Last week was a remarkable one for the passing of notable public figures, most prominently of course the shocking death of pop music icon Michael Jackson. But that same day former poster girl Farrah Fawcett lost her battle to cancer and a few days earlier Johnny Carson’s sidekick Ed McMahon died at 86. Three people I remember well from younger days, in their heyday, and one more sign that the sands of time slip through the hourglass quickly.
Call them icons of the 80’s, 70’s and 60’s if you will, in descending order. Start at the bottom with Ed McMahon, who rose to prominence as Carson’s second banana in the 1960’s, when H-e-e-e-e-r-e’s Johnny (McMahon’s signature line) replaced Jack Parr. McMahon, who later emceed Star Search and appeared in several movies, laughed at all of Carson’s jokes and played straight man during segments like Carnac the Magnificent, when a turbaned Carson “predicted” comical and sometimes bawdy answers to questions sealed in an envelope.
McMahon, who fell on financial hard times in recent years, was always ready with a guffaw or a “hi-ohhh!” for his boss and friend. They left the tonight show together in the early 90’s.
I never really got the Farrah Fawcett thing; never thought she was that much different from a thousand other Hollywood starlets of the 70’s with big hair and straight, white teeth. But plenty of others got her: Fawcett, married to Lee “the Six Million Dollar Man” Majors for a number of years, parlayed one season on Charlie’s Angels into a lifetime of notoriety. The poster of Fawcett in the red bathing suit is the best-selling poster of all time, anywhere. (My dad always dismissed her as just “hair and teeth.”)
Fawcett went on to become an OK actress and was even nominated for three Emmys. Her strung out appearance on David Letterman some years back led to a new round of jokes on late night TV, but Fawcett’s losing battle with cancer, documented for television recently with long time companion Ryan O’Neal at her side, brought her sympathy no doubt and a new legion of people pulling for her. She did not fade away quietly but fought cancer to the very end.
Then there is Michael Jackson, who once described himself as the “King of Pop.” I remember my sister buying those “Jackson 5” Motown 45 rpm records in the late 60’s and early 70’s, with pop hits like ABC, Rockin’ Robin and I Want You Back. Soon it was a solo Michael Jackson’s ode to a rat, “Ben,” from the movie of the same name. Then came Off the Wall and, of course, Thriller, in 1982.
Folks under 38 or so probably do not realize just how HUGE Thriller and Michael Jackson were – how he changed pop music, influenced fashion and helped turn MTV into a network of importance with videos for Billie Jean, Beat It and then Thriller itself, which was released a full two years after the album came out, with Hollywood director John Landis working on the project.
Almost every song on Thriller was a top ten single and the album sold more 100 million copies worldwide. I wore out my cassette copy, with Billie Jean and Thriller my favorites. When I saw Michael and his brothers at Mile High Stadium in Denver (in 1985) 80,000 fans screamed the loudest when they performed numbers from Thriller. Folks everywhere tried to Moonwalk. (Jackson played Roanoke in 1979.)
The younger folks who appreciate Jackson’s music now but see him through the prism of those bizarre last years – the ruinous plastic surgery, the surgical masks, the lightening skin color and a kid named “Blanket,” probably let all of that “noise” get in the way. Jackson, who was 50 when he suffered cardiac arrest last week, was an icon, not only in the 1980’s, his heyday, but for several decades going forward. Funny, or tragically ironic, how many of the modern musical geniuses don’t seem to live that long, for one reason or another. Witness John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, etc…
Several more pieces of my younger years faded away last week after one more go-round of making headlines. In doing so they brought back memories, mostly good, of perhaps simpler times. Thanks Michael, Farrah and Ed … rest in peace.