Renée Zellweger plays Judy Garland in Rupert Goold’s biopic. If…
2020 has been grim for so many reasons, but 3 friends dying in the space of a month was particularly challenging. Kent James. Lana Vanzetta. Terry Franklin. They were all wild and funny people, who’d played a big part in my life. They escaped the Covid, but came to untimely ends via other means.
All the deaths were shocking and tragic. Grieving in lockdown, while juggling anxiety and a world in chaos hasn’t been fun. But really, who IS having fun right now?
I’ve experienced a partner ending his life while we were dating. Over the years, several close friends have checked out early, courtesy of their own hands. Kent James, who I met as Nick Name, committed suicide at the beginning of July. So, it wasn’t my first time at that rodeo, but nobody wants a season ticket to suicide. Once is too much.
Name that man
The confusion, sadness and fury that stems from suicide can create a psychic wound that refuses to heal. How can it? There’s always a glut of questions that haunt the survivors. Those niggling queries sabotage even the best efforts at peace or closure.
Kent crashed into my life in 2002. He was a hot, chaotic punk whose placid, slightly broken spirit was hidden under an armour of imagery. When I met with him in Los Angeles, we recorded a track together with a live band as RuPaul looked on in roller skates. Crazy times.
It was mildly disappointing that during our West Hollywood head-trip, Kent proved to be the sensible one. He yanked me back from ill behaviour at every turn. In the end, he couldn’t do the same for himself.
Dancing with denial
Kent’s death stirred a sleeping wave of sadness for Kevin Davies, an ex-lover and friend who’d taken his life in 2019. I’m fully qualified in elegant strategies of self-deception and despite writing a tribute, somehow managed to park this trauma in remote mental woodland. In my smoke-filled head, Kevin hadn’t gone anywhere.
This sleeping denial fell apart when Kent’s death slapped me awake via Facebook. It seems you can put grief on hold, but you can’t plan or avoid its return. It can hit you with sudden, nuclear intensity, after hiding deep in your brain for months.
Lana’s recent death keeps taunting me with its inexplicable truth. LANA FELL FROM A WINDOW AND DIED??!
It doesn’t make sense. My mind keeps deleting this info, then reanimating it, with the unsubtle crash and wallop of a ghost train at the fun fair.
Siobhan Grier would have been 50 this year. She was 41 when she left us in 2011. She’s the dead friend that refuses to rest. Turns out, she’s as belligerent, loud and unavoidable from beyond the grave as she was in the hazy raves and house parties of our college years.
If I hear or see ‘80s Madonna, I think of Shoe. Margaret Thatcher? Same. Mel + Kim. Rocky Horror Show. Olives. Alcoholics. The Colherne and any mention of Margate ALL provoke memories of Shoehorn.
When the TV presenter Magenta Devine died in 2019, I thought of Shoehorn, ‘cause she LOVED Devine and totally stole her look. For a least a year, she could have passed for her twin.
Far and away
Our close friend, Vicki McGuin lives in Australia now, but distance is no contest for memory. She’s triggered into thinking of Shoehorn by similar cultural flags.
‘Bad jokes. Anything camp. Kylie. Madonna. Betty Boo. Margaret Thatcher. Greasy spoons. Making up dance routines.
‘What would she be doing at 50? I’d love her to be the host of QI. Or a cabaret MC at a popular, but exclusive club. A member of parliament? I still miss her and think of her so much. My boys know her well through my stories. And I swear she is with me regularly, putting jokes and funny moments in my path to make me smile.’
Scars of love
Shoehorn isn’t my only friend to have struggled with drink. Several times, to a variety of loved ones, I’ve hissed with bulging, tearful eyes,
‘I watched my best friend drink herself to death. Don’t put me through THIS again. For fuck’s sake.’
That’s one of her legacies, I can spot a boozy storm brewing, before the slide into oblivion. It triggers panic, fear and despair. There was no stopping Shoehorn, but I’ve thrown a lilo to a few drowning friends since. Or at least, I’ve walked to them to the door of an AA meeting. If you get them that far, there’s a shot of hope.
Sophie Smeeton was part of our crew and ponders Shoehorn’s life, had she lived to see 2020,
‘At 50, I hope she’d have continued her path as language tutor and married an Italian stallion living in a vineyard.’
It’s not easy, but you have to count your blessings and scratch for light in looming shadows. Strangely, the day of Siobhan’s funeral remains one of the most vivid and joyful days of my life. How about that? It’s what she would have wanted.
The old gang came together again. Well, those remaining and able. We’d once been a suburban tangle of teen misfits; goths, poseurs, queens and arty pot-heads. Together, we gleefully experimented with drugs, sex, fashion and clubbing.
University, marriage and careers kicked in. We splintered and drifted into adulthood, loosely linked by postcards, rumour and chance encounters. That was life before social media and mobile phones.
The funeral was in Brighton and we gathered at mine for a breakfast bash before falling onto a train, laden with beers and the buzz of shared history.
We reverted to our teen selves, upsetting unfortunate commuters with our screaming and hijinks. We didn’t care. WE were in mourning and that meant mayhem. Lord help anyone in our path. It’s what she would have wanted.
Back to black
Of course, we went into stunned shock on arrival at the funeral. Fun over, hello reality. Absolutely woeful.
I sobered up sharpish, the cold slap of death, like an cocaine icicle to the heart. I read out a poem I’d written to her in 1990. It was surreal, ironic and overwhelmingly tragic.
There was a wake, full of my ‘80s mates. Some had changed dramatically, but largely, for that day, we carried on like we did back in the day. We giggled, gossiped, danced and crept outside for sneaky joints. It’s what she would have wanted.
Legends never die
Damon King was my best mate at school, and flouncing fixture in our teen debauchery. He has little doubt how Shoe would have turned out.
‘Equally as Rebellious and caustic as she was at 20! She’d be Vocal about this shit show going on. Imagine her in a mask!
‘I miss her vibrancy, her zest and complete disregard for Authority and Rules- apart from the drugs and Drink that eventually killed her. More people should live their lives out loud like she did. She burned bright. Too bright.’
Burned like a nuclear mirror ball. They all did. And that’s why they linger in the memory.
Enjoy and care for your friends while you have them, ’cause you never know when the light’s going out. And remember, they may be gone, but you gotta keep on shining. It’s what they would have wanted.