Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Neverland, Nevermore: Michael Jackson and human nature

When TMZ announced the demise of Michael Jackson on June 25, my immediate sense of disbelief and denial felt familiar. The unexpected, premature deaths of River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain and Heath Ledger prompted similar reactions.

But then it became clear what would be different this time: how quickly people would start making light of the tragedy. “He’s with Bubbles now in the great Neverland Ranch in the sky,” a friend commented on Facebook at 2:51 p.m.—less than an hour after Michael was pronounced dead.

Others were already busy playing the ridiculous “celebrities die in threes” game. “First Farrah Fawcett, now MJ, who’s next? Don Rickles?” one person speculated. (For the record: As any astute gossip hound knows, the third celeb in this particular “deathfecta” was Ed McMahon. Duh.)

It’s easy to understand why folks felt comfortable cracking jokes about Michael; after all, he set up so many punch lines with song titles like “Pretty Young Thing,” “Black or White” and “In the Closet.” The oxygen chamber, the pet python, the Elephant Man—they all appeared to be harmless quirks until more disturbing questions began to emerge.

The plastic surgery, the bleached skin, the towhead children—was he ashamed to be black?

The prepubescent voice, the absence of body hair, the asexuality—was he ashamed to be gay? It certainly didn’t help that two of his biggest hits were woman-hating diatribes about an opportunistic babymama (“Billie Jean”) and an opportunistic groupie (“Dirty Diana”).

And then there were the beard brides and the questionable prescriptions. Was it merely a coincidence that two of his best buds—Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli—are renowned pill-poppers who don’t seem particularly concerned about the sanctity of marriage?

His political views were also a mystery. Michael performed at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural gala, but he also was fond of the Republicans. “He consorts with Ronnie and Nancy, the Reagans, ostensibly to launch a campaign against drunken driving but, by association, giving tacit support to the U.S. president’s re-election campaign,” British journalist Geoff Brown wrote in 1984. “His punishment was to be hounded by White House staff, avid Jackson fans all, until even there he had to seek sanctuary by locking himself in a White House loo. This is, indeed, a superstar who has no escape from his fame.”

Michael eventually found relief from all this adoration when child molestation charges resulted in a rapidly shrinking fanbase. The media frenzy peaked in 1995 with the release of HIStory: Past, Present and Future Book 1, which coincided with an ABC special where Michael was interviewed alongside newlywed wife Lisa Marie Presley. I remember grabbing a copy of the double disc while at Tower Records, where a TV reporter was standing by to ask fans why they remained loyal to Michael despite the controversy. “He’s quite a showman,” I stammered before the camera, “but I don’t pay attention to his personal life.”

This was a total lie; in fact, I still have the Diane Sawyer interview preserved on videotape. But like so many others, I didn’t want to be associated with the freak Michael had become.

What I was unable to see at the time was that Michael was a freak of my creation. And yours. And anyone else who scrutinized his life for the past 40-plus years. We are Frankenstein, and Michael is our monster.

In short, this is what happens when one person is thrust before cameras for 40-plus years. Consider how Princess Diana’s life was destroyed from 15 years in the spotlight. Or how it made Britney Spears go nuts after only 10 years. Or how it ruined Jon and Kate Gosselin’s marriage in only 5 years.

It’s curious when people mock Michael for being eccentric. How could anyone be expected to develop a sense of what’s “normal” after experiencing nothing but abnormal talent, abnormal success and abnormal public curiosity? As the Rev. Al Sharpton told Michael’s children at today’s memorial: “There wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with!”

So it’s all the more impressive that, despite being radically different from the rest of us, Michael always aimed to please the mainstream. (This is a guy who was so concerned about offending anyone, he needlessly placed a disclaimer before the “Thriller” video to clarify that he does not endorse zombies.) And somehow he managed to entertain a cynical world by composing earnest, uplifting songs with universal themes like self-improvement (“Man in the Mirror”) and nonconformity (“Off the Wall”).

My personal favorite is “Can You Feel It,” an overlooked gem by The Jacksons that didn’t even crack the Top 40. The 1980 video features Michael and his brothers superimposed along a skyline, sprinkling fairy dust over a city while singing the praises of racial harmony. It’s the way I want to remember Michael: Before he mangled his face. Before he went from famous to infamous. Before his sound became dated. Before we became jaded.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Flesh and Blood

It should come as no surprise that when the economy is shitty and national malaise runs rampant, people gravitate toward entertainment that will help them forget their troubles.

“The success of comedies in troubled times was demonstrated during the Great Depression of the 1930s,” Reuters reports, “when families flocked to madcap movies by Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.”

So you’ve got to hand it to Miracle Theatre for staging the heavy drama El Grito del Bronx at a time like this. My companion, who just got downsized the same week that she was moving into her new house, excused herself at intermission because the subject matter was such a downer.

But that’s not to say it’s an unworthy production. Bronx-bred playwright Migdalia Cruz brings a street-smart realism to a story that takes place on a young Puerto Rican woman’s wedding day with flashbacks to the rocky road that brought her there: Lulu (Cristi Miles) remembers the abusive relationship between her mother María (Marjorie Tatum) and father José (Stephen Lisk) that led her brother Papo (Matthew Dieckman) to commit patricide, go on a killing spree and land on death row. All of this darkness is countered by the warm relationship she forms with a Jewish journalist (Spencer Conway) as he works on an article involving a black woman named Sarah (Ithica Tell) whose son was electrocuted in a freak accident. But even as Lulu’s life moves in a positive direction, memories of her imprisoned brother hang like a shadow—quite literally, as the intense prison scenes unfold directly behind the tender love scenes, creating a vivid juxtaposition of the siblings’ divergent lives.

It’s not an easy play to watch, especially during the violent acts of Papo, and I sometimes had trouble following Cruz’s ornate, poetic structure. Still, the cast effectively brings to life these vivid, damaged characters as they struggle toward redemption. Particularly moving is a musical sequence in which three grieving mothers—María, Sarah and a woman (Lisamarie Harrison) whose son (Kurt Conroyd) was murdered by Papo—use the power of song to express their sorrow.

El Grito del Bronx runs through April 25 at 525 S.E. Stark St. For tickets click here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Moving On

It is with a combination of sadness and optimism that I announce my departure from Just Out after 8 1/2 years with the Pacific Northwest’s largest queer newsmagazine. It has truly been a pleasure to work with all of you through the years, and I hope our paths cross again as I move on to the next phase of my writing career. Please take note of my updated contact information below.

Upon my arrival at Just Out as news editor in 2000, I was a frustrated journalist who was considering a career change after working at publications that were filled with content didn’t seem to connect with their readers. Fresh out of the closet, I was timid at the thought of suddenly becoming a “professional homosexual” but soon was reaping the rewards of this unique position:

• I had a front-row seat for the downfall of the state’s anti-gay leader when Lon Mabon was arrested in 2002 for refusing to participate in a court case brought by former Just Out photographer Catherine Stauffer. My favorite memory: asking his wife, Bonnie, amid a throng of straight journalists, “How does it feel to be brought down by a lesbian?”

• Five years ago this month, I had the pleasure of witnessing the brave actions of the “Wonder Women” of Multnomah County who risked their careers by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Love was in the air for weeks, and Portland was on the map as a welcoming place for queers.

• The second half of my tenure at Just Out was in the arts and culture realm, which allowed me to interview local luminaries (Gus Van Sant, Thomas Lauderdale) as well as visiting celebs (Lily Tomlin, Melissa Etheridge) while sharing stories about chasing my personal dreams (buying a house, losing weight).

As someone who has been devoted to journalism for more than 21 years — ever since I joined the student newspaper staff in my sophomore year at North Salem High School — I hope to find another challenging position in this ever-changing field or in the local arts and culture scene. I would welcome any job leads and would be delighted just to hear your thoughts about where I should channel my energy.

For now, let’s get together to celebrate. Please join me for happy hour 5 p.m. Friday, March 20 at Boxxes, 1035 S.W. Stark St. (For the budget-minded imbiber, well drinks are 75 cents until 7.)

Peace and love,

Jimmy Radosta

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Watershed Moment: k.d. lang believes in music

“In perfect dreams life is so quite serene,” k.d. lang sings on the soundtrack to Portland director Gus Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Even though the 1993 film flopped, her accompanying album has been a warm blanket on even the coldest days of my life. So you can only imagine what a pleasure it was to tell her directly how much her music has meant to me. Our recent conversation also touched on her first self-produced CD, her live DVD recorded at an 18th century landmark church, the evolution of gender-bending and, of course, the economy.

Jimmy Radosta: What led you to decide to produce your last album, Watershed, on your own? How did this alter the recording process?

k.d. lang:
Well, it was sort of a natural unfolding. I had been writing the songs for about six years and realized that I had almost an album’s worth of songs. When I looked back, I really felt like there was something essential about the demos that I didn’t want to lose. So out of the desire to keep those and to maintain the integrity, I just decided to finish the record by myself.

The recording process was different because I didn’t actually hire musicians and rent a big studio and do it in one fell swoop. I built it really slowly and spent a lot of time editing and making sure that the songs that I had were the ones that I wanted and that I felt were really speaking to me. It took a lot more time but a lot less resources.

There is a certain gratification in knowing that I accomplished something, but the onslaught was scary. It would be all my fault if it went terribly wrong. [Laughs]

JR: What was it like recording your new DVD, Live in London with the BBC Concert Orchestra?

It was nice. The scary thing about it was it was the third time the band and I had played live together. I had been working with the same musicians for like 20 years, and this year it was all brand new people. The BBC Orchestra is so amazing; they’re really one of the best assemblies that I’ve ever worked with.

JR: You composed one of my all-time favorite film scores, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.

You rock, thank you! You are the only person that’s ever said that to me.

You know, I actually think that movie is so fucking hilarious and awesome. I think it was way before its time, and Gus Van Sant is just a genius. I love that record, too, and I think that whole combination was really just so amazingly wonderful for me. And I, of course, had to watch the film over and over and over again; I never got tired of looking at Rain [Phoenix] and Uma [Thurman], that’s for sure.

JR: You and Annie Lennox and Boy George were gender-bending pioneers, especially when you did that Vanity Fair cover with Cindy Crawford. Even though we live in more enlightened times, it seems like the most daring stuff was happening in the ’80s and ’90s. What kind of reaction did you get in those days?

It was good for me. I think Cindy got more negative reaction than I did about the Vanity cover. Gender-bending goes in cycles; there was a type of sexual energy or enthusiasm going on in the ’80s with Madonna and the aforementioned artists. Right now we’ve moved out of the physical nature and there are different things going on. It will probably roll around again to some sort of sexually oriented pop culture, but I think the AIDS crisis and just the abundance of sexual innuendoes in pop culture—it got tiring, you know? The AIDS thing kind of put a stop to the frivolity of it. It just seemed to become a little distasteful and unnecessary—at least it did for me.

JR: Can you tell me about your acceptance speech when you won a 1985 Juno Award for Most Promising Female Vocalist?

Well, I just thought, “Who is one of the most promising figures in our society?” So I wore a wedding dress and promised to “marry” the integrity of art and to make all of my products as “pure” and as “honest” as I could.

JR: Looking back on that today, did you ever imagine you’d achieve such a level of respect and popularity that you’d be recording with legends like Tony Bennett?

Um, I think I was so cocky and so sure of myself back then that, yes, I absolutely did know. I was focused on it and I had the energy, and I think I was destined to make it happen no matter what because I was so determined.

JR: Have you seen the music industry affected by the recession yet?

Oh yeah, definitely. Ticket sales have been down at least 30 percent across the board for everybody. When we were on tour last year and the gas prices were up to those amazingly high figures, it really affected us. The overhead was really, really very difficult to deal with.

But I think that music is something that does survive during these depression and recession times. People find solace in music and entertainment, so as long as we can keep the overhead down and the ticket prices down, things will be OK.

Wood Brothers open for k.d. lang 8 p.m. March 24 at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 S.W. Broadway. Tickets are $36-$60.50 from Ticketmaster.