This was going to be a post about my most recent cycling adventures, but that will have to wait.
This week has seen the deaths of three pop culture icons who resonated in my life: Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson, as well as the news that Walter Cronkite is likely to pass away in the next few weeks.
Today reminds me of my 17th birthday, back in 1990, when both Sammy Davis, Jr., and Jim Henson died within hours of each other: a day when things are just so sad that it’s tough to cobble together the words to describe the disturbance in personal space-time.
Ed McMahon was the ultimate sidekick. As the foil to Johnny Carson, McMahon often got the last laugh in Johnny’s bits – a sure sign of respect, as many comedians are hesitant to have somebody else share the spoils of their trade. Ed’s cadence and style were the model for those to follow: Paul Shaffer and Andy Richter owe a lot to Ed’s inimitable body of work, and Ed’s death leaves only Doc Severinsen to carry the mantel of NBC’s standard bearer of late-night variety shows.
I used to sneak in a viewing of The Tonight Show in my youth, and my parents often had it on and I could hear Johnny and Ed’s banter through my bedroom door. My grandmother loved Tonight (though she was most enamored of Joan Rivers’ guest hosting appearances), and I’d watch the show there whenever I stayed at her place.
Ed: your curtain call is now – enjoy it!
Farrah Fawcett was the sexy angel. And no, I didn’t have a copy of the poster on my wall, but I was all too familiar with it (was the uniform on Baywatch modeled after that shot? Oh yes, I’m quite sure of it.). Farrah rose above the fluffy appearance, though, and was a strong woman. Sure, her appearance on David Letterman’s show rose suspicions about her health and/or sanity, but time and again she rose above it with class.
And her battle against cancer was a model of courage. She shared her pain, grief, anger and perseverance in a very public forum. Her life’s love, Ryan O’Neil, was there every step of the way during her battle and showed every bit of strength to keep up with the ever-powerful Farrah. And the final visit of their son, Redman, is tough to watch – even tougher so, in hindsight.
Farrah: Charlie’s latest mission is a doozy.
And Michael – well, there’s a lot to say, both good and bad.
Thriller was one of the first albums I ever bought, if not the first, with my own money. I listened to that tape until it had stretched beyond playability. I owned a “Thriller” jacket. I learned the moonwalk. I even briefly switched to Pepsi after the pyrotechnics incident out of solidarity – yes, I was a fan.
But most of all, I loved the magic of his music. Off The Wall and Thriller are wall-to-wall sonic tapestries that are solid from the first beat to the last. The infectious (if repetitive) bassline of “Billie Jean,” or the Van Halen guitar solo in “Beat It,” or the tour de force of “Thriller,” or the dance-’til-you-drop beat of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” – all are model pop songs. Sure, his star faded from there, but there were still occasional glimpses of brilliance, even as his personal life became increasingly erratic and eccentric.
My fandom didn’t last too long, however. The first blow was when he outbid Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono for the ownership of Northern Songs, which meant that The Beatles’ song catalog was suddenly open to the highest bidder for use in ad campaigns (my Beatles fandom far outweighs that of MJ, and always has). And the rumors and allegations of child molestation were tough to disbelieve, given that MJ always seemed a bit too eager to be around children.
MJ’s childhood was nothing that I’d wish upon anybody, but I also think that his adulthood was equally tragic. His constant battle to become somebody else – the pseudo-castrati voice, the horrendous plastic surgeries, the shift in skin coloration – pointed to a never-fulfilled need to treat deep psychological and emotional wounds. But the insular world of superstardom likely blinded him to this necessity, to his own detriment.
He tried to seek solace in isolation, and was about to stage a massive comeback-cum-farewell concert series in London. And now he is no more.
But we have the music, that glorious music.
Michael: may you finally find peace.