Holly go lightly
AS LUNCH DATES WITH PROFESSIONALLY OUTRAGEOUS PEOPLE GO, MINE WITH HOLLY JOHNSON—
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—
No. We would discuss Holly Johnson—
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—
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—
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—
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—
“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—
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—
People doing things better is Holly Johnson’s abiding motivation. “I have always had a very competitive streak—
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—
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.