Look at Life: Keith Flint

8th March 2019

Mourning the Twisted Firestarter

By Lisa Botwright

I’m writing this in shock at the death of Keith Flint, frontman for dance band The Prodigy.

I know that people can be powerfully affected by the death of someone in the public domain. I remember my mum crying inconsolably the day Princess Diana died, and my sister-in-law being so moved by David Bowie’s death that she travelled up to London to be with fellow mourners, and joined in with the impromptu mass singalong on the streets of Brixton. When George Michael died at Christmas 2016 my family and I danced in the kitchen to Club Tropicana in tribute. I was shaken too, when Prince died, another genius taken too early. His brilliant Purple Rain album was the first ‘serious’ piece of music I listened to when I was a teenager, and I can still recite all the lyrics to Let’s Go Crazy.

But – until now – I’ve always felt removed from the sorrow surrounding celebrity death. Grief belongs to those who knew the person; to lay claim to real sadness seemed inappropriate.

“I don’t know why I’m crying,” I said to my husband, when I phoned to tell him about Keith. “It’s silly, I didn’t know him.”

Yet the news made me very, very sad. I had that feeling of dislocation from the real world, when you look at people going about their normal business, and you think ‘why aren’t you talking about this huge loss?’ I flicked from radio station to news station, hoping to catch a mention of him, to hear one of his songs being played. I turned to social media; brilliant in this situation for bringing like-minded people together. I posted my personal tribute, along with a YouTube clip of one of their live gigs, and my friends posted their own reflections. I connected with people I hadn’t seen in years, just because we’d both been to the same concert in 1996.

But why was I so moved? What was it about the anarchic, tattoo-covered Keith Flint that I, a suburban, conventional Boden-wearing mum, adored?

Prodigy were formed in 1990, the year I met my future husband and discovered the rave scene. I was 17, he was 18, and every Saturday night, we would escape the stresses of Sixth Form College to dance in fields, disused warehouses and London clubs. Our favourite tune was Prodigy’s Your Love – a cacophony of thumping drum beats and repetitive vocals that was thrilling and rebellious. We danced with our hands in the air and grinned at total strangers as the song soared and fell in rapturous waves.

By the mid-90s the band had crossed over to the mainstream, and achieved number ones in rapid succession for Breathe and Firestarter and for the album they came from, Fat of the Land. We laughed at the fanciful idea that one day we’d be old, and we’d still be dancing to Prodigy – until one day we were old, and we were still dancing to Prodigy – at weddings with playlists that bookended the rave band with Abba and Kylie.

Keith’s portrayal of an angry, demonic figure with kohl-rimmed eyes and punk hair styled into two horns, screaming ‘I’m the firestarter, twisted firestarter…’ into the camera and dancing furiously in a dark tunnel became one of the most iconic images of popular culture. He embodied rage and nihilism, but we all know he was a really nice guy. When a newspaper reporter visited his Essex village to try and ‘dig some dirt’, all he could unearth were anecdotes about Keith’s love of gardening, or the fact that he kept a swear box next to the fireplace in the pub he owned. Every time Keith added firewood and someone made the inevitable joke, they were made to relinquish a pound. Keith was delighted with how much he raised for charity.

I saw The Prodigy live several times, each occasion more exciting and jubilant than the last. At Knebworth in 1996, at Oasis’s famously huge gig, I found the arrogant headlining Gallagher brothers an anticlimax after the energy and charisma of Keith Flint as the support act; at Ibiza Rocks in 2010, I remember laughing at the euphoria of the music and the incongruity of singing along to Invaders Must Die when the previous day I’d been at the supermarket with my two young children. Finally, I’m so happy to say that we took our daughter to see The Prodigy in what no one could foresee would be Keith’s final tour. In a ‘circle of life’ twist, my daughter was the same age that I was when I first heard them play.

I have no idea why the gloriously exuberant Keith Flint, someone who appeared to seize life with joy and energy, who had committed to many exciting future projects including playing at Glastonbury, would choose to take his own life, although I’m sure that details will emerge in time. I feel so desperately sorry for his close friends and family.

But I’ll also mourn the loss to my world. It’s the end of an era: someone who has been there at every stage of my adult life will no longer play a part. I’ll never again see Keith Flint bound across the stage, never again dance along, young and rebellious – albeit in my mind and just for those few fleeting moments…

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