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'It's not about celebrity, it's about the way we can be touched in our souls by artists of genius'

By Eamonn McCann

Published 23/04/2016

Prince
Prince
Jimi Hendrix
Amy Winehouse
Victoria Wood

One of the reasons celebrities are dying in seemingly unprecedented numbers is that there's more of them now than ever before. Also, the grief and lamentation which arise reflect the fact that we are, or can imagine we are, closer to our celebrities than ever was possible in the past.

Over the last couple of tear-drenched days, a number of feature pieces have quoted accredited experts suggesting that losing a celebrity can be as harrowing an experience as the death of a family member.

This might sound outlandish and vaguely belittling of family relationships, until we consider that, these days, we meet our celebrities and may even have them around the house more frequently than brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts.

Once upon a time, it was part of the mystique of celebrities that they were few and far between and far beyond our reach. Special people. Not like us.

You had to wait until your hero's latest movie was released and then queue and pay in and sit in darkness, wallowing in the wonder of their big-screen presence.

Now, they are everywhere you look.

Or even where you are not looking. Pause for a moment. Close your eyes. Can you sense a Kardashian?

But you wouldn't burst into tears - would you - at news of Kimberly (there must be one of them called Kimberly) passing away?

Not the way you felt a lurch in your heart when it came on the news that Amy Winehouse had died. It's true what they say - celebrities are all around us on a 24-hour news cycle loop.

But those whose passing sends sadness eddying through us, tend to be those who not only meant something to us, but who meant something.

My first thought when I heard of Amy Winehouse's death was that I should have done more. It had been obvious for some time that the woman wasn't at all well.

Why hadn't somebody taken her aside and given her a cuddle, told her that even in the depth of her depression she ought to know she was surrounded by the love of millions, that she was magnificent, marvellous, irreplaceable, that all who knew her and all the world could ill-afford to lose her?

That, I thought, is what I'd have done and, on the instant, felt guilty at how useless I'd been, not because I'd known her as a celebrity, but because I'd known her, known her heart and soul, her intelligence, her passion, her generosity, her decency, tenderness, her face, her voice, her beauty. I knew all that, the depths of her, from her singing. When tears sprang it felt natural. I walked along the street wishing I'd been there for her.

I was bereft when Lemmy Kilmister died just after Christmas. I'd never been an over-the-top fan of Motorhead, but I knew Lemmy.

I'd once spent an afternoon with him wandering around Dublin.

We'd met so I could interview him for the Sunday World, but all he wanted was to find a Mary O'Hara album to bring back to his dad.

A close encounter like that is bound to give you a lasting sense of shared experience.

I didn't mention the Mary O'Hara angle in the World. I wanted to keep it for myself.

A trivial experience, many might think, but also a secret to be hugged. Nobody else knew about me and Lemmy from Motorhead. (We eventually located a Mary O'Hara album in the Provo bookshop on Parnell Square.) So my reaction to his death was personal. And that's the key to it.

I knew Bob Dylan personally, from the time of Blowing in the Wind to the night I heard a table of drunks in the Cobbles in Shaftsbury Square singing Ramona.

The word is out, I sighed, then. He's not ours any more, not the private soulmate of the few of us in the know, but on his way to being anybody's.

(This, it should be marked, was well before the Woodstock electrification scandal. When it came to Dylan, I was a purist's purist.)

It's not about celebrity at all. It's about the way we can be touched in our individual souls by artists of genius offering their work to the world, the way you can stand alone at a Springsteen concert as the drench of decency in his music descends, aware that you are as never before of one consciousness with tens of thousands experiencing the same redemption all around, never so alone, never so much an element in the cosmic consciousness.

That's a personal relationship that you might reasonably break your heart over when it ends.

Therein lies the difference between celebrity as it works in the modern world and fame conferred by the culture of ages.

There's simply nothing maudlin about a lip trembling for Prince, or for Victoria Wood.

What else would we feel when somebody we've known so well from way back leaves us, before we have had proper time to say goodbye?

Belfast Telegraph

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