I’ve just hared through Stewart Lee’s stand-up-comedy-memoir-cum-manifesto How I Escaped My Certain Fate. Throughout the book Lee wrestles with the distinctions between high art and showbiz, the mainstream and the alternative. He is constantly catching himself in the act of taking himself too seriously – a central plank of his comedy persona.
One of the best examples of this self-conscious alternative-ness comes in a piece Lee wrote for the (mainstream-shunning) magazine Wire and which he reprints as an appendix – for this is a book with appendices and footnotes. He writes
there’s a kind of social need both for songs we can all sing, and for jokes about buses always being late, and men being different to women, and dogs being different to cats. Only the most extreme Wire subscriber would deny the potential of all-embracing, utilitarian art. It’s just that all-embracing, utilitarian art tends to be a bit shit. When millions wept for their own mortality after the death of Princess Diana, all they were offered was an Elton John song with the words changed a bit.
Enough ink has been spilt on the reaction to Diana’s death – bizarre anthropological case study that it was – but Lee reminded me of the particular oddness of Candle In The Wind 1997. The fact that Elton chose to pay tribute to his late friend by rejigging a song about Marilyn Monroe. The laziness of it, the impersonal vagueness.
Last weekend, and you might well say this wasn’t the most horrific thing that happened last weekend, but last weekend Amy Winehouse died. And like many people, I found this out on Twitter, and like many people I expressed my sadness about it on Twitter (as if the Social Media Gods might otherwise have berated me for my callous silence). And within moments, variations on the following started appearing in my Twitter feed:
Amy Winehouse dies, joins 27 Club with Kurt, Janis, Jimi
I got angry about this. So angry I started unfollowing tweeps (which is serious: the online equivalent of Hamlet and Laertes fighting in Ophelia’s grave). I got angry because this whole idea of a 27 Club – the age at which rock stars supposedly tend to die – bespeaks one of the following attitudes:
- doltish superstition.
- inability to prioritise information, to the point where, in a story about the death of a famous and unstable musician whose career contained moments of real genius, the most important detail appears to be her age.
- idiotic and irresponsible glamourisation of a destructive lifestyle and the cult of dying young.
- inability to disconnect the real human being, who had departed life only a few hours previously, from her pop-cultural avatar. So that the “Amy” of tabloid notoriety, of magazine-cover cool, of sketch-show parody, of cartoon beehive – a kind of Dark Diana, if you like – had already become so unreal and mythologised that her death was just the enactment of a #meme.
The 27 Club thing is tasteless and dehumanising in just the way that Candle In The Wind 1997 was tasteless and dehumanising. It turns people into Pop Art Ideas: Marilyn and Diana are variations on The Tragic Blonde; Amy and Janis and Kurt and Jimi are versions of The Rock Hedonist. Reader, it pissed me off.
But then maybe the whole business of grieving for someone you never knew (except, in this case, through some remarkable music) brings its own kind of dehumanisation, debasing the coin of grief to the point of worthlessness. I don’t know.
The night after she died, just after dawn, I was on a London night bus. Directly behind me was a man who had had a drink. He was singing, very loudly and not wholly tunefully, the song ‘Love Is A Losing Game’ (as featured in Cambridge University exam papers). “Played out by the band / Love is a losing hand / More than I could stand / Love is a losing hand”. The singer would pause occasionally to shout “she’s dead!” like a mad seer in a Greek play, while his girlfriend quietly repeated the mantra “I hate you with a passion, I hate you with a passion.” It was, in itself, a very Winehousian vignette. Impressively for a man in his condition, the singer’s recall of the lyrics was flawless. “Self professed, profound / Till the chips were down / Though you’re a gambling man / Love is a losing hand.”
Hell of a song.