Dead Celebrities & Me

“I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:5)

Once upon a time there was a kid who grew to be an amazing musician. His ascent to fame started in Motown, where he was a part of many hit songs and records that we still listen and love today. Then he went solo and made a landmark album that was so groundbreaking that it completely revolutionized his genre of music. His artistry influenced so many musicians that everyone wanted to be like him. However, while he was at his peak musically, his personal life started to crumble. He went through failed marriages, was diagnosed with mental disorder, exhibited lots of eccentric behaviors, engaged in a long period of substance abuse, spent away much of his money, and lived a reclusive life before his tragic death. After his death, a star-studded memorial service was held in which his former friends celebrated his life and artistry.

The person I’m talking about is Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987). Who is that, you may ask? If you are a bass player, you would probably know Jaco as one of the greatest bass player that ever lived. His self-titled album revolutionized bass playing, and his songs still amaze many who hear him until this day. But despite his brilliance, he was a lost soul in the last few years of his life, and he died beaten to death outside a bar after a night of binge drinking.

Jaco’s story somehow sounds eerily similar to the the life and death of many celebrities, including recent dead celebrities like Michael Jackson and (to a lesser degree) Steve McNair. When a brilliant person passes away, people usually say things like “I choose to remember so-and-so as an amazing person who contributed so much beauty to the world” or something like that. However, I think that with the passage of time, people will inevitably forget about the messy stuff in a dead celebrity’s life, and all that’s left are the good memories. That’s ok, that’s natural, but when a celebrity dies, I “choose” to try to learn from the celebrity’s failures from his/her life while the memory is still fresh and untainted.

Last week, after learning of Michael Jackson’s death, I tweeted that “Michael Jackson’s death tells me that some people die and leave behind a lot of debt, bad influences, and another example of a life wasted”… I should have known that a 140-character limit on Twitter is not going to be enough to talk about such a complicated thing as someone’s life, and I received a few responses via Twitter and Facebook, one of which was a particularly angry response saying how I can talk about a dead person that way.

The truth is, like I said, I was trying to learn lessons from Michael Jackson. In fact, I really love Michael Jackson’s music — one of the reasons I love English songs so much while growing up in Hong Kong was artists like Michael Jackson. But today I look at him again with fresh eyes. One day my family was at a friend’s house, and they were playing old Michael Jackson music videos on the TV. When I saw that my 3-year-old son Chase was watching those dance moves by Michael Jackson where he was thrusting his groin area toward the girls and incorporating “grabbing his crotch” as a part of the dance moves, I had to ask my friend to turn off the TV immediately. Until that day, I hadn’t realized how obscene Michael Jackson’s dance moves were.

In fact, Wikipedia’s entry on Michael Jackson said that he probably had a condition known as “body dysmorphic disorder, a psychological condition whereby the sufferer has no concept of how he is perceived by others.” That’s a terrible condition to have, and it probably explains why he could be such an “entertainer,” because he could dangle a baby outside a window or danced on top of a car in the middle of his child molestation trial. I feel sad for Michael Jackson, because I can imagine how he struggles with his own identity, leading him to undergo numerous cosmetic operations and just feeling lost in the world.

I’m also reminded of a passage in Luke 13:1-5, where someone asked Jesus about some current events (during that time) about some people dying. Jesus’ response was a table-turning response: “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:5) The reflection of the recent celebrities deaths for me is that I need to watch my own life too. At times, I feel like I abused my liberties and sinned against God, and at times I’ve been living as a lost soul. So I guess learning about and thinking about dead celebrities is a good thing for me — because it’s a lesson that I also need to watch how I live my life and my legacy to my children and to this world.