June 26, 2009

The King is Dead! Long Live the King!

I don't remember where I was when John Lennon died. I don't remember what I was doing, or who gave me the news. What I do remember, is that I was in New York City exactly one year later, in December 1981. I found a city that was greatly moved by his memory. From my perch on the 26th floor of the Lexington Hotel I watched the Today Show on WNBC, and local news anchor Sue Simmons made an announcement at every commercial break. What was so important? "We remember John Lennon, today, live at five." Every few minutes. There was no bigger news story that day, at least for New Yorkers. The vigils lasted for days; the shrines remained undisturbed even longer.

But I was born a few years too late, so Lennon was never a major influence for me. Nor Elvis, Ritchie, Marilyn, or Tupac.

One standout, however, did become my childhood hero. And he shed his mortal coil just yesterday. They called him the King of Pop, that mono-gloved moonwalker from Indiana. This time around I got the news online, from Yahoo. As children, my sister and I adored him. We felt so lucky to attend a Jackson Five concert at the Forum in Inglewood; we had the worst seats in the house, in the nosebleed section, about a half-mile from the stage. We could barely see a thing from that distance, but the acoustics were excellent. It was a night to remember.

Of course, like most children of our generation, we also followed the careers of the Osmond Brothers, David Cassidy, and Maureen McCormick (whom I actually managed to meet many years later). And then of course there was the lovely Farrah, who also left us this week. I was enchanted from my first glance of that famous poster; I knew not whether she could sing, act, dance, read, write, or even speak, but for me (and millions of young men) it didn't matter. That hair. Ahem. Alright, I'm better now.

And also like most of our peers, my sister and I (and our showbiz heroes) grew up. Donny, David, and Marsha, Marsha, Marsha went to school, got jobs, got married, had children, and became fruitful, contributing members of our society.

But not Michael.

No one knows better than me, that the man was a force to be reckoned with. He churned out one innovative hit after another, changing the music business for all time. Was it Rock & Roll? Was it R & B? Was it Soul? No one could tell for sure, and that was the beauty of it. Such was his genius, that he confidently defied all preconceived notions of what popular music was or should be. The consummate showman, he extolled through his lyrics the ideals of a universal brotherhood of all mankind, a colorblind society that knew no distinctions of gender or race or wealth or station. Indeed, a man far ahead of his time.

Unfortunately for the unwashed masses (you and me), he squandered many opportunities to implement that vision. For he led an extravagant elitist lifestyle in stark contrast to his noble egalitarian message. Never managed to join that humble brotherhood himself. For he lived the second half of his life trapped within a velvet prison of his own making, behind multiple layers of iron gates, bodyguards, publicists, and tinted car windows. He was a riddle wrapped inside an enigma, a child in a man's body, a black man who wished he was white, a tortured soul who longed for intimacy yet jealously guarded his privacy, revealing little of himself in return.

Who else could ever invent his own dress code for a visit to the White House? Or earn millions for a sneaker endorsement deal, and never show up for work? Or give a press conference from his own home, and demand that the world press plug into his own live satellite feed? No king, president, emperor, or even maniacal dictator -- before or since -- has ever managed to pull off such a feat.

Instead of courting girlfriends who might give him true love and children, he auditioned incubators who could be disposed of after completing their assigned task. (They traded their dignity for a fistful of dollars and a moment in the limelight, but that's another story for another time.) Instead of seeking out friends who could offer him acceptance and counsel, he surrounded himself with employees and consultants to tell him what he wanted to hear, keeping them (and even his family) at armslength as they anxiously awaited an audience with His Majesty when it served his purpose. And legions of faithful admirers (yes, including myself) actually paid for the privilege! How cool is that?

Nice work if you can get it.

I will miss him, but I won't mourn him. He was an entertainer, but he wasn't my friend. I have no plans for a pilgrimage to Encino, or Gary, or to Hollywood Boulevard. He charmed the world, but only in service to his own pleasures and ambitions.

He had his moment, but now it's over. I pray that his family will soon find their peace.


  1. Great blog Steven. I'll just lurk for now.
    Looking forward to your miracle stories.

    Gail Kaku, Author, Popcorn Miracles®

  2. What a sad, sad, life....great blog, Steven.