Back in late 1968, early 1969, I wrote a really bad futuristic short story -- blessedly long since forgotten -- entitled Hello Goodbye. Taking place in London in the year 2033, the story was in the form of a long newspaper article reporting on the funeral of Lord Paul McCartney, the last surviving member of the Beatles, who had passed away at age 91. The scene was a cold, darkly-cloudy-drizzly late November morning at London's Bunhill Fields Cemetery, the final resting place of such immortals as Daniel Defoe, Thomas Hardy, John Bunyan, William Blake and now, Lord McCartney. Peopling the story were hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of extremely elderly men and women. Most were decked out in ancient, ill-fitting Levis, moldy navy pea coats, bandannas and beads. Nearly all were leaning on canes, tearfully daubing their eyes with large red railroad handkerchiefs. Under the canopy at the front of the crowd, a foursome of aged gray-haired musicians was playing a trio of Beatle classics: I Will from "The White Album," There's a Place, from "Please Please Me;" and Hello Goodbye from "Magical Mystery Tour." Between these pieces, the minister, an elderly Church of England Deacon (who strangely looked an awful lot like an octogenarian Mick Jagger) attempted to deliver the eulogy. Being nearly as disconsolate as the throngs he was addressing, his voice could barely be heard anywhere but under the canopy. Other speakers included the 86-year old Peter Noone ("Herman's Hermits"), Marianne Faithful (age 87) and the "Who's" Roger Daltry (age 89).
As I recall, the three spoke of Lord Paul's lyric brilliance, his long-lasting partnership with the late John Lennon (who had passed away seven years earlier at age 85) and of the tremendous impact he had made on an entire generation in terms of fad, fashion and passion.
And of how an era had definitely come to an end. . .
I had not thought about this long-forgotten "literary" travesty for nearly a quarter of a century . . . until yesterday when word came over the Internet that Michael Jackson, the "King of Pop," had died at the unbelievably young age of 50. For with his all too real passing -- much like the fictional demise of "Lord" McCartney -- an era has definitely come to an end. And just as Paul McCartney and the Beatles exercised tremendous influence over the tastes, ideas and passions of a generation, so too did Michael. In fact, the two both overlapped and intertwined in several eerie ways. First, up until the time of his death, Michael Jackson owned the rights to much of the Beatle musical catalog. Second, he and Sir Paul [to give him his real title] did collaborate on at least two pieces --- Say, Say, Say and Ebony and Ivory. And third, it is likely that Jacko, who in one of his last incarnations took to wearing colorfully embellished satin jackets festooned with gold braiding and brass buttons, took the idea from Sir Paul and the Fab Four -- just look at what the boys are wearing on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. McCartney was knighted by the Queen of England; Michael -- the "King of Pop" -- was enthroned by the public.
Whether or not one was a fan of Jackson's music, there is no denying that he is was and always shall be an electrifying performer. The moon-walking Jackson was probably the most imaginative and influential dancer since Fred Astaire first took the stage in the early 1920s. With the 1983 release of his zombie-themed album "Thriller," he all but single-handedly invented the music video and quickly made it an art form. In terms of his artistic longevity and the ability to reinvent both his style and onstage persona, Jackson was sui generis; a performer without peer.
However, beyond Michael Jackson the performer -- the singer/lyricist/dancer/actor/"King of Pop"/"Gloved One" -- there is, of course, Michael Jackson, the human train wreck. For more than a generation, both public and press alike have been mesmerized by the ever-changing, eccentric-to-the-point-of-absurdity, "Wacko Jacko." Whether it be his ever-evolving facial features and pigmentation, his retrogression from adorable, immensely talented 8-year old to preposterous middle-aged quasi-hermaphrodite, or the many peaks and valleys of his personal, financial and sexual life, we haven't been able to take our eyes off him for a long, long time. To my way of thinking, this says far more about ourselves and the times we inhabit than about Michael Jackson. Having grown up in and around the world of celebrity -- indeed, the Jackson Family compound was just up the hill from my parents' home -- I know how difficult it is to remain sane when the spotlight is always on; how much more difficult -- and terrifying -- when that spotlight dims or is extinguished.
Although the cult of personality and celebrity likely goes back to the time of the Greeks, it took the 20th century to make of it an immensely successful cottage industry. The lionization and adulation afforded the likes of a Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino or Charles Chaplin [who absolutely fascinated Jackson] in the 'teens and 'twenties; a Clark Gable, Cary Grant or Russ Columbo in the 'thirties; or a Frank Sinatra in the 'forties, is but a brief candle flicker compared to the perpetual blaze surrounding a James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. One huge difference is that in days of yore, what we "knew" about our idols was precisely what their publicists wanted us to know: that they were good, high-minded folks who loved their mothers, were passionate about puppies, and were almost too good to be true. Over the past generation or generation-and-a-half, we have become addicted to "knowing" (or having exposed for our own enjoyment and entertainment) every blemish, foible, phobia or prosecutable offense of those in the public eye. The media's glare is, of course, far far more intense today than yesterday. And we, the public are far far more addicted and insatiable today than yesterday. The sad fact is that today, we "know" far far more about folks in the public glare than we do about the people who live next door.
Although I have long recognized Michael Jackson's immense talent, I can't say that I was much of a fan after the breakup of the Jackson Five. My tastes in rock or popular music have always been more attuned to Crosby, Still, Nash and Young, the Byrds or the Beatles; I am the sort who will pick "Tommy" over "Thriller" eight days a week. And yet, I daresay that like most, I have paid more than my fair share of attention to Michael Jackson's train wreck of a life. It has been buoyant. It has been sad. It has been maddening. It has also been a thriller.
Like Paul McCartney and the Beatles, he has exercised tremendous influence over an entire generation of newer musical artists like Justin Timberlake and the "Backstreet Boys." Like the real Sir Paul, his work has been "covered" by a diverse group of artists such as "Soundgarden's" Chris Cornell, "Fall Out Boy", and James Chance and the "Contortions."
But just as with the fictional "Lord Paul" from Hello Goodbye, the "Thriller's" gone.
May he rest in peace.
©2009 Kurt F. Stone