Until maybe two months ago, I could only tell you so much about Edwyn Collins. He did “A Girl Like You,” and was in Orange Juice, who were on Postcard Records, which were something Scottish and exclusive and indie, oh, and they did… “Rip It Up,” was it? Oh, and I knew he’d been ill. Really ill, but I wasn’t sure with what.
Three things then happened in a very short space of time. I acquired a second-hand copy of the compilation “A Casual Introduction”, and I heard Edwyn and his band perform on the last night of Radcliffe and Maconie’s Jurassic Coast walk. A few weeks and several plays of the compilation later, I listened to Saturday Live on Radio 4, which had a charming and genial interview with both Edwyn and his wife Grace. I was, in a word, hooked.
Fill in the blanks in Edwyn’s back story. A suave, smart performer; dedicated to his music and to its woefully neglected cleverness; marrying Grace while she was his manager; bristling against the industry and big labels; then being catapulted to international fame unintentionally by the self-recorded “A Girl Like You” and still doing reasonably well for himself; when suddenly, in February 2005, a double haemorrhage left him unable to talk, walk, co-ordinate or even—as he himself has said since—think. Five years of recovery, utterly against the odds. And now, after all that, back with a remarkable album, “Losing Sleep”; collaborating with The Drums, Johnny Marr, Roddy Frame and Alex Kapranos; and touring. Touring, after a double stroke.
When K. and I had a long weekend of holiday booked, the plan had been to do largely nothing at all. So it was a slight wrench that I realised that on the Friday night Edwyn and his band were booked to play at the venue formerly known as the Zodiac in Oxford. We tossed coins. We ummed and ahhed. K. it was who finally affirmed that, in spite of the attractive cosiness of our existing plans—we’ve reached that age—we clearly really both wanted to go. We booked tickets, and were gone.
The man himself made an unexpected entrance to the strains of what I think was a Grandmaster Flash song played by the rest of his band, who included Paul Cook and Boz Boorer. He gingerly shuffled across the stage, clearly frail, but clearly purposeful, and sat down for the rest of the gig. It’s difficult to say objectively how good the evening was: my feeling was that it was brilliant; the band was incredibly tight; although Edwyn’s patter was clearly subdued between songs, his rendition of them was really powerful and affecting. But how much was I actually affected by the simple spectacle of Edwyn, back and singing to us; a living legend that we nearly, terribly, heartbreakingly lost?
More than that, how much does that matter? If your critical faculties do accidentally make allowances for a man who’s had a double stroke and got back up onto a stage to perform, then is that any fall from some precious ideal of journalistic integrity? Does Edwyn not deserve at least a little bit of leeway, or at any rate affection from the crowd, some cheering on and—if he doesn’t mind too much—a little bit of marvelling at his presence. And what presence! His gorgeous, syrupy speaking voice; his attentive, genial character; his hilarious, hooting laugh: they’re all a real treat.
In the “Watchmen” graphic novel there’s a character who, after his apparent physical death in a laboratory accident, somehow still exists enough to pull the components of himself back together as a blue, super-powered superhero. It’s impressive, but the SF element to it means that, outside the context of the novel, it ultimately feels slightly preposterous. Well, Edwyn Collins has achieved all that, but in real life. With the help of his wife, his son and others along the way he’s painstakingly put himself back together: not only has he taught himself all over again to think, speak, walk, sing, write, record, produce and tour with a band… he’s even acquired new skills along the way.
One example will suffice to illustrate. After coming to terms with the near paralysis of his right hand (and keep an eye on that hand over the next few years, folks) he trained himself to first write entirely with his left; and then eventually draw with it. The result of this was the cover art you can see on the new album. He was on Marc Riley’s 6Music show just now, both playing a few songs and also talking about his recovery (listen to the first hour of it on iPlayer, before it evaporates; but be aware the vocals are far better on the album.) Along the way he said something like: “First I drew… it was a circle, just a crude circle. But then eventually… I drew… a widgeon duck. You know?” K, who was listening along, mentioned in passing that “if I drew a bird now, you’d have trouble working out it was a bird, let alone what type of bird it was.” I know what she means.
One of our more ghoulish arguments for buying tickets was that we didn’t know how well or ill Edwyn Collins was; we had to, if you excuse the logic, see him while we had the chance. And once you’ve thought that, you can’t then tempt fate by publicly disowning it. So all I can really do in recompense is say that, in a single night last week we were treated to a vitality and a vibrancy in a man and his band that filled the room more than most musical acts could muster in a month. If there’s still tickets at a venue near you, go and see him, for no other reason than he’s a great musician, and he’s back.