It was probably 1956 when my classmate Joan Seleznow invited me to listen to the new 45’s her father had been stocking in his hardware store. Now these weren’t pistols, but 7-inch pop records that were played at 45 rpm, as opposed to the 12-inch 33-rpm mostly classical records.
I remember the records to this day. She first put on Little Richard’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and followed up with Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill”. I told her that I loved the sounds. They were nothing like the insipid songs that were featured on the weekly television show “Hit Parade” like “How Much is that Doggy in the Window”.
But she saved the best for last: Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”. I didn’t know it at the time but Big Momma Thorton, who recorded the song before Elvis, was an African-American like Fats Domino and Little Richard. That being said, the song was written by a couple of Jews, Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber.
A few months later I joined the RCA record club and got Elvis Presley’s 33-rpm debut album, which had “Hound Dog” and his other greatest hits that still had the immediately recognizable influences of African-American rhythm-and-blues and white country-and-western.
26 years later. I was at a Christmas party thrown annually by ACI, the consulting company I worked for before going to Kansas City to get a factory job under the direct orders of the Socialist Workers Party. When that project failed, I came back to New York to live a life free of politics. A couple of hours after the party began a professional DJ began playing the latest hits, music that I was largely unfamiliar with since my tastes ran mostly to jazz and classical.
As I was sitting in a chair nibbling on an hors d’oeuvres and thinking about politics (I never succeeded in becoming apolitical), the strains of an irresistible pop tune came over the powerful sound system. It was Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You”. I was hooked on the spot and bought “Off the Wall”, the album that contained this song and which was considered his breakthrough record, as well as one that marked a departure from the more explicitly African-American sounds of his Motown work.
Elvis Presley was only 42 when he died in August 16, 1977, 8 years younger than Michael Jackson. But in some ways both were dead spiritually and artistically long before their physical death. It is not just a coincidence that both succumbed to heart failure, if you see the heart as a metaphor for the soul.
But for the two superstars, the heart was broken by essentially the same kinds of abuses to the body. In Elvis’s case, obesity and prescription pain killers. In Michael Jackson’s case, it is very likely that anorexia and prescription painkillers did him in. In some ways, anorexia is the obverse of obesity in the sense of reflecting an unhealthy relationship to food.
Elvis’s reliance on painkillers was well established. He kept a physician’s handbook next to his bed and thumbed through its pages looking for the latest medication that his doctor would prescribe without qualms. He took these drugs to help him to sleep and very likely to ward off the depression that accompanied his sense of failure. But in Elvis’s mind, the fact that he had a prescription differentiated him from the ordinary junky who had scrounge up his next fix on the street. So much so that after enlisting in Richard Nixon’s antidrug campaign, he showed up for a photo op stoned totally out of his mind on painkillers.
Michael Jackson had been addicted to painkillers going back at least to 1993, when he canceled a tour in order to go into rehab. Given his spaced out demeanor in interviews over the years, one must only conclude that he was whacked out on drugs much of the time—not to speak of his retreat from reality overall.
A couple of years ago I had a wisdom tooth pulled and got a prescription for Vicodin in case I had any lingering pain, which thankfully I had no use for. But later on after overdoing it with my barbells, I developed a backache that I thought the Vicodin might relieve. Boy, did it ever. An hour after taking a pill, not only did the pain go away, I felt a sense of bliss that I had never experienced with pot or cocaine. Who knows, if I were as rich and powerful as Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, I might have found some unscrupulous doctor to write me prescriptions at my pleasure.
That is the lesson of success, I suppose. The more you enjoy, the more temptations lie in your path. For the two superstars, it was not just drugs. They were able to construct Xanadus at Graceland and Neverland that shielded them from reality.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
This was just the kind of poem that only Samuel Coleridge, a fellow junky, could do justice to.
From within these Xanadus, the two Kubla Khans of pop music could satisfy every whim, from drugs to feasting—or in Jackson’s case not eating at all. They could also satisfy their sexual fantasies by exploiting their celebrity to lure nubile girls or young boys into bed
In Albert Goldman’s gripping but hostile biography of Elvis, we learn that he would send out his crew to Las Vegas or Nashville hangouts in search of virginal-looking women. The older he got, the more obsessed he became with screwing virgins. He had a neurotic aversion to sexually experienced women, particularly those who had given birth. Not long after Priscilla Presley gave birth to Lisa Marie, Elvis stopped having sex with her.
In some ways, I can believe that Michael Jackson did not have sex with the 12 year olds who shared a bed with him. So obviously in full retreat into a Peter Pan fantasy world (even to the point of calling his mansion Neverland), Jackson might have gotten sufficient pleasure just from this kind of infantile “pajama party” wish fulfillment. But even if he did have sex with underage boys, one must question society’s willingness to condemn him and not Elvis Presley. If Elvis got a 16 year old girl drunk and then had sex with her, there is nothing particularly “normal” about that either.
The picture that emerges about Presley and Jackson is one of the tendency of power to corrupt. Lord Acton’s dictum was applied mostly to states, but it applies to individuals as well. They surrounded themselves with sycophants who never had the nerve to tell the Kings that they were jeopardizing their health. Telling the truth might have cost someone a job.
But isn’t that what bourgeois society is about ultimately? Both Jackson and Presley came from working class families. Joseph Jackson was a crane operator at US Steel in Gary, Indiana while Elvis’s father was a sharecropper before becoming a truck driver. The two pop stars not only climbed their way out of their class roots, but became as wealthy as many ruling class figures at their pinnacle.
Elvis was fortunate enough to have a shrewd manager in Colonel Tom Parker who invested the singer’s income wisely even as he squandered his natural talents as a singer.
But Michael Jackson was not so fortunate. Once his career took a nosedive, he continued to spend money as if he was still on top. They report that he might have had $500 million in personal debt the day he died, which puts him in good company considering the state of the American economy.
It would appear that cultural and economic decay go hand in hand.