2003 was a strange, troubling, fascinating year where entertainment was unable to keep reality from scaling its walls and overrunning the grounds of its Neverland, with war, politics and scandal easily dominating peace, love and understanding. All of the most important entertainment stories of 2003 -- involving Michael Jackson, Phil Spector, the Dixie Chicks, and Warren Zevon -- were created as real life forced itself into areas where it was not expected, or for the most part, wanted.
Michael Jackson has a compulsory, peering-through-the-fingers grip on the popular imagination, and the garish soap opera that is his life, sadly, is the biggest entertainment story of the year. The "authorized" Jackson documentary by Martin Bashir, which aired in February, convinced many viewers of the 45-year-old entertainer's unhealthy obsession with children; a few months later Jackson worried himself into an Indianapolis hospital over one lawsuit, then found himself accused by former financial advisors of being "a ticking financial time bomb waiting to explode at any moment" in yet another legal imbroglio.
But the waning King of Pop's grim year scraped bottom and the public's voyeuristic interest peaked when seven felony charges for "lewd or lascivious acts upon a child under 14," and two for "administering an intoxicating agent to a child" (reported to be wine) were filed against him by Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon on December 18. Jackson has denied all charges and his attorney Mark Geragos proclaimed him "unequivocally and absolutely" innocent, but he could go to prison for more than 20 years if found guilty and would be required under California law to register as a sex offender.
The singer is due back in court on January 16, but he had his passport returned so he can spend Christmas in the UK to promote his greatest hits album, "Number Ones." (Not everyone in the UK is happy to see him: "Don't let Jacko set foot here," demanded Saturday's edition of The Sun. "Beat it," spat its rival The Mirror.) It must be doubly vexing to Jackson that the album itself isn't bigger news, and that all of the hits on the album -- "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," "Billie Jean," "Beat It," "Bad," and "Black Or White" among them -- were recorded long ago and far away, almost as if by another person.
How did this happen? Combine psychological trauma brought upon by a reportedly brutal, Svengali-like father and a childhood denied; add vast wealth early in life, an insatiable ego, surround with yes-men and enablers, shake well, and voila: the mutation of Jackson from an immensely talented, spunky, sharp young black man to a perpetually childlike, wan, genderless, semi-Caucasoid delusional baby-dangler, who spends money like tap water and covers his children's faces with doilies and dishrags.
Regarding the latter, "Celebrity Justice" reports Santa Barbara County Child Welfare officials have begun a formal investigation into the well being of Jackson's three children, Prince Michael I, Paris Michael and Prince Michael II - the dangled baby in question, also known as Blanket.
Jackson has certainly held our attention this year, but for all the wrong reasons. His life will never be the same as a result, even if he is eventually found innocent.
SpectoraliaIn a peculiar coincidence, fabled "Wall of Sound" record producer Phil Spector, 63, was charged with murder the same November day that Michael Jackson was first arrested on child molestation charges. Without belaboring the point, the accusations against each legend seem to be related to the trappings of their early fabulous success, and the ability of each to create isolated domains with themselves as unchallenged rulers.
Spector -- the boy-genius songwriter and producer who created the fabled "Wall of Sound" in the '60s working with the Crystals, Darlene Love, the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers, and later the Beatles -- pleaded not guilty to the murder of B-movie star Lana Clarkson, who was shot in the mouth at close range last February in the foyer of Spector's Alhambra mansion.
Spector told Esquire magazine in June that Clarkson, 40, had shot herself after "kissing" the gun. The Los Angeles County Coroner's Office, however, ruled that the statuesque blonde, whom Spector met at the House of Blues before taking her to his faux-castle home, was a victim of homicide. According to police reports on the case, Spector told his chauffeur, "I think I killed somebody," shortly after Clarkson's death. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Spector is the only suspect in the case.
Like Jackson, Spector's early life was divided between tremendous public success and deep personal pain. In 1949, when Spector was just 8, his father committed suicide. The young man's first hit, "To Know Him Is to Love Him," came in 1958 as a 17-year-old songwriter and member of the Teddy Bears -- the song title came from the inscription on his father's gravestone.
After fabulous success in the '60s and interesting work in the '70s, Spector has spent most of the last 25 years in seclusion -- rumors of guns and erratic behavior have always trailed close behind him. Earlier this year, in what was proclaimed his first interview in 25 years, Spector told writer Mick Brown, "I wasn't well enough to function as a regular part of society, so I didn't. I was different, so I had to make my own world … Because I felt hated -- even when the music became big, I never felt like I fitted in."
The day after Lana Clarkson was shot, Spector's ex-wife Veronica ("Ronnie" of the Ronettes) wrote, "My heart goes out to the woman and her family ... I can only say that when I left in the early '70s, I knew that if I didn't leave at that time I was going to die there. I said it in my book over 12 years ago and I still believe it to be true now."
The Jackson case has much more notoriety, but Lana Clarkson's murder is the most tragic entertainment story of the year.
"Dixie Chicked"The war in Iraq compelled many of us to speak our minds, to defend, question or attack major U.S. military action on the other side of the world. All who spoke their minds were subject to disputation, contention, even assaults on their character, but NO ONE was treated like the Dixie Chicks.
Springing from the loamy artistic soil of Texas, the Dixie Chicks -- Natalie Maines on lead vocals and guitar, sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire on fiddle, banjo, dobro and harmony vocals -- shot to prominence in 1998 with the release of their "Wide Open Spaces" album, which went on to sell 11 million copies on the strength of bluegrass chops, pop melodies, rock rhythms and a brash "girl power" attitude. Their follow-ups "Fly" and "Home" both debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200 chart and solidified the Chicks' position as commercial and critical superstars.
But then the Chicks flew into rough weather. In London to perform at an awards show in March just as tension was mounting before the launch of military action in Iraq, Natalie Maines announced from the stage, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." Pressed later for an explanation, she said "There is nothing more frightening than the notion of going to war with Iraq." Hmm.
As the reports crossed the Atlantic, there was an explosion of protest against Maines' statements on talk and country radio, viewed by many nervous Americans as blatantly unpatriotic, not to mention as ill-timed grandstanding for the benefit of a generally anti-war English audience. Perhaps most damning, her words were seen as unsupportive of the troops about to hurl themselves in harm's way.
Pressure mounted daily and Maines offered a semi-apology that Friday: "I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful… We are currently in Europe and witnessing a huge anti-American sentiment as a result of the perceived rush to war. While war may remain a viable option, as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers' lives are lost… I am a proud American."
Semi-apology not accepted: the country music establishment and big country radio rallied behind the war and against the Chicks. Toby Keith notoriously began working his feelings about Maines into his act, addressing an Alabama crowd in late-March: "Are there any angry Americans in Alabama tonight? … I'm angry about a lot of things … about a singer in a band called the Dixie Chicks … She was also recently on a European tour where there was an antiwar flavor and said some things about President Bush and the war. So, what do I think about her?" Keith asked. A photo of Maines and Saddam Hussein together appeared above the stage to screams from the audience. Toby Keith performed before President Bush and military personnel at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. on March 26th. The Dixie Chicks did not.
The Chicks, multiple Grammy and past Country Music Association award winners including 2000's Entertainers of the Year and last year's Vocal Group Award, were neither presenters nor performers in this year's awards show even though they were nominated for Vocal Group of the Year and Album of the Year for "Home" - they were instead pariahs.
Whether you agree with their original sentiments or not -- and I happen to not -- pity the poor Chicks. They have been vilified, burned in effigy, boycotted, denigrated, and exiled for a relatively mild anti-war statement. Contrast this with Pearl Jam. On April 1 they performed an anti-Bush song in Denver during which lead singer Eddie Vedder impaled a mask of President Bush on his mike stand in a "Lord of the Flies"-like gesture of grandiose contempt, and got barely a ripple of reaction for his efforts. Most Americans didn't even hear about it.
The obvious answer is that country music fans expect something different from their stars than do alternative-rock fans, who still trade in rebellion, even if by now it is a very attenuated and stylized form of rebellion. Country stars are supposed to be about patriotism, loyalty, respect for tradition, the flag -- all of which were violated by Natalie Maines' comments, and country fans perceived this as treachery.
While I think the fans overreacted a bit against the Chicks, it is the country establishment, big country radio, and performers like Toby Keith who refused to let the issue die, who continued to whip up the fires of outrage for their own demagogic benefit. Their role in the matter should not go unrecognized.
Lust For Life
Whereas real life consequences did not enter as welcome into the lives of Michael Jackson, Phil Spector, or the Dixie Chicks, the potentially saddest story of all -- the final year in the life of Warren Zevon -- is by far the happiest and most life-affirming.
Zevon was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in September of 2002, given just a few months to live. But instead of folding his tent and succumbing to the cynicism and self-destructive tendencies against which he had struggled his entire life, Zevon responded with a burst of creative energy, humor, wisdom and a stunning album, "The Wind."
Zevon, among rock's most distinctive, enduring, and disturbing singer-songwriters, is best known for his lovingly expressed affinity for the macabre in such jaunty anthems as "Werewolves of London," "Excitable Boy," "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" and "Life'll Kill Ya," but he also always revealed another side in songs of tender sincerity and emotional insight like "Hasten Down the Wind," "Carmelita," "Accidentally Like a Martyr" and "Never Too Late for Love."
Released in August, "The Wind" is at once a summation of Zevon's career and a life-affirming celebration of the joys of music-making. It bursts with creativity -- his own and that of his dearest friends and contemporaries: Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder, David Lindley, and his long-time collaborator Jorge Calderon.
"Dirty Life and Times" opens the disc with the timeless feel of a Civil War march modernized by tasty churning electric guitar work from Cooder, and continues a mythic Western outlaw theme that spans Zevon's entire career. "Disorder in the House" and "The Rest of the Night" are ripping rockers raging cheerfully against the dying of the light, and love songs to the unhinged party-life that Zevon largely gave up in the early '80s after a long struggle with alcohol abuse.
But there is also great delicacy on the album. Zevon pays tribute to hero Bob Dylan and addresses the hereafter directly on his cover of Dylan's hopeful Western elegy, "Knockin' On Heaven's Door." "The Wind" ends with a dying man's admission of need, vulnerability and comfort, "Keep Me in Your Heart." As his final, spare repetition of "keep me in your heart for a while" concludes, I shed a tear of sorrow that he is gone, mixed with great joy that he lived.
Warren Zevon died September 7 at the age of 56, living long enough to make "The Wind" and to see the birth of twin grandchildren. Last October Zevon appeared on television as the only guest of huge fan David Letterman in a special episode of the show. The highlight of the show was this exchange:
Letterman: "Do you now know something I don't know?"
Zevon: "I know how much you are supposed to enjoy every sandwich."
Eric Olsen is the editor of