JOHNNY ROGAN (1953-2021)

Johnny Rogan in 2011. 
(Photo by Alan Betson for The Irish Times)

My good friend Johnny Rogan, who died unexpectedly in January aged 67, was among the most prolific and acclaimed music biographers of his generation. Much admired for his attention to detail and tenacity in pursuing the truth, his work did not always sit well with his subjects and for this reason he cultivated a rather mischievous air of mystery about his activities and whereabouts. Once his confidence had been gained, however, he was the most genial of companions, witty and wise, generous with advice, the perfect drinking buddy, his preferred tipple a full-bodied red wine. 

The first edition to Johnny's Byrds book

        Two of the 26 books he authored deserve special praise. His definitive biography of The Byrds ran to four updated, fully revised editions. First published in 1981 as Timeless Flight and finally in 2011 as Requiem For The Timeless, it matured by stages into a 1,200-page epic. A second volume, in 2017 his last published book, added a further 1,248 pages to the work and told the stories of the six former Byrds who had passed away. Q magazine described it as, “The best biography of a group ever written”, while Record Collector magazine compared its scope to Tolstoy’s War And Peace. Mojo added: “Rogan displays a grasp of material and depth of research that’d be staggering were it not for the advance warning of an already considerable reputation.”

The final edition.

        Until the arrival of Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, the first in his anticipated multi-volume history of The Beatles, no writer had written more expansively about any popular music group than Johnny did on The Byrds. 

        Shorter but equally well regarded, not to mention deeply controversial, was Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance (1992), the first substantial book about The Smiths, which became a best-seller, at least by rock book standards, for its publisher Omnibus Press. It famously earned the displeasure of Morrissey who described it as “all lies” and commented: “I hope Johnny Rogan ends his days very soon in an M3 pile-up or a hotel fire,” a quote the publishers gleefully included on the cover of future editions. 

The most recent edition of The Severed Alliance, published in 2011.

        Johnny had the last laugh, however, when Morrissey himself quoted from the book during the court case brought by Mike Joyce, the group’s drummer, in a successful bid to increase his share of The Smiths’ earnings. Johnny was present at the hearing – he attended every music-related court trial he could – and was much amused when the judge described Morrissey as “devious, truculent and unreliable”. A New Statesman review of the most recent revised edition, published in 2011, described it as, “the definitive if daunting account of the most romantically mythic band of those times”.

Christened John Rogan, Johnny endured an austere childhood. His parents emigrated from Co. Waterford, Ireland, in 1943 and he was raised in deprived circumstances in a slum in Pimlico, just north of the River Thames in the Borough of Westminster in central London. The rooms, eventually demolished, had no toilet or electricity. The family of five was then re-housed in a tiny council flat in nearby Vincent Square. His father died young after suffering a heart attack, his brother drowned and his sister died following a brain haemorrhage. The impoverishment of their first accommodation was vividly recalled in his introduction to Requiem For The Timeless: “I dreamed not only of The Beatles and Bob Dylan but of the wonders of electricity,” he wrote. “Our rooms were entirely lit by gaslight, just like you see in Victorian melodramas… heating came from burnt wooden fruit crates taken from the greengrocers and chopped up with a hatchet. Removing ashes from the grate and emptying the urine-filled chamber pot were the first tasks of the day. There was no private toilet or bathroom.” 

        Johnny attended St Vincent’s Roman Catholic Church School and Pimlico School before spending the entire 1970s as a student, firstly at Newcastle University, where he obtained firsts in both English Language and English Literature, and later at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada, where he was awarded an MA for a dissertation on Edmund Spencer’s epic poem The Faerie Queene. Post graduate study at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford – the Bodleian Library became a favourite place to write – followed before he opted to turn his scholarship to his second love after literature: popular music. He later recalled nourishing his love of pop and rock on visits to relations in Ireland whose house, wired for electricity, boasted a radiogram. His love of The Byrds was sparked in 1965 when he first heard their electrified reading of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. “It was almost as powerful as hearing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ when I was about four years old – a treasured childhood memory,” he would write. 

        Naturally, Johnny longed for a Byrds album but family finances were tight and to avoid parental ire at squandering hard-earned pocket money on something as superfluous to their daily existence as an LP, he bought record tokens which he mailed to himself with a faked note congratulating him on winning a competition sponsored by Radio Luxembourg. “That’s how I came to purchase the first albums I ever owned,” he wrote. “[The Byrds’] Mr Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn!

        Most music biographers of his era served an apprenticeship on the UK’s weekly music papers before turning to books but Johnny Rogan’s by-line was absent from the mainstream music press. His first published writing appeared in Dark Star, an idiosyncratic music fanzine issued sporadically between 1975 and 1980. “He was able to use their credentials, such as they were, to procure his original interviews with [Roger] McGuinn, [Chris] Hillman and most of all [David] Crosby,” recalls his friend and fellow music writer Peter Doggett. “He probably loved Crosby’s music more than anyone else’s, but was rewarded by Crosby consistently bad-mouthing him on Twitter and calling him a liar, because he faithfully reported what Croz had said and done.” 

        Another friend, the writer and editor Colin Larkin confirms this. “Crosby once said to me on the phone, ‘What! You know Rogan, Johnny Rogan?’” he recalls. “He’s a fucking ferret man, a fucking ferret.”

        As well as The Byrds and The Smiths, Johnny wrote books on Neil Young, Roxy Music, Van Morrison, The Kinks, Wham! (which forensically dissected their business affairs), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, John Lennon and Ray Davies. In almost every case he thoroughly revised, updated and expanded these books some years later, often more than once, so much so that they doubled in size. He also wrote a revealing study of pop management, Starmakers & Svengalis: The History of British Pop Management (1988), which was adapted for a six-week BBC TV series and is now a university set text, and a book on football management, The Football Managers (1989).

        His second Van Morrison biography No Surrender (2006) was included in the Sunday Times Top 10 books of the year, and inspired one Irish reviewer to proclaim: “Van Morrison: No Surrender is the best book about popular culture written about any Irishman living or dead, and it’s certainly the best social history of Belfast in the mid-60s ever written.”

         A review of Johnny's Ray Davies biography A Complicated Life, in The Sunday Times stated: Masterfully teases out the warring impulses wrestling in [Davies’s] psyche … [Rogan is] adept at relating the social history of the 1950s and 1960s to Davies’s brooding character and lyric obsessions ... He uncovers psychological traumas everywhere and is fascinating on the bitchy rivalries between 1960s pop titans … Such tales make this ... oceanically researched biography go with a swing.

        Unusually, Johnny believed that being a biographer was a lifetime commitment, which explains why – unlike the vast majority of music biographers – he rewrote and enlarged his books as often as he did. “Most biographers, when they’ve finished, they leave it behind and move on,” he told an interviewer. “I keep boxes of material at home, and they keep getting filled up with stuff.”

        Similarly, Johnny took a hands-on approach to his books, reading and correcting proofs, indexing them and following the process closely through from print to publication. This led to his forming his own publishing imprint, Rogan House, through which some of his work, including the last two editions of Requiem For The Timeless, were published, along with books by other authors, among them his friend Pete Frame’s Restless Generation, the definitive account of the emergence of rock ’n’ roll music in Britain during the 1950s. 

The Restless Generation, published by Rogan House

        Once he became conversant with the legalities and mechanics of book publishing, Johnny eschewed the services of a literary agent and became adept at reading the small print in book contracts. He was a keen advocate and member of the Society of Authors, happy to share his expertise with other, less savvy, authors. Similarly, he was scrupulous about the correct use of the English language, always available to advise on matters of grammar and syntax. 

        Between books Johnny worked occasionally as a freelance editor and indexer, and he contributed to many anthologies, most notably The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, conceived and edited by Colin Larkin and published most recently in 2006 as a 10-volume edition by Oxford University Press. He also contributed book reviews to The Irish Times

Johnny divided his time between the flat in Pimlico in which he was raised and a home he shared with his long-term partner, Jackie Taylor, at Tramore, in Co. Waterford in the Irish Republic. To those who did not know him, he might have appeared as a somewhat remote, very private, perhaps even slightly eccentric figure. Realising that a certain amount of promotion would help sell his books, he was not averse to publicity but nevertheless provided publishers with indistinct pictures of himself for use on the inside flaps of his books. He grew untidy, bushy beards that disguised his features and almost always wore sunglasses. He let it be known – perhaps to amuse, perhaps to confound – that while working on The Severed Alliance he spent a whole year in complete isolation, never once speaking to another person. 

This is the photo of Johnny that appears on the inside rear flat of the most recent edition of his Byrds books. Friends referred to it as the 'Turin Shroud' shot. 

        Some of these traits were concocted from a fear that certain individuals about whom he wrote might seek to do him harm, but there is no recorded instance of him being assaulted by a rock star or their agents. Nevertheless, when he vouchsafed his telephone number to me, as his editor at Omnibus Press, I was under strict instructions never to reveal it to anyone, and in all the 40 years that I knew him I never knew his address in Pimlico, let alone visited the flat. He used a PO box for mail in all this time. Phone calls, however, were unlikely to be brief. 

“My most enduring memory of Johnny is of regularly spending several hours at a time on the phone with him,” adds Peter Doggett. “In conversation he would dissect the minutiae of pop history with the zeal of a rabbinical scholar examining the Talmud. Anyone who dared to claim that ‘Please Please Me’ wasn’t the Beatles’ first UK number one was going to get their ear bent.”

Stick thin, prematurely bald and impervious to fashion trends – I never once saw him in blue jeans – Johnny walked almost everywhere in well-worn Doc Martin shoes, from Pimlico to the West End and back for meetings with publishers, from one end of London to the other. Only in the severest weather would he take a bus. Although the success of his books enriched him beyond the imagination of his parents, he was frugal by nature, a legacy of his disadvantaged upbringing, and he abhorred waste, always using both sides and every square inch of A4 paper on which to write, most often in neat, legible longhand. He always maintained a discreet distance from the established music industry but his adult life was devoted almost entirely to chronicling conclusively the lives and creativity of those without whom it would not exist. 

        The more I got to know Johnny the more I sensed something in his character, his methods, even his bearing, that brought to mind the popular notion of Sherlock Holmes; that fastidious attention to small details; that cool, sharp, analytical mind; that resolute determination to resolve an issue with absolute precision. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d produced from his coat pocket a magnifying glass to inspect the sleeve of a rare LP record before pronouncing it a fake, or turned up for one of our many pub crawls in an Inverness cape and deerstalker hat.

        Of course, he would have taken me to task for writing that last sentence, for straying from the facts, for indulging my imagination, so I will conclude with a self-evident truth. As far as I am aware, Johnny Rogan did not accept promotional records from record companies or review tickets to concerts. This, he believed, was the only way to pursue his calling with his integrity intact. In this respect, this great friend of mine whom I admired so much and now grieve so deeply, was unique in the province we shared, this field he ploughed with such immense distinction.

        Johnny suffered a brain haemorrhage. Jackie survives him. 

John Rogan, music writer, editor and biographer; born February 14, 1953; died January 21, 2021.


Unknown said...

Well done Charlie
What great copy!

Andy Neill said...

Nicely written, Chris. A heartfelt remembrance of a true original. How I'll miss those marathon pub crawls...

Doug Hinman said...

He was bigger than life. We were great friends since 1982. I will miss him terribly. He was always there.

daragho said...

That is a great tribute, just perfect. I didn't know Johnny as long and as well as you, but everything you've written here rings true.
I hope his archive can be somehow preserved. There are potentially many other near-completed books in there, not to mention lots of unheard Gene Clark songs!
Thank you

Badfinger Iveys said...

Thank you, Chris! Learned a lot.

The Clarkophile said...

Wonderful tribute to a great writer.