JOHN HOWARD: "From The Far Side Of A Near Miss" (Kool Kat)
English singer-songwriter John Howard has long been a quiet, often inadvertent iconoclast. From his glittering arrival in 1974 he was unambiguously himself. His fey and languid nature, fedoras and pin-striped suits which accompanied his baroque-glam pop, think Elton John minus the American whine with a dash of Bowie and Noel Coward. Howard's naturalness alienated and alarmed certain older men in suits, executives at his record labels, and those who reigned upon the playlists of radio stations. Unlike his direct US contemporary Jobriath who waved his sexuality in the horrified face of his homelands's conformist nature, Howard fell victim to simply being himself. For many it isn't a case of being either "out" or "in", merely existing gives a perfect reason for moral censure. Such was so for the young Mister Howard. His career stalled and after a decade of neglect and indifference he moved into the business of selling and making records by established artists, effectively abandoning the ambition to craft and be recognised for his own. A hiatus of two decades creative silence ensued.
His return to the limelight was as unexpected as it has been rewarding. He is akin to those late to accolade, Bill Fay and Sixto Rodriguez, gifted artists who failed to sail upon the breeze of their time but who've been justly recognised as purveyors of integrity and distinction in recent ones. John Howard wasn't going to miss the music train for a second time. He grasped the unexpected interest the reissue of his debut album Kid In A Big World twenty years ago and has consistently delivered a perfect canon of dignified releases, impeccable quality tailored for the new century. Alas he remains a respected, well kept secret, an artist of integrity who yet awaits deserved wider recognition.
Hot on the perfect high heels of LOOK, his recent album that used the life of his friend, trans icon and activist, the late April Ashley as its inspiration, he delivers a delightful conundrum and anomaly in the form of "From The Far Side Of A Near Miss." The cover celebrates his early look. Suited and hatted and perfectly tinted from a black and white shot from back then, he could easily have been one of Cecil Beaton's "bright young things". Howard is an unabashed pop fan at heart. A walking resource of chart placings, cherished songs and their attendant trivia. He adores the single as a format, from the halcyon days of Dusty Springfield, The Walker Brothers, the unbridled success of The Beatles, and onwards to the glam glories of Bolan and Bowie, the vinyl 45 has both stimulated and beguiled his magpie nature. As it declines as a physical entity he has shaken down the format in a unique exercise of inspired reinvention. At thirty-seven minutes his new single is longer than many classic albums, but remains a single. A long song that challenges preconceptions though these all vanish as it plays.
Imagine T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland set to music. The dour American sage in a feather boa stroking the keys of his piano in a reverie of existential reflection. A cross between a sequence of memories of things past, a patchwork of nostalgia and a dualogue of 'what if' queries, a perfectly externalised cavalcade of interior moments. The format allows Howard to speculate, imagine and pontificate. A stellar cast swans briefly in and out. Marilyn Monroe to Mae West, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. It is an essay of celebration and regret. A variety of backdrops, cityscapes and pastoral aches allows for a wide palette of uninhibited concise on. Elements of John Betjeman as Alan Bennett gild the nature of his observations. The presence of absences.
"I said 'Let's take a short vacation
Pretend that it's for life
Send postcards to the graves of friends
Who decades gone have died'
You said 'But what if one replies
And invites us round for tea
Will we turn up wearing nothing
But our incredulity'"
A strange dialogue of abandoned possibilities between to old friends or more likely an interior monologue it covers a considerable amount of speculative thought. The words wear an air of casual wisdom, work well alone, but slink and sail via Howard's effortless delivery.
"I said 'Let's go to Madame Tussaud's
Pretend that they're all real
Have conversations with Bob Dylan
Tell him how it really feels'
You said 'All of your pop heroes
Never changed a single thing
Fans gave them all their money
Bought them great places to sing'
"I said 'They gave us hope
They shared all their dreams
They showed us things are never
What the liars make them seem
Poems can be prophecies of politicians' schemes
The responsibility is ours
To choose what we believe'"
There are brief musical motifs, the ghost of a Beatles refrain. This is a work that can only arise from a wealth of experience for one to dissect, reflect and draw upon. It is extraordinarly sustained. Despite the breadth and depth it flies by in a resemblance to twenty minutes though it runs to nigh double that duration. Sustained, yet fleeting this is a piece to savour and observe. Like a precious stone turned over in the palm it changes what is revealed by repeated plays.
On the reverse of the image of his effortlessly effete young self John Howard stares out as he now is, bearded and in a straw Panama hat he resembles an English Walt Whitman. Poetry in much slower motion. He possesses an air of effortlessness because he is a man at home with himself and his enviable gifts.
A strangely beautiful and unconventional single from a singular soul, this quietly understated effort remains a treasure for the listener. It can rightly be called unique without need for further clarification and deserves to be valued, cherished and widely shared.