A pop icon dies…and we are affected in personal ways

Sometimes even the death of someone famous can touch us in a personal way

Andy Warhol – Marilyn 1967

What pop culture icon’s unexpected death affected you the most?

Like a lot of people, I’d have to admit that the cultural icon whose death I was most inexplicably caught up in – in what felt like a tidal wave of public emotion – was Princess Diana.

But I can recall, in a sort of flashback sequence, other “where was I when….” moments. The ones that stick in my mind are probably due to their deaths being sudden and tragic, as much as to the significance the person had to me.

The earliest one I remember was in 1980, when I was 11. I was at home on a hot afternoon, watching tv after school, when a newsflash appeared across the screen announcing that John Lennon had died after having been shot outside his apartment in New York. Now, I was not allowed to listen to rock music, and to my parents, John Lennon was probably worse than most “rock stars” because not only did he do sex and drugs but he was also a “communist”! Still, kids have ways of knowing the stuff their parents don’t want them to – and I knew all about The Beatles and John Lennon through my cousin who was mad about them. (I recall her embroidering a cushion cover of her own design, of Paul McCartney.) In typical 11 year old fashion, I think my main thought on seeing that news was, “Bridget is going to be upset!”

The only other memory I have relating to John Lennon’s death is that there was a coffin lined up in the Catholic Church at my Catholic primary school, where we were taken in to mass, and a girl asked me if it was the coffin of the man who’d been shot in New York. This seemed simple minded of her, as even I could clearly understand that he would not be having a funeral in a small country town in Australia!

In 1987, Warhol died and, to be honest, I probably didn’t take much notice, as at that point my knowledge of art history had only covered ancient art and Australian art from the 1850s to the 70s. But the next year I was in my first year at university studying fine art history, and discovered Pop Art via Andy Warhol. I fell in love (with Pop Art and contemporary art, and with Warhol as an artist) and was then a little bit miffed to find out that he had died only the year before.

A decade later, in August 1997, I was working at the cricket at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (I worked for Ticketmaster in the box office) and during quiet periods we would watch tv. That was where I was when the announcement came through that Princess Diana had been killed in a car crash. It was quite surprising to me the level of emotion I felt at that news. I’ve never been a follower of the royal family, but I guess I was at an age (in my late 20s) where I read enough magazines and watched enough media that Diana was a constant – almost daily – presence in my subconsciousness. She was always emblazoned across the front page of some magazine or other or appearing in news headlines for some reason. It appears that she had sort of got into everyone’s consciousness via this same process of osmosis –  and, unconsciously, without even following her, we  had expected her to always be there every day, because she WAS there every day, on the front of some paper or magazine, being hounded about some latest drama in her life.

I recall that when the funeral was televised, a friend came around and, although we hadn’t really planned to, we ended up sitting and watching the whole thing. The fact that this particular friend stopped to watch it confirmed to me how weirdly caught up in it everyone was – as she was a smart, pragmatic girl, with not the slightest interest in the royal family on any other occasion. Perhaps it was because Diana seemed such a victim in many ways – both of the royal family and of the media – that we all suddenly felt so much sadness for her when she died. The saddest part of the funeral was the two boys, who looked so young and folorn, walking along behind the hearse.

Only a few months later I was out with the same friend and we caught the end of a news announcement that a member of INXS had died in his hotel room in Sydney that day. When I was a teenager I had been smitten with Michael Hutchence, and though I had long since outgrown that, I still had a bit of a soft spot for him – what woman wouldn’t! – so the awful instant reaction I had was “I hope it wasn’t Michael!” Of course, as it turned out, it was Michael. It seemed as if the general public still had a need to share some emotional sadness together, lingering from Diana’s death only a few months earlier, so Michael Hutchence’s funeral was also televised. I watched some of it in my lunchbreak at work, and caught Nick Cave singing “Into My Arms” – such a beautiful song.

When Paul Hester from Crowded House committed suicide, I read the headline on someone’s newspaper on the Tube in London. I would not paint myself as Crowded House’s biggest fan – I’d never actually bought an album until I saw one in a bargain bin about 3 years ago – but I had the album “Crowded House” on a tape someone made for me in year 12, and along with Hunters and Collectors,and The Cure, their 1987 album formed part of the soundtrack to my life in that very formative year. And Paul Hester had always appeared to be the  happy-go-lucky joker of the band, a thought that made his suicide seem even that bit more tragic.

Jump forward to the present, and James Freud from The Models, who died a few months ago. There was a time when I probably would have counted myself as one of their biggest fans (even though I would probably have been deluded) and I did have quite a few of their albums, but it was more than 20 years ago when I used to listen to them a lot. I don’t generally give them much thought now, although strangely I had pulled out Cut Lunch to listen to a few days before James died. For some reason the significance I felt in his death, another suicide, was closer to home, in that it made me feel aware of the tragedy of suicide and the need to take care that people around you who might be depressed are doing ok. I had read about “RUOK day” around the same time, and the idea (that you make the effort to contact someone who might be finding life a bit grim, at the very least to just check in and say hello) struck me as a very good one. After much musing over it, lead me to make the very small gesture of writing a letter to one of my brothers.

Who knows if it had even the slightest effect on him? I don’t, since I haven’t seen or heard from him since I sent it. But anyway, for what it’s worth, Freud’s death was the motivator for sending it.  Every death has a ripple effect I guess, and the deaths of the famous even more so. So those are the pop culture icons whose deaths I can recall, and what their deaths meant to me.

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  1. Mine, I think, would have to be Grant McLennan from the Go-Betweens, but I guess from earlier years – John Lennon. Isn’t it funny their surnames are similar????


  2. That’s not funny, it’s serious. John was actually Grant McLennan’s long lost Scottish cousin, but always tried to hide his Scottish heritage (and his being related to people in Brisbane) by getting rid of the “Mc” from his name. That’s also why he dyed his hair, which was naturally red. It just didn’t look right for the Beatles, and neither did the kilt – they had to go.

    Meanwhile, since you had such an affinity for Lennon and McLennan, I’m wondering how you felt when Lenin died???? Course, it was before you were born…but I wondered all the same.


    • Oops! After my comment last night it occurred to me that I’d overlooked another reason why John Lennon scrapped the “Mc” from his name – there was some other bloke in the Beatles, I seem to recall, who had a McName already. They talked it over, and both agreed they couldn’t risk being confused with the Proclaimers. (Even though the Proclaimers didn’t exist yet, it was still deemed a risk not worth taking) So someone had to lose the “Mc” from the Scottish part of their name, and John lost the arm wrestle.



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