Funky, get down!“ orders Holly Johnson. Coming from the former lead singer of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the phrase conjures disco camp, but today it is aimed at a fluffy cream poodle. ”Hope you don’t mind dogs," he apologizes over Funky’s bark, ushering me inside. Funky settles at my feet as Johnson and I settle into a dark-green art deco sofa, admiring the modern still-lifes that adorn his yellow walls.
I’d always wondered where Holly Johnson lived. After several neighborhood sightings of the highly visible, HIV positive pop star strolling with Funky and Wolfgang Kuhle, his longtime manager and lover, I assumed Johnson lived near me. After all, King’s Road, playground to London’s rich young things, is the famous birthplace of punk. Its lofty artists’ ateliers are favored by wealthy gay men, and for Johnson, often out and about and always out, it seemed the ideal spot.
I had correctly pegged his neighborhood, but his house was not at all what I suspected. The first surprise was his street -- not a main thoroughfare, but a leafy side lane lined with solidly built Victorian houses that had recently been gentrified for family dwelling.
This from the man who shot to fame in 1984 singing about ejaculation in the pounding dance track, “Relax.” Deemed obscene by the BBC, the single was promptly banned from the airwaves, which sealed its fate: “Relax” hit No. 1 and stayed there for nine weeks, notoriety enhancing popularity à la Madonna.
The scene inside Johnson’s house is domestic indeed, and as I gaze through the French windows of his warm living room at the garden that Kuhle is tending, I recall the video of “Relax”: An immaculately suited Johnson rolling around the stage with a tiger cub, eliciting a frenzied response from an audience of near-hysterical leather queens.
Though the video was screened only once, its images are indelible, not just for its outrageousness but for the impact it had on kids like me. Frankie Goes to Hollywood was one of the ’80s’ biggest musical success stories. Johnson, its leader, was a lad from Liverpool, but unlike the legendary Fab Four Liverpudlians before him, Johnson was unabashedly gay. And he was out long before Boy George or Elton John, causing a public outcry not seen since the Sex Pistols.
Johnson, 36, has been back in the headlines recently, but not of the tabloid variety; this time he’s on the arts review pages. Last spring, the Gallery in Cork Street, in the heart of London’s art district, presented an exhibition of Johnson’s paintings, collages and objets d’art. Appropriately titled “The House of Holly,” the show realized a lifelong ambition for Johnson, whose art displays the bold, colorful and kitsch qualities one might expect from the flamboyant Johnson, in contrast to a somber series of icons that Johnson admits is in response to his serostatus.
Johnson’s interest in art predates his pop career, and if the hefty art books that line his bookcases are any indication, art might outweigh music in Johnson’s heart. In fact, he was about to enter art school when “Relax” was released, catapulting him to worldwide fame. Despite the demands of superstardom, Johnson continued creating more than music, turning the ubiquitous hotel room into an artist’s garret. While Frankie’s other members indulged in the sex and drugs invariably linked with rock ’n’ roll, Johnson was painting watercolors of Liverpool life, including the lustful sailors and overblown hookers that are an integral part of the port city’s local color.
Johnson returned to his art more seriously when other areas of his life grew uncertain in the early ’90s. Frankie had disbanded, and though Johnson forged a successful solo career, legal troubles and strained relations with his label, MCA, left him disillusioned. Then, in 1991, Johnson tested HIV positive.
“When I got my diagnosis, I had a nervous breakdown and thought I’d better do all those things I’ve always wanted to do, like write a book and have an exhibition of my art work,” he recalls. For 16 months he shut himself away. At first, his diagnosis was a secret only he and Wolfgang shared, but in 1992 Johnson told his family, and in 1993 he told the world in an interview in the London Times. His autobiography, A Bone in My Flute, followed in 1994, a bestseller published to critical acclaim -- not the least for his courage in revealing his HIV status and coming to terms with AIDS in print and in public.
Johnson’s typewriter interfered with his drawing board, so he discovered a new form of expression -- collage. “Writing the book was a discipline in itself. I was learning to write prose, so I couldn’t keep my drawing up,” says Johnson. “The icons were a way of expressing myself visually without having to keep up the discipline of drawing.”
Johnson’s watercolors from Frankie’s heyday were eventually translated into oil on canvas. The influences on these portraits are clear -- the directness of Warhol, the primitivism of Basquiat, the black outlining of Haring -- but Johnson adds a twist by framing them in elaborate gilt as if they were old masters. Don’t be fooled; the reverential touch is, given the subject matter, strictly irreverent.
Take “Ruby Ribena:” A glamorous nurse smiles enticingly out from the canvas as she primes a syringe in her rubber-gloved hand. “She was one of the first nurses I came across when I was first hospitalized,” Holly says. “He was a really nice gay male nurse. He didn’t look like this, but he’d come in and tell me about the outfit he’d be planning for Kinki Gerlinki [a Suzanne Bartsch-style drag club] that weekend.”
Johnson has avoided any opportunistic infections, but he was hospitalized as a result of a drug complication -- pancreatitis. Though his reactions to a series of antiretrovirals have been problematic, he’s hopeful that he’ll be able to tolerate the protease inhibitor he’s scheduled to start soon.
If the light touch characteristic of his musical, literary and now artistic offerings is any indication, his spirits are good. “I don’t use despair in my work,” he explains. "I tend to sublimate that into something positive. The stuff I’ve produced tends to be quite life-affirming. Even if it’s got a serious tone, it’s still a bit tongue-in-cheek.
“I don’t think people get depressed looking at or listening to my work. It’s not heavy stuff,” admits Johnson, lapsing into a Liverpudlian line reading. “I ain’t no Francis Bacon.”