Sandy Denny

Sandy Denny

In recent years, there have been several accounts of the life and work of Sandy Denny, singer and songwriter of the Fairport Convention. Of these, Clinton Heylin's biography may be definitive. Others vary in their accuracy. It has been recorded that Jon Cole of The Movies played a minor role in the last hours of Sandy Denny, and that at least is true.

What follows is a statement by Jon Cole about those last hours, which he records here in the hope that he may be spared re-telling the story. It is painful, even at a distance of 20-odd years, to recall the loss of someone you admire.

Sandy was unique. From where she came, she could have gone somewhere else. She chose to make something special of her life, which was all too short, but whose record lives on.


This was a fatal accident, but no great drama. Those who cannot accept that an extraordinary life should meet an ordinary end might wish it otherwise. But this was not a case of excess: no wild parties, no drugs; no-one drove into the swimming pool and no-one shot the sheriff. This was not what some might conceive as typical of fatalities in the music business of the period. Even now I cannot think that Sandy would be typical of anything. There is one minor mystery, but that can be put down to a lapse of memory.

It was unexpected. On the Friday before Sandy died, we were talking about new sounds. She liked the idea of slide guitar and accordion. She was looking ahead.

Sandy was Miranda's pal from way back. Miranda Ward lived in Castelnau, around the corner from me in Barnes, south-west London; and her knowledge of the music business was and is legendary. Being near-neighbours, we struck up a mutual assistance pact, one of whose results was the minor role I played in those last hours.

Sandy was staying with Miranda, in the guest flat at the top of the house. There had been domestic difficulties and she was having a break. Because of her demanding day-job, Miranda was concerned that she could not act the proper host, so she had given me a key so that I could call by as and when to check that Sandy was OK and whether she needed anything, like the paper, like how to feed the cat.

It was a day in April 1978, vaguely sunny but with a threat of clouds. I came out out of my flat in Church Road, got in the car and headed for Hammersmith. I might have been going to a studio; I might have been going to the shops; I don't remember now. At this distance it is hard to get the details right. This is only what I remember.

I passed Olympic Studios, turned left between the Red Lion and MacArthur's, and headed up Castelnau towards Hammersmith bridge. It must have been about school-leaving time; there were school-kids on the pavement: either that or they were bunking off.

Just before Miranda's house (where her parents occupied the ground floor, and she took the first floor and the top) there was a pedestrian crossing and beyond that on the left a bus stop. I slowed down. There were kids on the crossing; I came more or less to a halt.

And then I heard the word 'Help'. It was quite clear but quiet. Perhaps it was the kids, perhaps from the bus stop. I was thinking of other things. The word reminded me that there was something I said I'd do, and I turned off left under the tree onto the short arc of a drive in front of Miranda's house. I got the key out, and opened the door. It was a solid old thing and needed a push. Inside, I went up the narrow stairs to the right, and I heard another sound, a cat I thought.

And on the landing I saw Sandy. She was lying on her back but slightly on her right-hand side, her head to my left, her feet by the bottom step of the steep dog-leg stairs that went up to the guest flat, in front of the loo door, which was closed. Light fell on her from the open door of the sitting room and from the tall window over the stairs.

She was alive. I'm no first-aider but I knew I had a job to do. No sign of a fight; no burglar came at me with a lead pipe. I stood there for a few queasy seconds listening very hard. She looked like she was asleep. I am no detective. If I were, perhaps I could tell you more, but to me it looked like she had just decided to lie down on the floor for a rest.

I said 'Sandy?' of course. No response. I leaned over to check her breathing: no obstruction. Eyes closed. Spark out. No bruise, no sign nor breath of alcohol, absolutely no reason for anyone just to be lying down. 'Sandy? It's all right, Sandy.' It was obviously not all right, but I didn't know how wrong. I did something peculiar. I went into the small kitchen, that led off the landing towards the front of the house, and I made a noise. I clattered a few pots and pans. Perhaps that would wake her up.

This was an ambulance job. I called the ambulance from the telephone which (I think) was in the kitchen. Within 15 minutes, they said. 'Sandy, would you like a cup of tea? I'm making a cup of tea'. I mean, what do you do? You just keep checking the situation, make a few noises to see if they wake her up, but nothing too alarming, hopefully something that's worth waking up for. I wasn't going to move her about: I didn't know what damage I might do.

I drank the tea, and it may have been then that I tried to get a message to Miranda at work, but that may have been after the ambulance; I don't remember. There was a sort of shock. Something happens to your breathing, when you concentrate hard on what might be life-saving, and that gives the memory later a peculiarly brightness, though it is a memory I would happily do without.

The ambulance arrived on time. Two paramedics made their assessment and took her on a stretcher down the narrow stairs, roughly I thought, and they went. To Roehampton, I think. It becomes a blur.

I thought I would see her later. Passed out perhaps. Bit under the weather, maybe stumbled against the loo door, maybe stumbled down those narrow stairs, with the books piled up on them; maybe tripped over the cat. But breathing, no mark, surely OK. I never saw the cat. If there is something I regret in all this, it was my optimism. Talking to her family while she lay in hospital, I was sure she would come out of there. Perhaps I raised hopes when I should not have.

She died some days later. You know, I had the police questioning, the inquest, and then the funeral in the rain at Roehampton, under the tree, and I can't remember what did it. A haemorrhage? I think so.

The first important public gig I played was in support of Fairport Convention at Wimbledon Town Hall, in a band that was basically ex-school. This was in the 60's. I have the clipping here:

White Unicorn

We were the ones with the much-talked-about flashing lights. I was never a great fan of the Fairports, but Sandy was mesmerising. I'll leave it to the Karl Dallases etc to define just how admirable she was.

I remember too that it was through the Fairports' recommendation that my ex-school band got its first serious demos cut at Polydor, Lancaster Gate studios. I can thank her for that.

Odd coincidence, a beginning and an end. But let's be positive. We still have the records. We can still hear the voice. So let's listen to it.

The voice. My memory tells me that it was Sandy's voice speaking the word Help as I came by that day in the car, next to me, from the passenger seat. This must be a false memory, due to wishful thinking or an after-effect of shock.