Another Sad Tale Of Avoiding Age At All Costs

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Colin McEnroe 

During the great performer’s last year of life, a rock critic wrote of him: "His hair is dyed, his teeth are capped … his voice is a husk, and his eyes film over with glassy impersonality. He is no longer, it seems, used to the air and, because he cannot endure the scorn of strangers, will not go out if his hair isn’t right …" The critic was describing Elvis Presley, not Michael Jackson; but the similarities between one King and the other are eerie. "No longer used to the air." Hmmm.

Medical evidence may prove me wrong, but my theory is that Michael Jackson was killed, at least in part, by his own unusual approach to the whole problem of aging — which was simply not to do it.

There comes a time when King of Pop is a better description of the noise your back makes in the morning than it is of your place in the cultural firmament. Jackson was riding the caboose of the baby boom, a whole generation making the journey from Motown to Motrin.

He died at age 50. You almost have to turn 50 to know what that means. It’s when your reset button stops working. You do whatever your old trick was — lose 15 pounds, quit drinking for six months, go back to the gym, hit the hay an hour earlier, all of the above — and it doesn’t restore you to your former condition. It’s when the doctor puts up an X-ray of one of your body parts and says — instead of "Take it easy for three months and give this time to heal" — "I could replace this with something they make in Warsaw, Ind."

I’ve been noticing lately that movies — most of them made by people up at the front of the baby boom train — now frequently star people who look and move the way I do. I noticed it two years ago in "Live Free or Die Hard." By the time Bruce Willis announces, "I’m too old to jump out of cars," we already know that. Just getting in and out of car the normal way produces a creak and a sigh from his character.

But the most profound expression of that phenomenon, for me, was "The Wrestler," which was less a movie about wrestling and more about what it’s like, in general, to start feeling your age. It’s about those of us who think, who hope, who expect that we can do in our 50s what we did in our 40s, at the same pace and with the same force. And we get up the next morning feeling like somebody used a staple gun on our backs and then pushed us through a piece of plate glass onto some hard rocks.

The new Pixar movie "Up" — whose protagonist Carl is 15 years older than the most senior boomer — is full of gentle jokes about what is and is not possible for the no-longer-sprightly. Maybe it’s just me, but Carl didn’t seem like an extreme comic rendering of the aging process. He wasn’t Homer Simpson’s quivering, complaining dad. Carl was just a regular guy who happened to get old.

Fewer dispensations exist for rock and pop idols. There’s Mick Jagger/Bruce Springsteen.

And then there’s dead.

And then there’s grotesque. When Elvis couldn’t be Elvis anymore, he turned into a flabby phantom. Jackson spent 25 years trying to transform himself into some kind of ageless, raceless creature, and, by the end, he seemed only to have gotten the creature part right. (In that fourth "Die Hard" movie, Willis’ young sidekick, played by Justin Long, demands to know: "When was the last time you remember turning on the radio and listening to popular music? … I’m guessing — was, was Michael Jackson still black?") Jackson was getting himself ready for a series of overseas concerts and was apparently training with thespian Lou Ferrigno. OK, maybe not the most level-headed choice, but it probably does reflect the freakish quandary in which Jackson found himself. From early on, he was fighting a clock, and his career apex was 1982-83 when he dazzled the world with a series of moves cribbed from much younger B-boys in the street dancing scene. When he was 25, he was repackaging the footwork of guys who were 15, 16, 17. When he was 50, people still wanted to see him move, and he had persuaded the world he was never going to get old.

In "The Wrestler" we see Jackson’s attitude toward pigmentation in reverse, as Mickey Rourke’s character dumps his tired, abused body into tanning beds to keep "that look."

Everything else is curiously the same: two men mortgaging their futures — with pills and injections and anything else that will help — to buy just a little bit more of the past.

"The Wrestler" ends with Rourke’s now-somewhat-famous speech: "You know, if you live hard and play hard and you burn the candle at both ends, you pay the price for it…. Now I don’t hear as good as I used to and I forget stuff and I ain’t as pretty as I used to be. … I’m still standing here and I’m The Ram. … The only one that’s going to tell me when I’m through doing my thing is you people here."

It sounds great until you realize that those fans consistently supported the worst possible choices: be a freak, entertain us, give us everything.

From Elvis to Cobain to Jackson, we have lots of evidence that rock ‘n’ roll is no country for old men.

On the other hand, Pete Townshend, the guy who wrote "hope I die before I get old," turns 65 next year.


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