Most musical artists who become famous almost always “hit it big” when they’re young – very young in fact. Very seldom do we see someone breaking big as a popular artist in their 40’s, 50’s or beyond. It is such a paradox that becoming famous at a young age occurs exactly at the time in one’s life when they are least prepared to deal with it. Still without life experience and an absence of not yet having to handle tough daily problems and crises, fame plus youth can be a recipe for utter disaster. The list is quite long of those who have self destructed through celebrity, especially early fame, from former teen idol Leif Garrett to Boy George.
People are generally cynical regarding the woes of a troubled pop star, spewing things such as, “You brought it on yourself, A***hole” to “You got what you deserved, you F**** spoiled little no talent piece of crap!” Television, print, photographers, websites and blogs are devoted to chronicling each downward spiral, sitting on the edge of their seats, gleefully watching the train wreck that is often known as young celebrity. With the Michael Jackson child molestation trial fiasco, it seemed generally accepted that it just couldn’t get any worse, till the public’s insatiable appetite found newfound nourishment with the meltdown of Britney Spears.
From my point of view, the reasons for her decline seem obvious. As someone who has witnessed famous people around me self undo, as well as having been there myself, albeit in a far smaller capacity, the “why it all happened” is clear.
For Britney and Michael Jackson, working in the entertainment field as young children created issues, as it does for so many in that position. We hear over and over again the sad and tragic stories of child celebrities. It’s as if a huge period of their life (the things that normal kids do) go missing in action, similar to having a serious memory lapse. It would be like watching a movie, then all of a sudden, the picture goes black and stays that way for quite some time, till the story somehow picks up at a later point in the film leaving the plotline disconnected. Being deprived of life experiences that are essential to one’s healthy development is like repeatedly not sleeping well, eating properly, or ever being in the sunlight. One’s perspective becomes severely skewed, warped and distorted.
In the case of Ms. Spears, she is a true American success story: coming from a humble small town background, becoming a childhood star and then progressing on to international pop star status.
Currently, with her well-documented meltdown, people have just reveled in it! – it’s like watching a horrific car crash and being glued to it. Except with this tragedy, people laugh and make fun of her. (Oops! I forgot – now it’s referred to in hushed tones as an American tragedy, as if to pretend that the media cares sympathetically about her). It is the ultimate revenge people feel toward the famous: the jealousy, resentment, even hatred against someone considered rich, privileged and invincible – We love to bring ‘em down and when that star is young, they can often be brought down.
Look!!! There she is shaving her head – vandalizing a car — I can see her F**** crotch – (The news outlets can slow down the video where 5 seconds becomes 30 seconds – so much better for ratings!!!) GO, BRITNEY, GO!!!!!!! It also makes people feel that their lives are somehow normal. She is the nut case — not I — I am the rational and sane one – a perfect functioning member of society!
I remember seeing a serious news report on CNN called the “Britney Economy.” Simply stated, it estimated how much the American economy benefits from Britney’s decline: magazine sales spiking when she appears on the cover, television shows that have higher ratings where she is the subject, etc. The economic windfalls were reported to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars for our country!
I’ve been on the receiving end of that kind of a media feeding frenzy myself. Contrary to the Chicago revisionist history that’s out there, I have been as well known in New York and Los Angeles as I was in Chicago, but the pinnacle of my fame and notoriety occurred outside of Chicago in 1980 in England, where I received intense tabloid style media coverage.
Of course it was smaller in magnitude compared to Britney Spears, or any pop star for that matter. Let me first coin these new pop culture phrases right here and now. I was an “almost pop star,” an “on the verge celebrity” What an oxymoron that is. (LAM = Laughing At Myself) Almost all of the press I received, some glowing, some scathing, a lot of it quite cynical, was as sensationalistic and over the top as anything in today’s tabloids. For a press core that fancied itself as musically perceptive and astute, there were hardly any aesthetic observations at all.
It was England in the summer of 1980 and I was dropped onto an unsuspecting British public to do an extensive UK/ European tour with Sting and The Police, XTC, UB-40, Squeeze and U-2 as my first album and single had just been internationally released. From late July through mid September, we were playing pretty much daily to anywhere from 9,000 to 45, 000 people in outdoor stadiums along with a few solo headlining club dates. On that trek, I was also filmed for the now legendary cult classic film Urgh! A Music War.
It all began with our first British performance – the first ever Milton Keynes concert in late July, alongside Sting and the Police, UB-40, Squeeze and Sector 27. From backstage I could see an ocean of people in this outdoor venue – 45,000 in fact. The crowd appeared endless, like looking up at a clear sky and imagining how far it goes. When we came on, the trouble started right away, solely based on my appearance. People were booing and began throwing things – in fact, mostly full or completely full cans of beer — large cans, larger than I remember ever seeing back home. The amps were being hit like perfect targets by a war airplane out of the sky – with each direct hit the beer splattered like a detonated bomb — the stage was soaked in it. My backup singer, Barbie Goodrich and I were dancing all around to avoid being hit while slipping on the stage that appeared as if a water pipe that had just busted open. The band was more like sitting ducks and it was turning into a free for all. The angry mob kept throwing and heaving, more cans, objects, obscenities, you name it…
During the 6th or 7th song, Work Song, I believe, I took a direct hit on the forehead. There was blood – but I was going to continue. This was war — just with a brand new enemy – You must kill the enemy or die yourself, as you’re willing to die for the cause…but my manager and Miles Copeland pulled me off stage. I was bleeding but didn’t need to go to the hospital. As I was sitting in my trailer backstage, I was bandaged, which eventually stopped the bleeding yet I felt paralyzed. No one was being consoling at all – not even the people who worked with me. I remember sitting there until eventually the entire concert was over and seeing Sting ride off in his limousine.
Now, the press there loooooooooooved it. This was like a free ongoing carnival sideshow to gawk at and revel in. In their minds, here was this nutcase, semi insane barely functioning American mini-star, who they could just rip to shreds with utter fanciful amusement – and they did. I was constantly in the press – at least weekly, often daily with headlines such as “Meet The Worlds Ugliest Pop Star” to “Would You Let Your Daughter Marry Jim Skafish?” A fan dressed as my profile from head to toe strolled aimlessly throughout London while journalists would surprise me out of the blue and try to ask me questions on the streets and in restaurants, as I had not yet ever granted an interview. During this time period, my first album and single shot up into the top 10 of the British Independent Charts.
In August, Sounds Magazine ran a three-week vicious, satirical cartoon of me. The premise of the story was that I was wearing a mask to hide my eternally so ugly mug to try and impersonate being a mainstream pop star, who was implied to be Davy Jones of the Monkees. But, by the end of the three-week run, AH HA! I was found out! The mask was removed!!! It was Skafish, or as they said (to protect themselves from libel) STARFISH! Then someone pukes based on the horror of witnessing the real me and the cartoon was done.
I was 23 at the time and certainly not prepared to deal with this pressure at all. How could I have been? Just like any other performer, there are no classes in school that teach us how to deal with success, yet alone fame. It is its own animal and completely misunderstood. Fame is sold as immortality and a privileged life, when it actuality it is merely an illusion – the illusion of immortally, validation, connection and empowerment. It’s like claiming that a slanted slippery slope is a rock solid concrete foundation to stand on. Besides my own internal confusion at the time, there was no one there, whether from my record company to anyone to help me through this. I was just sort of left out there alone, a gangling freak on foreign soil, in the midst of a feeding frenzy.
I started becoming afraid – even paranoid. I felt like any minute, any second, I was going to die – just right there – drop dead and the whole world would then be able to laugh at the spectacle. I could barely function. It was as if every moment felt like an eternity of terror – endless and without any relief — like finding yourself dropped in the middle of the largest ocean on the planet at midnight with no one around. Of course, in retrospect, it makes sense why I would have felt that way, but being so young, I simply didn’t have the tools and awareness I now have to deal with these types of emotions.
I had to leave — I had to get home. It became my mission. To actually want to go back to the ghettos of East Chicago, Indiana, where I was raised, a place where I had been brutalized pretty much on a daily basis since my childhood – I wanted to be there? That is something I would have never thought I could ever feel.
We were all making about $145.00 a week, but I saved my pennies and bought a plane ticket to New York. I didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket back to Chicago, as somehow, back then, it was more expensive than a ticket to New York. From there, my plan was to stay with friends till I got more money and could take a flight back to Chicago. I kept going back and forth on the decision – yes, no, I AM going to do it — no- no-no-I guess I’ll wait it out.
However, after a week or so, that was it. I called a cab at around 5:00 AM before anyone in the band woke up (as we were all living in a flat in London) and took the cab to Heathrow airport. Barbie Goodrich woke up and saw that I wasn’t there – she called Miles Copeland who dispatched his assistant, Carol Anne to the airport to snatch me back.
However, there was one problem – an insurmountable one. Because of how strange I looked, the British airline and government authorities surmised that I must be a terrorist. By the time Carol Anne got there, my luggage was already on the flight and the authorities misconstrued that I had a terrorist bomb in my luggage. The authorities forced me to board the flight. Why? They figured that I had a bomb in the luggage, and forcing me on the plane meant that I would have to die in the explosion. In their minds, I wouldn’t want to die, so presumably, I would be forced into confessing to the bomb right then and there. By me confessing, they’d find the bomb, I would go to prison forever while the rest of the innocent people would have their lives spared. Nowadays, it’s common knowledge that a terrorist would have no problem being blown up with the plane. Back then, their logic may have seemed to somewhat make sense as this was before terrorism was commonplace as it is in society today.
So, they physically grabbed me and practically strong-armed me onto the plane. As the plane was ascending, I felt the sensation of the cabin walls closing in on me. It was 6 hours of tension and fear, then I landed in New York and record company employees were there, waiting. I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours and they bought me a hamburger. Once I got to the States, I really didn’t want to go back; to face more attacks and sensational media coverage. Between the record company and my manger who called me somehow on an airport pay phone, they convinced me to go back – and I did – immediately,
After wolfing down my hamburger, I was back on the 6 hour flight to London, arriving there quite late. Back to the flat, I got 1-2 hours of sleep before having to immediately go to Belgium to continue the tour the next morning after being across the ocean twice over the last 12-14 hours straight.
This event was the grand slam home run the press was waiting for. Here, everything they had said about me was able to be validated as true. As they put it, I am this enormous nosed misfit, American mini-star—a nut case, someone who needs therapy, desperately, who you need to listen to before he commits suicide. What I did made the media seem right on the money regarding their opinions of me. They had a field day with it in the press, relishing in the details: Carol Anne talking sense into me, a schmaltzy coming to Jesus moment, you know, the whole smear, the freak gets it now, big group hug, blah, blah, blah and the weirdo is ready to have another go at it. Some of these stories concluded with the concept of now, since I saw the light, there’s every chance of seeing me perform there, unfortunately, darn it…
After that experience, I was quite OK through the rest of the tour and subsequently, never reacted this way in my career ever again. I learned from this saga, and internalized the lesson. At that time, I really saw rock ‘n’ roll, particularly fame, as my ticket out of a life of tortuous abuse. Since I had been persecuted and abused virtually every day of my life from my first day in kindergarten, I was trying desperately to heal my past through my art. With being a sideshow in England at that time, it recreated the torture, now for the whole world to see. That trigger, along with my other experiences as a performer and artist, served as a catalyst of growth. That was the beginning of re-evaluating my perspective on fame. (And yeah, I wrote and recorded a song about it and you’ll hear it on a upcoming release.)
Fame is not easy, especially for the young. Yet people think that fame equals a whole new set of rules: attacks, invasion of privacy and complete disregard of human dignity to merely name a few. It’s as if one gives up all of their inalienable human rights as a trade off to be famous. I hoped the death of Princess Diana would curtail the mad feeding frenzy of celebrity – but it didn’t. However, it is my deepest hope that young artists coming up can learn from the tragedies of those who came before them.
At this point in my life, I really feel that is was a blessing in disguise that I didn’t become a superstar in my early career, a time where I could have not handled the pressures and all that would have come with it. I absolutely would have made every attempt to maintain my artistic integrity, but the insanity of it all could have been quite maddening. Often, young artists ask for my advice regarding their careers. One of my strongest messages to them is to not see fame as a solution to whatever their experience has been. There is nothing worth selling your soul for and I’m so thankful mine wasn’t sold – as it has never really been for sale anyway!
Okay, now it’s your turn – tell me what you think!
© 2008 Skafish