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Life after death - artists need only walk towards great white spotlight


Jeff Apter

Competing with Elvis for posthumous fame ... Jimmy Little.

Competing with Elvis for posthumous fame ... Jimmy Little. Photo: Peter Rae

I'm a grave robber, according to the estate of a subject of one of my books. My crime? Writing what I thought - and many others consider to be - a balanced, honest and thorough biography of a hugely talented singer, who tragically died way too early, without having the manuscript picked to pieces by said estate.

My book has since been adapted for a screenplay that is now crossing various producers' desks, both here and in the US, so I'm now a bit player in the booming industry of death. Ironically enough, there's a rival film project also doing the production rounds. Its executive producer? The same person who spoke ill of my book. I can almost hear the late Kurt Vonnegut muttering, ''So it goes''.

And death, it must be said, is a thriving industry. There's currently as many as three Michael Hutchence projects in various stages of production: a feature film, a musical and a TV mini-series. Jimi Hendrix miraculously continues to release albums; so many, that there's an entire Wikipedia page ( devoted to his musical life after death. Amy Winehouse has miraculously released two albums since her recent demise, Lioness: Hidden Treasures and Amy Winehouse At the BBC. Successful biopics have been made of the short, fast lives of the equally doomed Jim Morrison (The Doors) and Ian Curtis (Control), while the relationship between the central figure of the hit 1979 film The Rose and the late Janis Joplin was much more than a shared love of Southern Comfort and the blues.

Closer to home, indigenous crooner Jimmy Little, who died in April 2012, has two ''new'' releases slated for 2013, entitled Songman and Treasure.

Death shall not weary them.

So here's the underlying question: is posthumous product desecration or celebration? Can an artist's work still be treated in death with the same attention to detail and the due respect they demanded in life? It's a head-scratcher I've often had to confront, given that I've also written about the lives - and deaths - of Dragon's Marc Hunter and Skyhooks' Graeme ''Shirley'' Strachan, with a new bio of legendary rocker Johnny O'Keefe in the works.

Obviously, my subjects aren't around to answer the million questions I'd like to ask them. So what to do? My approach has always been to remain as open-minded as possible. I've come to understand that a tragic death does not always equate to a tragic life. ''Good people die young too, you know,'' someone told me, with no small amount of insight.

In the case of rock star-cum-TV-handyman Shirley Strachan, dying seemed the least likely thing he'd ever contemplate: he was a man who grabbed life by the short hairs; he seemed virtually bulletproof. Death? Sorry, mate, not on his list. Jeff Buckley was a similarly life-affirming human being - his demise, drowning in the Mississippi in 1997, may have hinted at some bizarre death wish, but what I came to understand was that he was simply as reckless and cavalier as any other unencumbered 30-year-old. He took a risk, didn't consider the downside, and paid the ultimate price, losing his life. It certainly wasn't premeditated, let alone predestined.

And what of our continuing obsession with death? I get the sense that we're drawn to the work of the dead for a number of reasons, often because it simply reminds us of their greatness. We can briefly resurrect the dead for the length of a CD or film or a stage play. And it can't be denied that someone who dies young takes on a sort of mythic quality. They remain forever young, the little work they produced our ultimate and final connection.

And if we can celebrate the work of those who died too young, and do it in a manner that neither exploits nor undermines their rare talent, then let the wheels of the death industry keep on turning, I say. Even if that makes me a grave robber.

Jeff Apter's latest book is Shirl: The Life of Legendary Larrikin Graeme 'Shirley' Strachan (published by Hardie Grant).

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