In this, I tackle the challenge of making a few observations that have been left unsaid in the frenzied cacophony. With luck, perhaps one or two of them will actually be new to you.
I start with the mundane: Why do we care about celebrity deaths? Perhaps it is partly because they are shared cultural experiences. They define the times we live in, and the art and performance that they bring into our homes are shared experiences among us all. They bind us together in a way that brings all our separate lives together into a community.
We all die. But death is not random. It comes to us in three categories: the old, the sick and the sudden. This week, we have seen defining cultural icons leave us in each of those categories.
Ed McMahon was sidekick to two generations. He was the everyman who stood up in the limelight to represent all of us in the collective Great Unwashed. His talent lay in displaying no talent. He was simply an observer with the rest of us; except that he was closer to the entertainment we all enjoyed. Rather than the show coming to his living room as it did with the rest of us, he came to the show, the way we wanted to, the way we imagined ourselves.
Ed sat next to Johnny Carson, but he watched the show and laughed along with us. On Star Search, he was our friend or uncle who gathered us around and said, “Hey, look at the cool thing I found.” He shared his discoveries with us, the rest of his very extended, one-way family. And when he came to our doors and greeted us, it was with a check for a million dollars, from some Publishers group of which we were only vaguely aware. We just knew that Uncle Ed was bringing us a gigantic gift, and enjoying the moment as much as we were. And whenever he stopped at one of our houses and changed someone’s life, he always made sure to tell us that we might be next, if only we would do our part.
He was no typical Hollywood star: strikingly handsome, charismatic, possessed of an extraordinary ability to sing, or dance, or tell stories or make us laugh. We was just one of us. A friend. An uncle. A fellow observer of great talent. And we watched and listened and appreciated and made these shows a part of our lives, with Ed by our side.
Good ol’ Ed. He was one of us, who made good. And we were proud of him.
Of the three, the death of Farrah Fawcett may be the most important, the most touching, and give us the most to learn. As it turns out, Farrah was more than hair and boobs and teeth. It turns out that she was one tough broad who took risks, stared down fear, and taught us all how to live our lives, if only we would stop long enough to listen. Who knew?
Growing up, I wanted to be Farrah Fawcett, giving me something in common with fifty million other American girls. At first, it was her beauty. Sure, her famous poster was an ideal the rest of us could only dream of. But Farrah’s real beauty was not displayed in a photograph, and only became apparent when she moved and spoke and came to life. Farrah’s true beauty was not in her features, but in the way she exuded health and love and optimism and life. Farrah in motion was a gestalt, a woman greater than the sum of her parts.
Later, and even more as she fought the oncoming freight train of death, I came to admire her three greatest assets, all of which were invisible to the eye. And they were her love, her independence and her fearlessness.
Farrah Fawcett loved completely, even when her love was not understood or was not what was needed. Through observing her friendships, her romantic relationships and her relationship with her son Redmond, we learned how we were supposed to love. It was selfless. It was confident. And it was total. Farrah loved surely and completely, and held nothing back. If we bothered to look, we learned how to live our own lives.
Her independence was legendary, and inspired a generation of young women, including me. Still under contract, she left “Charlie’s Angels” after only a year, and was blackballed for doing it. But she did it anyway and took a beating for it. She did it because she felt it was important to her personal growth. Ignoring the money, risking her career, withstanding the crushing pressure of powerful and important men, she stood on her own two feet and took control of her own life. And grew she did. Into a tremendous and underrated actor, a loving mother, a centered woman and a great love.
Farrah refused to marry Ryan O’Neil throughout their 30-year love affair. But they were more than husband and wife. They were soul mates. And though they had their ups and downs, their love affair was deeper and more substantial than most marriages. I truly fear for Ryan, now. He was so completely in love with Farrah, I don’t know what he will do without her.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Farrah was her fearlessness. Her life was a model for us all. For most human beings, fear is a powerful motivating or paralyzing factor in our lives. But not for Farrah Fawcett. She lived her life without fear. If there was something she thought would move her life forward, she did it and never feared failure. Failure, to her, was just a word. She never feared failing. And in the face of tremendous challenges – the loss of her career, her son’s drug addiction, financial troubles and her long battle with cancer – she never acted or failed to act because of fear. If she felt it, she never let on. She conquered fear in a way that eludes most of us, and which Buddhists aspire to.
If we will but stop for a moment and listen to her, Farrah Fawcett has left us a narrative on how to live a life well. She was more than hair and boobs and a smile. She was an example for us all.
I’m going to tell you some things about Michael Jackson that you haven’t heard a thousand times in the last day. You may not agree with them all, but to me they are important truths.
Though Michael won 13 Grammys (each and every one of which I voted for, as a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), I still believe his musical talent is largely unsung, unrecognized and under-appreciated. He is lauded for his songs, his cutting-edge videos, his huge concerts and his innovative dancing. But Michael was, hands down, one of the greatest technical singers of our time.
His technical singing ability was second to none. He was as perfect a singer as Pavarotti, just in a different genre. Barbara Streisand is heralded for her technical ability, and indeed she is great. I had the opportunity to play on her “Broadway” album, and I was astonished to discover the incredible control and precision with which she sings. When it sounds like Streisand is really belting out a note, the note is in fact quite moderated and contained. I was surprised at how softly she actually sang those “big” notes. She is liquid quicksilver, flowing smoothly and effortlessly between notes, yet each note absolutely precise and perfectly placed. Michael Jackson was just as perfect. In fact, if you listen to the song “Smile,” on his History album, I defy you to tell the difference between Michael and Barbara Streisand.
Here is something you won’t hear from anyone else: Michael was not eccentric or a freak or a child molester. He was just different, and wildly misunderstood.
Michael was as gentle and innocent a soul as you will ever find. His biggest failure was in not being capable of understanding why sharing his life, his home and even his bed with children would bother and frighten other people. He tried to tell us, over and over and over. But we wouldn’t listen, we wouldn’t understand. We stubbornly clung to the assumption that a “healthy” or “normal” adult would never behave that way. But that was just our assumption, based only on fear and cynicism. As much as Michael could not understand our alarm, we could not understand his child-like innocence.
Michael Jackson wasn’t a pedophile, he was someone who loved children and love childhood, and whose own childhood had been stolen from him. He never got to be a child in his youth, so he tried in vain to capture a piece of it in his adulthood, when he had some control over his own life. But we wouldn’t let him, because we didn’t understand him. He was different. We don’t like different. We don’t understand different. And so we fear and demonize different. We do it with Muslims, with people of other races, with other belief systems and other cultures, and we did it with Michael Jackson. Michael was different, but he was not a child molester. We just didn’t understand him, and so we mistrusted him.
Perhaps the saddest thing about Michael’s life is his flight from ghosts. The ghost that haunted him was his father. As everyone knows, Michael’s father, Joe Jackson, was horribly abusive. He scarred Michael’s soul, deeply and terribly. And the greatest horror in Michael’s life was looking in the mirror and seeing his father begin to appear as young Michael grew into a man. A comparison of photos demonstrates what Michael saw. As the young man came of age, he began to look more and more like the last person on earth he wanted to be. Truly, Michael’s greatest fear was the “Man in the Mirror.” Some of the lyrics from his song of that title are telling:
A Willow Deeply Scarred,
Somebody's Broken Heart
And A Washed-Out Dream
They Follow The Pattern Of
The Wind, Ya' See
Cause They Got No Place
That's Why I'm Starting With
I'm Starting With The Man In
I'm Asking Him To Change
And No Message Could Have
Been Any Clearer
If You Wanna Make The World
A Better Place
Take A Look At Yourself And
Then Make A Change
In the context of his young life, which none of us who judge him harshly had to endure, it should not be surprising that Michael would flee the image of his father through plastic surgery. Certainly he was overly traumatized, and certainly he became obsessed, and certainly he went too far. Michael knew he had gone too far. His later surgeries were an effort to correct the “gone too far” effects, but only made things worse. From all accounts, this weighed as heavily on him as it did the rest of us, and those close to him report that it devastated his self-esteem and even decimated his talent, for talent cannot express itself in shame.
People say Michael’s surgery was the result of self-loathing. But on a broader view, it was not self-loathing, but the loathing of his father and the fear that he could not escape that father in the mirror.
Finally, there is a phenomenon we only peripherally acknowledge, which affects only truly great men, and it happened to Michael. For whatever reason – be it psychological or some quirky electro-chemical firing in the brain – the same thing that makes a person excel beyond all bounds and go farther in any endeavor than anyone else in history also makes them functional idiots in other areas of their lives. There is something these folks have that the rest of us do not: a spark, an edge, a vision. Some sort of advantage that we lack. I’ve known enough great artists to see it in action. The people who go farther than anyone else has been able to go before, the ones who change the landscape for all who follow – they have something intangible within them. Intangible, but very, very real. And that thing, whatever it is, simultaneously makes them geniuses in one area and handicapped in all others.
Not many people have this thing. It is reserved for the world changers, of which Michael Jackson was one. Some may dismiss or diminish his talent, because they did not recognize it, or because their opinions were poisoned by other aspects of Michael’s life, or because of the tendency of some to lift themselves up by tearing others down. But Michael Jackson was a package of entertainment talent the likes of which we may never see again. In modern times he has few peers, all of whom are recognizable by a single name: Elvis, Sinatra, Lennon. No others.
All of those people had the spark, they all changed the landscape, and they all suffered for it. We all know about Elvis and Lennon. I was privileged enough to play for Sinatra, and his son, Frank Jr., and they were as extraordinary as Michael, and as dysfunctional. You just didn’t get to see it on their faces or in criminal charges.
The only thing we love more than lifting someone up and worshipping them as an idol is tearing them down after we have elevated them. We are strange and cruel in that way. And Michael Jackson suffered because of us. Michael may have been acquitted of all ten child molestation charges made against him, but it killed him nonetheless. Whether the autopsy will show that it killed his body or not, I do not know, but I know that it killed his spirit.
Michael Jackson was one of the greatest, most innocent and most misunderstood men of modern times. Those who do not demonize or fear him will miss him, but he has forever changed the world that we will continue to live in.