A Life As Songs


John Howard: LOOK - the Unknown Story of Danielle Du Bois (Kool Kat)

The concept album has a rather tarnished legacy as an excuse for preposterous excess. With LOOK the English songwriter John Howard, a man who understands that less is more, unless when a flourish of refinement is required, has tackled the genre with kindly pathos and gentle sentiment. 

A cabaret and burlesque sensibility pervades the affair, with a "high" church other worldliness, in a dissection and consideration of the life of his friend and transgender crusader April Ashley 1935-2021. A compliment of which she was aware, though sadly her death occured just prior to its completion.

Appropriately adorned in a perfectly realized painting by the artist Nigel Wade, a diligent cross between the efforts of Peter Blake and David Hockney from the Sixties, the kind of image that adorned book covers and magazines then, it also neatly encapsulates the contradiction at the heart of the matter. A handsome man in a grey suit gazes into a mirror, but his reflection is a beautiful girl in a vivid green dress. The look within a look.

April Ashley and Howard go back to the Seventies when he, a young aspirant to pop stardom, played piano and sang in her nightclub in London. Ashley had been born a boy in a working class district of Liverpool. Trans before the condition even had a name, she transitioned in Casablanca in 1960 after a period of National Service in the Royal Navy had failed to suppress his desire to suppress her true identity. Her name was taken as a tribute to the month in which she arrived. In LOOK she becomes a pop star who merely vanishes into a woman nobody knows he has become until the press comes a calling on Danielle Du Bois, her new true self.

Howard is a correct and kindly pair of hands for such a sensitive subject. The album has the air of a musical festooned with McCartney-esque ballads beautifully mired in the exquisite backdrop of Paris. Musical postcards cascade like confetti as the tale of April's strangely conflicted but resolute and elegant life unfurls. It all swishes along as beautifully as Ashley did, even when she was vilified and outed in the press for her otherness. Unbowed she continued in her quest to be truthful, and for others like her to be accepted. 

Proceedings begin with a child's voice singing, wishing to be someone other and something more, it utilises the creepy familiarity of an old folk song. In part a madrigal a wish, a spell, a curse, before flowering into "Last Night He Woke Up Screaming" a paean of parental recognition and confusion. A neat surmising of assumptions nearly everyone is guilty of making. The song is jaunty, playful with just a hint of a darkness behind the pathos and the sorrow.

"Every Day A New Adventure" spins into life with a fairground organ casualness, a touch of madness in its surreal jollity, and possesses a psychedelic confection whilst delivering images of bright lights and foreboding.

In "Good Day Daniel" we enter pure Howard terrain, an eloquent, longing ballad with a luscious melody that wanders through the mind and wants to remain there, lush and lingering it winds and billows like a scarf in the breeze. A chamber pop gem, as though "Elenor Rigby" has donned "She's Leaving Home," it uses the line uttered by her surgeon to the boy as he went under the anaesthetic."'Au Revoir Monsieur" as goodbye to the old self, and "Bonjour Mademoiselle" the greeting when she came round as her true one.

"The Mirror (Look)" is the majestic heart of the album, a haunting, quivering piece of lapsed Catholicism, a slab of monastic Glam if such a category ever existed, then it certainly does now. Haunting and soaring with a sense of joyous sorrow in its fragile but determined air of self proclamation.

"It's really me

 I'm who I always seen

 smiling back at me

 in all my dreams.

 Now I am free of all my fears.'

"Where Did The Boy Go" could be Billy Joel or Randy Newman in delightfully playful mood, a wandering melody that also suggests the much maligned Gilbert O' Sullivan at his fluent, fluid, piano-driven best

"Here I Am In Paris" arrives as a stylish monochromatic photograph mutating slowly into gharish tones. Sophisticated and rather world weary in all the yearning it confers, whilst being neatly underscored by a gliding piano in tandem with gentle guitar.

 "Monsieur Boudoir' Has Parties" is campy but perfectly focused, a serious song with pathos and tremendous melodic aplomb. Think "Where Do You Go To My Lovely" with glitter and more of a sense of humor.

"Still Gorgeous" manifests a music hall romp, a cross between Gavin Friday's sublime "Mr Pussy" and the vaudevillian nature of the late Jobriath's Creatures Of The Street album, an ivories driven knees-up of time and time's passing, giving two fingers to mortality.

"I may be old but I'm still gorgeous.

 I may be grey but in my heart

 I'm a beautiful blonde

 I may be old

 But I'm not giving up till

 I'm six feet in the ground"

Camp as camp should be, seriously funny and arch with elements of David Bowies's Hunky Dory it raises a wry smile.

"Stick & Stones" begins with a motif of sinister piano, a poignant ballad, a torch song for every sense of wretchedness. It begs for the larynx of Shirley Bassey to bring her own special magic, though Howard delivers a wonderful piece of eloquent melancholia. He glides through the same terrain as I Am Kloot's "The Same Deep Water As Me." Wonderfully melodic, it also has a strangely underlying patriotic edge.

"The Mirror (Look) Reprise" revives the album's motif, a reflection on reflections -- an existential summary of life's contradictions. As though a world weary chorister reflects on an eloquent hauntingness of themes. Identity in slithers that build to an epic of crescendo. It could so easily fail as a ridiculous travesty but emerges as a work of implicit majesty and distilled regret.

"16 (Woo! Woo!)" a deceptively clever throwaway piece of Sixties pop froth with Carnaby Street or the Moulin Rouge as the backdrop, has a Beatles-like catchiness that builds and develops, as if McCartney had joined The New Christy Minstrels.

"A Place in Time" is the last gasp reprise, an amalgam, a precis of all that has gone before, an astute concision, neatly patched and witty, and possibly unique. You can almost hear the red velvet and gold brocade swish shut on an eloquent performance.

LOOK demands and deserves to be much more than it presently is, a new work steeped in old world, worldly qualities and charm. A West End or Broadway production would be a fitting recognition. It is an extraordinary achievement, a work of perfect understanding and a fitting tribute to a truly amazing life. April Ashley lived against the grain till she became a celebrated and respected part of it. Such is the ethos and reward of LOOK.

As April approaches it's a shame that the April in question is no longer here, but via these songs her spirit is remembered, respected and rightly cherished

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