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When Silence Roars: Rock Widows on When the Music Stops

The interviews of rock widows in I Can’t Remember If I Cried reveal life for these women when their husbands exit the stage, the music stops, and the silence roars

I Can't Remember If I Cried: Rock Widows on Life, Love, and Legacy
Lori Tucker-Sullivan
June 2024

Lori Tucker-Sullivan’s I Can’t Remember If I Cried: Rock Widows on Life, Love and Legacy is an evocative examination of the lives of women who were married to some of the most iconic figures in rock music. Inspired by the death of her husband, Kevin, and a radio feature on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death, Tucker-Sullivan embarked on this project to capture the narratives of rock widows, even though Yoko Ono is not interviewed in the book.

I Can’t Remember If I Cried is structured around three key themes: life, love, and legacy, each explored through the poignant and often tumultuous stories of these widows. Of the 14 stories, there are five fatal crashes of cars or planes and four deaths related to substance abuse, then two of cancer, one of suspected Covid-19, and one of ripe old age. (Congrats to George Jones, who narrowly avoided the tallies for auto accidents and alcoholism.)

The daily lives of these women were often a stark contrast to the glamorous image projected by their rock star husbands. Gloria Jones, the widow of Marc Bolan of T. Rex, recounts the duality of Marc’s personality: “There was the rock and roll side of Marc, but the person I knew was a quiet, humble, beautiful Jewish boy. He was proud of his music; he believed in it, but he loved me, he loved his mother and his family.” This dichotomy between the public persona and the private individual is a recurring theme. Annette Walter-Lax, widow of Keith Moon from the Who, reflects on her husband’s pressures: “Keith also struggled with the pressures of rock and roll life. When it was just the two of them together, he could be quiet and calm for long periods.”

These accounts illustrate the challenging balance between the high-energy demands of a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and the intimate, often quieter, moments of their private lives. Walter-Lax offers the only story where the remaining bandmates seem to have done the right thing by the widow: “After Keith died, I received great help from The Who. They were very, very kind to me. They looked after me, they took care of me. […] This came out of Keith’s estate, but you know, they could have dumped me in the street, and they didn’t allow that. For that, I will be forever grateful to Pete and Roger, because they showed that they cared in the best way possible. I wasn’t left on the street, out in the cold. They kept this up until I married and moved in with my husband, quite rightly so.”

For many of these widows, life after their husbands’ deaths involved not only personal grief but also navigating the complexities of their husbands’ legacies. Some of these widows appreciate the fans, and some of the fans appreciate the widows. But it works both ways, where some of the widows don’t like the fans, and some of the fans don’t like the widows. This leads Tucker-Sullivan to “wonder if it is the propensity of the widow to romanticize the partner who has died.” It is undoubtedly the propensity of the fans.

Peggy Sue Honeyman-Scott, widow of James Honeyman-Scott of the Pretenders, describes the burden of misconceptions about her husband’s death: “Most sources now list Jimmy’s cause of death as ‘heart failure due to cocaine intolerance.’ Peggy Sue can live with that. What breaks her heart are the stories that list Jimmy’s cause of death as a drug overdose.” This misinformation led to confrontations with fans and a constant need to defend her husband’s memory.

Similarly, Catherine Meyer, widow of Andy Gill of Gang of Four, faced dismissive and misogynistic attitudes from fans and music executives who underestimated her understanding of the business. This prompted her to assert, “the real myopia is in not understanding that grief makes you stronger, more committed. It doesn’t cut your legs out from underneath you: it makes them sturdier. Anybody who tries to take his name or legacy in vain, I will defend against. And I’m not doing it for money or fun. I’m doing it for Andy.”

The theme of love extends beyond romantic attachment, including the profound emotional bonds and enduring connections these women have with their deceased spouses. Crystal Zevon, widow of Warren Zevon, poignantly illustrates this. She had taken what seemed forever to get Warren’s drinking under control, but he could never quite stay on the wagon. Eventually, she felt she had to give him up to his addiction demons. But he never stopped checking in with her over the years, and when his diagnosis landed, she was his first call.

Tucker-Sullivan reflects that “the grief Crystal felt after Warren died cannot be discounted because of their divorce. If anything, there’s a realization that she grieved twice, once for the loss of their marriage and again upon his death.” Her story underscores the enduring nature of love, even when a relationship ends in divorce, and how these bonds are not easily severed by death. Some of the widows are very focused on how short or long a time they had with their husbands. Still, Tucker-Sullivan’s thought on the matter is that the limited time together doesn’t correspond in any consistent way to the depth of feeling within the marriage bond or the extent of the grieving each woman will do.

For others, love also meant enduring significant hardships and making difficult choices. More than one of these widows recalls their debt to Al-Anon, especially in the absence of a supportive family unit. One of these is Janna Leblanc, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s long-time girlfriend. Not quite married and thus more easily dismissed by fans and even Stevie Ray’s brother Jimmy, Janna had to sit quietly in the audience when Jimmy accepted Stevie Ray’s Rock Hall of Fame induction, explicitly stating in his acceptance speech that Stevie Ray hadn’t found love or made a family, even though Janna was right there that night.

Tucker-Sullivan discusses how “Janna went back to those boxes of photographs and created her own book and a Facebook page dedicated to Vaughan. The result was Four Years in Pictures: Offstage with Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1986–1990, a public, pictorial glimpse into the four years that Janna and Stevie were together. It was proof, if you will, of their meeting, of Stevie’s time in rehab, and of their life as a couple in Dallas and around the world. Proof of their love and togetherness, even if a marriage certificate doesn’t exist.”

Vera Ramone King, widow of Dee Dee Ramone, recounts her decision to leave due to his drug addiction: “I told him I didn’t abandon him. I just couldn’t go on living the lifestyle that he chose for us. He thought I would just go with him and live like a vagabond, and that might be okay when you’re twenty. But we were approaching forty, and it wasn’t for me anymore.” Her story is one of many in I Can’t Remember If I Cried where the women had to balance their love for their husbands with the need to protect their own well-being.

Despite their eventual separation, the love and memories remained, as King shares, “I’ve had all the emotions. I think about the good times, and it makes me smile, still. And I think about the bad times, and I still get sad. Writing the book helped me to process and to release all that I was holding inside. I came full circle.” Surely, that appeals to Tucker-Sullivan.

I Can’t Remember If I Cried ends after the last musician with no further reflection on Tucker-Sullivan’s own grieving process and whether or in what ways working on this book has helped her through her grief. Maybe she didn’t want to offer any false sense of closure to a life-long process of reflecting on her marriage, or be prescriptive about what grieving readers should do.

The widows in Tucker-Sullivan’s book often find themselves guardians of their husbands’ legacies, a role that comes with significant responsibilities and challenges. Nancy Jones, widow of George Jones, speaks to the pain of public misconceptions about her husband’s previous marriage: “I get so hurt when I hear fans say, ‘Well, he really loved Tammy [Wynette].’ They say, ‘Oh, they loved each other.’ Well, if they loved each other, they would have worked it out. But all they did was fight. I wouldn’t be here if they loved each other. Even today, I hear people say, ‘I know he’s now in heaven with Tammy.’ It hurts. But fans think that’s the story. He had six years with her, and he stayed drunk most of the time. And I’m sitting here with thirty-two years.” Her story highlights the struggle to assert the true narrative of her relationship with George amidst the public’s romanticized versions.

Judy Van Zant, widow of Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd, dedicated herself to charitable endeavors and managing her husband’s legacy through the Freebird Foundation and other projects. Similarly, Sandy Chapin continued with Harry Chapin’s World Hunger Year work, many other charitable endeavors, plus her interests in education and the arts. Protecting and managing these legacies are fraught with emotional and legal battles. Ingrid Croce, widow of Jim Croce, endured “a ten-year odyssey of lawsuits” to secure what her husband was rightfully owed from recording albums and touring.

Tucker-Sullivan notes, “This idea that the possessions of the husband belong to anyone but his wife is something unique to this group of women,” highlighting the unique challenges they face in preserving their husbands’ legacies. Catherine Meyer notes, “there’s so much of what I’ve come to call ‘sadmin.’ All the time-and-emotion-consuming administrative things that have to be done. I’ve gotten through much of that, but it’s so difficult.” She, too, wrote a book about it with Anne Mayer-Bird, 2021’s Good Grief.

However, not all widows can write their own stories for the public. Gretchen Parsons Carpenter, widow of Gram Parsons, expresses awe for Tucker-Sullivan’s project: “I’ve never met any of these other women that you’re writing about. Isn’t that odd? I don’t know why, but I’ve gone through this alone. I feel badly that I don’t know their names and their stories. This work, telling our stories is so important. I thought I’d cry over something else, some memory of Gram, but I’m crying over this, over the grief and that I don’t know these women who’ve also gone through so much.”

Tucker-Sullivan speculates “what strength it must have taken a young Gretchen just to keep going. It is a common thread among nearly all these women—that they are not able to own the narrative around the life and death of the men they loved. Yet so many others feel they have some ownership of that narrative because they liked his music, or knew his birthdate, or kept his picture on their bedroom wall.” Gretchen is forthright about her decision not to publish. She has been asked to do so many times. Still, she says, “no one is going to get a book from me, not ever. Not ever. With all this, this landscape that I’ve lived on, the years that have passed, the lies that have been told, I’m not going to spend time cleaning up their mess. I need to hold my truth sacred. It’s mine, and I will decide who, if anyone, I share it with.”

We’re lucky she shared with Tucker-Sullivan. I Can’t Remember If I Cried is a tear-jerker and a powerful exploration of rock widows’ lives, loves, and legacies. The author provides a compassionate and insightful look into these women’s multifaceted challenges, balancing personal grief with public expectations and the ongoing battles over their husbands’ legacies. It’s a compelling read for fans of the musicians, those interested in the human side of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, and anyone who has experienced the profound loss of a loved one. Through their stories, these widows reveal their strength, resilience, and the enduring bonds that connect them to their husbands, even after death.

RATING 7 / 10