THERE IS a striking similarity in the reflections — a resonant echo recounted time and again with such specificity that it registers as far more than the automatic prattle of any half-hearted grief.
We have lost two stellar artists this week in David Bowie and Alan Rickman, London-sprung forces of nature who both died of cancer at age 69. The departures of both global stars have prompted tributes by the thousands and memories by the millions. And when you read and hear the words of those who actually knew these men, and were genuinely touched by them, one word runs through the elegies like mirrored remembrances.
Yes, terms like “talented” and “gifted,” “funny” and “charming” are repeated with common frequency. But then, we long knew all that already, and have their decades-long dossiers to remind us as we delve back into their work, embracing the ability to mourn these two silky-voiced performers through their lasting masterpieces.
Instead, the one word that keeps most illuminating these men, to me, is “generous.” Not with their riches in this case — though both men gave in that regard, too — but rather their personal investment. Time and again, to their fellow creatives, Bowie and Rickman donated their time, and attention, and the act of connection — the present warmth of an inspiring light.
And again, it is in the specific that we see just how much these acts great and small meant to those on the receiving end.
In tribute, Daniel Radcliffe wrote on social media this week of Rickman’s generosity not only while they were making the Harry Potter films — of how the elder actor treated the boy performer with supportive encouragement and respect — but also in the years since, when the classically trained great would readily come see his young peer perform.
“I’m pretty sure he came and saw everything I ever did on stage both in London and New York. He didn’t have to do that,” Radcliffe wrote in describing Rickman’s loyal friendship. “I know other people who’ve been friends with him for much much longer than I have and they all say, ‘If you call Alan, it doesn’t matter where in the world he is or how busy he is with what he’s doing, he’ll get back to you within a day.’ ”
Sir Ian McKellen likewise called his friend Rickman “generous.” And journalist Katharine Viner, with whom Mr. Rickman collaborated on the play “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” wrote in the Guardian: “He was devoted to a large number of people and would somehow always manage to visit their obscure art exhibition, or phone them at 2 a.m. when he heard they were in deep trouble, or attend their opening night even when, as we now know, he was already seriously ill.”
Some performers like to keep more than a guarded professional distance from reporters, naturally, so it’s interesting to note that Bowie, too, has been described by some noted writers as especially giving.
“He was the most generous and exciting interview subject that I was ever allowed a lot of time with, and that all came from David Bowie,” Cameron Crowe, the kid Rolling Stone reporter turned Oscar-winning filmmaker (“Almost Famous”), said this week while appearing at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena. “David Bowie’s impact is so huge in that he presents himself now as a role model to artists that may need to remember that it’s not about branding, it’s about a restless need to be creative and continue to be creative.”
It was the mid-’70s, and Crowe was 16, when Bowie allowed not only physical access, but also the open flow of information. In that same decade, Bowie was profoundly generous as friend, musical collaborator and record producer to Iggy Pop, who this week described Bowie as a “benefactor” who rescued him personally and commercially.
Those are merely a handful of examples, but they are legion, freshly recollected this week as a concrete way to pay respects and, sometimes in long-view gratitude, a warm sense of debt.
And this precisely is one of the greatest and most sublime gifts one artist can give to another — or even to an aspiring one: The benefit of generosity.
I am not going to overly ennoble the role of the artist here as compared with any other line of life work; I am not qualified to venture so far afield. But rather, speaking to common elements within the world of artists, I can say from experience: It is a potentially quixotic path along which it is easy to lose one’s way — be it by dearth of inspiration or demand, temporarily untethered from a sufficient sense of purpose or discovery, perhaps wandering without enough focus or free time. You test your limits, and when you inevitably fail (or at least don’t connect with an audience, as even Bowie acknowledged battling), you regroup and reassess and try to succeed anew.
And for most of us, such effort does not succeed without the buoyant gift of generosity, often from fellow creatives.
I witness it frequently, in the fields I cover, from big-name artists and unknowns. And elsewhere I experience it to a grateful degree, as an artist among encouraging peers. (Just this week, a mere two words — uttered in spontaneous enthusiasm, by someone who instantly “got” the spirit of an illustration project — was a generous enough response to inspire me for many days ahead.)
If you’re an artist, you know exactly of what I speak. If you know an artist well, you likely have lived this dynamic.
Whenever I see the Bowies and Rickmans within the visual-arts world be so generous — be it in the name of mental innovation or physical recuperation — I smile. And when I see any fortunate working artist providing profound aid to a fellow creative explorer, I am moved.
Bowie and Rickman had the gift of influential artistic camaraderie in common, as well as the gift of insightful gab that could flow from their sonorous tongues like whiskey. But they also never seemed to lose sight of just how much good a right generous act could sow.