And the motherload of research shows that when people are amazing (or even good) in one area, this tends to transmit to perceptions in other areas (the “halo effect”). Nathan Heflick, Psychology Today, accessed, 20th August, 2017.
When I was 11, I wrote in my diary on the 16th August 1977 that Elvis had died. It was the only thing I wrote in my diary for the whole of that year such was the impact that his death had: a factoid I felt I would need to remember, because Elvis was only 42 and he was special and talented. And everyone was shocked. You could go nowhere without someone talking about this man who had made an impact and who had died too young. My next door neighbour, Horace, even sang a song in the street in his honour. It was ‘In the Ghetto’ and Horace was off key.
In truth, I don’t think Elvis was a celebrity that I had a particular interest in and certainly no crush (I saved that for Captain James T. Kirk, Manolito Montoya and David Starsky) but the waves of pain that rolled around the world reverberated in King’s Bench Street. My street. How could this happen? What had we contributed to his death? Where we somehow responsible? What was this collective grief we all seemed to feel?
Elvis was too young when he died. He was under enormous pressure and had entered into a kind of pact with the devil. It is rare for celebrities to reach such momentous heights and impossible for them to sustain. They get thrown into a place where they exist for their fans in a way that is inhuman and totally unreasonable. They seem to be infused with mythic status: as though they are not like us mere mortals imbued as they are with an almighty gift that we can barely comprehend. It is nonsense of course – talented or not, they are only human with the same frailties that we all have.
With the benefit of history, I can see how such fame goes in waves – how the exposure Elvis had meant that his real, his ordinary life was limited. He couldn’t nip to the shop in his shorts and buy something without being mobbed. He lost all sense of freedom. It’s tragic.
In my adult years I bought an album of Elvis’ that records him on stage. There is an interaction on it he has with his fans where it is clear that they want more from him than he has to give. There is sadness in it. But the fans, all women in this recording, have gone beyond the para-social interaction that we often have with celebrities (and people of our crushes, generally) – “a one-sided, intense relationship we have with” famous people sometimes (Abby Norman on The Mary Sue blog.) On the On Stage album, Elvis draws reference to hotel keys he has received and asks who they belong to. I imagine that kind of adoration wears thin, eventually if you’re essentially a decent, ordinary person with an extraordinary talent.
It was not far off Christmas when John Lennon was shot dead in the street outside his apartment. It was the 8th December 1980 and he was 40. He was killed by a man (Mark Chapman) who wanted to be famous and who had, earlier in the day, asked for Lennon’s autograph. He shot him at point blank range: firing five shots and hitting with four. Lennon stood no chance at all.
The pain felt by those who knew him must have been unbelievable, and for the world this pain went on and on. There was a vigil of 100k just yards away from where Lennon was shot days later, and on the day following the shooting many Liverpudlians gathered in Mathew Street, by the Cavern Club were Beatlemania had begun. I am not old enough to have been a Beatles fan, but his death also meant the death of any kind of reunion, too.
I often wonder what John Lennon would have produced next had he lived. He was a man of multiple talents and the world was robbed of the maturing of his gifts, all that he might have produced as time went on.
There is a void that occurs – even more so then when there wasn’t 24 hour news or the internet. I remember waiting for the updates, and scouring every newspaper on my paper round to understand what had happened, to understand why it had happened and to understand what would happen next. Because you feel an ownership of the talent of such iconic people, you imagine that there will, somehow, be a satisfactory end but there isn’t because they have gone, and even their specialness cannot make them super-human and survive what we ourselves couldn’t survive. And that is like a double-grief – they are like us and unlike us, after all.
Another death I remember as equally shocking was that of Freddie Mercury. I remember hearing about this and driving to the shops on my lunch break to buy a newspaper, to confirm the truth of it. He was not Elvis, of course, but he was another man who was mega talented and another man who was much too young at the time of his death.
Elvis and Mercury seem to me to be miles away in terms of their personalities and what they stood for, but that they both succumbed to excess seems to be undisputed. Mercury was a man who had no capability of holding back: that’s what the records show. But not only was he mega-talented, the day before his death it had been announced that he was HIV positive and had AIDS. It is probably hard for those not around at this time to understand the significance of this announcement and the bravery it must have taken to make it. Mercury was openly hounded in the British press to ‘admit’ this diagnosis and it still seems to me to be shameful that a man can’t keep his final illness to himself. In spite of the announcement, it still felt wretchedly unfair that his talent should be extinguished at 45.
Finally, I’d like to talk about Princess Diana. I was away in a caravan on my own in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales when she died. I had had the radio on and then, switched it off to work on a play that I was commissioned to write. When I switched the radio back on, the programme that should have been playing wasn’t. Instead, there was strange funereal music. I thought at first the Queen Mum had died: without putting too fine a point on it, that was overdue. It was 31st August, 1997 – twenty years ago.
I waited, trying to concentrate on what I should have been doing but I kept getting caught up in the music and distracted. And then the announcement came: Diana was dead. Of all the deaths I have spoken of here, this was the most extraordinary in terms of the outpouring of grief by a population of people. It was very unBritish the way we behaved – not all of us, of course, but significant numbers. 32.1 million people were said to have watched her funeral – many more than half of the total population of the country.
I have never fully understood the complexity of our response to Diana, or the shift in the behaviour of many: hundreds wept openly. I am sure millions share the memories of the banks of flowers, of the Queen humbly accepting (though not stating) she had misjudged the mood of the people, the journey of the Princess’ coffin with the flowers thrown onto the bonnet of the hearse, the young princes walking behind the gun carriage that carried their mother. These images are well known to us all: imprinted on our collective memory.
It was something about her popularity, something about the shoddy way she seemed to have been treated (we Brits like an underdog, and we especially like an underdog who takes on the establishment, up to a point), something about the courage she had shown in touching AIDs victims, in looking after the homeless and the dying and so on seemed real to us, when perhaps other royals seemed distant and unmoved by most things. I am not immortalising her. I am sure she was as damaged and neurotic as the rest of us, and yet, there was something about her desire to be Princess of hearts that had a sincerity to it that touched people. That still touches people. She was a champion of the down trodden.
Of course, she was also fabulously wealthy and privileged. She was and remains one of the most popular and iconic celebrities of the 20th century, and I am uncertain whether any sudden death will ever reverberate in the way hers did to the British people again in anything like the same way.