Death is the great instructor on matters of fame and pop culture. It jolts our minds, causing a kind of overload of instant memories, like swimmers struggling madly to break to the surface. We think of people we might not have thought of in some time, of music, images, words that connect us to the lives they led, the songs they sang, the roles they played.
As if 2016 hadn’t been bad enough already — Bowie, Prince, Merle, Glenn Frey, Leonard Cohen, Garry Marshall — it’s ending up with a sad, odd finale, a crescendo of losses too soon.
George Michael, the English pop singer who struggled mightily not to become Peter Pan and grew up as a person and an artist instead, apparently died in his sleep on Christmas Day at the age of 53 at his home in Oxfordshire.
Carrie Fisher, the daughter of an ultra-famous set of parents who became an icon as Princess Leia in “Star Wars,” died at 60 after suffering a heart attack on an airplane two days ago, succumbing at 8:55 this morning.
Few people are either too young or too old not to be touched by the memory of words thrown at Princess Leia by Han Solo, then back at him, or of a lyric sung by Michael in his sparkling youthful incarnation as half of Wham!
Today, their lives are being resurrected in obituaries accompanied by videos on YouTube. The millions of moviegoers taking in the new Star Wars movie “Rogue One” have thought about Fisher today and will do so tonight and the next day.
Surely, many of us will think of the Michael who was once an all-in-white-impossibly-too-much-hair-good-looking vocalist, bounding like popcorn tossed in the air, singing “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”
The thing shared by both Michael and Fisher was the magic of their youth, when they encountered a powerful, seemingly permanent fame. Michael was self-aware enough to understand the concept early on; he was, as it turned out, a gay man for whom millions of young fans of both sexes squealed and screamed. Above all, he wanted to be something more than a boy-toy vocalist with looks and talent. He looked different as he went along — a little tougher, more leather jackets, sunglasses, thin beard — and he used his voice differently in “Faith,” in “Freedom! ’90.”
That journey was visible with every concert appearance, alone, as a solo act or with the likes of Elton John and Queen. YouTube can be instructive in this. Check out any video with Michael’s imposing close-up, urging thousands of fans to sing with him, like the great god Pan, and then try to imagine what that kind of power feels like. But in music and writing, it was clear that he was a singer singing below the surface, with depth. “I just wanted people to know I was absolutely serious about pop music.”
For Fisher, fame was present in the womb; she was the daughter of Debbie Reynolds, a huge movie star in the girl-next-door mode, and Eddie Fisher, a crooner who deserted hearth, Debbie and Carrie for Elizabeth Taylor (which earned him fame’s opposite, infamy, until Liz left him for Richard Burton).
A diminutive beauty, Fisher first got noticed with a small part as the sexy teenaged daughter of a woman being ministered to by Warren Beatty as an amorous hair dresser in “Shampoo.” At 19, she beat out the likes of Jodie Foster and others for the princess role in “Star Wars.” She understood that it was best not to resist the enduring stamp it left on her. “I knew that something enormous was likely going to impact from this film and there was absolutely no way of understanding what that was or was likely to be.”
Princess Leia had a tart tongue — “Why you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy looking nerf herder” she tossed at Han Solo, played by Harrison Ford — a quality she shared with Fisher herself, who said she grew up “streetwise, except that the street was Rodeo Drive.” She also shared it with her mother, who, on tour with the musical “Irene” in San Francisco (Carrie was in the cast), was asked what she would have done differently with her life and replied: “I probably would have screwed around more.”
Fisher opened up about and made a cause of her bipolar condition, admitted to using drugs and drinking too much, briefly married Paul Simon, wrote a novel closely resembling her life, did a one-woman show called “Wishful Drinking,” eventually talked about her affair with Ford during the filming of “Star Wars,” raised a daughter, Billie Lourd, who became a star of horror films and is also survived by her much-loved dog named Gary.
Farewell, Princess Carrie. Sad to see you go, George. Kissed by fame, big time, the two found that the welt never quite goes away.
Not for us, either. It’s times like these that the phrase “gone but not forgotten” becomes a heartbreaker.