They say bad news comes in threes.
I first heard them say this in the summer of 1977, when Elvis Presley, Groucho Marx, and Sebastian Cabot (the butler on Family Affair) all died within days of each other. There was a kind of cosmic appropriateness to these deaths. Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll, Groucho was the King of Comedy, and Sebastian was the King of Supporting Actors on Sentimental Family Sitcoms.
Now, thirty-two years later, Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson have all died within days, and, for the latter two, hours, of each other. I will discuss each of these three in reverse order of both their deaths and celebrity status.
Michael Jackson wasn't that much older than me, so I guess you could say we grew up together. When I was a little boy he was the little boy lead singer of the Jackson 5, though I was probably more familiar with the Saturday morning cartoon Michael than the flesh and blood performer. When the cartoon was cancelled to make room for Speed Buggy or Hong Kong Phooey or something like that, I promptly put him out of my mind. Plus, the Jackson 5 disappeared from Top-40 radio, as did most black acts in the late '70s. When Michael came roaring back in the early '80s, I was at first unsure if this taller, thinner guy was the same cartoon kid I once knew.
I have to say I didn't particularly like Michael Jackson back then. At the time I was a fan of the stripped down rock of folks like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Segar, whereas Jackson sounded a bit too disco for my tastes. Plus, I like to make up my own mind whether I like somebody or not. That became almost impossible with Jackson. I'd turn on MTV and it was RESISTANCE IS FUTILE--YOU WILL LIKE MICHAEL JACKSON. Yes, I know, he "broke the barrier" for black artists on MTV. In that case, they should have played more Stevie Wonder or Patty Labelle. No, just Michael, Michael, Michael. If you said you didn't like, or was merely indifferent to, Michael Jackson, then you might as well deny it three times as the rooster crows. Or get struck by lightning on the way to Damascus. Now that Jacko belongs to the ages, the PR groupie fascist hard sell has started up all over again. Watching Larry King or Keith Olbermann ask people about Jackson's talent, I noticed that more then a few mentioned, without any sense of irony, his popularity. I'm sorry, folks, but before I plunk down money for one of his albums, it has to sound good to my ears, not yours.
This confusing popularity with talent seems to have come from Jackson himself. Upon the release of Bad, his follow-up to Thriller, which had sold around 40 million copies in the early '80s, he had the words 100 MILLION taped to his mirror. This is how many copies of Bad he hoped to sell in a single year. In order to sell that many in 1987, roughly half the population of the United States would have had to buy a copy. Half of the head bangers would have had to buy a copy. Half of the country music fans would have had to buy a copy. Half of the classical music fans would have had to buy a copy. Half of the jazz fans would have had to buy a copy. Half the of the Deadheads would have had to buy a copy. Half of the punk rockers would have had to buy a copy. Even half of the Lennon Sisters fans would have had to buy a copy. In the end, Bad sold about 30 million copies, and that was over a 20 year period. Whatever my feelings about his music, I did occasionally admire Jackson's individuality and nonconformity, but I don't think he himself especially admired those traits in others. He just expected everyone else to be a record buying zombie.
About that individuality and nonconformity, Michael Jackson spent a lot of time cultivating an image of a man who wouldn't let go of his inner child, what with naming his ranch Neverland, filling it with amusement park rides, and giving interviews where he claimed to believe in magic. Strangely, he didn't seem to channel any of that childhood wonderment into his art. At least not from Thriller on. Thanks to all the media coverage, I've spent the last few days becoming reacquainted with Jackson's music. My tastes have expanded considerably since 1982, so I think I can listen to these songs with an open mind. I was struck by the edginess, the grittiness, that Jackson brought to a music form that I'd written off as disco (which I no longer believe "sucks".) For someone with an asexual image, he actually sang about sex quite a bit (straight sex: "girl" this, "girl" that.) I've heard absolutely nothing about the joys of childhood. No childlike whimsy along the lines of "Yellow Submarine". The only song about a child that I'm aware of is "Billie Jean" and in that he's denying paternity. I've also noticed that his high pitched voice occasionally had a growling, snarling intensity. If you only knew Michael Jackson from listening to Thriller, you might think this was one bad motherfucker. I'm serious about this! And as for how he looked when he performed those songs, ever notice he scowled when he sang? In one video he looked so pissed (while clutching his crotch) I think Johnny Rotten might be reluctant to cross him. And what about the names of some of those albums? Bad. Dangerous. This is kid stuff only if it's 11:PM and you don't know where those kids are.
So, can Jackson's childhood wonderment ever be reconciled with his sometimes dark music? Apparently not beyond a reasonable doubt...
Unlike Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett's passing was no surprise. Indeed, there's been practically a media death watch over her these last couple months. More than once I've logged into The Huffington Post and seen, usually from the corner of my eye, such morbid headlines as FARRAH TOO WEAK TO LIFT HER HEAD. The irony is that when it finally happened, it was within hours overshadowed by the death of you-know-who.
Farrah Fawcett was the reigning sex queen of my teenage years. She wasn't, however, my personal sex queen. Just as I don't like people telling me whether I should like Michael Jackson or not, so, too, I prefer to decide for myself whom I find attractive. Actually, I did think she was attractive, but so was Jacqueline Smith, Kate Jackson, Cheryl Tiegs, Suzanne Sommers, Christie Brinkley, Rachael Welch, Goldie Hawn, Linda Carter, Loni Anderson, Angie Dickenson, Jacqueline Bisset, Deborah Harry, Diana Ross, Charo, Lindsey Wagner, Barbi Benton, Catherine Bach, Bo Derek, Adrienne Barbeau, Jayne Kennedy, Olivia Newton John, Valerie Perrine, Barbara Bach, Jennifer O'Neill, Jill St. John, Carol Wayne, Lola Falana, Susan Dey, Roz Kelly, Randi Oakes, Linda Day George, Elaine Joyce, Leslie Ann Warren, Leslie Ann Downs, whoever played Nurse Goodbody on Hee Haw, and the lady that succeeded Farrah on Charlie's Angels, Cheryl Ladd.
Now that I've got that out of my system, I have to say that I watched some sort of retrospective on Farrah the other night, with a lot of clips from the '70s, and, GOD, SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL. It wasn't, as far as I'm concerned, the hair, or the teeth, or the high cheekbones. It was the eyes. She had beautiful eyes. If she had been bald, toothless, and had Nixonian jowls, but nevertheless still had those eyes, she would have been beautiful.
Farrah Fawcett later proved to be an excellent dramatic actress. Well, she proved that to everyone but me. I'm only halfway convinced. When it came to facial expressions, yes, she was good. She could look happy, sad, terrified, mortified, excited, bored, curious, the whole gamut of human emotions. And she could cry, with actual tears streaming down her face. That can't be easy. The problem for me was when she opened her mouth. I could always tell she was reciting lines she had earlier memorized. That what acting is, of course, but I don't need to be reminded of it.
Then there's Farrah's famous poster. This might be what put me slightly off of her for so many years. Here's what's bugged me about it.
She wasn't wearing a bikini.
OK, you're now probably thinking I'm being picky, or sexist, or both. Well, I'm not. In real life, I'd gladly settle for an attractive woman, or halfway attractive woman, or quarterway attractive woman, or one-eighthway attractive woman, or one-sixteenthway attractive woman, in a one piece bathing suit. Beggars can't be choosers.
But a poster isn't real life. A poster is a poster. A beggar can choose. And, dammit, if I'm going to hang a beautiful, sexy woman on my wall, I want her in a bikini!
(I have a thing for belly buttons, OK?!?!)
Finally, there's Ed McMahon. While I can't say I was actually a "fan" of his, I liked him well enough. I don't think Ed was even expected to have a fan base. His role in life was to make anyone who did have a fan base look good. Johnny Carson, of course, but also any celebrity sitting in between him and Johnny. He could even rein in Jerry Lewis on the telethon (he always announced a tote board number at the most opportune moment, such as when Jerry was crying, throwing a fit, or laughing wildly as he tried to eat his mike.) This is why Ed was such an appropriate host for Star Search. He made the contestants look good. If they won, they might become celebrities, go on The Tonight Show, and Ed McMahon could make them look good all over again.
Chris Matthews, taking a break from politics the other night, pointed out that Ed was a conduit for the audience. He was the audience. He was one of us.
Except, of course, he got paid to be one of us.