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What Happens to Your Heroes When You Grow Up?

Is it like that Corn God myth? Do you devour them? 

“Who are your heroes?” lifestyle gurus and people at cocktail parties are always asking. Why do they ask this? The idea is that your heroes — those people who, at different stages of your life, you’ve wanted not to be LIKE but to BE, are supposed to reveal what you value most, and therefore who you are.

When I was 12, I wanted to be Michael Jackson. I got two versions of “the glove” (one with sequins, made by my mom, the other, infinitely more valuable to me [Whaddya want from me? Adolescents are narcissists.], inlaid with glittering crystals that might or might not have been actual diamonds, and purchased at Spencer’s Gifts in the mall, purveyors also of a mysterious, hypnotizing product called “edible underwear”), and two Michael Jackson outfits: one this kind of ambassadorial Fantasia in lemon-yellow-and-gold with a sash and epaulettes, the other a Thriller jacket, which was actual leather and only slightly embarrassing because: A) It wasn’t the Beat It jacket, which was cooler, but more expensive because of the chain mail, and B) It was purchased in the women’s department and so had the zipper on the wrong side, which hopefully no one would notice.

I covered my room with Michael Jackson posters and pullouts from Teen Beat. I starved myself on salads like the fanzines said Michael did. I recorded his performance of “Billie Jean” at the Grammys on VHS and watched it over and over, reverse-engineering the moonwalk and that leg shake thing until the tape wore out. I wasn’t in love with the guy (I was a shy, but emerging heterosexual), but I wanted to embody his spirit of loose, skeletal brilliance. I, too, wanted to be Peter Pan gliding across the floor as if on pixie dust. To this end I doused the soles of my MJ style penny loafers in extra virgin olive oil and ruined our living room floor.

When, in seventh grade, I transferred to a new, all-boys school, the MJ obsession earned me no end of ridicule and humiliation. Liking Michael made me “gay,” the worst thing you could be called at an all-boys’ school in 1986. After a few months of relentless pressure, I hung up the penny loafers and turned my attention to other things.

At age 16, I experienced a personal punk/Goth British Invasion. In one trip to a record store in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, I simultaneously discovered the Cure, the Smiths, the Sex Pistols, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. I loved it all, but for some reason Robert Smith, with his fantastical hair like aerials reaching for the ethereal realms, and his aching, emotionally vulnerable voice, captured my imagination to the point where I found myself leaning backward over chairs with a flattening iron and some kind of epoxy hairspray so that I could prance about Oxford (where I was in acting school for the summer) like a decaying spider dressed in gossamer black. Peter Jeffrey, a somewhat famous Shakespearean actor who was teaching us Speech, once intoned as I crawled into his class: “So, Mr. Gots … What have we come as today?”

Why Robert Smith? This was a guy who lived with his mom until he was 30 (I think I read this in one of the many cheaply published Cure and Robert Smith biographies I had devoured). A man who, now past 40, sang only about misery and loneliness and dreamlike realms in which he could temporarily escape them.

But he (and the various iterations of The Cure he’d assembled over the years) wove a magical sonic landscape in which dark, ambivalent visions could emerge and be beautiful in spite (and because) of their weirdness. This resonated with my awkward, adolescent, suburban soul.

Robert met a similar fate to Michael’s when faced with my senior year of high school. It was universally agreed among my peers that he and Morrissey (who I also admired) were whiny crybabies, as was anyone who liked them. Then The Velvet Underground crept in and Lou Reed problematized the landscape with a more assertive, neurotic, New York masculinity that illuminated some of R. Smith’s more glaring limitations.

At the end of college, Tom Waits took over. A lonely time for me — I was in the middle of a kind of depressive breakdown about facing the real world and had just broken up with a serious girlfriend because of it. Tom understood my loneliness, and made it hip. Fun, even. He was a drunken psychotherapist who had been there and done that and figured out how to turn the misery into humor and poetry. I was listening mostly to Nighthawks at the Diner in those days — the most brilliant of his early albums in which he slurs and improvises his way through a long, abject evening in one of those rundown joints that, in their pathetic loveableness are an externalized version of his own battered, wet-dog soul.

I see these men lined up in an evolutionary array, romantics at different life stages, increasingly weird and uncategorizable as life becomes more complex and ambivalent. You could unpack it further: Michael stuck in early adolescence, growing over time more twisted than beautiful because of his inability to adapt to adulthood. Robert stuck at maybe age 16, still spiritually living with his mom. Tom — who in real life quit drinking 20 years ago, does yoga, is happily married, and has a son who plays drums on his records — the healthiest, most adaptable, most mature of all. And man… that voice.

Tom was my last real hero. After him came creative/intellectual crushes on David Foster Wallace, Elliott Smith, and others, but no more illusions that I ever would or should be anyone other than my own hybrid self, whatever that might be or become.

Your heroes don’t ever fully vanish. You hack them into pieces and absorb their better qualities (along with some of the bad ones, maybe — thanks a lot for the Bushmills, Tom). You’re Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, shuffling down the yellow brick road wearing Michael’s one glove, Robert’s art-fro, and Tom’s steampunk goggles. Talismans of power turned dusty old knick-knacks that you can’t quite bear to throw away.

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Real adulthood, if it comes, comes when you know that you don’t need “the glove” anymore. That it was only ever rhinestones, anyway, and you can moonwalk just fine without it.

Talk to @jgots on Twitter

… and perhaps you would like to check out Jason and Henry Rollins’ conversation about monogamy and sexual opportunism in episode 2 of Think Again – A Big Think Podcast

This isn’t the Matrix. Should you wish to face the ugly reality, there’s no red pill you can swallow.

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