JOHNNY LEOPARD:: GUITAR LEGEND
Pictures taken at the Anzac Eve gig at the Leopold Hotel in April 2005, by Suburbs fan Brian Ingleton
By DAVE WARNER
These days the word “legend” is tossed about like so much small change but Johnny Leopard, guitarist and master showman was a dead-set legend, a purveyor of countless unforgettable performances for those lucky enough to have caught him on stage, or like myself to have been there side by side within spitting distance. Dressed always in some leopard skin outfit, he prowled the boards in dynamic, constant motion, something like Pete Townsend and Angus Young but with facial contortions and expressions that outdid Boris Karlof or Buster Keaton. No offence to other guitar showmen but co mpared to Leopard they looked like they were on valium. His guitar sound was loud and dirty, a blues-based rock squeezed out of raw emotion. Johnny and I played on and off together in the Suburbs for 30 years, his guitar sound and stage presence an integral part of suburban rock, our attempt to create original popular and dynamic art out of mundane suburban Australian life.
When I first met Johnny he was ordinary John Ryan of wharfie dad Jack and mum Glad and had been doing an arts and drama course at what was then the West Australian Institute of Technology. He even sported a moustache. Returning from the UK in 1976, I was burning with an idea of forming a band that would do a lot more than just play songs on stage. In the best of all possible worlds I wanted a band that could play with the energy of The Stones and the wit of Frank Zappa while simultaneously delivering dialogue between songs to create a totally theatrical experience that still rocked harder and hotter than anybody else. My mate at the local Ampol servo (remember those?) suggested I try this guitarist who could act a bit and didn’t mind wearing a costume, in fact he wanted to form a band who all dressed like surfies in ug boots and check shirts.
The guitarist was Johnny and he was in. Off the top of my head, I christened him Johnny Leopard. Johnny’s mum was a pretty handy dressmaker and soon she had him decked out in an array of wonderful outfits. My personal favourite was the black tights with leopardskin lap-lap and vest but that was just one of many. Surprisingly the first few shows we played, Leopard was not especially animated but then one night at Alberts Tavern, an underground pit in Perth City, it all clicked for him. Johnny shrugged off any reservations and leapt from the stage onto a table laden with beer glasses, playing like a demon, even as glasses splayed in all directions. The excitement of the crowd fed Leopard, spurring him on to even more dynamic displays. The legend was born.
Both on and off-stage, John was probably the quickest wit I’ve ever encountered. He could come out with one-liners at will. For example, when one of our friends made a comment that “it isn’t over till the Fat lady sings” Johnny replied, “I think the fat lady is already in the dressing room tucking into pizza.” He was still pumping these out to the end. To Johnny’s immense irritation, at the third last gig we played at The Leopold Hotel, he had found himself stuck behind a column. This time when I picked him up for the Leopold gig I informed Johnny that there was a new stage in the venue he was pleased. “Good”, he quipped, “I didn’t want to be known as the new Cardinal Ratsinger…the man behind the pole.” Johnny was always original with a particular fondness for the comically absurd. It was his idea that the Mugs Game album cover should feature our parents dressed in the same stage clothes as us. When Tony Durant, the “other” guitarist of the 70s-style Suburbs flew out to join us from London he was concerned about how Johnny might react. After all, John had been playing for nearly a year as the band’s only guitarist. But he found John totally welcoming and the two became great mates. In fact they played together in the late 1980s in Ze Vooden Box.
After we stopped playing full time in The Suburbs in early 1980s Johnny and I turned our hands to writing live sketch comedy, TV and feature film ideas. We continued on and off as writing partners to the present day and currently have a couple of feature scripts under option. Through the 80s, with Damien O’Doherty, Cathy Jennings, Atilla Osadaly and others we put together various live comedy revues that primarily played pubs in Perth. We also did a send-up sports show, Ballzup, as a regular Friday evening spot on what was then 6UVS FM. Johnny was a brilliant comic actor. One minute he could be Karl Marx opening a chain of fast food German restaurants, the next, a 4-Wheel driving, Pinto-can-crushing, macho wanker. His amazing ability to ad-lib was probably best showcased when he starred in a number of Murder Weekends as the wittiest Hercule Poirot ever. Johnny’s role consisted of leading guests through a “murder mystery” staged in some sort of country house. Even after a heavy night of revelry, Hercule would be ready next morning to slice any impudence in two with his razor sharp tongue.
Around this time, long before it was trendy, Johnny also took up lawn bowls, showing a real ability on the greens. For somebody who had never been good at sport, this was something that Johnny found extremely satisfying. Just before he died he was MC for his most recent club, South Perth, at their annual awards night. During the late 80s and early 90s Johnny joined me in Sydney as we attempted to reinvent ourselves as scriptwriters. To make ends meet he did a variety of jobs including managing band pubs. He returned to Perth to care for his mum after his dad died. When his mum passed on and Johnny was once more able to enter the workforce he found that he had a skill teaching English as a second language. He would regale me with stories of the fun times he was sharing with his students and I’m sure he was an effective and affable mentor. Johnny had been really excited about getting himself overseas for the first time in his life and held off in part to play our last gig at The Leopold Hotel. We had decided to make this an annual event as the theme of Anzac Day seemed to encapsulate our music, and appropriately, Anzac Day was also Johnny’s birthday.
The last gig saw Johnny as brilliant as ever. He was very pleased that we had done a satisfying gig, one we could be proud of. The next day, Johnny, Tilly and myself met for a quiet birthday drink. We had a great laugh as Johnny recalled verbatim some of the comedy sketches we’d written 20 years ago. That was the last time I saw him. John died in his sleep leaving countless fans to mourn. All those who have played in the Suburbs and all his myriad other friends from his WAIT days, bowling clubs days, teaching and acting circles are shocked and saddened by his sudden death. Personally, I feel an immense sense of loss. Playing on stage with Johnny is the most fun I have ever had in my life. Writing with him and sharing his company was a great joy.
John never married and is survived by his son, Wes.
© DAVE WARNER 2005