The Better To Heal You With

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A veil of resinous incense enveloped me as I walked through the narrow, wooden doors of the St. Pancras Old Church in London. The small, stone-walled church stands atop a small hill not far from the St. Pancras hospital and railway station, and climbing up the slope and through its doors that cold January night felt like a kind of pilgrimage. But I wasn’t here for a religious service, at least not the traditional Christian sort. I was here to see one of my favorite musicians, Patrick Wolf.

Slowly the church filled with fans, a mixture of women and gay couples. An hour after the doors opened, the lights finally went down. From behind us burst the sound of the church’s pipe organ, plied by a black silhouette I assumed at first was Wolf. But then the singer emerged from the crowd at the back of the room, draped in black robes, black hair long around his face. He padded slowly down the aisle, inches from where I sat, like a bride going to the altar.

“While I’m asleep, my spirit crawls out of my belly button and goes down to the sea,” he sang, stretching out his long limbs but not quite brushing against those of us sitting along the aisle. It was “Ghost Song,” from his 2005 album Wind in the Wires. “To gather the wind, the wires and the shore, to wander the hills like a day gone before when beauty was in season.”

I’d listened to “Ghost Song” many times while hiking through the foggy canyon near my home in San Francisco, and hearing it now brought back those peaceful, solitary walks. As Wolf sang his way down the aisle I mouthed the words, drinking in the look of pleasure on his face. Pleasure to be performing, pleasure to be surrounded by people who love his music.

But as he took the stage and launched into “Libertine,” something about him seemed off. He was pale and flushed, cheeks bright pink, sweat trailing down his face and turning his hair stringy. He didn’t look well. Even as I wallowed in his music that night, even as every nerve in my body sang with the vibrations of some of my favorite music in the world, I couldn’t help it. I worried about the man who’d made it.

I’d discovered Patrick Wolf’s music completely by accident in 2007. A friend invited me to join a new social media services that allowed users to recommend music to each other, and one day as I scrolled through I came across a video depicting a pale-faced young man at a piano, looking like Raggedy Andy in his shaggy orange hair and blue-and-white checked shirt. I don’t remember how the recommender described it, but it tempted me to play the video.

As Wolf’s broad hands laid softly into the piano, a pair of women on violin and viola trilled beside him, establishing a melancholy atmosphere. “Lucy, remember? The smell of that fall — the fires, the fungus, and the rotting leaves.” This was “Bluebells,” named for the gorgeous indigo flowers that carpet the British Isles in the springtime. “I fell off the wagon and into your arms, into this long month of Sundays.” The song yanked me by the guts and pulled me into its embrace as the room, the world fell away. He may look like a rag doll or a clown, I thought, but this is one of the most incredible musicians I’ve ever heard.

At the time, Wolf’s had released just three albums, including his debut, Lycanthropy, in 2003; the brooding Wind in the Wires in 2005 and the brand-new The Magic Position. They quickly became my constant companions, particularly Wind and Position. Wolf’s songs described dark moods, restlessness, a longing for the wild places of England I also adored, a persistent ache whose only cure was freedom. He saw himself in animals, particularly birds; he felt most at home alone, walking, in nature. In his soul and mind, at least as they were revealed in his songs, my own found its twin.

He saw himself in animals, particularly birds; he felt most at home alone, walking, in nature. In his soul and mind, at least as they were revealed in his songs, my own found its twin.

He toured through San Francisco about once a year, and I came out to see him every time. In early 2013 I learned Wolf was staying for a month in the city, working on material for a new album. He played house concerts in the parlor of the house where he was staying, a grand Victorian-style home in Hayes Valley. I convinced my editor at the SF Weekly to let me interview him and write a piece about his residency. I spent an hour watching him sound-check and rehearse for the evening’s show before he brought me upstairs to his bedroom for a long interview. I remained professional but we got along like old friends, talking much longer than we’d planned, until it was time for him to get ready for the show. After that night of gorgeous songs I paused to say goodnight to him before I headed out the door, and he leaned his tall frame down to wrap me in a hug.

We didn’t stay in touch, and soon after that night it felt like Wolf vanished from the public eye. The album he was writing in San Francisco never emerged, and updates to his social media accounts grew sparse. Years passed. He played occasional shows in the UK and Europe, and he’d done another residency at a historic house in Bath, but otherwise there was little but silence from the Wolf camp. He pre-sold copies of a book called Ghost Region, which still hasn’t come out. In 2015 he was hit by a car while traveling in Italy, and then his mother was diagnosed with cancer. She was an artist, too, and had loved and supported him deeply through his years as a queer teen and his rocky life as an eccentric pop star. She died in the fall of 2018. On Instagram, Wolf shared that he’d never known grief so potent before.

In 2019 he began posting more often to Instagram, and in the fall he announced a three-night residency at the St. Pancras Old Church in London in mid-January. I missed London and I missed Wolf, and so I got myself up in the middle of the night to buy tickets when they went on sale at 10 a.m. London time.

I’m in my mid-40s, in a long-term partnership, and the mom of a pre-teen girl. In some ways, it felt self-indulgent to fly halfway across the world to see a favorite musician perform. Female music fans are often derided, characterized as hysterical teens who will do anything to get close to their favorite artists, whether they’re The Beatles or One Direction. Middle-aged female fans are all but invisible, and when they are brought to light, it’s to depict them as lonely and unwanted, desperate to recapture some dream of lost youth. As though once we reach our early 20s our hearts should stop responding to music that resonates deep within us.

The musicians most beloved by female fans of any age are seen as less worthy of respect. Men are allowed to show life-long loyalty and respect for serious bands like Rush or Pink Floyd, and it’s often these bands that garner the most bona fides — the lifetime achievement awards, the spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When I told people where I was traveling and why, many didn’t know what to say next, their faces suddenly unable to show enthusiasm or joy. If I’d said I was going to the London theaters or the Scottish Highlands they’d have grinned themselves silly. Instead they were dumbstruck.

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As soon as Wolf began singing that first night at St. Pancras, I knew I’d made the right choice. The set list was full of my favorite songs, songs that over the years had held my heart. At many points his performance was rough — instruments kept going out of tune, a phenomenon he attributed to an insult he’d made against his namesake Great Aunt Patricia early in the set. But he was in great spirits, telling stories and jokes, bringing the room to laughter several times. I felt at home in that small church, embraced by music I loved, surrounded by people who loved it, too.

Afterward, I stuck around with a handful of others to see if Wolf would come out to talk with us. It wasn’t long before he entered the lobby where we mingled, booming “hello!” and raising his arms to greet us. One by one we talked with him and posed for photos. When my turn came, he took my hands in his and said, “It’s so nice to meet you!”

I said, “We’ve met before!” As I spoke, his features changed as he recognized me from that evening in the Hayes Valley house seven years earlier. “Yes, we have!” he said.

We held hands and talked for a few minutes. Toward the end of our chat, I said, “I’m so sorry about your mom.”

He smiled, but I could see sadness behind his eyes. “It’s all right. You don’t need to worry about me.”

“I lost my mom when I was 22, so … I know what it can be like,” I said.

He looked right into my eyes and smiled again. “The best thing we can do for them, and for us, is to get back to work, to do the work that would make them proud,” he said. “That’s why I’m here. And tomorrow night, I’m singing a song that was special to my mum and I, Sandy Denny’s ‘Where Does the Time Go?’”

“I’ll be here,” I said.

“See you then,” he smiled, and I moved away so the next person could have their turn to talk with him.

The second gig kicked off in much the same way, but if anything Wolf looked worse. Early in the set he told the audience, “If it looks like I’m dying up here, well, aren’t we all?” The crowd murmured with laughter. “Seriously, though, it’s about 100 degrees inside my body, and I’m very ill.” He told us he was determined to get through the set anyway.

About an hour into the show, Wolf slung a black acoustic guitar around his torso and began to tune it. “This next song is for my mum, who can’t be here tonight,” he said, voice breaking a little. His grief seemed plain to me, my still-grieving heart beating in time with the loss his heart was still just beginning to comprehend. He plucked the chords and began to sing: “Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving. But how can they know it’s time for them to go?

After a few lines he stopped and said, “I’m so sorry. Do you mind if I … I’m going to take a break, and then I’m going to come back and play five songs. I’m just feeling very sick.” He set down the guitar and dashed from the stage, black robes trailing behind.

My chest ached. He’d tried to reassure me — and himself — that we would find our way through this grief, but when the moment came to sing in his mom’s memory, his body made it plain that it wasn’t ready. Even when he returned to the stage a few minutes later, I worried about what it meant. Would these shows give Wolf the confidence to return to music full-time, to get back to the work that had meant so much to him and made his mom proud, or would he come away feeling defeated and ashamed, only to let his star continue to fade? I couldn’t tell whether I was more worried for him — this artist who’d come to mean so much to me — or for myself and the thought of not having any more of his music to carry me through my life.

The next morning, I read a review of the gig. It slammed Wolf’s loose performance, suggesting that this was not the comeback fans would have hoped for. But it also detailed some of the mysteries of the prior eight years: Wolf had a messy falling-out with his management and then, just as he was getting ready to record new music, the car accident happened. He’d already been through so much, including a sexual assault as a child, homophobic jeers as he emerged as a musician, the deaths and suicides of many friends, the depression and isolation he often described in his songs. His music had remained just a little too eccentric to find its way to the mainstream, jeopardizing his chances of a long-running career in music.

I found myself wanting to reach out, to take him by the hands again and reassure him that he could find his way back to the light. I’d been through years of healing, myself — from a childhood in which my true self and needs weren’t seen or nourished, from a teenage sexual trauma, from the loss of my own mom and years of depression and anxiety. His music, honest and raw in its dark beauty, had been one of many tonics. I wasn’t healed, not yet, but I’ve made so much progress. I felt sure I could convince him it was possible.

But it also didn’t feel like my place. Surely he had dear friends to keep him from drowning. More than that, it wasn’t my responsibility. It wasn’t on me to pull him from the water, to convince him things would be all right, even as he’d tried to do for me. It was my job to heal myself and support those closest to me, my partner and daughter, not a musician I’d met twice, no matter how much his music mattered to me.

As a fan of Wolf’s music there were plenty of ways I could be supportive, and attending the shows was one of the best. Although he is uncharacteristically kind and giving with his fans, sending them letters when they’re struggling and hosting intimate, hours-long conversations with them on Instagram Live, we are still not his closest friends, his partner, or his therapist. I could see the boundary, and knew I shouldn’t cross it.

Yet I couldn’t let it go. My head spun with the email I imagined writing to him, the speech I imagined giving him. Each time my thoughts drifted to that place I called them back, only to find them wandering there again. At the same time, I felt ashamed and juvenile to be so wrapped up in the state of a musician I barely knew. This was what I felt when I was 16, watching Axl Rose fall into chaos, or when I was 21, glued to MTV on the day the news broke that Kurt Cobain took his life. I was so much older now. Shouldn’t I be past this kind of fannish devotion by now?

I’d been here before, too, with lovers and friends who’d slipped into bleak places. Over and over I tried to shore them up, tried to love and nurture them out of the blackness, only to find that I couldn’t. Because when you’re in that place you believe you belong there, and you don’t trust anyone who tells you otherwise. As I stopped trying to heal the broken souls around me, I recognized that what I’d been trying to do all along was find a way to heal myself.

As I stopped trying to heal the broken souls around me, I recognized that what I’d been trying to do all along was find a way to heal myself.

One of the keys to recovering from a lifetime of trauma is learning self-compassion, and it’s a hard lesson. We grow up feeling unworthy, damaged, impossible to love. We often find it much easier to love and feel compassion for everyone around us than for ourselves. Books and therapists tell us again and again: think about the way you love a dear friend, and try to love yourself in that same way. Take that unconditional regard and turn it toward yourself.

Even now, many years into my healing, I still find it easier to recognize the pain and darkness in someone else — to turn toward it without judgment and yearn to help — than to give myself that same kindness. At the same time, that irresistible pull is a projection, a large blinking sign reminding me to turn inward, to nurture my own hurts and trust that others will find their way to healing, too.

I still fear that Wolf won’t. That there will be no more music, no more songs that nourish me as surely as food and oxygen and clear drinking water. For some trauma survivors, the pain and darkness are an illness that proves terminal. I can only hope that won’t happen. And if he returns to the world of music — really returns — we’ll all be very fortunate to have him.

Journalist, editor, author, opinionator. Bylines: Guardian, New Yorker, Vice, Mother Jones, Wired. Much more at www.bethwinegarner.com.

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