Gail Walker: Brian Kennedy's honesty and grace about illness captured hearts
The singer's interview with Stephen Nolan will be inspiration to others, writes Gail Walker
It was one of the most moving, riveting and affirmative things I have seen on television for a long, long time. And there he was: Brian Kennedy belting out his biggest hit Life, Love And Happiness on BBC NI’s Nolan Live a few hours after having chemotherapy as part of his ongoing treatment for cancer.
It wasn’t a rolling back of the years because his artistry has never dimmed. It was just a triumphant demonstration that — despite his illness — he still is a great singer and entertainer.
Plus, despite his recent health issues, Brian seems to have aged very well indeed. Perhaps the odd hint of grey in his locks, but still a strikingly handsome man. A presence to turn heads.
In other words, he is still the man he always was — cancer or no.
And that man was someone intimately wrapped up in all our lives. Back in the 1990s few Belfast bedsits didn’t have his debut album The Great War Of Words with that exquisitely haunting track Captured. Hits including A Better Man, Put The Message In The Box and of course, Life, Love and Happiness followed. There was the collaboration with Van Morrison and Goodbye To Songtown, a one-off album with Mark E Nevin of Fairground Attraction (now there’s something from the memory box). Singing You Lift Me Up at George Best’s funeral in 2005. Two well-received novels. Eurovision. Entertaining the crowds at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations at Stormont. Being a judge on The Voice Of Ireland.
For 29 (29! Count ’em) years Brian has been a part of the furniture — a mixture of local hero and national treasure, popping up here and there but basically doing what he was born to do: sing.
His diagnosis in 2016 with rectal cancer — coming shortly before the death of his singer-songwriter brother Bap — must have been tough and disorientating, a life of success after success suddenly shadowed by fear and the possibility of dying.
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It speaks much to his character how he has bounced back from an experience that would have shattered most people — moreso, that he is not only a survivor but finding in his illness the chance to develop a new life, to feel a much deeper empathy for those struck by chance or fate.
Few could not have been moved by the interview he gave to Stephen Nolan who, it must be said, handled the taboo-breaking conversation with sensitivity, never flinching from the revelations, putting his subject at ease. And Brian was graceful, honest and heroically prosaic about his battle with cancer. Yes, he had been interested in alternative therapies but never took his eye off oncology and science.
Then in front of a live studio audience and tens of thousands more watching on TV, he stood up and undid the top of his trousers to reveal “the twins” — a colostomy bag and another one for urination.
Most stars would have baulked at doing such a thing, of undermining their special status. Brian, though, is a cut above such things. He was there to take the stigma out of human fraility.
In his charmingly practical way he wanted to assure men that you can’t really see the stomas, that, even if the worst happened, you could still lead happy, fulfilling lives.
But, equally, he didn’t lie. The nine-hour operation which removed his colon and prostate was “horrific”, the side-effects of the initial post-op drugs led to shockingly vivid nightmares. The brute facts of surgery so radical that, with typical humour, he described himself as now having a smooth bum like Action Man.
As a vain man, yes, he was concerned about how he looked after the operation, what people would think and say, how he would feel about himself, the trauma of having stomas.
But he emphasised that he was “winning” his cancer battle, that he is enjoying his life.
Indeed, that he was lucky, comparing his lot with a friend who died of brain cancer and who would have jumped at the option of wearing stomas for the rest of his life. The interview was honest, fearless and self-deprecating. But more than that, in a very simple way, Kennedy took some of the fear away by his pragmatism in managing this new body cancer survival has left him with.
Oddly, I was reminded again of George Best. For all the dramatic twists and turns of that man’s life — and, heaven knows, he still divides opinion at least for matters off the pitch if not on it — he performed at least one great act in his life away from football. Best talked about alcoholism. He described himself as an alcoholic. He spoke about booze ravaging his life in interview after interview, when British culture was still hooting with laughter at the antics of Oliver Reed and Richard Harris.
The first time I heard of Antabuse pellets sewn into the stomach was when Best spoke about them on TV.
Maybe it’s part of the peculiarity of Belfast’s macho culture, but Best and Kennedy share that characteristic — two handsome Belfast working class men not shying away from the grim physical realities of being alive, not telling lies or dodging the issue.
Of course, we all like to think that we face up to things, that we have the nerve to consider the worst that might happen. But the truth is, we don’t spend that much time contemplating our mortality. We prefer to believe that we have mastered pain in our day, thanks to morphine. We like to think that most things are curable, that most people survive, that what we get or contract or suffer from, will not kill us. Maybe they are, maybe they do, maybe it won’t.
But, as Brian Kennedy bravely demonstrated, it will leave its marks on us. Those too, as he revealed, are part of us. They represent our survival, our getting through; even the most radical damage is preferable to the alternative.
So, last week, Brian Kennedy became something bigger than he has ever been. More than a pretty face and a melodious voice — actually, one of the best vocalists to emerge from Ireland in many decades; more than a poor-boy-made-good West Belfastie; more than an Irish celebrity treading the fine lines of nationality and allegiance between London and Dublin in order to sustain a career.
As he showed last Wednesday night, he became something of a hero. An honest man. A decent man. A sound man. A brave man. Brave not because he suffered an illness or because he tried to live or because he pulled through and is well-known.
But brave because he chose to make even that part of his life, the wounded and hurt part, completely public. In so doing, he entered another level of visibility. Because of his actions and honesty, other people will find it a little bit easier to step forward for treatment in the first place, just a little bit more bearable to speak about the consequences of that treatment. Because of his words, others will find just a little bit more courage, a little bit more self-esteem.
So, vast respect to you, Brian Kennedy. Singer, survivor, and a bigger star than ever you have been in your life.