BY FRED MILLS
Though ostensibly a personal memoir, the title Him Through Me clearly telegraphs what Brighton, England-born Pamela Windo, 62, is truly writing about: her life with British sax legend Gary Windo, which began with a knock on a door one day in ’69 and lasted through both marriage and divorce until his tragic death in 1992 from an asthma attack. It’s a candid and remarkably moving account, one which neither stints from celebrating the couple’s personal highs and mutual successes nor shies away from documenting their lows and human failings.
Today Pamela Windo is a Santa Fe-based writer, but in another life she was Gary’s wife and a self-taught pianist who, as frontwoman for the short-lived combo Pam Windo and the Shades, cut the terrific, if underrated, new wave album It, in 1980 for Albert Grossman’s Bearsville label. Following a foreword in which she recounts receiving a phone call in ’92 from her elder son about Gary’s death, Pamela rewinds to the early Forties to detail their respective childhoods growing up in postwar Britain. They vaguely knew each other as children, but their relationship doesn’t start until the late ‘60s when Gary resurfaces, freshly deported from the States, where he was playing jazz and R&B and along the way acquiring a heroin habit that led to a year in Riker’s Island. By 1970 they’ve moved from Brighton to London, her two sons from a first marriage in tow, ready to immerse themselves in the bustling music scene there. The naturally outgoing Gary gradually becomes an in-demand player, working with both jazz and rock musicians (in particular members of the extended family of “Canterbury scene” players, one Robert Wyatt becoming a great friend) and occasionally fronting his own combo.
The names that crop up over the course of the book are nothing if not impressive, ranging from the somewhat obscure (guitarists Ollie Halsall and Ray Russell, singer Norma Green) to the moderately well-known (jazz-rock composers Keith Tippett and Julie Driscoll, prog bassist Bill MacCormick, saxman Elton Dean) to the quite famous (Wyatt, Brian Eno, Elton John, Nick Mason, John Paul Jones). Yet to Pamela’s credit she refuses to name drop for the sake of name dropping; these are simply some of the people she and Gary play and socialize with, she initially falling into the role of the rock wife but, as her keyboard skills grow, becoming a respected musician herself.
Too, the anecdotes she summons are worth their weight in rock-chat gold, such as the time she and Gary are following a pair of long-hairs down a poorly-lit sidewalk, eventually coming to an automobile and, after settling into the back seat, she realizes it’s Pink Floyd’s Mason and Rick Wright chauffeuring them to their destination. Or when she helps arrange a plum gig in Tunisia for fading American soul singer Doris Troy and, by way of thanks, not only gets stiffed when it comes time for her and Gary to get paid but is also left stranded in the foreign country, the musician having conveniently forgotten to arrange air fare home. Or the backstage scene, following a Gary Glitter show at which her husband had handled sax duties, that found her standing alongside John Lydon’s mum cheerily recapping the concert they’d just seen together.
In 1979 the Windos move to the States, Gary having gotten a lucrative gig with Carla Bley’s band, and soon enough the family is living in a cabin near Woodstock. By now Pamela has put together a little combo of her own that she dubs The Shades (Gary contributes sax); a chance meeting with impresario Grossman leads to the Bearsville deal and the album. Meanwhile, Gary has also been out on the road for much of the time, touring with Bley, NRBQ, the Psychedelic Furs and others, and the combined stress of that plus both husband and wife having multiple affairs spells the end of the marriage, in 1982. They divorce a few years later. (Below: Windo performing with The Shades)
That’s more or less where Him Through Me ends, too. The final pages are devoted to Pamela reflecting upon everything, though not mawkishly or in a woe-is-me manner. She’s a proud lady, and she also doesn’t allow the marriage failure to color her reflections negatively: she’s proud of Gary, too, and cherishes the time they had together.
In the hands of a writer (or ghostwriter) with lesser narrative skills, a book such as this could dissolve into a mushy mélange of sex/drugs/music; yet another “we had it all, maaan, and then we threw it all away…” type of memoir in which the protagonist eventually overcomes whatever odds there were and lives happily—and presumably more wisely—ever after. Some of those elements are certainly present; we hear about extramarital flings, steamy threesomes and open marriages in the era of liberation and free love, and we hear about the occasional LSD trip and stoned dinner party. Luckily the third component—the music—is what both dominates Windo’s tale and powers her resolve to tell it in as clear-headed a manner as possible.
Granted, at times she leans a bit too heavily on a “the rest of the night/tour/vacation/year/etc. was mostly a blur” strategy, as if she’s worried the reader might not trust her to recall those events with the necessary degree of accuracy. But we already know it’s her story, and the thing is, we do trust her. In her unforced candor and in the casual way in which she describes some of the scenes (for example, the run-ins with those famous people: hey, look, that’s Julie Christie sitting beside her in Robert Wyatt’s hospital room…), it becomes obvious that she’s not telling that story to impress us with what a fabulous time she had. She’s telling it because she wants to (a) paint a picture of a very special era, (b) pay tribute to a gifted artist who meant a lot to her and (c) leave behind, for her children, a meaningful document of her own life.
“Nowadays,” she writes, a few pages before the end, “I feel firmly myself, though I know I borrowed a great deal from him. I regret not writing a heartfelt letter. I would like to tell him how much he gave me, and affected my life, and influenced the way I am living today. We rarely say the things we want to or should, before someone dies, as if we fear breaking the spell or changing the status quo.”
Pam, you have told him now. And I’d just like to add that you had me 174 pages earlier, at “When he knocked at my door… it was October, 1969.” I lived through that same era, and it’s always wonderful to be able to relive it through a fellow traveler’s memories.
Below: Windo now