They don’t make ’em like they used to, or Where have all the heroes gone?
“I’m more conservative than Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was so conservative that he wanted to go back to the days before the New Deal. I’m so conservative that I want to go back to the days when civilization was people sitting around campfires telling stories and singing songs.”- Pete Seeger
I’m currently in the midst of reading Larry McMurtry’s The Colonel and Little Missie, a very enjoyable nonfiction work by the iconic novelist about the legacies of Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley, whom McMurtry considers to be the first American superstars. Although I’m not quite convinced by his argument (remember that Mark Twain was renowned for his speaking tours- the forerunner to today’s stand-up comedy- well before Cody organized the first of his legendary Wild West shows), I am intrigued by the two paragraphs he uses to open the book and set up his premise.
“Kings and potentates,” he begins, “and their queens and lovers, someday die and have to be entombed, interred, or consumed on splendid pyres.”
He continues, “So too with performers- even the greatest among them, the true superstars. Elvis died, and Garbo, and Marilyn Monroe, and Frank Sinatra. Elvis at least left us Graceland, his Taj on Old Man River; of the others we have merely records and movies, recorded performances that allow us at least distant glimpses of their gaiety, their beauty, their gifts. Show business imposes its own strict temporality: no matter how many CDs or DVDs we own, it would still have been better to have been there, to have seen the living performers in the riches of their being and to have participated, however briefly, in the glory of their performances.”
Later in the book, he delivers an anecdote where two of his uncles recall seeing one of Cody’s performances near the end of his life and while they reach the consensus that he hadn’t done much- simply rode around the stadium waving- they were nonetheless in awe.
I have often wished I could have been around to see Elvis live on stage in all of his glory. Even in 1977 when the King was merely a pale shadow of his former self, when he was quickly becoming a target of the sort of tabloid journalism that would eventually destroy the media and turn CNN into TMZ, I would have given anything to see him in person.
All of which, along with Easy Ed’s recent piece on Muhammad Ali, leads me to wonder about the nature of celebrity and heroism and where those traits have gone in today’s society. The short answer is that overt political correctness and a 24-hour news cycle destroyed it.
Once upon a time people admired politicians and would only elect those who they personally admired: Washington, the Father of the Country, Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, Roosevelt, the hero of San Juan Hill, General Eisenhower, who ended up being one of our last great Presidents. Now that’s all done. What kind of kid wants to grow up to be Richard Nixon?
Of course, Roosevelt wouldn’t make it today. Despite doing what our current President should do with regards to monopolies, despite saving thousands of precious acres of land that would have otherwise been destroyed, despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize, PETA would have personally seen to it that the man never got within a hundred miles of the White House.
Which brings me, of course, to Anthony Weiner and John Edwards, who’s job it was to represent the American people. Anything else they may have done was strictly the business of themselves and their spouses. Frankly, I don’t care about any of it, but I find it a sad statement when a man’s career can be destroyed by what should have been a private affair.
And it goes beyond politics. Would Rock Hudson have made it today as a leading man? Would Elvis, with his now well-known penchant for guns and pills, have been seen as the Mel Gibson of his era? Would Sinatra, upon issuing In the Wee Small Hours, have been subjected to a lengthy media profile about his mental state? You can ask this same question about literally any star. In this society we demand perfection, yet we are living in the most corrupt and immoral time in history, a time when boys are sent to die for nothing under both Republican and Democratic Presidents.
Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Merle Haggard. Big City in particular. Although nobody would consider the rural area I live in to be a “big city,” I can identify with nearly every word of the album’s title track, as well as the centerpiece of the album, “Are the Good Times Really Over.” Over the past two months, I have seen my hometown profiled in the New York Times, on CNN, A&E and Dr. Oz, among other places. Apparently we are the prescription drug abuse capital of the United States. The working class folks who Merle Haggard was the voice of have seen their jobs shipped overseas by Reagan and Clinton, their unions have been busted by the same folks, their dilapidated homes have been foreclosed, and they’ve turned to the only crutch they can find.
I feel sorry for them and I’m proud of where I’m from, but that doesn’t mean I want to sit around and watch the whole place go down the shitter. I’ve been thinking a lot about Montana and Wyoming lately as I pull the weeds out of the garden in the morning, wondering if there’s an escape from all the reality TV, CGI blood, Auto-Tuned music, and government bullshit there. It’s a possibility.
For now, all I can do is look at the Civil War statue located in the park downtown and then glance at the corporate owned supermarket across from it and wonder exactly what the hell happened.