The lives of Brandon
Some names have bad karmaBy John Ryle • 5 July 1996 • City of Words • The Guardian • Expanded with afterword • Posted 2016 • 897 words
Pamela Anderson, star of Baywatch, the TV drama about lifeguards in California, gave birth the other day. The babe of babes—to borrow her tabloid cognomen—had a baby. The father is Tommy Lee, of the heavy metal band Mötley Crüe. And the parents named their new-born after another celebrity with the same surname.
Would that be Spike Lee, then? Bruce Lee? John Lee Hooker? Lee Kuan Yew? Robert E. Lee?
No. The child’s name—it’s reported—is Brandon Lee.
You may be wondering, as I did, where you’ve heard that name before. For film buffs the Brandon Lee that springs to mind is the son of Bruce Lee, who was, like his father, an actor and martial arts aficionado. A contemporary of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, Brandon Lee was killed in a freak shooting incident on the set of a film called The Crow. It’s this Brandon Lee, we can assume, that Brandon Anderson Lee’s folks had in mind when they gave their son the same name.
If you live in Britain, though, or read British newspapers, it may be another Brandon Lee that comes to mind, lingering in the part of the brain where pulp culture leaves its sticky fingermarks. This Brandon Lee is from Scotland; his real name is Brian MacKinnon.
The Scottish Brandon/Brian hit the headlines last year as the born-again schoolboy of Bearsden Academy. At the age of thirty-two he decided he wanted to go back to the fifth form, to be an adolescent again, under another name. So he spent a year masquerading as a seventeen-year old at the school in Glasgow where he had previously been a pupil—a decade before. None of the staff recognised him from his previous time there; he took his highers, as they are called in Scotland, and won a place at medical school, only to lose it—unfairly one might argue—when his true age and identity were revealed.
A little leeway
The Brandon Lee story was big in British papers. There was talk of a film. In the United States it made a sidebar in the National Enquirer. But unless Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee are diligent readers of the Enquirer, they’ll have no inkling of the shadow that the imposter of Bearsden Academy has cast on the name they gave their son. Not being of that earlier generation of barking-mad stars who saddled their children with monikers like Moon Unit Zappa—or God Slick or Fifi Trixibelle Geldof Yates—their more reasonable aim will have been to choose a name to stand their offspring in good stead for a future in Tinsel Town.
And Brandon Lee is certainly a name with a muscle-rippling quality to it—out of Lee Marvin via Marlon Brando. It would suit a fictional character. In Britain, though, the more usual form of the name is Brendan, rather than Brandon. Here “Brandon” has a tell-tale feel of aspiration, a hint of a far country. It’s a name for a hero in a romantic novel. Or an imagined life.
As for Lee, well, there must be more people in the world called Lee than any other name. It does service simultaneously as a surname and a first name, a man’s name and a woman’s name, a European, American or Chinese name—and the name on the label in a pair of jeans.
The name is indeterminate, an anonym. It invites mutability. When you’re tired of your own name and thinking of changing it and when you’ve finished thinking how wondrously different your life might become if you were called, say, Wanderley, or Sebastian, or Twyla, or Iko—when you acknowledge the implausible ring these names probably have in your case—then Lee is the sort of name you can fall back on, whoever you are. Hence Brian MacKinnon’s choice of it when seeking anonymity and plausibility in his second adolescence.
Nomen est omen
Adding “Brandon” to “Lee” links a down-to-earth, non-specific second name to a first name that belongs to the dream-world of showbiz. It combines the aspiration to star power with universal appeal. It’s designed for Hollywood, where notoriety—or even death—is preferable to obscurity.
But suppose baby Brandon had been christened Brian—his Scottish namesake’s actual name. That would have been truly inauspicious. There are hardly any famous Brians. On the fingers of one hand: in showbiz, there’s Brian Wilson, Brian Eno and Brian de Palma; in football, the England football manager Brian Clough; and in literature the late Irish writer Brian Moore. That’s it. (Unless you count the Irish king Brian Boru, which is going back a bit.) All of them are getting on now, and none of them is what Hollywood would call an A-list celebrity. The Life of Brian, the Monty Python film, doesn’t help much.
Nomen est omen. Let’s hope those namesakes do not augur a troubled adolescence—or a short life—for Brandon Anderson Lee. And if he should become unhappy with his given name and seek to change it to something else, then—unless he is actively seeking obscurity—let him avoid the name Brian, the real name of his faux namesake, the man who tried and failed to reinvent himself, the man who could not grow up. ★