Musician, heal thyself
After having a stroke in 2005, British pop icon Edwyn Collins used music to recover his speech
In early 2005, at age 45, Edwyn Collins suffered a stroke. The British pop icon had suffered a burst blood vessel in his brain after an undiagnosed case of high blood pressure. Three weeks later, a doctor pronounced that Collins, famed for acerbic, lyrically inventive songs such as A Girl Like You and Orange Juice’s Rip It Up, would likely never recover his powers of speech and cognition. Collins was apparently such a lost cause that he wasn’t even being considered for a rehabilitation program.
In her recent memoir, Falling and Laughing: The Restoration of Edwyn Collins, Collins’s wife, Grace Maxwell, recalls thinking, "He’s at the mercy of bastards like this for the time being, but they won’t have the final say on his destiny."
Earlier this month, Collins walked on stage at London’s Bloomsbury Ballroom. Looking dapper in a black suit and leaning on a silver-topped cane, he spoke slowly to the crowd, his right arm curled up at his side. But when he started to sing, his baritone proved as powerful as ever. Clearly, Grace Maxwell had been right.
It’s been a tremendously difficult five years for the couple, but now, as Collins prepares his first album of new material since the stroke, they’re able to allow work and "real life" to take over from a constant cycle of therapy. Sitting side by side on a couch in Collins’s studio in London’s West Hampstead in early November, the inseparable duo seemed both keyed-up and relieved.
"You’ve got to be upbeat, I guess," Collins says. "I’m getting better again, and my stage show is great — it’s taking time, but I’ll persevere, slowly."
"You will persevere," Maxwell echoes. Maxwell has been helping him fight his battles – artistic and otherwise – for nearly 26 years as his manager as well as his life partner. Their first decade together was a lean one, following the break-up of Orange Juice, Collins’s soul-and-funk-embracing indie band, in 1985. But the next 10 years were prosperous, buoyed by the unexpected worldwide success of A Girl Like You, a solo smash for Collins in 1995.
In Falling and Laughing, Maxwell describes, in heart-rending detail, the events following her husband’s 2005 collapse in their living room. Collins slipped into a coma, underwent a series of operations and then, just as he was being transferred to a private ward for advanced care, contracted the staph infection methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
The stroke left Collins unable to stand, let alone walk. He was also struck with dysphasia, which meant he had to be taught all over again to read, write and even to speak.
"First, stuck in hospitals, I couldn’t say anything at all but ‘Yes’ and ‘No,’" Collins recalls. He then got "stuck" repeating a number of phrases, including his wife’s name, and, for some reason, the phrase "the possibilities are endless."
Maxwell pushed to get him better care, all the while battling hospital staffers whom she calls, in Falling and Laughing, "hard-hearted incompetents" and "inattentive eejits."
Maxwell is not one to pull punches, and her efforts prevailed: Collins flourished with the therapy she was able to secure. Unable to control his right hand to any degree, he learned to write – and taught himself to draw – with his left. He could still make the shapes for guitar chords, and Maxwell learned to strum the guitar so the two could play together as Collins developed ideas for new songs. Singing, in fact, came easier to him than speech.
"I can sing — crudely," he laughs. There’s less inflection and subtlety to his delivery now, but he does channel startling bursts of energy.
Collins began performing again in 2007, with an ecstatically received gig at Dingwalls, in Camden. His Bloomsbury Ballroom show was an exclamation point on a just-completed tour of the Scottish Highlands. The set’s most rocking number was a new song called What Is My Role?, co-written with The Cribs’ Ryan Jarman. Collins stood up to perform it, and made emphatic rhythmic gestures with his left hand as he belted out the song’s searching, minor-key chorus.
Being able to leave his therapy sessions for long enough to tour is a novelty for Collins. Maxwell brings up new possible therapies for his right hand, and reminds him how well he has done so far. "You have to see speech and language and communication broken down the way Edwyn’s has been broken down to really understand what processes we take for granted."
Collins interjects, with a dash of humour: "You mean I’m a moron, don’t you?"
"No, anything but! It takes something pretty incredible to actually do the repair job that you’ve done, Edwyn. I think [you were] maybe a superbrain, originally, to be able to come up with this degree of reassembly."
Ideas and connections come to Collins at unexpected times. He might wake Maxwell up in the middle of the night with an idea for a lyric, or he might become transfixed by something apparently unrelated to the task at hand. At one point during the interview, he stands up laboriously, turns around, and crouches under the coffee table, reaching for something out of view.
"Captain Beefheart, please!" he asks his wife.
"We’re doing an interview just now," she remonstrates him. Then she realizes there’s a copy of Beefheart’s 1974 CD Bluejeans and Moonbeams lying under the table. Apparently, Collins hadn’t seen it, or thought about it, since before his stroke. The cover triggered a memory of one of his favourite songs, Observatory Crest.
"That was a bit of another little neuronal bloody connection," Maxwell says. "That kind of thing happens every day."
VIDEO: BBC documentary on Collins's recovery
Clearly, music helps Collins stitch ideas together. As part of his therapy, he learned to remember and recite the members of famous rock bands. He’s at his most enthusiastic when he shuffles, unassisted by his cane, down the corridor to his cluttered studio to show off his guitar collection, his vintage keyboards and the old recording console that was custom-built for George Martin. Here, he’s been producing acts such as The Cribs and Little Barrie (fronted by redoubtable axeman Barrie Cadogan, who also plays in Collins’s band). He’s also been recording new songs for himself, and according to Maxwell, a "cast of thousands" has offered to help out, including bands such as the Magic Numbers and Franz Ferdinand.
The things he once took for granted – especially touring, performing and recording – are now sources of pleasure. Having had to relearn so much of his day-to-day activity, Collins approaches life with a new perspective. Maxwell recalls how this past summer, Collins encountered a man he had known as a boy in the Scottish village where he grew up and hadn’t spoken with in 40 years.
"We did know that he tried to kill himself," Maxwell says. "What’s the first thing Edwyn said? He goes, ‘I heard you tried to kill yourself. Now, don’t do that again. Life is precious.’ … [The neighbour] goes, ‘Depression, Edwyn, it’s a terrible thing,’ and Edwyn goes, ‘Yes, I know, but listen to me: Life. Is. Precious.’"
Collins, his eyes wide, breaks into an endearing smile. "I’m grateful for everything, I guess," he says. "It’s great to be back once more."
Falling and Laughing: The Restoration of Edwin Collins is published by Ebury.
Mike Doherty is a writer based in Toronto.