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November 27, 2012

Kelly Johnson

Kelly Johnson

KELLY JOHNSON – IN HER OWN WORDS…AND THEN SOME

A posthumous new autobiography from the late Girlschool guitarist and female musical pioneer, depicts life on the road — and on the skids

I

n the last years of her life, Bernadette “Kelly” Johnson, the former lead guitarist and singer for the all-female, British band, Girlschool, began a memoir. Five years after her death from spinal cancer, online publisher Smashwords has released, Surviving My Friends: The Official Kelly Johnson Story. The book, a collection of first-person anecdotes, interspersed with fond eulogies from a gallery of more than a dozen of Johnson’s loyal friends — as compiled by Dee Clark — is a document as curious for what it omits as what it includes.

Girlschool is best known as one of the first heavy metal, all-girl bands. They came together in 1977, when Johnson, just 19, joined Kim McAuliffe and Enid Williams to form the band, Painted Lady. After a name change, the four-piece (with drummer Denise Dufort), began a rapid ascent, assisted in part by an opening slot they landed on Motörhead’s 1979 Overkill tour.

Girlschool, with Johnson as the blonde focal point and the main songwriter, recorded and released four albums, all with top ten hits, including, Demolition (1980), Hit and Run (1981), Screaming Blue Murder (1982) and Play Dirty (1983). They toured extensively through Europe, Japan and the U.S. during these years.

 

I can’t believe I got away with it all — and right now I feel as lucky as a Lottery winner.

Then, in 1983, with her picture gracing the cover of Guitar Player magazine — no mean feat for a woman then (or now) — Johnson left the band to move to pursue a solo career in the U.S. She wrote, recorded and shopped songs for several years and in 1987, teamed with friend and ex-Go-Go, Kathy Valentine to start the band World’s Cutest Killers. Despite the universally glowing acknowledgement of her guitar prowess, showmanship and songwriting — the almost-decade she spent in Los Angeles would not advance her music career. In 1993 she returned to England and the Girlschool front spot where she would remain for two more years.

kelly johnson guitar player

“I do feel like I’ve been in more movies than I care to shake a stick at,” Johnson says, at the beginning of Surviving My Friends. Movie-like is a good way to describe the book’s random collection of non-linear scenes and chronologically confusing jumps that begin near the end of her life and then roughly trace the early Girlschool era, her childhood, her time in California and then her final years back in England.

The playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman famously said, “There’s only x amount you remember clearly-or you think you remember clearly. By the time you’re 50, let us say you’ve seen and known so many places there is a great deal you do not clearly remember.”

What emerges from Johnson’s memory are three major themes: her love of her father, her love of her “mates” and significantly, her love of partying. The chapter devoted to her childhood is mainly an account of the good times she spent listening to music with her Dad, a man who recognized and supported her budding talents in every way he could. Johnson’s mother, however, receives short shrift throughout.

Next, are the numerous stories about friends, including poignant recollections about Jackie Chambers, the lover who stayed with her to the bitter end — and who, in a fascinating turn of events, replaced her as Girlschool’s lead guitarist.

Johnson spills a little ink on coming out. “I think I was 13 when my first major crush came, and very aptly-named it was too ‘cos that’s how I felt when it first hit — crushed — and with it the feelings I was having toward the same sex apparently weren’t somehow ‘right’ or ‘normal.’ And something inside was telling me to keep it hidden.

“Nobody ever mentioned the word, all I knew was that society deemed it wrong and frowned upon it. Even at an early age you’re instinctively aware of it and know to keep it quiet.”

She was of a generation that feared their public careers would be ruined by coming out. But, she was also a contemporary of Melissa Etheridge and Ellen DeGeneres, so once the cat is out-of-the-bag here, she treats her sexuality as a non-issue.

And, then there are the stories of partying.

Though she says in the introduction that she “didn’t really intend to write just an account of the on-and-off-the-road antics of a rock ‘n roll band,” in large part, that is what she and her posthumous co-collaborators, have done. In tale-after-tale, she describes her irrepressible desire to have fun, which almost always included getting “trashed,” “pissed,” “stoned” and various other euphemisms for inebriated — after gigs, at clubs, in friends’ homes, while driving, on stage and once, leaving the hospital after a cancer surgery, with tubes attached, to go to a nearby pub for a quick one.

Her friends’ stories — meant to augment Johnson’s meager written account — also revolve, in large part, around crazy episodes that happened after a few too many drinks; like getting kicked out of restaurants for being drunk and disorderly or almost getting deported for riding a bicycle over the Mexican border and not having papers to get back into San Diego.

“…I remember we had a party and I invited Kelly….” recalls Chris Bonacci, who replaced Johnson in Girlschool from 1984-1992. “Kelly and Denise stayed all night and I remember in the morning when all the alcohol was finished except some Port we had. I found Kelly was drinking that for breakfast! She did seem to drink a lot, but she’s probably the only person I know who could drink an awful lot and not become aggressive.”

Readers of modern rock star biographies may notice that the, now customary, chapter on recovery and rehab is missing from this book. Johnson’s drinking is never discussed as problematic, or what it sounds like — alcoholic. Rather, it is framed as just another amusing personality trait.

Besides the excessive boozing, the portrait that emerges from her friends and ex-lovers is one of a prankster, a militant vegetarian, an animal lover and a pretty decent person. Typical of the tributes is this from Pamela Galloway; “To me she was always very kind, giving and a very passionate person. Always a great friend.” Or this from Diane Kimberly: “I have many wonderful memories of Kelly in my life: adventures in many forms, love of friends, love of animals (chasing down a truck that injured a puppy and raising hell)…”

There is not a negative comment amid the collection, most of which read like tributes.

What is also strikingly absent in Johnson’s telling of her life is any significant display of egotism. She describes the rise of the band merely by saying, “All of a sudden the hotels were better, we had even more people surrounding us and the treatment was different. I don’t think we thought too much of it at the time… We all just carried on the way we always did, on and off stage.”

Her literary modesty includes sidestepping praise for being an acclaimed guitarist. That is left to numerous others, mostly men, like musician Mat Sargent. “Kel had a unique style, playing with a metal plectrum and curling her thumb around the guitar neck when she played open chords. Kelly was an inspiration, ‘guitar hero,’ sex symbol…” Or from punk rocker, Faebhean Kwest: “As she was a woman and didn’t have the macho thrash-type strength to blast-through a song, she had to rely on clever ideas and imagination — and hence her playing showed a colour and tone that was (and is) missing for the usual ‘Rawwwk’ guitarists.

She is just as diffident about the downside of life. Even when she was barely scraping by — living off the kindness of near strangers in 1980’s Los Angeles, sometimes sleeping in “the horrible place in Hollywood with all the roaches” — she doesn’t decry her loss of status. In fact, she held many low-level jobs during her vagabond days in L.A. and describes all of them as satisfying in some regard.

Later, back in London, post-post-Girlschool, she worked for a while as a city bus inspector. “It wasn’t the only thing I could do. But I could work as and when. In the summer it was great, wandering around the West End — it was beautiful. It’s all very well hanging out at the Whiskey and hanging out with the Ramones, playing to 40,000 people, but it’s so stressful! Sitting on a bus from A to B isn’t stressful, it’s nice. I don’t like stress in my life.”

The stories of her spinal cancer diagnosis, treatments and surgery are interspersed in bite-sized chunks throughout the book. Again, this is a filmic device, but it works here to mitigate the sheer horrors of the disease, its symptoms and the painful procedures that failed to stop its advance. She recounts all of these events with the least amount of drama and absolutely no self-pity.

Johnson says in the book that, “Memory is such a living, breathing and haunting animal, and to condense it into words on a page seems to dilute or tame it somehow.” It is salient to note that Johnson, by her own admission and that of many friends, was not only hard drinking, but frequently on painkillers like morphine at the time she began her reminiscences — a fact which likely colors this autobiography. Or, as Lillian Hellman also noted, “Everyone’s memory is tricky and mine’s a little trickier than most.”

Surviving My Friends, may be the “authorized” version of Johnson’s life, but it is hardly a comprehensive biography. Where are the “interviews” with friends like Lemmy Kilmister, Kathy Valentine — or even her mother? There were other, less frivolous stories she could have told. But she, or Clark, chose to emphasize the good times. Or, as Johnson asserts in the epilogue: “If we can celebrate the good and confront the bad and the ugly, too, I reckon the old saying that ‘What Doesn’t Fuck You Up Makes You stronger’ is a true one and worth remembering, and can go a long way in helping us to detangle this madness we call Our Lives.

“I can’t believe I got away with it all — and right now I feel as lucky as a Lottery winner.”

For fans of the late guitarist, this shoddily produced and in-complete e-book — akin to a fan’s heartfelt-but-amateurish scrap-book — may provide a few in-sights into the life of a talen-ted artist and female, musical pioneer, but it doesn’t tell the entire — or even an entirely credible — story of her turbulent life. It is merely the one Johnson wanted to tell.

Given that, it might be better to remember Johnson’s life by listening to her music.

Disclosure: The reviewer knew Kelly Johnson during 1987–1988.






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