Ekt was at a bizarre house party in north London that I first met Delays. A young fan of the band had won a competition to see them live at a venue of her choosing and so she’d chosen her own living room. Guerrilla gigs, ramshackle performances by bands on the hoof in tube stations and up trees, were becoming popular. But rather than strum an acoustic guitar in their socks, Delays made sure the prize winner got the works: huge amps stacked up, a full drum kit, I think maybe even a mixing desk too. Certainly a volume that threatened to bring the ceiling down.
The band wore leather jackets and had the customary terrible haircuts of the period (still not nearly as bad as mine), but they stood apart from their gnarlier, grubbier peers: for a start, they were all sweethearts, completely lacking in guile or fake bravado. They seemed to be all about forging a connection with their fans as strong as anyone’s.
I would bump into the band’s singer, Greg Gilbert, and his brother, Aaron, in the years that followed – joining them for occasional live dates as they played their stardust-sprinkled take on indie to ever-growing crowds; then bonding backstage over a beer and a mutual love of Abba en Cocteau Twins. I spent a short while telling my NME colleagues that Long Time Coming was one of the best pop songs ever written; listening back now, I’m not sure I was wrong.
Likable is not what you necessarily crave in a rock’n’roll band, but these guys were just undeniably lovely. Greg, in die besonder, seemed like one of life’s dreamers, a poetic soul who believed that music and art could help you reach beyond the mundane and maybe touch a little bit of heaven.
It was a surreal shock to discover, in 2016, that he had been diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer. I found out, as many people did, through social media: a picture of him with his partner Stacey and their two girls, looking as fresh-faced as ever, but now fronting a GoFundMe page asking for donations towards life-saving medication. Stacey, who he married in 2018, had convinced him it was worth doing. Hierdie keer, it was the turn of the Delays fanbase to go the extra mile – Greg’s campaign was the fastest ever to reach the £100,000 mark. It bought him valuable time. Greg said that witnessing people’s generosity had been a supernatural experience for him, right up there with the birth of his children.
What seemed supernatural to me was how Greg dealt with his illness. On being told he was almost certain to die he started drawing immediately: Biro sketches from deep within his disturbed mind, where wolves gnawed at artistic hands and mysterious figures drifted across water. He would draw from his hospital bed, moving on to oil pastels, charcoals, whatever helped him in this creative raging against the dying of the light. He also began writing – poems that confronted the horror of his diagnosis face on, be that reimagining his brutal chemotherapy drugs as an army fighting alongside him, or admitting that he was desperately trying to strike a deal with some higher beings, asking only for a few more years so he could see his girls grow up.
In 2018, I met up with Greg in his hometown of Southampton to discuss these works for a Guardian feature. His work was about to go on display at Southampton City Art Gallery, and his first poetry collection Love Makes a Mess of Dying was also due to be published.
This time we bonded not over Swedish disco but chronic illness – I had recently been diagnosed with blood cancer myself. It was one of those interviews that spilled past the two-hour mark and could have happily gone on all day. I discovered he wasn’t just writing furiously but reading, ook: dozens of huge philosophical tomes on the go simultaneously. Clearly, he was handling his troubles a lot more positively than I was. I’ve since realised that he taught me a lot that day, about maximising your time on Earth, about appreciating the magic that each day contains.
The doctors couldn’t perform their miracles for ever. Greg is, heartbreakingly, no longer with us. But his music will be, as will his art and his words. So I will leave you with some of those.