Michael Jackson and Celebrity Death

Do you remember where you were when River Phoenix died?

Probably not. A better question might be, “Do you remember who River Phoenix was?”( He was an up and coming, very talented young actor back in the day. Did a wicked Harrison Ford impression at the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Made a few other flicks and then died of a drug overdose about fifteen years ago or so.)

I don’t remember where I was when River died, either. But I remember where I was when an actor friend of mine started crying over it. He had never met Mr. Phoenix, but he mourned the “movies I’ll never get to see” because of River’s death.

It was then that I realized that celebrity deaths don’t mean very much to me, if they mean anything at all.

I say all this, obviously, in the light of Michael Jackson’s shocking, sudden death today, which has overshadowed Farrah Fawcett’s not-so-shocking, long-time-coming death on the same day. Others are throwing in the “What? He was still alive?” death of Ed McMahon and claiming that all celebrity deaths come in threes. I think claiming Ed McMahon is still a celebrity is really, really pushing it.

Please don’t misunderstand. I don’t mean to be heartless, and I wish the surviving loved ones of all these people well. I just don’t understand why I ought to be more heartbroken about Michael Jackson’s death than any other death I hear about on the news on a daily basis. I didn’t know Michael Jackson, and nothing in my life will change as a result of his demise. (Michael Jackson did, however, used to go knocking doors for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in my neighborhood, wearing a beard and a hat as a disguise. At least, my friend Pus-head told me that. If you can’t trust a guy called Pus-head, who can you trust?)

There is the argument to be made that I’ve lost all the great music that we’ll never get as a result of his demise, much like River Phoenix’s movies we’ll never see. But odds are that I wouldn’t have seen River’s movies, and the evidence suggests that Michael’s days of producing great music are well behind him. His last decent album was Dangerous in 1991. The new stuff on his HISstory anthology in 1994 was unlistenable, and 2001’s Invincible is all kinds of suck. But Thriller is still deeply and thoroughly awesome, and I could listen to Off the Wall’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” from now until forever and still get caught up in the unrelenting funk of that irresistible bass line.

And, best of all, Thriller is still here. Michael Jackson has already given me everything of value that he’s going to give me, and I’ve lost none of it with his passing.

The “loss of talent” argument does work with some celebrity deaths, however. John Lennon’s death forever thwarted an otherwise inevitable Beatles reunion, and Heath Ledger’s death means that the sequel to The Dark Knight won’t be as good as it was supposed to be. That disappoints me. But that’s a very, very different thing from mourning the loss of the person who died.

Mourning over Princess Diana’s death reached a fever pitch in 1997, despite the fact that Diana was primarily famous solely for being famous. But everyone felt they knew her, so her death took on the nature of a communal event.

And, I think, that’s the whole crux of celebrity deaths. It brings the world together, because it illustrates we all have something in common. We all knew Michael Jackson, or at least we thought we did. Everyone can sing “Beat It and “Thriller.” Everyone can pretend to pop one of his patented dance moves – especially me. And being able to share something with everyone you know – or don’t know – provides a strange form of comfort. But the ritualistic weeping and wailing by people who have never spent a second of their lives in conversation with the famed Wacko Jacko starts to grate on me very quickly.

That’s not to say I’m completely unmoved by the death of people I don’t know. 9/11 was devastating, and not just because we all had it in common. It was a reminder of how much evil is out there, and a grim warning that the monsters who killed 3,000 Americans wanted to kill me, too. The sheer enormity of the number added weight to the moment, but it wasn’t the main reason to mourn. When a similar number died in the tsunami a few years back, it didn’t have the same personal impact to me.

I’m not sure how I feel, to be honest. When truly evil people make the world a better place by getting off of it – i.e. Yasser Arafat, Jeffrey Dahmer, and the like – I confess I permit myself a grisly moment of celebration. Michael Jackson wasn’t in that same league, but he was certainly creepy. He was never convicted of child molestation, but I know I’d never want my children within 50 yards of the guy. But his heinousness does not rise to the level of posthumous schadenfreude. All things considered, I’d probably rather he were still alive. But he isn’t, and I can find a way to carry on.

I have nothing profound to say, I guess. But I think that lack of profundity is profound in and of itself. (Whoa.) All I have left is The Essential Michael Jackson on compact disc, except I can’t find disc one, and I think Stalliondo may have been using it as a Frisbee.

Rest in peace, River Phoenix.

Three Videos

No connection between these three videos, other than the fact that I enjoyed them all very much.

The first one is, in fact, the actual video for the eighties classic “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” except that the audio has been changed to reflect what’s happening on screen.

This is a lot of fun at Patrick Stewart’s expense, but since he’s a willing participant, I suppose I can share it with you. (I need to see Extras, the show from whence this sprang. Haven’t gotten around to it yet.)

This last one combines my love for Beavis and Butthead with my contempt for the earth:

Lettermanic Double Standards

The political landscape is so deeply depressing that I find it hard to muster up any kind of formal response to it. The Federal Government now owns the largest car manufacturer in the world solely so it can prop up a bloated union. The trillion dollar stimulus that was passed to keep unemployment below 8% has helped fuel our current 9.4% unemployment rate. Gas prices climb even as inventories rise. We’re going to dismantle private health insurance so medical care can be more costly, lower quality and less plentiful. Obama goes overseas and equates the plight of women in America with the plight of women in countries where they are beaten for uncovering their faces in public. North Korea and Iran are about to explode, nuclearifically speaking. And all this crap comes raining down with Obama enjoying stratospheric approval ratings and a political opposition that’s eating itself from the inside out.

Blech. Blech. Blech.

So let’s talk about David Letterman’s Sarah Palin joke.

I know I’m way late to this party. Letterman has now finally apologized for joking that Sarah Palin’s 14-year-old daughter was raped by Alex Rodriguez at a baseball game during the seventh inning stretch. His actual apology was pretty classy, although it was preceded by days of excuses – I meant the eighteen-year-old, not the fourteen-year-old; Palin’s overreacting, and who is she to suggest that Letterman is a pedophile? – and a decided lack of sympathy from the media, who tried to turn this into a typical celebrity feud, Letterman v. Palin, as if both sides were equally at fault.

Does anyone else remember Mike Meyers’ Wayne’s World sketch, where Wayne and Garth went down a list of famous babes, and they got to Chelsea Clinton, who at the time was about the same age as Willow Palin is now? Wayne and Garth put up a picture of Chelsea, who was in the throes of awkward adolescence, and then, after deciding she didn’t yet qualify as a true babe, gently labeled her a “babe in waiting.”

They were ripped to shreds almost instantly, and they apologized profusely. What’s more, the Clintons themselves didn’t have to get involved, because the media had their backs. And the joke itself was a whole lot milder than Letterman’s whole statutory rape motif.

The double standard here is just staggering. Even after the apology, leftists are unrepentant. Allow me to provide the following quotes from Aint It Cool News that illustrate the lefty conventional wisdom on this matter:

1. Does anyone else think that Sarah Palin spends most of her spare time dressed in a nazi-inspired bondage outfit whipping the s— out of local Alaskan fishermen??? Cause thats kind of what I picture her doing when shes not attention-whoring to get on T.V.

2. Sarah Palin is a grade-A piece of s—. She richly deserves her status as a national punchline.  [This was from Hercules, a paid staffer on the site.]

3. HERCULES – I’m an Alaskan and I couldn’t agree with you more. Palin is a pile of pure s— trailer trash. 

4. I thought repubs were supposed to be the tough guy cowboy party? Why do you all turn into little b–ches when someone rips one of your sacred cows (emphasis on COW)?

5. The G-D D–N Palins’ are f—ing serial opportunists. Would someboody PLEASE rape and kill them all!

6. Hey…you’re right! Her name IS WILLOW! Maybe she’ll turn out to be a lesbian witch who turns to the dark arts and skins a guy alive! Lets see the republicans put a spin on that!

7. The Palins are morons. They symbolise everything that can go wrong with human beings.

8. EAT S— AND DIE, REPUBLICANS, you hateful, ignorant wastes of oxygen.

You get the idea.

I’m certainly not arguing that the right wing doesn’t have their share of Neanderthals capable of this kind of garbage, but I am saying that they get called on the carpet for their crap instantly and unanimously. Leftist vitriol evidenced in what I’ve posted here usually goes unanswered and unmentioned. Keep in mind these are things written AFTER Letterman reluctantly apologized. None see the irony in calling Republicans “hateful and ignorant” immediately after telling them to eat s— and die. 
Something to think about as the world collapses around you. 

Sin Dancing

In my senior year at USC, a weird, artsy woman spent a couple of weeks as the substitute teacher for our acting class. (I know what you’re thinking– a weird, artsy acting teacher?! What are the odds?!) She was not just any acting schmo – she was a regular on the “New WKRP in Cincinnati.” Not the one with Loni Anderson or Howard Hesseman, mind you, but the one with all the second tier stars that ran first run episodes on VH1 a decade after the original show.

Anyway, this woman decided to use some of the time to avoid productivity and force us to do interpretative dances instead. So, in a large studio, we sat around in a glorified “Duck Duck Goose” circle and clapped our hands while some sorry class member stood in the center flailing about in representation of deep, important things.

I should remind you that USC is a very, very expensive school.

I do remember, however, that she asked to perform our own interpretation of the concept of “sin.” So, naturally, I sat cross-legged on the floor and grabbed my ankles and then rolled around like a paralyzed crab. This meant something. I’m almost sure of it.

One girl stood up and mimed smoking a cigarette. She was trying to say something very, very profound, which, I think, involved the badness of smoking. It’s hard to put my finger on it – it worked on so many levels.

What I do remember quite well is the insipid discussion that followed.

The woman pointed out that “sin” isn’t real; it’s just something that’s inflicted on you by “the Man.” And when she said “the Man,” she didn’t mean God; she meant the guy who you ought to be sticking it to. (See Jack Black in School of Rock.) The way to avoid sinning, then, is to deny sin exists and then do whatever the hell you want.

Like most artistes who mistake fashion for insight, she thought she was teaching us something life-changing. Instead, she was pushing a juvenile line of thought that has become all too pervasive in the world at large.

The dictionary defines sin as “transgression of divine law.” I’ve always seen it as anything done against the will of God, which is pretty much different words for eth same thing. But if we listen to Ms. WKRP on this, “sin” is just another word for “guilt,” which is always bad. So instead of question whether or not our sin is something we ought to be doing, we should go out of our way to expunge the guilt and then “sin” takes care of itself.

What she ignores is that if you eliminate the concept of sin, you eliminate the concept of God right along with it. Either that, or you neuter God –you might claim He exists, but at the same time He doesn’t have much of an opinion about anything. Or, even more profoundly, His opinion is represented in your opinion. I remember going to a church service where everyone sang, “I am the radiant light of God,” because His will is manifest in everything we do. So if we want to sleep with prostitutes or beat up a bag lady or slaughter six million European Jews, that’s what God would want, too.

I have no use for a God like that.

C.S. Lewis once said that the inherent knowledge of right and wrong that we all have is the greatest proof of the existence of a God. We all know He exists because we know when He’s unhappy with what we’re doing. If that weren’t the cause, there’d be no room for Him to judge us, because we’d be entirely ignorant of His law.

So, okay, if God exists, then so does His law. Which means that sin exists, too. So what is it?

Well, look at it from another angle.

Supposed we could find happiness in sleeping with anything that moved or slaughtering our neighbors to get their stuff. If God is kind, loving, and merciful, don’t you think He would encourage us to do the kind of things that make us happy? People look upon God as some kind of killjoy who doesn’t want us to have any fun. How puerile is that?

I belong to a religious tradition that teaches “Man is, that he might have joy.” Sins are the roadblocks that stand in the way of joy. No matter how you label them, defy them, or ignore them, they’re still real obstacles to happiness. The coolest, grooviest teacher in the world can reject the label of sin, but she can’t avoid the consequences of sin. None of us can. Sin leads to bondage, to slavery, to limited choices.

Which is why I symbolically bound myself in my interpretative dance.

See? I told you it meant something,

Gender-Blind Casting

About twenty years ago, Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake produced a truly memorable version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that I very much enjoyed. Many modern Shakespeare productions attempt to “update” the material with weird modern references, and I almost always find that distracting. This version used authentic Elizabethan costumes and sets, and it was well-performed. It did, however, include one powerful thematic element that would have been unthinkable in Shakespeare’s day.

In this production, all of the Capulets were white, and all of the Montagues were black.

None of the text was changed, and there was no attempt to underscore the difference here. Indeed, there was no need to do that. The hatred between the two families took on a powerful racial overtone, and it elegantly highlighted just how silly and petty racial divisions are.

Unfortunately, it did the same thing offstage, too.

A friend of mine who worked for Pioneer Theatre said the box office was deluged with phone calls from patrons, many of them season ticket holders, who wanted to buy or exchange their tickets for a performance on a night when the black fellow wouldn’t be playing Romeo. The show was a financial failure as a result of the racial controversy.

Still, that was twenty years ago, right? Well, let me take you back about ten years, to a theatre I was managing. We were having a hard time finding a lead for a production of The Music Man, and at one point, it looked as if we might be able to book a big star to take the role. Later, we talked to his agent, who told us his client couldn’t live on less than $25,000 per week, which pretty much ended the negotiations. But prior to that, as we were discussing the possibility, the question was raised as to whether our audiences would balk at this bit of casting, seeing as how this particular actor was African American and the woman we’d already cast as his love interest was not.

I couldn’t imagine it would be a problem. This actor was very popular and would have been quite a draw – surely nobody would pay attention to his skin color. Then I started to ask around, and discovered that a number of people, far more than I anticipated, had a real problem with this.

“Would he have to kiss her?” one lady asked me.

Yes, I said.

“Could you change it so they didn’t have to kiss?”

Unbelievable.

About four years later, at the same theatre, I cast an African American woman in the female lead opposite a white man in a version of Guys and Dolls that I directed. We didn’t hear one word of complaint as far as I knew, although one idiot told me it wasn’t a problem because the woman was very pretty and “didn’t look all that black,” and that it was a white man kissing a black woman, which wasn’t nearly as offensive as a black man kissing a white woman.

I honestly don’t understand that kind of stupidity.

When I was a theatre student at the University of Southern California, they insisted on a strict policy of colorblind casting. I played Giles Corey in a version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which dramatizes the real-life events surrounding the Salem witch trials. John Proctor, the lead in that show, was played by Scott B., an outstanding actor who was also African American.

This struck me as an odd choice, as John Proctor was a historical figure, very much not of African descent, who lived at a time when virtually all black Africans living in the Americas were slaves. Indeed, The Crucible features several scenes with a character named Tituba, a slave who is instrumental in providing the spark for all of the madness that followed. That role was also played by a very talented African American actress, which, for me, highlighted some of the tension that a strict colorblind casting policy can create. Would it have been acceptable to have cast a white actress in that role? Doubtful, given the fact that the woman’s race is so intertwined with the character’s identity. But a black John Proctor? It made absolutely no difference. Within minutes of seeing the character onstage, his race was completely immaterial, at least to me.

All this is prelude to a dream I had last night, where I returned to that same theatre where I had produced Guys and Dolls and The Music Man. They were doing a new production of Annie Get Your Gun, which is a show I directed there back in 2002. It was a huge flop, and they’d come to me to provide some insight as to why. (That’s your first clue that this was a dream – that theatre wouldn’t call me for advice in a million years.) I sat and watched the show and discovered they’d cast a woman in the role of Frank Butler, the male chauvinist who resents being shown up by Annie Oakley primarily because she’s a woman. I told them that was their problem – casting a woman as a male chauvinist didn’t make any sense. I was told that I was too focused on “gender identity,” and that I was too unenlightened to truly understand. (That’s your second clue that this was all a dream – in our world, the real life guy would have run screaming for the hills.)

I found this dream fascinating, because it exposed one of the central flaws in the argument for same-sex marriage – that this is no different from opposition to interracial marriage. After all, what are the intrinsic differences between a black man and a white man? They’re all cosmetic. The same cannot be said of the real and significant differences between men and women.

Bottom line: they should never have made Starbuck a girl in the new Battlestar Galactica.

Adrift

I watched The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien last night.

I don’t often watch late night television, although that wasn’t always the case. I was a huge Letterman fan back when Letterman was funny on Late Night. I used to tape Late Night, watch it the next morning, and steal all his material for my busy day ahead. That was back when I was pretty well plugged into the zeitgeist.

Needless to say, those days are over.

Watching Conan just reminded me how deeply out of touch I am with the pop culture. He began the show with a genuflectory piece of Obama worship and then he launched into both a “Bush is stupid” joke and a “Cheney likes to torture people” joke. He got cheers when referencing Obama’s decision to close Guantanamo Bay, and I turned it off at that point, deciding I’d pretty much had enough.

It’s not much better when it comes to right wing entertainment, either. I listened to about thirty seconds of Sean Hannity yesterday before my eyes began to forcibly roll back in my head. I tried Glenn Beck later that evening, and I became exhausted before the first commercial break, at which poingt I switched over the the FM dial to listen to some lite rock favorites. Yes, the country’s collapsing all around us – we get it. I find myself sympathizing with Camille Paglia, who describes the current state of talk radio thusly:

Talk radio has been seething with such intensity since Barack Obama’s first week in office that I am finding it very hard to listen to it. How many times do we have to be told the sky is falling? The major talk show hosts, in my opinion, made a strategic error in failing to reset at lower volume after Obama’s election. When the default mode is feverish crisis pitch, there’s nowhere to go, and monotony sets in. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of tuning in and impatiently tuning out. As a longtime fan of talk radio, I don’t think this bodes well for the long-term broad appeal of the medium. I want stimulation and expansion of my thinking — not shrill, numbing hectoring and partisan undermining of the authority and dignity of the presidency. Rabidly Bush-bashing Democrats shouldn’t have done it to the last president either, but that’s no excuse for conservatives, who claim to revere our institutions, to play schoolyard tit for tat.

Amen.

I find myself increasingly disconnected from other aspects of the culture. I’ve seen Star Trek three times, but I have no desire to see any other summer blockbusters, at least until the next Harry Potter flick comes out. My knowledge of popular music is encyclopedic, but it ends abruptly circa 1991. I’m rereading old books and reading older books for the first time.

I am out of touch. I am a man adrift.

Arthur Kane

The New York Dolls came to town on Saturday night. I didn’t get a chance to go, but it cause me to reflect on one of the huge missed opportunities of my life.

It was the summer of 1990. I had just finished an essentially wasted year at the University of Utah and decided to return to Los Angeles and the University of Southern California to resume work on my theatre degree. I had gotten a job as the guy in charge of the safety deposit boxes at Wells Fargo Bank in Westwood. The safety deposit boxes were in the basement, and nobody ever came down to visit.

I was mind-numbingly bored.

Once, I stuck a letter opener up my nose and decided to leave it there until somebody came down and noticed me. The thing stayed in my left nostril for a good 45 minutes.

It was at this time that I was attending church in the Westwood Ward, teaching a Sunday School class. I was also assigned as a home teacher to scraggly blonde middle-aged hippie by the name of Arthur Kane.

For those of you unfamiliar with LDS protocol, we do more in church than give blogging instructions to same-sex marriage opponents. We also have a program called Home Teaching, where members of a congregation visit other members once a month to deliver a short gospel message and, more importantly, to assess the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of their fellow Latter-day Saints. This usually involves a visit of a half an hour or so, usually right at the end of the month. It’s been famously said that no congregation has 100% home teaching success, because nobody wants to visit or be visited on Halloween or New Year’s Eve.

I’m kind of a lousy home teacher in the best of circumstances, but this Arthur Kane guy was kind of scary. He was unemployed and lived in public housing on Sunset Boulevard, in a tiny, smelly apartment that he never seemed to leave. I feared for my safety every time I went there, and I felt uncomfortable every time I tried to leave. “Well, it’s been a half hour, so I don’t want to keep you away from the – um, all the, uh, stuff you’re doing…” I essentially read the little message that came out in the Ensign magazine every month, and he listened politely, and then I scurried out of there as fast as I could.

It was on the fourth such visit where Arthur made it plain that he enjoyed my little visits about as much as I did. “Look, you’re a nice enough kid,” he told me, “but this is kind of a waste of time. You really don’t understand where I’m coming from.”

That’s when I found out he was a New York Doll.

The New York Dolls were – and still are, sort of – a rock band born in the early seventies that attracted a lot of attention in music circles. They were on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream when they completely collapsed. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll were all huge factors in that happening, but to hear Arthur tell it, it was all David Johansen’s fault.

David Johansen was the group’s lead singer, and after the Dolls broke up, he went on to fame and fortune as a film actor as well as a singer, using the alter ego Buster Poindexter. Arthur, in contrast, collapsed into depression, obscurity, and poverty, all the while seething with resentment. Everything that had gone wrong in his life since 1975 was because of David Johansen.

I wish I could say I formed a deep and lasting bond with this guy, and that our story had something of a happy ending. But that never really happened. I stayed as home teacher for a year or two before attending a different ward and leaving him behind.

It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I realized what my apathy had cost me.

In 2005, Arthur was the subject of a documentary called New York Doll, which chronicled his life as a rock star, his subsequent collapse, and his conversion to Mormonism. It did so with the backdrop of a one-off New York Dolls reunion at Royal Albert Hall in London, which required Arthur and David Johansen to not only be in the same room at the same time, but to make music together, too.

The movie is a revelation, juxtaposing Arthur’s day-to-day mundanity as a volunteer at the Los Angeles Family History Library with the exotic world of rock-and-roll from which he came. You realize just how much this guy had to overcome, and you rejoice as he gets one last moment in the spotlight. And then your heart breaks at the end when… well, see the movie. It’s worth your time.

Your life will be enriched if you’re willing to pay more attention to Arthur Kane than I did.