Title: A life of Johnson
Author: Stuart Maconie
Diagnosed as suffering from an AIDS-related illness, Holly Johnson decided to write his life story before the tabloids did it for him.
Holly Johnson would have been delighted not to have written his autobiography. So would everyone else. For the book had its genesis on the summer afternoon in 1991, when he was diagnosed as suffering from Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a rare cancer of the arteries and an AIDS -related illness. Within a month, he had begun work on the story of his life.
“I had morbid fantasies that they’d start to interview people who didn’t know me or had a particular slant on me. I’d seen what had happened to Freddie Mercury — the way he’d been pilloried and patronised and actually reconstructed by the press as almost the adoring husband of Mary. It was a complete falsehood and I didn’t want to be either demonised or heterosexualised by the tabloids.”
Johnson admits that he “never expected to be around for the publication. When you get an AIDS diagnosis and you’re not a medical expert, you think, That’s it, my number’s up, I’ve got six months at the most. But here I am and now I’ve got to face the consequences and read the reviews!”
Rejoicing in the cryptically suggestive title A Bone In My Flute, the result is a rollicking account of Johnson’s action-packed first 33 years. If not a literary tour de force, it’s certainly an engaging, highly readable, often wickedly catty narrative that takes us from Johnson’s colourful early life in Liverpool, where Holly’s atypical schoolboy pursuits (ice-skating, The Bunty, make-up) drew regular salvoes of rage from his father Eric, up to the glittering 1984 heyday of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, when their domination of the British pop scene was so complete as to be almost comical. The leitmotif of the story is Johnson’s homosexuality, a subject on which he is by turns amusing and passionate.
“Finding your niche as a gay man is very difficult and that’s why so many stay in the closet. The pop industry is a very difficult place for an openly gay male pop singer. During the punk years in Liverpool I only met one other gay musician and I won’t say who he is because I don’t know if he’s in or out. I think the only valid criterion for outing is if you’re doing real damage to others from within the closet by being a hypocrite.”
Johnson, “mind unbalanced by panic” originally, sat in his basement surrounded by dormant pieces of musical equipment and worked on the manuscript for two years. It was uncommissioned and Johnson only offered it for sale when he realised that “I hadn’t done a job of work for two years and someone needed to earn some money in this household.”
“I’ve never been a fan of pop books. The only one I’ve read was that one about Jim Morrison that they based the film on.” Instead, Johnson immersed himself in biographies of Tom Driberg and Truman Capote and the works of Derek Jarman and Andy Warhol. “I just wanted to be simple and communicative. I know I’m not the next Jean Genet.”
The book will make uncomfortable reading for some for two very different reasons. One is its sexual content which, by no means graphic, will upset some by its very nature.
“I was worried that the tabloids would get hold of it and blow it up, but I thought the sexual content was very important. There may be some young people struggling with their sexuality reading it and it’s important for them to know that they’re not the only sick perv in the universe. There is a moral there and it is that promiscuity is alright if you take safe sex measures, but if you behave like I did, you’ll end up with an AIDS diagnosis on the last page.”
Others will be discomfited by the barbed edge of Johnson’s word processor. Even after a legal sweep removing some 100 pages from the original manuscript, strong words remain for Trevor Horn, Jill Sinclair and Paul Morley. “I just think it’s sad that Frankie Goes To Hollywood is Paul Morley’s only claim to fame… Really, I’d rather not discuss him further.” As for Horn: “He’s a very special producer but he didn’t invent us. Did Quincy Jones invent Michael Jackson?”
The book paints a lurid and debased picture of Frankie’s demise in which communication between Holly and Rutherford and “The Lads” had been reduced to threats shouted through hotel room doors. “The end was very painful for everyone. Remember that three of the band were 21 and they were thrown into this very intense situation. I don’t blame them for what happened and I don’t blame myself either.
“I always had a soft spot for Ped and he was a great drum programmer. And Mark O’Toole created a brilliant bassline for Two Tribes. He rang me last night actually. From a place called Hollywood. Hollywood in Florida,” he adds with a smile. “But it’s nice to think that one of us got there after all.”