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The man who would be King

Every day I read the news. Every day I regret reading the news. 

Every story out of our nation’s capital makes me want to put a gun in my mouth. I sit down to write about some of them and stop, knowing a) there’s no point, it will just become part of the noise; and b) I will offend and off-put 50% of people no matter what I say. Divisiveness is the opposite of what we need right now, so I hit delete, and I simmer.

And then there’s the death. I’m not talking about the thousands of people who have died from COVID-19. That’s horrible, and tragic, and I don’t want to notch up the misery index by wailing and beating my breast along with the masses. I’m talking about celebrities, icons, people who – let’s face it – have lived pretty good, long, full lives and would likely have died during the normal year anyway. But under the siege of COVID-19 quarantine, every new fallen hero FEELS bigger, hits harder.

Over the weekend it was Little Richard. Say what you want, Little Richard is objectively a legend. The Beatles got their start doing Little Richard covers in Hamburg. As he liked to remind people, the white folks who made money off his songs didn’t disrespect him – they helped him go through doors that had been locked before Richard Penniman came along. 

On the tailwind of World War II, 13-year-old Penniman left his rural Georgia home and 11 siblings to escape the persecution of his abusive father, who vociferously disliked his music and strongly suspected Richard’s growing flamboyance was evidence he was gay. (He was, or would be, kind of, but does that really matter?) He moved in with a white family before The Blind Side was a meme, let alone a movie, but by 15 had hit the road as the newly-rebranded Little Richard, the future King of Rock and Roll (which didn’t exist yet, so the position of King was still up for grabs).

That’s a lot to unpack. Twelve kids in abject poverty. An abusive and intolerant father who sold bootleg moonshine. An adolescent fleeing persecution for his music and overt sexual leanings, neither of which had been seen before in polite society, in the light of day. Think about any middle school student you know, right now, or about your own kids when they were in middle school. Middle school kids are crazy, biologically, irrefutably. Today, yesterday, tomorrow, you name it. What’s the worst thing you can think of that a middle school student has to deal with today? Broken home? Cyber bullying? Drug abuse? 

My wife works in special education, and a kid who fled his home to escape abuse because of his music and sexuality today, in 2020, still ranks right up there with some of the worst and most heartbreaking scenarios that exist. And they DO exist, and they are heartbreaking. Now imagine it happening in the 1940s!

And imagine that child didn’t become institutionalized, but became an institution instead. Broke every stereotype and preordained limitation that existed, pretty much, and became a star. A legend. Someone who shaped music and, therefore, life for millions of people around the world, most of whom he’d never meet. He became a champion for people he didn’t particularly want to lead out of bondage, and a cash cow for people who recognized and leveraged his talent for their own fortunes. 

His greatest accomplishment, arguably, was his unrelenting refusal to be anything or anyone other than himself. He didn’t compromise or cow-tow. He was vilified by the same establishment that profited off his back. He blended gender roles and musical genres like a Montego Bay bartender makes umbrella drinks. And he persisted, strong and steady against trend and convention, essentially unchanged, until he died this weekend at age 87.

That’s a pretty good run. A damn good run. By comparison, Elvis bent to the will of the Hollywood establishment and succumbed to drug abuse at age 42. Little Richard flipped off everyone, enjoyed a nuclear ripple effect of influence and cult fame that simultaneously elevated and isolated him, and lived more than twice as long. I guess Bill Shakespeare really knew what he was talking about when he wrote, “to thine own self be true.”

I wonder if we will ever see another Little Richard, or Elvis for that matter. Or has the landscape changed; has technology forever leveled the playing field and fragmented us into hyperspecialized cliques so that no single voice can penetrate and shape the world like they once did? It was a simpler time, and the phenomenon of being different was exciting. Today almost everyone is different – it’s hard to see the lines or, for that matter, get excited about who might be crossing them. Once we are desensitized to all that limits us, are we doomed to be unimpressed forever? Where will our next heroes come from? And how will we know them when we see them?

In Quarantine Land, I’m convinced the greatest gift, not to mention the greatest risk, is time. Time to think. 

Meanwhile: Rock on, Little Richard.


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