Art and Music      
Christopher Ward London


He's out of our lives
DAVID SHEPPARD: I was a tiny baby when JFK was shot so I have no recollection of my whereabouts (a pram in a South London suburban, I think) on that fateful November morning in 1963. I do, however, vividly recall news of Elvis Presley’s August 1977 passing being delivered to me on the Thames Embankment by an incredulous, gape-mouthed girl brandishing a minuscule transistor radio. I was stopped, well, ‘dead’ in my tracks. It was a hot, sunny day and I was eating a Wall’s orange lolly. Ice cold orange always holds the Proustian tang of dead Elvis for me, along with a frisson of my own mortality and the ineffable sensation that a piece of life’s jigsaw has been forever removed. I tend to go for a choc-ice these days.

I wouldn’t have described myself as an Elvis fan per se, but his music and image were ubiquitous in the ‘70s. Every summer holiday in my teens was hallmarked by a season of Presley’s artistically execrable yet curiously watchable ‘60s movies. Pan’s People still did the odd terpsichorean turn to his infrequent hits on Top of the Pops. Elvis was part of the furniture of the world. The fact that his relevance as an artist had waned, perhaps terminally, in an era rabid with punk and disco only added a layer of grand bathos to his untimely death at the age of 42. Certainly his passing was a demonstrable ‘event’ the magnitude of which I hadn’t previously witnessed - one that seemed simultaneously personal and global. I was fourteen in 1977 and no member of my immediate family had yet passed away. After the Elvis news I imagined for the first time what that melancholy eventuality might actually feel like.

A similarly momentous and epochal quality surrounded John Lennon’s assassination in 1980 and that same emotion descended once more on Thursday night when news of Michael Jackson’s passing began to circulate. I was in the garden of a London pub pungent with the aroma of night jasmine - presumably now forever preserved for me as the chokingly sweet smell of iconic demise.

Like many others, in recent years I’d grown completely weary of the Michael Jackson phenomenon. For all the ingenuous charm of his precocious pop boyhood (as a nine year-old I had a Michael Jackson poster on my bedroom wall and used to shed tears along to my 7 inch Motown single ‘Ben’ - his mawkish eulogy to a dead rat, I kid you not…), the infectious joie de vivre of the Jackson 5 and the imperious groove of his Quincy Jones-produced ‘80s pomp, Jackson hadn’t made a decent record in more than a decade - arguably a lot longer. Instead he’d become the latter-day circus exhibit, narcissistically mutilated and wildly delusional in his pursuit of Peter Pan ‘immortality’. What a grand folly that now seems.

‘The King of Pop’ his hardcore, quasi-religious acolytes persisted in calling him, but that crown was fatefully tarnished by baby dangling episodes, damning intimations of paedophilia and the eviscerating spectacle of the 2005 child sex abuse trial. Despite the unlikely promise (or was it always just another grand folly?) of a two-month, sold out season at Greenwich’s 02 Arena this summer, at fifty Michael Jackson had become a byword not for musical greatness but for freakishness, predation and lurid tabloid headlines. Indeed, much of the barrage of media coverage that has inevitably followed his death (I’ve already noted two laughably hypercritical newspaper articles questioning the saturation level of the press reportage) has reiterated the voyeurism and sensationalism that accompanied so much of his adult life.

Even more so than Elvis (another middle-aged man addicted to prescription pharmaceuticals and whose daughter was the first Mrs Michael Jackson, let’s not forget), Jackson had become a cartoon - a chronic self parody. However shocking his death, and however much it marks another station in life for all of us who outlive him, the feeling lingers that he was always doomed to fall; a dark destiny seemed to haunt to his every move.

One of Jackson’s most peerless disco songs was called Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough. If only he had.

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