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Sandy Denny from The Guardian

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  • Stevo
    You had to hold on to the furniture when Sandy sang Live fast, die young ... John Harris pays tribute to the one-woman maelstrom that was Sandy Denny Friday
    Message 1 of 2 , May 6, 2005
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      'You had to hold on to the furniture when Sandy sang'

      Live fast, die young ... John Harris pays tribute to the one-woman
      maelstrom that was Sandy Denny

      Friday May 6, 2005
      The Guardian

      Kurt Cobain's mother called it "that stupid club": the enclosure,
      presumably located somewhere in the here-after, in which Jim Morrison
      clinks glasses with Brian Jones, Gram Parsons tries to avoid Sid
      Vicious, and all those stars who suffered an early death toast the
      revenue from posthumous record sales.

      But where are the women? Given the inescapable fact that most
      successful musicians are men, the gender imbalance - give or take the
      likes of Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin and Mama Cass - seems pretty
      much inevitable. There may be another factor at work, however: the
      fact that the romantic stereotype of the burned-out young star is
      necessarily male. Critics use words like "Dionysian"; further down
      the musical food chain, it's often a simple matter of callow young
      men surveying the wreckage and deriving the usual vicarious thrills.
      Either way, women need not apply.

      The life, death and reputation of Sandy Denny are a perfect case in
      point. Equipped with an incredible voice and an immense songwriting
      talent, she was none the less plagued by the chronic insecurities
      that led her into excess. Her drinking partners included the late
      Keith Moon and John Bonham; the folk-tinged milieu from which she
      came also included Nick Drake. She died aged 31, in 1978 - but
      whereas lesser talents have been posthumously feted, she remains a
      decidedly cult interest.
      For some, that's a sign of her singular talent. "The thing that
      always amazed me about Sandy," says her friend and contemporary Linda
      Thompson, "was that she thought she actually could appeal to the
      masses. Of course she couldn't - and who would want to? If you're
      writing songs that people can shoot themselves to, you know you're
      not going to be in the charts. Sandy's music was uncomfortable. It
      demanded too much."

      Alexandra Denny was born in 1947, and raised in Wimbledon. Her early
      adulthood found her working as a nurse and then putting in time at
      art school, while immersing herself in a nocturnal world centred
      around the kind of London clubs - the Troubadour in Earl's Court,
      Cousins in Soho - where candles burned into the small hours, and
      aspiring musicians split their attentions between self-written songs
      and traditional folk music. Her vocal abilities took in both a
      seductive gentleness and strident power; away from the stage,
      according to one of her acquaintances, "she was incredibly funny,
      with a very quick mind ... a chaotic intelligence just poured out".

      In the spring of 1968, Denny auditioned for the job of vocalist with
      Fairport Convention, then fond of cover versions by Bob Dylan and
      Joni Mitchell, and attempting to somehow align themselves with the
      music drifting into the UK from the American west coast. "It was in a
      room attached to a pub in west London," recalls Ashley Hutchings, the
      band's then bass player. "We thought we were auditioning her, and she
      took over. She told us what she would like us to play for her. But
      she had the strong presence that we needed on stage. She had a
      wonderful voice. And we immediately liked her."

      Denny stayed with the group for three albums. She was instrumental in
      nudging them towards the melding of old and new elements that would
      mark their effective invention of British folk rock. Equally
      importantly, her time with the band saw her take her first decisive
      steps as a songwriter. What We Did On Our Holidays from 1969
      contained Fotheringay, a evocation of Mary, Queen of Scots that now
      sounds rather gauche, but served notice of both her talent and
      ambition; the same year's Unhalfbricking featured Who Knows Where the
      Time Goes, so brimming with poise and insight that it hardly sounded
      like something authored by a 22-year-old.

      Linda Thompson (née Peters), was a close friend of Denny, another
      fantastically talented singer, and an associate of the group who
      would soon marry their guitarist, Richard Thompson. "I can remember
      Sandy saying to me, 'I'm going to try to write some songs,'" she
      says. "And I thought to myself, 'That's ridiculous. She won't be able
      to do that.' We were young, and there weren't many women writing
      songs. And she played Who Knows Where the Time Goes, and I nearly
      fell off my chair.'

      Accounts of her life suggest that Denny was well aware of how good
      she was, though her confidence and ambition could never offset her
      seemingly innate insecurity. "I don't think she was ever truly
      comfortable," says Ashley Hutchings. "She was a restless soul. And
      very nervous: nervous about performing, nervous about travelling -
      particularly flying. I think she probably needed the props of drink
      and drugs. And she needed people around her, who she trusted and
      loved, to keep her going; to tell her how good she was. The question,
      of course, is how could you be that insecure when you have so much
      talent? But she was."

      Denny's fragile self-esteem was rattled by a particularly cruel part
      of the 1960s pop whirl. One early Melody Maker profile of the band
      blithely described Denny as "plump"; according to those who knew her,
      the fact that she didn't quite match up with a skinny, mini-skirted
      archetype caused her no end of unease.

      "She had this amazing talent, this incredible voice - but she always
      wanted to be pretty and fanciable," says Linda Thompson. "And she
      was! But she never thought she was, because she wasn't conventionally
      pretty. And these were the 60s, when no one ate anything and they
      were all stick thin. She'd go on these daft diets - we were all on
      slimming pills, and God knows what - and she'd get thinner, but she'd
      put it on again. And she never quite got over that. It was so
      ridiculous: we were all slaves to it, but it was a real burden for
      her.

      "But some of the things people said were unbelievable. They'd say
      things like, 'her sweet, chubby face'. I think that was very hard
      indeed. But also, she could always leave the room with the most
      interesting guy around - if he had a brain. Because not only was she
      attractive, she was so smart and so talented. I think she had decided
      long before that she was more witty and talented than any of these
      dolly birds. And that's how she wowed men. She had a thing with Frank
      Zappa, whenever he was in London. She went out with some pretty
      remarkable people."

      Denny left Fairport Convention in late 1969. Her exit, in later
      accounts, seems to have been prompted by two factors: her unease with
      the band's increasing tilt towards folky orthodoxy, and the fact that
      touring led to long spells away from her future husband. Trevor Lucas
      was an Australian-born folk musician (variously described as "another
      alpha male in her life" and "a real ladies' man") who quickly joined
      her in the short-lived band they named Fotheringay. In contravention
      of the rigid sexual politics of the time, he was happy enough to
      allow Denny the starring role.

      By 1971, with Lucas's encouragement, she had reluctantly gone solo,
      commencing a run of four albums: that year's The North Star Grassman
      and the Ravens, Sandy (1972), Like an Old Fashioned Waltz (1974) and
      Rendezvous (1977). The first and second, home to songs as
      accomplished as Late November, John the Gun and the wondrous It'll
      Take a Long, Long Time, frequently crystallised her talent to
      marvellous effect; thanks partly to her background in traditional
      music, she could make her songs sound as if they were rooted in a
      wisdom that was palpably timeless. From thereon in, though she could
      still scrape incredible heights, she was rather hampered by soupy
      arrangements (she was particularly partial to the string sections she
      described as her "fur coat"), and, on her last album, the fact that
      her voice was showing the strain that came from her fondness for
      drink and drugs.

      Commercial success consistently eluded her, though a fleeting place
      in the mass market was assured by her appearance on Led Zeppelin IV,
      on which she was invited by Led Zeppelin to duet with Robert Plant on
      The Battle of Evermore. "She used to hang out with Led Zeppelin,"
      recalls Linda Thompson. "Robert and Jimmy [Page], and John Bonham and
      Keith Moon - they all knew how fantastic she was. Robert Plant was
      the loudest singer on the planet at the time, and Sandy could blow
      him off the stage. You'd have to hold on to the furniture when Sandy
      was singing. So these guys knew what a star she was. And like a lot
      of girls who are unhappy about the way they look, she became one of
      the boys. You had to go some to drink with John Bonham. You couldn't
      keep up with those guys. But Sandy could."

      Inevitably, this was not all the stuff of rock'n'roll high jinks. Her
      propensity for excess eventually turned pathological; worse still,
      her appetites extended way beyond what was available in the off
      licence. In 1977, she became pregnant; it was then that her closest
      friends began to feel truly anxious. "I was worried when she was
      pregnant, because I knew she was doing drugs and drinking," says
      Linda Thompson. "And later on, she was crashing the car and leaving
      the baby in the pub and all sorts of stuff. And that was worrying.
      I've said it before about Nick Drake: these days, we might have done
      an intervention or something. But back then, you thought people would
      grow out of it.

      "When I went to see her in the hospital after she'd had the baby, I
      was terribly worried. The baby was premature. She'd abused herself
      during pregnancy - and she said, 'They're giving me such a hard time,
      telling me off. What about me?' And I thought, 'God, that's so
      peculiar.' When you've just had a baby, you don't think about
      yourself at all. By that time, I thought it was a little bit
      psychotic."

      In March 1978, Denny and her newborn daughter Georgia took a holiday
      with her parents in Cornish cottage. She fell down a flight of
      stairs, and subsequently complained of severe headaches, for which
      she was prescribed a painkiller called Distalgesic. If mixed with
      alcohol they can be fatal. A month later, she was dead, thanks to
      what the coroner later called a "traumatic mid-brain haemorrhage". It
      is one of the more tragic aspects of her death that when she fell
      into a terminal coma, her husband and baby were elsewhere; fearing
      for his daughter's safety, Trevor Lucas had travelled with Georgia to
      his native Australia. As with so many musicians' stories, the tale is
      more a matter of grinding dysfunction than of any hedonistic romance.

      This month sees the re-release of Denny's four solo albums, augmented
      with an array of bonus tracks, and contextualised via sleeve notes
      that make the case for her promotion to the part of musical history
      reserved for accredited pioneers. "She's been namechecked by some
      high-profile people," considers Ashley Hutchings. "But she needs to
      be re-evaluated. She wrote a kind of song that's very rarely written
      now - emotional, musically interesting, sung really well - serious
      songwriting. She was head and shoulders above the rest. And she
      remains so."

      · The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, Sandy, Like an Old
      Fashioned Waltz and Rendezvous are out now on Island/Universal.
      Burning Bright, Ashley Hutchings' box set, is out on Free Reed Music.
      Linda Thompson appears with Martha Wainwright in Strange How Potent
      at the Lyric Hammersmith (box office: 08700 500 511), London W6, on
      May 12, 13 and 14.
    • Barry Mazor
      I m not sure that getting Sandy into the club of Poele Famous for Being Dead will hlpa reputation that s prtety large among hose here for the music--but the
      Message 2 of 2 , May 6, 2005
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        I'm not sure that getting Sandy into the club of Poele Famous for Being Dead will
        hlpa reputation that's prtety large among hose here for the music--but the piece
        might have mentioned that she was lead singer for the Straubs before
        Fairport--and in fcta was writiting very good songs while there, one of which,
        ifrst recorded with THAT band, was "Who Knows Where the Time Goes".

        The situation was rather like Grace Slick joining Jefferson Airlpane after leading
        the less notable The Great Society; the analogy as obvious at the time and often
        made. She brought the big song with her when she showed up. )The Strawbs,
        unlike Grace's band, had things to do on their own after that, of course)

        Barry
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