NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Elvis, Hank, Michael: Killed by Fame

Mortality and Tragedy Stalk Musical Stars in All Genres

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Hank Williams was lucky. That’s a seemingly bizarre but logical argument that posits that his legacy was guaranteed by his early death while he was still at the top of his musical and songwriting powers. He was only 29 when he expired in the back seat of his Cadillac in 1953, and his music was still strong, vibrant and getting better by the year even as his personal life spiraled downward. What country patriarch Roy Acuff cynically termed Williams’ “timely death” ensured his enshrinement as a music icon who was still on top of the country music world and would always be remembered that way.

Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson were not so lucky, in terms of their legacies. Both died very untimely deaths, legacy-wise. Both were well over the hill musically and both were striving for comebacks when they died — Presley at 42, Jackson at 50. Both deaths were shrouded by mysteries and tawdry circumstances. And, indeed, as was Hank’s.

Hank, Elvis and Michael were all in poor health, all prisoners of drugs and abetted by compliant, drug-dispensing doctors and dubious associates. None of them was ever comfortable with or fully cognizant of all the costly wages of huge superstardom and all that it demands. None was ever groomed in childhood or in any career development to understand the enormous personal sacrifices they would have to make to become a public star and persona whom millions of fans believed that they personally owned.

All three responded in what can be viewed, in retrospect, in very predictable manner, given their modest upbringings and surroundings. None ever ultimately succeeded in their personal struggles. Hank withdrew into a shadow world of alcohol and drugs. His marriage crumbled, and he entered into a bizarre public wedding (to his second wife, who was named Billie Jean) as two performances for which admission was charged. His career, which in those days relied on personal appearances, declined because of his drug-related problems, and he was trying to mount a comeback when he died. But his music, based as ever on total real life experience, had become almost surreally alive even as he began to step outside of his life.

Jackson’s apogee was 1982’s spectacular album, Thriller, which dramatically transformed the musical and the video and the video channel landscape. Ten years later, though, the world was changed. His Dangerous album was rudely replaced at No. 1 on the Billboard chart by Nirvana’s Nevermind. Jackson’s era vanished, and his world would never be the same again. His personal life became a cipher, and he withdrew into a personal wonderland.

Elvis was at his peak just as he entered the Army in 1958. When he returned, his manager pressed him into a lifetime of churning out mostly worthless movies that obviously began to drain his self-confidence. The largely mediocre recordings that followed seemed to drain the life out of him. His personal life suffered badly, his marriage did not survive and he became a bloated walking drugstore.

Why don’t music stars know when to retire? Why do they desperately try to cling to stardom when the voice is shot and the music has faded? Unfortunately, there are some easy answers. Many artists, because of poor choices and trust in the wrong people, are in bad financial shape, if not in bad debt. They need to try to work forever. Many are so deluded from years of listening only to “yes” people that they believe that their talents are as sharp and in as much in demand as ever. Many have such strong egos that they cannot imagine ever walking away from fame and stardom and adulation.

Many have involuntary retirement forced upon them. Tragedy strikes in the form of death from drugs or alcohol or from car wrecks or plane crashes or — in a case such as John Lennon’s — by a deranged stalker who imagines that fame makes him part of the star’s world.

I cannot think of many country music stars who have willingly walked away from stardom when they were relatively healthy and when their music was still viable. One that I know who has, and whom I admire, is Carl Smith, who had a long, successful country music career and a happy personal life, then retired to his horse farm and is still doing well. He’s a fortunate exception.

I can — and so can you — unfortunately come up with the names of many rock and country stars who died young or while trying to stay in the saddle. In country alone, they include Patsy Cline, Keith Whitley, Waylon Jennings, Hawkshaw Hawkins and many more.

In rock the list is long: John Lennon, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Keith Moon, Brian Jones, Mama Cass Elliot and many others.

The lessons for these would-be Gods? Don’t be mortal.