Grief & Heroes: 2nd of February, 2016

The first time I saw Star Wars was in 1977. It was a day of Firsts – the first Star Wars, the first time my brother Alan took me to the movies. We lived in the country and it was a long journey into the city (Melbourne) to visit a cinema, involving two different modes of transport – three, if you also hopped a tram at the other end. Going into the city was an event. Going to the cinema was an event. Going to see this Star Wars that was the biggest thing on the planet and certainly the biggest thing to have yet come along in my seven years of life thus far, was THE EVENT.

We sat down the front. Alan, who had already seen Star Wars thirteen times by that point, quoted bits of dialogue all the way through. You start off thinking “Wow, that’s a big spaceship”, only to see your first Star Destroyer blot out everything and you think “Nonono, I knew nothing of big spaceships until this moment”.

It was dark when we came out of the cinema (another first – the first time I recall being in the city at night) and nothing would ever be the same again. I now knew how big dreaming could be.

Inevitable, of course, but I became obsessed with Star Wars. Inevitable, too, that Alan was my chief enabler. He gave me his own copies of the novelisation and a collector’s magazine, kick-starting a rather nerdy collection, and imparted the wisdom of retaining original packaging.

That collector’s magazine. I can’t put my hand on it right this moment, so I can’t tell you what it was actually called, but there were images in there that lit up my imagination almost as much as Star Wars itself had. In examining the influences and aesthetics of Star Wars, it showed me Brigette Helm as the female robot in Metropolis, Basil Rathbone and Tyrone Power duelling in The Mark of Zorro, Gary Cooper in High Noon. It wasn’t just the world of that particular galaxy far, far away that Star Wars opened up for me, it was the entire world of cinema and genre story-telling.

Star Wars made me feel… smart. I don’t think “smart” was something I’d ever really contemplated before. But there I was, a seven-year-old who read adult science fiction novels and knew who Fritz Lang was. Star Wars gave me that. It was confidence-building.

And, of course, there was Han Solo.

Although I don’t think I developed a really serious crush on him until The Empire Strikes Back came out three years later (those trousers they poured Harrison Ford into held a lot more interest for a ten-year-old than a seven-year-old), Han and his co-pilot Chewbacca were my faves. (don’t ask me how many wookiees I own – even I don’t know) Well, Princess Leia was my fave as well, but that was more because I wanted to be her. Han and Chewie were the mates I wanted to knock about with.

But Han Solo wasn’t the only space-man who blew my world open in 1977. That year, as well as Star Wars being released, also saw the arrival of David Bowie’s “Heroes” album.

David Bowie had actually entered my family’s orbit the previous year, when my brother Alan met a girl at a party who was a Bowie fan. Eager to impress her, Alan fibbed and bluffed about the many Bowie records he didn’t, in fact, own. I don’t know if he ever even saw that girl again, but a few days after the party, Alan made a point of buying some of the Bowie records he’d lied about owning, perhaps to assuage his guilt. He may not have won the girl, but there was undoubtedly a new love in Alan’s life. In no time at all, Alan was the biggest Bowie fan on the planet. As with most things, it took me, running behind my big brother, a bit of time to catch up.

The first track on “Heroes” is Beauty & the Beast – that was it. That’s all it took. David Bowie’s voice and Robert Fripp’s guitar. That song was my In.

Suddenly, the world of music opened up just like genre story-telling had. Hell, the way Bowie went about music WAS genre story-telling.

It’s fair to say, I think, that David Bowie has been the number one musical influence of my life. Although really, it’s all down to Alan. Everything, really, comes from Alan’s influence. As I said, he was my chief enabler. The movies I watch, the music I listen to, the books I read, the comedy I laugh at, the art I appreciate, the people and styles I’m fascinated by – it’s all because of Alan.

Which is why, when Alan died – suddenly, accidentally – on the 2nd of February 2005, I couldn’t find comfort in any of my usual go-tos. I couldn’t comfort myself with any music or favourite movie because there was nothing that didn’t make Alan’s loss all the more acute, that wasn’t a terrible reminder.

I had thought, the previous year, when Bowie had his heart attack, how sad the day would be for Alan, the inevitable day when Bowie leaves us. It never occurred to me that Alan would leave us first.

In July 1992, our sister Norma had died after a long battle with breast cancer. Alan’s death was the other end of the scale – no warning, no time to grow accustomed to the idea, no opportunity to say goodbyes. Instead, a phonecall that wakes you up in the early hours of the morning and tells you a nightmare.

And me with no comforting “old friends” music or movie to take solace in.

Instead, I watched some movies I hadn’t seen before, that hadn’t come into my orbit via Alan’s influence. Alan Rickman movies. (his name helped) As 2005 progressed, Alan Rickman became my go-to guy, his art helped get me through a lot of the immediate grief.

Let’s skip ahead to now. To these past few weeks. Just before Christmas, Star Wars was back in cinemas! And unlike the prequel trilogy, this one actually FELT like Star Wars! Crah, Alan would’ve loved this movie. I teared up at the first blast of the fanfare. I was a kid again. It was a joyous experience. New characters to love and old friends to visit with again and winks and allusions to almost forty years’ worth of singular pop cultural iconography.

And, of course, there was Han Solo’s demise.

I didn’t cry at the very moment it happened, but tears have most definitely been shed for my oldest crush. I’m not rage-y about it, no feeling of how-could-they? how-dare-they? It was, as much as these things can be, a good death. He was a swashbuckling space-pirate who chose to fight the good fight against evil – we all knew that his end couldn’t come peacefully. And while it was certainly no “blaze of glory”, it was respectful of our hero. And goddamnit, Chewie provided the glorious blaze and blew that place to smithereens. It was… fitting.

But still. We lost Han Solo, and that’s no small thing.

I’ve been thinking back a bit to 1999, to the anticipation of the release of the first prequel (Star Wars was back in cinemas!) and the subsequent disappointment. There was a lot of talk at the time, a lot of us asking Was It Us? Was it just that we were adults now? Maybe Star Wars was always this bad and we just hadn’t realised because we were stupid little kids? We had so much love for this phenomenon that we were prepared to take the blame for the prequels ourselves!

The Force Awakens has put paid to that, though. All over the world, there’s mid-forties people like me feeling childish wonder and excitement again. Sorry, George, but it was you, not us.

And this time around, we’ve got the Internet. At seven, living in the country, in Australia, the only person I really had to talk to about Star Wars was my brother Alan (for a long time, he was the only other person I knew who’d even seen it). Now, there’s Tumblr. And nerd blogs. And GIFs. Oh boy, are there GIFs. And slash archives. Oh boys, are there slash archives. Star Wars fandom is more accessible and intimate than ever before. Carrie Fisher’s Twitter account is a thing of beauty.

But in the middle of this period of joyousness, running through it like the Grim Reaper on ice, has been death, death and more death.

Three days after Christmas – Lemmy. Rock god, gentleman, bass playing superstar, leader of Motorhead, and a former bassist for my favourite band of all time, The Damned. A man who lived his life with such authenticity and generosity, such largeness of spirit, that losing him feels like the heart has been ripped out of rock music. I once stood my ground at a Motorhead concert, covered in vomit courtesy of the drunken arsehole beside me, unable to run off to the toilets to clean myself due to the fact that LEMMY WAS ONSTAGE; I couldn’t even look away, much less walk away, no matter how disgusting the situation. He was lightning in a bourbon bottle. We should all endeavour to live even half as fiercely as Lemmy did.

Ten days into the new year, not anywhere near long enough for rock music to mourn its heart, we lost David Bowie. Rock music had lost its mind as well.

We all hoped it was a hoax. That first hour and a bit after the news fell, we were all willing it to be a very, very bad joke. David. Bowie. He couldn’t actually die, could he? He was an immortal! He was Ziggy Stardust! He was the Goblin King! He was David Jones from Bromley who turned the world on its head!

In a way, it was like losing Alan all over again. I couldn’t play any Bowie, I couldn’t bear to hear his music, his too-familiar voice. Everyone else wanted it though, of course. I had to turn off radios, walk away from Twitter for a while – I even sat at my writing desk literally with fingers in my ears while my partner played Space Oddity in another room. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.

And just four days – four days! – into this abyss, Alan Rickman suddenly followed.

Han Solo, Lemmy, Bowie, Alan Rickman, all in under a month.

I think that maybe Bowie, and definitely my brother Alan, would get a chuckle out of the fact that the first Bowie song I ended up hearing after the tenth of January, was his Little Fat Man ditty in the episode of Extras he guest-starred in. It took well over a week, but I was able eventually to listen to him again. I’ve even made it through Heroes without sobbing a time or two.

I haven’t subjected myself to All The Young Dudes yet though. I don’t always have the emotional fortitude for that one these days anyway, as it was the song, at Alan’s funeral, that played as he was carried away from us.

The biggest comfort I’ve found in Bowie’s passing has been recognising fully his utter, utter commitment to his art. He turned his own death into art – there are precious few who have the will, let alone the opportunity, to do that. The sheer audaciousness of that act is just so… Bowie.

Today is the 2nd of February 2016. It is eleven years since my brother Alan died. He gave me the world (and a galaxy far, far away) in 1977, and I thank him every day for it. Along with missing him.