Friday, June 26, 2009

The Loved One and The Gloved One





[As a dog, I have exceptionally good olfactory powers; about an hour ago, I woke up with the smell of amazingly, badly burned toast in my nostrils. As the Resident Manager of the twenty-plus-unit apartment building I live in (rebuilt after the 1906 Earthquake and liable to burn like flash paper if a fire ever gets started), I narrowed the smell down to a particular apartment -- naturally, the one directly beneath mine.]

[When the residents inside didn't answer several knocks on their door, and I could see what looked like smoke seeping out of a side window, I ran to the nearest Fire Station (sixty feet away). The SFFD were suited up and standing outside the unit's door in minutes -- the residents did answer their knock, and it all turned out to be... very badly burned food, being cooked at 2:15 AM. Everyone went back to whatever they were doing before -- except me.]

[I'm wide awake and full of adrenalin, now, thanks ever so much. As a charming added bonus, my apartment smells like a rich, buttery croissant that's been roasted at 900 degrees for an hour with a blowtorch. So, I thought I'd post.]

Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson both died yesterday -- Fawcett, after a long, grueling battle with cancer at about 9:30 AM; and Jackson, of apparent cardiac arrest due to unknown causes or medical circumstances that haven't yet been revealed, at approximately 12:15 PM. My first thought was, Well, now they know what we do not.

Fawcett and Jackson were both part of the background chatter in American culture while I was in college -- Farrah as the slightly ditzy but scrappy blonde in ABC's Charlie's Angels, one of scores of Universial Films-produced Teevee shows that aired in the decade between 1967 and 1977; and Michael as the high-pitched voice in his family's pop-rock act (just now, I have "I'll Be There" running through my head).

Fawcett always struck me as someone held captive by her own media image, believing the roles available to women were restricted to expressions of sexuality and appearance. But, few actors or actresses have the ability and the personas big enough, generating enough velocity, to be able to escape the gravity well of public fascination with fame and wealth. And Fawcett didn't have that kind of talent.

She left Charlie's Angels abruptly, convinced she was about to break out and become a major film star, and that was a bad call; except for her obvious physical attractions, she didn't have much to offer as an actress, then -- a depth, or a solid sense of herself.

Her career seemed to stall, but she worked at her craft and developed the talent she did have; to her credit, she seemed to learn, and she didn't give up. Doing a series of roles about women who stopped allowing themselves to be battered and exploited may seem tame stuff in 2009, but in 1984 when The Burning Bed made it to Teevee, in the strange, synergistic way that particular medium has on our culture, the reality of spousal abuse and battered women entered mainstream, middle American consciousness; it became admissible, discussable. Fawcett deserves some credit for that, too, whether she was chosen for the role by chance or because she pursued it.

It was clear her life was far from uncomplicated -- a string of bad and (ironically) abusive relationships, including the revolving-door one with her former husband, perennial Hollywood bad boy Ryan O'Neal. Apparently there were drugs and depression and downward spirals; any number of gossips and critics jumped on Fawcett's now-infamous appearance on David Letterman in 1997 as an example of how crazy and pathetic she had become. And then, there was a diagnosis of cancer -- but, she didn't give up. She stayed the tall, scrappy blonde from Corpus Christi.

Jackson was less of a figure in my musical and entertainment world; as the Reagan 80's developed, The Gloved One really began delivering his own style, an utter break from the 'Jackson Five' years. I didn't like Jack-o's music, particularly, but it had a beat and an energy and you could dance to it; my 1980's was involved with bridge climbing, the Mabuhay Gardens, and putting people in (or keeping them out of) jail, more than the tracks of Thriller or Invincible. He was Moonwalking and wearing a single glove; his face kept changing from an African-American man's into that of a Caucasian woman, and I eventually stuck him in the same mental category as I used for Prince. They were both excellent showmen, but creators and purveyors of "popular music", which was effervescent and usually vanished when Last Call was made, the lights went up and it was time to go home.

I appreciated Jackson's energy, and did recognize he was an original, an innovator, even in a part of the culture I dismissed as transient. He seemed to have a good business sense: How can you not admire purchasing The Beatles' songbook (except when Jacko did things like allow Nike to use "Revolution" as background in a commercial)?

There will be hundreds of column inches and tell-all books about the excesses and peculiarities of Jackson's personal life: The facial surgeries, the abuse of perscription drugs; the pedophilia scandals; his disconnection from reality and slide into debt; and there, I only have one item to add.

In the Nineties, I was dating a woman whose best friend was the daughter of an L.A. plastic surgeon, whose clientele was exclusive. One evening, sitting around talking with the best friend, she told this story: "My father had a bunch of his friends, all plastic surgeons, over at the house. I could hear them talking and laughing; they didn't know I could hear them.

"At one point, one of the doctors says, 'I won't do Michael any more.' There was some technical crosstalk, and then he said, 'If he were to get in an automobile accident, or even fall down the wrong way, his face could collapse. I don't think his nose will hold up after he hits fifty.' " The next morning, she mentioned to her father that she'd overheard these remarks, and asked if they'd been talking about Michael Jackson.

Her father never admitted that Jackson had been discussed, but replied, "Honey, don't ever, ever mention that to anyone," citing patient confidentiality. "We're physicians. We consult and talk with each other. You talk about things like that, and people could get in trouble. They could get sued." Then the daughter looked at my girlfriend and I, and said, "Well, you guys won't tell anyone, right?" Right.

Over her lifetime, Fawcett may have been one more casualty of a well-taught focus on youth, sexuality and physical attraction; she never fully rejected it. At the end, she had been stripped of all illusions about physical appearance and fame; she was a simple human being, hopefully surrounded by people who loved her: She did the best she could. Jackson had the ability to indulge his deepest fantasies, and to have supported what I always assumed was a perpetual adolescence -- in that, he was as much a casualty of the media industry as Fawcett. He died on the verge of a world tour which might have cured his financial situation and only added to his personal legend: As he put it, this was the "Last Dance".

Both he and Fawcett seemed to confuse happiness with... other things. They lived, and died; and in all of that, they were as the rest of us. Requesat Im Pacem.

UPDATE: Josh Marshall at TPM has this take on Michael Jackson, which sums up for me the reaction to his death:

"I think it's because so much of Michael Jackson's life seemed like make believe. Sometimes farcical. But always like play acting, somehow. So much theatrics. So many costumes. And on various levels the desire -- often frighteningly realized -- to deny or defy his physical self, his age and much more. Even the things that seemed terribly serious, perhaps especially those -- the trials for child molestation which could have landed him in jail for years or decades -- never seemed to stick...

"Whether he was truly guilty of these accusations or not, it always blew over. All together it conditioned me to think of Jackson as someone whose drama was always just drama -- whether it was the threat of prison or vast debts or bizarre physical tribulations -- all of it would pass or blow over, perhaps not even have been real, leaving him more or less in place, as weird or surreal as ever, but basically unchanged."

Another note: Walking unleashed along the Bay around Eight PM last night, I came across a crowd of perhaps 150 people (mostly young, but some 30-somethings and a few fortyish types) in the median created for Muni's Light Rail between the end of Market Street and the Embarcadero, playing Jackson's music over a boom box and dancing, laughing, hanging. It took me a second to realize it was a spontaneous Wake.

Stopping in later at the Embarcadero Hyatt's mezzanine bar, I had a drink surrounded by businessmen talking corporate politics and Conventioneers thinking the Hyatt's lounge was a slice of The Real San Francisco, and saw reports of similar unplanned tributes to Jackson across the United States on the bar's giant-screen Teevee.