I've Always Kept a Unicorn: The Biography of Sandy Denny by Mick Houghton
It's been a long time since I've read a book as sad as this. Not that Sandy Denny’s life was beset by tragedy from the outset or that the author, Mick Houghton, wallows in one long lamentation about her all too brief career; it's just that overall the whole thing brings into arresting focus the fragility and transience of life, and how we all have the potential to unravel mentally and physically despite the best efforts of those nearest to us. As with other members of that often eulogised club of popular musicians who died young, the temptation is to view Denny's life through the distorting filter of her final unhappy days — which would be a mistake, because there's a lot more to her story than that. Not only did she work with some of the most innovative and skilful musicians on the English and British folk scenes, but Denny herself became an outstanding talent, unmatched, as fellow Fairport Convention member Richard Thompson says in his foreword, for her “musical intelligence...command of the dramatic...[and]...unique and distinctive song writing.” As if that wasn't enough, there was also that unforgettably haunting voice.
Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny (‘Sandy,' the Scottish diminutive of Alexandra, was bestowed on her by her grandmother) was born in 1947 into a fairly comfortable middle class family in south west London. At an early age she learned to play the piano and violin, before taking up the guitar in her teens. By 1963 Denny was frequenting and beginning to perform in local folk clubs. A stint of nursing briefly financed her musical ambitions before she began to attend Kingston Art School in 1965, by which time she had started to rub shoulders with folk music and singer/songwriter luminaries like Bert Jansch, Anne Briggs and Paul Simon in such celebrated clubs as Les Cousins in Soho. Denny seems to have entered with gusto into the uninhibited social life which moving in these circles entailed. Instead of the pallid chanteuse whose elfin-like diffidence bewitched admirers, she was at this time, as one of Houghton’s sources rather unpleasantly puts it, “a dumpy girl, in the nicest possible way,” and her rambunctious persona and un-waiflike appearance seem, in her quieter moments, to have caused her acute anxiety. It was also in these early folk club days that she entered into a difficult and somewhat abusive relationship with the American musician Jackson C. Frank. As a child Frank had been badly injured in a fire, and this had left him painfully scarred, both physically and mentally. Frank's truculence and possessiveness seem to have caused him to be “a bit mean” to Denny. It was only when he returned to America in 1966 that she began to truly blossom as an artist. The next few years would see her reputation start to steadily grow, as she made guest appearances on a number of records and became a member of The Strawbs for one album.
Then, in 1968, Denny joined Fairport Convention, a group with which her entire career would become synonymous, replacing original lead singer Judy Dyble, Denny's tenure would see the group become one of the pioneers of the folk rock genre in Britain. Those early Fairport albums, such as What We Did On Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking and the seminal Liege and Lief were and remain a revelation, summoning up a unique sound-world which combines traditional musical idioms with an eclectic rock sensibility. Colouring it all and adding swathes of extraordinary character to the music is Sandy Denny's incredible voice, by turns sweetly melodic, eerily hushed or powerfully expressive in songs such as Fotheringay, A Sailor's Life, Tam Lin and her own, best-known composition Who Knows Where the Time Goes. Denny's stunning virtuosity on such tracks prompted one of her Fairport bandmates, Dave Swarbrick, to declare “She stood alone as a singer. I don't think there's anybody since who can hold a candle to her. She was a one-off.”
Given the impressive longevity of Fairport Convention (formed in 1967 and still going strong over fifty albums later), the time that Denny actually spent as a member of the group, over two separate periods, is comparatively brief. Her first stint lasted all of two years, but by the time she left in 1969, not only had the group recorded three of their greatest albums, but they had also undergone the trauma of seeing drummer Martin Lamble and their guitarist, Richard Thompson's girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn, killed when their van crashed on their way back from a gig in Birmingham. Denny wasn't in the van that night, having travelled back to London with her new partner Trevor Lucas. Born in Australia, by the mid-sixties Lucas had made his way in the British folk scene as a singer and guitarist, and was already known as a hard-drinking, sexually liberated bohemian when he met Denny. According to Pentangle guitarist John Renbourne, “When Sandy hooked up with Trevor that did seem like a great match...He wasn't contorted with intellectual problems about the meaning of folk music or anything like that. He was outgoing and Sandy was pretty much like that herself. They just hit it off; they were on the same wavelength.” According to Fairport producer Joe Boyd, the fatal crash served to bring Denny and Lucas closer together. “She had avoided being in the crash thanks to Trevor and because Trevor looked after her it created a dependency on him.” That dependency, which at times would be reminiscent of her stormy relationship with Jackson C Frank, would see Denny leave Fairport and team up with Lucas to launch a new band, Fotheringay. In the end, this venture lasted for only one album, but it featured such classics of Denny's repertoire as The Sea and Banks of the Nile.
With the release in 1971 of her first solo album The Northstar Grassman and the Raven, Denny again demonstrated the depth and quality of her vocal and writing talents on tracks including Late November, John the Gun, and the title track. Various side projects and appearances followed, including her mesmeric duet with Robert Plant on Led Zeppelin's The Battle of Evermore, before a further solo album, the Trevor Lucas-produced Sandy (arguably her best record), appeared in 1972. In 1973 another album, Like an Old Fashioned Waltz, was released, and it was also in this year that, in a rather curious turn of events, Lucas joined and duly embarked on a tour with Fairport Convention. This left Denny feeling insecure about their personal relationship in light of her partner's womanising reputation, and concerned about her own career, given the poor sales figures that her own records were notching up.
By 1975, and having by then married Lucas, Denny had re-joined Fairport Convention. The resulting album Rising for the Moon was recorded amidst the band's mounting financial difficulties and disagreements with producer Glyn Johns, which eventually saw drummer Dave Mattacks resign. The fanfare of publicity around the record’s launch, which included a prestigious concert at the Royal Albert Hall and a demanding American tour, highlighted the extent to which Denny, always a nervous performer who had often used alcohol to calm herself, was now noticeably and regularly drinking to excess. Not, sadly, that booze seems to have anaesthetised her concerns about her abilities or appearance, as bandmate Dave Pegg remembers: “Most evenings she would come off and say 'I was really crap tonight […] I'm too fat, I can't sing – everybody loves Joni Mitchell, or Linda Ronstadt or Kate McGarrigle, and my songs aren't as good as theirs.” To compound the problem, Lucas also habitually drank too much (although, apparently, he could “handle [it] better than Sandy”) and the two of them regularly helped themselves to an assortment of other drugs.
At the end of 1975 Denny once more left Fairport Convention. She and Lucas swapped the touring lifestyle for the rural ambience of the home they had set up together in the Northamptonshire village of Byfield. However, that didn't mean that they had also left the drink and drugs behind. Friends describe Denny as something of a lost soul during this period; insomniac, unstable and embroiled in an increasingly stormy relationship with Lucas. Somehow, despite all that, in 1976 she started work on what would be her final album, Rendezvous. Again produced by Lucas, the album has been criticised for being somewhat cumbersome and over-burdened with strings, but despite that, the track All Our Days is surely one of the most wondrous things that Denny ever did, with its majestic combination of Vaughan Williams-style orchestration and acutely evocative lyrics. If by now Denny's voice had begun to sound a little harsher and thicker than before due to her extramural excesses, it only served to make this seven-and-a-half minute meditation on the passing phases of the year all the more poignant.
Unfortunately, by the time Rendezvous appeared in 1977 it was, as Houghton says, “completely out of step with the current musical climate,” a far cry from that year’s other offerings from the likes of The Sex Pistols and The Clash. In addition there had been several delays in the album's release and a single taken from it, a cover of Candle in the Wind, failed, despite heavy promotion, to connect with the record-buying public. Later that year Denny was dropped from her record label. By then she had given birth to a daughter. There are several stories in the book about Denny’s heavy drinking at this time, none of which make for easy reading, but which do serve to show how calamitous and truly heart-rending an inability to cope with motherhood is on top of full-blown alcoholism. A friend’s description of her around this time as being “unreliable, violent, abusive [and] very loud” provides a glimpse of how hard it must have been for those closest to Denny to offer her support, and surely doesn't even begin to give an idea of the incommunicable battles that she fought within herself.
Throughout the early part of 1978 Denny seems to have had a number of drunken falls downstairs (allegedly, on at least one occasion, whilst holding her daughter), and these incidents seem to have been a crucial factor in Lucas’ decision to take the baby to Australia out of harm’s way. Subsequently he came in for much, perhaps unfair, censure about this, the imputation being that, by removing himself and Georgia from her life, he had effectively given Denny an excuse for rushing headlong towards the tragic final endgame. For renowned folk musician Martin Carthy, though, “It's not a question of apportioning blame. Sandy was out of control [and] when it came to a thing like that [Lucas] looked after his baby daughter...it was a very, very brave thing to do.” In any case, Denny ended up staying in the flat of a friend soon after Lucas and her daughter departed. Over the weekend of the 15th and 16th of April 1978, what had been a recurring headache again descended on her, and she made an appointment to consult a GP about it on the following Monday. However, on that Monday she was found unconscious in the flat by a musician friend and rushed to hospital. She never regained consciousness and died on the 21st of April, Lucas having flown back from Australia to be at her bedside. The cause of death was given as “Traumatic mid-brain haemorrhage. Accidental.” No significant levels of drugs or alcohol were found in her body.
Sandy Denny's tragedy was, according to one-time Fairport Convention drummer Bruce Gibson, “that she never really understood how well loved she was both by the punters and the band and the other musicians.” However, that lack of understanding about how much others loved her seems to have been fatally compounded by an inability to love, or at least be at peace with, herself. Not that, by and large, many of us can achieve lasting equilibrium; it's just that in Denny's case, as in that of so many others who struggle with addiction, her attempts to achieve a sense of self-worth, happiness or whatever other goal were undermined by a compulsive reliance on alcohol and other numbing, consolatory drugs. Lest all that sound too sanctimoniously sombre, it isn't by picking over the travails which engulfed Sandy Denny at the end of her life that we arrive at an understanding of why she is still celebrated, nearly forty years after her death. For that you need to go to her amazing, beautiful music.--Mark Jones