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Flap over Denny Bio.

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Axeman 07 Mar 00 - 02:09 PM
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Subject: Flap over Denny Bio.
From: Axeman
Date: 07 Mar 00 - 02:09 PM

A close friend is a major Fairport fan, and he sent me a huge Adobe Acrobat (*.pdf) file on a recently 'available' biography on Sandy Denny. Apparently, as you'll read below, this was, in some ways, an 'unauthorized' version, and the publisher issued a clarifying statement that appeared on the Fairport listserve. I post this here because I'll bet there are a few Fairport/Sandy Denny fans among Mudcats, and it was a rare glimpse into the decisions and issues facing publishers of musical biographies.

Subject: [FAIRPORT] Another Side - The view from Helter Skelter

Dear all, Sorry fo intrude, but further to a number of postings [Fairport List] concerning books about Sandy Denny, and with particular reference to Richard Condon's posting on the Fairport list, as publisher of Clinton Heylin's forthcoming definitive biography of Sandy Denny (No More Sad Refrains: The Life of Sandy Denny, Helter Skelter, 30 June 2000), I wanted to clarify a number of issues.

Mr. Condon has suggested people on the Fairport list "think carefully about buying this book." This is an odd point of view considering he has not read a word of it. While, obviously I am not wholly disinterested, I am the only person to have read both Clinton's book and Ms Winters' book - in all its drafts - so those interested in this issue may like to bear with me while I sort out the fact from the fiction.

Mr. Condon says "Helter Skelter was clearly hoping for something more sensational [Than Ms Winters' book]." This is not true, and I don't know where this comes from. Our backlist, comprising highly regarded books like Kingsley Abbott's Back to the Beach: A Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys Reader, CP Lee's Like The Night: Bob Dylan and the Road to the Manchester Free Trade Hall and Anthony Scaduto's revered Dylan biography, contains many great music books, but nothing to get the tabloids salivating. When I signed Pamela Winters, I wanted to publish a book that would be about Sandy Denny's life and music - stressing just how talented and accomplished she was and investigating issues such as, why considering her huge ability as singer and songwriter, she did not get the success she deserved.

The Facts when seeking to decide which book might be definitive:

Pamela Winters is not a professional writer. She has never had a book published. A number of the people she interviewed, only agreed to co-operate with her once she had signed a contract with Helter Skelter. Furthermore, Ms Winters is not a fan of longstanding, she only became a Sandy Denny fan relatively recently - a point I only discovered after signing the contract.

After rejecting a number of Ms Winters' initial drafts, I struggled with her final manuscript for months and then had to reject it - not because it was unsensational, but because it was extremely badly written, poorly researched and packed with errors both of fact and of judgement. It was also more about Ms Winters than it was about Sandy. There was very little in there about Sandy's music and In fact Ms Winters told me that she didn't even think Sandy Denny was a very good songwriter. This I found rather gobsmacking.

Now all this criticism may sound harsh, but it is a very big thing for a publisher to reject a manuscript. I have never done it before or since. It involved a huge amount of thought, discussion, and afterwards, additional work and expense on my part; it was not a decision I took lightly. Subsequently, no other publisher would accept Ms Winters' book.

Clinton Heylin is a professional music journalist who has been nominated for the Ralph Gleason prize - an annual award to the best music book. His books are usually published by Penguin, the most respected imprint in the world. Clinton has written the Sandy Denny book for next to no money because he thinks it is important. He has been a huge fan of Sandy Denny for over twenty years and self-published an annotated discography of Sandy's work back in 1988.

He has had the full co-operation of many members of Fairport Convention, including Dave Pegg who speaks very highly of Clinton, Richard Thompson and members of Fotheringay. He has also spoken to close friends like Miranda Ward, Linda Thompson, Bambi Ballard and Philippa Clare and other key players like Joe Boyd and David Sandison. He has also had access to Island Records' vaults - and has drawn on unreleased material, studio logs and other Record Company documents. He has also had full access to all of Sandy's journals and letters and many unpublished poems and lyrics. The fact that so many people - who let's face it are probably sick and tired of raking over the past - were willing to give access to a second biographer, so recently after Ms. Winters, speaks for itself.

Other points worth bearing in mind: Mr. Condon points out that Clinton Heylin has helped with Ms. Winters' book. This is not true at all. She has merely drawn on his earlier published work. Richard Thompson gave Pam a forword because she was writing a book about Sandy Denny. He had not read a word of it. He has subsequently co-operated with Clinton.

Colin Davis, former editor of Hokey Pokey, and who owns the only detailed Neil Denny interview material, read Ms Winters' book and subsequently withdrew his permission for her to use this material. Ms Winters used much of it anyway. Colin subsequently co-operated with Clinton and gave him access to further material.

Miranda Ward had major issues with Ms Winters' book and subsquently wirthdrew her permission to be quoted in it. Ms Winters quoted her anyway, unattributed, and then, in a last minute change of tack, accused Miranda of causing Sandy's death - a rather outrageous and quite cruel libel. I couldn't have imagined anything more sensational than accusing one of Sandy's closest friends of killing her through forcefeeding her cocaine.

Richard Condon is concerned Clinton Heylin may try and cash in on Ms Winters' hard work. Clinton has read her manuscript, it is of course now in the public domain, and only found four lines he would like to quote - all will be attributed of course. But this is a low cross-reference count for another "biography."

In the end, the key proof of a biographer's respect for the subject, how much he or she prizes the subject, or cherishes the subject's memory, is in the diligence and dedication put into doing the job properly. Clinton's key objective in writing a Sandy Denny biography is to help re-establish Sandy's reputation in the way that Patrick Humphries did for Nick Drake with his book. Ms Winters' book mayhave fulfilled Ms Winters' own goals, but it won't do much for Sandy's memory. Clinton Heylin's book will not only give great pleasure to Sandy Denny's loyal fans, it will also play a key part in her critical renaissance - reminding the greater community of music fans that she was one of the greatest singers and songwriters of the age.

Anyway, I apologise for this rather po-faced intrusion, and thank you for your patience with this lengthy post.

Faithfully, Sean Body Helter Skelter helter@skelter.demon.co.uk


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