Usually when I hear about the deaths of a celebrity I feel some sadness, especially if they were someone’s who art/craft I appreciated. Sometimes the depths of mourning people go through at the death of a celebrity puzzles me. Any death is a loss of sorts, but fans’ sorrow can be surprisingly deep. When I first heard that Farrah Fawcett died, and then later that day that Michael Jackson died as well, I was hit far harder by each than I thought I would be, and at first had no idea why.
Normally I take a rather cynical view of people being terribly “affected” by a celebrity’s death, but here I was feeling much sadder than I thought I’d be. I respected both as artists, but neither one was high on my list either as favorite actor or favorite singer. After some reflection, and reading various tributes to both of them, I began to piece together at least part of why I felt like I did. I discovered there was a connection in their two deaths for me. Each of them played a part in formative years of my life from the late 70’s through to the early 80’s leading from realizing I was gay to actually coming out and beginning to truly live my life.
The Farrah Poster, or, How I’m Not Like Most Other Boys
Several articles mentioned the iconic Farrah Fawcett poster of the 70’s, and in thinking about that I realized that was the first touchstone that brought out the strong feelings I had at hearing of her death. It’s not that I admired the poster for the same reason countless straight boys and men did, quite the contrary. Seeing how others were so “turned on” (to use a 70’s phrase) by the poster and contrasting that with how I was decidedly not turned on by it was a crucial point in putting words to how I felt different from others.
I had no attraction to her in that poster: I was far more interested in Lee Majors than I was Farrah Fawcett. If they could have had some equivalent poster of a smiling Lee in shorts and tight-fitting shirt, one leg up and the other stretched out, THEN we could talk. Seeing the difference in my reaction to this image from the reaction of others around me helped me realize I was gay. I always knew I was attracted to men at some level, but seeing the stark contrast between myself and the typical boys around me was one of the key discoveries in clarifying my homosexuality, and illuminated how much of an “outsider” I was, at least in this respect.
Hearing of her death made me feel a strong wave of painful nostalgia. It was connecting me back to that moment of realization, to what was the beginning of a very painful part of my life in which I felt profoundly alienated from the cultural mainstream. (Undoubtedly this fueled my attraction to punk and other alternative forms of “outsider” music.) This alienation would only begin to heal when I finally scraped together enough courage (and was just plain exhausted by the constant dishonesty) to openly admit who I was not just to myself, but to everyone else.
Even though Farrah’s poster was not part of the uplifting experience of finally being truly and openly myself, it was nevertheless the first steps to seeing the issue for what it was, and starting me on the path to a resolution. For that alone I will always be grateful to her for being such a catalyst. The cheesy 70’s shows and later movies of the 80’s and 90’s in which she proved herself a truly capable actress are, albeit enjoyable each in their own ways, beside the point in terms of why her death moved me so powerfully.
Billie Jean and the 1270 Club
I’ve never been a fan of Michael Jackson’s music. I have always had tremendous respect for his creativity as both a songwriter and especially as a performer, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea. However, much like how Farrah’s death surprised me with its emotional resonance, his death brought up some very powerful memories and associations as well. These memories were of a better time than those of ‘the Poster’, and are easier to relive and explore.
After having come out to friends and family I began discovering the club scene in Boston in 1982. I finally felt I had a personal life that had true meaning. I wasn’t just pretending to be sexually interested in something I wasn’t, I could actually interact with and be openly sexual with people I really felt attracted to, and who just might feel something for me. My friend Byron and I, whom I met while working at the Nickelodeon, would go out several times a week to various clubs, but our early favorites were the 1270 and Buddies (when it was on Boylston Street.)
The 1270 had several floors, with the “basement” level being a quiet(er) bar, the first floor playing more “new wave” and rock, a second floor that was more “disco/dance music” oriented, and an open roof bar that also served as a quiet place to retreat to if the noise and cigarette smoke (!) got too bothersome. I have vivid memories from the 1270 as well as Buddies, almost all of which involve music. (Other vivid memories are for another blog post… :::cough:::) I remember dancing to “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics at Buddies, and also hearing/dancing to “Billie Jean” at the 1270. I resented how frequently it was played because I was much more into the “new wave” side of music at the time, but it’s being played so often cemented its link in my mind with those times.
Hearing “Billie Jean” almost always conjures warm memories of standing in the 1270, feeling incredibly happy to be out and open, watching a dance floor packed with people having a great time, and reveling in the new feeling of being somewhere where I could be openly interested in other men, and actually have the possibility of them returning that interest.
Even if I don’t have a direct appreciation for his music, I am deeply happy that his song provides such a strong and clear connection to that time in my life. Memories are more vivid when multiple senses are involved, and undoubtedly the combination of “Billie Jean” playing, the lights, my emotional state, and the warmth of the club generated by so many dancing bodies all combined to make such a vital link.
The Arc From Farrah to Michael
So, these two are intimately tied in my mind to a painfully important journey in my life, an arc that started with a full realization of my sexual preference and what that difference meant, and then led to a profound sense of liberation and awakening at the end. From seeing Farrah’s poster and feeling so alone at the start, to being part of a happy, vibrant and joyous crowd dancing to “Billie Jean” at the other end, these two celebrities outline a vital part of my life path at that time.
It’s not always a direct connection to an artist’s work that make their contributions meaningful. Sometimes, it is how their creations serve as a focus for a specific place and time that gives them power.
To each of them I offer my profound thanks for playing the parts they did in this very difficult, and very rewarding, part of my life.
May they be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them. May no difficulties come to them. May no problems come to them. May they always meet with success. May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome the inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life, and in death.
– A slight variation on the Metta (loving-kindness) meditation by Bhante Gunaratana