Last night while sitting on the can I pulled out my smartphone and checked the Web, only to learn that singer Whitney Houston was dead, finally, at 48 years of age. Remember when Elvis Presley died on the can? Reading about Houston’s death on my smartphone from such a perch will go down as nowhere near as legendary a moment in rock obituaries.
This is not to say that Elvis’ death on his porcelain throne was anywhere near as romantic and crushing as the three deaths we celebrate on the recently passed rock-oliday The Day the Music Died. This is not to say Elvis’ death by pills and fried peanut butter and bananas sandwiches was anywhere near as dramatic and graphic as any of those suffered by members of the “27 Club.” But Elvis kept working until the end: pushing forward in his ever-expanding jumpsuits, broadcasting live televised specials, picking up young babes who would never live up to Priscilla. Elvis’ public life, as crazy as it got, was always in some kind of perspective.
Imagine Fat Elvis in today’s culture of contrition, shedding a tear every half dozen years for Barbara Walters or Oprah, stepping on a scale each week for his appearance on Celebrity America’s Biggest Loser, celebrating his success on that show with a brave-if-abbreviated stint on Dancing With the Stars… One year Elvis knocks ’em dead at the Super Bowl, the next he’s caught on someone’s camera phone calling a baggage handler at the San Diego airport a “bitch.” Rehab. People magazine. A comeback album produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Another incident at an airport. Elvis cancels his 2008 tour owing to “exhaustion and dehydration.” Funny how frequently drugs can cause dehydration among celebrities.
As I contemplate the death of a pop phenomenon who never meant a thing to me and who flamed out so long ago that her peak years now seem better compared with all those who followed in her wake I’m reminded of another recently deceased icon from that era, Michael Jackson. Like Houston, Jackson’s denouement dragged on forever in a They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? fashion. Excesses and eccentricities that I would bet were sincere, heartfelt, and deeply satisfying for the artists, at least at their start, were explained by armchair analysts as resulting from the “pressures of fame” and “bad influences.” Elvis’ decline was also written off to these influences, as if a man couldn’t simply enjoy barbiturates and fried, fatty foods. All the while the King in Decline and his 1980s-era mainstream offspring in decline churned out pure pap that would never recapture whatever magic enabled their music to turn on millions of people worldwide just a decade earlier.
What did these 1980s stars aspire to in the first place? Remember when people criticized Houston for not being “black enough?” How racist was that charge, coming from anyone of any race? She was the cousin of Dionne Warwick, one of the most proper, urbane pop singers of the 1960s, and the daughter of a woman who made her bones in the respectful world of gospel music. Why did anyone expect her to be more “soulful?” For that matter, how could anyone with a fine voice in the ’80s, which she did possess, be soulful with the karaoke-style backing Yahama DX-7 tracks that pervaded pop music at that time and ever since?
For years the woman was an admitted drug addict. To her credit I don’t remember her pulling any punches. She liked getting high. Public evidence suggests she liked getting real high, the way Janis, Jimi, and Jimbo liked getting real high. In the coming days some “expert” will attest to the pressures of fame and the expectations of the black community, and how those forces jointly led to her drug use. I don’t buy it. I bet she reveled in the bacchanalian thrills of getting high as much as most addicts. It’s too bad as an artist or a person, however, her drug use never helped her “break on through” to a meaningful side. Her rare “comeback” albums were more of the same producer-driven, Clive Davis–envisioned multi-platinum grabs for the brass ring. She never seemed to “find god” or any of the enlightening things drug users sometimes luck into finding on their journey. Doesn’t even look like she found any high-profile celebrity drug rehab centers. If you find yourself tsk, tsk-ing over the “bad influence” of a Bobby Brown, please have a moment of silence for all the mind-altering drugs that were wasted on this woman’s life.