A good number of music stars took the death of music impresario Michael Gudinski personally, but few more so than Ed Sheeran, who flew to Gudinski’s native Australia after learning of his passing and quarantined there long enough to be able to perform at a nationally televised state memorial tribute Wednesday.
More than that, Sheeran wrote a new life-and-death-themed ballad for the occasion, “Visiting Hours,” which he debuted on the widely seen telecast, and had just the slightest hint of having trouble getting through it before walking away, dabbing his eyes, at the end.
The mood was not entirely funereal. After Sheeran’s three-song appearance, homegrown superstar Kylie Minogue took the stage of Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, and she invited Sheeran back out for a duet of the not-so-reverent “Locomotion.” But if Minogue was one of Gudinski’s favorite daughters, Sheeran was one of his favorite sons, and the fact that he would make the journey, then bust out a tearjerker in his mentor’s honor, particularly touched rapt Australian viewers.
Other major stars also took part in the tribute, albeit mostly via video when it came to the show’s international cast, from Bruce Springsteen singing a mortality-themed song from his latest album to a spoken testimonial from Taylor Swift.
“I’m extremely, extremely grateful to be here. I know it’s a difficult thing to get into this country, and I don’t take it for granted for all the hard work getting me here,” Sheeran said to the 7,200 attendees spaced out inside the 15,000-capacity arena, as well as home viewers. “I appreciate the opportunity to say goodbye… I always find the best way to process stuff is to write songs, be it good news bad news or whatever. Here’s a song I finished last week.”
“Visiting Hours” is the sort of song that, should Sheeran record it, will likely become a funeral perennial, with the singer addressing a loved one in the hereafter to “wish that heaven had visiting hours… so I could just swing by and ask your advice… Soon, they’re going to close, but I’ll see you another day / So much has changed since you’ve been away.”
Sheeran devoted his other two song choices to familiar favorites of the dear departed, including “The A-Team” and “Castle on the Hill.” Of the latter, he said, “I have a very vivid memory of being at his house in Port Douglas at about 3 in the morning, both of us on deck chairs, and I played him this song… He must have misheard the lyrics, because he started from that point screaming at me whenever he saw me, ‘We were younger then!’ I never told him it was ‘I was younger then.’ But from now on, it’s ‘We were younger then'” — and. indeed, he proceeded to sing it the way Gudinski loved and slightly misremembered it.
Sheeran recalled his first meeting with Gudinski in Melbourne, before which his manager, who’d been Gudisnki’s former boss, told him “you need to be very impressive.” At that first encounter, Sheeran said, “he was very proper and very professional. We did our first tour with him soon after that and I quickly learned he was just a barrel of laughs…. He was just a tornado of joy, and everywhere he went, he just lit the room, and then fucked off,” the singer laughed.
Minogue brought up how “Michael had long talked about his love for Ed and that we should meet, and now that we’ve finally properly met, he would be beaming right now.” She marveled at how Sheeran “came over the second he heard the news, as a gut reaction.”
Introducing their duet of “The Locomotion,” her career-making cover of the 1960s Lesley Gore hit, Minogue said, “I know it hasn’t been much of a singalong tonight. We’re singing (along) in our hearts… But we thought it’d be kind of fun to take it back where it all began, at least for me in 1987… Ed was not even a glint in his mother’s eye.”
Among the video testimonials was Swift’s, who said she’d shared birthdays with the late mogul and his wife Sue and “it quickly became apparent that they cared about me as a person and this was a friendship.”
To read Variety’s obituary for Gudinski, click here.