Easter Reading: I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn – Biography of Sandy Denny
It’s 1971, and I’m sitting in my room in a student house in King’s Heath, a suburb of Birmingham. Not studying as usual. The gas fire is on – no central heating in those days. I have record deck, a decent amplifier and two big speakers. Somewhere on the floor are my LPs, my most precious possessions.
I have about a hundred. Some classical, the rest the usual mish-mash that a student might possess who’s at university for the experience rather than through a burning desire to follow a specific career: The Stones, the Beatles, Crosby Stills and Nash, Leonard Cohen, the Doors, the Incredible Spring Band, Jefferson Airplane, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Traffic and Blind Faith. Each grabbed me in different ways: lyrics, musicianship, emotional, political and social reach.
I have a few friends with me on the floor of my room. We didn’t do armchairs in those days, just carpets and mattresses. We often sit listening to the music in silence, incapable of conversation for reasons I’ll leave you to guess.
Those were the days. If we weren’t playing records, we might have been in the pub, at parties or at gigs in the student’s union. Mornings were not a good time. I lost count of the number of 9 o’clock lectures I missed. When I look back it seems that my whole life revolved around music – and of course the usually hopeless search for romance. Later I went on for a few years to promote concerts and manage groups. Some of my friends were already writing songs and playing in pubs or student events.
None of us hit the commercial heights for one reason or another, yet for me that period – the early Seventies – was one of the most glorious times of my life. Those who stayed with their music have produced work as memorable as that of the vinyl stars I listened to back then. Andrew Morton, for example, and the late Jim Cleary.
Some of the music that inspired us in 1971 I never revisited, or if I did I laughed out loud that I was ever so enraptured – the Incredible String Band, for example. Fey, self-indulgent, over-ornate. Baroque fury signifying nothing unless your perception was chemically distorted. Other artists I listen to still, even if the passage of time and a different perspective makes me smile at the naivety of the lyrics.
But there was one person – a singer – with whom I fell in love, and I’m in love with her still, even though she’s been dead for thirty-seven years. Did I really fall in love with the person? Of course not. I only knew her through her music, through what she projected in her songs and with her matchless singing. Sadness, longing, joy, love and revenge.
That person was Sandy Denny. I still get lost in her music today. And I still mourn her early death – one of the less celebrated music casualties of the last four decades, yet no less a tragedy than the demise Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison and other contemporaries who crashed and burned.
Mick Houghton, music journalist and PR, has written a biography of Sandy. It’s called I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn. In the introduction he talks about his love affair with her. So I was not alone in my devotion. I suspect there are thousands like me and Houghton. I hope they get to read his book.
For those who are not familiar with Sandy’s life and career, here’s a nutshell. Born and raised in Wimbledon, she started singing in folk clubs as an awkward teenager with a divine voice. She rubbed shoulders with the likes of Paul Simon, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Richard Thompson, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick. After an unhappy spell as an auxiliary nurse she went to Kingston Art College, which seems to have been a breeding ground for musicians – other eminent alumni included Renbourn and Eric Clapton.
After a brief spell with the Strawbs, Sandy joined Fairport Convention and recorded three memorable albums, What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking and Leige and Leif. Between the last two albums the band were shattered by the road accident that killed their drummer, Martin Lamble and left Ashley Hutchings, the bass player, seriously injured. Swarbrick, Britain’s foremost folk violinist, then joined Fairport. He, Sandy, new drummer Dave Mattacks and bassist Dave Pegg were part of a band that effectively to re-invented themselves after the crash. With Leige and Leif you could argue that they single-handedly created the folk rock genre. Bands like Traffic, Steeleye Span and even Led Zeppelin followed in their footsteps.
Sandy left Fairport in 1969 and formed a new band with Trevor Lucas, her Australian boyfriend. Fotheringay recorded a single album. Sandy then released three solo albums before returning briefly to Fairport, with whom she recorded two albums – one live and one studio. Subsequently her career went into decline as she became increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol. After her second stint with Fairport she recorded one more solo album and was then dropped by her record label. She died in 1978, aged 31, after a fall which appeared to have triggered her collapse into a coma a few days later.
Like Houghton, I lost her in her last few years, and only when she died did I realise what we had all lost. Her death had as least as much impact on me as John Lennon’s the following year. Lennon died young, but he fully explored his talent over more than twenty years of making music. Sandy’s life was full of what if’s. The commercial success many felt was her due eluded her. She was and remains a cult figure, unlike her American contemporary Joni Mitchell. What if, for example, she had settled in California, where she had a large following?
In I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn, Mick Houghton fills out the bare facts of her life with input from a host of people who knew and worked with her. Trevor Lucas, the love of her life whom she eventually married, is not around to tell his story. He died of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 45. But by piecing together contemporary accounts and more recent interviews, the author tells a tale that would be familiar to those who believe that extreme talent, or genius if you want to call it that, often comes at the price of a tortured personal life.
Many of Houghton’s sources describe a woman who was insecure but exuberant, lovable yet sometimes hateful, stubborn yet sometimes indecisive. She struggled against being labelled a folk singer, rightly pointing out that her work went way beyond her original folk roots. Her soaring vocal contribution to Led Zeppelin’s Battle of Evermore is evidence that she was no ordinary singer.
Sandy’s own songs are almost always contemplative, often sad and frequently autobiographical. Unlike Joni Mitchell, she rarely spoke directly of her life, preferring to rely on metaphor.
As a singer, she was beyond compare. Yes, that’s a highly subjective view, but one shared by many of her friends and fellow musicians. For me, only Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion come close to her for feeling, phrasing and vocal quality. What perhaps clinched my love affair with her was her Englishness – despite her Scottish roots – and in her songs the sense of innocence and melancholy that chimed with my age at the time. Yet unlike many of her contemporaries, much of her work feels as fresh and compelling today as it did in her lifetime. Surely a mark of greatness.
If you have have never encountered Sandy Denny, you could do worse than start with Banks of the Nile, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, It’ll Take a Long Time and Fotheringay. Also take a look at this BBC recording from 1971 on YouTube. It doesn’t feature my favourite songs but captures her intensity of performance and the purity of her voice.
If you’re among the many who loved Sandy when she was alive, or discovered her subsequently, Mick Houghton’s book is well worth a read, if for no other reason than that he puts her music into the context of her life – her often stormy relationship with Trevor Lucas; the producers, managers and record company bosses who supported her, messed with her and ultimately walked away; her fellow musicians who admired and loved her but often found working with her exasperating; the underlying meanings and messages in her songs; and the final weeks and months when she fell apart.
As with all artists who die young, there is always the lingering question of what she might have achieved under different circumstances. Ironically as it turned out, one of the songs she recorded was Elton John’s Candle in the Wind – more appropriate to her life than to those of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana, I’ve always thought.
If you believe in predestination, then the last word belongs to Linda Thompson, whose husband Richard worked with Sandy throughout most of her career. Houghton quotes her thus as she compares Sandy with Nick Drake, another revered singer/songwriter who died young:
“I don’t mean to romanticise, but I am a believer in fate or destiny. She had such an amazing life and such an amazing talent and she left some wonderful songs and that might have been all that was meant to be. And Richard did say something like that at the funeral – something to the effect that she was never meant to write anything more, which upset some people. But we were both like that at the time. I still feel like that.
Sandy wasn’t daft. Part of her went to the country to finish the job. It was the same with Nick Drake. I never feel with either of them that it was the biggest tragedy, “How could this have happened?” It was perfectly obvious to everybody and it was perfectly obvious to them. That’s their destiny. What Nick and Sandy left behind is amazing, and I don’t think he had much of a will to live at the end. I don’t think Sandy did either.”
Whether Sandy Denny’s end was premature or written in some book of destiny, she left us plenty to treasure, for which we should be thankful. And If I was given the choice of a long life or thirty-one years in which I would match her achievements, I sometimes wonder if I wouldn’t have opted for the latter.