Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Fable Of Stardom’s Rewards

I’ve always been mesmerized by the concept of fame. As a kid growing up on Long Island, I was forever in awe of the talents and popularity of my great musical heroes. From my vantage point, there was nothing better than having a hit song on the radio and getting the chance to play it in front of thousands of screaming fans. Musical stardom had to be the pinnacle of all achievements.

          In my teens and twenties, I became one of those screaming fans, using babysitting money to buy concert tickets to see my favorite artists. Sitting in darkened theaters and arenas, I could imagine no grander moment than the one where the star walks out on stage into the bright spotlight, soaking in the adulation. Goosebumps and shivers on a nightly basis. Absolutely mind-blowing!

          An interesting and most unexpected encounter with a real-life music legend began to alter my perception of the whole celebrity mythology. It was June of 1992. I had just graduated college and was spending a summer afternoon with my cousin, Mike down in Greenwich Village. We were standing in line at a Häagen-Dazs stand on West 8th Street when the guy in front of us reached the service window. “I’ll have a vanilla ice cream with chocolate sprinkles,” announced the curly-haired gentleman in a whiny yet familiar voice. The attendant quickly fulfilled the order, handed a cone to the man and then turned his attention to us. “Next please.”

          The man in front of us hadn’t yet paid for his order. He stood in place with one hand in his pocket. “Um, excuse me. How much for my ice cream?”

The counter attendant flashed a smile of recognition. “It’s an honor to serve you. We love your music. Have a great day.” He then turned back to us and asked, “So what are you guys having?”

          Now growing irritated, the customer with the vanilla cone interrupted. “Hey, I said, how much for my ice cream?”

          “Really, sir. It’s on the house. Please come again. I’m a big fan. We all are.”

          “I said, how much for this ice cream?” the man insisted, now pounding a hand on the metal counter, his frustration mounting.

          “Okay, fine. It’s a dollar fifty,” said the worker in the Häagen-Dazs hat from behind the glass window.

          My cousin and I watched intently as the guy with the familiar, nasally voice reached into the pocket of his jeans for a pair of rumpled dollar bills. He slapped them on the counter and walked away muttering. “Everywhere I go I gotta be that guy. Everywhere I go. Can’t even pay for my own ice cream!”

          Incredibly, this would be my first and only encounter with perhaps the greatest songwriter in pop music history, the incomparable Bob Dylan. But more importantly, it would offer a unique lesson on the concept of stardom and public recognition. When not on stage, even the biggest of celebrities often yearn to be treated as just another face in the crowd -- if only this were possible.

          My career in marketing and publicity enabled me the unique privilege of meeting many of the stars I grew up admiring. And with each encounter, I was impressed to discover how even the world’s biggest superstars are very much regular people who just happen to occasionally walk red-carpets, perform to sold-out venues and have and a stack of 8 x 10s to autograph when they get home at night. They may live in spectacular mansions, date other beautiful celebrities, and eat in the world’s best restaurants. But more than anything else, I found that the one thing the world’s biggest superstars share in common is that they crave something that they rarely can enjoy. Normalcy.

          In my novel, Poet Of The Wrong Generation, I transferred my youthful fascination of rock stars onto my protagonist, Johnny Elias. Johnny attends concerts with his friends and frequently imagines the absurdly happy lives these musical icons must be living off stage. But when a song he writes lands him a recording contract and suddenly climbs the pop charts, he quickly discovers that stardom is vastly different and more demanding than anything he ever imagined as a fan. Instead of mind-blowing happiness, Johnny’s life begins to buckle beneath the weight of his own unlikely celebrity.

          One of the great musical heroes of my generation (and one who figures prominently in my novel) is Paul Simon. This past summer, in an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Simon said of musical stardom: “I’ve seen fame turn into absolute poison when I was a kid in the ’60s. It killed Presley. It killed Lennon. It killed Michael Jackson. I’ve never known anyone to have gotten an enormous amount of fame who wasn’t, at a minimum, confused by it and had a very hard time making decisions.” And this coming from a man who has spent more than half a century as one of the world’s most beloved singer/songwriters.

          In the 1990s, Alanis Morrissette went from being an obscure Canadian teen singer to an overnight superstar with the worldwide success of her album, Jagged Little Pill. Fame brought her riches and wild popularity. Yet she wasn’t prepared for such a bright spotlight as she explained in 2014 to Oprah Winfrey. “My head spun around 360. I just remember having been the person who loved to sit and watch people... and then I immediately became the watched. That was really disconcerting. I remember looking down a lot. I didn’t laugh for about two years. A lot of self-protection. There was a lot of invading of boundaries. On some level, I think becoming famous and wanting fame, there’s some trauma. The traumatized person — in this case, me — gets traumatized by the very thing that I thought would be the balm.”

Rock music legends who died at the age of 27
          The list of legendary music stars victimized by fame is staggering. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse are just a handful who struggled with celebrity and turned to drugs and alcohol as self-medication – vices that heavily contributed to their demise before the age of 30. Certainly there is no blueprint for the rock star to live by. Fame is undoubtedly not the key ingredient in lasting happiness. 

          British songstress, Adele rose to worldwide superstardom in 2009 after winning Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards. Proud as she is of her success, she seems to have a realistic approach to celebrity. "Fame is not real. And I don't want to live a fake life. Sometimes I have my moments, but not that often,” she told BBC Radio in 2015. "I find fame quite frightening and I find it really toxic… It's very charming and it's very persuasive but it doesn't last so why would you want to get involved in something that you will miss so much when it's gone - and it always goes."

          In 1999 I spent an afternoon with the Bee Gees as part of a postal tribute by their birth nation, the Isle Of Man. When I asked Maurice Gibb about the ups and downs of his long career he explained why he far more embraced fame in the later years. “I think you just appreciate it differently once you’ve hit bottom. You can’t really grasp the concept of stardom when it first happens to you. Everything moves so quickly and you have no perspective or appreciation, other than the cheers. But once you’ve been humbled a few times and realize that the fans are still there, it gives you that much more gratitude for the success you’ve achieved.” 

Of course, not all rock stars and celebrities succumb to the pressures of fame. Many artists including Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond, The Who, Neil Young, Frankie Valli and the aforementioned Bob Dylan are still performing with much fanfare well into their 70s. For some, it may be about the money to maintain a certain lifestyle. To others, it could be about the addiction to adulation that never wanes; not even with age.

Sylvester Stallone and his Rocky Stamps
Back in 1996, I helped organized a postal tribute to Sylvester Stallone on 20th anniversary of the first Rocky film. Not a rock star, mind you, but a man who knows a thing or two about adulation and celebrity. I got to meet the actor in a private room at NY’s Planet Hollywood just before hosting the official ceremony. He provided a most unexpected and refreshing answer when I asked him what the honor meant to him.

“When you’re successful; when you have all this popularity, you really can go out and do whatever you want. You can buy the fastest cars, the biggest houses, take vacations anywhere. But the one thing you can’t buy, no matter how much money you earn is respect. Recognition that your talent and creativity is still appreciated.”

Respect and long-term appreciation are attributes that almost certainly get obscured in any initial rise to fame. But for those who survive the perils of the intense spotlight and the rock and roll lifestyle, it can often be the reward that awaits once the artist come to grips with their unique achievements. That, and the benefit of time and perspective balanced by a degree of normalcy. 

Poet Of The Wrong Generation by Lonnie Ostrow is now available in paperback and eBook format. CLICK HERE TO ORDER YOUR COPY.

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