Incidents Crowded With Life - John Howard (Fisher King)
Incidents Crowded With Life can effectively be viewed as three books under one cover. It has all the storytelling tension of a finely honed novel, and resolves itself as one. It can be gleaned as a "coming of age" memoir, an outsider's odyssey, or can equally be seen as a primer regarding the perils and pit-falls of life in the music business. However the reader approaches it there is a guarantee of pleasure from the candid insights of a life lived with ambition in mind, a kind of gaudy Dick Whittington minus the cat.
Howard possesses a vivid strength of recall. He writes honestly and spares himself few self-administered punches. He was a talented boy supported by his parents, the usual piano lessons and a mother with upward mobility in mind, and a burning passion for pop music, especially his heroes, The Beatles. Although he knew his talent wasn't the only thing that rendered him different, his sexuality didn't cause him angst, the sleepless nights from being at variance with the norm were not his. He got on with it in a quietly brazen fashion but eventually realised in order to blossom and succeed the confines of a Northern town had to be abandoned, so at the age of twenty he got on a train from Manchester and headed for London.
Initially things couldn't have been less charmed, Despite initial blips he soon ended up with a wonderfully supportive manager, Stuart Reid, who along with his wife Patsy became Howard's de-facto London parents. His name became rechristened as John Howard, not far removed from the Howard Jones on his birth certificate, and before he was even to release a record at the age of twenty was flown to Rome to record the theme song for Open Road a Peter Fonda/William Holden vehicle. Much of this would have short circuited the valves of a lesser being, but Howard simply took it all in his stride since he'd always known his abilities, and had expectations that were imbued by them.
His story proves that dreams do come true but do not end with their realisation. Despite a recording deal with CBS, an album in the can recorded at Abbey Road and Apple Studios, there were ominous aspects of portent. He was told by those in power at the label that his handshake wasn't firm enough and that his initial portfolio of photographs were disgusting. Admittedly they were a tad camp. The gothic dandy they revealed was part-Ziggy, part-Noel Coward with a dash of Quentin Crisp. A problem was emerging that proved despite John not being a crusader, his mere existence was a crusade in itself. Years later he was to learn that the reasons proffered by the BBC for ignoring his three superlative singles (too depressing, too sexist) they were effectively banned, were more to do with a power to be being in the closet, He later emerged from it, but at that time didn't wish to be seen promoting someone who was obviously living happily a life he couldn't embrace.
There were the inevitable comparisons to Elton John, but this John didn't sing in as faux American accent, and all they had in common was a piano and a good ear for melody. Howard has more in common with his American counterpart Jobriath. The verve and glitz, if not the catty sexual politics, though I fear if CBS had allowed John Howard the image he desired he too would have been scissored and sneered at in the way Jobriath sadly was. Homophobia was once the bearded rock critics axe of choice for effete contenders. When Kid In A Big World appeared the now twenty-one year old star in the transit felt that the world was his oyster, but when he witnessed the treatment gifted Leonard Cohen at a CBS industry bash, talked over and ignored by drunken staff, he was rightly shocked and appalled.
The lack of hit singles meant there was no lead-in to make punters embrace a new album by an unknown commodity. It sold a respectable amount, but not sufficient to earn the continued support of CBS. Two further rejected albums later and the game was up. Stardom once so near had wandered off and bestowed her favours upon others. John Howard was dropped, made a reasonable living playing piano in clubs and restaurants, again a thread of similarity to Jobriath's fate, and a '70's lifestyle became his and a transient sense of paranoia flowered. The usual sex and drugs and getting up close and personal with people who wanted to, and did try to kill him.
His story begins with Howard leaping from the balcony window of his flat in order to escape the the marauding vandalism and worse of a marauding Russian sailor, think Popeye's Brutus, a pick-up, not of John's but his ditzy Philipino house-mates. His fearful descent ended with a broken back and smashed feet and a long stay in hospital. A shooting star had fallen heavily and painfully as a frightened man to earth. That future that came after is now a distant past and beguilingly lies in another book, but in this one Howard has successfully dealt with ambition and its loss. He writes engagingly, movingly and with supreme delicacy, especially of his mother's early demise from cancer just prior to his album's release, and his chapter on Glam Rock is astute, as it is unstarry. This is a book with a talent to amuse, but that will also touch your heart. It is proof positive that true stars are born, not made and not always massively rewarded by success.