The 75th birthday of Elvis Presley, the King of Rock n’ Roll, was this month, but it was left to us fans to celebrate, because Elvis died thirty five years ago at 42 years old. And Christmas, sadly enough, was the six month anniversary of the sudden death of another music idol, Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, who lived to be 50.
I became an Elvis fanatic in boyhood. I was seven years old the first time I heard rock n’ roll, riding in the backseat of the family car. All of a sudden this guy on the radio started hollering about a hound dog, and I sat bolt upright in sheer delight wondering, Wow, what is that? as my father harumphed That’ll be enough of that (or words perhaps less polite) and turned the dial to the ball game. But it was too late, his son became one of the 50 Million Elvis Fans (Who) Can’t be Wrong. That year in Billboard’s Top 100, three of the top ten records were by Elvis Presley – just like the year before. Very early, he acquired the title King of Rock n’ Roll, and looked the part, posing on an album cover in a solid gold suit. The night he died, I don’t know if that commode he fell from was solid gold, but who would be surprised?
By the time The Jacksons became a phenomenon, I’d decided rock music had reached a dead end with Led Zeppelin, and turned my attention to jazz and classical music. I didn’t see The Jacksons perform until the end of the 70s on an awards show. Their set included a solo turn by Michael who, when I last looked, had been this half-pint James Brown, and now had become this mesmerizing young man whose dancing made Mick Jagger look arthritic, and who could sing a song down to the bones in the best rythm n’ blues tradition. For a few years, that astonishment happened repeatedly. For me, it peaked with Thriller (still the best-selling album of all time) and the Billy Jean breakthrough on MTV. Unfortunately, that was also the moment I began to wonder if Michael had gotten a bit too caught up in it all, uniforming himself for the Grammy show like the Generalissimo of Pop, dedicating some of his eight awards to “dear friends,” most of them Hollywood bigshots. In his long decline, the confluence of Michael’s superb music, eccentric behavior, and ugly personal scandal increased my worry that he was mainlining power. When he met his untimely end, it turned out he was taking other stuff, too, and he remains Elvis’s only real equal in a rarified category, a solo act who made brilliant music, inspired mass hysteria, and came to a lonesome, drug-addled and exhausted end, much too young.
No disrespect meant to fallen idols, but it’s this “King” business that bothers me. Because Elvis, the white boy in the gold suit, and Michael, who really made people believe he was The King of Pop, both died of drugs – Elvis from taking too many, and Michael from trusting his doctor to manage his insomnia pharmaceutically (his death has been ruled a homicide). These weren’t sleazy, dead-junky-in-a-hotel-room deaths, like Janis and Jimi and Jim. Both kings died in their mansions, having gotten their drugs legally from the kind of doctor always happy to drop by the latest Rock n’ Roll Versailles with his black bag. Such doctors can provide the chemically-induced illusion that everything is all right, that youth and vigor and fame never end, that it isn’t true a star has no place to go but down… until the day they wind up face down on the bathroom floor. As John Lennon once said, “It’s the courtiers that kill the king.”
In their study of male archetypes, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover the psychologists Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette describe the difference between the Good King – sacred, wise, generative and selfless – and his opposite, the Shadow King, a grown-up Divine Child with “infantile pretensions to Godhood” who is “cosmically self-involved.” The Good King brings to mind a man whose birthday is also this month, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who once embodied the moral conscience of America. The Shadow King brings to mind a spoiled prince, vain and needy, like a couple recent past occupants of the White House. Of course, it’s the sacred, wise, inspirational Good King people want us to think of when they adopt the royal nickname: King of Rock, King of Pop, Vito the Ravioli King, the King of Aluminum Siding, Burger King, and so on.
Any sensible American right now is scoffing, Wait a minute, aren’t all kings murderous tyrants and looters? After all, we kicked the king out of here two hundred and thirty four years ago. Sure, there have been plenty of murderous, crazy kings. Luckily, history has reached the point where we’ve pretty much dispensed with kings, in fact if not in metaphor. We’ve replaced the king with those deities from the worlds of pop music, sports, and Hollywood to whom we have accorded regal status, that is, until the culture deposes them in scandal, knocks them from their throne, proves they’re no better than us.
The great modernist poet from Rutherford, William Carlos Williams, once wrote, The pure products of America go crazy. I loved Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, but I never found anything remotely kingly about either of them. They were two brilliantly creative, boyish men, so “cosmically self-involved” they couldn’t see they were digging their own graves.
The Hudson Reporter, January 21, 2010