Young and Quite Pretty

Stephanie Burt

When an artist who is already famous dies suddenly, tributes can start right away, and circulate rapidly; when a more obscure artist dies young, the tributes, and even the news of his death, can take much longer to reach people who like, or might like, his work. Take Nick Drake, so much better known now than when he was alive; or Keith Girdler, lead singer in the 1990s indie-pop act Blueboy, who died in 2007, from cancer. You wouldn’t mistake Girdler’s work for Drake’s, but if you like one you’ll probably like the other. There’s the delicate voice just barely willing (he’s clearly able) to lift and drop a melody; the spiderweb-thin bareness of some tracks, and the fluent chamber arrangements of others; the hint of rock and roll, usually just offstage. If Drake was a reticent hippie, Blueboy were reticent sophisticates; Girdler was confessing his quasi-secrets at the edge of a party too fancy for him, and for you, to feel comfortable there. Blueboy were in their time the best and the smartest proponents of a particular sort of mostly acoustic pop.

They were also – not by coincidence – openly queer, gender-bending and gender-questioning, not in the larger-than-life mode of Bowie or Morrissey (who seemed to be using a privilege reserved for stars), but in a more or less shy, young adult, perhaps-I’m-bisexual, not-quite-sure-yet way which brought them closer, perhaps, to their fans. Other groups on Blueboy’s superb, much imitated label, Sarah Records, stayed safely unmasculine, merely fey; Blueboy posed explicit conundrums about sexuality, about being always or partly or newly or ambiguously or mistaken-for gay.

In the propulsive ‘Imipramine’, on the album Unisex (1994), Girdler sings: ‘You said that love can break a boy’s heart/I said there’s no such thing.’ (He has a heart, but the boy who broke his heart had none.) The duet ‘Joy of Living’ follows a boy and a girl who ‘find a room, a chance to explore’. ‘Of course it’s not love,’ the girl sings, ‘but I’m not choosy.’ Would he rather be with a boy? Be the girl? Does she know? In ‘Marble Arch’, over a nylon-string guitar and cello, Girdler sings in the voice of a man remembering his time as a teen prostitute: ‘I am young and quite pretty: don’t hurt me.’

Blueboy began as a duo – Girdler singing, Paul Stewart on (mostly) classical guitar – but acquired more members later on, adopted bossa nova rhythms for a while, and towards the end added a proper rock dimension, either mocking Oasis or admiring their sexy energy; their last single and loudest song (and a reminder of where they got their name) was called ‘Dirty Mags’. Dirty indeed: ‘I want to come inside your eyes’ (or perhaps ‘your life’), Girdler snarls.

Girdler and Stewart stopped Blueboy around 2000, but continued to make music, as Arabesque and then as Beaumont, with a less introspective sound. Girdler also contributed to the thoughtful indiepop outfit Lovejoy, fronted by his friend Richard Preece, and to a side project called the Snowdrops, though Preece says that Girdler (whose cancer was diagnosed in 2004) spent most of his energy towards the end of his life on his work for Age Concern in Eastbourne.

Blueboy came across not just as reflective but as approachable, reasonable; they had thought about what they could do, about the limits of pop form, about the uncertain place of sexuality in even a settled life. I had that sense from their records, and from their remarkable performances at Sarah 100, in some ways the best pop show I ever saw: a party on a boat in Bristol Harbour, to mark the end of the label. Blueboy played two sets, one acoustic as the crowd came onto the boat, and one electric later on.

Even better, in terms of the band’s attitude, was the only other time I saw Blueboy play, on a day trip to Reading. In front of about forty people, Girdler and Stewart performed songs from their final album, The Bank of England (1999). I told them that I’d come from America to Oxford to see friends, and from Oxford to Reading to see them. One of them – I can’t remember which – gave me a T-shirt, the only band merchandise (as far as I know) that Blueboy ever made. It depicted the cover of ‘Dirty Mags’: not a dirty picture but a photograph of Girdler, in a jacket and tie, the band’s name on a lavender stripe at the top. I wore it until the coffee stains got too hard to ignore and one of the sleeves fell apart.