MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Deaths a reminder of grim realities of ’70s

POP STARS and killers.

What have they got in common? For the most part they flit across your consciousness at a place and time, and then disappear, only to be hauled out in public again on their death.

Recently, there have been a number of deaths in the above category that have brought the 1970s back to life, reminding us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Last weekend Robin Gibb died. Gibb was one of the three brothers who formed the Bee-Gees, kings of disco music in the 1970s. Anybody who came of age in that decade couldn’t help noticing these lads in their shiny suits, big collars, screaming in falsetto. For many insecure male teenagers — this one at any rate — they fell into a category peculiar to the mores of insecure teenagers. In public, you had to laugh out loud, take the proverbial, or lambast their silly music. The only thing hinting that they were actually full-blooded males — like Ozzy Osbourne or Robert Plant — was the beards that at least two of them wore.

Away from the peer emporium, however, if any of their songs seeped out from a radio, it was difficult to deny but that these lads knew how to make music. Even if disco was for big girl’s blouses.

Then they were gone. After the hits dried up the Bee-Gees retreated from the public airwaves. They were just gone, as if they had been perhaps members of a closed religious order, returned to their base, after being given a few years in the limelight.

I remember about five years ago watching some programme in which Gibb appeared and I couldn’t believe it. The guy was short and painfully thin and he wore no collar.

He could have been a priest, or an accountant, or a player’s relative on Up For The Match. I felt like reaching into the box and saying, “Listen, Rob, I know the years have weighed down on me, but you’re a pop star, you’re supposed to be preserved for the delectation of the rest of us. How did you get so old?”

Another figure from that decade also popped her clogs a few weeks ago. Donna Summer was the queen of disco. She boomed out from TV and radio with hits like ‘Love To Love You Baby’, and ‘I Feel Love’. She was black and she had big hair and her name was Donna, so you had to check every time that she wasn’t Diana Ross. Then she was gone, swallowed up by life, leaving the cameras bereft of another star.

As is the way in these things, it was only upon her death that I heard how she had coped after our brief flirtation. She became a born again Christian, which was surprising, but shouldn’t have been. And she blamed the cancer that killed her on the fall-out from 9/11, as she had been in New York on the day in question. Another star who was a human being behind it all.

A few months back one of my genuine heroes from that decade died, also from the ravages of cancer. Levon Helm was a musician with The Band, a group of talented individuals who left a huge imprint on contemporary music. In 1976, following a decision to break up, they hosted a concert in San Francisco to which all their friends and influences were invited. People like Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and others all came together and Martin Scorsese made a movie from the occasion, called The Last Waltz.

I discovered the movie on the cusp of adulthood, and pretty soon developed a pathological attachment to it.

Thirty-six years passed between the making of The Last Waltz and his death last month. Only on his death did I learn that Helm hated the movie. He felt that the other dominant figure in the group, Robbie Robertson, had hijacked the occasion to promote himself at the expense of the band. The two men barely exchanged words in the intervening years, until a few days before Helm passed away Robertson visited him in hospital. Some things are better left unsaid, and better left unheard to those of us who looked from afar at what appeared to be all sweetness and light.

If pop stars disappear into life after a brief flirtation with the limelight, killers tend to disappear into prison. Last Monday, it emerged that Geoffrey Evans, one of the most notorious killers in recent decades, had died. Evans, along with his fellow Englishman John Shaw, had, in 1976, raped and murdered two women, Elizabeth Plunkett and Mary Duffy.

For those of us who weren’t fully aware of the world outside in those years, Shaw and Evens notoriety was still writ large as they were the longest serving prisoners in the state.

For 36 years Shaw remained locked up, away from a society that had to be protected from his murderous impulses. That’s a long time to spend behind bars, reflecting the revulsion society had for the two men who shattered the image of a peaceful countryside in that long ago decade.

And what of the two young women, both just 23 at the time, who were destined to have their lives cut short in 1976? If they had lived they might now be in the fullness of middle age, mothers of adult children perhaps, enjoying a chain of years in closer proximity to the natural span expected of life. They never lived to see how the world has changed in the intervening years.

Then again, how much has it changed? On one level the 1970s seem so long ago. The music, the fashion, the mores — the sunny summers! — and yet, how much has really changed.

Over the last few months, the BBC ran a series on the 1970s and what they were and all they wanted to be. The series concentrates on the UK, but, as with much else, over here on John Bull’s other island, influences come thick and fast across the Irish Sea.

The series looked at holiday makers heading out to Torremolinos for the first time, issues like the novelty of women in the workplace, and the casual manner in which racism was allowed to fester at all levels of society. These things might appear to be from a different world, but there was also footage of the oil shocks of 1973, the explosion of credit card debt, and the changing morals of teenagers.

All of those fears could have been plucked from any of the news reports in the last few days or months. We think that we never had it so bad, but that may well be a trick the memory plays on us.

It’s only when something like the deaths of pop stars or killers gives pause for thought, and nostalgia rears its head, does it become apparent that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

All of which means, a whole column has just been written without reference to the accursed fiscal treaty referendum. Keep the head down and it will be over before you know it.


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