Anybody here like games?

“It’s too late. You’re my guests!”

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Being a dancer since the age of 4, I grew up a Michael Jackson fan, and will always be one. Over the past couple decades or so, I’ve read more about him than just about any other figure or hero of mine, and he fascinates me to this day. Not just for the seemingly untouchable power his voice and what he could do with his body had over millions of people — including myself — across the whole world, but for what a vastly complex human being he was, all while being at the center of what was perhaps contemporary American pop culture’s most relentlessly focused lens. America didn’t just put him under a microscope for nearly 5 decades; it stuck him under a magnifying glass in the sun, hoping to watch closely, with a dark sort of glee, while we burned him into the ground.

It bears repeating, no matter how many times I’ve said it, that the late, endlessly great, James Baldwin, all but predicted what would happen to Michael, as early as 1985, to the point of precision that Joe Vogel — one of the greatest chroniclers on record of Michael’s phenomenal and varied career — has dubbed it “The Baldwin Prophecy”:

The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael. All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; the blacks, especially males, in America; and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair…

— “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Playboy Magazine, 1985

This is a remarkably uncanny observation, yet also entirely unsurprising, given how prophetic most of Baldwin’s works have come to be, which is why they have never lost their relevance, and perhaps (shamefully) never will.

Sitting here, listening to his music — thanks to MTV playing a block of his short films all night, in celebration of what would’ve been his 59th birthday — I find myself thinking about him and his complexities at a depth I haven’t in some time. (Even Michael’s relationship to MTV is complex; the network both helped break the visual arm of his career fully into the mainstream, and mocked him relentlessly, while also later playing host to the only appropriately fantastic tribute performed for him just after his death in 2009. And Madonna may be a messy as hell figure herself, but her words on that night carry a weight and appreciation that few others’ could.)

I think one of the greatest issues with the world’s view of him, versus the reality of his life, was that we attempted, at large, to simultaneously magnify and simplify him, which could only strip him of his humanity, ignoring that — like any other human being — he was deeply complex, and host to countless contradictions. This set impossible standards for him, and yet was the largest attempt of (white) America to condense him to something more palatable, more relatable, more laudable… And later, more villainous, more contemptible, more unforgivable. The fact of the matter is, human beings do not ever fit into boxes like these (which never stops us, culturally, from attempting to shove them in, then feeling somehow betrayed when bits spill out and force us to confront them), and artists, perhaps most of all, suffer the worst effects of such pitiful goals. We so easily forget: to simplify is also to diminish.

As obviously inspired as he was by Bob Fosse, I find it surprising how few parallels I’ve ever seen drawn between the similarities of their early lives. (The James Brown connections were both directly personal, and even more obvious, so there is less need to go there.) Fosse — and if you’re looking for a great examination of another legend, you can’t do much better than Sam Wasson’s 2014 opus, Fosse — was confronted as frighteningly prematurely by women, sex and sexuality, and darkness in show business as Michael was: Fosse backstage at burlesque shows before he entered puberty, Michael peering from behind similar curtains both before and during his factory production line-like Motown years, groupies crawling into his rooms shared with his older brothers, his abusive father borderline pimping them out as a family unit. There is so much barely-disguised pain in both of their works; both were relentless workaholics, rarely satisfied with their own art. Yet they inspired countless others in their wake, both in life and long past both their premature deaths.

People often plant stubbornly into one camp or another, when discussing Michael: they either feel he was a child trapped in a man’s body, or they feel he was a predator playing the long con. (There are, of course, many variations on these two camps, but they tend to, overall, fall onto one side or the other.) Neither was true, and the clearest reality to me seems to be, again, horrendous contradictions — horrendous in that I can’t possibly imagine trying to reconcile them within one person. That he did so through his art, and publicly, was extraordinary. To just scrape the surface…

(1) Michael was an unapologetic Black man. (How anyone can hear “They Don’t Care About Us” and somehow miss this is still beyond me. Or watch him literally morph into a black panther in one of his most popular videos! I mean… shit. This is not subtle, by any means, and yet…) Throughout his life he was vocal, political, and adamant about this. His primary and most iconic messaging being centered around love did not stop him from speaking truth to power. The fact that vitiligo — which he publicly acknowledged having (albeit likely too late) as far back as 1993 — is literally listed as a medical fact on his autopsy report has not stopped countless people from clinging to the idea that it was all a lie; that it is even humanly possible to turn white as almost translucent sheet paper through skin bleaching alone (spoiler alert: it is not). There are photographs of the heaps of stage makeup he once tried to hide it under sliding off his skin with his sweat, while performing, as early as the late ’70s, but it never mattered. No excuse would have been good enough, in America, for what appeared to be a black man attempting to somehow “turn himself white;” the ultimate crime in a place so steeped in — and founded on — racism.

(2) People had enough pearl-clutching issues, at the time, with Bowie’s androgyny, but Michael took it further: he did it while Not White. (Michael’s original desired cover for the Bad album can only be described as androgynous — it was directly inspired, after all, by the famous 1928 Edward Steichen portrait of Gloria Swanson behind a swatch of lace for Vanity Fair — and it is beautiful. Unsurprisingly, his record label hated, and ultimately rejected, it.) The fact that fans — a majority of them women, many of them white — would literally faint, by the hundreds*, at just about every show he performed, did not help his case, because if we know one thing about America, it is the level at which white men will panic over what they perceive as threats to their women. And though he always featured non-white objects of love (or lust) in his music videos, he married a white woman; not just any white woman, but the daughter of the King of white music (and theft of  black music), Elvis Presley. It was widely mocked as a sham marriage, and yet for over two years after their divorce, Lisa Marie would follow him all over the world, even after marrying her next husband. He was a notorious — among those he employed or spent time in his entourage — flirt and lover of women. (Lord, the video of him in the limo, talking about the “good fish,” or shamelessly hitting on the female fan at that Invincible signing… Y’all.)

[*An aside: That live cut of “Man in the Mirror” has the power to emotionally destroy me, so… I get it.]

(3) He was, absolutely and unmistakably, obsessed by childhood, having missed out almost entirely on his own (and this is why, as previously mentioned, Madonna was an appropriate choice to speak on the matter shortly after his death). This, most problematically, seemed to blind him to the bulk of his own contradictions, and to the potentially dangerous motivations of others. This is how one ends up too close to (a) a man who will drug his own son just hoping to get a screenplay produced by his famous friend, and (b) a literal family of grifters, further down the line, who will eventually take you to court and destroy your life. (The 2005 court case was going on while I was in college for forensic criminology, and happened to be enrolled in law classes myself. I followed and studied it for months. The real details of it are, frankly, incredible. I wish they were more publicly, widely known. But a witch hunt is what the public wanted, and it is assuredly what they got.) He had played with fire, in his own anger quite transparently baiting the DA who was obsessed, for years, with convicting him with anything he could come up with — even going on record suggesting he would falsify evidence in order to do so — and a literal circus of media and law enforcement was the price he paid for it. The public perception of Neverland itself also speaks to this: an unsettling image of a Peter Pan-obsessed creep pied pipering children in from all over to some freakish compound, when in reality, its owner was very often traveling or touring and not even present on the grounds; it was created primarily as a space to welcome sick and underprivileged children to experience things they never could have otherwise (if for different reasons from the lack of them in his own childhood), and thousands came and went without the added privilege of ever meeting or interacting with the man himself.

(4) He was deeply shy, yet most at home performing on stage. This is how you arrive at a man who both plants false news stories in the press in the hopes of stirring mystery (the “Elephant Man’s bones” and “sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber” stories did, in fact, originate from Michael’s own camp), yet cannot take it when the press turns on him, and runs with the vengeful fun of printing far more hurtful and damaging lies about a large and easy target. A man who loved to greet adoring crowds of his fans by the thousands, but still longed to walk the streets alone and unbothered, to the point that closing down grocery stores just so he could experience walking the aisles without harassment was considered a privilege. Was this willful blindness often incredibly misguided on his part? Absolutely. Plenty of other things were, too, to put it mildly. If the world was determined to make a spectacle of him, he wanted so badly to have control over just what sort of spectacle he would become, though this was, of course, impossible. This is what happens when one just can’t understand why you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. This did not stop him from trying, and seemed to be one lesson he stubbornly refused to learn. It does not help that he was taught very early on that lying in the pursuit of crafting a public image is part of the job: at Berry Gordy’s behest, Motown falsely claimed, when they debuted The Jackson 5, that Michael was 9 years old (he was in fact 11; as if a child completely snatching a blues song from an adult man so unequivocally was somehow less extraordinary at any age), the better to package him as a precocious child star. The image vs. the reality, as an inescapable conflict, pervades Michael’s entire career, and consequently, his life. All of this is part of what makes the Jackson family the true realization of the American dream; that so much ugliness came with it is only appropriate. It is — it must be — a nightmare, too.

Performing ultimately would, however, kill him. Frighteningly rigid professionalism had been hammered into him so hard by his father, from such a young age, that by the time a part of his own stage fell over 30 feet into an orchestra pit (with him on it), despite suffering an awful injury to his back, he still crawled back on stage and would not leave until the song was over, because he had been so deeply conditioned to never disappoint an audience. It was around this time that the drugs that would eventually take his life were introduced to him by rapacious doctors backstage, and though this may have taken over 10 years to destroy him… of course it did.

He was, yes, a genius. He could not read or write music, so when full songs would pop into his head — which he was characteristically averse to taking credit for — he would sing and beatbox each and every part to his musicians and engineers. He had a vocal range that made opera singers envious; its remarkable breadth was both lower and higher — and more powerful — than many realize. This alone should have been enough to cement the fact of his artistry, but his body was a singular instrument, too. In the video for “The Way You Make Me Feel,” during the instrumental bridge/dance break down, Michael and his backup dancers are shot in silhouette, but there is never, at any point, a shred of doubt as to which shadow is his. He employed many of the greatest performing professional dancers beside him, in videos and on his tours, and yet no matter how great they were, he still outpaced and outdanced them all. At 50, hovering at death’s door, and certainly not well, he still brings a bunch of 20-somethings to their knees in shrieking awe, merely by half-assing (if only by his own standards) his way through a new interpretation of “Billie Jean,” then waves it off shyly while everyone loses their minds: “At least we got a feel of it.” Oh, Mike. The voice and the body were both superhuman, and both existed, somehow, within the same man, to a degree that seemed impossible.

(5) His two longest works on film are also his most obviously personal, in that they vocally and visually attest to all these contradictions, which is what makes them such a unique combination of so incredibly entertaining, and so profoundly weird: Moonwalker (1988) and Ghosts (1997). (I also love them both fiercely; know this.) The former features an unbelievable hodgepodge of adult themes and performance (drug trafficking, kidnapping, the mob, the performance of “Dirty Diana” that closes the thing out) flowing in and out of chunks of genuine childlike wonder and simplicity (playing soccer at Neverland, the three kids who carry the bulk of what you can generously call the plot, morphing into a fucking car — and later a robot! — through seemingly straight-up magic, etc.)… it’s basically impossible to describe. It’s a chaotic collage, but one straight out of its megastar’s all-over-the-map psyche.

The latter work — originally penned by Stephen King — I could write an entire essay on alone, it carries so much of all I’ve touched on here within it in a mere 40 minutes. Though the overall storyline is much more straightforward than Moonwalker‘s, it is also far more revealing: Michael plays both the Maestro — a reclusive spirit playing magic tricks alone in a seemingly haunted mansion — and the Mayor — a stodgy (white! hiding under an incredible Stan Winston makeup job) man attempting to have the Maestro thrown out of town. (Again, the Mayor is a pretty obvious visual poke at DA Tom Sneddon; the town, hilariously, is called “Normal Valley.”) The Mayor is unhappy that apparently kids in the town have been hanging out in the mansion; the parents who follow him are concerned that the magic tricks are too scary for the children. The Maestro insists it’s all for fun, and he has no intention of harming anyone. Echoing the insights of Baldwin, unconsciously or otherwise, the Mayor continuously calls the Maestro “weird,” “strange,” and “a freak.” (Don’t forget: it is Michael voicing these words, to himself. If you’ve ever seen a more direct visualization of grappling so fiercely with self-hatred, let me know; I have not.) At first, the Maestro just plays more harmless tricks for silly scares, to the delight of the kids (and the consternation of the parents and Mayor). When he still isn’t getting the message across, and the Mayor continues to insist he leave town, he grows angry, and moves into a different territory: genuinely trying to scare them. (In the process, quite fittingly, we are treated to some of the fiercest, and best, dance choreography Michael ever put on film.) At one point, he literally jumps into the Mayor’s body, taking over his motions, transforming him into a good dancer, to the delight of the kids and the parents. He separates from him again, and takes a bow. But when the Mayor continues to berate him and insist he leave, the Maestro appears broken by the pain of this. He responds by literally smashing himself to dust on the floor, destroyed. The children and the parents are saddened by it. Ultimately, it’s yet another trick, and the Maestro finally scares the Mayor enough to send him running for the hills, and it ends on a happy note. The core message of this work is undeniable, and so pointedly Michael himself, I’m still in awe of it 20 years later. The contradictions in the man himself are all over the short film, too, and it invites a far greater understanding of his perspective on himself than, I think, any other piece he ever crafted. Michael himself loved practical jokes, childlike things, holding onto innocence all through adulthood, and pleasing his audience; the world turned on him for it, called him a freak, and the weight of all of it ultimately destroyed him. Unfortunately, in the real life version, the Maestro never returned from crumbling to dust; he stayed gone. Unlike Annie in Moonwalker, none of us could wish him back again.

“I had to tell ’em I ain’t second to none.” Somehow, this still has to be told. The point of this whole post? Respect and credit where it’s due. Don’t toss lazy criticism out there that’s so laughably simple of such a hugely complex artist. Engage with those complications when you want to talk about Michael and his legacy; otherwise you’re merely critiquing a tiny percentage of a very large picture, and you can go ahead and miss me with that weak shit.

I chose the image for this post for those reasons, too; it’s possibly the only piece of art, after his death, that I’ve ever seen capture the true dichotomy of the man himself (who happened to be, appropriately, a great fan of Rockwell, whose style it clearly emulates). He saw himself as both who he had always been, and who he believed himself to be — with all the inherent contradictions therein, as all human beings constantly struggle to do. The public saw otherwise, in large part because they insisted on it, but that didn’t make him wrong — it made him an artist.

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Some of us will always stay behind

This has been a strange year, and as it drags on with so little being accomplished, I feel more and more things slipping away from me. Living with anxiety as I do makes feelings like these into a very cruel sort of game (and a very difficult one to express): which ones are real, and which ones are all in your head? You can never quite answer correctly, either, because you will worry either way. It will either be justified worry, or it won’t, but either way, it still steals my energy, my hope, my time, and leaves me feeling sore and defeated.

Some of these things, I know, are real. Neither of my parents’ lives have any stability left in them, even as they near the age when you are supposed to retire. In reality, I have no idea what will happen to either of them, nor do they. My father ignores this, and my mother just accepts it. I do envy her ability to cede all illusion of control, but perhaps that’s something that can only come with age, and too many years of life disappointing you. My roommate seems to enjoy regularly reminding me that there is no stability in mine, either, in all sorts of thoughtless ways. Projects, relationships, hopes, all seem to be falling away from me, on all sides. My mind used to dare to give me the occasional hopeful dream, but these days I just have regular, obvious, exhausting nightmares about falling off bridges or buildings or through floors, getting swallowed up by tangles of dark things I cannot see. I have gotten much better at managing my anxiety this year, it’s true, and that is a hard-fought victory. But at my core, I remain the same difficult person I’ve always been, the one who does not fit anywhere. If she says otherwise, she is a liar.

This may be a darker part of the reason why my experience with drowning never scared me much. Apart from the lack of pain, and the fact that both my breathing and my flawed little heart stopped within just a few minutes — this is an easier fate for your body to accept than you might expect, at least when you’re enveloped by something as powerful and ambivalent as the ocean — it felt somehow appropriate to me, even then. It’s not a particularly violent death, and if one were allowed to choose what eventually removes them from life someday, I’d opt to just lose to the ocean again. (There are certainly far worse ways to go, and I know too much about most of them.) I have a lot of dreams about that day lately, too. The familiar, inevitable feeling of the endless water surrounding me at all sides until I could no longer struggle or see — like everything else in life, like my mother, I fought it until I had nothing left with which to fight — until I simply slipped away.

City of Angels

Four years ago today, I moved to Los Angeles.

I was afraid I might be running away, the sort of running away you engage in when trying to escape yourself — both impossible to accomplish and impossible to resist attempting — and maybe I was. I’m not even sure now, because returning to the state of mind I was in then is impossible. Considering how unhappy I was then, this is a relief, even if it makes the me of my early 20s essentially a stranger to me now. I don’t know how that girl was somehow able to spend so much time so alone, doing so little; I don’t know how she survived wasting the countless hours on the horrible jobs she did. I don’t now how she survived to become me, but perhaps that’s the key word: survival can erase everything but the barest essentials from your life. You can withstand things that might cripple you under other circumstances, or that might seem insurmountable from the outside, purely because human beings are as stubborn about surviving as a virulent strain of some horrible plague. We keep thinking things cannot be survived, and then survive them, almost in spite of ourselves.

One of the best novels I’ve read this year was centered around the multiple universe theory of physics. (Well, funnily enough, that’s actually true of the plots two of the best novels I’ve read this year…) The concept of the various versions of yourself you both do and do not become (or, rather, the version you become in one timeline versus another) has always been something I’ve thought of now and then, but the plot of a book bringing physical manifestation to that idea made me think on it more. Who would I have become if I hadn’t come here? How much longer could I have survived my life as it existed then? One of the few things I do remember vividly from that time is how desperate I had become to change my circumstances; I would have done just about anything to do so. I had no money, and I let that keep me from making the move for years, but eventually even that could not stop me. I risked living out of my car to get away. To come here. I only escaped that potentially disastrous outcome by the very thinnest skin of my teeth, with some unexpectedly generous outside help, and through some pretty absurd (and uncharacteristic) luck.

The first month was hell. I told no one, because I didn’t have the words, and there was really no one to tell, besides. I burst into tears in my car on several occasions, in full view of any strangers who might see through un-tinted windows; whoever I was becoming, I was frighteningly different from the woman who, just weeks before, had never even shed a tear in front of the friend she’d had since she was seven years old. It shocked and confused me; I felt like a stranger to myself. Whatever I thought I knew so solidly about myself, my identity; nothing felt certain anymore. I ate very little, and poorly; I couldn’t afford to do otherwise. On more hopeless days, I thought I might be losing my mind. Just who did I think I was, driving a U-Haul up here with absurdly unfocused hopes of finding some kind of salvation in a new city? At least actors, actresses, writers — the ceaseless tide of people who come here with dreams of becoming part of The Industry — have some idea in mind of who they want to become, of what life they want to find or manufacture. I had nothing. I didn’t have any sense of who I was then, and no idea who I might possibly be. I looked at the choice I had made the night I arrived, sitting on the floor alone in an unfamiliar apartment littered with cardboard boxes, and the brazen stupidity and recklessness of what I had done crashed over me like a wave. (And that was before I realized I’d left my cell phone with my friend already on his way back to my hometown, and knew literally no one in the city.) I can be terribly cruel to myself, but I’m sure I’ve never berated myself with more force than I likely did then, knowing I had no way to go back should I change my mind or fuck up, no safety net of any kind to protect me if I failed, and no idea at all how to move forward. I’m amazed I didn’t actually throw up. Probably all that stopped me was sheer stubbornness and an empty stomach.

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Alta Loma & Holloway (West Hollywood)

But I had felt the energy here, so many times before, during brief visits to the city; all the people in the midst of creating or striving, and felt so drawn in by it, you could have measured the polarity inside me changing with a multimeter.

Whenever I came back to visit my hometown in the future, I wanted to be nearly unrecognizable from who I had been before. I guess I never knew, until it propelled me here, how powerful a motivator self-hatred can be. If you are determined enough to become a person you don’t hate anymore, you can do just about anything. It will sting your throat like bile and make your insides feel scraped out and raw, but you won’t be the same on the other side of it. You’ll shed the skin of your former self like some venomous snake.

Not much later, I met someone who not only forced me to confront my honest, truest, sometimes ugliest self, but saw through all that to the better and best parts of me, then chose (and still chooses) to remind me of them often. He thought I was beautiful even at my messiest and most lost (and still does, though I can still be plenty messy now). He looked at me and didn’t see anything other than who I really was, before I even knew how to see her fully. He helped me build a safe place to discover her for myself. Now, we get to move forward together, too; we get to build new things, forge new paths. I get to be braver than I knew I could be. But that version of me was always in there, somewhere, or I don’t believe I could be her now. I had to earn the right to meet her, then to become her. It was the hardest, most necessary, work I’ve ever done.

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Kauai Surf apartment complex (Martha St., Van Nuys)

I found an amazing city. I found streets I loved to walk on, and places I loved to walk to, things I loved to do. The first place I lived here was not ideal, but it was preparation for where I would end up next, which pretty much is. Sometimes, still, I walk through my neighborhood, or further out, and feel the breeze move through me like wings fluttering in my chest. I feel so full of love for my city I could run over with it like an overflowing cup. I’ve found a kind of home and peace here I don’t believe I’ve had anywhere else. I found wonderful friends. I found good work. I found inspiration, which had been absent so long I was afraid I’d lost it forever. I sat at a table in a dumpy little burger joint late at night, after coming in from a bit of rain, let someone hold my hand and really look me in the eye, and took a step toward an unknown future, cracking my heart wide open to any and all of it like an eggshell. All of these things are, in a way, part of the same single choice I made to point my car north and set out alone for whatever I could carve out in the world for myself. It was — all of it, simultaneously — the best, bravest, craziest, most terrifying, and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I never knew I had it in me until I had already done it, and by then there was no turning back. Not that I ever would have.

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Fatburger (Santa Monica & Vista, West Hollywood)

I blogged throughout all of this, sometimes in painstaking detail (albeit on another site) to bolster my memory —  to this day I know (and am grateful for knowing) that particular memories are especially vivid to me because I documented them while they were freshest in my mind — and later, as I allowed it to become more personal, more therapeutic; to understand, or at least attempt to make some sense of myself. I still do. I’m doing it now.

It wasn’t a painless process by any means; I’ve weathered things since coming here that brought hurts with them deeper than anything I’d experienced before. But I’ve earned what I’ve made, and part of it comes with and through those things, too. Nothing worth having comes without struggle, or so they say. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience plenty of firsts in my life during my time here, too. Some infuriating (first parking ticket, moving violation and tow to the impound, though thankfully not all at once), some disgusting (cockroach infestation! thanks to the messiest roommate ever, also my first, of the non-familial variety), some exhilarating and transporting (kiss, and all that followed it), some shocking (celebrity friends (?)), others all manner of bizarre (too many to list here, frankly). An on and on, and so it goes.

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Spaulding & Santa Monica (West Hollywood)

Maybe you do have to start out running away — and maybe it doesn’t much matter what from — to end up finding the truest version of yourself. To each their own. Maybe fear and pain and risk and struggle have to combine in just the right way, at the right time — like chemicals in solution, under just the right control settings — in order to burn through whatever falsehoods and barriers you’ve constructed around yourself, until there is nothing left but your true, core self. It’s not that your real self never changes — it’s changing all the time; we are constantly remaking ourselves and relearning ourselves until the day we die — but that you reach that decisive point, where you make a choice: I will not stay still the better to hide from myself. I will keep moving forward to see myself more clearly.

I ran and I ran, I was looking for me […]
I ran and I ran, I’m looking there still […]
I ran and I ran
I’m still running away

Song lyrics are Madonna’s, © 1998, from my favorite song of hers; photographs are all mine, © Eleanore Studer. Shot long exposure throughout the city with my ’76 Nikon F2S on Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros black and white negative film, winter 2015/2016.

Damned if she do

drowning

© 2016 Eleanore Studer

When I was 13 years old, I drowned.

Out in the proper ocean, not in some backyard pool. There had been a storm the day before, and the waves were massive; it was stupid to go out in it, but growing up in Southern California, I spent much of my time in or near the water — one summer, my record number of days spent at the beach in a row hit 39 — and when I wasn’t in it, I was always aware of it. The compass in me always knew in which direction West could be found.

As I was pulled under a huge wave, for a time I lost all sense of equilibrium; which way I would need to swim to reach the surface was impossible to know or sense. I was rolled and tossed around long enough for oxygen deprivation to kick in, which slowly released any hold pain or panic might have had on me. I relaxed. I stopped fighting. I accepted the inevitable.

I was struck then with the simple, profound certainty, lacking any drama or fear, that I was — not dying — but dead. It arrived as a conclusion to whatever questions my stricken brain and nervous system must have been asking: Oh. I’m dead. 

A genuine out-of-body experience followed to solidify this concept, and as I watched myself stop struggling, a calming sense of nothingness settled over me; both of myself, and of what was to follow. I blacked out, though I have no idea for how long. Fortunately, I hadn’t been swimming alone at the time, and my friend was able to find me once the wave set had passed, a few minutes later, pull me out and drag me to shore, pound the water out of my lungs.

I’m not sure why this memory has been called back so strongly now — despite how many difficult things continue to pile themselves on me, one after another, these past couple of months, and how tired all of this continues to make me; both of my circumstances, and simply myself — because the sort of drowning sensation that’s gripped me recently is not at all peaceful, as the real one so strangely was. Instead, it’s simply a perception of moving in the opposite direction of my intent, away from the surface where I might finally breathe again; the sensation of the waters converging above me, closing in over my head; of waning strength, of erasure, of sinking.

I don’t know that I’ll cross-post artwork all that often from where it typically lives, but this piece — quick, sloppy, still with its pencil sketch marks, finished with slowly dying markers —  needed words to go with it, and Instagram isn’t the place for them. So, I put them here.

The post title comes from the Kills song, which I’ve listened to several times today, the lyrics of which feel all too appropriate of late…

If history hang hang hangs her well/ Her memory won’t.

She walked in through the out door

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© 1985 Time & Life

So, here’s the thing: If you’re a member of my generation (or a bit older, likely anyone born and/or raised in the ’80s), as a favorite blogger of mine put it back when MJ died, you either grew up in a Michael Jackson house, or a Prince house. That might have been true even if not for their (near as anyone can really know, mostly played up for publicity) artistic “rivalry” during that decade. I’ve been a dancer since I was four years old, and that means mine was a Michael Jackson house. It’s his feet and handwriting I’ve got tattooed on me, to try to remember my strength and beauty, to continue looking forward.

But the other thing is: I fucking love Prince, too. I always have.

I run all the social media accounts for my job, and when I saw his name trending on Twitter recently, knowing how brutal this year has been with musicians only four months in, my immediate reaction was, “Oh, HELL NO.” And then everyone calmed down; he’d had to cancel some shows, his plane had made an emergency landing, and he was ill, but he was alive. Thank fucking god, right? I was (and am) still in shock from Bowie. And I think we’re all still trying to brace ourselves for what’s shaping up to be a period in which a monster generation of musicians will be entering a risky age period, and anyone can go at any time. But Prince? 57 is young. I still considered, as I’m sure many did, Bowie young, leaving us for his home planet at 69.

When Michael died at 50, it seemed simultaneously impossible that he could ever die — the same way I imagine a lot of us, myself included, are feeling right now about Prince, collectively reeling — and seemingly incredible that he’d even made it to that age, after everything his own life and the culture that produced him had put him through, every decade of his life. James Baldwin knew, though he didn’t want to know, what would happen to Michael. I can’t recall now, in my shock, whether he ever wrote specifically regarding Prince, too, and if so, whether it was anywhere near as prescient. All I know right now is, when Michael died, Prince said he had loved him.

I can only respect how maddeningly stringent Prince was about the usage of his music, because it was his, too many Black artists have died penniless and out of control of their artistic output, and he had the right to do, frankly, whatever the hell he wanted with it. But I can’t say it doesn’t make me sadder today, knowing it’s going to be tricky for those who need his music now to find it. You won’t find him on Spotify, and if you want to hear him on Pandora, you’ll have to skip through a lot of other artists. I’m pretty sure the only place you can find his music without jumping through some annoying hoops is Tidal. He’s nowhere to be found on YouTube. He was infamously vigilant about taking down anything unauthorized on any platform, but particularly that one. (Hell, my favorite artist of them all, Peter Gabriel, is quite strict about where you can find his catalogue as well, and with good reason; streaming services, across the board, do not treat nor pay their sources well.)

Prince had a phenomenal amount of output. Because of its volume, there is much greatness within it, and also plenty you can pass on. He did baffling things with his self-branding, most notoriously going by a self-styled symbol for a time. He was a monster guitarist, and an all-around underrated musician, not just a great singer and songwriter. (I mean, he produced, arranged, composed and played all 27 instruments on his debut album in ’78. How in the hell.) An unreal, nearly alien amount of talent — like Michael, like Bowie — that I seriously doubt we’ll see again, at least not in my lifetime. Right now I kind of feel like listening to everything, and yet I’m stuck on a song that my own mother isn’t much of a fan of, despite being quite a fan of Prince’s herself, but that I’ve always loved: “Raspberry Beret.” I’ve never been able to explain to her why, exactly, I’ve been such a fan of it for so long — he has so many great tracks, particularly from that period, and I love so many of those, too — but this one just fills me with joy; it makes me dance. There’s something in it for me, lurking under the bass line, moving through the strings… I’ve had it on repeat for the last 20 minutes, and I don’t give a damn.

Turn on the radio. Go digging for the few tracks you might find hidden on DailyMotion, Vimeo, and SoundCloud. Put on your records, your cassettes, your CDs. Go do that thing we so often do when we just need to be out in public with strangers while the music of someone we’ve lost is piping through storefront windows and doors. Driving in to work today, as the news was breaking over the radio — and it feels appropriate that I did actually first hear the news from a DJ on the radio — I was the only car that had his music blasting out the windows, but hopefully as people find out, there will be tons of ’em driving around, all over the city. We’ve only got a handful of albums in stock at my record store, but I know I’ll be playing them all day.