HE looked like a wise, hippy lion — but very still, nothing spontaneous, other than the occasional tremor. Earlier this week, Billy Connolly was beamed in from beachside in Florida, sporting a tropical shirt somewhere between very expensive and complete piss-take, as he received a lifetime achievement gong.

He fingered the extremely ugly glass ornament with great care, the eyes fully alive to the absurdity of this and many, many other situations. But his words faltered and wandered just a bit too often; there was a helpful edit midway, for a man who could once stream consciousness at will, never mind stream video. His farewell was wee, quiet and distant.

There’s not much more that a certain generation of us can take of the public dimming of the Partick supernova known as Billy Connolly, due to his advancing Parkinson’s and cancer. But as he continues to accept his invitations and his celebrations, so must we deal with it.

Loading article content

As the supreme comic of human frailty and our subversive bodies — always something leaking, smelling, sticking out or needing covered up — you might have wondered what Connolly would do if his own body started to profoundly rebel. New material, new routines? Well, new opening music: in any future performing plans (and there are some), he wants the opening track to be Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. As manifested by his participation in last month’s BBC love letter to the Big Yin, Billy and Me, Connolly also seems to want to be something much more dignified: a ruminative, tie-dyed, inspirational icon. Around which many are gathering, to pay deepest respects. At least two of the three giant Glasgow wall murals of Connolly commissioned by the BBC, and announced this week — I will pass over Jack Vettriano’s efforts in silence, though of course Billy would be more generous — are worthy of Connolly’s energy and inventiveness.

Rachel Maclean has him as a day-glo, pop-art clan chief, standing proudly outside a chippy selling sausage suppers. The ancestral symbol that adorns him is that of a bicycle wedged between two bum cheeks sticking out of the ground.

This is a reference to the punchline of the joke that Connolly told on his first appearance on the Parkinson show, in 1975 — the gig that kickstarted his UK national career.

It concerned a man who had murdered his wife, burying her bottom-up, “so he’d have somewhere to park his bike”.

Now, from one viewpoint in the brand new Scotland of 2017, this reference belches out of a brutal and not that distant past — misogynist, violent, playing up not against Scottish stereotypes — that we must instantly deplore.

But there are few more supple with gender politics than Maclean in Scottish contemporary arts.

And indeed, with his Big Yin sash, tea-cosy crown and bearded sporran, this is far from the oppressive, household-terrifying patriarch of industrial-era yore.

The “polymorphous perversity” of Maclean’s Big Yin (Billy will know this term: his wife Pamela Stephenson is a psychotherapist, after all) also points back towards what could be just as profound as Connolly’s comic legacy: the way he opened up about the emotional and sexual chaos of his own working-class background.

When he and Stephenson clicked, on a comedy show at the cusp of the 1980s, she claimed to have identified that something terrible and fatal lurked beneath the boozing and coke-taking that Connolly was gripped by. “I thought, ‘If I leave this man, he’s going to die’.” The various revelations Stephenson unearthed — a mother fleeing as quickly as she could out of a grim wartime family situation, casting Billy upon deeply resentful aunts; a father coming back damaged from the Second World War and then inflicting physical and sexual damage on his son William — were published in her psychobiography, titled Billy, in 2001.

Amid all this, the story that Connolly tells of when he first realised that humour might save him is almost too symbolic.

“I can remember the moment in the school playground. I would have been seven or eight and I was sitting in a puddle and people were laughing. I had fallen in it and people found it funny. And it wasn’t all that uncomfortable, so I stayed in it longer than I normally would because I really enjoyed the laughing. My life was very unhappy at the time, and laughter wasn’t something I heard all the time, so it was a joy. And I realised quickly that if you can have an audience this way, life was rather pleasant.”

In later life, “staying in the puddle” finds its equivalent in learning some of his wife’s spiritual practice, as a buffer against the sulphurous grip of the past. Buddhism’s “living in the moment is very good for that”, said Connolly last month. “This is all there is. The past doesn’t exist. You have to make it exist by thinking about it. Moments are all created.”

It’s funny how time makes sages of us all. I now find the New York/LA, embrace-all-reject-none Billy Connolly of his last two working decades compelling — even more so than the Connolly who transmuted Scottish class anger into soul-saving humour in his first three.

But there certainly was a period in the 1990s when Connolly’s wide-open celebrity palling-around stuck in the craw. In particular, his tales of hanging around with Prince Charles and other sundry royals, sat ill while what remained of industrial Scotland was being socked around the jaw.

Does that explain why, when Connolly popped his head around my band’s dressing room just before a Renfrew Ferry gig in the early 1990s, I coldly told him to take a hike and “let us get our heads together, OK Billy?” He slunk off, and I continued in my wankerish manner. But, of course, we’re all much wiser now...

More than any Scottish performer I know, Connolly explores the tension between “roots” and “routes”. Meaning the things that anchor you and keep sending you energy from your past; and the places you want to explore when you want to test that identity, those sources, against the great variety of the world.

We need more artists who come from the tougher parts of Scottish society, who find their voice while articulating their experience, but who then ask why their ambitions can’t be exponential, even global — without being accused of sell-out, or pimping their past. (I often see the brilliant Scottish rapper Loki, otherwise known as Darren McGarvey, falling foul of those who can’t cope when he seems to be critiquing “above” his station).

I remember watching Connolly make his contribution to the memorial service for Jimmy Reid, the Clydeside radical who, like Connolly, had sought to make his shipbuilding experience a resource for the world. Connolly started to choke up when recalling Reid’s famous lines from his 1970 Rectorial lecture on Alienation.

He said: “Reid put things simply, complex things, that just knocked me back three steps. I remember him saying that if you look at these housing estates and high-rise flats, behind every one of these windows is somebody who might be a horse-jumping champion, a Formula One racing champion, a yachtsman of great degree, but he’ll never know because he’ll never step on a yacht or Formula One car — he’ll never get the chance. Those words still haunt me to this day.”

They must be haunting him at his back, because Billy Connolly has only ever been driven forward.

Not exactly a friend to independence? Well, not every artist and performer who make Scots feel like they possess themselves, and their culture, has to support a Scottish nation-state. As Rachel Maclean’s portrait makes perfectly clear, Billy Connolly is his own sovereign realm. As he sinks inexorably below the waves, let us salute and love him all the way.