We are all disciples at Billy Connolly’s Last Supper but we shouldn’t write his obituary too soon, writes Aidan Smith.
When Billy Connolly speaks – with no one knowing how many more times he’s going to do this – we faithfully record what he says. The world is still listening to the Big Yin, and especially Scotland.
Interviews over the weekend were filleted like a prize catch for the table. Connolly, a keen fisherman, might appreciate the blade-work. And like the war baby he is, growing up in spartan times, he’ll notice that no morsels went to waste.
There was something for everyone in yesterday’s follow-ups. There was Billy being poignant and admitting he can no longer share a bed with wife, Pamela Stevenson, as his Parkinson’s makes him sleep “like a wild animal … laughing and singing or having fights”.
There was Billy being patriotic, flying the flag for Skoatland. He may live in Florida now, the balmy climate being helpful for his condition, but he’s managed to source Irn-Bru in the sunshine state. Not just our other national drink but – sealing this nugget as a stick-on page three lead story for one tartan tabloid – Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers as well.
And there was Billy doing his best to be resilient and optimistic as he battles the disease with the only weapon or shield at his disposal: his sense of humour.
His doctor, New Yorker, Jewish, female, has told him to joke about the Parkinson’s – “the constipation, all that”. He told The Observer: “Some doctors don’t, they want you to take it all seriously. But I think: why f****n’ not?”
Fear of the airplane cludgie
Now admit it: you’re thinking of Connolly’s gag about incontinence pants right now, the lad stepping into a pair, tying them at the knees, heading out to the disco, chatting up a girl, telling her he’ll be right back, then: “Whoosh, seven gallons down each leg, the level of the Thames rises, Scotland disappears!”
Or maybe the one about a school outing to Aberdeen, going for a swim and while oil-riggers in the next bay were kitted out in survival suits to brave the North Sea, the boys are wearing only trunks and knitted ones at that. Whoever thought they were a good idea? Why did they have a little pocket? “None of your Speedos, your second skin. This was your second cardigan.”
Or perhaps the one about the jobby-wheecher, another classic, and the existential fear of the airplane cludgie “grabbing your wee pink bum and away you’d go. You don’t know where you’d land. It could be your own street! Folk would come along and say: ‘Oh hullo, Billy, I thought you were going away.’”
The inspiration for these jokes were: 1) the ridiculousness of life; 2) the ridiculousness of his own childhood; 3) the ridiculousness of life, his bemusement regarding mod cons probably heightened by the fact he used to work in a shipyard and after building mighty boats a lot of mod cons can seem frivolous and fatuous – although he’s always said he was a rubbish welder.
Tom Waits’ warning to his kids
My favourite bit from these latest despatches concerned the singer Tom Waits who’d been to a Connolly gig with his sons and, as he told the world’s greatest stand-up comedian in a phonecall later, had to pull the car over on the way home to warn the boys that they shouldn’t say “c***” in front of their mother.
I’m a Waits fan but didn’t know he had sons, didn’t think he even went out. Imagine him having the Big Yin’s number! Then again, why wouldn’t he? He probably owns all the Humblebums records and sings their “Why Don’t They Come Back to Dunoon?” in the bath.
We are all disciples at Billy Connolly’s Last Supper or would like to be. On Thursday there are to be countrywide screenings of The Sex Life of Bandages, a filmic farewell to live performance. When I first heard about this I was worried it might be more than that. His Blackstar, perhaps – a final offering like the David Bowie album, then: potted heid. But, much as Connolly may have been moved by Bowie’s dignified fade-out, he’s an original who copies no one.
If 2014 and, improbably, the draw for the third round of football’s Scottish Cup was the last time I shall see Connolly on a stage, then I’ve got to be satisfied as he was a riot, riffing on ballet and syphilis and newly discovered Indian roots. The hands, not yet shaking, plucked the balls from the drum and doubtless the solemn roll-call of names – Montrose, Ayr, Nairn – reminded him of early-days tours with a banjo.
Since then he’s been further reacquainting himself with small-town Scotland in a series of delightful daunders for TV. He’s the Scot who had to get away but now he can’t stop himself coming back.
We should be careful not to pen his obituary too soon because Australia’s great wit Clive James experienced something similar after in 2012 revealing his chronic lymphocytic leukemia had beaten him and he was “near the end” – then later having to admit to “embarrassment” at still being alive. Following the intimations of mortality, James went at his work in a fury, becoming more prolific than ever, and it’s brilliant that reports of Connolly’s demise have been exaggerated as he publishes a book of his best routines, contemplates a return to songwriting, maybe a memoir.
The brain still fizzes or – because I’d like to think he did this as a street-urchin – goes off like a penny banger dropped in a metal dustbin. His description the other day of fame and what it feels like, maybe especially when you’ve come from Glasgow and tough beginnings, is the best I’ve heard: “Like going up a helter-skelter backwards.”
It won’t fizz for ever but he’s still got to establish the relevance of the pouch in his crocheted bathers. So crack on, Big Yin.