I scrolled through old text messages to find bits of audio. Here was my friend Nancy Falkow McBride speaking to me direct from Ireland, from her hospital bed. That low, slightly raspy, South Jersey accent — not at all what she sounded like when she sang. Which is how I first met her, her voice.
I listened. She was right here. Still.
Nancy preferred to talk her text messages, which, to me, was all the better: I could get a living, breathing sample of my friend so many thousands of miles away.
Sometimes I’d listen to her messages in the moment and we’d message back and forth. Sometimes she’d send them at 8am her time — 3am EST — and I’d listen to them later, when my day began.
Once, she left me a blessing of sorts. “My wish for you,” she paused, with a hint of a giggle in her voice, “is that your book comes out, and that it gets made into a movie. And then you’ll put your pal Nancy Falkow on the soundtrack,” she laughed, “either posthumously, because that’s how long it takes for your movie to come out and I’m dead by then — so [I make some money] and Hannah can get a new pair of shoes — or if I’m still alive to enjoy it. That’s my wish for you… that includes me.”
I couldn’t think of a more Nancy sentiment: thoughtful, a little self-promotional, always a concern for her daughter, Hannah, and a large dose of gallows humor.
Her voice was our introduction. It was the mid ’90s, I was working as a music editor at the Philadelphia City Paper. I happened to wander into this tiny dive bar off South Street, and instantly heard this angelic voice that floated into high, clear notes — goosebumps beautiful. Nancy was sitting in a dark corner, strumming her guitar and singing. This incredible sound was in this dumpy little place? She was a hilarious performer, too — she got the crowd laughing with one of her brash, salty jokes. After the show, I introduced myself and then — like so many people’s experiences with Nancy — we became fast, good friends. She had this way of instantly bringing you into her circle.
I can feel Nancy’s eyes rolling at me right now, but I’ll tell you that she was a stunning human: a wild mass of brown curls, soulful, dark eyes and a hilarious biting wit that made you laugh and laugh and feel loved. This Jewish girl from Margate, NJ (her), and a WASP-y girl from Chestnut Hill in Philly (me), we found mutual admiration through our love of music and, in particular, an adoration for Bowie. She’d drive us around in her beat-up sedan of some sort (I’m terrible with cars) and we’d harmonize to “Starman” or “Lady Stardust.” I have this distinct memory of sitting in her backseat and her telling me, “Hey, those harmonies aren’t half-bad.” From Nancy that was a huge compliment, especially because Nancy ALWAYS told you what she thought. I’ve thought of her every single time I try to harmonize with a song.
I ended up writing about her a bunch — she showed up as “the friend” in various articles. I chronicled Nancy’s journey, when she won a spot as the sole local musician to play the 2nd Lilith Fair in 1998, playing in front of 25,000. She wowed with her song “Your Affair,” a song that, at the time, I’d called “a rollicking, melodic number that showcases Nancy’s booming pipes and crafted songwriting — a sound somewhere between a girlish, ’60s Petula Clark and a heartier, ’90s Liz Phair.” But undeniably Nancy.
We were glue for each other through various rickety relationships and when Nancy finally found her amazing husband, Frankie — who lived near Dublin (the magic of online dating) — I was thrilled for her. She was so in love, so happy. When she left for Ireland, we stayed in touch through social media and texts — and of course, through her music. Her anthemic song “Invisible” has been on my go-to “airplane” playlist for years. I listen to it when we take off. In the clouds, Nancy’s voice soars, the jangly guitars, the layered harmonies, all of the possibilities in her voice.
Soon after she moved to Ireland, Nancy gave birth to another beautiful creation: her daughter, Hannah, one of the real loves of her life. Everything she did was for her daughter and her family. But she gave so much to her friends and to strangers as well — singing for a senior home in County Wicklow, or starting a Facebook charity group called Dig Deep. She’d pick a different, worthy charity to feature every month — well before Facebook came up with their own system.
And Nancy was there for me when I got ovarian cancer.
From far away, she was there as I started chemo in 2016. I started the day David Bowie died from cancer which felt highly prescient to both of us. As I sat at NYU with Carboplatin and Taxol pumping through my veins, Nancy would text, “fuck cancer” and “13 weeks you can do it!” She cheered me on as I tried to chronicle my experiences in these pages, and told me she thought I must be helping other people going through the same thing.
Even when she wasn’t making music, her hands were always crafting something — she made me a delicate cross-stitch with tiny flowers that said Fresh out of fucks and a sea glass necklace, found from her walks on the beach in Ireland. She texted me: “Sea glass heals. All those years in saltwater have to mean something, right?”
But as I was healing and my doctor declared my disease was likely gone, in September 2017, Nancy messaged me that she was sick with the same awful cancer.
“Laying here in hospital bed a week with mystery fluid in my gut. Test just returned with markers for malignant ovarian cancer. Any advice appreciated. I don’t know who to turn to other than Google right now.”
I couldn’t believe it.
It just wasn’t fucking fair. It was like it jumped from me and took residence in her, which I know is not true, but when you go through these things you ruminate crazy thoughts. I’d hoped to help my friend through her illness via my own experience. But she was stage 4 where I’d been stage 2; chances for her recovery were bleak.
So we talked, and messaged and talked some more from so far away. I sent her a cozy blanket covered in images of Bowie, she’d send back pictures of her daughter and her dog snuggled up in it. She forbid me from prayers, or from offers to help, or from visiting her in Ireland. None of it. “Just talk to me.”
We’d compare notes on our cancers and she’d ask, “Transvaginal ultrasounds — are you telling everyone they need to get them?” (Okay, I am telling you now — that’s how we both discovered something was wrong.)
“We went to the sea today and walked on the main street and I told the candy shop guy I had cancer and his face dropped. I have no idea why I did that. I’m not telling anyone again,” she said. But she’d share the details of her situation with me: “My life revolves around 16 pills a day. Naps.” And much worse.
Her last message to me was actually a brief text on December 22, 2019. She’d seen the news about the car pileup in Williamsburg, VA, where she knew my husband and I were travelling for the holidays. She wanted to know if I was okay. Of course she did, that was Nancy.
She passed away two weeks later on January 6, 2020. She was only 49.
Another dark Philly bar, this time Fergie’s Pub at 12th and Sansom Streets this past Sunday. A room packed to the walls with friends and musicians there to honor the late Nancy Falkow.
She would have both hated the attention and been thrilled at the standing-room-only crowd. For me it was a flashback to the ’90s, with bands I’d covered back then back to perform — Bowie songs, favorites of Nancy’s and some of Nancy’s own songs. People, including me, shared memories of Nancy, laugh-out-loud, tear-jerking, wonderful stories. For other musicians she was “our cheerleader and greatest promoter.” Or what a bad driver she was when she was telling a story. “Nancy was driving and her foot would go on the gas and off the gas, because she was sharing this juicy gossip,” said bassist Joanne Schmidt. “By the time we got to the gig I was so nauseous. It was worth it for her storytelling.”
But the moment that brought me to tears was when Jennifer Lynn, now a radio DJ, took the stage to perform Nancy’s “Victrola.” Jennifer was often on Nancy’s recordings, harmonizing to Nancy’s melodies. She sang Nancy’s part this time, of course, and it made me ache. She is now missing, from the very things she made.
“I don't need another metaphor to tell me how you feel,
I don't need nothing like photographs,
I just need what is real,
I want to walk with you,
Through space and time.”
Nancy was all at once there in our midst, but we also felt the absence of her so strongly. I just cried.
I wanted to be able to tell Nancy about this concert for her, and that she’d been written up in at least three newspapers. As one musician there put it, “Man, I gotta try this death thing — it’s great publicity!” Nancy would have cracked up. But there is no longer any Nancy to tell.
In response, and with a bit of an OCD flair, I’ve been gathering up her old texts, emails, messages, and DMs in bucketfuls, like: Here she is! She’s still here!
I scrolled through old messages, about my trip to Singapore; about her Moog keyboard, which after holding on to it for 10 years I had sold (“You SOLD it?” I know! I’m sorry!); about when Lou Reed died; when I lost my job; when she started a new charity; when she started making sea glass jewelry; when I started TueNight…
I searched to find the oldest messages I could, to the time before either of us had cancer, when life was a little less serious. In our first Facebook message in 2009 she was bemoaning that my ex-boyfriend was asking to be her friend, “Are YOU his friend?” she asked. I can hear her say it, even though this is words on a screen.
And I busted out laughing. Turns out I can walk with my friend “through space and time,” if only just a bit. And I know that’s real, just like she sang it.
Every time you listen to Nancy on Spotify, her family gets a bit of a royalty which will go directly to her daughter’s college fund. That would make Nancy super happy.