It’s impossible not to be fascinated by what your favourite hero is like in real life. Twitter has made it possible to get pretty close for those living legends that use it, tweeting beak-fuls to hungry followers. Even if he or she doesn’t tweet you back personally.
But what happens when you meet a legend in the flesh? This has happened a few times to me and it’s not always true – indeed it’s becoming a tired suburban cliché – that all you ever get from meeting your heroes is an intense feeling of disenchantment, vaporising your intense, unrequited artistic love affair.
Some I have met and worked with have been delightful and left me feeling even more elated about them than before I met them but those few are in the minority. It’s the one you’ve met for an interview who shouts at his wife in public at a tacky restaurant (presumably to impress you), ordering freshly executed, off the knuckle, T-bone steak for his wife’s toy poodles, having way too much knowledge about how parking meters work, farting when he coughs or talking about how America will rise again and there’ll be ‘Easterns’ like there were once ‘Westerns’ and have you ever tried this Korean massage bar on the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica as there are no surveillance cameras inside. Easterns? I hate this man. He’s not my hero anymore.
A legend is a generic term for those anointed by the great and good through their artistic contribution to making sense of the pointlessness of existence – whose reputations are then swollen and cemented after passing on – as identifiably outstanding in their endeavours, knowing it and keen that no one else should take the crown from them.
You don’t become a legend by being nice. You become one by ruthlessly grabbing your artistic fixation by the throat, at an early age – sometimes to impress your taciturn father who’s decided that little will come of you or to torture an over-weaning mother who thinks you are the next F. Scott Fitzgerald – learning every last thing about the art form you are going to crash, burn, eviscerate and put your name on the mangled result forever, crushing all opposition, soundalikes, readalikes, lookalikes until, in the style of those camp, over-cranked moments in Chariots of Fire when the runners pass the winning line, you snap the tape of legend, ahead of your rivals. This borderline psychopathic behaviour, that carries for the artist no shame, consequence or regret, leaving behind them a pillaged landscaped strewn with bitter ex-friends, ex-wives, ex-lovers and ex-exes makes them terrifying, indulgent and untameable. They will not be beaten.
So our literary, musical, poetry, sporting, legal, or film heroes have to remain for the most part behind the bulletproof glass of their choosing lest our greasy paws break the air-tight barrier rotting their eternal preservation behind which they are flogging their personas to preserve in life. By the way, Bowie is smaller than he appears in pictures.
Vladimir Putin hasn’t missed the importance of the icon and how, in spite of atrocities committed by famous Russian leaders that are truly beyond belief, the Russian people love an icon. They warm their hands on them. That’s why Putin is seen on horseback (I was Putin’s trusty steed), shooting game in the forest (I was minding my own business chewing leaves when this half naked man on a horse shot me in the hooves) and being icon-like. Yet if you’d had the misfortune to meet Putin in the days when he was a KGB officer interrogating you (I was interrogated by a half naked man on a horse called X who shot me in the toenail during an interrogation at the Lubyanka in a cell just big enough for his horse let alone the two of us), it’s possible you’ d have a different view of Russia’s great hero.
I haven’t singled out Russia or its past leaders for ridicule, simply to make the point that when certain individuals are transformed by events, talent, fortune, fashion, Oscars or pubertal implosion into TV stars, legends and untouchable celebrities, they are removed from our mundane life-radar as “the same as us” humans. However you dress up the legend they cannot be like us …
Unless of Course We Create Them!
Big Brother started this most recent Théâtre du Grand Guignol horror show of the hopeless and as the snowball reaches critical mass, we remain fascinated with these demented train wrecks, perhaps because we’re the mad ones at the controls. As a race we are shameless narcissists, we can’t get enough of ourselves and when we REALLY can’t get enough of ourselves we will gorge on the freak show death-watch – all you can eat for a 99p – or Katie Price’s latest evaginations.
The problem is then made worse when a household name becomes ‘deadified’. Then a red army of internet revisionists move in with CIA assassination theories, drug scares, and personal stories like “he knew he was going to die that night, I told him not to leave me”. And those were just about Shergar (I was Shergar’s trusty steed).
Death ushers in the true galactically proportioned mythologies about the legends, celebrities or A. N. Others. Everyone who knew him has a story to tell, every historian has a point of view of where he will sit in infamy, every critic reels off what he’ll be best remembered for, every rear admiral recalls why he was knighted and every adult-under-forty schoolboy remembers he was the man in those adverts for the RIMCO NUTBUSTER (astonishing value at just 99 cents comes free with the RIMCO BEAN SPLITTER) but are unaware he was also one of the greatest actors in one of the greatest films ever made about the Kronstadt uprising … but gave up acting to go into newspapers. Or something like that.
So I Was Douglas Adams’ Flatmate and other encounters with legends attempts to provide a humble linkage to illuminate part of the wart of a legend, humanising by detailing the little things they did through one voice during the time they were legendary and significant. This is not an attempt to diminish them simply to shed light from an unexpected source onto the great crested ones.
Everyone may, has or will have an I Was X’s so and so’s so and so. Passive tense tells you the moment will have passed one day.
I Am X however is the mountainous range where the legends live. And one day you may live there, but you may have to sell your soul first. And for goodness sake mask the stench of your humility before someone notices the smell …
Andrew McGibbon’s I Was Douglas Adams’s Flatmate is available now. Andrew is a comedy writer, performer, director and producer who has made comedies for TV and radio starring Harry Shearer, Bob Monkhouse, John Bird, John Sessions, Bill Nighy, Sally Phillips and Fiona Allen. As a drummer he has recorded albums with Morrissey (Viva Hate, Bona Drag, Kill Uncle), Peter Gabriel (Peace Together), My Bloody Valentine (Glider), Bucks Fizz (New Beginnings), Suggs and Chrissie Hynde. His documentary about playwright NF Simpson debuted at the National Film Theatre in May 2008.