Let’s get the obvious out of the way, 2016 is just a number, an arbitrary one. We aren’t even certain that it measures the duration it’s supposed to. Laps around the sun are also an arbitrary time unit. That said, most of the world uses the Gregorian calendar, and it seems like an extraordinary number of stars have passed away this year. It’s not just how many stars we’ve lost, but the quality of them.
This post is about two things. First, I’m going to go through a partial list of stars who have died this year, and it’s important to stress, sadly, thus far who have affected my life in some way, and in doing so, I’m going to write a little bit about how they affected my life in a personal way. I’m going to finish by writing about what if anything, so much death means and whether it’s worth making any kind of judgment about the year.
I’m going to go in chronological order, except for Bowie, who I’ll save for the end.
Alan Rickman was a Brit playing a European bad guy in Die Hard. I was not a Bruce Willis fan, but you’re supposed to side with the hero, and I just couldn’t because of Rickman’s brilliant performance.
My career at PlayStation was a game of two halves. The first half was misery, the second a jubilant comeback that I keep comparing to Liverpool’s win in the 2005 European Cup Final, the year I joined. During the dark years, when I wanted to leave, but couldn’t, because I wasn’t good enough to do anything else and I wasn’t bad enough to be fired, I played Hotel California a lot.
During the glory years, I played the song often out of whimsy, because I became so invested in the company I worked at.
After I left, I realised that part of me would always be PlayStation and so I still play Hotel California, but the song has changed with me. It contains the most musical call and response guitar solo ever recorded and I doubt it will ever be bettered.
I watched Terry Wogan because there was nothing else to watch on British TV in the evenings during my teenage years. What struck me about Wogan is how witty he managed to be without ever being salacious. When I felt rebellious, I thought him too clean, but most of the time, I appreciated his class in not being influenced by any salaciousness in his guests. I learned a lot about character from Wogan and I miss his dulcet tones.
September has been a favourite since it came out. Earth Wind and Fire were the epitome of joy, so when I deliberately transformed from loser to winner in 2011, I used every technique in the book. One of those techniques was a morning soundtrack of joy and positivity. September was part of that short soundtrack and it still takes me back to the occasional moment in my childhood when I’d forget just how shit my life was and be lost in unbridled joy.
I knew The Beatles more by their solo efforts after their split, but as I grew up and started listening to the influencers of my generation’s stars, I appreciated that the magic of this band was given its sheen and presence by a master Producer. He took the best band in the history of pop music and made them much better. The Beatles had a sound. George Martin was as much part of the sound as any member of the band. I listened to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band yesterday. It is probably the greatest album ever made and the sound still stands up today as profoundly, shockingly innovative.
I grew up watching Thunderbirds, but it was cool to watch Space 1999. The first series was the best. As half of the production company that created these and many other shows, her work is deeply interwoven into my childhood. I look at all the modern science fiction influenced by Space 1999, including the brilliant Moon by Duncan Jones and I feel that part of my childhood lives on.
I loved Corbett and Barker, the Two Ronnies, and for many of us who grew up with three channels of television, it was hard not to. They were by far the funniest people on TV and were responsible for lifting the mood of the nation at a time when it was still possible for comedy to be part of a country’s circadian rhythm. Corbett was cheeky, kind and witty.
What I loved about Wood was that she was primarily strong and compassionate at a time when it was difficult for women to succeed in show business with those qualities. She was a real woman, the type of women we knew, but rarely saw on our TV sets. When she took to the airwaves, it genuinely felt like she was one of ours.
Me and Cos would often do all-nighters at BITS, a development studio in North London where we were two of its leading lights. We had our own teams and were in different rooms, but sometimes we’d take a break and he’d blast Prince non-stop. We’d kick a football down the corridors and sometimes we’d smash empty boxes in a frenzy of laughter, aping our martial arts heroes splendidly. Prince was the soundtrack of our all-nighters.
What boy born in the 1960s doesn’t love James Bond? And how many of them can argue that Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever aren’t the perfect bookends to Sean Connery’s outing as our favourite secret agent?
These films had a shape, a structure and a presence that together made them majestic archetypes.
My brother would play Diamonds Are Forever constantly on our family’s VHS player, so I can’t think of this, or the other Bond films he played constantly, but particularly the ones directed by Hamilton without thinking about him.
My siblings and I would role play The Return of the Pink Panther because that was a film we must have watched over a hundred times. And the line we still repeat is Clouseau’s “Cato? Cato!” as Kwouk’s character hid in order to test his employer’s reflexes.
I watched Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman against all the odds, live on a black and white telly in a family friend’s house in Wimbledon. The talk for weeks was about the sensational knock out dealt to a man most thought could not be stopped. I remember him being called “The Greatest” without a trace of irony. I remember the tears welling up as I watched his former sparring partner ease off on him as Ali’s career and body faded before our eyes. I remember the pride me and my peers felt that Ali was black and Muslim and yet had utterly transcended that in the conscience of billions, and the example he set by putting all worldly gains aside for his principles, an example whose quality seems to have been forgotten. His kind will never be seen again.
I loved Wings and I loved Live and Let Die. Although the orchestra is what most people remember from one of my favourite Bond themes, the song was driven by McCullough’s guitar. It’s not the best Bond theme, but it’s the one I’ve listened to the most often. My brother is part of the reason, but the enduring nature of the harmonic intricacy is another.
Who from my generation can ever forget how Mrs. Merton, Caroline Aherne’s spectacularly successful character, put the mighty Chris Eubank to the sword in the most daring way imaginable. I think the nation drew its breath, because the studio audience certainly did. It was when I first learned that a character can get away with things that the person behind the character simply can’t. Any modern celebrity has since learned this technique. Katy Hopkins, detestable though she comes across, might have been the most successful at reducing the apparent distance between the mask and the person behind it.
What I remember most vividly about seeing Star Wars in the cinema when it came out was that this was the first time I saw that a robot could be cute and full of character despite not uttering a single recognisable word.
I watched Blazing Saddles with my friend on video soon after it came out. As teenagers, we loved the shock factor. Like The Blues Brothers, knowing this film was part of our teenage lives. We were divided into two camps. Those who’d seen Blazing Saddles and those who had not. My brother still calls me up and cites lines from this film. It took real risks and was shockingly funny despite them. Mel Brooks genius is apparent in this and many other films, but Gene Wilder was magnificent. What my non-white friends and I loved about this film was that it took the Western movie stereotype and revealed the shocking racism that was so conveniently whitewashed. The comedy format is what allowed Brooks, Wilder and the other stars to pull this off without it turning into a political football. It probably couldn’t come out today.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was everyman’s spy show from America. We didn’t have much to watch, because three channels, so we mopped up pretty much anything that was vaguely cool. Robert Vaughn was definitely very cool. And he didn’t have the second ‘a’ in his surname, which gave him an edge, but let’s face it, Napoleon Solo was probably the coolest character name of any spy show ever.
The moon landing of 1969 was probably the most hopeful moment in the history of humanity. I loved the American space programme so much because it represented all that was positive about humanity to me as a child. Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth.
As a ten-year-old, I embroidered a space themed patch and had my mum machine it onto my jacket. So when Elon Musk started talking about a mission to Mars with humans, the ten-year-old in me woke up and remembered the beacon raised so high above our skies by the likes of Gagarin, Armstrong, Aldrin and John Glenn.
I rarely smoke these days, maybe once a month on my travels. I have the odd cigar or pipe too. Ex-smokers can be a bit much and I always said I’d never be one of those, and my favourite smoking quote is from AA Gill, one of the finest journalists that Britain has ever had.
WHEN ON occasion I’m asked by groups of aspiring writers what they should do to get on, my advice is always, emphatically, smoke. Smoke often and smoke with gusto. It’s a little known, indeed little researched, fact of literature and journalism that no non smoker is worth reading. And writers who give up become crashing bores.”
He was as brilliant on Brexit.
We all know what ‘getting our country back’ means. It’s snorting a line of the most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug, nostalgia. The warm, crumbly, honey-coloured, collective “yesterday” with its fond belief that everything was better back then, that Britain (England, really) is a worse place now than it was at some foggy point in the past where we achieved peak Blighty.
Britain has lost a peerless voice. The nation, and the language are poorer without him.
Tim Ferriss as you know is a hero of mine. I love Ferriss because despite his critics, he’s unashamedly fallible, self-deprecating and very human. He studies successful people and shares their methods and mindsets on his podcast and has collated the best of his life success nuggets in his latest tome, Tools of Titans. One technique that many creatives employ is the use of a repeated song, movie or film on in the background, almost like a mantra. You hear it so much that the surprise in the content disappears and you’re left with focus. I’ve practiced this for decades thinking it insignificant, or even lazy.
I remember vividly listening to George Michael’s Faith on auto repeat while I finished Pandora, the last full, original game I developed back in the late 1980s. Creative projects often have hidden soundtracks and Pandora’s was Faith. This was when George Michael threw off the shackles of the boy band image and became a risqué pop star worthy of wide respect, though his talent was never in any doubt.
Leia was strong, bold, confident and gutsy, but not more so than Fisher herself, whose public discussion of her flaws served as a template for the modern era, where pretty much every star does exactly the same.
There is a distinction between an artist and a performer. Performance is a skill. It can be learned. Art is produced when a person becomes a medium for feeling that originates in subconsciousness. The genius of artists comes from their choice of filter and their mode of expression.
I was always deeply affected by music. In secondary school, my knowledge and taste in contemporary music was acute. I say this not to boast, it was my only superpower. At home I was a bullied and deeply damaged bed wetting type 1 diabetic, constantly in and out of hospital. Death toyed with me like a cat with a captured mouse. At school, when I wasn’t racially bullied, I knew music like nobody else. I listened to John Peel on my cheap transistor radio, from Monday to Thursday night, without fail, from 10pm to midnight. It helped that Peel was a Liverpool fan and this was when Liverpool were the greatest club side in the world.
The first time I appreciated the difference between performance and art was when I watched the 1980 Kenny Everett Video Show New Year’s Eve special, which featured, if I recall correctly, Gary Numan singing the song that gives this piece its title, and David Bowie with his stark, acoustic rendition of Space Oddity.
I was a huge Gary Numan fan. I’d bought everything Numan did until Strange Charm, though he’d lost his mojo by Berserker. I’d been listening to Numan and Bowie for years, but Bowie seemed like a hero from the past, who was clearly influencing stars of my generation, like Numan. Except that when Bowie performed Space Oddity, there was something ethereal, haunted, mesmerising about him. He wasn’t performing Space Oddity; he was channeling it.
Three years earlier, David Bowie was my companion as I walked back ten miles back from my dad’s place after we had a major falling out, pushing the bike he’d bought me all the way because I still hadn’t learned how to ride it properly. The previous December he’d bought me a Walkman copy that was now playing Bowies greatest hits on cassette, endlessly. At 12, nobody else in my short life had developed the canon of music that Bowie had and that had also meant so much to me. As I walked home confused, crying, defiant, anxious, Bowie, who I was still too young to understand fully seemed to know exactly how I was feeling, because his music, his voice, was how I was feeling.
What does this mean?
So much has been written on this year’s unholy count of death that I feel that what each of these human beings represents beyond the grief publicly expressed at their passing has been somewhat glossed over.
We all die. That’s the tragedy and beauty of life. We want to experience so much, but are filled with the dread of knowing that we will barely scratch the surface of all that life has to offer. Even the greats feel this.
The passing of so many people who were woven so indissolubly into the fabric of my life in a single year means that what I feel is a kind of spiritual amputation. A large part of what it means to be me died this year. It’s not just a reminder that life is short, it’s the partial death of my identity, and I suspect that given the incompleteness of my list, this year of dying amounts to the same for many of you.