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Growing Up in the Day of the Legend
August 17, 1977, 6 years, 1 month, 12 days, 13 hours, and 16 minutes before I came into this world, on a quiet Memphis afternoon, Jerry Esposito entered a room on the second floor of Graceland, the room that’s directly above the entrance foyer, where he found Elvis Aaron Presley lying dead.
December 8, 1980, 2 years, 8 months, 1 day, 18 hours, and 31 minutes prior to my existence, Dr. Lynn pronounced John Winston Ono Lennon dead at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City.
Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, Ritchie Valens, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Keith Moon, Janis Joplin, all gone before their time, and mine as well.
My musical taste is well… varied. Backed against a wall and told to narrow it down to three genres and under 10 artists, you’d get this:
Rock N Roll:
- The Beatles (Liverpool, England)
- Elvis Presley (Memphis, TN by way of Tupelo, Mississippi)
- Green Day (Oakland, CA)
- The Ramones (Queens, NY)
- Michael Jackson (Encino, CA by way of Gary, Indiana)
- Janet Jackson (Encino, CA by way of Gary, Indiana)
- New Kids on the Block (Boston, Massachusetts)
Those are the ones who’ve been rattling around my brain the longest. It only gets further confusing from there. When I look at that list of seven bands/artists I see that half of the artists are dead. Two Beatles, three Ramones, and two Kings.
I grew up in the time of legends. Some might argue this, saying such a time had already come and passed, but I truly believe that my generation was the first to be able to make this claim. Sure, my mother, father, and stepfather were alive to see Elvis and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, but that’s just it. It all happened in their lifetime; they witnessed it. I grew up having to take what I could get, from reruns of TV specials, archival footage, and listening to my mother (over and over and again) recalling the first time she heard the Beatles, at some boy’s house at Folly Beach, doing the Freddy (there is so much wrong with that dance I can’t even begin to tell you).
I had to imagine what it was like, imagine the screams drowning out the music, the absolute pandemonium at the arrival of the Beatles to a city, the litany of women, once girls, that can truthfully claim that Elvis kissed them (he loved to “give em a thrill”). I never saw it firsthand. But what I did see was Nirvana, Michael Jackson, The Grateful Dead, the reincarnation of the Who, the reincarnation of Woodstock, and so much more. Where one generation had the beginning of it all, we had the past, present, and the future.
From the beginning of my life I was completely enamored by they who came before. I love the Beatles. Patsy Cline was the soundtrack to my earliest memories with my mother, “Mom she hasn’t got anything of ours does she?,” asked a five year old Austen of Cline’s ballad of lost love, “She’s Got You.” This was the gift to me of the generations before, the birth of music as we know it today. Along the way I found my own loves; New Kids on the Block came first. And suddenly I knew about the screams, the pandemonium first hand. They were the first since the Beatles to create that kind of worldwide chaos for young women.
Yes, worldwide chaos
You’re kidding yourself if you read the last sentence and thought, how the hell is she comparing The Beatles and the New Kids on the Block? It’s a numbers game really – 80 million records worldwide…in six years, women camping out at hotel entrances by the thousands, stadium tours with sobbing girls desperate to just touch one of the five guys. When you hear the way a New Kids fan talks about what the music has done for them in their life, it sounds like a woman my mother’s age reminiscing on her feelings toward the Beatles. Like I said, pandemonium.
That phenomenon recreated itself when NKOTB returned to the stage on May 16, 2008 at the Today Show with fans waiting for a week, camped out in the rain to see the performance. Prior to that appearance, Bruce Springstein had drawn the largest numbers for the show. NKOTB topped The Boss. Like it or not, in terms of impact, they are the Beatles of my generation.
Then there was Woodstock. Obviously, I wasn’t around for this hallowed event in music history. But I was alive for Woodstock 94. And we bought it on pay-per-view. I watched in awe. Green Day found their way to the stage and I fell in love with Billie Joe Armstrong’s lyrics. I didn’t know what about them grabbed me, but something did. He made it OK that I felt different. It seems to this day that his brand of crazy is the one I understand.
Green Day – Protest music for my generation
The three kids from Oakland are The Who of my generation. Upstarts who’ve evolved into creators of a Broadway show. The rock opera, “American Idiot” has been adapted for stage, along with a few songs from the current album “21st Century Breakdown,” an opera in it’s own right. The show opens at the St. James Theater on April 20 of this year. Both albums scream to the world that we’ve settled in the last decade. Speaking of social injustice and crying for revolution. Protest music for my generation, something we’ve severely lacked on a grand scale.
The music is true to punk rock despite what many might think. I’ve argued time and again with more people than I care to count, as to what genre or sub-genre this band falls into. They became mainstream, took the megaphone they’ve been handed and screamed their beliefs from the roof tops. What could be MORE punk rock than to have an audience of over 100,000 people and tell them why the war is wrong?
Woodstock led me to Green Day; Green Day led me to punk, and punk led me to The Ramones, the band that saved rock n’ roll from disco in the 70′s and bridged the gap for the next generation. They were part of what shaped my high school years. I used to skip school and watch Rock ‘N Roll High School in my ninth grade boyfriend’s basement. We watched that movie tirelessly. You’d think we’d come up with something new to do when we bailed during lunch, but that was pretty much the MO for that time in my life. I used to wear his leather jacket around school like a badge of honor. I remember the day that Joey Ramone died. I was a senior in high school and had a friend we called Benny Ramone. He came to school that day – wasted, and proceeded to not come back for a couple of weeks. He barely spoke to anyone. The Ramones had been his life. Joey was his Elvis.
I found my two greatest loves of music in the early 90′s. The Kings. One, the King of Rock ‘N Roll, already dead; and the other the King of Pop, two decades away from his death.
I don’t remember when I found Michael Jackson’s music, dancing, and presence. I suppose because it seems like he’s been there my whole life. I know that the love for his music really took hold of me with the release of the 1991 album “Dangerous.” I was totally enamored with the Chicago Bulls at the time. Michael released the video for “Jam” featuring Michael Jordan and I thought it to be the best possible thing to ever air on television. Anytime anything Michael-related was on TV, I was in front of ours. Eyes wide, ready to be blown away yet again.
This man gave a voice to the kids who didn’t fit. He made it ok to be eccentric; he cared about all of us. He was no monster. I watched him save the universe in Captain EO at Epcot with my family. I watched him do more for charities all over the world than any pop star, EVER. I watched him marry Elvis Presley’s beautiful daughter, Lisa Marie. To me they seemed the perfect match, societal outcasts whom the public felt they owned since their earliest years. Lisa Marie was the child of the only other man alive who could have understood the burden of being the image of a brand that kept so many others sleeping in satin sheets.
I have always – and always will – vehemently defend the man and artist, Michael Jackson. I don’t believe he was capable of hurting a soul, nor was I old enough to have the brain that could wrap around such horrible accusations at the time. As my stepdad likes to put it, my frontal lobe had not yet come in. Thank god for that. I was able to never lose faith in the man I felt was such a strong symbol. I never lost faith in my living King.
My cousin, Hethur was the one to introduce me to Elvis Presley’s music. She was older and often my de-facto baby sitter. She had a shrine to the King on her mantle in her Virginia Highlands apartment. There, in the middle, sat the famed photo by Alfred Wertheimer of a 21- year old Elvis, astride a Harley Davidson, left hand on the throttle, head three quarters down to the right, hat sitting atop his head. I was in love. I’d never seen such a beautiful human being. When I would spend my afternoons with “Fethur” (as I liked to call her), she would educate me in the ways of EAP. I was eager to learn. We watched Elvis movies and listened to his music. It wasn’t until my later teen years that I fully came into my own as an Elvis fan.
In March of 2006, while on tour with 311 in Memphis for their special biannual concert, 311 Day (taking place on 3/11 every two years), I finally got to go to Graceland. It was a special experience to me, listening to the audio tour and walking around the house. The tour was the perfect blend of what I knew of Elvis. Upstairs was for his closest friends, (by invitation only) and his family. It remains the same today. The stairs are in front of you, when one enters the main house. A heavy velvet curtain guards his last memories from prying eyes at the top of the stairs. The audio tour features Lisa Marie sharing the memory of the way she knew Elvis was descending the stairs — the jingle of his jewelry. I know so many people refer to his decor as tacky, but I found it comforting. He surrounded himself with what he thought was beautiful. The hall of gold at Graceland is particularly impressive. It’s where he hung his gold records awarded in his liftime.
The racquetball court on the property now contains all of the platinum awards representing the 189.2 million certified sales of his recordings. Predominantly awarded posthumously. It’s blinding. And ultimately it reflects his impact, not just on the generation available to him in the time of his life, but the ones who followed.
Growing up, I always wondered what it felt like the day Elvis died. On June 25, 2009, I found out. I was in the local grocery store down the street from my apartment in Hollywood. I was on the phone with my mother, and my call waiting rang through. It was my father, calling to say Michael had gone into cardiac arrest and was on his way to the hospital. This was happening about 20 minutes from where I was standing. I went back to the call with my mother and said google this…now. As I made my way through the store, back up to Hollywood Blvd, stopping at Michael’s star, which was on my way home, she began to say things like “That can’t be right. It’s just some small paper in Delaware,” and “No, I won’t believe that till I see it somewhere else.” I couldn’t say anything. “He’s in a coma,” she said. At that moment, another call came in from a friend and tour mate, who was at the time on tour in Europe. He’s also one of my closest friends. “Are you OK? Did you hear?” I said “David, Michael can’t, Michael won’t, Michael doesn’t”. I collapsed on the sidewalk. My King, my generation’s Elvis, was dead.
I didn’t speak to anyone but my family for a week. My phone rang incessantly from people who had known me most of my life, leaving messages inquiring if I was OK? I wasn’t. I was baffled at having such grief over a man I’d never met. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. He was staging his comeback; the world would have a chance to remember the man they loved, not the tabloid story. It was all happening, but then it was gone. A week before it was to begin. Presley died two days before his final tour was to begin as well. Lisa Marie issued a statement saying that Michael feared his end would be the same as her father’s. “At some point he paused, he stared at me very intensely and he stated with an almost calm certainty, ‘I am afraid that I am going to end up like him, the way he did.’” Again, she had to watch the ambulance leave the gates of the big white house. The crowds gathered around. It was déjà vu, only real. Both Kings, fallen in the eyes of society at large, made the plans to reclaim their thrones. Both then denied just short of it, only to find that in the end their deaths brought their music and triumphs back to life.
I never got to see Michael Jackson in concert. I was in front of my TV whenever his concerts were aired in real time, but I never attended one. I saw his sister, Janet, on the “janet.” tour at the Omni in 1994. I saw the Grateful Dead at the Omni in 1993, the New Kids in 1990 and 1991 at Georgia Tech and Furman; Green Day, time and time again. But never Michael. I was going to do whatever it required to get to one of the O2 Arena shows in London. I was going to see Michael Jackson in concert before either of us died. It didn’t happen. That day was also the first time I’ve had a dream truly die.
I’ve been fortunate that so many of my dreams have come true. I’ve photographed Green Day. I’ve met, hung out with, and photographed the New Kids on the Block. I got my picture taken with Donnie Wahlberg (the love of my youth). I’ve been working for 311 for nearly a decade. I’ve toured as a member of the crew for the opener for Bon Jovi. I do what I love for a living. And while I still have dreams, I’d never had one actually die.
Photographing Elvis and John Lennon was never going to happen for obvious reasons. Even the New Kids was seriously questionable before their reunion. But Michael, there was always a glimmer of hope somewhere, because I’d seen that hard work, perseverance, and yes, talent worked for me. But this one was gone. For me, that was the day the music died, at least temporarily. I love music, past and present, and I look forward to the future. And I’m grateful that I’m alive during the time of the legend.
Green Day – “21 Guns” with the Broadway Cast of “American Idiot”:
Janet Jackson and MTV Pay Tribute to Michael Jackson at the 2009 VMAs:
New Kids on the Block return to the stage on the Today Show:
Elvis Presley “If I Can Dream” from the 1968 Comeback Special:
The Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night” Trailer:
Trailer for the Ramones “Rock N’ Roll Highschool”:
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