Modern Pilgrims: The Fans Who Just Can’t Let Their Dead Idols Go

There’s a new piece of graffiti in Brixton, south London, that reads: “You will always be my starman.”

Dated last Saturday and signed only by “Yvonne”, the scrawl is one of the newest additions to what has become a place of pilgrimage for fans of David Bowie, the rock icon who died from cancer two years ago this week.

Another recent annotation to a mural depicting the singer as his character Aladdin Sane reflects: “Two years way up in heaven shining down like the prettiest star.”

When news emerged in January 2016 of the Brixton-born Bowie’s death, fans gathered and sang his most-loved hits at the mural, which was painted on the side of Morleys department store by Australian artist Jimmy C in 2013, before anyone knew of the performer’s imminent illness. Now, the site remains a shrine to his memory.

The pilgrims seem largely to have been welcomed into the area. Lambeth Council gave the artwork protected status after being “overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection” it received, and non-perishable tributes such as drawings and cards that are left at the site are being collected in its archives.

Shrine opposition

Not all shrines are greeted so warmly. It was reported this week that residents in two places linked to another recently deceased music legend are less than enthused about plans that could put their neighbourhoods permanently on the pop pilgrim trail.

Plans for statues of George Michael, who died aged 53 on Christmas Day 2016, have been opposed by locals in both Highgate, north London, and Goring-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, where the singer had homes.

Tributes are left opposite the home of singer George Michael in The Grove, Highgate. Photo: PA

In exclusive Highgate, an informal garden of remembrance over the road from his Grade II listed Georgian terrace is the subject of controversy. Referring to an expanding sea of photographs, poems and candles, Susan Rose, who chairs the Highgate Conservation Area advisory committee, questioned last month what Michael “would think of it all outside the beautiful home that he looked after so well”.

Despite an online petition from fans calling for a statue to be erected at the site, the singer’s own family have indicated that they think he would have found such a tribute “embarrassing”.

Lasting appeal

Yet the admirers keep coming. What is the enduring appeal of these cultural pilgrimages to those that make them?

Fans making New Year’s visits to the Highgate garden spoke of the importance of having somewhere to articulate their sadness. “I first came in January last year,” a 39-year-old Parisian called Vivien told The Observer. “It is a special place.”

Among those who regularly tend the garden are a couple in their fifties who lost a son last year. For them, although the spot is important, Michael’s relatives must have the final say on its future.

“We have had so much from his family over this year that I feel we need to do what they want,” the husband said. “The good thing is that our memories will not go.”

That sense of keeping a flame burning is common to fans of other late stars who maintain shrines – official and otherwise – to their heroes.

Fan adoration

Marc Bolan’s ardent admirers, the T-Rex Action Group, have gone as far as to lease the land around the “Bolan tree” in Barnes, south London, where the glam rocker died in a car crash. They maintain the site and declare a mission to “tirelessly raise Marc Bolan’s profile” and ensure his star “shines brightly for fans old and new”.

At Père Lachaise in Paris, perhaps the world’s most famous cemetery, roughly three million people visit every year to leave flowers and tributes at the grave of Doors frontman Jim Morrison – which has its own security guard – as well as at those of other famous occupants such as Oscar Wilde. Around 40,000 people attended in 2011 on the 40th anniversary of Morrison’s death.

At St Mary’s Church in Henley-on-Thames, a group of fans still quietly lay flowers every month at the grave of Dusty Springfield, the soul singer who died in 1999.

Tributes are left opposite the home of singer George Michael in The Grove, Highgate. Photo: PA

“It lets the world know she isn’t forgotten,” says Simon Bell, one of Springfield’s former backing singers, who organises an annual Dusty Day fundraiser for the Royal Marsden Hospital, where the star was treated for cancer.

For Ann Treneman, author of Finding the Plot: 100 Graves to Visit Before You Die, part of the appeal of such places is in the business of physically going. “So many people spend their lives in front of a screen, but this is the opposite of that.”

Showing respect

In the first few years after someone famous dies, she says, the shrines are partly about people’s “own sadness, about part of them that they felt was attached to the person”, but as time goes on it becomes about “showing respect”.

It isn’t just rock stars. People still travel from around the world to the London grave of Rosalind Franklin, who helped discover the structure of DNA. They leave pens at Sylvia Plath’s grave in Yorkshire, and paintbrushes for LS Lowry in Manchester.

Nor is it just graves. From a statue of Freddie Mercury in Montreux that has become one of Switzerland’s most-visited tourist attractions to the commercial juggernaut of Elvis’s Graceland, which receives 600,000 visitors a year, we beat a path to places that have a connection with our idols, even in an era when we have all the digital images and music we could ever want as souvenirs.

Fab Four Taxi Tours takes thousands of Beatles fans from across the globe to locations around Liverpool that are pivotal to the band’s story. Phil Gerrard, one of the company’s managers, says that the guides regularly see Beatlemaniacs in tears, particularly when the subject of John Lennon’s tragic early life arises.

“People feel robbed of something spectacular, of something important to them, so they hang on to what we have left,” he says.

But visiting such places as Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane is, he adds, also in part about fans cherishing something of their own youth.

“People have sung these songs all their lives and they want to see where they are,” he says. “It is a pilgrimage. They bring their children and grandchildren, they want them to see what they were into when they were young, what was important for them.”

Source : https://inews.co.uk/news/uk/modern-pilgrims-rock-shrines/

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