“Following Breadcrumbs, Tales of a Rock and Roll Girl Child”
Jamie Johnston, born into old Hollywood society, daughter of 40s and 50s era singer/movie actor Johnny Johnston and socialite real estate mother Shirley, could have become another spoiled child of privilege, content to coast.
Instead she fiercely and courageously fought to create a strong and independent feminist identity as a singer/songwriter in the male dominated music scene of the 60s and 70s. She captures that era, the rock groups and bigger than life personalities that defined it, and her own struggle to make a difference musically in her breezy memoir “Following Breadcrumbs, Tales of a Rock and Roll Girl Child” (iUniverse Books, 2017, Bloomington, IN).
In a life shaped by serendipity and epiphanies, Johnston recognized the importance of momentous moments and moved, literally, as they directed her.
A chance meeting on a sweltering day on the Sunset Strip with a very pale man dressed in a velvet suit proved pivotal in the first peak of her musical career. “I knew [the suit] immediately gave him away as an Englishman,” wrote Johnston in her book. A conversation with this struggling film producer led to his listening to the demos of Johnston and her songwriting partner Sandy Tarbet. “One of the songs specifically targeted a very famous record producer who we had aspirations of impressing one day with our adept and clever songwriting,” Johnston recalled. The song “George the Magic Man,” along with the introduction of Don Boyd the velvet-suited Englishman, led to a 1972 record contract in London with George Martin (of Beatles fame) for the girls’ duo, “The Skiffles.” They were 18 and 19 respectively when they
The promising release of the Skiffles’ Martin-produced single coincided with Paul McCartney’s decision to return to recording with Martin after the Beatles’ breakup. And so a pattern in Johnston’s professional life emerged – one promising really big step forward was undercut by an unexpected crash and burn. The single went nowhere and the Skiffles returned to the U.S.
“I thought then and still think now in lyrics,” said Johnston who titles each chapter in “Following Breadcrumbs” with a line from a song lyric. From her preteen years, rock ’n’ roll music cocooned her and shaped the woman she would become. “Let me tell you what it was like to hold a brand new vinyl 45 record in your grubby little hands,” recounted Johnston in her book. “It was like holding a shiny black circular key to the universe, where a secret language was revealed only to you and no one else, especially not your parents. And hold them I did, each with utter reverence and a feeling that they were the salve for anything the world could throw at me.”
What makes “Following Breadcrumbs” a delightful read for any fan of rock ’n’ roll is Johnston’s three dimensional depictions of the iconic places and people that were part of her personal and professional journey.
Hers was a life defined by chance and critical connections. In “Breadcrumbs” you don’t just read about those times, places and people. You are there - in the VW vans, hotel rooms, recording studios and music venues. Whether it’s with George Martin, Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon or the Byrd’s Gene Clark, a love that continues to define Johnston, you accompany her as she stands on peaks and slumps in the valleys of her career and personal life.
For those who were there, the 60s and 70s were times defined by the music that was its beat, its soundtrack and its soul. Johnston knew the men, the women, the times and more than most, she lived the music.
She writes that her life was shaped by two seminal experiences – hearing the Beatles for the first time and meeting Gene Clark. Her book is more than a rock ’n’ roll memoir. It is a lovingly told and often heartbreaking story of perseverance and grit, spunk and vulnerability. And it is a paean to that seminal time of magical music that will never come again. “Time it was and what a time it was, it was a time of innocence, a time of confidences,” wrote Paul Simon in “Old Friends.”
If you were there you know what it was like. If you have always regretted not being there, take this opportunity to open that door.
In her intro, Johnston writes, “I don’t know what happened. This started out as a coming of age story and here it ends up practically a goddamn love story for the ages. I didn’t want to write this kind of stuff. There are so many writers who do it better.”
And it may be possible there are better writers, but in reading Johnston’s book one is stuck by her visceral honesty, her selfless and easy going style, her humor and her resilience. And interestingly for a memoir, that time, that unique cultural watershed is the central character in “Breadcrumbs,” not Johnston. Although her professional accomplishments are many – success in music, acting, voice over work and writing – there is little evidence of author ego in her memoir. It’s all about the music, the time, and the lessons learned.
Johnston lives in Pine Cove with Rick Clark, younger brother of Gene. And to understand how that remarkable union came about, you will have to read the book. Finding Rick is how Johnston concludes her book. It is a story of another serendipitous breadcrumb that with characteristic tenacity and devotion, she followed to find personal fulfillment.
The online reviews of “Following Breadcrumbs” are unanimous in praising how artfully Johnston tells her story and how brilliantly she captures that defining time in our country’s cultural history.
“I just could not put this book down,” said one reviewer. “It’s a tragic, Shakespearean, life-affirming gem and a must read for anyone interested in the rock ’n’ roll scene of the 60s. It goes much deeper than that however. In a Buddhist way, it reminds the reader of the fragility of life and the importance of cherishing our loved ones.”
Johnston’s book is on sale on Amazon and at Showtime Video and Music in Idyllwild.