Well I'm an axegrinder, piledriver
Mother says that I never never mind her
Got no brains, I'm insane
Teacher says that I'm one big pain
I'm like a laser, 6-streamin' razor
I got a mouth like an alligator
I want it louder, more power
I'm gonna rock ya till it strikes the hour
Michael Jackson died on June 24. I spent much of the weekend that followed trying to avoid the cable chatter about Jackson’s musical career, personal issues, and the circumstances of his death. Anyone who grew up in the past four decades would have had some MJ song or another as part of the soundtrack to his or her childhood. As a little kid, I can remember singing The Jackson Five’s “ABC” over and over again along with “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Old MacDonald.” And, like most people, I didn’t mind, couldn’t avoid, sort of liked, then grew weary of that long train of hits from Off the Wall and Thriller. Others have written about the huge cultural significance of MJ as a crossover artist, and I know it’s too soon for me to form any definitive opinions of my own about the music.
It just so happened during that weekend that I watched Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Better late than never. In the title role, Mickey Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a pro wrestler whose best days are two decades behind him but who still grapples it up in regional action, hulking from ring to ring in his tanning-bed tan and long blond hair. In his more sedate moments, he wears a hearing aid and reading glasses. For a social life, he courts a stripper (But she’s a mom! But she’s a stripper!) played by a wriggly, irresistible Marisa Tomei. Awesome film. Go see it right now; I’ll wait.
So you heard all that music on the soundtrack -- Quiet Riot and Ratt and Slaughter and the Scorpions. Watching The Wrestler that weekend with MJ’s death buzzing around in the back of my head, I came to realize that all that pop metal was more the soundtrack to my teenage life than Jackson’s music was. I grew up in the boondocks of Maine, after all, and most of the guys I knew were obsessed with a certain type of masculinity best embodied by “metal” and pro wrestling. I wasn’t into pro wrestling so much, but most of my friends were. I suppose I was hung up on the notion that pro wrestling was “fake,” my standards for realism and authenticity were so naïve.
This notion of what is fake and what is real lies at the root of the questions I keep asking myself about Michael Jackson, and the radically unreal world that mega-fame creates, the world he lived in from the age of five. A man with Jackson’s talent, imagination, and passion having reached a degree of fame and material means that few of us can understand, well, MJ must have gone crazy; that is, his relationship with the world fundamentally shifted, and, over the years, made him less and less like the rest of us. Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, he went up the river and never came back. He became the God of Pop. The surgeries, the money problems, the questions of sexual misconduct, the increasingly extraneous new music – all of it at the end became grotesque and simply tragic. Jackson’s death made me sad and anxious. Still sadder was the fact that he appears to have been on the verge of a comeback, and we all know how America loves a comeback.
It was strange that weekend to watch Mickey Rourke, another – albeit far lesser -- pop icon from the eighties, an actor now scarred and wrinkled and grotesque. Part of The Ram’s appearance is craft, I realize, but Rourke himself is a distorted – not just aged -- version of the man he was some 30 years ago. In high school and college I remember Rourke as a cool, handsome-but-not-pretty, intense actor who had roles I admired in films I liked a great deal: Boogie Sheftell in Diner, Harry Angel in Angel Heart, and Henry Chinaski in Barfly. And as fame touched him, Rourke he may have gone a little crazy as well. But after his early 90’s boxing career and some sketchy plastic surgery, Rourke has found his way back to relevance in his craft. There’s still a lot of wildness in Rourke, even if it is tempered now by a sense of humility and even faith in God. One wonders how much of Rouke was talking about himself when, in The Wrestler, The Ram tells his estranged daughter that he’s little more than “a broken down piece of meat.”
In both the death of Michael Jackson, the comeback of Mickey Rourke, and the story of The Ram there is the appeal of the redemptive value of suffering, particularly when the person involved in touched by the tragedy that happens to some when talent and fame intersect. And MJ’s death is a comeback of sorts. In the myth develops, the success of his 2010/2011 tour is a now foregone conclusion, it seems, and the ongoing questions about his death now make him into a victim of handlers rather than a self-destructive eccentric. The King of Pop keeps his throne in the end, reborn even as he is taken from the world.
Early in The Wrestler, in a slightly forced thematic moment, Marisa Tomei’s stripper drops a few lines from The Passion into her post lapdance chit chat with The Ram. “He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we were healed.” Later, she adds, “Sacrificial ram.”
At the memorial service for Michael Jackson, the Reverend Al Sharpton, who appears to have become a personal spokesperson for the MJ’s parents, had this to offer: "I want to say to Michael's children, there wasn't nothing strange about your daddy, it was strange what your daddy had to deal with. He dealt with it anyway. He dealt with it for us."
These allusions to self-sacrifice are strange and wonderfully telling about how deeply so many of us believe in the comeback, the fresh start, in rebirth, and how we are willing to create martyrs where there may be none. Or maybe there’s the possibility that we’re all martyrs. Be it the Phoenix, Osiris, Dionysus, Jesus, Michael Jackson, or Randy the Ram, the stories of life, death, and rebirth have a power to return to us in the strangest of forms. Me, I'm going to keep banging my head and listening for the beat.