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Title: Holly go lightly
Author: Lesley White
Source: The Face
Publish date: June 1989

HOLLY GO LIGHTLY

OUT TO LUNCH

Text LESLEY WHITE/Photography EDDIE MONSOON at Satellite

AS LUNCH DATES WITH PROFESSIONALLY OUTRAGEOUS PEOPLE GO, MINE WITH HOLLY JOHNSON — UPSTAIRS AND UPSTAIRS AGAIN AT L’ESCARGOT — WAS AN AFFAIR OF STUDIED DISCRETION.

HE HAD done all this before and it had ended in tears. Or at least in unkind tabloid tales of “STAR MADE TO DO HOUSEWORK” or “LIMP-WRISTED POP SINGER” and his “SINISTER GERMAN MYSTERY MAN”. Today he was cautious, as only the formerly reckless are.

Arriving 20 minutes late in a beaded waistcoat, a floaty floral scarf and the solicitous company of his constant companion Wolfgang Kuhle — who sat at a separate table for fear of being quoted, and at the next table for fear of being too far away to help Holly Johnson had pre-selected our agenda. He was not much wanting to discuss his ZTT court case, which had triumphantly prised him from a constraining recording contract and set a legal precedent. It was over. It was boring. It had all been too much for him.

No. We would discuss Holly Johnson — once Billy Johnson, son of a Liverpool taxi driver and an auxiliary nurse — now two hits and one LP, “Blast”, into a solo career and lately a rather serious person. For while Frankie’s former lead singer displayed a working knowledge of mid-ranking restaurant etiquette, he also came good on art and poetry and those little tests of taste that sort the scallies from the sophisticates. They took the Porsches; he the Picassos. That sort of thing.

Under the sentimental and academic tutelage of manager Wolfgang, Holly has come on in leaps and bounds since the Liverpool days of shaved heads, Big In Japan, and early Frankie bondage. Now living a self-consciously reclusive life in the three-bedroomed Fulham house he and Wolfgang share with a stack of notable paintings, he appears to have achieved that nirvana of domestic contentment often enjoyed by newly-married footballers’ wives. He looks at times beatific.

While the lads from Frankie were out wrecking their Porsches, Holly Johnson was studying Picassos. With solo success, the transformation from scally to sophisticate is now complete; Holly still goes to Liverpool, but only to visit the Tate

Except for the pink front room (Caribbean influence), the assiduous skincare (Erno Lazlo-recommended) and the brazen waistcoat (Gaultier), there is little of the high camp, low humour or gentle wickedness one might rightfully expect to find. No stage-whispered confidences. No barbed bouquets. These days camp-like glamour, his original spur to fame, is a commodity Holly Johnson contextualises rather than wears.

“I used to worship Judy Garland,” he recalls, “have red curly hair like hers because I thought she was so glamorous. Marc Bolan, Gene Kelly, Bette Davis — the same thing. Now I think that glamour is totally in the mind of the person who believes they’re seeing it. It’s a rare quality. Madonna’s not glamorous, for example; there’s no mystery about her, she lives our her life in her songs. Andy Warhol was touched by glamour, though. ‘Gee, Holly, you’re so famous,’ was the first thing he said to me.”

Then Johnson ordered the Aubergine Gratin, followed by The Lamb. He drank water and smoked Extra-Mild Silk Cut. He declined to discuss his family (“People are horrible enough to them already”) or to reveal the exact extent of his art collection. This is expertly supervised by Wolfgang, who owns one of the world’s most important Duncan Grant collections and has found in Holly an apprentice of eager appetite. With good reason.

The thing about pop — when it works, as it more or less did for Frankie’s lads and dance-queens — is that it gives you all the money in the world and none of its class. To really leave those sordid struggles behind a person has to get culture; not just a taste for Andy Warhol, whom boys with girls’ names and jewellery boxes are born to worship anyway, but real culture, art of the past.

A person has to buy it. A person has to learn to talk about it as if he has rarely talked of anything else. A person like Holly might even learn to say, when they personally left their downbeat inner-city comprehensive without a single qualification, that, no, they don’t regret not having studied the subject, because, “Art History is a bit of an Interior Decorator’s degree, full of people who didn’t get the right A Levels.” Oh, you think, as you remember that this boy once kicked up a moral panic for the price of a walk-in wardrobe and nearly drowned in the excitement of it all. Oh, the sublime art of pretension.

We were talking about his painting. “I wouldn’t really consider exhibiting in England,” he said of his figurative pieces; “people here are obsessed with doing only one thing. It would be like, ’Ha-ha, a pop star painting — who does he think he is?’ and that would colour the attitude to the work. If I ever did exhibit, it would be somewhere like New York or Tokyo.”

Although Holly does not, he promises, frequent the Cork Street milieu the way he used to attend the clubs (“I don’t know other artists — I don’t know anyone”), his own collection includes Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and William Roberts — all highly sought-after and bought privately and at auction. “When I was younger, even though I was going to go to art school, I never aspired to own art. It’s not the owning that gives you the pleasure, it’s the looking. I don’t think you ever own a painting it’s around longer than you — you are merely the custodian. Before I met Wolfgang I only liked pop art; he has taught me to appreciate older British work, which I love, and develop a sense of history about painting.” The cost of this passion is a question Holly considers “too snoopy”. Money, once acquired, is vulgar.

>“Before the music took off I was going to do a foundation course at art college in Liverpool. I would have ended up doing Fine Art, I’m sure; I always gravitate to the most unpractical areas of life. Even in my pop music there’s a degree of pretension — it’s pop that aspires to be art. I do it instead of being an artist because music has a wider appeal, it’s something all-consuming and accessible. And it has a controlling influence on people’s lives. My songs are reflecting what’s going on — either in the sense of a particular narrative about something that has happened; or in the way I’ll combine technology with the human vulnerability of voices and guitars, a combination that seems to reflect how we live. To a certain degree, painting has had its day. It has been sucked in by the upper-middle class and has nothing to say to people… that’s why I liked Gilbert and George and Andy Warhol’s idea that you should be able to buy one of his prints for a couple of hundred dollars if you wanted to.”

Sometimes the world seems a “sinister and ugly place” for Holly. He gets “deep depressions” that last for a day. “But the pain you feel can be the most creative thing.” So he paints in his basement; or re-edits his unpublished anthology of poems, Howling Lust; or he shops (therapeutically, that is). “I tend to get written about as an amalgam of designer labels — ‘Holly in Gaultier’, ‘Holly in Vivienne’ — but mainly I like very simple clothes with one unusual thing to dress them up. I’ll go up and down the King’s Road, to Jones, American Classics, the usual places, and World’s End is my favourite shop — I don’t see how it can’t be everybody’s. There is something timeless and anti-fashion about Westwood’s clothes; they’re perfect for performing, like the outfit in the ‘Love Train’ video. But I’m no fashion victim — there are too many people who do it so much better.”

People doing things better is Holly Johnson’s abiding motivation. “I have always had a very competitive streak — if I hear a very good record on the radio I’ll have a fit of pique at the same time as admiring it. I think other people’s achievements are responsible for most of the work that gets done in all areas.”

In Fulham the competitive impulse is lulled into submission. Holly cooks tuna steaks and makes Bernaise sauce for dinner. There is a secretary called Doreen. In the evenings he read the Chronicles Of Narnia. No-one much comes to call. His close friend Alexandra Pigg lives “too far away in Islington” and he has lost touch with the boys in the band, doesn’t even know where they are. Someone told me that he and Wolfgang own matching pairs of lederhosen. But they don’t wear them in public. And life behind the Austrian blinds is their business.

Six years ago Holly Johnson was frightening parents by screaming, “Sex and horror are the new Gods.” But that was then — when the ingenue needed to get hyped out of nowhere — and this is now — when the 28-year-old solo artist fuels his second comeback with muesli and Mahler. He has changed to survive.

He still gets dewy-eyed about the home town. “It’s a constant reference for people who come from there, a very emotional place where people feel things deeply. By comparison the South is just a commercial centre where people come to get on and make money. London lacks soul. I’m proud of my identity.”

“When was the last time you went home?”

A pause. A blush. A defeated smile.

“For the opening of the Tate Gallery.”

If fame took Holly Johnson out of Liverpool, the triple seduction of art-lust, Fulham and Wolfgang has not entirely failed to take most of that city out of Holly Johnson.