Humans die; it happens every minute, every hour, every day. A lot of people die far sooner than they would have done in a fair, kind world, and a small handful outstay their welcome to the point of audacity. We seem to have lost a disproportionate number of famous names this year; Death has been on quite the spree among our best-loved celebrities. (Someone’s keeping tabs on Jagger, Attenborough, Dench and McKellen, right?) Bukowski nailed it best in ‘It’s strange’: “the trouble with the famous is that they must be replaced and they can never quite be replaced, and that gives us this unique sadness.”
It’s rather tedious that now, when someone famous dies, snark is an inevitable side order to the obligatory outpouring of grief on social media. Out come the Feelings Police, telling people what they can and can’t be sad about. When, in January, Bowie fans gathered on Twitter to their favourite songs and moments and to try and articulate what Bowie meant to them, Times journalist Camilla Long made this delightful observation:
I kind of want to unpick Long’s tweet, word by word – because aside from anything else, I have strong doubts that she would have said this out loud to one of her friends or acquaintances, had they disclosed to her their reaction to Bowie’s death. So why was she happy to say it on Twitter? I have very limited patience with those special snowflakes who just have to be different. You know the type; we all have at least one in our social circles. The kind of person who only ever plays Devil’s advocate in discussions. The kind of person who clings to cynicism like a comfort blanket, who only ever has the ‘controversial’ opinion. Everyone has the right to their own opinions, obviously – as someone who spouts hers on a regular basis on the internet, of course I’m in favour of people being able to voice even their most problematic thoughts, provided they’re prepared to own and defend them rationally – but there’s a fine line between ‘controversial’ and ‘plain dickish’.
And I think we know which side of that line Camilla Long’s tweet falls on.
Anyway, anyway – the point of this post was not in fact to slag off Camilla Long, it was more to defend people’s right to express their sorrow when famous people die. Especially in a year that’s seen so many truly original lives come to an end. The kind of people that don’t come along all that often. People who invented themselves, who designed their own lives. No – they didn’t just design their own lives, they were the architects and the showrunners and the performers of their lives. They got here and looked at all the people around them, all the definitions and boundaries, and decided to be brave enough to be different.
And as soon as one person is brave enough to invent themselves, to design their own life to their own specification, it makes it possible for other people to do the same. The weird kids, the oddballs, the outsiders, the people who feel they don’t fit any of the existing templates for human beings – when one person is brave enough to invent themselves, it creates a map for those most likely to get lost.
And when those glittering humans, those almost-aliens, those rainbow fish in a sea of herring die, we grieve. We mourn publicly and unashamedly. Because that’s partly the point, isn’t it? A good quarter of the point of being Prince, or being David Bowie, is that people cannot quite fathom a world without you. The world looks different now you’ve been it. People feel the loss of you, like you’re a cathedral or a bridge – our whole cultural landscape is different now you’re not on it. We’ll always have the music, the films, the archive footage, but now there’s a thread of sadness in every note, word and still, because the potential for new art is gone. The guitar strings will no longer ring and hum, the voice is silenced.
But if there is a heaven – and I’m fairly sure there isn’t, but we can’t be absolutely certain – there’s one hell of a jam session happening there right now.
Guys, I need your help – DB’s band Iron Chef are going to be recording a couple of tracks soon, but I’m told that Tear Another Page, easily their best song by a country mile*, hasn’t made the shortlist. You can listen to an acoustic demo version of it here or, if you really fucking love drummers, you can listen here (13:11). It’s gorgeous and melodic and I need you to petition the band so that they record it and then I can own it. THANKS.
*I mean, only according to me, but I have excellent taste.