The writer and biographer, Johnny Rogan, died on January 21st, 2021. His death was announced on February 12th.
Seán Aylward remembers his good friend.
The noted music biographer, Johnny Rogan, who died recently in London, was born in 1953 and grew up in England. He was the son of 1940s emigrants from Waterford. He was raised by his widowed mother in a tenement in London’s Pimlico district. Their little flat had gas heating but bizarrely didn’t have electricity. As he told me on one occasion, ‘it was the last house on the road to be demolished’.
Johnny’s father, a bar manager, succumbed as a very young man to a sudden heart attack and a sister of his also died very suddenly of a brain haemorrhage when she was still a young woman. Tragedy dogged the family with the death of a younger brother, who drowned in a canoe accident in Tramore Bay in the early 1960s. Johnny spent all his childhood summers holidaying with an aunt in Tramore who was an OPW tenant in the cottages attached to the former Coastguard Station [and then Garda Station].
Despite the tragic loss of his brother there, Johnny always loved Tramore. He gloried in its endless sand dunes, ever crashing waves, charming swimming coves, it’s famously crowded and sweaty 1960s dance halls, the neon-lit amusements and, of course it’s fairground attractions, ‘The Merries’. For him Tramore was always a second home.
Johnny’s Tramore-based aunt had electricity and the wireless radio in her house. This was where he first listened to 1960s rock bands like The Kinks & The Byrds, who he subsequently wrote so brilliantly about. Popular culture was to become Johnny’s specialist topic. He also wrote a book about football club managers and an opus about band managers called ‘Starmakers & Svengalis’.
Johnny had an insatiable intellectual curiosity and an astonishing power of recall. For instance, he learnt the entirety of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ by heart when studying it for his ‘A’ Levels. He could recount to you, verbatim, mutual conversations had over a pint, many years later. Johnny would have made a very successful career as a Whitehall civil servant but never worked for a salary. He was a freelance biographical writer his entire adult life.
In his teens Johnny became an English Lit BA student at Newcastle, then a graduate student in Acadia University, Nova Scotia and finally in Oxford He published the first of 26 rock biographies whilst still at university. He was rooming at the time at Lady Margaret Hall, which then had the cheapest lodgings for graduate students of any Oxford college. Johnny’s Canadian Alma Mater, Acadia University, has a Latin Motto which reads ‘In Pulvere Vinces’: ‘By effort [literally: in dust] you will conquer’. A fitting description of Rogan’s literary career.
Johnny, whilst still a student, secured a modest council flat in his native Pimlico and ultimately bought it from Westminster Council. He later acquired a modest second home on Tramore’s Train Hill. Tramore was where he ultimately met his partner, and the love of his life, Jackie, also London-Irish by background. Her family had moved back to Tramore permanently when she was still very young. Jackie and Johnny were ‘an item’ from the early 2000’s onwards.
Writing is a solitary profession but Johnny somehow retained the gift of friendship. He had a very wide network of friends and colleagues on the music and publishing beat, from the West Coast of America to Tramore and, of course, his native London’s eclectic, ever changing music scene.
Johnny had a huge mind and an insatiable curiosity. He was also an accomplished networker. I am delighted to say I was one of a number of his many contacts who helped him a little with his book on Van Morrison, ‘No Surrender’, introducing him to Belfast- born journalist [and former club promoter], Sam Smyth, and talking with him about the political culture of Northern Ireland in Van’s youth.
Johnny was prodigiously well read – his graduate thesis was on Edmund Spenser’s ‘The Faerie Queene’, a piece of medieval literature with an Irish connection – and he was also obsessive about grammatical matters. He was a demon for facts and footnotes. He had a great affection for the poetry of Sir Walter Raleigh [who also had Irish connections], especially his poem ‘Even Such is Time’, allegedly composed shortly before his execution in the Old Palace Yard in London in 1618. The lines from this sombre poem, which he quoted on unlikely occasions, reflect Johnny’s awareness of how frail life is and how suddenly it can come to an untimely end. The Raleigh poem concludes rather hopefully, however: ‘But from this earth, this grave, this dust / My God shall raise me up, I trust’.
Johnny Rogan was an incredibly painstaking writer, unique in his chosen genre. His forensic attention to detail was especially intriguing when one considers that he devoted his life to chronicling the chaotic lives and musical output of 1960s and 1970s rock stars. His later books were often of prodigious length. Some critics complained, but his many fans felt the length and detail was in reasonable proportion to the importance of their subjects. No-one recognized more fully than Johnny Rogan that popular music was a central part of 20th century culture in the English speaking world.
Johnny’s relationship with his various publishers over the years is worth a treatise in itself. They ranged from tiny outfits in the back streets of Soho to Penguin and Random House. He was no slave to deadlines. The work took as long as it needed. He adamantly refused to let the companies concerned put his work into e-books because he disagreed with the low rates of royalties they generated, and his later work was far too bulky to put into paperback.
Johnny never owned a car or a mobile phone and was a late and very reluctant adopter of the computer. He did great radio interviews and scripted a couple of well received television documentaries for the BBC. He could work anywhere but one of his favourite locales was the public library in Tramore, where he was a daily and affable presence when in town.
We will all miss him greatly.