Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown: Remembering Michael Jackson (Revisited)

Michael-Jackson-33-young-michael-jackson-15045750-640-442

How do you know you’ve made an indelible impact on culture?

Here’s how.

Listen: this story has been told so many times it is inextricable from the history of America. F. Scott Fitzgerald infamously (and incorrectly) declared that there are no second acts in American lives, but he was writing his own epitaph at the time. Little did he know that artists, and later, politicians, would perfect the Lazarus routine to the point that it was itself an art form of sorts.

Some great American artists could not handle the hype of their success, or remained paralyzed by the prospect of following up their uncanny grand slam (think Ralph Ellison after Invisible Man for the prototype). Some artists famously flamed out in part because of the pressure or else were consumed by their own demons (insert any number of movie stars and rock gods: James Dean and Charlie Parker remain the heavyweight champs of this routine). Some artists never had a choice in the matter: what can we say about the fact that Melville received less than a little acclaim after he wrote Moby Dick (even his good friend and contemporary critical darling Nathaniel Hawthorne–to whom Melville’s masterpiece was dedicated–thought little of the book, revealing him as either an exceedingly poor judge of genius or else an insecure literary prince who could not brook the very real competition Melville presented), and the man who may be our great American author (at least of the 19th Century) died broke, unknown, and embittered.

But none of these case studies can come close to approximating the one-of-a-kind wunderkind who became the King of Pop. His story is unique and will likely remain the triumphant and ultimately tragic cultural touchstone of our times. He had already lived at least three lives before he died, each one more improbable than the last.

mj3

I will leave the career-spanning overviews and detail-oriented obituaries to the myriad individuals who are more qualified (not to mention more interested) than I to properly assess Jackon’s short and unhappy existence.

I can offer some opinions and recollections of what it was like, in real time, to witness Jackson’s awesome and irresistible trajectory. Any pronouncement, no matter how passionately proposed, is ultimately irrelevant regarding what constituted the ideal demographic for MJ’s steady rise and sluggish fall. All I can say is that I was a kid in the ’70s and I remember loving the Jackson Five songs and watching their cartoon reruns on TV. In other words, I was the ideal age to experience it, and still remember it. To assert that Michael was the all-American pop icon is both facile and also an indication of how naive and blissfully unaware people my age were to…well, too many things to count. But in MJ’s case, young fans were oblivious to the behind the scenes angst that crippled his childhood. That he was abused is undeniable and well-documented. It also scarcely scratches the surface of the pressures and pains that were inflicted upon him. Even a cursory acknowledgment of what he’d been through, before becoming a teenager, should leave the most cynical critic astonished that he was able to create the lasting work he did, as an adult.

Flash forward to 1979: Off The Wall was the ubiquitous hit record and every time you turned the radio on you heard “Rock With You” (which, incidentally, sounds every bit as fresh and funky three decades later). MJ was on top of the world. It seems fair to suggest that nobody, including the young superstar, had any idea that he was about to own the world.

Thriller, of course, changed everything. It made all that came before it prelude and everything, especially the not-so-good things, that came after an epilogue. People who weren’t around then probably can’t imagine it, but Jackson was the biggest thing in the universe circa 1983 (and into 1984). It wasn’t even close: he was as prevalent as Coca Cola or McDonalds, and it was easy to avoid him as it was to avoid breathing. If you were alive, you were aware. Like it or not.

In fact, if Thriller had not happened, people from my generation might be fondly recalling how they skated to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” at the roller rink. Or how great those Jackson 5 songs still sound. But, of course, Thriller happened. And we can (and will) talk about, and remember, all the songs, all the videos and the brand that Michael Jackson became during that span of commercial dominance.

But for now, I’m going to talk about the moment. You know what I mean: the performance of “Billie Jean” at the Motown 25 TV special.

I still get goosebumps every time I watch that. Now that he is gone, I’m sure each subsequent viewing (and there will be many, as I don’t expect I’ll ever tire of watching it) will be burdened with a melancholy even more profound than the one I would have felt anytime up until June 25, 2009. In other words, even before he passed on, watching a moment like this obliges one to relive one’s youth; it’s inescapable. So naturally one can’t help lamenting that loss of insouciance, of Innocence (with a capital I) and the many things time takes from us.

The previous generation had the moon landing; we had the moonwalk. That is not intended to be overly coy; I actually think I would invoke the moon landing regardless of the obvious word association. In my opinion, the few seconds that Jackson spent introducing that new dance move to the world are the defining cultural moments of my generation. In fact, I can’t readily think of anything else that enters the discussion. People have spoken about the other MJ (Michael Jordan) having played basketball better than anyone else did anything. I feel we could find other examples (Daniel Barenboim playing Beethoven piano sonatas; Flannery O’Connor writing fiction; Glenn Beck being an asshole), but I would propose that this performance is the apotheosis of what a pop star can achieve. No one, before or since, has been better at being a star, at seizing the moment, at overtaking the world by force of will and talent, quite like Michael Jackson did that evening. What is truly remarkable is not merely how incredible it was, then, but how inimitably cool and untouchable it remains, now. Everyone saw that and everyone reacted to it. It was (and is) impossible to be wholly unaffected or unmoved by what happens during those five minutes. There are probably people (perhaps lots of them) who still won’t see the art or genius (and the many layers of that genius: the song itself–a slice of irrepressible pop perfection, his dancing, and the fact that he is lip-synching it) of this moment, but it’s simply not possible to remain indifferent. You can fail to acknowledge this the way you can fail to acknowledge the Grand Canyon, as you are being pushed over the edge, eyes shut and screaming all the way down.

A confession. I was not necessarily a fan. I certainly was able to appreciate that dancing, and that song (and any male my age who attempts to deny that he desperately wanted to perfect the moonwalk is lying through the acne-glazed haze of adolescent recollection). It was a bizarre time to be a teenager: all the girls in school loved Michael Jackson and all the guys loved Jim Morrison. Oh wait, that was just me? Well, as corny as I would have considered it for any dude to have a poster of MJ, I am not particularly proud to reconsider the prominent spread of leather-clad Lizard King photos on my bedroom wall. I say this only to underscore the impact MJ had at the time: I was well tired of the non-stop hype and ceaseless radio play (seven Top 10 singles?!), and it was simply beyond human capability to separate oneself from Thriller’s impact. You may not have loved it (you may not have liked it) but I have never spoken to anyone who actually hated it. I’m sure there is someone out there, who also hates the Sistine Chapel and The Lincoln Memorial. Or Moby Dick (just kidding, sort of.)

mj1

We all know what happened next.

Icarus flew too close to the sun, and none of the bills he earned could ever break his fall.

I am also content to let the historians, the haters and the opportunistic biographers slash and snap at this detritus like piranhas in a feeding frenzy. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest we’ll soon have more detail than we’d ever want to imagine about all the things that did (and didn’t) happen when the media cameras weren’t rolling. By the ’90s, it’s not a stretch to suggest his music took second billing to his increasingly surreal escapades.

And it’s at that point that we’ll be unable to resist the analogies. Neverland Ranch? Was Jackson the real life apotheosis of Citizen Kane? Perhaps he embodied the American tragedy implicit in the eponymous hero of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby?For me, those two works offer the finest, and final, take on how money and memory trump success and satisfaction. A person with a troubled past can never escape the shadow forever hanging over his present. Add almost unlimited power and all bets are off. And while Michael Jackson epitomizes the eternal child in search of a childhood he never had, his tragedy is both deeper and more disturbing. As such, I believe Jackson existed as a sort of inverse Dorian Gray. Of course that antihero traded his soul for eternal youth, but the evidence of his decay was hidden on the portrait he fastidiously kept from public view. Jackson’s metamorphosis (the physical and spiritual) unfolded right in front of our often disbelieving eyes.

mj4

Ebony and ivory, anyone? This transformation was somewhat beyond Dorian Gray because it was real, and this did not represent the comparatively straightforward (and, of course, fictional) deal with the devil: this was hubris facilitated by money and modern medicine. What Jackson did to himself would have been literally unimaginable a generation earlier, and perhaps been done with a greater degree of proficiency a generation later (that, of course, is an appalling commentary on how we’re “evolving” as human beings and what we can accomplish in the name of vanity). It was unseemly, it was embarrassing, and above all, it was unfortunate that it served to nourish the insatiable tabloid zombies who live to profit from the pain of others.

But more than a little of Michael’s anguish was self-inflicted. True, he engaged in an often futile effort to find things he could not have, but he did look for them, using the muscle his money provided to plow through the world, a fragile bull in a not-so-delicate China shop. Ultimately, the only thing he broke was himself. And even at his most irresponsible (or despicable, if only a handful of the charges he successfully settled out of court were legitimate), it was difficult not to feel intense pity for this child crammed inside a King’s body. Let the myopic arbiters of taste and the more prurient amongst us declare him a fool or a freak. Let the smug quoters of scripture remind everyone that it does not profit a man to gain the world and forfeit his soul. They should be reminded that the world got to him first. I feel nothing but sorrow for his poor, fractured soul and pray that his heart, at long last, is at peace.

This essay originally appeared in Popmatters on 7/6/09 and is now in Murphy’s Law, Vol. One –available now.

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Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown: Remembering Michael Jackson (Revisited)

Michael-Jackson-33-young-michael-jackson-15045750-640-442

How do you know you’ve made an indelible impact on culture?

Here’s how.

Listen: this story has been told so many times it is inextricable from the history of America. F. Scott Fitzgerald infamously (and incorrectly) declared that there are no second acts in American lives, but he was writing his own epitaph at the time. Little did he know that artists, and later, politicians, would perfect the Lazarus routine to the point that it was itself an art form of sorts.

Some great American artists could not handle the hype of their success, or remained paralyzed by the prospect of following up their uncanny grand slam (think Ralph Ellison after Invisible Man for the prototype). Some artists famously flamed out in part because of the pressure or else were consumed by their own demons (insert any number of movie stars and rock gods: James Dean and Charlie Parker remain the heavyweight champs of this routine). Some artists never had a choice in the matter: what can we say about the fact that Melville received less than a little acclaim after he wrote Moby Dick (even his good friend and contemporary critical darling Nathaniel Hawthorne–to whom Melville’s masterpiece was dedicated–thought little of the book, revealing him as either an exceedingly poor judge of genius or else an insecure literary prince who could not brook the very real competition Melville presented), and the man who may be our great American author (at least of the 19th Century) died broke, unknown, and embittered.

But none of these case studies can come close to approximating the one-of-a-kind wunderkind who became the King of Pop. His story is unique and will likely remain the triumphant and ultimately tragic cultural touchstone of our times. He had already lived at least three lives before he died, each one more improbable than the last.

mj3

I will leave the career-spanning overviews and detail-oriented obituaries to the myriad individuals who are more qualified (not to mention more interested) than I to properly assess Jackon’s short and unhappy existence.

I can offer some opinions and recollections of what it was like, in real time, to witness Jackson’s awesome and irresistible trajectory. Any pronouncement, no matter how passionately proposed, is ultimately irrelevant regarding what constituted the ideal demographic for MJ’s steady rise and sluggish fall. All I can say is that I was a kid in the ’70s and I remember loving the Jackson Five songs and watching their cartoon reruns on TV. In other words, I was the ideal age to experience it, and still remember it. To assert that Michael was the all-American pop icon is both facile and also an indication of how naive and blissfully unaware people my age were to…well, too many things to count. But in MJ’s case, young fans were oblivious to the behind the scenes angst that crippled his childhood. That he was abused is undeniable and well-documented. It also scarcely scratches the surface of the pressures and pains that were inflicted upon him. Even a cursory acknowledgment of what he’d been through, before becoming a teenager, should leave the most cynical critic astonished that he was able to create the lasting work he did, as an adult.

Flash forward to 1979: Off The Wall was the ubiquitous hit record and every time you turned the radio on you heard “Rock With You” (which, incidentally, sounds every bit as fresh and funky three decades later). MJ was on top of the world. It seems fair to suggest that nobody, including the young superstar, had any idea that he was about to own the world.

Thriller, of course, changed everything. It made all that came before it prelude and everything, especially the not-so-good things, that came after an epilogue. People who weren’t around then probably can’t imagine it, but Jackson was the biggest thing in the universe circa 1983 (and into 1984). It wasn’t even close: he was as prevalent as Coca Cola or McDonalds, and it was easy to avoid him as it was to avoid breathing. If you were alive, you were aware. Like it or not.

In fact, if Thriller had not happened, people from my generation might be fondly recalling how they skated to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” at the roller rink. Or how great those Jackson 5 songs still sound. But, of course, Thriller happened. And we can (and will) talk about, and remember, all the songs, all the videos and the brand that Michael Jackson became during that span of commercial dominance.

But for now, I’m going to talk about the moment. You know what I mean: the performance of “Billie Jean” at the Motown 25 TV special.

I still get goosebumps every time I watch that. Now that he is gone, I’m sure each subsequent viewing (and there will be many, as I don’t expect I’ll ever tire of watching it) will be burdened with a melancholy even more profound than the one I would have felt anytime up until June 25, 2009. In other words, even before he passed on, watching a moment like this obliges one to relive one’s youth; it’s inescapable. So naturally one can’t help lamenting that loss of insouciance, of Innocence (with a capital I) and the many things time takes from us.

The previous generation had the moon landing; we had the moonwalk. That is not intended to be overly coy; I actually think I would invoke the moon landing regardless of the obvious word association. In my opinion, the few seconds that Jackson spent introducing that new dance move to the world are the defining cultural moments of my generation. In fact, I can’t readily think of anything else that enters the discussion. People have spoken about the other MJ (Michael Jordan) having played basketball better than anyone else did anything. I feel we could find other examples (Daniel Barenboim playing Beethoven piano sonatas; Flannery O’Connor writing fiction; Glenn Beck being an asshole), but I would propose that this performance is the apotheosis of what a pop star can achieve. No one, before or since, has been better at being a star, at seizing the moment, at overtaking the world by force of will and talent, quite like Michael Jackson did that evening. What is truly remarkable is not merely how incredible it was, then, but how inimitably cool and untouchable it remains, now. Everyone saw that and everyone reacted to it. It was (and is) impossible to be wholly unaffected or unmoved by what happens during those five minutes. There are probably people (perhaps lots of them) who still won’t see the art or genius (and the many layers of that genius: the song itself–a slice of irrepressible pop perfection, his dancing, and the fact that he is lip-synching it) of this moment, but it’s simply not possible to remain indifferent. You can fail to acknowledge this the way you can fail to acknowledge the Grand Canyon, as you are being pushed over the edge, eyes shut and screaming all the way down.

A confession. I was not necessarily a fan. I certainly was able to appreciate that dancing, and that song (and any male my age who attempts to deny that he desperately wanted to perfect the moonwalk is lying through the acne-glazed haze of adolescent recollection). It was a bizarre time to be a teenager: all the girls in school loved Michael Jackson and all the guys loved Jim Morrison. Oh wait, that was just me? Well, as corny as I would have considered it for any dude to have a poster of MJ, I am not particularly proud to reconsider the prominent spread of leather-clad Lizard King photos on my bedroom wall. I say this only to underscore the impact MJ had at the time: I was well tired of the non-stop hype and ceaseless radio play (seven Top 10 singles?!), and it was simply beyond human capability to separate oneself from Thriller’s impact. You may not have loved it (you may not have liked it) but I have never spoken to anyone who actually hated it. I’m sure there is someone out there, who also hates the Sistine Chapel and The Lincoln Memorial. Or Moby Dick (just kidding, sort of.)

mj1

We all know what happened next.

Icarus flew too close to the sun, and none of the bills he earned could ever break his fall.

I am also content to let the historians, the haters and the opportunistic biographers slash and snap at this detritus like piranhas in a feeding frenzy. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest we’ll soon have more detail than we’d ever want to imagine about all the things that did (and didn’t) happen when the media cameras weren’t rolling. By the ’90s, it’s not a stretch to suggest his music took second billing to his increasingly surreal escapades.

And it’s at that point that we’ll be unable to resist the analogies. Neverland Ranch? Was Jackson the real life apotheosis of Citizen Kane? Perhaps he embodied the American tragedy implicit in the eponymous hero of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby?For me, those two works offer the finest, and final, take on how money and memory trump success and satisfaction. A person with a troubled past can never escape the shadow forever hanging over his present. Add almost unlimited power and all bets are off. And while Michael Jackson epitomizes the eternal child in search of a childhood he never had, his tragedy is both deeper and more disturbing. As such, I believe Jackson existed as a sort of inverse Dorian Gray. Of course that antihero traded his soul for eternal youth, but the evidence of his decay was hidden on the portrait he fastidiously kept from public view. Jackson’s metamorphosis (the physical and spiritual) unfolded right in front of our often disbelieving eyes.

mj4

Ebony and ivory, anyone? This transformation was somewhat beyond Dorian Gray because it was real, and this did not represent the comparatively straightforward (and, of course, fictional) deal with the devil: this was hubris facilitated by money and modern medicine. What Jackson did to himself would have been literally unimaginable a generation earlier, and perhaps been done with a greater degree of proficiency a generation later (that, of course, is an appalling commentary on how we’re “evolving” as human beings and what we can accomplish in the name of vanity). It was unseemly, it was embarrassing, and above all, it was unfortunate that it served to nourish the insatiable tabloid zombies who live to profit from the pain of others.

But more than a little of Michael’s anguish was self-inflicted. True, he engaged in an often futile effort to find things he could not have, but he did look for them, using the muscle his money provided to plow through the world, a fragile bull in a not-so-delicate China shop. Ultimately, the only thing he broke was himself. And even at his most irresponsible (or despicable, if only a handful of the charges he successfully settled out of court were legitimate), it was difficult not to feel intense pity for this child crammed inside a King’s body. Let the myopic arbiters of taste and the more prurient amongst us declare him a fool or a freak. Let the smug quoters of scripture remind everyone that it does not profit a man to gain the world and forfeit his soul. They should be reminded that the world got to him first. I feel nothing but sorrow for his poor, fractured soul and pray that his heart, at long last, is at peace.

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This Week in Music, 1983 (Revisited)

murph83

I don’t know what you were up to but I was partying like it was 1983.

Due to the miracles of technology, we can see precisely how I was living, almost exactly thirty years ago.

Let’s do a quick analysis of that picture.

Grey Levi’s cords? Check.

Untucked blue oxford? Check.

R2-D2 light switch and piggy bank (both home made, neither by me)? Check. (For those playing at home, this was before Return of the Jedi was released, and I was still on board the Millennium Falcon).

Napkin with note and autograph from Dexter Manley? Check.

Feathered hair covering the ears? Check.

A little Toulouse-Lautrec up in there? Certainement!

Cozying up to my boy, Mr. Mojo Risin’? Check. (More on him HERE.)

Jimi Hendrix poster with feathered roach clip? You know this.

(About those roach clips: anyone else remember when those were souvenirs, or prizes, from the Langston Hughes fairs? We used to hang them on our Duron paint caps. We had no idea what they were really used for and, presumably, neither did my parents. They probably thought I was respecting our Native American heritage and hey, Hendrix had Cherokee blood…)

The obligatory black light poster that we used to buy at Spencer’s? Check.

A floor speaker and a bookshelf, two components that still comprise my personal arsenal.

But what really inspired this trip down memory lane was a “From the vault” entry in the latest Rolling Stone —a magazine I started subscribing to right around this time. This particular entry features the Top 10 singles from the week of May 12, 1983, and it is indeed a trip, in many senses of the word. I wonder if this will bring you back (and I mean waaaaay back) the way it did me: 7th grade lockers, Mr. Bryant & Reston Skateway (for my local peeps), getting to second base (allegedly), and a hundred other things. Let’s run it down from top to bottom and shoot the proverbial duck. Wherever possible, I’ve embedded the proper video from MTV. (MTV!!! Here’s a trivia question I bet even people who know me best would get wrong: I did not, in fact, have access to this epic channel back in the day. My parents would not allow it. Wisely. That does not mean I did not log quality hours –and I mean hours– at myriad friends’ houses.)

1. Michael Jackson, “Beat It”:

re. The King of Pop:

A confession. I was not necessarily a fan. I certainly was able to appreciate that dancing, and that song (and any male my age who attempts to deny that he desperately wanted to perfect the moonwalk is lying through the acne-glazed haze of adolescent recollection). It was a bizarre time to be a teenager: all the girls in school loved Michael Jackson and all the guys loved Jim Morrison. Oh wait, that was just me? Well, as corny as I would have considered it for any dude to have a poster of MJ, I am not particularly proud to reconsider the prominent spread of leather-clad Lizard King photos on my bedroom wall. I say this only to underscore the impact MJ had at the time: I was well tired of the non-stop hype and ceaseless radio play (seven Top 10 singles?!), and it was simply beyond human capability to separate oneself from Thriller’s impact. You may not have loved it (you may not have liked it) but I have never spoken to anyone who actually hated it. I’m sure there is someone out there, who also hates the Sistine Chapel and The Lincoln Memorial. Or Moby Dick (just kidding, sort of.)

A lot more on MJ, and the ’80s, HERE.

2. David Bowie, “Let’s Dance”:

Kind of amazing –and humbling– that David Bowie appears to have aged less in three decades than me (or anyone else on the planet).

3. Greg Kihn Band, “Jeopardy”:

When Greg Kihn was born I believe his parents stood over him the way the gods once did at Olympus (“Clash of the Titans” style) and said: “Your purpose on this earth is to form a band and make an album called Kihnspiracy. Mission accomplished. (What have you done with your life?)

4. Men at Work, “Overkill”:

5. Thomas Dolby, “She Blinded Me With Science”:

This song is just as amazing today as it was then. That is all. (And don’t sleep on this slice of heaven.)

6. Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “Come On Eileen”:

All I had to do was type the letters “D-E-X” into YouTube and this was the first thing that came up. Obviously.

7. Irene Cara, “Flashdance…What a Feeling”:

13 year old Murph would like to send my personal thanks to Irene Cara for helping me through some…hard times. If you know what I’m saying.

8. Prince, “Little Red Corvette”:

Ridiculous video, but apparently the Prince police have disabled everything on YouTube.

re. Prince: idiots, like me, were not prepared to appreciate him, but time has taught us that this weird dude is a genius. Duh.

9. Laura Branigan, “Solitaire”:

Two words: Couples skate!!!

10. After the Fire, “Der Kommissar”:

Perfect way to end. What an unbelievable range of sounds, cultures and styles –and these were the most popular songs in the country. This, my friends, when people ask why we are so nostalgic, is the answer. Because the ’80s, when all is said and done, did not remotely suck!

But don’t take it from me, ask John Cusack!

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33 Thoughts about Villanova vs. Georgetown, 1985 (Revisited)

nova-226x300

March Madness, indeed.

The timing could not have been better: gearing up for another annual marathon to see which team emerges from the fray (and that’s just my personal bracket), ESPN debuted the newest installment of their excellent 30 for 30 series, Requiem for the Big East.

Now, I can’t be anything but excited about this for at least three reasons. When it comes to sports, I’m very American in my tastes, which is to say, I’m sentimental to a fault. Two, I grew up—and remain—an east coaster: Big East territory. Third, I watched so many of these classic games in real time, and by “real time” I mean the great old days when VCRs were still new-fangled, so if you wanted to watch a program, your choice was to arrange your schedule accordingly. As such, these games became events, which afforded them an extra air of importance.

Needless to say, as a historical document, Requiem for the Big East could not be more highly recommended. So much of this footage is not readily available, or else recorded and lost forever to the ill-fated Betamax tapes they were recorded on during the early-to-mid ‘80s. Yes, my family was one of the half-dozen who bought the hype that Beta was better than VHS. Let’s move on.

As a sociological document, this feature is exceedingly bittersweet. Obviously it recalls a, well, simpler time, and also illustrates with occasionally painful clarity how much less of a business all aspects of sports were only a few decades ago. The fact that The Big East, a conference that went from upstart to powerhouse in short order, became a shell of itself, is a statement that needs little elaboration or explication. As such, the footage is equal parts requiem and celebration. For those of us who lived through it, we can lament it, but we should also count ourselves lucky we were around to see history made before our unblinking eyes.

As it happens, a few years ago I caught (and recorded, it being the 21st Century and even VCRs are antiquated concepts compared to the miracles of TiVo) a complete repeat of the epic Georgetown/Villanova final from 1985. I had not seen, or even seen many highlights, of this game since it was played (on April Fool’s Day, naturally). Prompted equal parts by nostalgia and genuine fascination, I could not help but compile some thoughts. Here is one of the greatest college basketball finals (and certainly the biggest upset) seen through the eyes of a fan who may not be wiser, but is most definitely older.

vnova-223x300

1. I had sort of misremembered it being a fairly slow, sloppy game; not the case. It was quick(er) paced but controlled, all due to Villanova and their brilliant game plan. Rollie Massimino gets full props for outcoaching John Thompson. Thompson had his guys playing full-court from the get-go but Villanova was too savvy (their senior leadership was crucial) and beat it throughout. I kept thinking: a lesser team, any other team would just collapse under this relentless pressure.

2. Not only did Ed Pinckney (future Celtic) have a great game, he outplayed Ewing. (Let that sink in for a moment. Then consider their careers, before and after this final, and appreciate the full import of what this statement of fact signifies, on multiple levels. During the 30 for 30 footage, Ewing maintains that the best team did not win that night. He’s right, but he’s also one of the primary reasons this was the case.)

3. Ewing, as he sort of did vs. UNC and definitely did a few times in the NBA, came up smaller than expected (or hoped) in the biggest games (it hurts but it’s true). He should have dominated because of his size advantage but Pinckney somehow outhustled and outsmarted him throughout the game. There is a notable moment when Thompson briefly benches Ewing and can be seen exhorting him to get under the basket and get busy; it works, and Ewing comes out with some rafter-shaking dunks. But then he picks up 3 quick fouls, which changed the momentum (which I totally remember that from when I was a freshman in high school watching it…). Things worked out OK for Ewing, but if you had told me in 1984 that this would be his only championship on the college or pro level, I would not have believed it.

4. The players all look like they are wearing speedos.

5. It is astonishing how thin and, opposed to college athletes today, comparatively tiny they all are (with the notable exception of man-child Ewing). Obviously not a lot of weight lifting back then. Reggie Williams is a stick.

6. Reggie Williams had sick game. Smooth as silk but hard as nails (just as I remember), and he arguably had the most maturity/poise –and heart—on the team, as a sophomore; Wingate and Martin each had so-so games but Williams was tight on both ends–just as I remember.

7. Sad but true: Michael Jackson (fellow alum of South Lakes High School in Reston, VA, which should give you an idea who I was rooting for) did not have a very good game. He certainly ran the floor well, but a few bricks and bad passes did not help the cause; a better performance and he could have gone out a two-time champ (Sidenote: I recall still being in grade school when Jackson was the man at South Lakes: we went to those Friday night games and cheered for the team, and him. It was big news, huge news when he decided to go to Georgetown because back in those days we would not have been able to follow his college career nearly as closely had he gone out of state. Less than a decade later, Grant Hill would become a star at South Lakes before becoming one of the more successful and beloved college basketball players of his era.)

8. I hadn’t thought in quite a while about Thompson and his big white towel that he kept slung over his shoulder. Genius. (The 30 for 30 show replays the almost indescribable moment when Thompson came out, before a huge game against rival St. John’s, wearing a replica of Lou Carnesecca’s infamous sweater. This was gamesmanship and game-within-the-game material for all time, and it is celebrated accordingly.)

9. If Michael Graham hadn’t sabotaged his career (and the team’s dynasty, when, after blowing off his studies, Thompson proved why he was the man and kicked him off the team), Georgetown would have not only won in ’85, but ’86 as well. Remember him? That was a scary dude, and he rocked the shaved head way before it was remotely fashionable.

10. Villanova’s poise is astonishing. Yes, the ball kept dropping but as I watch, they were just taking high percentage shots and using their senior smarts to its full advantage.

Pinckney-vs.-Ewing

11. If there had a been a shot clock in ’85, 100% Georgetown wins.

12. If there had been a shot clock in ’82, for that matter, 100% Georgetown wins.

13. No tattoos.

14. It’s an alarming commentary on how annoying announcers are these days that Brent Musburger –whom I loathed in the ’80s– sounds remarkably restrained and reasonable to my ears today.

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15. As much hype as the Big East gets these days, it was the realest of deals from early to late ’80s –as local fans will recall. St. Johns was also in the final 4 this year (’85). Think about that.

16. The ’80s was, for sports, a decade that improves with time. As a (then) fanatic Celtics fan, enough said (and I’m not sure we’ll ever see the likes of those Celtics/Lakers series). As a college basketball fan, we had playoff-like games seemingly every week with these Big East rivalries (I still remember it was like Ali-Foreman redux, each time these teams clashed, not capable of being contained on campus; these games were played in The Carrier Dome, Madison Square Garden, Capital Centre. The glory days of the NFC East, and the real glory days of a great Redskins team (The hogs, the rings, etc.), and we still had the Patrick Division in the NHL (sigh). Oh, and the Yankees sucked.

17. Not saying this is a good thing, but ESPN (and modernity in general) changed everything: even in this final game, there were few in-game replays and much fewer TV time-outs/commercials/nonsense. Again, not saying the hi-def, 15 multiple angle replays is a bad thing, but there is something quaint and –yes authentic– about this.

18. Georgetown did not choke, Villanova deserved to win. They were undeniably fortunate (22 of 28 from the floor for a 78.6% shooting percentage; are you kidding me?) but they were not lucky.

19. Gary Mclean had the weirdest, most unorthodox shot ever.

20. Remember the days when players stayed all four years?

21. Michael Jackson and Billy Martin on the same team? And both of those (more) famous associations were still very popular circa 1985.

22. Exactly two weeks after this game the most exciting round of boxing ever took place in the most surreal title bout ever: Hagler/Hearns. I vaguely recall the Miracle on Ice; I remember every detail of that epic brawl, of which more another time.

23. Is it possible that Georgetown did not take Villanova seriously enough?

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24. Having appreciated the 30 for 30 feature on Michigan’s Fab 5, I can attest and confirm that the Hoyas were the real deal: these were all dark-skin brothers and you know huge chunks of our country hated them and rooted against them on principle (I knew it, and saw it, then). The Fab 5 were more notorious for their sheer talent and trash talking (and, of course, lack of discipline which certainly cost them at least one title game), but if we are going to talk about influence and legendary us vs. them sociology, it was embodied by this era’s team. Everything John Thompson did worked, except when it didn’t.

25. Seriously: Ed Pinckney outplayed Ewing. That was the difference right there.

26. The number one album in the country the day this game was played: No Jacket Required by Phil Collins.

27. St. Elmo’s Fire was not released for another 6 months. (Rob Lowe just turned 50.)

28. You can never, ever underestimate how crucial it is to hit your free throws. (Villanova had two one-and-ones in the final two minutes to stay in the lead and hit all four shots. Huge.)

29. John Thompson looked utterly defeated with at least three minutes left. Who would have imagined that? Who could have guessed he would never get to another title game?

30. Billy Packer (the young/er Billy Packer who had not succumbed to the prissy arrogance and negativity that almost overwhelmed his final years) was all but openly rooting for Villanova in the final moments.

31. One of the more bizarre things I’ve ever seen, at least in an athletic competition: During Georgetown’s last time-out, they show the bench and the school’s academic advisor (Mary Fenlon) is sitting at the end of the bench…she is a middle-aged white woman wearing a garish 19th Century-style dress…a middle-aged white woman ON THE BENCH with all these tall African Americans. Surreal.

32. Michael Jackson scored the final two baskets for Georgetown. Just saying.

33. This list has 33 items. Respect for #33.

*Bonus: The only NCAA final I’ve ever missed was the 1987 final. Why? I had tickets to see The Pretenders (at Capital Centre, of course). It was worth it. Iggy Pop was the opening act. Plus, I would have hated to see a Big East team lose at the buzzer. It wasn’t personal; it was strictly business.

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Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown… (Five Years Later)

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How do you know you’ve made an indelible impact on culture?

Here’s how.

Listen: this story has been told so many times it is inextricable from the history of America. F. Scott Fitzgerald infamously (and incorrectly) declared that there are no second acts in American lives, but he was writing his own epitaph at the time. Little did he know that artists, and later, politicians, would perfect the Lazarus routine to the point that it was itself an art form of sorts.

Some great American artists could not handle the hype of their success, or remained paralyzed by the prospect of following up their uncanny grand slam (think Ralph Ellison after Invisible Man for the prototype). Some artists famously flamed out in part because of the pressure or else were consumed by their own demons (insert any number of movie stars and rock gods: James Dean and Charlie Parker remain the heavyweight champs of this routine). Some artists never had a choice in the matter: what can we say about the fact that Melville received less than a little acclaim after he wrote Moby Dick (even his good friend and contemporary critical darling Nathaniel Hawthorne–to whom Melville’s masterpiece was dedicated–thought little of the book, revealing him as either an exceedingly poor judge of genius or else an insecure literary prince who could not brook the very real competition Melville presented), and the man who may be our great American author (at least of the 19th Century) died broke, unknown, and embittered.

But none of these case studies can come close to approximating the one-of-a-kind wunderkind who became the King of Pop. His story is unique and will likely remain the triumphant and ultimately tragic cultural touchstone of our times. He had already lived at least three lives before he died, each one more improbable than the last.

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I will leave the career-spanning overviews and detail-oriented obituaries to the myriad individuals who are more qualified (not to mention more interested) than I to properly assess Jackon’s short and unhappy existence.

I can offer some opinions and recollections of what it was like, in real time, to witness Jackson’s awesome and irresistible trajectory. Any pronouncement, no matter how passionately proposed, is ultimately irrelevant regarding what constituted the ideal demographic for MJ’s steady rise and sluggish fall. All I can say is that I was a kid in the ’70s and I remember loving the Jackson Five songs and watching their cartoon reruns on TV. In other words, I was the ideal age to experience it, and still remember it. To assert that Michael was the all-American pop icon is both facile and also an indication of how naive and blissfully unaware people my age were to…well, too many things to count. But in MJ’s case, young fans were oblivious to the behind the scenes angst that crippled his childhood. That he was abused is undeniable and well-documented. It also scarcely scratches the surface of the pressures and pains that were inflicted upon him. Even a cursory acknowledgment of what he’d been through, before becoming a teenager, should leave the most cynical critic astonished that he was able to create the lasting work he did, as an adult.

Flash forward to 1979: Off The Wall was the ubiquitous hit record and every time you turned the radio on you heard “Rock With You” (which, incidentally, sounds every bit as fresh and funky three decades later). MJ was on top of the world. It seems fair to suggest that nobody, including the young superstar, had any idea that he was about to own the world.

Thriller, of course, changed everything. It made all that came before it prelude and everything, especially the not-so-good things, that came after an epilogue. People who weren’t around then probably can’t imagine it, but Jackson was the biggest thing in the universe circa 1983 (and into 1984). It wasn’t even close: he was as prevalent as Coca Cola or McDonalds, and it was easy to avoid him as it was to avoid breathing. If you were alive, you were aware. Like it or not.

In fact, if Thriller had not happened, people from my generation might be fondly recalling how they skated to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” at the roller rink. Or how great those Jackson 5 songs still sound. But, of course, Thriller happened. And we can (and will) talk about, and remember, all the songs, all the videos and the brand that Michael Jackson became during that span of commercial dominance.

But for now, I’m going to talk about the moment. You know what I mean: the performance of “Billie Jean” at the Motown 25 TV special.

I still get goosebumps every time I watch that. Now that he is gone, I’m sure each subsequent viewing (and there will be many, as I don’t expect I’ll ever tire of watching it) will be burdened with a melancholy even more profound than the one I would have felt anytime up until June 25, 2009. In other words, even before he passed on, watching a moment like this obliges one to relive one’s youth; it’s inescapable. So naturally one can’t help lamenting that loss of insouciance, of Innocence (with a capital I) and the many things time takes from us.

The previous generation had the moon landing; we had the moonwalk. That is not intended to be overly coy; I actually think I would invoke the moon landing regardless of the obvious word association. In my opinion, the few seconds that Jackson spent introducing that new dance move to the world are the defining cultural moments of my generation. In fact, I can’t readily think of anything else that enters the discussion. People have spoken about the other MJ (Michael Jordan) having played basketball better than anyone else did anything. I feel we could find other examples (Daniel Barenboim playing Beethoven piano sonatas; Flannery O’Connor writing fiction; Glenn Beck being an asshole), but I would propose that this performance is the apotheosis of what a pop star can achieve. No one, before or since, has been better at being a star, at seizing the moment, at overtaking the world by force of will and talent, quite like Michael Jackson did that evening. What is truly remarkable is not merely how incredible it was, then, but how inimitably cool and untouchable it remains, now. Everyone saw that and everyone reacted to it. It was (and is) impossible to be wholly unaffected or unmoved by what happens during those five minutes. There are probably people (perhaps lots of them) who still won’t see the art or genius (and the many layers of that genius: the song itself–a slice of irrepressible pop perfection, his dancing, and the fact that he is lip-synching it) of this moment, but it’s simply not possible to remain indifferent. You can fail to acknowledge this the way you can fail to acknowledge the Grand Canyon, as you are being pushed over the edge, eyes shut and screaming all the way down.

A confession. I was not necessarily a fan. I certainly was able to appreciate that dancing, and that song (and any male my age who attempts to deny that he desperately wanted to perfect the moonwalk is lying through the acne-glazed haze of adolescent recollection). It was a bizarre time to be a teenager: all the girls in school loved Michael Jackson and all the guys loved Jim Morrison. Oh wait, that was just me? Well, as corny as I would have considered it for any dude to have a poster of MJ, I am not particularly proud to reconsider the prominent spread of leather-clad Lizard King photos on my bedroom wall. I say this only to underscore the impact MJ had at the time: I was well tired of the non-stop hype and ceaseless radio play (seven Top 10 singles?!), and it was simply beyond human capability to separate oneself from Thriller’s impact. You may not have loved it (you may not have liked it) but I have never spoken to anyone who actually hated it. I’m sure there is someone out there, who also hates the Sistine Chapel and The Lincoln Memorial. Or Moby Dick (just kidding, sort of.)

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We all know what happened next.

Icarus flew too close to the sun, and none of the bills he earned could ever break his fall.

I am also content to let the historians, the haters and the opportunistic biographers slash and snap at this detritus like piranhas in a feeding frenzy. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest we’ll soon have more detail than we’d ever want to imagine about all the things that did (and didn’t) happen when the media cameras weren’t rolling. By the ’90s, it’s not a stretch to suggest his music took second billing to his increasingly surreal escapades.

And it’s at that point that we’ll be unable to resist the analogies. Neverland Ranch? Was Jackson the real life apotheosis of Citizen Kane? Perhaps he embodied the American tragedy implicit in the eponymous hero of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? For me, those two works offer the finest, and final, take on how money and memory trump success and satisfaction. A person with a troubled past can never escape the shadow forever hanging over his present. Add almost unlimited power and all bets are off. And while Michael Jackson epitomizes the eternal child in search of a childhood he never had, his tragedy is both deeper and more disturbing. As such, I believe Jackson existed as a sort of inverse Dorian Gray. Of course that antihero traded his soul for eternal youth, but the evidence of his decay was hidden on the portrait he fastidiously kept from public view. Jackson’s metamorphosis (the physical and spiritual) unfolded right in front of our often disbelieving eyes.

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Ebony and ivory, anyone? This transformation was somewhat beyond Dorian Gray because it was real, and this did not represent the comparatively straightforward (and, of course, fictional) deal with the devil: this was hubris facilitated by money and modern medicine. What Jackson did to himself would have been literally unimaginable a generation earlier, and perhaps been done with a greater degree of proficiency a generation later (that, of course, is an appalling commentary on how we’re “evolving” as human beings and what we can accomplish in the name of vanity). It was unseemly, it was embarrassing, and above all, it was unfortunate that it served to nourish the insatiable tabloid zombies who live to profit from the pain of others.

But more than a little of Michael’s anguish was self-inflicted. True, he engaged in an often futile effort to find things he could not have, but he did look for them, using the muscle his money provided to plow through the world, a fragile bull in a not-so-delicate China shop. Ultimately, the only thing he broke was himself. And even at his most irresponsible (or despicable, if only a handful of the charges he successfully settled out of court were legitimate), it was difficult not to feel intense pity for this child crammed inside a King’s body. Let the myopic arbiters of taste and the more prurient amongst us declare him a fool or a freak. Let the smug quoters of scripture remind everyone that it does not profit a man to gain the world and forfeit his soul. They should be reminded that the world got to him first. I feel nothing but sorrow for his poor, fractured soul and pray that his heart, at long last, is at peace.

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33 Thoughts about Villanova vs. Georgetown, 1985

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March Madness, indeed.

The timing could not have been better: gearing up for another annual marathon to see which team emerges from the fray (and that’s just my personal bracket), ESPN debuted the newest installment of their excellent 30 for 30 series, Requiem for the Big East.

Now, I can’t be anything but excited about this for at least three reasons. When it comes to sports, I’m very American in my tastes, which is to say, I’m sentimental to a fault. Two, I grew up—and remain—an east coaster: Big East territory. Third, I watched so many of these classic games in real time, and by “real time” I mean the great old days when VCRs were still new-fangled, so if you wanted to watch a program, your choice was to arrange your schedule accordingly. As such, these games became events, which afforded them an extra air of importance.

Needless to say, as a historical document, Requiem for the Big East could not be more highly recommended. So much of this footage is not readily available, or else recorded and lost forever to the ill-fated Betamax tapes they were recorded on during the early-to-mid ‘80s. Yes, my family was one of the half-dozen who bought the hype that Beta was better than VHS. Let’s move on.

As a sociological document, this feature is exceedingly bittersweet. Obviously it recalls a, well, simpler time, and also illustrates with occasionally painful clarity how much less of a business all aspects of sports were only a few decades ago. The fact that The Big East, a conference that went from upstart to powerhouse in short order, became a shell of itself, is a statement that needs little elaboration or explication. As such, the footage is equal parts requiem and celebration. For those of us who lived through it, we can lament it, but we should also count ourselves lucky we were around to see history made before our unblinking eyes.

As it happens, a few years ago I caught (and recorded, it being the 21st Century and even VCRs are antiquated concepts compared to the miracles of TiVo) a complete repeat of the epic Georgetown/Villanova final from 1985. I had not seen, or even seen many highlights, of this game since it was played (on April Fool’s Day, naturally). Prompted equal parts by nostalgia and genuine fascination, I could not help but compile some thoughts. Here is one of the greatest college basketball finals (and certainly the biggest upset) seen through the eyes of a fan who may not be wiser, but is most definitely older.

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1. I had sort of misremembered it being a fairly slow, sloppy game; not the case. It was quick(er) paced but controlled, all due to Villanova and their brilliant game plan. Rollie Massimino gets full props for outcoaching John Thompson. Thompson had his guys playing full-court from the get-go but Villanova was too savvy (their senior leadership was crucial) and beat it throughout. I kept thinking: a lesser team, any other team would just collapse under this relentless pressure.

2. Not only did Ed Pinckney (future Celtic) have a great game, he outplayed Ewing. (Let that sink in for a moment. Then consider their careers, before and after this final, and appreciate the full import of what this statement of fact signifies, on multiple levels. During the 30 for 30 footage, Ewing maintains that the best team did not win that night. He’s right, but he’s also one of the primary reasons this was the case.)

3. Ewing, as he sort of did vs. UNC and definitely did a few times in the NBA, came up smaller than expected (or hoped) in the biggest games (it hurts but it’s true). He should have dominated because of his size advantage but Pinckney somehow outhustled and outsmarted him throughout the game. There is a notable moment when Thompson briefly benches Ewing and can be seen exhorting him to get under the basket and get busy; it works, and Ewing comes out with some rafter-shaking dunks. But then he picks up 3 quick fouls, which changed the momentum (which I totally remember that from when I was a freshman in high school watching it…). Things worked out OK for Ewing, but if you had told me in 1984 that this would be his only championship on the college or pro level, I would not have believed it.

4. The players all look like they are wearing speedos.

5. It is astonishing how thin and, opposed to college athletes today, comparatively tiny they all are (with the notable exception of man-child Ewing). Obviously not a lot of weight lifting back then. Reggie Williams is a stick.

6. Reggie Williams had sick game. Smooth as silk but hard as nails (just as I remember), and he arguably had the most maturity/poise –and heart—on the team, as a sophomore; Wingate and Martin each had so-so games but Williams was tight on both ends–just as I remember.

7. Sad but true: Michael Jackson (fellow alum of South Lakes High School in Reston, VA, which should give you an idea who I was rooting for) did not have a very good game. He certainly ran the floor well, but a few bricks and bad passes did not help the cause; a better performance and he could have gone out a two-time champ (Sidenote: I recall still being in grade school when Jackson was the man at South Lakes: we went to those Friday night games and cheered for the team, and him. It was big news, huge news when he decided to go to Georgetown because back in those days we would not have been able to follow his college career nearly as closely had he gone out of state. Less than a decade later, Grant Hill would become a star at South Lakes before becoming one of the more successful and beloved college basketball players of his era.)

8. I hadn’t thought in quite a while about Thompson and his big white towel that he kept slung over his shoulder. Genius. (The 30 for 30 show replays the almost indescribable moment when Thompson came out, before a huge game against rival St. John’s, wearing a replica of Lou Carnesecca’s infamous sweater. This was gamesmanship and game-within-the-game material for all time, and it is celebrated accordingly.)

9. If Michael Graham hadn’t sabotaged his career (and the team’s dynasty, when, after blowing off his studies, Thompson proved why he was the man and kicked him off the team), Georgetown would have not only won in ’85, but ’86 as well. Remember him? That was a scary dude, and he rocked the shaved head way before it was remotely fashionable.

10. Villanova’s poise is astonishing. Yes, the ball kept dropping but as I watch, they were just taking high percentage shots and using their senior smarts to its full advantage.

Pinckney-vs.-Ewing

11. If there had a been a shot clock in ’85, 100% Georgetown wins.

12. If there had been a shot clock in ’82, for that matter, 100% Georgetown wins.

13. No tattoos.

14. It’s an alarming commentary on how annoying announcers are these days that Brent Musburger –whom I loathed in the ’80s– sounds remarkably restrained and reasonable to my ears today.

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15. As much hype as the Big East gets these days, it was the realest of deals from early to late ’80s –as local fans will recall. St. Johns was also in the final 4 this year (’85). Think about that.

16. The ’80s was, for sports, a decade that improves with time. As a (then) fanatic Celtics fan, enough said (and I’m not sure we’ll ever see the likes of those Celtics/Lakers series). As a college basketball fan, we had playoff-like games seemingly every week with these Big East rivalries (I still remember it was like Ali-Foreman redux, each time these teams clashed, not capable of being contained on campus; these games were played in  The Carrier Dome, Madison Square Garden, Capital Centre. The glory days of the NFC East, and the real glory days of a great Redskins team (The hogs, the rings, etc.), and we still had the Patrick Division in the NHL (sigh). Oh, and the Yankees sucked.

17. Not saying this is a good thing, but ESPN (and modernity in general) changed everything: even in this final game, there were few in-game replays and much fewer TV time-outs/commercials/nonsense. Again, not saying the hi-def, 15 multiple angle replays is a bad thing, but there is something quaint and –yes authentic– about this.

18. Georgetown did not choke, Villanova deserved to win. They were undeniably fortunate (22 of 28 from the floor for a 78.6% shooting percentage; are you kidding me?) but they were not lucky.

19. Gary Mclean had the weirdest, most unorthodox shot ever.

20. Remember the days when players stayed all four years?

21. Michael Jackson and Billy Martin on the same team? And both of those (more) famous associations were still very popular circa 1985.

22. Exactly two weeks after this game the most exciting round of boxing ever took place in the most surreal title bout ever: Hagler/Hearns. I vaguely recall the Miracle on Ice; I remember every detail of that epic brawl, of which more another time.

23. Is it possible that Georgetown did not take Villanova seriously enough?

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24. Having appreciated the 30 for 30 feature on Michigan’s Fab 5, I can attest and confirm that the Hoyas were the real deal: these were all dark-skin brothers and you know huge chunks of our country hated them and rooted against them on principle (I knew it, and saw it, then). The Fab 5 were more notorious for their sheer talent and trash talking (and, of course, lack of discipline which certainly cost them at least one title game), but if we are going to talk about influence and legendary us vs. them sociology, it was embodied by this era’s team. Everything John Thompson did worked, except when it didn’t.

25. Seriously: Ed Pinckney outplayed Ewing. That was the difference right there.

26. The number one album in the country the day this game was played: No Jacket Required by Phil Collins.

27. St. Elmo’s Fire was not released for another 6 months. (Rob Lowe just turned 50.)

28. You can never, ever underestimate how crucial it is to hit your free throws. (Villanova had two one-and-ones in the final two minutes to stay in the lead and hit all four shots. Huge.)

29. John Thompson looked utterly defeated with at least three minutes left. Who would have imagined that? Who could have guessed he would never get to another title game?

30. Billy Packer (the young/er Billy Packer who had not succumbed to the prissy arrogance and negativity that almost overwhelmed his final years) was all but openly rooting for Villanova in the final moments.

31. One of the more bizarre things I’ve ever seen, at least in an athletic competition: During Georgetown’s last time-out, they show the bench and the school’s academic advisor (Mary Fenlon) is sitting at the end of the bench…she is a middle-aged white woman wearing a garish 19th Century-style dress…a middle-aged white woman ON THE BENCH with all these tall African Americans. Surreal.

32. Michael Jackson scored the final two baskets for Georgetown. Just saying.

33. This list has 33 items. Respect for #33.

*Bonus: The only NCAA final I’ve ever missed was the 1987 final. Why? I had tickets to see The Pretenders (at Capital Centre, of course). It was worth it. Iggy Pop was the opening act. Plus, I would have hated to see a Big East team lose at the buzzer. It wasn’t personal; it was strictly business.

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Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown… (Revisited)

How do you know you’ve made an indelible impact on culture?

Here’s how.

Listen: this story has been told so many times it is inextricable from the history of America. F. Scott Fitzgerald infamously (and incorrectly) declared that there are no second acts in American lives, but he was writing his own epitaph at the time. Little did he know that artists, and later, politicians, would perfect the Lazarus routine to the point that it was itself an art form of sorts.

Some great American artists could not handle the hype of their success, or remained paralyzed by the prospect of following up their uncanny grand slam (think Ralph Ellison after Invisible Man for the prototype). Some artists famously flamed out in part because of the pressure or else were consumed by their own demons (insert any number of movie stars and rock gods: James Dean and Charlie Parker remain the heavyweight champs of this routine). Some artists never had a choice in the matter: what can we say about the fact that Melville received less than a little acclaim after he wrote Moby Dick (even his good friend and contemporary critical darling Nathaniel Hawthorne–to whom Melville’s masterpiece was dedicated–thought little of the book, revealing him as either an exceedingly poor judge of genius or else an insecure literary prince who could not brook the very real competition Melville presented), and the man who may be our great American author (at least of the 19th Century) died broke, unknown, and embittered.

But none of these case studies can come close to approximating the one-of-a-kind wunderkind who became the King of Pop. His story is unique and will likely remain the triumphant and ultimately tragic cultural touchstone of our times. He had already lived at least three lives before he died, each one more improbable than the last.

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I will leave the career-spanning overviews and detail-oriented obituaries to the myriad individuals who are more qualified (not to mention more interested) than I to properly assess Jackon’s short and unhappy existence.

I can offer some opinions and recollections of what it was like, in real time, to witness Jackson’s awesome and irresistible trajectory. Any pronouncement, no matter how passionately proposed, is ultimately irrelevant regarding what constituted the ideal demographic for MJ’s steady rise and sluggish fall. All I can say is that I was a kid in the ’70s and I remember loving the Jackson Five songs and watching their cartoon reruns on TV. In other words, I was the ideal age to experience it, and still remember it. To assert that Michael was the all-American pop icon is both facile and also an indication of how naive and blissfully unaware people my age were to…well, too many things to count. But in MJ’s case, young fans were oblivious to the behind the scenes angst that crippled his childhood. That he was abused is undeniable and well-documented. It also scarcely scratches the surface of the pressures and pains that were inflicted upon him. Even a cursory acknowledgment of what he’d been through, before becoming a teenager, should leave the most cynical critic astonished that he was able to create the lasting work he did, as an adult.

Flash forward to 1979: Off The Wall was the ubiquitous hit record and every time you turned the radio on you heard “Rock With You” (which, incidentally, sounds every bit as fresh and funky three decades later). MJ was on top of the world. It seems fair to suggest that nobody, including the young superstar, had any idea that he was about to own the world.

Thriller, of course, changed everything. It made all that came before it prelude and everything, especially the not-so-good things, that came after an epilogue. People who weren’t around then probably can’t imagine it, but Jackson was the biggest thing in the universe circa 1983 (and into 1984). It wasn’t even close: he was as prevalent as Coca Cola or McDonalds, and it was easy to avoid him as it was to avoid breathing. If you were alive, you were aware. Like it or not.

In fact, if Thriller had not happened, people from my generation might be fondly recalling how they skated to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” at the roller rink. Or how great those Jackson 5 songs still sound. But, of course, Thriller happened. And we can (and will) talk about, and remember, all the songs, all the videos and the brand that Michael Jackson became during that span of commercial dominance.

But for now, I’m going to talk about the moment. You know what I mean: the performance of “Billie Jean” at the Motown 25 TV special.

I still get goosebumps every time I watch that. Now that he is gone, I’m sure each subsequent viewing (and there will be many, as I don’t expect I’ll ever tire of watching it) will be burdened with a melancholy even more profound than the one I would have felt anytime up until June 25, 2009. In other words, even before he passed on, watching a moment like this obliges one to relive one’s youth; it’s inescapable. So naturally one can’t help lamenting that loss of insouciance, of Innocence (with a capital I) and the many things time takes from us.

The previous generation had the moon landing; we had the moonwalk. That is not intended to be overly coy; I actually think I would invoke the moon landing regardless of the obvious word association. In my opinion, the few seconds that Jackson spent introducing that new dance move to the world are the defining cultural moments of my generation. In fact, I can’t readily think of anything else that enters the discussion. People have spoken about the other MJ (Michael Jordan) having played basketball better than anyone else did anything. I feel we could find other examples (Daniel Barenboim playing Beethoven piano sonatas; Flannery O’Connor writing fiction; Glenn Beck being an asshole), but I would propose that this performance is the apotheosis of what a pop star can achieve. No one, before or since, has been better at being a star, at seizing the moment, at overtaking the world by force of will and talent, quite like Michael Jackson did that evening. What is truly remarkable is not merely how incredible it was, then, but how inimitably cool and untouchable it remains, now. Everyone saw that and everyone reacted to it. It was (and is) impossible to be wholly unaffected or unmoved by what happens during those five minutes. There are probably people (perhaps lots of them) who still won’t see the art or genius (and the many layers of that genius: the song itself–a slice of irrepressible pop perfection, his dancing, and the fact that he is lip-synching it) of this moment, but it’s simply not possible to remain indifferent. You can fail to acknowledge this the way you can fail to acknowledge the Grand Canyon, as you are being pushed over the edge, eyes shut and screaming all the way down.

A confession. I was not necessarily a fan. I certainly was able to appreciate that dancing, and that song (and any male my age who attempts to deny that he desperately wanted to perfect the moonwalk is lying through the acne-glazed haze of adolescent recollection). It was a bizarre time to be a teenager: all the girls in school loved Michael Jackson and all the guys loved Jim Morrison. Oh wait, that was just me? Well, as corny as I would have considered it for any dude to have a poster of MJ, I am not particularly proud to reconsider the prominent spread of leather-clad Lizard King photos on my bedroom wall. I say this only to underscore the impact MJ had at the time: I was well tired of the non-stop hype and ceaseless radio play (seven Top 10 singles?!), and it was simply beyond human capability to separate oneself from Thriller’s impact. You may not have loved it (you may not have liked it) but I have never spoken to anyone who actually hated it. I’m sure there is someone out there, who also hates the Sistine Chapel and The Lincoln Memorial. Or Moby Dick (just kidding, sort of.)

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We all know what happened next.

Icarus flew too close to the sun, and none of the bills he earned could ever break his fall.

I am also content to let the historians, the haters and the opportunistic biographers slash and snap at this detritus like piranhas in a feeding frenzy. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest we’ll soon have more detail than we’d ever want to imagine about all the things that did (and didn’t) happen when the media cameras weren’t rolling. By the ’90s, it’s not a stretch to suggest his music took second billing to his increasingly surreal escapades.

And it’s at that point that we’ll be unable to resist the analogies. Neverland Ranch? Was Jackson the real life apotheosis of Citizen Kane? Perhaps he embodied the American tragedy implicit in the eponymous hero of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? For me, those two works offer the finest, and final, take on how money and memory trump success and satisfaction. A person with a troubled past can never escape the shadow forever hanging over his present. Add almost unlimited power and all bets are off. And while Michael Jackson epitomizes the eternal child in search of a childhood he never had, his tragedy is both deeper and more disturbing. As such, I believe Jackson existed as a sort of inverse Dorian Gray. Of course that antihero traded his soul for eternal youth, but the evidence of his decay was hidden on the portrait he fastidiously kept from public view. Jackson’s metamorphosis (the physical and spiritual) unfolded right in front of our often disbelieving eyes.

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Ebony and ivory, anyone? This transformation was somewhat beyond Dorian Gray because it was real, and this did not represent the comparatively straightforward (and, of course, fictional) deal with the devil: this was hubris facilitated by money and modern medicine. What Jackson did to himself would have been literally unimaginable a generation earlier, and perhaps been done with a greater degree of proficiency a generation later (that, of course, is an appalling commentary on how we’re “evolving” as human beings and what we can accomplish in the name of vanity). It was unseemly, it was embarrassing, and above all, it was unfortunate that it served to nourish the insatiable tabloid zombies who live to profit from the pain of others.

But more than a little of Michael’s anguish was self-inflicted. True, he engaged in an often futile effort to find things he could not have, but he did look for them, using the muscle his money provided to plow through the world, a fragile bull in a not-so-delicate China shop. Ultimately, the only thing he broke was himself. And even at his most irresponsible (or despicable, if only a handful of the charges he successfully settled out of court were legitimate), it was difficult not to feel intense pity for this child crammed inside a King’s body. Let the myopic arbiters of taste and the more prurient amongst us declare him a fool or a freak. Let the smug quoters of scripture remind everyone that it does not profit a man to gain the world and forfeit his soul. They should be reminded that the world got to him first. I feel nothing but sorrow for his poor, fractured soul and pray that his heart, at long last, is at peace.

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This Week in Music: 1983

I don’t know what you were up to but I was partying like it was 1983.

Due to the miracles of technology, we can see precisely how I was living, almost exactly thirty years ago.

Let’s do a quick analysis of that picture.

Grey Levi’s cords? Check.

Untucked blue oxford? Check.

R2-D2 light switch and piggy bank (both home made, neither by me)? Check. (For those playing at home, this was before Return of the Jedi was released, and I was still on board the Millennium Falcon).

Napkin with note and autograph from Dexter Manley? Check.

Feathered hair covering the ears? Check.

A little Toulouse-Lautrec up in there? Certainement!

Cozying up to my boy, Mr. Mojo Risin’? Check. (More on him HERE.)

Jimi Hendrix poster with feathered roach clip? You know this.

(About those roach clips: anyone else remember when those were souvenirs, or prizes, from the Langston Hughes fairs? We used to hang them on our Duron paint caps. We had no idea what they were really used for and, presumably, neither did my parents. They probably thought I was respecting our Native American heritage and hey, Hendrix had Cherokee blood…)

The obligatory black light poster that we used to buy at Spencer’s? Check.

A floor speaker and a bookshelf, two components that still comprise my personal arsenal.

But what really inspired this trip down memory lane was a “From the vault” entry in the latest Rolling Stone —a magazine I started subscribing to right around this time. This particular entry features the Top 10 singles from the week of May 12, 1983, and it is indeed a trip, in many senses of the word. I wonder if this will bring you back (and I mean waaaaay back) the way it did me: 7th grade lockers, Mr. Bryant & Reston Skateway (for my local peeps), getting to second base (allegedly), and a hundred other things. Let’s run it down from top to bottom and shoot the proverbial duck. Wherever possible, I’ve embedded the proper video from MTV. (MTV!!! Here’s a trivia question I bet even people who know me best would get wrong: I did not, in fact, have access to this epic channel back in the day. My parents would not allow it. Wisely. That does not mean I did not log quality hours –and I mean hours– at myriad friends’ houses.)

1. Michael Jackson, “Beat It”:

re. The King of Pop:

A confession. I was not necessarily a fan. I certainly was able to appreciate that dancing, and that song (and any male my age who attempts to deny that he desperately wanted to perfect the moonwalk is lying through the acne-glazed haze of adolescent recollection). It was a bizarre time to be a teenager: all the girls in school loved Michael Jackson and all the guys loved Jim Morrison. Oh wait, that was just me? Well, as corny as I would have considered it for any dude to have a poster of MJ, I am not particularly proud to reconsider the prominent spread of leather-clad Lizard King photos on my bedroom wall. I say this only to underscore the impact MJ had at the time: I was well tired of the non-stop hype and ceaseless radio play (seven Top 10 singles?!), and it was simply beyond human capability to separate oneself from Thriller’s impact. You may not have loved it (you may not have liked it) but I have never spoken to anyone who actually hated it. I’m sure there is someone out there, who also hates the Sistine Chapel and The Lincoln Memorial. Or Moby Dick (just kidding, sort of.)

A lot more on MJ, and the ’80s, HERE.

2. David Bowie, “Let’s Dance”:

Kind of amazing –and humbling– that David Bowie appears to have aged less in three decades than me (or anyone else on the planet).

3. Greg Kihn Band, “Jeopardy”:

When Greg Kihn was born I believe his parents stood over him the way the gods once did at Olympus (“Clash of the Titans” style) and said: “Your purpose on this earth is to form a band and make an album called Kihnspiracy. Mission accomplished. (What have you done with your life?)

4. Men at Work, “Overkill”:

5. Thomas Dolby, “She Blinded Me With Science”:

This song is just as amazing today as it was then. That is all. (And don’t sleep on this slice of heaven.)

6. Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “Come On Eileen”:

All I had to do was type the letters “D-E-X” into YouTube and this was the first thing that came up. Obviously.

7. Irene Cara, “Flashdance…What a Feeling”:

13 year old Murph would like to send my personal thanks to Irene Cara for helping me through some…hard times. If you know what I’m saying.

8. Prince, “Little Red Corvette”:

Ridiculous video, but apparently the Prince police have disabled everything on YouTube.

re. Prince: idiots, like me, were not prepared to appreciate him, but time has taught us that this weird dude is a genius. Duh.

9. Laura Branigan, “Solitaire”:

Two words: Couples skate!!!

10. After the Fire, “Der Kommissar”:

Perfect way to end. What an unbelievable range of sounds, cultures and styles –and these were the most popular songs in the country. This, my friends, when people ask why we are so nostalgic, is the answer. Because the ’80s, when all is said and done, did not remotely suck!

But don’t take it from me, ask John Cusack!

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They Lived This Way Because No One Else Could (Revisited)

Everyone has their favorite picture.

I can’t say this one is mine, but it will do.

Even though I was always too young to fully (or even partially) feel the impact of Elizabeth Taylor, I was aware of greatness and beauty on an epic scale when I saw it. She was already considered “over the hill” by the time I came of age, but that is not the point: that’s what movies and pictures are for. She was rich and famous and endlessly discussed, but acting and antics aside, she was revered above all for her pulchritude.

It’s interesting, sort of, that she was so closely associated with Michael Jackson for a time, because both of them were once-in-a-century type tri-fectas in terms of talent, influence and societal psychoanalysis. And, like him, she had (for understandable as well as self-inflicted reasons) fallen so far from her exalted perch she –even more so than MJ– began being discussed in the past tense even while she lived. While this is obviously an unflattering insight for the way we regard and treat our heroes once they cease to thrill or enthrall us, it is also a unique, if perverse compliment. Only those who have been elevated to such an extent can fall so far. And at the end of the day, much of the fodder for our chattering classes is predicated on a grudging acknowledgment that few of us will ever comprehend what it’s like to be immortal. Not many people are able to matter once they’ve been gone and time, as we always see, is eager to put sand in the eyes of future generations. It is quite safe to suggest Taylor will endure as a distinctly American figure who mattered: her best days came closest to our collective ideal that they make her name an adjective as well as a noun.

Taylor has died, which makes it official. I can’t imagine I am the only one who may have forgotten that she was still alive.

As far as appraising her film career and cultural impact, I’m content to let those who lived through it all have their say. It’s not that I have nothing; indeed, I’ve already said more than I figured I would.

It is, therefore, with the same sense of awe that I revisit a piece I wrote almost exactly a year ago, discussing Taylor and the men she made history with (the section specifically relating to Taylor is directly below –and it’s worth checking out just to see Richard Burton’s sublime summation of her special gifts).

4/1/2010:

(Personal note: this book will be a required purchase for anyone who has ever been fascinated by Burton’s relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. I must confess, I’ve never cared much about it, or her, but could not help but be amused, and startled, to discover that in her prime she could drink just about any other human being under the table. “I had a hollow leg (in those days)…my capacity was terrifying,” she recalls. So they had that little hobby in common, but it was definitely Liz’s looks that put the hook in Burton. “Burton referred to Taylor’s tits as ‘Apocalyptic. They would topple empires before they withered.’” Let’s stop and savor that for a second: there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect. Inevitably, both Burton and Taylor withered, and it was from the inside out. Anyone who was born between 1970 and 1980 can recall seeing these two on TV (or in a movie) and thinking “What’s all the fuss about?” and having their parents quickly set them straight. In their primes they were arguably the brightest and most beautiful stars in the Hollywood galaxy. But wither they did, and it was an expensive, languid, and hard-earned degeneration. With Burton, it wasn’t a matter of how much he consumed, but how he managed to find time to eat or sleep or breathe. On a given day he might plow through three full fifths of vodka. I’m not certain I’ve had that many martinis in my life. All of which is to say, of the four, Burton is generally considered the one who had the most to give and gave the most away as a result of his addictions –which either prompted or exacerbated a lethargy and greediness that devoured entirely too much of his energy and ability. More than a few notable folks offered the opinion that had Burton exerted a bit more control over his vices he may have ultimately become the most revered stage actor of all time, surpassing even Olivier.)

 

 

My vices protect me but they would assassinate you!

That is from Mark Twain, a man who talked the talk, walked the walk, drank the drank and, for good measure, smoked the smoke. This was the famous quote that kept running through my mind like a mantra, or a rallying cry, as I read the trashy, sensationalistic, poorly written masterpiece by Robert Sellers entitled Hellraisers. The full title is Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. To be frank, and anyone who knows even a little about any of these icons, the book could have focused on just one of them and had more than enough material to fill a volume. That it is crammed with (outrageous) stories involving all four of them is almost too much of a bad thing (bad meaning good but also meaning awful). What follows is not a review so much as a celebration.

I read this book in short, ecstatic snippets over the course of the past month. If you are the type of person who buys toilet books (does anyone buy toilet books?), this one is an automatic addition to your potty arsenal. Me, I was reading it before bedtime and while the laugh-out-louds were frequent, I invariably got drunk enough from the contact buzz to pass out after a few pages.

I think this book can be properly appreciated as a document of (cliche alert!) a truly different era. These types of artists simply don’t exist anymore and, to be honest, they could not possibly exist. I’m not necessarily implying that contemporary cinema will suffer for it, but these days (as Richard Harris points out) Tom Cruise shows up at a screening with a bottle of Evian while Harris and his compatriots would turn up, with neither irony nor a compulsion to impress, sporting a bottle of scotch. Is our society, or our silver screen, unduly affected by this passing of the gourd? Who knows. And who cares.

One thing that is certain: celebrities today are unhealthily obsessed with their status. Their capacity for sensation is a business decision, often engineered by PR hacks, or else enacted electronically: a tweet here and an interview there, all safely behind the glass. Could you imagine having a pint with just about any Hollywood A-lister? Of course you couldn’t. The fact of the matter was, these four rapscallions were (cliche alert!) men of the people, and by word –and more significantly, by deed– they were both entirely at ease and happiest when they were surrounded by the so-called common folk. Even though each of them was extraordinary in his own way(s), all of them came from difficult or at least potentially unpromising origins: they knew how little separated them from the coalminers they came up with, and how fortunate they were getting paid to pretend as opposed to breaking their backs in a factory.

And, (cliche alert!) talk about keeping it real. These chaps threw back pints and threw around their fists because they wanted to and, to a certain extent, they had to. Here’s an instructive anecdote: On a visit to Rome Harris persuaded one of the film executives to join him in order to witness first hand that it wasn’t always the actor who started all the brawling. On their first night they went to a bar and listened as a drunken American tourist spelt out in a loud voice how he was going to do in Harris. The executive advised his client to take no notice. “Do you want me to wait until I get a bottle across the face,” reasoned Harris, “or go in and get it over with.” The executive could see only logic in this statement and Harris took the insulting Yank outside and flattened him.

Here’s the thing. That’s not old school; that is one room and no electricity school. And while I’m not endorsing or advocating a top tier artist (or any average citizen) employing violence to settle their disputes, there is something almost refreshing (not quite quaint, but close) in this mano a mano arithmetic. Consider that, and compare it to our contemporary film, rock, and especially rap superstars with their posses, guns and melodramatic beefs. Drive-bys and group beatings? How about this: Got a problem? Let’s squash it right here, right now, without weapons or a crew of thugs jumping in.

At the same time, I’m not suggesting that these paleolithic antics didn’t have deleterious effects on their lives, as well as their art. Did we get the best they had to give? The verdict on all four (particularly Burton) is quite clearly nay. But would we otherwise have gotten This Sporting Life? Could we ever conceive Lawrence of Arabia? (It’s commonly agreed that O’Toole’s work here is among the best in movie history, but it may not be as well known that the almost impossibly elegant actor was hearty enough to endure an excruciating desert shoot that would have crippled many other thespians.)

Did each of them forfeit the best years of their artistic (not to mention actual) lives to drinking and skylarking? Perhaps, although it depends upon one’s definition of what entails a life best lived, and that is fodder for another discussion altogether. Based on the anecdotes and testimonials contained within these pages, not a single one of them regretted leading such unabashed existences (even if none of them could recall large chunks of those lives due to the state they were often in).

Let’s look at The Tale of the Tape (taken directly from the book).

Exhibit A, Richard Harris:

– One night Harris was thrown out of a pub at closing time, but still in need of a drink boarded a train just to make use of its open bar. With no idea where the train was headed he arrived in Leeds completely (inebriated) at one in the morning. With nowhere to go he walked down a nearby street and seeing a light on in a house chucked a stone at the window. The owner came storming out but upon recognizing Harris invited the star inside. Harris stayed there for four whole days and wasn’t sober once. Eventually the man’s wife phoned (Harris’s wife): “I’ve got your husband.” She was shocked when (Harris’s wife) replied, “Good, keep him.”

– In his favorite New York bar the bartender would see Harris walking in and immediately line up six double vodkas.

– At home in the Bahamas neighbors took to dropping by uninvited. To deter them Harris conceived an impish plot. One afternoon a family living close by turned up. Walking inside they found Harris with two mates sitting naked watching porno movies and masturbating. “Oh, hello there,” said Harris. “Come on in.” The incident went round the island like all good gossip does and afterwards Harris was left pretty much in peace; the way he wanted it.

– “When they took him away to hospital (shortly before his death)”, recalls director Peter Medak, “the lobby just completely stopped, and Richard sat up on the stretcher and turned back to the whole foyer and shouted, ‘It was the food! Don’t touch the food!’ That was typical Richard.”

(Personal note: just looking at the various interviews and clips on YouTube reveal without any doubt that Harris was a master storyteller and what we used to without irony call a bon vivant. He is a pub legend and if he did little else in his long life than bring amusement and joy to the thousands of people fortunate enough to have their eyes, ears and beers in his vicinity, it was a great deal more than most human beings are capable of imparting. Of course he did much more than that and he will endure as one of the genuine characters of the 20th Century.)

Exhibit B, Richard Burton:

(Personal note: this book will be a required purchase for anyone who has ever been fascinated by Burton’s relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. I must confess, I’ve never cared much about it, or her, but could not help but be amused, and startled, to discover that in her prime she could drink just about any other human being under the table. “I had a hollow leg (in those days)…my capacity was terrifying,” she recalls. So they had that little hobby in common, but it was definitely Liz’s looks that put the hook in Burton. “Burton referred to Taylor’s tits as ‘Apocalyptic. They would topple empires before they withered.'” Let’s stop and savor that for a second: there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect. Inevitably, both Burton and Taylor withered, and it was from the inside out. Anyone who was born between 1970 and 1980 can recall seeing these two on TV (or in a movie) and thinking “What’s all the fuss about?” and having their parents quickly set them straight. In their primes they were arguably the brightest and most beautiful stars in the Hollywood galaxy. But wither they did, and it was an expensive, languid, and hard-earned degeneration. With Burton, it wasn’t a matter of how much he consumed, but how he managed to find time to eat or sleep or breathe. On a given day he might plow through three full fifths of vodka. I’m not certain I’ve had that many martinis in my life. All of which is to say, of the four, Burton is generally considered the one who had the most to give and gave the most away as a result of his addictions –which either prompted or exacerbated a lethargy and greediness that devoured entirely too much of his energy and ability. More than a few notable folks offered the opinion that had Burton exerted a bit more control over his vices he may have ultimately become the most revered stage actor of all time, surpassing even Olivier.)

– During one particular scene (in 1966’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) Burton was required to down a whiskey. The props department brought in flat ginger ale, the movies’ usual substitute for scotch, but Burton waved it away. “It’s only a short scene, won’t need more than a couple of takes. Bring me some real whiskey.” In fact the scene needed 47 takes. “Imagine it, luv,” Burton bragged to a journalist later, “47 whiskies!”

– Burton had arrived to work on The Klansmen drunk and stayed drunk throughout filming, consuming three bottles of vodka a day, a routine he’d been following for the past six months…when (the director) was filming Burton’s death scene he complimented the make-up man. “You’ve done a great job.” The make-up man replied, “I haven’t touched him.”

– Staggering home at three in the morning, O’Toole tried to carry (Burton)…and both men stumbled into the gutter. Somebody stopped beside them on the pavement. It was Alan Bates, O’Toole’s ex RADA colleague. “Peter,” he said, “today I’ve just signed up for my first commercial picture.” “We both looked up,” recalled O’Toole, and said “You coming down to join us, then?”

Exhibit C, Oliver Reed:

(Personal note: I have a special place in my heart for Ollie. I couldn’t have been more than ten the first time I saw the musical Oliver! and Reed, as Bill Sikes, scared the living shit out of me. He was the real deal: the kind of face you could smash a torch into, break a bottle on and pour hot oil over and he’d smile…before he killed you. I then enjoyed him as the perfectly cast father in the movie version of Tommy. He was (cliche alert!!) absolutely one of those rare actors who, for me, I’d watch in virtually anything he did just because he had that presence: he loved the camera and the camera bloody loved him. That he ended up dying, in a bar, after drunkenly arm wrestling with a group of sailors four decades younger was…pathetic, predictable, perfect.)

– In an early role (as a werewolf, in a wretched B-movie), Reed enjoyed keeping his make-up on at the end of the day and terrifying fellow motorists at traffic lights.

– After Tommy Reed and The Who’s Keith Moon continued their rabble-rousing friendship. Reed enjoyed a game that he christened “head butting”. Each player was required to smash his head against his opponent until one collapsed or surrendered. A regular victim was (The Who’s bass player) John Entwistle, who, after being knocked out three times, pleaded with the nightclub owner to either ban the game or ban Ollie.

– Filming The Great Question (1983) Reed was stuck in Iraq…in what was essentially a war zone. One night Reed joined the crew for numerous drinks in the hotel bar and, looking in the nearby restaurant, saw a Texas oil billionaire whom he knew. Jumping up, obviously drunk as a skunk, he rushed upstairs to his room. “When he came back down he was wearing a western shirt and cowboy boots and walked John Wayne style into the restaurant to see his buddy,” recalls stunt man Vic Armstrong. “Inside he gave this guy a Texas handshake, as he called it, which basically means lifting your leg up and smashing your cowboy boot down on the table. So Ollie walked up to this guy’s table, surrounded by women and other dignitaries, and smash, all the cutlery and glass went flying in the air. Suddenly Ollie looked at the guy and it wasn’t his mate at all, it was some Arab with his harem, deeply offended that this westerner had come stamping on his table and upsetting everything.

– Reed had his private parts (which he was fond of calling his “mighty mallet”) emblazoned with the images of two eagle’s claws. Not long after, he had an eagle’s head tattooed on his shoulder, so when people asked why he had an eagle’s head on his shoulder he could reply, “Would you like to see where it’s perched?”


Exhibit D, Peter O’Toole:

(Personal note: after reading this book I’m more convinced than ever that if I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.)

– Interviewer: “Are you afraid of dying?” O’Toole: “Petrified.” Interviewer: “Why?” O’Toole: “Because there’s no future in it.” Interviewer: “When did you last think you were about to die?” O’Toole: “About four o’clock this morning.”

– O’Toole once arrived late for a ferry back to Ireland, the gangplank having just been raised. When the captain refused him entry O’Toole seized the ship’s papers, without which it couldn’t sail. He was only persuaded to hand them over by the arrival of a policeman. O’Toole then chartered a plane to Dublin, hired a taxi upon landing and raced from the airport to the harbour. When the ferry arrived there was O’Toole waiting on the dock to challenge the officer to a fistfight.

– O’Toole had never been the most subtle of people and old age hardly dented his un-PC ways. He had little time for the current crop of British stars like Hugh Grant. “Ugh, that twitching idiot! Ooh, I musn’t say that, must I, but he’s just a floppy young stammerer in all his films.” (Personal note: HaHaHaHa!)

– At the 2002 Oscars, O’Toole was to receive a lifetime achievement award. However, on discovering the bar served no alcohol, he threatened to walk out. Panicked producers had some vodka smuggled in.

In the final analysis, these men were geniuses on the screen, and depending upon how one judges such things, geniuses off it as well. One could maintain that, like Oscar Wilde, they were equally geniuses at life: they lived life fully on their own terms, and after all the broken glass, bludgeoned livers, wrecked relationships, wounded feelings and untapped potential, the sum shined brighter than the bits and pieces. Were they running away from their demons even as they rushed, face first, into a mirror or bar brawl or oncoming vehicle? Perhaps. But there was a courageousness to their conviction and intolerance for half-measures that, for better or worse, we’ll seldom if ever see again. They lived the lives they led because they had no choice, and more to the point, because nobody else could.

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Thriller at Thirty

November 30, 1982.

That is the date it dropped, and it’s quite safe to say the world literally had no idea what was about to hit it upside it’s head. Even Michael Jackson could have had no clue his masterwork was going to be that big.

I wrote at length about the crown prince’s life, a career trajectory that encompassed every aspect (the good, the bad, the very ugly) of the American Dream: it’s equal parts inspiration, cautionary tale and full-on myth. The full piece is HERE.

In that piece, I inevitably spent considerable time assessing, remembering and celebrating Thriller. I had to, and I was able to, because I was there, I lived through it in real time and few (if any) cultural touchstones have had anything approximating the impact and effect that the album, released thirty years ago today, ended up having.

Thriller, of course, changed everything. It made all that came before it prelude and everything, especially the not-so-good things, that came after an epilogue. People who weren’t around then probably can’t imagine it, but Jackson was the biggest thing in the universe circa 1983 (and into 1984). It wasn’t even close: he was as prevalent as Coca Cola or McDonalds, and it was easy to avoid him as it was to avoid breathing. If you were alive, you were aware. Like it or not.

In fact, if Thriller had not happened, people from my generation might be fondly recalling how they skated to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” at the roller rink. Or how great those Jackson 5 songs still sound. But, of course, Thriller happened. And we can (and will) talk about, and remember, all the songs, all the videos and the brand that Michael Jackson became during that span of commercial dominance.

But for now, I’m going to talk about the moment. You know what I mean: the performance of “Billie Jean” at the Motown 25 TV special.

I still get goosebumps every time I watch that. Now that he is gone, I’m sure each subsequent viewing (and there will be many, as I don’t expect I’ll ever tire of watching it) will be burdened with a melancholy even more profound than the one I would have felt anytime up until June 25, 2009. In other words, even before he passed on, watching a moment like this obliges one to relive one’s youth; it’s inescapable. So naturally one can’t help lamenting that loss of insouciance, of Innocence (with a capital I) and the many things time takes from us.

The previous generation had the moon landing; we had the moonwalk. That is not intended to be overly coy; I actually think I would invoke the moon landing regardless of the obvious word association. In my opinion, the few seconds that Jackson spent introducing that new dance move to the world are the defining cultural moments of my generation. In fact, I can’t readily think of anything else that enters the discussion. People have spoken about the other MJ (Michael Jordan) having played basketball better than anyone else did anything. I feel we could find other examples (Daniel Barenboim playing Beethoven piano sonatas; Flannery O’Connor writing fiction; Glenn Beck being an asshole), but I would propose that this performance is the apotheosis of what a pop star can achieve. No one, before or since, has been better at being a star, at seizing the moment, at overtaking the world by force of will and talent, quite like Michael Jackson did that evening. What is truly remarkable is not merely how incredible it was, then, but how inimitably cool and untouchable it remains, now. Everyone saw that and everyone reacted to it. It was (and is) impossible to be wholly unaffected or unmoved by what happens during those five minutes. There are probably people (perhaps lots of them) who still won’t see the art or genius (and the many layers of that genius: the song itself–a slice of irrepressible pop perfection, his dancing, and the fact that he is lip-synching it) of this moment, but it’s simply not possible to remain indifferent. You can fail to acknowledge this the way you can fail to acknowledge the Grand Canyon, as you are being pushed over the edge, eyes shut and screaming all the way down.

A confession. I was not necessarily a fan. I certainly was able to appreciate that dancing, and that song (and any male my age who attempts to deny that he desperately wanted to perfect the moonwalk is lying through the acne-glazed haze of adolescent recollection). It was a bizarre time to be a teenager: all the girls in school loved Michael Jackson and all the guys loved Jim Morrison. Oh wait, that was just me? Well, as corny as I would have considered it for any dude to have a poster of MJ, I am not particularly proud to reconsider the prominent spread of leather-clad Lizard King photos on my bedroom wall. I say this only to underscore the impact MJ had at the time: I was well tired of the non-stop hype and ceaseless radio play (seven Top 10 singles?!), and it was simply beyond human capability to separate oneself from Thriller’s impact. You may not have loved it (you may not have liked it) but I have never spoken to anyone who actually hated it. I’m sure there is someone out there, who also hates the Sistine Chapel and The Lincoln Memorial. Or Moby Dick (just kidding, sort of.)

(The piece, as mentioned, does not end there, but here is how it ends, sentiment I stand by today:)

More than a little of Michael’s anguish was self-inflicted. True, he engaged in an often futile effort to find things he could not have, but he did look for them, using the muscle his money provided to plow through the world, a fragile bull in a not-so-delicate China shop. Ultimately, the only thing he broke was himself. And even at his most irresponsible (or despicable, if only a handful of the charges he successfully settled out of court were legitimate), it was difficult not to feel intense pity for this child crammed inside a King’s body. Let the myopic arbiters of taste and the more prurient amongst us declare him a fool or a freak. Let the smug quoters of scripture remind everyone that it does not profit a man to gain the world and forfeit his soul. They should be reminded that the world got to him first. I feel nothing but sorrow for his poor, fractured soul and pray that his heart, at long last, is at peace.

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