Illusions of Happiness JOHN HOWARD (Fisher King)
If John Howard's first volume of memoirs Incidents Crowded With Life was about hope and ambition and the promise of success, his second Illusions of Happiness annotates the flip-side of the spinning coin that his career had become. He mercilessly details a certain loss of faith and direction with the taut tension of a novel, whilst detailing his existence in sequences festooned by a cavalcade of gaudy characters. Life gets in the way of what we were born to do, and his career had come to an end with a resounding thud from the balcony of his flat as he sought to escape the murderous attentions of his flatmates knife wielding piece of Russian rough-trade. Prone and supine with busted feet and a broken back, lucky not to have been paralysed for the rest of his days, he has long months of recovery in hospital with which to reflect and pursue a new trajectory and to consider the rueful cost of the past. His never substantial form shrank to an astonishing seven stone allowing one friend to pithily remark that he resembled the immaculate consumptive Aubrey Beardsley on heroin.
The book hold elements of the gothic aspects of Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Swimming Pool Library because the house he lives after leaving hospital is peopled with sad, but largely unsympathetic souls intent on delivering as many verbal wounds and blows as possible. A hotbed of resentment and sorrow, and one he eventually escapes from to the suburbs for the sake of his own sanity.
There is a relationship with an older Canadian who despite being out of the closet, has one rammed with secrets and partial truths. Howard returns to making a decent enough living playing piano in various swanky clubs and restaurants like The Blitz where he is heckled by the Sex Pistols and April Ashley's club where he becomes increasingly soaked in gin and tonic. Along the way he encounters a pre-Buggles and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Trevor Horn, who produces a single for him. He is managed briefly by Tom Watkins, The Pet Shop Boys and Bros, who turns him into a cross between a slimmed down Gary Numan and an attendee at a Star Trek convention. Howard releases seven singles, and they all rapidly vanish along with their possibility of success. Even two with Steve Levine, who tasted giddying success with Culture Club, tanked.
John Howard has an Alan Bennet-like eye for character and a neat ability at sketching kindly without being judgemental, a chore he astutely leaves to his reader. He writes with an easy candour, be the subject his neurotic, whittering step-mother, or a nervous hotelier with murder on his mind. There are some farcical sexual details, absurd and absurdly amusing and as the book slips towards its resolution, the spectre of AIDS is slowly encroaching upon the hedonistic freedom people were only just beginning to enjoy. Given his spindly thinness he is abused in the street as having the disease, a certain indicator that thankfully society has in some ways moved on, and for the better. He ends up as a successful compiler of music anthologies, something that suits perfectly his musicologist nature. Things end on a high note but not at all where he'd planned to be.
Along the way there is an almost tryst with the film maker Derek Jarman, who eventually became a friend, and the book has a soundtrack that stretches from the Beatles to Joni Mitchell and T.Rex to David Bowie. He even manages to turn down the offer of fronting Bronski Beat, and has his portrait by Paul Brason, which graces the cover of this volume, hung in the National Portrait Gallery.
Howard is proof perfect that you can be around success, possess a genuine and engaging talent, and still miss out on a ride on the coat tails of greater glory. This is the second volume in a quartet of books. Pretty much a perfect, if unintentional primer for the downside and pitfalls of the music business, with emotional problems added as further seasoning. Despite the sky-high promises that are really victims of external circumstances, and a smattering of luck, Howard retains, and requires his Northern sense of grit and bemusement as he navigates the bright lights of the metropolis. By 1986 he is on higher ground. Gainfully employed via music, but not making his own.
His writing echoes The Naked Civil Servant but with a pop music at the centre, and just like its predecessor one is beguiled to discover what there is to follow. His life could and should, be a movie. At least the soundtrack exists already, and stranger things have transpired. If you want a plethora of polaroids of an '80's life, this is the book to take you back, or to acquaint you for the first time. Inspiring in its tenacity, it is honest and captivating, as his memory serves him, and his readers, terribly well.