There’s an underlying mathematical truth to human life. At age 20 you most likely have your whole life to live over three more times. By 30 you’re down to roughly two more shots. At 40 you’ve only one more spin and from there on in there’s a countdown clock edging its way into ill health and ever reduced physical and mental agility. A series of predictions: in the next ten to fifteen years we’ll bear witness to the deaths of most anyone who was in at the birth of rock n’ roll and its successor, pop. We’ll lose a majority of the 70s rock generation too, the casualties among the punk pioneers will mount and there’ll be early finishes amid the beautiful young things of the early 80s. “Time, ladies and gentlemen please!”
We’re witnessing the passing of an era into history. David Bowie was born in 1947; he was 18 in 1965 – teenage fans of that bygone age have passed their mid-sixties. Soon the people who saw Hendrix in his pomp; caught Cream at the Royal Albert Hall; wept at the breakup of the Beatles – they’ll be living relics thrust before TV cameras to tell us of a time we can no longer touch. To the majority of music fans under 30, these deaths will mean very little, just as the rock generation shrugged at the passing of 50s crooners and Dixieland jazz veterans. It will be yet more wooly-headed nonsense that old people and the occasional music nerd claim to be important. Music culture, even in this age of graverobbing reissues and posthumous careers, is still primarily a zone of limited memory. We all fool ourselves that our personal loves will be remembered any more than we recall who were the music industry’s stars of 1916.
Youth culture, as sold to the young, permits death only when wrapped up in the anti-heroics of ‘live fast, die young’, of lives on a photogenic, glamorously dangerous edge. The violent deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious BIG became thrilling Hollywood primetime material. By contrast, Eazy-E slipping away in a hospital as AIDS ravaged his body was unromantic, grim and ultimately terrifying. That’s the truth; pop music is flooded with death in a dozen hues but it remains escapism – a sea of suburban kids dreaming gangsta dreams or doomed vampire romances. The reality of death – for the majority of us – forms the ultimate taboo in music. The reality of your death and mine won’t come with your hands on your head or on the trigger of a gun. It’ll be a slow fall into mental befuddlement or catheterized decay. Lovely.
Very few stars of yesteryear are permitted much media space – their visible decrepitude is life spitting scornfully in the glossy eye of the latest teen pin-up. No one, at age 18 truly comprehends their own demise and no one who reaches enlightment in the decades thereafter wants to be reminded of it. Pop fans want to be sold the elixir of eternal youth – the industry works to shroud them in the imagery of teen spirit to ward away creeping death’s day-to-day shade. A small number of musicians, and only a small number, possess access to the cash, technology and support that lets them fake youth a while longer. However, there’s no escaping the sour milk scent of the human body hitting expiration date. They can cut, tuck, train and tweak their bodies into a hollow forgery of youth but – of those who don’t wind up as semi-embalmed manikins or cautionary tales about the dangers of plastic surgery – few remain real stars.
That tiny remnant who retain star billing do so because they can be used as living illustrations of pop’s narrative of immortality. Their status relies heavily on their apparent defiance of age. In the case of Lemmy, his superhuman capacity for over-indulgence became his main selling point with a media who would never show much interest in his music. The apparent indestructability of Ozzy, Iggy or of Keith falls into the same freak show category where fame comes through survival. Another model would be the age-defying marathon sets of a Bob Dylan or a Bruce Springsteen – for those hours they’re on stage, they seem to summon the endurance and energy of men half their age. Finally, there are the resurrected – a McCartney or a Bowie – that tiny number still seeking new musical horizons. Certain stars are permitted to endure because in some way they resist the decline that takes mere mortals.
But it’s a lie. It relies on a nexus of the willing self-deception of audiences; on the media’s desire for archetypes readymade to tell a certain type of story; on each artist’s knowing concealment of their own frailty – on all three participants in the chain swallowing the mythology and self-mythology with barely a whispered protest in the name of truth.
This isn’t to say that their defiance isn’t brave, or doesn’t retain a beauty. But that isn’t all there is. The last years of Lemmy are also about diabetes, hypertension, the damage caused by alcohol and drug usage, shows stopped for lung infections and haematoma, of aggressive cancer. It’s the story of a human being dying just a couple of years over retirement age. Bowie’s tale also is one of a retreat from the public eye after a 2004 heart issue, of carefully choreographed appearances allowing make-up, fashion and effects to hide damage before an 18 month battle with cancer. There’s no defiance in their deaths because there is no defying death – one doesn’t choose to live or die. My father, with a knowing smile, described his heart operations as “keeping me alive long enough to die of something else,” and that’s all that exercise, diet, clean-living, joie de vivre, pills, doctors and love will gain us.
The papers will quietly usher the unsavory figure of cancer behind a curtain, will ‘celebrate life’ by which they mean they’ll repeat younger images over and over so there’s no space left to remember that even our Peter Pan stars die with their jaws hanging open. No one wants to know, let alone buy it.
So is there heroism in this tale? There’s little doubt Bowie released his final album in full knowledge of impending death. Instead of merely ignoring what was coming, he deliberately bound it at the heart of his last artistic statement and, in so doing, he briefly cracked the rejection of death that dictates normal musical times. The burst of momentum provided by coverage of his death is driving stark, grim death to the top spot worldwide. The lyrics of the Blackstar album dance around his last days. The video for ‘Lazarus’ sneaks the image of a craggy old man lain in a hospital bed to millions of views across the globe; the imagined ghost under the bed, our simplest fear, death, is present; a frightened and tense figure scrawls frantically in apparent fear of time running out before retreating back into hiding in the closet where society tucks the undesirable elements about which it doesn’t want to ask, doesn’t want to tell. The video for ‘Blackstar’ foregrounds the worship of a bejeweled skull – a celebrity – as bodies twitch, eyesight fails, as dance moves become gross convulsions. And, at the centre of it all, it’s not a black star – it’s a dead one.