Created on Feb. 14, 2014, 2:20 p.m.
My interest in Sandy Denny declined after I made an attempt to visit her grave. I must have been around seventeen at the time, and my interest in her was at its peak. She was a role model and figurehead to me. It was very easy for me to feel close to her. This was not just because of my teenage emotional state, but when someone well loved dies young people are more than willing to share their most intimate and personal stories. It is a natural way of making this person seem more alive again.
I needed to be no biographer to find out the details of Sandy Denny's life. For anyone with even mild interest there was more than enough information. Her songs alone gave a strong emotional hint toward her character. But it was those stories of intimate and shared moments which really brought her into my life. I recall one story very well, told by her producer at a tribute evening at the Troubadour in London. He had just signed her and they were both very young. Sgt. Peppers had just been released and while out drinking with friends late into the night him and Sandy had quietly snuck back to her parents house, hid in her closet, and listening to the new album all the way through.
Not only that, but unlike many other artists, Sandy Denny's life really was quite interesting, her character compelling, and her early death tragic.
I first heard Sandy Denny through my Dad's music collection. He had various old records, as well as a rare three CD compilation called "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?". Listening to those records I had an ever increasing sense of looking into the past. The pink noise and electric clicks on a record have a personal intimacy that can't be captured in other mediums. They take you away with minimal resistance.
The three CD compilation contained mainly live and/or stripped down versions of Sandy Denny's songs. When I later went over her official recordings I discovered completely new and flattened songs. Much like her more famous contemporary Nick Drake, there is an intense loneliness given off by the broken down recording. Having fewer elements allowed Sandy Denny to showcase her fantastic songwriting and incredible, unique singing voice. She sounds young, husky and rich - shy and uncertain. Her voice is the song of English femininity, spared none of its darkness. How sensual for teenage me to hear.
The more heavily produced songs too had a kind of loneliness in them, albeit in a different way. These tracks were most likely the work of her long time boyfriend, producer, and later husband Trevor Lucas. Listening to these, one has the impression that Sandy Denny doesn't really understand the set-up, the production but is willing, for whatever reason, to go along with Trevor.
When I went to visit Sandy Denny's grave it wasn't a planned trip. I had been out cycling with my Dad in West London - Richmond. Earlier that week I had seen a picture of her grave via Google images, or some other site. Cycling back through Wimbledon it had jumped into my head. I asked my Dad if he felt like a detour.
It hadn't seemed odd at the time. Not even to my Dad. He had been a fan of that folk scene, he'd seen her alive and enjoyed her music in its own time. We both understood that it certainly wasn't any kind of pilgrimage. It was little different from going to the John Lennon memorial in Central Park. A curiosity at most.
I enjoyed those trips with my Dad. It seems odd to call following a back wheel around the streets of London quality time, but my Dad's openness to visiting the grave shows what it actually meant. He understood and entertained my interest in Sandy Denny whilst withholding judgement. When I was riding in London it was a pure escapism. Riding those streets it is not dissimilar to being a ghost, an observer of the daily goings on of London. Not to mention these were the streets of Sandy and the folk revival. It really wasn't so far away at all.
Sandy Denny's major contribution to the folk scene would come when she became the singer for Fairport Convention, at that time the seminal folk rock act in the UK. With them she produced several albums including what would become known at their greatest album, Leige and Leaf. This album contained several progressive re-workings of traditional songs, something Fairport would become known for.
At that time, music and song-writing were still very much a man's game. A female singer such as Sandy Denny writing her own material was unheard of. Not only that, but she had played and sung the traditional songs for the boys at Fairport - those which had created their most famous album. Sandy may have been shy, but she was well read, and inspired. Those boys, still just teenagers from the 60s, didn't care about keeping traditional songs alive; they just wanted to get laid.
Heralding her departure from the group, in May 1969, the Fairport van had crashed on the M1, killing Martin Lamble, aged only nineteen, and Jeannie Franklyn. Sandy Denny escaped with non-fatal injuries and was driven home by Trevor Lucas. She later formed a group called Fotheringay but would eventually become a solo artist.
It may be hard to imagine, but Sandy Denny was the first female singer-songwriter to sign a record deal, leading the way for the likes of Kate Bush and many more. Now it seems odd that such a landmark has been forgotten.
Fairport Convention run a small folk music festival called Cropredy. When I went, I brought some close friends. It was a cold spring, and I was consistently uncomfortable as I explored the festival. I was much like the aging folkies surrounding me, daydreaming about a past that didn't quite happen.
I wasn't exactly a misfit. These were still my people, even if they were my parent's age. But who doesn't feel lonely at seventeen - confused and out of their depth. For me it would eventually pass. For the Sandy Denny biographer she seems fatally fixed into such a state.
Like any teenager she was perpetually concerned about her weight and her appearance. Something serious must have also been bubbling on down below. She was a heavy drinker. Not that it was much of a surprise. Among her drinking buddies were the boys from Led Zeppelin, which is no doubt how she became their only ever guest vocalist on "The Battle of Evermore". As her abuse worsened over time it was clear she was an addict.
At the festival shop I bought an over-fitting T-shirt for Croperdy from the previous year. It was a whole lot cheaper and the last year's line-up was better anyway. I watched the headliners and quite a few other bands, with whoever would come to the stage with me. I had some vodka in the cold at the back of the crowd. But really, as my friend in the tent lost his virginity and smoked his first spliff, I started to wonder what I was doing.
In 1977 Sandy released her final album Rendezvous. It was grand, poppy and her most heavily produced. This was her final attempt at the stardom and recognition she longed for. This love for fame has always puzzled me. Sad is the thought that Sandy might have felt fame was the only cure for her acute isolation.
I have listened to several interviews of her and one story stays with me. It was an item of fan mail from a girl in New York. The girl talks of suffering on hard drugs and how Sandy Denny's music brought her back on track. To think a bohemian in New York is so inspired by the trim, proper, (and sort of naff) English folk speaks of the universal appeal of the music and potential fame.
Ironically Rendezvous features a cover of Candle in the Wind, the greatest selling single of all time. It was not a huge hit and certainly didn't project Sandy into the throes of fame. She retreated to an awkward domestic life with Trevor Lucas, now pregnant with a daughter.
Sandy Denny died on 21 April 1978. She fell down a staircase at her parents home and hit her head on the concrete. Afterwards Denny suffered from intense headaches; a doctor prescribed her the painkiller Distalgesic, a drug known to have fatal side effects when mixed with alcohol.
She died no hero. Her substance abuse had worsened and during her pregnancy she had drunk and taken cocaine. Her baby was premature and she had little concern for it.
Sandy Denny fell the other side of the knife edge. It is always curious to hear what that sounds like. More than that - it is fascinating and enticing to a teenager finally engaging with depression and loneliness.
Her story has no moral and leaves many questions. The largest question in my mind was of Denny's strength. How could such a fantastic artist be a seemingly weak character. Compared to what I had done, she had achieved so much. Why did she fall, and under what circumstances would I fall.
I considered she was the one with guts. Guts to express how she was feeling. To write music about sadness, joy and pain. To tell someone, in song or otherwise, that she was sad.
When me and my Dad arrived at Merton cemetery I realised just how huge it is. All I'd seen was a picture of her grave, not where it was. We would've had to turn back right then but I remembered that behind the grave is an old oak tree. Although huge, the cemetery is fairly sparse of trees, so perhaps we still had a chance at finding it.
We dismounted and begun wandering down the long path running across the huge cemetery.
Immediately I felt uneasy. There is something off-putting about large areas of green in the city not dedicated to recreation. It felt like trespassing on private property. I felt like I had no business being there.
About a hundred meters down the path we walked past a working class man standing by his car drinking from a can of lager. He wasn't drunk, and appeared pretty lucid and friendly. He turned toward us and started making small talk. He was there to visit his son's grave, and he was immediately sympathetic toward our father and son image, all dressed up in cycling gear. He had most likely (and fairly) assumed we were on a trip to visit a dead parents grave. It was embarrassing to reveal the truth.
Partially (and regrettably) it was a class thing. Was there anything more privileged than visiting the grave of a folk rocker from the 60s, on a day out cycling with your dad. It was also very grounding. At that moment, looking into the sad, tipsy eyes of that other man, I had never felt so lucky to be in my position. All melancholia, nostalgia, teenage angst and longing for sorrow left me right then.
We didn't head much further down the path before turning back and heading home. The man waved to us as we walked back. Ultimately all closeness I had felt to Sandy Denny had gone. I no longer had juvenile dreams of saving her from the misunderstanding Trevor Lucas, or of giving her the positive reinforcement on her looks and weight that she needed. She was really dead. And I felt closer to the leaves on the trees bordering the cemetery gates. I looked forward to getting out and back to cycling with my Dad. I had one thing on my mind. I wanted to live my life.