It is strange, as someone who began absorbing pop culture in earnest in the late 70’s and early 80’s to have experienced the passing this week of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson. In their own ways, each left an indelible mark on the world of entertainment.
Ed McMahon, the first of the three to pass, at the age of 86, was the consummate sidekick. Though his career certainly had many other items of note, his work with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show was certainly transcendent. Never ever the star of the show, he was nonetheless the perfect complement to Johnny, and he played that part to the hilt. For me growing up in the wheelhouse of Carson’s years on Tonight, Ed was a staple of late night TV. I heard someone, I can’t remember who now, say that Ed was half of the most famous two-shot on TV, sitting next to Johnny. So true.
Blessed with a name that could be mistaken for no one else, Farrah Fawcett was to me, a lad growing up in the 70’s, the original sex-symbol. I said on the air the other day that in their youth, women of a certain age wanted to be her, and men of a certain age wanted a great deal of quality time with her poster. Her work on the show Charlie’s Angels was, if not high art, certainly outstanding escapist entertainment, and isn’t that what most are looking for in television? Losing her to cancer at the age of 62, while not a shock—it was well known that she’d been battling the disease for some time—is a sad loss indeed.
Michael Jackson’s passing at the age of 50 did come as a surprise. Coming on the same day as Farrah’s death made it even more surreal than it may have been otherwise. It seemed impossible that it could be happening, but it was. I had the odd, unique position of dealing with it as a broadcaster, watching the very sketchy information come in, and having to decide at what point to confirm the worst fears. It took a long time for the news to develop to the point where I was comfortable reporting him as having passed away.
The earliest reports were coming in primarily from the entertainment-tabloid-gossip website TMZ.com, which, while in the end was proven to have their facts essentially correct, doesn’t count as a reliable enough source for me to report their information as fact. I’m not a trained journalist, though I am a trained communicator, but I know enough about journalism to know that getting two independent sources is an awfully good idea, especially in a situation that involves declaring someone to be dead.
The tricky part was getting that second source. Far too many websites were simply citing the TMZ news. So we waited, reporting that he was rushed to the hospital and that the situation seemed grave while we sought some independent confirmation. We finally got it from the Los Angeles Times website, which was running so slow due to what must have been staggering traffic at the time.
Situations like that don’t come up all that often, but they do from time to time in radio. I have to thank Lady J and Chris Jackson both for all of their help sorting through our Michael catalog on no notice, and prepping some hits for me to play. That’s not stuff we typically feature on this station, so it’s not exactly sitting on the top of the stacks. Those guys did a great job getting the stuff ready while I monitored the news reports. We were able to go wall-to-wall Michael as soon as his death was confirmed. I think the audience for the most part appreciated the opportunity to listen and reflect.
Say what you will about some of his personal-life foibles, but Michael as an artist did indeed revolutionize pop music, transitioning out of the disco years, and anchoring the pop years of the 80’s. People with more knowledge than me can speak far more intelligently on his precise place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, but for me, his music was groundbreaking and game-changing, and it was as interesting to watch him grow and change as an artist as it was at times horrifying to watch him grow and change as a person.
May these three icons of my youth all rest in peace.