Howard and his boe with another friend book a stay at a gay nightmare of Fawlty Towers B&B in Manchester: S&M, an attempted suicide and the bursting in of a strangely nonplussed police making for a sadly dark comedy of errors. But the ominous specter of the AIDS crisis is never far away as the 80s sections of this book get going. Especially as friends, housemates and peers start contracting it. Howard dodged that bullet thank god, yet is nevertheless verbally attacked in the street for deigning to be an easy and obvious target of ignorance and prejudice: it is also the only real time Howard has come across such hostility towards his sexuality before.

On the upside, Howard is asked to sit for a masterfully painted portrait (the relaxed sitter pose that adorns this book cover) by Paul Brasson , which ends up hanging in the National Gallery, and finds a carefree existence of bliss on the gay mecca of Mykonos: a veritable oasis in which Howard will return to throughout the decade covered in this book. All life’s major landmarks and hurdles are paraded throughout a story about essentially taking the knocks and finding solace. Howard still only in his early thirties by the end of this second volume is already quite sagacious after packing in a lifetime of drama.

 

A tale of compromise, in which the heart sinks as another chapter heading indicates a set back in his recording career, and always within touching distance of making the big time with a catalogue of “what ifs” (from working with both a pre-Buggles Horn and pre-Culture Club Levine), Howard is surprisingly far from bitter or despondent by the journey’s end. In fact, by the end of this volume he’s found a job as an executive at Pickwick and moving into a new home; coming full circle as we find him picking out furniture for this abode.

As to that Sex Pistols anecdote, Howard, with more than a little Noel Coward wit and reading his audience well, tames the yobbish adolescents with a medley of T-Rex classics that leaves the punks raving in the aisles wanting more. Though he leaves us on a ruminating if poignant chapter, unlucky in love but finally finding financial security, Howard has a lot more to entertain and share with us yet.





Related posts from the ARCHIVES:

John Howard ‘Incidents Crowded With Life’

John Howard ‘To The Left Of The Moon’s Reflection’

John Howard ‘Cut The Wire’

John Howard ‘Across The Door Sill’


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.





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