How do we measure the legacy we leave as a man?
I’ve seen three dead men this month—two friends and one stranger—and it made me consider the legacy that we, as men, leave behind when we reach the unavoidable conclusion of our lives.
The first dead man I met was in a local church. I went there to see an open house art exhibition that was inspired by the English singer-songwriter Nick Drake. Like too many men around the world, Drake died from suicide in 1974 a relative unknown. In his short music career he created a legacy that would go on to influence some of pop’s most high profile artists.
The exhibition was profound. It was a collection of photographic portraits of people (mostly men) listening to a lost recording rescued from the dump by a record company post boy, Michael Burdett.
It was 20 years before Burdett listened to the tape and when he did he was amazed to discover he had an unpublished recording of a Nick Drake song. With a CD player and headphones in hand, he travelled the length and breadth of the United Kingdom to offer 200 people an exclusive opportunity to hear the recording; city workers, farmers, scientists, hairdressers, musicians, tattooists—he asked them all.
The result is a series of photgraphs where, as the observer, we get to share the moment when a dead man sings to a stranger and breathes new life into their experience of being alive.
“We are living in a world where recorded music is distributed so casually and freely it’s almost lost its value,” says Burdett. “However, here was an opportunity to use a recording to create a very personal moment for a number of people and maybe give them an incredibly special memory.”
Up until that point, Nick Drake existed for me as a misty character appreciated by others. Now he lives in my memory as a man who sang to me personally in a quiet neighbourhood church nearly forty years after he died. I will never forget the day I first met Nick Drake.
My second dead man came close to dying on stage in front of my eyes. As a long-serving comic, actor, writer and friend, Doug Devaney won’t mind me saying it wasn’t the first time I’ve seen him die on stage!
This time Doug was contemplating his death in a one man show inspired by a heart attack that nearly took his life in his early forties. Doug and I have history. When I launched a men’s project four years ago, he was first in line to do a fundraising, costumed bungee jump dressed as the comedian Benny Hill. Looking back it probably wasn’t good for his heart.
A year later I made him the face of Men’s Health Week in our city, an episode he recounts in his show. Apparently he protested that having had a heart attack and being visibly overweight he was hardly the perfect ambassador for men’s health.
I said : “I know Doug, but you’ve got a story to tell…………..and you’re cheap”.
Since then, Doug has continued to tell his story in the media and through his one man show, The Angina Monologue, a funny and poignant tale which I finally saw for the first time this month.
Watching Doug perform close up in a small studio theatre in a disused church (another church) was like staring into the eyes of a man who has come face to face with death and made the decision to live.
I’ve known Doug for more than 20 years and as he shared about his life, his near death and his teenage sons, I met more of the real man on stage than I’d ever met before in person. I’ll treasure that evening as the night I really met Doug for the first time, as a nearly dead man, who chose to live.
Maybe we’d never gone too far beyond our jokey personas because we met as fellow travellers on the comedy circuit at Adrian Bunting’s Zincbar cabaret club—“a gloriously unpredictable crucible into which both gold and rubbish were thrown: comedians, poets and situationists alike”.
Adrian is the third dead man I’ve encountered this month; he died of pancreatic cancer aged 47. He was a close friend for a few years before our lives took different paths – or in Adrian’s case, many different paths. Amongst other things he was a compere, a theatre producer, a playwright and a construction manager.
He had a period building his way around the world and there’s a hotel on Lake Malawi made from sandbags that stands as testimony to the fact that he left his own unique mark wherever he went.
And his true legacy is still unfolding as friends are getting busy to realize his final wish to establish an open air theatre in the city where he spent most of his adult life.
More than a thousand people are already following the Brighton Open Air Theatre on Facebook and each day brings more news of people donating money or giving their time and skills for free—to design a logo, to host a fundraising event, to set up a committee.
Adrian was a leader. He taught me that if you want something to happen then all you have to do is go and make it happen. After years of prevarication I put on my first play in 1992 because Adrian booked the theatre and put up posters before I’d even put pen to paper—and in six weeks it was written and being performed.
His motto at the time was: “Fuck it, book it, do it!”
The Adrian I knew was a man who threw himself fully into every moment, every drinking session, every cigarette, every relationship, every project and every interaction with another human being. I lost my closeness to him years ago and met him again at his brilliant best this month in the actions he is inspiring others to take beyond the grave to build his legacy.
A few men like Nick Drake will leave a body of work that keeps connecting with people for decades after they die. Others, like Adrian Bunting, may inspire people to continue their work and build on what they began. Most of us will probably make a smaller ripple maybe focussing on careers and families and raising sons and daughters.
And yet the smaller ripples are no less meaningful. What touched me most about the Nick Drake story was the way he inspired Burdett to meet others in a new way:
“What I like most of all about this recording,” says Burdett, “is the fact that it has given me the courage to approach complete strangers and that they have revealed themselves to be fascinating and almost universally kind.”
We may never know what impact those personal exhanges made—or what difference Burdett’s exhibition makes to those it touched. We create ripples each time we interact with life and while most of those ripples fade some become waves that keep on rolling—as such, most of us will never see the extent of the legacy we leave behind.
Walking down to Adrian Bunting’s Zincbar cabaret to perform my comedy songs in public for the first time 21 years ago was a defining moment in my life that ultimately gave me the skills and confidence to be a outspoken advocate for men’s issues. They won’t be digging out old recordings of my songs in years to come but I have a sense from the feedback I get from time to time that I have inspired others to take actions they might not otherwise have taken.
The man who taught me to do this was Adrian Bunting. Adrian’s personal legacy to me is greater than any building or theatre project, it is measured by the fact that he inspired so many people, myself included, to think, feel and act differently.
People like my friend Doug Devaney who will be revealing himself on stage this week (not for the first time) in a fundraising show to help build Adrian’s dream. I think I played a small part in helping Doug to tell his story and now he and others are helping to tell Adrian’s story of a city that has an open air theatre where one day his ashes will be scattered.
And so the ripples of life continue to unfold as we each create our own legacy in the actions we take on a daily basis.
—Photo credit: Flicker/kevingessner