Music and grief: a love story with inanimate objects

Music and grief: a love story with inanimate objects

‘If you think it’s too vulgar I’ll take it back.’

Nine Christmas mornings ago, my husband Andy handed me a small rectangular box with black and white pictures of Elvis Presley printed all round its sides. Thin Elvis in the 1950s, in a wide shouldered box jacket, perfectly combed quiff, cheekbones high, thick lashes and moody eyes.

Inside this tasteful, classy box there was a charm bracelet. The charms hanging from it were a pair of shoes coloured blue by plastic stones, a TCB (Taking Care of Business) flash, a disc with Elvis’ face surrounded by more blue plastic of an identical shade, a watch face circled with the same, a musical note and clef, and minature guitar, one impossible to work out if electric or acoustic. The charms rattled – made more a clacking sound really – when I looped it around my wrist, each making themselves known with every step or breath.

It was only a couple of days later that realized the thing glowed in the dark. Yes, it was as vulgar as hell. And I bloody loved it. Still do.
Whenever I wear it, it makes me smile because of its tackiness. It remains my favourite item of jewelry. It’s just so very…Elvis. I wore it for Andy’s funeral last year, partly because I needed Elvis to help me through the day but to have something summing us up as a couple, a private joke between us, into an event which is a public affair.

I’ll never judge anyone who draws up a bucket list when getting the bad news we did upon his final prognosis. I don’t blame those welcoming family and wider community into making memories, giving it a good go, ticking dreams off big and small. But it’s not for everyone or just isn’t possible. For us it was a combination of both; ultimately, cancer is a total bitch. Our Saturdays before the horror started consisted of us enjoying the record and charity shops of Liverpool and surrounding areas, and congratulating ourselves on  our purchases over a quality lunch. We carried on doing that as long as we could. I treasure the memories of those excursions.

When Andy was pretty sick our evenings were spent watching sitcoms like Big Bang Theory – it’s short, colourful and daft and even someone with wits dulled by synthetic morphine can follow it – but soon enough, 22 minutes of Sheldon Cooper’s inability to understand the modern world became too much, and listening to music became our main fun.

Everyone likes stories, we get them from everywhere. Cheesy sitcoms, dark Scandi crime dramas, daft films, books, soaps, celeb magazines in the hairdressers, are all comfort blankets we pull on when reality or harshness chills us. Songs carry a different kind of narrative. Not just within the song itself although that is important, but in the stories we ourselves attach to them.

For us, we had lots of stories about how, when and where we bought records and CDs. In the last weeks of Andy’s life, Moby Grape’s debut album was on heavy rotation, we bought it from Liverpool’s DigVinyl on our penultimate Saturday trip to town together. I can taste the burger and wine we had afterwards. It was good burger and wine. Andy nicked an Edwyn Collins poster from the wall of The Shipping Forecast in Liverpool for me that day. I still have it, on my living room wall. Sorry not sorry, Shipping Forecast.

Andy was a massive Beatles freak from the womb and while he was ill, early Beatles warmed the air in our house more than ever. Those albums predate my arrival into his life by many years, but every time we heard McCartney’s (?) ‘s(h)end her back to me’ on ‘Misery’, we always loved the thought that the lads had a few scoops before recording. The more we noticed the slurred word, the more familiar and essential part of our enjoyment of the song it became.

TOY’s Happy In The Hollow album came out in January 2019 and Andy never failed to find their camp nod to Urge Overkill’s version of Neil Diamond’s ‘Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon’, in the song ‘Last Warmth of the Day’, delightful. It always generated a smile, even when he was very poorly indeed.

We listened to Creedence Clearwater Revival a lot, it’s good time tunes. One of the best moments of all Glastonbury Festival telly coverage ever was John Fogerty’s set in 2007. You know when you need to go to the loo pretty bad but something is so good you stay put and hold it? We sat and watched Fogerty rock through the CCR back catalogue with such energy and enthusiasm I swear he was doing it just for us so I could have that memory now and relive it.

Andy and I went to a gig in Manchester on my birthday in 2017 by the creator of a new but much beloved album. The support act was so annoying, dear reader. We thought they were never gonna finish. Andy got his initial diagnosis three weeks later and what with the following chemo, radiotherapy, operations, coping with the disease and an ever shifting prognosis we thought it’d be his last gig. Then luck stuck us in the form of an early evening finish show in Liverpool last spring, by yet another beloved fave, a long term one this time. We turned up early because when time is being stolen from you, you make the most of what you have. The annoying artist from 18 months earlier was only the bloody support weren’t they. Such a random thing to happen at what turned out to be Andy’s final live music experience. Was the universe trying to tell me something, that this support could be my comfort in difficult times ahead? No, absolutely fucking not.  But that’s the wonderful weirdness of music, and life.

I think as an active, hands-on music enthusiast or fan of any art form, remembering where and when you bought books, went to a book launch, saw a film or great piece of theatre, searched out records, CDs, tapes, posters is knitted in with the work itself. Keeping ticket stubs, taking photos at gigs, buying brochures, zines, button badges is a valuable part of that fandom and consumption, but important in other ways one doesn’t always feel too deeply at the time. The records I put on this week on the run up to the first anniversary of Andy’s death have been a comfort food selection, albums by everyone I’ve mentioned in this piece and more.

In front of the record player in the living room reside a stack of albums I play the most, the favourites, the dependable ones, others that challenge me, all the flavours.

Near the front is a copy of From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee from 1977. It’s Elvis’ final studio album, one with no live tracks to make up the shortfall, and released 15 months before Elvis himself died. Andy bought it for me from Skeleton Records in Birkenhead, for about three quid. On it, Elvis’ voice isn’t quite ‘there’. He sounds tired, but still trying to put all of himself into it anyway. On the back cover in an unusual and direct message to fans on the back is printed, ‘Dear Friends: Thank you for your loyalty’, with ‘My best wishes Elvis Presley’ written in shaky, scrawled handwriting. It feels an intensely personal message. The method is the message here – his handwriting alone says to me he’s vulnerable, and ill. I think of the album as his unofficial farewell to us all.

With Elvis, there has always a combination of joy and sadness with him and his work and an oddly personal quality, a warmth. It seems bonkers to have a private, personal connection with a word famous superstar 43 years dead, but there is no logic in music or the heart, is there? It seemed fitting – if a little competitive! – for Andy to die on Elvis’ own anniversary, 16th August, last year. I think it would make him laugh to think of all the days, it had to happen then. How the loves and tragedies of our lives are so essentially tied in with the art forms we love always amaze me.

Music has helped me in the past year more than I can say, but I’m sad that there are wonderful albums Andy will never get to hear.  New releases he wasn’t able to absorb in his final weeks. Ones that came out these 12 months I know for sure he’d have fallen in love with. Records pushed back due to COVID which I’d been looking forward to, to help me through my first year of grief.

It’s bad Andy will never feel that excitement of hearing something new, and swoon over it. Or continue his habit of meeting artists and cracking on he was the one who pushed us to get tickets. He can’t enjoy McCartney slurring ‘send’ again. But I will, and always smile on hearing it. And that Fogerty set, handily on YouTube. These are good things. They links us forever. And do you know what? I’ll carry on wearing the extremely tacky charm bracelet, because it reminds me of all this, and more.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.