Alan Rickman

Retro Tuesday: The Year Celebrity Died?

FROM DAVID BOWIE to Glenn Frey, the first days of 2016 have seen an extraordinary number of well known, much-loved international celebrities pass on; the trend concurs with the ageing of the Baby Boomer generation — on whose watch the phenomenon of “celebrity” first appeared — and most of those who have succumbed in recent days are part of that generation. Is 2016 the year celebrity died?

I had intended to publish this piece very late last night, in time to catch readers over their coffee, but time beat me to the punch; in some respects I am pleased it did, although not for particularly pleasant reasons, for the day has brought the news of the passing of former Eagles singer and guitarist Glenn Frey at the age of 67.

2016 is shaping as one of those years — for all the wrong reasons — when it comes to high profile entertainment figures taking their final curtain; just nine days ago the world was shocked by the passing of David Bowie (or “Ziggy Stardust” as he was wont to be called) and since then British actor Alan Rickman and former Grizzly Adams actor Dan Haggerty have passed on as well.

All of them died in their late 60s — the generation of my parents — and indeed, some of these gentlemen were older than my own father, who will turn 68 in April. Frey is six months younger than my father. A very dear friend of mine who I unfortunately don’t see much of these days thanks to the tyranny of distance lost his own father a few weeks ago at just 66. It’s a sobering thought, and a reminder that as wonderful as life is there are some horrible certainties that come with the deal: and as those who know me often hear me remark, we’re not 18 and invincible any more. I’m 43. You never know when the supply of “tomorrows” will finally run out.

Of the four, Frey provided me with what I thought, in the flush of youth, was a song that might have been written for me: setting aside another personal epithet in the form of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” (and no, I’ve never been known for an abundance of subtlety), a more positive anthem arrived in 1986 in the form of “You Belong To The City” — and I am, by my own admission and the ready assent of those around me, the ultimate “big city boy.”

The point of the passage of time is underscored by the barely believable realisation, as I write, that that smashing 1986 hit is 30 years old this year; old enough to stand on its own two feet if it were human, to vote, fight in a war, get married and have kids. Perhaps the analogy is a little silly, but the 14-year-old whose life revolved around the weekly Top 50 chart, relishing the ridicule that accompanied reading the political section of the newspaper every morning before school in full sight of school buddies to stay abreast of the world’s events, watching reruns of Doctor Who, and illicitly following the Carlton Football Club in the rugby league town I grew up in (to follow Australian Rules football in Queensland back in the 1980s was to risk a belting) seems like a kid I embodied just the metaphorical five minutes ago.

It’s hard not to make the link between the big names who have departed this month and the Baby Boomer generation, whose eldest members grew up watching the very earliest rock and roll acts in the late 1950s just as they were hitting their teenage years; these were the people whose adolescence and early adulthood coincided with phenomena such as The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys — all now gone or, to be unkind, going — and whose relatively early years spanned the disco age of the 1970s and saw in the mad, greedy 1980s with its big hair, big sounds, and have-it-at-any-cost consumer culture and Yuppiedom.

In fact, it isn’t a stretch to suggest the whole contemporary cult of celebrity is a construct of, and a (dubious) legacy from, the Baby Boomer generation.

But I can’t recall the last time so many big name stars died in such rapid succession; certainly, none of these passings is in the same league as, say, Princess Diana, and the best precedent that springs immediately to mind was the passing of Australian identity Steve Irwin and motor racing legend Peter Brock, four days apart, a decade ago this September coming.

People will have their own reflections on some or all (or maybe even none) of the figures who’ve taken a bow this month, but what makes these people special — and they are just people, we must remember, before anyone ascribes immortality to any of them — is the way their work provides bookmarks in our own lives where the two overlap, in the way we remember a moment we watched a movie “with” them, or how one of their songs accurately and uncannily mirrored a certain phase, good or bad, as we went about our business.

Certainly, these people (and any who follow them into involuntary final retirement) will live on; and just as those closest to them will remember them personally, the rest of us will ensure their public faces continue to be seen and heard even after they have left the stage.

But is the cult of celebrity dying? Hardly, for I believe it’s one of the least desirable bequests our parents have lumped us with. But perhaps this is the time when a disproportionate number of its earliest practitioners disappear from the land of the living.

It’s a salutary reminder that time is marching on; and it brings up today’s double shot — giving the final word, no less, to Bowie.

It seems fitting — even as everyone seems to have their own perfect Bowie song of the month this month, and so many of them are called “Major Tom” — to put one of his more thoughtful works in motion on the subject of change; Bowie’s pithy, wistful reflections on the tribulations of life seem apt, and without further comment today, I’ll leave readers to their own thoughts as they listen to it now.