Speaking for Andy
I am lucky. Marriage, for me, was not restrictive, but a liberation. I could direct my energies outwards, focus on projects and passions, secure in the knowledge that Andy and I had each other's backs—and hearts. He was the beating centre to my life, but never did I require of him that he give my existence meaning or purpose. Outside of our social circles, I rarely spoke of him. As a woman often working in hostile environments, it seemed wisest to keep my private life exactly that. That I was a journalist associating with other journalists reinforced this instinct, especially after people close to us found themselves engulfed in tabloid storms.
Widowhood is a strange state that has forced me into unfamiliar behaviours. For almost two years, Andy has preoccupied me in ways he would never have wished. I gladly spend days and nights with his ghost, as I explain here. What is uncomfortable, and frequently distressing, is the imperative to represent him. This takes several forms.
He was a public figure. His death made headlines. Before I left the hospital, some of those same journalists I'd worked alongside for years contacted me for quotes; so too others of my profession. Scarcely had this first wave of interest begun to recede when it became apparent that Andy had likely been one of the earliest victims of Covid in the UK. I felt the need to speak out, to assert the humanity of each and every one of the Covid dead in the wash of numbing statistics and to warn of the public health implications and revised timeline for the arrival of the virus in the UK.
You might say I had a choice. I could have stayed silent. It didn't feel like that to me. More complicated was the decision to start this blog and later to write a memoir. The blog and some of my interactions on social media originally fulfilled a counterintuitive function: they were intended to ward off intrusive questions, whether well-meaning or prurient, by providing information before it was asked. Later, as I realised how loss and grief is compounded by cultural taboos, I began deliberately to break those taboos.
And always there was another reason why I had to speak about and for Andy. He was a brilliant, ground-breaking musician, with work unfinished, and a catalogue, archive and history to be explored. Since his death, I have put out singles, an EP and the double album that he cared about so much that he struggled, in his intensive care bed, to complete it: The Problem of Leisure, subtitled by me, A Celebration of Andy Gill and Gang of Four.
I have become the thing I never wanted to be: a keeper of the flame. It is for this reason that I decided to include, in the forthcoming paperback of the memoir, a chapter that addresses unresolved issues in his life that, on his death and against my will, became mine. The Observer newspaper reported on this story last Sunday, and the following letter to subscribers to a mailing list for anyone interested in news from Andy's estate explains a little more of the background:
Dear all, In my last email, I revealed a piece of music history about Andy’s work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers that I discovered when sorting through his papers. Today I write about something closer to home and painful. Some of you may have seen this piece, published 16 January, in which I talk, for the first time, about Andy’s rift with Jon King, his one time best friend, and with the other founding members of Gang of Four, Hugo Burnham and Dave Allen. The article describes some reasons for this rift, and a little of its impact, but the story is far sadder and its effects deeper and wider than a single piece could encompass. Just one example: Andy insisted on secrecy when he was hospitalised, because he feared them finding out. This had a knock-on effect of preventing others from saying their goodbyes too. These events, the tangled background and the difficult experience of finding myself, as a new widow, embroiled in this fight are the subject of one of the new chapters I’ve written for the paperback of my memoir, Good Grief: Embracing Life at a Time of Death. The new edition will be published on February 3rd, two days after the second anniversary of Andy’s death. Here is a video of me reading the beginning of the new chapter.
I didn’t include any of this narrative in the hardback version, written in the months immediately after Andy died, because the legal negotiations were still playing out, and anyway my focus was on finalising and launching the covers album Andy had come so agonisingly close to finishing: The Problem of Leisure - a celebration of Andy Gill and Gang of Four. Whilst I and a small team were working on that album, Jon, Hugo and Dave were finalising a box set of early Gang of Four recordings. They were able to do this after exercising, in August 2019, a provision of US copyright law to remove North American rights to the early Gang of Four output from its original home, Warner Bros. Under the US law, a simple majority suffices for such decisions. Andy was against the move and, on learning that Jon, Hugo and Dave were proceeding unilaterally, his distress clouded what turned out to be his final months. I was and remain, nevertheless, pleased to see those recordings reach new audiences, just as I welcomed news of a forthcoming reconstituted Gang of Four tour, featuring Jon, Hugo and, on bass, the excellent Sara Lee. I never wanted to be involved in this dispute, had urged its amicable resolution while Andy was alive and still wish to raise a glass to my beloved with Jon, Hugo and Dave. I tell the story in the book in part because it is, as I said, music history. The book distributed as part of the box set could easily be understood as the band’s incontestable—and uncontested—history. When first I saw it, all I could think was how upset Andy would be. The first page was signed by “Gang of Four” while a note at the back read “Andy, our friend and one of the world’s most brilliant guitarists, tragically died while we were putting the box set together’. Readers could infer, wrongly, that Andy was involved in and approved the box set. This wouldn’t have mattered quite so much were it not for the first eleven words of the book: “Gang of Four did its best work between 1977 and 1981.” If outrage could raise the dead, Andy would walk among us. He was hugely proud of the entire output of Gang of Four, and was writing and recording almost to the last. In 2020, in his hospital bed, he was still working on new tracks as well as the covers album. Now that he cannot speak for himself, it is left to me to do so. There’s a wider point, and it’s one I make in the book as follows: “Loss, instead of uniting the bereaved in grief, has a terrible habit of deepening divisions. In the past week alone, I’ve heard from several friends who are dealing with family deaths and now find themselves locked in battle with siblings, even children. Money appears to be the root of these disputes, but the inheritances are small and could quickly dissipate in legal fees. Often something more nebulous drives the impulse to brawl over coffins. Relationships are dialogues. When someone dies, the dialogue breaks off mid-sentence. If that person has gone to bed on an argument, the survivors are left hanging.” In continuing to write and speak about loss and grief, I aim to help others confronting these things or supporting others to do so. All the best, Catherine Mayer
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Words and photos ©Catherine Mayer 2022