JOHNNY ROGAN - In Remembrance

Yesterday, at St Declan's cemetery in Tramore on the southeast coast of Ireland, I stood in quiet contemplation by the grave of my great friend Johnny Rogan, the music writer who was my role model for almost 40 years.

        Tramore, a pleasant seaside town with a population 11,000, lies 12 kilometres west of Waterford from where Johnny's parents emigrated to London in the 1940s. Johnny owned a small house on a steep hill in the old part of the town, now unoccupied, in which he liked to write, and a few minutes drive away is the home of his former partner Jackie who tends his grave weekly, trimming the grass that grows around the headstone that bears his name. At its base is a line from a poem by Edmund Spencer, whose Faerie Queene was the subject of Johnny's MA dissertation: "Where, whenas death shall all the world subdue, Our love shall live, and later life renew." It was chosen by Jackie's uncle Sean who gave the eulogy at Johnny's funeral at the Holy Cross RC Church in Tramore shortly after his death in February of 2021. 

        From beginning to end ours was a master-pupil relationship. Johnny was a literary scholar, university trained, with degrees in English. I left school at 17 with five O-levels and, apart from a two-year course in the tradecraft of journalism at Bradford Tech, picked up all I knew on the job. I had much to learn and in Johnny found the perfect teacher, schooled not only in the art of literacy but in how to adapt this skill to writing and editing books about our shared love, rock'n'roll music. In view of how our futures would pan out, it was the ideal match.  

        We met for the first time in Paddington, December 1982, at a Christmas party thrown by Proteus, a publisher for whom we had both written books, Johnny on Neil Young, me on Pete Townshend. It was held in a nondescript church hall just off Praed Street, close to Proteus' offices, and though I cannot remember who introduced us, I can recall quite clearly that after the introduction we didn't much talk to anyone else at the party, and that when it looked like the free booze was running out we headed to the nearest pub together and carried on talking until closing time. It's quite likely I was a bit sloshed when I headed for home that night, thus establishing from the very start a pattern that would become a key aspect of our friendship.

        Proteus Books went bust a couple of years later and Johnny and I sat next to one another at a creditors' meeting in a hotel on The Aldwych. Both of us were owed money by the company and we took pleasure in watching its managing director, on a podium at the front, squirm as a bankruptcy accountant read out a damning indictment of mismanagement. We were highly amused when the Irish photographer Finn Costello, another creditor, stood up and swore loudly at that MD, calling him a "fucking cunt", as I recall. Many in the room, us amongst them, cheered loudly when Finn upped and left the gathering, his parting words, "I have to leave now. There's a nasty smell in this room and its coming from the podium." Johnny and I liked that kind of thing. 

        Soon after this I became the editor at Omnibus Press and acquired the rights to the first of three books by Johnny that Omnibus would publish. Johnny's title was Wham: The Death of a Supergroup but with his approval we opted to retitle it Wham Confidential which we felt had more immediacy. It was, of course, the story of the duo formed by George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, perhaps not the most obvious subject for an author of Johnny's background, but this was no hagiography aimed at the teenage girls who screamed at George and Andrew, more an investigation into the music industry levers that were pulled to make Wham what they were and the strains that tore them apart. It was only 160 pages, quite short by the standards that Johnny would set in the future, but it was the first indication to me that in him I had found an author of unusual precision who wrote about music and musicians with great clarity and insight. I'd already formed a high opinion of Johnny's skills when I read his Proteus Neil Young book and now, running Omnibus, I was in a position to take full advantage of them.

        Johnny delivered the manuscript for his Wham book in the manner of students submitting a thesis: several sheets of A4 paper typed in double spacing and bound together in a folder with the title and author's name in bold lettering on the front. Although in the 1990s computers would preclude the need for typed manuscripts from which books would be typeset, in 33 years at Omnibus, during which I commissioned and/or edited over 800 rock books, no other author ever delivered his work in such a professional way. 

        The Wham book sold respectably but wasn't what I could call a commercial success. I suppose we should have realised that Wham fans were unlikely to want to read a serious book about them, and those readers who liked serious music books weren't interested in Wham. It slipped between two stools but the lesson we learned, however, was put to good use in Johnny's next book, Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance, which soon became the best-selling book that Omnibus had ever published. It was controversial too, vexing Morrissey who described it as “all lies” and famously commented: “I hope Johnny Rogan ends his days very soon in an M3 pile-up or a hotel fire,” a quote we gleefully included on the cover of future editions. 

        Johnny delivered his manuscript for The Severed Alliance in the same manner as he'd delivered the Wham book, but he was a few weeks late. When it became clear to him that he wouldn't deliver on time he asked for a meeting with me and our sales director Frank Warren. At that meeting he offered to return the advance, producing from his pocket a signed cheque made out to Music Sales for the amount. Frank tore it up. I was astonished. In all those 33 years I helmed Omnibus' editorial department, no other author ever volunteered to return their advance when they were late delivering, as almost all invariably were. This cemented my admiration for Johnny. Not only was he immensely skilled in his chosen field, he was an honourable chap too. 

        It's no exaggeration to say that the success of The Severed Alliance changed the editorial agenda at Omnibus. Before its arrival we had concentrated largely on large format illustrated books with less concern paid to the text but from now on we would gradually publish more and more text-led titles and fewer books dominated by photography. (The only book Omnibus ever published on my watch whose sales matched Johnny's Smiths book was Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher, another author who became, and still is, a close friend. Johnny indexed Tony's book and, as it happened, Tony would write a Smiths book himself, A Light That Never Goes Out. Far from being displeased by the competition, at a lunch I organised for the three of us, Johnny offered to help Tony in any way he could.)

        By this time Johnny and I had become drinking buddies, working hard - we indexed several books together, he and I devised an Omnibus style guide and I often consulted him on editorial issues - and playing hard. We usually caroused around Soho and though most of these pub crawls are lost to memory, I can vividly recall the evening I introduced him to the US music writer Timothy White, another friend of mine now also sadly passed. The three of us wound up in a nightclub owned by David Arden, son of Don, brother of Sharon, whom Johnny had befriended as a result of his investigations into rock band management. The waitresses - I think they were referred to as hostesses in this establishment - were very beautiful and unusually friendly towards us but we were all far too drunk - David kept bringing us free bottles of champagne - to take advantage of the situation.

        Omnibus Press was a big fish in a small pond as far as rock books were concerned, but a small fish in a big pond when it came to publishing at large. As Johnny's reputation grew following the success of his Smiths book, it was inevitable that he would seek out mainstream publishers that could pay far bigger advances than Omnibus could offer. We only did one more book together, on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but whenever I went on holiday Johnny deputised for me, enjoying a spell at my desk, and he invariably attended our quarterly editorial meetings at which decisions were made on which books to publish and which to pass on. He became my staunchest ally.

        When Johnny launched his own publishing company, Rogan House, it was to Omnibus Press and its parent company Music Sales that he turned for marketing, warehousing and distribution, or fulfilment as it is known in the trade. This strengthened our ties and friendship even more. Along the way I had, of course, became aware of Johnny's reputation as a rather mysterious, even remote, figure in the world of rock books, a trait he encouraged as his renown grew. In truth, he was amongst the most sociable men I ever knew and I came to suspect that this was a mischievous ploy on his part, a way of ensuring his privacy while at the same time creating an enigmatic persona that suited his way of life.

        Details of all the many other books that Johnny wrote can be found in the more formal obituary I wrote for the Guardian newspaper, a longer version of which appears on this blog here: https://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2021/02/johnny-rogan-1953-2021.html

        Johnny's unexpected and sudden death from a brain haemorrhage came as a great shock to me, as it did to all who knew him, and because it occurred during the Covid travel ban I was unable to attend the funeral in Tramore. I watched the service on my computer by means of a video link up and vowed that when the time was right I'd come to Tramore myself to pay my respects at Johnny's last resting place, as I did yesterday.

        I grew misty eyed as I stood before Johnny's gravestone and felt the need to turn away to face the wind that blew towards me from the sea. I recalled the good times. Then I dried my eyes and my wife Lisa took the photo that appears above. I will miss him always. 


Patrick Humphries said...

Beautifully done CC. I only ever saw Rogan when he broke purdah from one of his enormous books - Van, Ray Davies, Byrds - and we'd yap and yarn. I still miss his phone calls and his enthusiasm. Thanks for the memories…

Denise Alexander said...

Your beautiful piece gave me a warm smile at many memories of JR, mostly sitting in Soho pubs and yakking on about music trivia. Although a bit older than me, Johnny was never patronising or aloof, despite him having far better music taste and cred than I held at the time. I’ll always remember his cheeky grin and enthusiasm. I learned a lot about Johnny from your article (I loved the cheque story) - thank you for sharing these tales. I’m so glad you made it to see his resting place.

Hilary Griffin said...

What a fabulous piece Chris, and how lovely that you were able to visit Jonny’s final resting place. I’m sure he was smiling down on you.

My stand-out memories of Jonny include organising & accompanying him on a PR tour around the UK & Ireland to promote ‘Morrissey & Marr’, where he ‘performed’ to a full house at Dillons bookstore in Manchester, among others. We also managed to secure the “Who the hell” feature in that month’s Q Magazine and during a spot of downtime, managed to squeeze in visits to both the set of Coronation Street and the Glastonbury Tor, followed by a signing in Bristol.

He was delighted to be interviewed in Dublin by the Irish Times in what he told me was a Van Morrison haunt, The Shelbourne Hotel. He did a signing at London’s Virgin Megastore, and the book’s front cover (blown up to huge proportions) featured in their books window for months.

He was a fun travel companion and was extremely gracious.

He never forgot my birthday and has gifted me several signed books over the years - both his own and others, including Ted Hughes’ ‘Birthday Letters’.

A truly unique man - missed by many.

Tony said...

That's beautiful, Chris. I got to know Johnny through you and we became pretty good friends. It was always a joy getting together with him. I recall you had him index my Moon book, scrupulously so but of course. I have never spelled out Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band like that again! I miss him too. Thanks for the lovely tribute.

wardo said...

One of those writers who -- as with you -- I'd always read regardless of topic.