|Jul/Aug 2010 Nonfiction|
Cancel my subscription to the resurrection. —The Doors, When The Music's Over
It came as a revelation to me, upon traveling to Greece for the first time, that I could read the Greek alphabet. I hadn't studied Greek, but my math and science education, with its formulas and equations derived from Greek orthography, turned out to be all the preparation I needed. Even a cursory knowledge of college fraternity and sorority names will take you a long way toward mastering Greek spelling.
Since Greek pronunciation, unlike that of English, is mostly phonetic, I was able to work out, syllable by syllable, the illustrious names on statues and busts throughout Greece: Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid, and even mythological characters like Athena and Achilles. I could also read names less familiar to me, of modern Greek statesmen and politicians, whose likenesses appeared on the nation's currency, the drachma.
But the Greek language wasn't what attracted me to Greece. Nor was it the rapturous descriptions of Greek land and seascapes that I had read in books like Prospero's Cell by Lawrence Durrell and The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller. What actually drew me there was my fantasy of dancing the Sirtaki on Greek soil, as Anthony Quinn had done while playing the title role in the movie Zorba the Greek. I would be accompanied by Mikis Theodorakis's infectious bouzouki music from the film. Following local custom, people dining in Greek tavernas would shout "Hopa!"and smash their plates into pieces on the floor in appreciation of my artistry.
My dream suffered a rude collision with reality. Like youth in many developing countries, Greek teenagers had turned their backs on their own rich musical heritage. What they wanted was trashy and ephemeral American popular culture, and who better to purvey that than the King of Pop, Michael Jackson? The release of his megahit Thriller album—by far the best-selling recording of all time—coincided with my arrival in Greece. And so I witnessed young Greeks taking to the dance floor, lip and hip-synching to the music videos for "Beat It" and "Billie Jean." They weren't very good at it, but they didn't seem to mind.
The real Mecca of Greek and Middle Eastern dancing turned out to be Southern California, where I live. I was initiated into the local ethnic dance scene when I played guitar with an Armenian band. Although there were occasional concerts and club dates, what we usually played at were weddings. The dancers we often accompanied were Middle Eastern wannabees, enchanted with the exotic romance of the region, while oblivious of its poisonous politics. In the 1980s, when I first traveled to Greece, a Greek woman attempting to emulate Zorba on her native soil would have been driven from the dance floor with boos and catcalls, the taverna being a strictly male province. And a bellydancer in a city like Baghdad or Tehran, under the baleful watch of Saddam Hussein or Ayatollah Khomeini, respectively, would have suffered a far worse fate. It's no accident that the best bellydancer I know is a Jewish woman from San Diego.
The day Michael Jackson died, I happened to be in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, visiting my parents. My elderly father, who had survived a stroke that left him vulnerable to losing his balance and tipping over, got up in the middle of the night to shut off the air conditioning, tripped and crashed to the floor, breaking the fall with his hand and gashing his palm. He somehow managed to do all this without awakening me or my mother. Bleeding profusely because of the Coumadin that he takes since his stroke to thin his blood and prevent clots from forming, he stanched his wound with some hastily applied band-aids, then slipped on a white latex glove to hold the thick and unwieldy dressing in place.
The next evening at dinner, one of my cousins asked my father, "What's with the glove?"
"It's a tribute to Michael Jackson," I blurted out. "He's a big fan."
A few days later, we were all at a family wedding in Ithaca, New York, a city named after both the modern Greek island and the Homeric home of Odysseus. The band played no Michael Jackson songs. They must have realized that none of us could even contemplate doing the moonwalk without winding up in intensive care. But everyone—even those Greeks I had seen decades earlier trying in vain to dance to Jackson's Thriller album—could imitate the young John Travolta just by striking that iconic pose from Saturday Night Fever, with our index fingers in the air, accompanied by the familiar Bee Gees music that the wedding musicians could probably play in their sleep.
I didn't enter the on-line lottery for tickets to the Michael Jackson memorial service at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, only a half hour's drive from my home, but watched the television broadcast instead. The program was produced by AEG, the world's largest owner of professional sports teams, owner of Staples Center and operator of London's O2 Arena, where Jackson's This Is It fifty-concert comeback tour, his first in over a decade, was scheduled to take place before it was aborted by his death. AEG was also the promoter of that tour, as well as the producer of the tour's rehearsal movie, also entitled This Is It. In corporate circles, this is called synergy, where different operations of the same company combine for a better result than each could accomplish separately—the whole being greater than the sum of its parts—all in the service of higher corporate profits. The word is derived from the Greek syn-ergos, meaning working together.
After Jackson died, AEG offered refunds to concert ticket buyers, but they also made a more spurious proposal: anyone waiving their rights to a refund would receive what AEG euphemistically called "souvenir tickets." Since the tickets were already paid for and buyers would have received them anyway if the tour had gone on, this scam suggests that when it comes to financial flim-flam, AEG isn't all that different from AIG, the recipient of the largest corporate bailout in U.S. history after peddling the inscrutable financial instruments known as credit-default swaps that contributed to the worst U.S. economic meltdown since 1929.
The televised Jackson memorial service turned out to be a slick, highly professional production, featuring an all-star cast of performers and none of the wardrobe malfunctions exhibited by Jackson's sister Janet at the 2004 Superbowl halftime show. I found it surprisingly moving, with some unexpected literary touches, such as Queen Latifah's reading of a Maya Angelou poem entitled "We Had Him," containing memorable phrases like "...he was ours and we were his... we had him, and we are the world"—although I think John Lennon captured the feeling better in his acid-tripping and Lewis Carroll-inspired lyrics for "I Am the Walrus": "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together."
Watching all the celebrity tributes to Michael Jackson, those Greek adolescents I had seen in the 1980s, now matured into paunchy middle-aged adults, must have concluded that he was not only a brilliant entertainer but also one of the world's foremost humanitarians, joining the ranks of Albert Schweitzer, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa. Equating creative talent with benevolence is de rigueur in our celebrity culture—or as Gore Vidal once said in an interview, "Americans think that only a good person can write a good book." Award-winning actors are habitually described as "distinguished" and "acclaimed," suggesting virtues they probably don't possess. I've come to believe that narcissism is practically a requirement for artistic achievement. I gave up long ago trying to convince my father that Richard Wagner was a musical genius despite being a vicious anti-Semite and Hitler's favorite composer. My father insists on pronouncing Wagner's name as if he were American and the name of the city that houses his theater, Bayreuth, as if it were the capital of Lebanon.
Among the many luminaries paying homage to Jackson at the memorial service was Smokey Robinson, who delivered a eulogy that ended with the phrase, "And he will live forever and ever." Whoever wrote it was, however unintentionally, plagiarizing Charles Jennens' libretto for the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah, but since Jennens has been dead for over two centuries longer than Jackson, his work is in the public domain and there will be no copyright lawsuits.
Carl Anderson played Judas in what could be considered the modern counterpart of Messiah—Jesus Christ Superstar, by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. I ran into Anderson once in a seedy motel parking lot in upstate New York, while I was touring as a guitarist with a deservedly unknown rock band. The group's leader, a trumpet player, fancied himself the heir to Herb Alpert's musical legacy and included in his repertoire the arrangement of the Zorba the Greek theme from Alpert's Going Places album with the Tijuana Brass. His wife, the group's lead singer, struggled to hit high notes and misfired on some of the lower ones as well. Standing behind her out of the spotlight and invisible to the audience, I would exchange thumbs-down hand gestures with the drummer and bass player. It was reminiscent of the scene in Citizen Kane where Kane's girlfriend butchers an opera aria on stage while the camera pans high up into the rafters, where a couple of stagehands look at each other and hold their noses.
When I met Anderson that night, he was touring as well, trying to launch a solo singing career that never reached the heights he had hoped for. He eventually returned to performing as Judas in revivals of the musical. But then, so did Ted Neeley, the actor who played Jesus. On Broadway, there's always one more resurrection, but in real life, Carl Anderson died in 2004 at the age of fifty-nine, his life spanning nine years more than Michael Jackson's.
A few hours after watching the Michael Jackson memorial service, I was driving to the Hollywood Bowl—an arena where Jackson performed just once, as a member of the Jackson 5 in 1971—to see a performance described in the concert program as "Peter and the Wolf with Fireworks," featuring the beloved children's classic accompanied by one of the Bowl's typically crowd-pleasing fireworks displays. My route took me past Forest Lawn cemetery, parodied as Whispering Glades in Evelyn Waugh's novel The Loved One and site of the private Jackson family funeral that morning. Fans were still gawking at the gates, perhaps hoping for a glimpse of their hero's casket. Plated with hand-polished 14-karat gold, covered with red, yellow, and white roses, and lined with crushed blue velvet, it must have been more lavishly furnished than most of their homes.
Twenty-four hour security at Forest Lawn's Great Mausoleum, whose other permanent residents include Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Carol Lombard, should keep Jackson's crypt from becoming like Jim Morrison's grave in Paris's Père Lachaise cemetery: a pilgrimage destination, perpetually festooned with flowers, love notes, and assorted drug paraphernalia from teenage girls who weren't even born when the Lizard King died, and garnering far more attention than the final resting places in Père Lachaise's huge necropolis—Paris's largest—of Oscar Wilde, Molière, Balzac, and Proust, all of them having a far greater literary impact than Morrison, even if they couldn't match his sales figures. The quality of Morrison's poetry, some of it published posthumously, is debatable, but his lyrics for The Doors' song "Roadhouse Blues" sound like a prophecy of his impending residence in Père Lachaise: "Well, I woke up this morning, got myself a beer. The future's uncertain and the end is always near." There's nothing like this in all of Michael Jackson's lyrics. The poetry was in motion, in his dancing.
Despite the advertising tag line for the concert rehearsal movie This Is It, "Discover the man you never knew," I experienced no epiphanies while watching it. Performers don't usually reveal themselves while on stage. That would require a look into Jackson's private life, which we already know more about than we probably want to, thanks to years of celebrity gossip columns and TV shows.
In the film, he usually appears in full or three-quarter shots rather than close-ups and wears sunglasses most of the time, with the footage often edited into split screen views showing costume changes. It's all seemingly designed to obscure his visage. But would we really want to see that grotesque mask?
A friend of mine was once married to an assistant director who worked on the long-running (1968-80) TV series Hawaii Five-O. He claimed that the show's star, Jack Lord, had so many face lifts that the surgeons could no longer locate any unstretched skin on which to perform the additional operations that Lord, living up to his name, demanded in his quest for eternal youth. Michael Jackson must also have exceeded his lifetime quota of cosmetic surgery, whether or not it was effective in banishing his personal demons. If only he had limited himself to Botox injections rather than daily prescription drug cocktails, he might still be alive.
Throughout most of This Is It, Jackson exhibits professionalism, maturity, and generosity in his interactions with his director, backup singers, dancers, and musicians ("It's your time to shine," he tells his guitarist Orianthi Panagaris, encouraging her to take a solo). But then he reverts to the naive and inarticulate Peter Pan man-child character familiar to viewers from press conferences and interviews, making vacuous comments on the environment during an Earth Song music video of a young girl wandering through an enchanted forest: "I love it. I really respect those kinds of things... We've got four years to get it right, or else it's irreversible damage that's done to the planet." Al Gore wouldn't be envious.
Of course, it's not unheard of for celebrities to spout inanities while being venerated as role models and spokespersons. In his essay "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," David Foster Wallace tried to come to terms with why the sports memoirs of Tracy Austin and other professional athletes are so banal, superficial, and predictable. Wallace was thwarted in his novelistic desire to get inside the athletes' heads and find out what makes them great. He concluded that their lack of perspective and self-consciousness might be precisely what allows them to become stars: "It may well be that we spectators who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate and animate the experience of the gift we are denied."
Had Wallace lived to read Andre Agassi's autobiography Open, he would have found it a welcome exception. The book lives up to its name; it could be subtitled "Agassi on the Couch." But then, Agassi has always been an uncommon athlete, analytical rather than instinctive. He won by playing strategically and exploiting his opponents' weaknesses—in contrast to his archrival Pete Sampras, who was able to coast on his natural talent and whose cliché-infested autobiography, A Champion's Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis, would have left Wallace in despair. There's no telling what Wallace would have thought of Michael Jackson's 1988 autobiography Moonwalk.
In This Is It, Michael Jackson, with anonymous singers and dancers standing in for his four brothers, Jackie, Jermaine, Marlon, and Tito, performs several Jackson 5 hits. But in the A&E cable TV reality series The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty, the surviving Jackson brothers discover that they're The Jackson 4, with Michael upstaging them from the grave, as they first announce and then abandon—amid personality conflicts, disagreements, and recriminations—plans to record a 40th anniversary album and launch an accompanying concert tour. The series ends inconclusively, with viewers left to wonder what's next for the Jackson brothers. Is this it?
Things have turned out far better for the Michael Jackson estate. They've made the largest recording deal in history: a multi-million dollar distribution contract with Sony Music Entertainment for a variety of projects, including previously unreleased music recordings, DVDs, video games, a reality show modeled after "Dancing with the Stars" and Jackson memorabilia. This is another example of corporate synergy, with the memorabilia promoting the DVDs, CDs, games and reality shows, which in turn beget the sale of more memorabilia, and so on, in an endless upward spiral of revenue.
Similar agreements have been made over the years with the estates of Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, and Frank Sinatra (the Jim Morrison estate is a notable exception, requiring the unanimous consent of the three surviving Doors members for any business deal). The re-releases of old albums by these and other "legacy acts," as the recording industry describes them—borrowing terminology from the computer industry, which calls old and outdated programs "legacy software"—continue to sell by the millions, casting doubt on the marketing strategy of a prominent Los Angeles rock radio station whose advertising billboard promises "Less Music by Dead Guys."
Beatles albums are also still in great demand, despite the group's having broken up over four decades ago and being a fifty percent legacy act. In fact, the Jackson estate's most lucrative asset is its share of the publishing rights to music by The Beatles and Elvis Presley, among other recording artists.
I haven't listened to those recent re-releases of old Beatles albums—I actually heard quite enough of the Beatles' music the first time around—but I imagine that the digitally remastered sound is so clear that you can hear in the background Paul McCartney and George Harrison asking George Martin to throw Yoko Ono out of the studio and Michael Jackson negotiating to buy the Beatles' song publishing rights—and then using them as collateral for massive purchases of Xanax, Zoloft, and Propofol.
Jackson's music hasn't fallen out of favor, either. In fact, since his passing, over 30 million of his albums have been sold, about two-thirds of them outside the United States. Those Greek fans I encountered in the 80s must have bought a lot of them. The Jackson estate may end up making more money now than if Michael had survived and gone ahead with his This Is It comeback tour. In show business, death can be a smart career move, but we'll never know whether Jackson shared Woody Allen's sentiments: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my art. I want to achieve it by not dying."
In the early 1980s, before my maiden voyage to Greece, I lived with a woman who had been a high school classmate of Farrar Fawcett's in Corpus Christi, Texas. It was Farrah's misfortune to die on the same day as Michael Jackson and have her memorial service overshadowed. The final indignity was omitting her from the 2010 Academy Awards broadcast's annual film montage of celebrities who died during the previous year. Her best known acting credits are the TV series Charlie's Angels and the TV movie The Burning Bed, but her real claim to fame is the pinup poster that adorned the walls of male college students' dormitory rooms in the 70s. She popularized a hairdo—a long-layered feathered shag with backward-facing curls—that would look quaint today amid all the multicolored Mohawks, lurid tattoos and nasal, labial, aural, and genital piercings. The King of Pop and the Queen of the Curling Iron are now joined in eternity.
I have a morbid habit of keeping lists of such death coincidences. My computerized catalogue of celebrity necrophilia includes Sergei Prokofiev, composer of Peter and the Wolf, who died on the same day as Joseph Stalin. With Prokofiev's funeral delayed for days while the Kremlin paid tribute to its fallen leader, his body had to be kept on ice even longer than Michael Jackson's. There were no fireworks for Prokofiev until the summer of 2009 at the Hollywood Bowl.
Aldous Huxley, the title of whose book The Doors of Perception provided the name for Jim Morrison's group, died on the day that JFK was assassinated, as did C.S. Lewis, who went through another kind of door—in a wardrobe—into the magic land of Narnia. I was bedridden with mononucleosis during the JFK assassination. With nothing but network television available in those pre-cable days, I saw the film of the event, shot by Abraham Zapruder, more than anyone else on Earth—including Oliver Stone, writer and director of the film JFK.
The media loves around-the-clock "saturation coverage" of celebrity deaths, so although politics, wars, crime, and natural disasters will continue to dominate news reports, we can anticipate Michael Jackson stories occasionally surfacing. This phenomenon is not new, as Gail Collins pointed out in one of her New York Times columns: "The practice of churning out stories about a deceased celebrity for as long as possible is an old tradition. It used to be known as the 'John Garfield Still Dead' syndrome, after the extensive postfuneral coverage of a movie star who had a fatal heart attack in 1952 in the bed of a woman other than his wife."
Garfield died in similar circumstances to Nelson Rockefeller, who was Governor of New York throughout my childhood. He seemed in fact to be Governor-for-Life, the way that Franklin D. Roosevelt must have appeared as President-for-Life to my parents' generation. I remember a notorious radio newscast blooper that began, "Governor Rockefucker said today..." This carnal epithet turned out to be appropriate when he had a terminal heart attack in 1979 at the age of 70 in his Manhattan townhouse while in the company of a 25 year-old female aide.
There was much media speculation about a possible intimate relationship between the two, but neither the aide nor her family has ever commented on Rockefeller's death. Nor has his widow, Happy—nicknamed for her sunny disposition rather than her reaction to the circumstances of her husband's demise—ever addressed the issue, and the details of the incident remain a mystery to all but that fly on the wall. I can only imagine the hysteria that would greet this event if it took place amid today's 24/7 cable news, Facebook, MySpace and YouTube blogging, texting and Tweeting multi-media circus—not to mention the ammunition it would supply to late-night comedians. The ancient Greeks would have had to settle for the satirical plays of Aristophanes.
Undeniably, Michael Jackson was an exciting and dynamic entertainer. But for all his talents, he turned out to be just another aging Baby Boomer, discovering too late what the rest of us already knew: you can't get away with taking the same drugs at 50 that you did at twenty-five. According to the Los Angeles County coroner, Jackson succumbed to a lethal combination of sedatives, anesthetics, and anti-depressants. He apparently combined the worst habits of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Glenn Gould, Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole Smith, Karen Carpenter, and the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder—a drugged-out workaholic who went for weeks at a time without sleep and told his concerned friends, "Schlaf kann ich, wenn ich tod bin" (I can sleep when I'm dead), a philosophy that he soon had the chance to put into practice, at the age of thirty-seven.
And then of course there was Elvis, known not as the King of Pop, but simply The King. Appropriately, he died while seated on "the throne" and was found on the bathroom floor. The official cause of his fatal heart attack was described as "straining at stools." That's not surprising, since all narcotics, prescription or otherwise—and Elvis's many addictions ran the gamut—have the side effect of immobilizing the bowels, as I discovered once when I took Vicodin for a toothache and wound up needing several weeks' worth of laxatives.
I remember watching Elvis's television debut on the Ed Sullivan show. In those days, he was known as "Elvis the Pelvis" and his hip-shaking was considered too risqué for prime-time, so TV audiences saw him only from the waist up. His choreography would look tame today compared with Michael Jackson's pelvic thrusting and crotch grabbing. It's the difference between a society where, as Philip Roth once described Eastern Europe under Soviet domination, "nothing is permitted and everything matters," and contemporary America, where "everything is permitted and nothing matters."
Elvis sightings continue to be reported over 30 years after his death, which conspiracy theorists maintain was faked in order for him to make a surreptitious exit from a performing career that he had tired of. There have been no Jackson sightings yet, although rumors persist that he was unhappy with the length of his planned comeback tour—50 concerts at the age of 50, a fortuitous numerical symmetry, but perhaps too great an effort for the middle-aged moonwalker—in which case This Is It should have been entitled I'm Outta Here. It's only a matter of time before Elvis impersonators give way to Michael Jackson mimics. Maybe the current generation of Greek teenagers will be more proficient at that than their parents were in the 80s.
Despite my flair for the Greek language, I've never become fluent in it. I had little incentive to do so. Even before traveling to Greece, I had read several Nikos Kazantsakis books in English translation, including Life and Adventures of Alexis Zorba, the novel that inspired the movie, and found Greece's best known novelist to be overrated, so I didn't feel compelled to re-read them in Greek. I preferred the movie version of Zorba, thanks to the exuberant charm and charisma of Anthony Quinn and the freely adapted screenplay by the director, Michael Cacoyannis. In fact, one of the best lines in the film, Zorba's credo—"A man needs a little madness, or else he never dares cut the rope and be free"—comes not from the novel but from a nonfiction Kazantsakis book, The Saviors of God.
There was, however, a Greek literary figure whose work I had admired very much in translation: Constantine Cavafy. Poetry is always preferable in its original language, but Cavafy's poems are allusive and written in a blend of demotic Greek, the vernacular of the people, and Katharevousa, the officially sanctioned dialect. I didn't want to make reading Cavafy a lifetime project, as James Joyce had desired his readers to do with his work.
Meanwhile, much literature remains for me to read in English, including such classics as Moby Dick, Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Grapes of Wrath, The Pickwick Papers and The Lord of the Rings, just to name a few. On the other hand, I've worked my way through nearly all of Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes, along with much of Italo Calvino's output and several major novels by Gunter Grass, all of these in the original. Foreign language fluency is like a muscle, requiring regular use to avoid atrophy.
With increasing age, I've become far more selective about what I read, and I feel a perverse pleasure whenever I discover that I don't like the work of some prolific writer—Kingsley Amis, for example (I prefer his son Martin). So many books, so little time.
I haven't returned to Greece in quite a few years, and a great deal has changed. The Greek drachma coins and bills, with their images of statesmen and politicians whose names I once took such delight in reading, have been replaced by the Euro, with its neutral imagery, intended to foster European unity rather than nationalism. The Greek version of the Euro depicts no political or cultural figures, but only mythological ones: Europa being abducted by Zeus disguised as a bull, on the two-Euro coin. The bull has turned out to be an apt symbol for the advice dispensed to Greek authorities in 2002 by Goldman Sachs, which, for a hefty fee, counseled the Greeks on how to conceal their indebtedness—and thereby meet the stringent debt requirements for admission into the European Union—using complex financial instruments called cross-currency swaps (I have an MBA and understand how this worked, but all you need to know is the phrase "cooking the books"). When the true extent of the Greek government's red ink came to light in early 2010, the EU and the International Monetary Fund took steps to bail it out, while administering a harsh dose of fiscal discipline, with dire consequences for the Greek populace, including job layoffs, public service cutbacks and tax increases. There's even the possibility that the Euro will fall as a result. Perhaps, as Greece tries to resuscitate its economy, it could also resurrect the drachma, this time sporting some appropriately symbolic iconography of Michael Jackson rising from the dead to achieve a posthumous comeback. Mythology comes in many guises.