We’re marking 23rd November ‘Lady D Day’ – in tribute to our friend and supporter Denise Johnson, who sadly passed away earlier this year.
Denise’s dear friend, the artist ‘Baba Youngblood’, explains how the pair met, what she meant to him, and how her impression on his art will continue to support the charity she was a advocate for.
NOTE: This blog contains some strong language.
– Words by David (Baba Youngblood).
My day job as a Mathematician isn’t remotely creative, but I’ve always been more interested in the arts, so much so that I spent nigh on a decade writing screenplays and drawing cartoon characters, before hiring an animator from the local college to make the stories into movies. Sadly, an operating system crashing meant that working files were damaged to the extent that it would take a huge effort to repair them, and this restoration work wasn’t anything I could even help with. It was the anxiety of worrying whether that project would happen, and all the resulting sleepless nights, that made me join Twitter. I just needed something to occupy my time and my frazzled mind, but at least I can blame the latter for my rather strange username.
I made her some art, a sleeve for an imaginary record “denise-adelica”
I remember when I saw Denise’s account that I thought it couldn’t be THE Denise Johnson, otherwise there’d be a blue tick next to her name. It was only when I got to know her that I would realise she’d have zero interest in such a status symbol: she was the most down to earth person you could ever wish to meet. Being a huge fan of her work I followed her and, to my surprise, she followed me back. What a thrill! Then one day I saw that she was upset (understandably) about not being credited properly on Primal Scream’s “The Original Memphis Recordings” release, so I decided to try and cheer her up. I made her some art, a sleeve for an imaginary record “denise-adelica”, to pay tribute to her and the vital role she played in making one of my favourite albums.
She was delighted with the portrait and was really touched by the sentiment behind it. From my perspective, through her music, she’d given me such enjoyment over the years and it felt amazing to give something back to her, albeit something small, but something that had succeeded in its goal: to make her happy. Her reaction and encouragement was what made me do more designs and the realisation that I could make art, and be in control of it, was an incredible relief to me.
When I learnt that the photo I’d based the drawing on had been taken to raise money for Mustard Tree I asked Denise if she’d like me to make the art available online for her fans to buy, with all proceeds going to the charity. However, shortly after I’d done that, the design was removed from the website after a complaint by Universal Music, on behalf of their client Primal Scream. I was sent an email to tell me this, and warned that if I tried to upload the art again I’d have my portfolio deleted. It was all highly confusing, because at the same time other sellers on the website were selling the actual Screamadelica logo, whereas this was original art that just used the same colour scheme and had a similar-sounding title. And it was very mean-spirited too, as all profits were going to a homeless charity and that had been mentioned in the description. If Denise hadn’t known the plan I wouldn’t have told her what had happened, because I knew she’d be upset, and boy was she livid, and rightly so…
Even though it was awful at the time, I like reading that tweet now, because it reminds me how fearless she was. I loved her courage. I loved everything about her. I made a new design to replace it, and called it “Lady D Sings the Blues, Reds & Yellows”. The nickname Lady D stuck and I think she liked to be called that. I know she loved the fact her fans could buy it on t-shirts, prints and mugs. But she did ask me if one day I could make the first design available, using a different approach to before. I feel so sad that I didn’t try to do that straight away. I thought we had all the time in the world.
We said we’d do anything to support one another and that felt lovely.
All these things had happened, and all my portraits new & old were hanging in her home, before we finally met after an ACR gig in my hometown. I’d never stayed behind after a gig to meet a musician before, but obviously this was different. A mutual friend pointed me out to her and she started dancing about, screaming “Oh my God! It’s Baba Youngblood!”, before giving me this huge hug. I remember thinking that she looked even more beautiful than in her photos. I also remember wishing I’d chosen a less weird Twitter name.
She messaged me the next day to tell me that by talking to me she’d seen into my soul. Meeting her had been a profound moment for me but I still don’t know how I made such an impression on her because I’m certainly not an extrovert. If someone achieved a tiny fraction of what she achieved they’d only be interested in talking about themselves but she just wanted me to tell her about how I used maths in my art and all the portraits I planned to do of her. She knew that I’d spent a long time waiting to release the cartoons and I knew how long she’d waited to release her album. We said we’d do anything to support one another and that felt lovely.
When Denise passed, my little world fell apart.
We were meant to meet up in Manchester earlier this year, at a planned charity event where she’d be singing and my Stone Roses art would be auctioned, but it was scrapped due to the pandemic. However we were looking forward to meeting up after the restrictions eased.
When Denise passed my little world fell apart. We’d only been speaking that weekend so when the news came through, as it did on social media, it was like some surreal nightmare that I was praying I’d wake up from for weeks after. Some of her friends I didn’t know previously reached out to me, to tell me how affectionately she’d talked about me, and that meant a lot. I haven’t listened to Denise’s album yet, although I’ve got it on CD and was kindly sent it on vinyl. It still just feels too soon.
Strangely enough, I visited my local pub twice afterwards and on the first visit “Movin’ On Up” was the first song that came on. On the second visit it was actually playing whilst I walked through the door. On both occasions I think I groaned, because I knew hearing her voice would start me off again, whilst at the same time I was desperately hoping she’d give me a sign. But my mind was so muddled I wouldn’t have realised if the barman had poured my Guinness such that Denise’s lovely face appeared instead of a shamrock. It’s only as I write these words that I realise that maybe the song playing, not once, but twice, was my sign. Maybe Denise was up there wearing her full Man City kit screaming: “Dave, you t**tclacker, listen to the words!”
Because the lyrics couldn’t be more relevant: before I met Denise I really was quite lost. I found her through pure chance and her total belief in me helped me to get out of the darkness. I suddenly felt I had no bounds creatively anymore and I could see the way forward.*
(*I’m not directly quoting the lyrics if any t**tclackers at Universal Music are reading this).
I had to keep my promise to her
I didn’t want to do art, or anything at all, after Denise went. However she’d asked me if I’d release something to coincide with her album, so I had to keep my promise to her. The keyboard of my laptop must be waterproof the amount of tears I cried onto it. If I hadn’t felt I had to do that one, maybe I’d never have done anything else. I think I’ll enjoy looking at my Denise portraits again one day, not least that last one, because its actually me sat on the bench with her – I just drew Ian Brown’s head over mine. Maybe I’ll think of that night we were meant to get together in Manchester or maybe I’ll remember her being more fascinated by my explanation of the Fibonacci Sequence than any of my students ever have been.
I don’t know what doing the art will ever amount to but I do know that no one will ever play a more significant part than Denise. To describe her, all I can say is that you couldn’t wish to meet a kinder, more compassionate soul. I miss her wit & her wisdom. I miss her terribly every day. She was a legend that didn’t realise she was a legend, and I think that’s the best kind. If our first life ends the last time our heart beats & our second life ends the last time our name is spoken, I know she’ll always be alive, because of the impact that she made.
Lady D Day
And for my part, I’ll eventually make the other portraits of her that I told her I’d do, and every 23rd November I’ll light a candle for her, and give a print away to one of her fans as part of Mustard Tree’s “Lady D Day”. I know I need to be happy that it happened, rather than sad it’s over – and I’ll certainly always be grateful for the wonderful time in my life when I was friends with Lady D.