Sunday, March 4, 2012

Whitney and Elvis

I’ve put off writing about Whitney Houston’s passing because I my initial emotions upon hearing the news were somewhat complicated and not easily defined or articulated. One of my first thoughts, alongside my sadness at the loss, was of Elvis’s passing many years ago. The similarity between the two is that they were superstars in the truest sense of American celebrity, who had lost that something which made them so and had a hard time dealing with it.

Elvis died just before going out on the road for another tour. He had put on an embarrassing quantity of pounds since last seen by his adoring public and was using prescription drugs heavily with a private physician as supplier. In the weeks leading up to his tour it was obvious he wasn't ready for it. While singing, during rehearsals, he would be dazed and confused to the extent that he didn't know the words to his own songs. The King had become pathetic and he was ashamed of it, but the show had to go on. Sadly, he was a sensitive man and undoubtedly feared letting down his fans.

Whitney, like Elvis, had lived a life in the spotlight as well. But it’s a scorching light and not easy on the soul. She had beautiful looks, a tremendous set of vocal cords and charisma. Eleven number one hits and 170 million albums sold is nothing to scoff at.

But again, she put on weight and had been allowing her mind to get muddled. She was not transitioning well into her later years. And, unlike Elvis, her worst concert moments were showing up on YouTube videos watched by tens of thousands, making her a laughingstock.

These are hard things to deal with, but deal with them we must in the new era of entertainment.

It happens to athletes. Like beauty queens, athletes age. Even in a career with minimal injuries, the life span of a pro baseball or football player is limited to a dozen years or two dozen at best. Sooner or later one has to hang up his cleats. It’s a given. How they deal with it is a test of character.

I remember a Malcolm McDowell interview in which he explained that there are three stages in an actors career. The child actor will eventually become an adult and the little tricks he used to attract an audience won’t work in that older man’s body. Some child actors fail the transition. But there is another transition required which many actors fail to navigate. Michael Caine and Jack Nicholson show how it’s done, as did Sir John Gielgud before them.

I could be wrong, but I think what happened to Whitney Houston is more like what happened to Elvis than to the countless other casualties of rock ‘n roll fame, such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, and on and on.

There was one other strand in that initial bundle of thoughts and impressions when the news of Whitney Houston’s passing occurred. I was thinking of old painters like Picasso and Matisse and Monet who carried on till the end, not performing on a stage but rather, privately, productively. Old writers, too.

Dealing with change is not, however, something that only happens to “them”… to the superstars. It’s something we must all grapple with, for there are many transitions in life and ultimately we still have to carry on. As Whitney once sang, “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”

As Dylan once advised us, when you have mountains in the palm of your hand, “one thing that’s certain, you will surely be a-hurtin’ if you throw it all away"


Anonymous said...

Then again, there are late bloomers. Grace through transition will always be a virtue.

ENNYMAN said...

Very true. Thanks for the note.