The name ‘Bron Gillan’ doesn’t mean anything to most (if any) readers of this column. She passed away last month, and was the wife of Ian Gillan, lead singer of the iconic band Deep Purple, most famous for their 1970s hit ‘Smoke on the Water’.
What does Mrs. Gillan’s passing have to do with the 2020 election? Absolutely nothing, except that my personal reaction to it helped me understand how and why some otherwise reasonable people fall for conspiracy theories.
Besides being my favorite (and, in my view, best) rock singer of all time, I’ve gotten to know Ian Gillan personally, and I interviewed him for TNH several years ago when the band played in Cyprus.
In fact, I think of Ian nowadays more as a friend than the legendary rock star I was fortunate to meet, so when rumors circulated that his wife had passed – after a strong marriage of almost 40 years, a rarity in the entertainment industry – I felt very sad for him. For his sake, I didn’t want the gossip to be true.
Most of the band’s members are in their seventies, and they recently had a setback when longtime guitarist Steve Morse permanently left the group, ironically to care for his own ailing wife. Fortunately, Morse’s replacement is a young, dynamic player who may even be a better fit musically. The band experienced a renaissance and took the world by storm on a multinational tour. How awful for this to happen now.
As I wrote at the onset, ‘Bron Gillan’ is not a household name, so a Google search regarding her death wasn’t likely to yield any results. The news came from social media posts on groups that, because of my commitment to unplug, I peruse only occasionally nowadays. Immediately, a reflexive outpouring of sympathy followed from most readers, but a few more discerning ones, including me, jaded by general oodles of Internet misinformation, demanded proof.
Granted, we didn’t expect CNN or The New York Times to cover the story, but wouldn’t the band at least post something on their official website? They didn’t.
It didn’t help that Ian – like so many other celebrities – is at times the victim of an Internet hoax announcing his own death. We thought the news about his wife was another sick joke.
As days passed and there was no word either on Deep Purple’s site or from major music publications, I became increasingly hopeful that it was a tasteless false alarm.
I became quite encouraged when an Internet link titled ‘Bron Gillan’s obituary’ was fake and came with a virus warning. Aha! I thought, I was right! This was all a scam after all!
Something ate at me, though: coincidentally, I’d emailed Ian a few days earlier and hadn’t heard back from him – and he’s almost always consistent at answering his emails, even when he’s on tour. Maybe he just overlooked it this time, I thought. What remained the overriding factor for me was there wasn’t anything official posted anywhere.
I figured I could email Ian directly, but I didn’t want to bother him in case the news was true. Instead, I reached out to his assistant, whom I’ve also known for years. “How’s it going?” I wrote.
And then, I read her reply, which began with: “We lost Ian’s wife a few days ago…”
Now here’s the really important part: given that I still hadn’t seen the story reported anywhere officially, and given that fake obituary link, a small part of me thought that perhaps the scammers had also hacked into Ian’s assistant’s email and were sending fake messages. I wasn’t about to offend her and write back: “prove to me that this is really you,” but as the ensuing minutes and hours passed, logic chased away emotion and forced me to believe what I didn’t want to believe – that the news really was true. (Eventually, Ian’s official Facebook page posted it, and he and I have exchanged emails since.)
This brings me to the 2020 election skeptics or outright deniers. It begins with the premise that a president who filled arenas with thousands of screaming fans couldn’t possibly lose to a guy about whom practically no one was the least bit excited. Just like the premise that if there was no official death notice, Bron really hadn’t died.
Then, there’s the red herring: in Bron’s case, the fake obituary link; in the election, footage of some vote counters at one polling place pulling out boxes from underneath tables after hours.
Finally, the lapse of reason: if there’s a premise and a red herring to support it, then Ian’s assistant’s email must’ve been hacked, and the VP really does have the power to personally decide who the next president will be.
That’s right: thousands if not millions of Americans, so caught up the election, would actually not mind living in a country where Al Gore in 2000, Joe Biden in 2016, Mike Pence in 2020, and Kamala Harris in 2024 singlehandedly handpick(ed) the next president.
When we don’t want to believe something, our mind can play tricks on us. And when there’s a red herring in the mix, we rush to give it greater weight than the rest of the facts combined.
Thankfully, most people lulled into a conspiracy theory eventually realize reality: Deep Purple didn’t report Bron’s death because Ian and his family wanted privacy. And just because voters deemed Biden humdrum doesn’t mean they didn’t vote for him anyway.
Ian Gillan really did lose his wife; Donald Trump really did lose the election. For some of us, both of those events are sad, Objectively, they’re both true.