Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael And Elvis: Cautionary Tales Of Two Kings

I was never a big Michael Jackson fan. He was the "King of Pop," and readers who've followed my "Saturday Night At The Liberal Curmudgeon" series know that my tastes run toward blues, Sixties rock, jazz and folk. Nevertheless, I recognize that Jackson was an enormous talent who had an electrifying stage presence and will remain a lasting influence on artists throughout the world. Indeed, he was a global superstar who even united Israeli and Arab fans in their enjoyment of his music.

Jackson's 1983 performance of "Billie Jean" shows the way he combined stylized, almost mechanical movements with the smoothness of his famous moonwalk, carrying it all off in a seamless flow. His vocal style featured the "hiccuping" effect reminiscent of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley:

Speaking of Elvis Presley, one must take note of Jackson's prescience that his fate would resemble that of "The King of Rock," as recounted by Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of Presley and ex-wife of Jackson:

Michael Jackson knew "exactly how his fate would be played out" and feared his death would echo that of Elvis Presley, Lisa Marie Presley wrote in an online blog posted Friday morning.

..."At some point he paused, he stared at me very intensely and he stated with an almost calm certainty, 'I am afraid that I am going to end up like him, the way he did,' " Presley wrote.

"I promptly tried to deter him from the idea, at which point he just shrugged his shoulders and nodded almost matter of fact as if to let me know, he knew what he knew and that was kind of that."

...Elvis Presley collapsed in the bathroom of his Memphis, Tennessee, mansion -- Graceland -- on August 16, 1977, at the age of 42. While his death was ruled the result of an irregular heartbeat, the autopsy report was sealed amid accusations that abuse of prescription drugs caused the problem.

Prescription drugs, of course, are a focus of inquiry in Jackson's death, just one point of resemblance in the fates of the two superstars. When we consider both, we see a similar trajectory from wholly original young talent to a long decline. The early Elvis combined rock, blues and country with his trademark "sneer" and gyrations–his nickname was "Elvis the Pelvis"–to groundbreaking effect, as seen in this performance of "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1956:

Elvis's rise and fall, recounted in Peter Guralnick's masterful two-volume biography, "Last Train To Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley" and "Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley," included the prescription drugs, eating binges, reckless spending and mismanagement by Colonel Tom Parker, who steered Presley toward second- and third-rate movies that kept the focus off his music. As for Jackson, his later years included the prescription drugs, the trial for molestation, plastic surgery that turned his face into a mask (see the computer generated image of a plastic-surgery free Jackson), extravagant spending that caused a severe financial toll and exile in Bahrain, Dubai and Ireland.

Every year on "American Idol," many who don't pass the audition are devastated as they lose their shot at stardom. Yet the lives of Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley ought to stand as cautionary tales, along with those of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. Each one warns us that fame and adulation are no guarantors of happiness in this life.


Davin said...

Without attempting to be pompous,
a line from an ancient rabbinic text comes to mind. It reads, "Who is wealthy? He is who is happy with his portion." Clearly, as you say, wealth and fame and glory are not the key to happiness. In fact, they may pose a challenge to its attainment.
As always, your blog is both illuminating and humane.

Davin Wolok

Jeff Tone said...

Davin: Thank you for your kind words. I am glad to have humane, wise readers like you who provide such illuminating reflections.