Two years on from the death of her husband, Catherine Mayer speaks of the strain of sharing loss with his ex-bandmates
It truly was what the film industry now calls a “meet cute” scenario. When writer Catherine Mayer first bumped into her future husband, the guitarist and songwriter Andy Gill, they were both guests at the sort of wild house party that usually crops up on the pages of bestselling fiction or the script of a romcom.
“It was not a meeting I was going to forget,” Mayer says. “It was the 1990s and it was held at the very flash Islington home of an architect where one of the walls was the glass side of a swimming pool. I saw Andy at the buffet; this incredibly handsome man in a frock coat and white jodhpurs who was eating trifle with his hands from a bowl because there was no cutlery. I laughed then and we kept on laughing all the time we were together.”
Gill, who died almost two years ago of suspected coronavirus at the age of 64, was a cult figure to many and a founding member of the post-punk band Gang of Four. Stranded now by the loss of the man she married in 1999, Mayer is still painfully adjusting to life alone. “Some days I feel like a beetle on its back, too full to get up. Grief commonly manifests as an emptiness, but I suffer from the opposite problem. Love for Andy, with nowhere to go, fills my chest, leaks from my eyes, bubbles in my throat,” Mayer writes in a raw new account of the cruel aftermath of the death and of the rupture at the centre of the band, which will be published next month.
But that night in Islington it was all before them. Gill led Mayer up to the roof terrace of the party house in Corsica Street and sang “beautifully” to her. A week later they went out on a proper date and were with each other from that day on.
After he died, Mayer found herself mired in a bitter legal row over the band’s legacy. Lawyers, go-betweens and incendiary documents are her corrosive inheritance. It does not make mourning any easier, that is for sure, she says.
“Andy had often tried to inveigle me into taking an interest in the music industry, but I always resisted. I loved the music, but I certainly never loved the industry,” she says. Tawdry visits to cramped, mucky tour buses, filled with a grim fug and the inevitable creative tensions, did nothing to win her over to life of the road. And besides, Mayer, a successful journalist, activist and author, had her own hectic career to handle.
Next month, on the second anniversary of Gill’s death, the paperback edition of Good Grief comes out. It is a book she wrote with her mother, Anne Mayer Bird, about the bereavements they have both recently suffered. But this time there is a significant new chapter that tackles the fractured relationship between her late husband and the founders of Gang of Four, and chiefly with his beloved old schoolfriend, singer Jon King.
In the new pages, Mayer candidly explains her decision to ask King not to attend Gill’s memorial, although she is clear it was not a ban. King had left the band in 2011 and the two musicians had not spoken for around a decade.
“I know some people will see this as a music feud,” says Mayer, “but I really see it as a sad love story. A tragedy. Andy always loved Jon and that makes what has happened between them, and to the story of their band, so distressing.”
The dispute has been reignited by the band’s latest box set, which Mayer felt was revisionist and devalued the later work of Gang of Four, both in its other iterations and also in its briefly reunited form, back with bassist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham in 2005.
It was with this lineup that the band initially won acclaim in 1978. With an urgent, disruptive and ultimately highly influential guitar sound, they were never likely to be regulars on Top of the Pops.
Mayer is now a reluctant “keeper of the flame”, a part that widows of admired artists are often called upon to play. She was pleased, she says, to learn the band are to tour again in March in a lineup that will include “brilliant” bassist Sara Lee. It is some of the first band members’ recent decision to remove the North America rights to the band’s early music from Warner Bros – a move that had upset Gill and to which he was opposed – that has left the lasting damage. “I had wanted to help with their planned new box set. But when I finally saw it, the sleeve note begins by saying the band did its best work between 1977 and 1981. I knew Andy would have disagreed vehemently.”
Mayer adds that she is often asked how she knows what Gill would have thought of it: “I reply, well, I, and the others who were around him at the end, heard nothing but that from him.”
Gill was so inflamed by the back-catalogue switch that he persuaded Mayer not to inform King just how ill he was, and not to allow hospital visits. She tells the full story now in her new chapter, she says, largely for the sake of music history and because she feels a weight of responsibility.
Aside from handling Gill’s funeral and financial affairs, Mayer also shouldered the task of finalising The Problem of Leisure: A Celebration of Andy Gill and Gang of Four, the double album of cover versions that Gill was devoted to organising in his last months and which came out last spring, with a cover design by his friend Damien Hirst. This all had to be done on top of Mayer’s writing, and her role as co-founder and president of the Women’s Equality party and co-organiser of its annual festival.
“I thought I was going to punch anyone else who said to me ‘it’s good to keep busy’, but there was never any question I would finish the album. You do the only thing you can do for the person who has gone,” she says with emotion.
Providing a clear account for posterity is not the only aim of her new chapter, though. Mayer also believes that many deaths are followed by “terrible and unexpected arguments” that can ambush the bereaved and which no longer have a hope of resolution. Festering issues are suddenly magnified, although they are often proxy arguments for the real emotions at work underneath.
She sees Gill’s band as a real family, born of the long friendship between Gill and King that began at Sevenoaks school, where they were also friends with illustrious British film-makers Adam Curtis and Paul Greengrass. The wider family of the band has been supportive through Gill’s illness and death, Mayer reports happily. John Sterry and Thomas McNeice, respectively the band’s singer and bass player in the last decade, were always at hand. “They’re much younger, but they have been in on it all for a long time now and they still check up on me. Adam Curtis and his partner, Tessa, are also nearby.”
A death, especially an early death, frequently prompts some jostling for position among the bereaved. Yet Mayer notes wryly that the status of the mourning wife is sacrosanct. “One thing about being the widow, nobody ever questions your right to grieve. But actually, I’ve been struck by how utterly devoted lots of young men also were to Andy. Soon after he had died, someone anonymous got hold of my number and rang me up in grief. It was intrusive, yes, and not great timing, but in fact I felt and continue to feel that the misery of people who did not know Andy is authentic.”