A boy like you: How Edwyn Collins is learning to live again after his devastating brain haemorrhage
The singer-songwriter reveals how his illness was the start of an extraordinary journey for him and his partner Grace Maxwell
Saturday 29 August 2009
On a february evening in 2005, Grace Maxwell arrived back at the Kilburn home she shares with her partner Edwyn Collins and their son Will, then 15, to find that Collins hadn't yet finished preparing that night's dinner, despite previous assurances to the contrary. She walked up the stairs of the house that had been paid for with the proceeds of Collins' worldwide 1994 hit, "A Girl Like You", to find him sprawled on the floor of the living room, his legs at an awkward angle beneath him. He was out cold, having suffered what would later be diagnosed as "a devastating brain haemorrhage". He was 46. What happened next, Maxwell says, still feels like the stuff of dreams, of nightmares. An ambulance arrived in minutes, which took him, sirens wailing, to A&E. Her partner of 25 years, she was told, was perilously ill. "He may die," noted the doctor. Several days passed in a slow torment, days of all-night bedside vigils, friends and family praying for him to wake from his coma. A week later, he suffered a second haemorrhage, this one every bit as grave as the first.
"We needed a target, something to aim for, and the doctor said that if he made it past the next Wednesday, then we could take that as a good sign," Maxwell tells me now, on an overcast summer's day in the West Hampstead studio that has been Collins' base for almost 15 years. Beside her, on a sunken sofa in the scruffy reception room, sits Collins himself, his right hand curled into a tight fist that no longer readily uncurls, a half grimace frozen on his face. "So that's what we focused on: Wednesday."
Collins made it through one Wednesday, and then the next, gradually regaining consciousness, and though he had, at that stage, lost his sight, and all ability to move, to speak, even to think, he was alive.
"And he needed me," Maxwell says.
"I needed her," Collins confirms. "I was..." he adds, his words broken up by helpless pauses as his still-healing brain searches, sometimes in vain but just as often not, for the rest of the sentence, "helpless, quite helpless."
One can only imagine, I suggest, how terrifying this must have been.
"Aye," Maxwell says, nodding. "Absolutely."
But Collins disagrees. "Terrifying?" he says in a voice that is still rich and fruity and full of character. "Yes and no. The possibilities were endless, Nick, the possibilities were endless."
In other words, he refused to get disheartened, and put his faith instead into that most basic of human emotions: hope. Maxwell reaches out a hand, and places it on his knee. "That's Edwyn all over, basically. Very pragmatic, very forthright. No wallowing, no depression allowed."
It was something of a kicker, then, that following his life-saving operation, he contracted the superbug MRSA, another setback at a time when further setbacks were the last thing they needed. While Maxwell summoned up all kinds of inner resolve, Collins, she says, was lost in a kind of la-la land. So much of what had made him the man he was – intelligent, highly opinionated, fond of sarcasm and verbal sparring – was gone, vanished. And so while all else around him was chaos and panic, Collins himself remained totally blank.
"I was simple, you see," he says, tapping his head. "Simple, and relaxed. I was serene, and..."
He fishes around for another adjective, one he has used in this context before. Maxwell finds it for him.
"You were tranquil," she tells him.
"That's right. I was."
Four years later, and the pair of them are much further down the road to recovery than anyone would have dared expect. Edwyn Collins didn't die, and Grace Maxwell kept it together with an admirable lack of fanfare. She simply got on with the job at hand; they both did. And now she has written a book about the experience, Falling & Laughing, which paints a very convincing portrait of the strength of the human spirit in times of dire straits.
"When it happened," she says, "I really didn't know how I would cope, or even if I would. Does anyone? But I had to. Edwyn was in a deep, deep fog, which in a way was a blessing. He never did wake up one day and say, 'Oh Jesus, I've had a stroke, how am I ever going to get better?' He never had a fixed-enough thought process for that. And so instead, he simply gave it all over to me. It's like he said to me, 'I'm here, in this bubble, and I need you to bring me out of it. Figure it out for me, Grace, could you?' " She laughs loudly, a throaty gargle that betrays her Glaswegian roots. "In many ways, that had forever been my role. I was his manager. Drudgery always was my department."
She says she never envisaged writing a book about the experience, but several friends suggested she should, that it would be beneficial to others going through the same thing. Collins was suffering with aphasia, an impairment of both speech and the comprehension of speech. A quarter of a million people in the UK currently suffer from it, but precious few either understand it, or know how to help overcome it. She wanted to find out more about this condition she had never previously known existed, and to share her findings. But there was something else she wanted to convey about the recovery process itself, and how it felt to be the carer of a long-term patient in a British hospital.
"You walk a tightrope in hospitals, you really do. And so much of what happened there frustrated the hell out of me and Edwyn both." Doctors, she says, can treat relatives as if they are the enemy, "and I needed to get past that, to make them my friends, my allies, simply because I needed them so very much. But it wasn't easy. There were lots of clashes, arguments. I'm sure they viewed me as a pain in the backside." She sighs. "I wish it could have been another way. But then I also wish this all hadn't happened in the first place."
Initially, it was believed that the stroke had come out of nowhere, a tragic event that had befallen Collins the way it could have befallen anybody: randomly. But this wasn't quite the case. Though he had always enjoyed rude health – "He hadn't seen a doctor in years," Maxwell confirms, "never ill, never a single case of man-flu, even" – he had been suffering from increasingly debilitating headaches for a full year before that fateful February. All Collins did about them was to self-medicate, with painkillers and alcohol. But respite proved temporary. The songs he was writing around that time, were, for him, unusually bleak, as if riven with a sense of foreboding.
"Something was up," he tells me. "Dangerously up. I had a sense of... of being scared."
Maxwell takes up the story, and explains that, in a certain sense, the brain haemorrhage was just waiting to happen: "When they finally did take his blood pressure after the first stroke, it was completely off the scale." High blood pressure ran in the family, and his grandmother had died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 40. One would imagine, with this prior knowledge, that Collins himself would have taken certain preventative measures, no?
"Yes," she says. "And if he had, then, well, all this might just have been avoided. That knowledge torments me. It does."
And does it you, Edwyn? A slight, but emphatic grin, then: "No." .........
Maxwell chuckles. "You never were one for wasting your efforts on regret, were you, Edwyn? He's much too focused on today to worry about yesterday."
"I am," he says. "And I'm singing again, I'm... I'm playing live again. I want to enjoy life, Nick. And I do."
In many ways, Collins' rehabilitation has taken the medical world by surprise. While still in hospital, where he remained for six months, he regained his sight and, slowly, his ability to talk, to think, to function. Though he continues to speak in faltering sentences, that sonorous singing voice of his has somehow eluded permanent harm; in front of a microphone he is as fluid as he ever was. And though the stroke affected much of his right side, hence the curled fist, he can walk, albeit slowly and haltingly, and with a pronounced limp. Part of his own personal rehabilitation was to retrain his left hand to do what his right hand always did so effortlessly – to draw, particularly birds (which he crafts in exquisite detail, examples of which feature throughout the book). The fact that he managed to do just that says much of his unwavering determination. Little stands in the man's way, but then little ever did.
Though they never had very many hits, Orange Juice, the band Collins formed back in Glasgow in the early 1980s, extended a musical influence that is still felt today, and "Rip It Up", their defining 1983 hit, remains timeless. He was quite the self-aggrandising pop star back then, a cocky and swaggering Scot who thought himself profoundly talented, even after the band had split up and the solo career was faltering.
"People hated me initially," he relates now, grinning. "Why? Arrogant. I was... arrogant, I suppose. Terribly."
Orange Juice performing 'Rip It Up' on 'Top of the Pops' in 1983
Nevertheless, he was firmly established as, to some at least, a much-loved cult artist, and if he failed ever to have a hit single again, so be it. The faithful would never leave him. But then, in 1994, he wrote a song he was convinced might just get him back into the charts. It was called "A Girl Like You".
"We released it," Maxwell says, "and it reached number 42. Business as usual, then."
But the song wouldn't go away. As the months passed, it became a mainstay of daytime radio airplay, and then a bona-fide hit. Then it went Top 10 in Holland, in Australia and Belgium, and, before long, the rest of Europe, and across America and Asia, too. Suddenly, Collins was a proper pop star again. He spent the next two years following the song around the world, lip-syncing to it on television shows in Italy and Spain, Japan and the Philippines. While Gorgeous George, the album from which the song was lifted, also benefited in its wake, eventually clocking up one million sales, "A Girl Like You" had sold, in Maxwell's words, "gazillions. It was insane. We saw every corner of the world because of that song, and it was much better known than Edwyn ever was. People very often never even knew who sang it, they just knew they loved it. It was all very surreal."
Edwyn Collins - 'A Girl Like You'
While the single provided them with an income that may well sustain them for the rest of their lives, Collins rather enjoyed all the adulation, the fawning. He craved more of it.
"He decided that he'd never much liked a career of peaks and troughs," Maxwell says. "He'd much rather be the subject of endless sycophancy."
"Yes," he says, in amused agreement. "Wall-to-wall sycophants, please."
For the past few months now, Collins has been working on a new album that he hopes will see the light of day in early 2010. He has recorded several songs so far, including collaborations with former Sex Pistol Paul Cook and members of Franz Ferdinand. But recording sessions have been interrupted recently because of the book, which, at the time we meet, he and Maxwell were taking on a tour across the nation's Waterstones. Maxwell confesses she has no idea how these evenings will pan out – "I'll read a few pages, perhaps Edwyn will sing a song... who knows?" – but they are clearly an entertaining double act, a couple so comfortable in one another's company that their bickering, which is constant, can only be seen as an endearment, as declaration of binding love.
"It's funny doing interviews myself," Maxwell considers, "as Edwyn has spent the past 25 years trying to shut me up."
Collins stutters. "Grace! Grace! That's... that's not true at all. Behave yourself."
"But you used to throw me out of your interviews..."
He permits himself a wry smile. "Well, yes, that's true."
With the book tour finished, Collins would really rather put the whole stroke business behind him. Though he is terribly grateful for the support he has received from people around the world ("A lifeline, I'd call it," Maxwell suggests), he doesn't want to be defined by what has happened to him. Instead, he wants to look forward. He has already put in appearances at several summer festivals, and was also preparing when we met for a short residency of shows at the Edinburgh Festival, the last of which would coincide with his 50th birthday. Where better to mark such an anniversary for a musician than on stage?
"When this first happened to Edwyn, we all did our best not to get engulfed by the hugeness of it all," Maxwell says. "We just tried to work through it, and keep ourselves busy. That was the important thing. I had lots of fantasies, especially about Edwyn being able to get back up on stage, but I never for a moment imagined it would ever come to pass. The fact that it now has is something I can barely absorb. It is truly amazing, and I am so proud of him, so happy."
Edwyn Collins holds up a silencing hand. "Grace," he says. "Compose yourself."
But he knows, ultimately, that she always does, and always will.
'Falling & Laughing' by Grace Maxwell is published by Ebury, price £16.99.
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