June 26, 2009
The Hollywood freeway was bumper to bumper yesterday, putting the kibosh on our visiting the Queen Mary for an orgy of Deco on the (once) high seas. An alternative plan struck me as tour guide for my L.A. newbie companion: the equally Deco edifice of the Observatory in Griffith Park, like an impossibly sleek, inviting remnant of some ’30s ancient world epic such as ROMAN SCANDALS or the DeMille 1934 CLEOPATRA, as well as the futuristicly moderne THINGS TO COME.
Griffith Park Observatory
A slight haze slightly obscured a perfect aerial view of the city, yet I marveled once more over how Los Angeles has somehow gotten its clean air act together from the ’70s, when the smog was so densely filthy and interfering that you couldn’t keep your contact lenses in your eyes. We were sitting in the cafe area, basking in the blazing 3 o’clock sun and enjoying the delightful breezes which have made for perfect cool summer weather this week. A group of four early-twenty-somethings sat down at the table next to us and I heard one of them say, “Wow, I guess Michael Jackson thought he would live forever…” There were subsequent murmurings “sad,” “what a surprise,” etc….which led me to lean over and ask, “Pardon me, but did you say that Michael Jackson died?” I was answered in the affirmative and then immediately became aware of how everyone sitting on that sunny cafe lookout was chatting or scribbling on phones about it. The heavy traffic on the freeway – more intense than usual for the pre-rush afternoon – I learned was caused by crazed throngs headed towards Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, UCLA Medical Center where the body was taken, or Hollywood Boulevard to publicly mourn in that singular, celeb-obsessed El Lay way.
Being on vacation is a funny thing – one is so busy creating one’s own divine memories that you’re thrown out of your normal routine of daily newspapers and TV and become out of touch, oblivious to real breaking news. This news, however, managed to infiltrate one’s consciousness with no real need of any media. Earlier, we had been happily oblivious all morning, as we tried to explore the footprints in the courtyard of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, which turned out to be closed off for that evening’s premiere of, of all things, BRUNO (and what kind of camp damper for that event was the double-death news of Jackson and Farrah?) (UPDATE, ADDED JUNE 28, 2:30 AM: MORE THAN A DAMPER, actual lines from an interview with Latoya Jackson were excised from the print shown at the premiere – the studio scrambled to make these edits in the hours between the Jackson news announcement and red carpet arrivals).
The first sign of the event for many unknowing Angelenos was the swarms of news helicopters hovering over Westwood, specifically UCLA Medical Center, ghoulishly trying to grab a shot of the corpse being removed from the ambulance, like some eerie equivalent of those crows in Wagner’s GOTTERDAMMERUNG, flying up after the death of another legend, Siegfried.
Driving pass the Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard, part-owned by Johnny Depp, where River Phoenix died of an overdose one Halloween night, I noticed their sign, which read “Michael Jackson: R.I.P.” (UPDATE, ADDED JUNE 28, 2:35AM: AND NOW the L.A. radio stations have gone totally berserk, with a particularly noxious one endlessly repeating their initial announcement, “Michael Jackson is dead,” ad nauseum, between endless playings of his songs.)
Dinner conversation with friends that evening was dominated by the subject, as every other dinner in the world must have been.
I saw Jackson live once, in 1973, when he and his brothers came to Hawaii. My friends and I loved his music, although he was not considered high school hip enough, like Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” and the oeuvre of Elton John (before it all turned to mush), Leon Russell or Santana. My dementedly silly, insecure friends and I, equally guilty, threw sweaters over our heads at the Honolulu International Center arena where The Jackson 5 performed that night, so as not to be seen by anyone we knew at our (and subsequently Barak Obama’s) alma mater, Punahou School.
Michael appeared and did his amazingly adept 12-year-old stuff, with his no doubt slightly resentful but nevertheless grateful brethren backing him up manfully. He sang all of his (even then) considerable catalogue of hits: “ABC,” “I Want You Back,” “Ben,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and the treasurable “Got to Be There”. But, even as far back as 1973, with my imperious adolescent bullshit detector in overdrive, I was struck by the essential Vegas-y synthetic quality of performance, further marred by a cheap God-awful sound system. Jackson and his brothers were full of “I love you’s!” and “We love you, Honolulu!”, which had all the heartfelt sincerity of similarly rote declarations from his idol, Diana Ross, Queen of the Manufactured Emotion. (Remember how, during her performances of “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” she’d go into the audience for personal interaction, accompanied by a bodyguard, exhorting the crowd to “not get too close!”?) Throughout, Michael’s talent was not to be questioned, but the too-slick, perfunctory, wholly unspontaneous presentation of it certainly was.
I was reminded of this when news coverage of his death featured his final interview, announcing what was to be, “irrefutably,” his farewell tour. There were all the requisite “I love you’s” once more, delivered to faithful fans who’ve stuck by him through fame, failure, and facial work, but it all sadly felt like one last greedy shill. And wasn’t that the fascination of the conundrum he represented: a quivering hypersensitivity, which made you want to protect him, aligned with a Motown-induced, ubiquitous consciousness of the bottom line.
Bettie Page, with Paula Klaw, of Movie Star News
I do remember the time he came into the film photo shop I worked at in the ’70s, MOVIE STAR NEWS, owned by the legendary Paula Klaw, who once tied up and took pictures of Bettie Page (and was played onscreen by Lili Taylor in THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE). He wore his then trademark Civil War cap and was accompanied by a humongous bodyguard, as he leafed through files of photos of child stars like Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Freddie Bartholomew, Mickey Rooney, et al. He had just come out with OFF THE WALL, which had upped his solo fierce factor no end with its driving dance rhythms, but he was, surprisingly then, to me, anything but a swaggering pop star. He was soft-spoken to the point of inaudibility but sweet, sweet, sweet, and I found this particular interest of his to be particularly endearing, like a searching for clues regarding his own singular existence. Even then, he also seemed terribly isolated, his only friend being that employee he was with. (Nothing like, say the pre-adolescent Tatum O’Neal, every inch the star and Oscar winner, whom I saw a few years earlier, shopping at Fred Segal, seriously appraising her designer-jeaned image in a threeway mirror, accompanied by nannies and a then very tiny toddler, Chastity Bono.)
Lili Taylor as La Klaw in THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE
“Man in the Mirror” has already become Jackson’s official requiem, and it has been nice to hear this stirringly beautiful song again…so far, that is…before it starts to pall by its 2,000th replay. There will, of course, be monotonous playings of “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” and “Thriller,” but I hope two other, lesser-known but wonderful songs of his will be remembered, as well. “Heartbreak Hotel” prefigured the mega-selling “Thriller” album in its intriguing mix of dark desperation, and is my personal favorite of all his dance jams. (How DJ Larry Levan used to work that one at the legendary Paradise Garage, the only Jackson song I ever heard there.)
And then there was the matured elegaic loveliness of “Remember the Time,” the very hearing of which should force a tear from anyone’s eye.
The all-star video of “Remember the Time”
UPDATE, added June 27, 5:10 PM: BUSINESS AS USUAL – just seen: a Venice Beach street performer dancing to “Billie Jean,” wearing the world’s ugliest imaginable Michael Jackson rubber mask, before a wildly applauding crowd.
UPDATE, added two hours later: AND IF THAT WASN’T BAD ENOUGH, at Trunks Bar on Santa Monica, THE most hapless ancient white queen – who evidently does celeb impersonations for some kind of a living – showed up in full, yet terrible, approximating Jackson drag (his famous glove was white and beaded, not silver and mylar) and proceeded to dance – not like Jackson, but the way old hippies used to writhe in front of Jefferson Airplane concerts – to whatever random music emanated from the jukebox. Only in L.A. could one get away with such clueless vulgarity; in NY he woulda been mincemeat in five seconds had he dared.
As for the passing of that other ’70s icon, Farrah, all I can say is thank God we will be spared the nauseating sight of a “deeply caring,” weepy Ryan O’Neal cravenly using that poor woman to rehabilitate a career trashed by years of publicized drug and uncontrolled physical abuse. (“Her hair was real, and now it’s gone…”) A petite black female movie publicist once told me about the rage he once flew into when his limo was not immediately waiting for him outside a New York hotel: “The veins were popping out of his neck, steam was coming out of his ears and he looked at me with such hatred. All I could think was ‘Oh, PLEASE just try to hit me, once! I’ll sue your ass and be able to retire for the rest of my life!'”
PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY