Roxanne Tellier: Speaking Ill of the Dead


We can now add “Where were you when you heard that David Bowie died?” to the list of other era defining questions. The world was stunned to hear on Monday morning that we’d have to struggle on without the Thin White Duke’s artistry and influence. And many wondered how this could have happened so soon after the release of his new EP “BlackStar” and it’s two videos.

bowie final pics

Even more puzzling was the photo that had been released on his birthday that showed a smiling, seemingly ageless artist at the peak of his life. How could that vibrant man have slipped away so quickly? But that photo had been taken months before, as had the recording of the CD and videos been long in the planning. The fact that they’d just been released had no bearing on when the photos or music had been created. Still. For most people the news of his passing seemed like someone was playing a cruel joke on his fans.

Less than 24 hours after David Bowie had left this mortal coil, the whispering started. In the midst of global mourning and grief, there were some who needed to defuse the lovefest, and so they dug up an old article that framed Bowie as a pedophile.  And within 48 hours, ‘insiders’ were whispering that his death had actually been a suicide.

Well, it’s called an ‘assisted death,’in the case of someone with an incurable ailment, and the decision would be a personal one. It’s shocking how many people get squeamish about the idea of helping a body transition from corporeal to ethereal, yet it is a fundamental right to choose how you spend and end your life.

Bowie: Lady Grinning Soul  

The other matter, though, is more serious. As much as we like to whitewash our heroes after death, truth will inevitably out. The breathless account of a young, 15 year old girl losing her virginity to Bowie in the early 80’s had been making the rounds amongst fan and feminist sites for years.

phil spectorDespite the girl’s enthusiasm, the sex, though consensual, was still legally statutory rape.  As Phil “Wall of Sound” Spector discovered the hard way, being rich and famous does not make you above the law, if you get caught.

Objectively we know that Bowie was in the wrong. Yet many will justify his actions as befitting of the times and his status.  How could the sensitive genius who created the soundtrack of our lives, also be so callous? Well, it’s because the Man Who Fell to Earth was, ultimately, just another human unable to resist what seemed merely another well-earned reward in a world of rock star perks.

Groupie sex, the mindset on the parts of both the musician and the fan – those are discussions for another time. It’s too late to try and justify what happened. What we can do now, though, is be clear on how we frame the incident, for the benefit of all the gullible young girls to come.

speaking ill of the dead bugs

De mortuisnihil nisi bonum –Latin for “Don’t speak ill of the dead.”  We’ve been saying that since the 4th century, when the phrase was published in the Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (ca. AD 300). Apparently we’ve  never learned that courtesy. When the famous die, we rush to pick apart their legacy, and find the soft spot within.

The days of the slavishly affectionate portrait no longer apply. As Bob Chaundy, former obituaries editor at BBC News, said:

“You try to create as true and full account of that person’s life as you can. So with Michael Jackson you couldn’t just talk about the music – you had to mention the allegations of paedophilia. This is obituary, not hagiography. You can’t ignore the fact that he sold more records than any other artist. If he was just a child molester we wouldn’t be writing about him.”

(It’s been nearly six years since Jackson died. Over the holiday season, MuchMusic aired a ‘best of’ stream of videos, including many of Michael’s. Although the videos remain fascinatingly creative, and showcased a memorable talent, it was still a shock to see his visual presence. I wondered if we’d all been unwitting accomplices to his body dysmorphia)

michael jackson before after

Raising old sins post mortem can cause those who dare to show impartiality  in reporting  to become hostages to fortune when the famous die. In our clickbait era, there’s more chance to be noticed if you can shake up the mourners. The media portrayal of a life has devolved into something much like a public autopsy.

Death does not confer automatic sainthood on anyone, no matter how beloved, artistic, rich or powerful they might have been in life. It’s cruel to concentrate solely on flaws, but honesty is crucial as well, not by taking pleasure from seeking out and exposing flaws, but in a spirit of uncritical generosity and respect.

Few of the truly famous have left the mortal stage without those who would pull the mighty down into the gutter beside them. When Elvis Presleydied in 1977, the fans’ first shock gave way to a puerile interest in the most intimate details of his demise. Huge sums of money were offered to the photographers who sought to photograph his corpse, and to the people who knew him and his vices. Were some comforted to picture the dead rock god collapsed on a toilet?

elvis news headlines

Princess Diana’s fatal car accident and the subsequent mourning and eulogies typify the treatment of celebrity death. A nation mourned, but also gossiped about Lady Di’s love life. The fate of her surviving children and how they’d cope with an unexpected and gruesome end to their mother was endlessly discussed, as though our opinions were either requested or of bearing.

flowers for diana

The passing of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s “Iron Lady,” inspired ferocious political debate on how her legacy was to be conveyed. Not well-loved by the Left, it was felt that anything good they might say of her, politically or personally, would be hypocritical.

The simple truth is that Hollywood’s black and white/good and bad narrative infuses our impressions of those we only know on the air or on the screen- we all have things we’drather  others not know about, and we all have redeeming qualities. It would be the height of childish gullibility to paint any human as either All Good or All Evil.battline between good and evil quote

While the media jump on the ratings bandwagon, madly chasing Bowie’s hearse, we need to have a modicum of tact and diplomacy in our discussions of what his art and life meant to us, if only to spare the feelings of the family, who bear the real burden of loss.


Roxanne’s column appears here every Sunday 

Contact us at

dbawis-button7Roxanne Tellier has been singing since she was 10 months old … no, really. Not like she’s telling anyone else how to live their lives, because she’s not judgmental, and most 10 month olds need a little more time to figure out how to hold a microphone. She has also been a vocalist with many acts, including Tangents, Lady, Performer, Mambo Jimi, and Delta Tango. In 2013 she co-hosted Bob Segarini’s podcast, The Bobcast, and, along with Bobert, will continue to seek out and destroy the people who cancelled ‘Bunheads’. 

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