It may seem strange to imagine this in our modern world replete with incessant coverage of celebrities and their foibles, but train wrecks have long been a staple of American entertainment. Back in the day, though, they used actual trains. Apparently, people were so starved for amusement in vaudeville-era America that they’d flock to see two locomotives barrel down the track towards each other, then crash in a heap of broken glass, twisted metal and smoke (proving that our appetite for mayhem and destruction was in full effect long before big-budget action movies).
In the summer of 1896, William George Crush (an apt name for this endeavor, as we shall soon see) decided to get in on the action. Crush was an agent of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas rail line, and figured that he could make more money destroying some of his fleet than using it to transport people and freight. So he hyped the upcoming stupendous event throughout northern Texas, and on the fateful day, 40,000 paying customers gathered (many via the railroad’s own passenger cars, and buying lunches from the railroad - talk about vertical integration!) for the big show. The two trains backed up about a mile apart, their respective crews set them a-rolling and escaped, and BOOM! As movie critic Joe Bob Briggs would have said had he been alive back then, they “blowed up real good.”
Among the attendees was ragtime composer Scott Joplin, who was so impressed by the carnage that he wrote a little ditty, “The Great Crush Collision March”, to capture the event for all time (a conveniently prescient move, seeing as how there was no such thing as cable television at the time). The song depicts the anticipation as the throng gathered, the building momentum of the two doomed machines, the fateful moment of impact, and the dispersing of the satisfied audience.
Now, of course, we don’t have to trek into the hinterlands to get our fix for spectacular crashes. We don’t even need to destroy perfectly good vehicles, NASCAR notwithstanding. Why, just about a month ago, a few lucky sportswriters were on hand for perhaps the inevitable, ugly end of the boxing life of Mike Tyson, who once upon a time plowed through his opponents as if he himself were a speeding locomotive.
Such is his infamy that even if you aren’t a boxing fan, you may well know much of the story. A troubled New York City youth whose only refuge was his collection of pigeons, Tyson’s aggression and various other demons found release (and a way out of the juvenile justice system) in the boxing ring courtesy of trainer Cus D’Amato, the only thing remotely close to a father figure young Iron Mike would ever know. D’Amato and his team guided Tyson into boxing’s upper echelon, but D’Amato died before seeing Tyson win the heavyweight title. Nature, and especially boxing, abhors a vacuum, and thus did all manner of sycophants, hangers-on and rip-off artists emerge.
In short order Tyson ran up extravagant bills, went through women like water, broke off from the post-D’Amato support system, married and divorced actress Robin Givens, lost his title, and ended up in jail for rape. He won his belt back after getting out of prison, but lost it in 1997 after biting Evander Holyfield’s ear in the ring. Since then, Tyson’s boxing fortunes have spiraled downward relentlessly. He went back to jail for assaulting two elderly motorists, got some weird tattoo on the left side of his face, fought Lennox Lewis more impressively in a news conference than in the actual match, and last year lost yet another comeback attempt to the kind of no-name brawler he used to destroy, in a match rigged up primarily to help retire his massive tax debt.
Yet people couldn’t stop being curious about Tyson, and that curiosity was the sole source of his bankability as a sports commodity. The audience had dwindled heavily over the years, but there was still a bit of a market for wondering if Tyson could pull it together, and keep it together, enough to regain his standing (and shelling out pay-per-view dough to see it live). But by the time of his most recent fight, Tyson was no longer taken seriously as a boxer (as much as boxing needed him, the only heavyweight fighter out there these days with even a smattering of name recognition), and his appearances became opportunities to gawk and take potshots at a once fierce competitor, now reduced to freak show fodder.
The freak show hit rock bottom on 11 June in Washington, DC, when Tyson declined to answer the seventh round bell against Kevin McBride, a pugilist of questionable skill and repute. The match was anything but scintillating: Tyson tried to headbutt McBride and break his arm, and McBride alleged that Tyson tried to bite his nipple in the ring, quipping that he did so perhaps because Tyson couldn’t reach the taller McBride’s ears. Tyson sat on his stool at the end, broken and dejected, a man with seemingly nothing left to give.
That’s the way he sounded before the fight (he told USA TODAY, “I’m really a sad, pathetic case My whole life has been a waste - I’ve been a failure”), and that’s the way he sounded afterwards. Michael Wilbon wrote in the 13 June Washington Post, “he seemed to rampage through the various states of being that have made Tyson probably the most complex and compelling figure in sports over the last 20 years He quit on the night, pronounced repeatedly he is quitting boxing for good, then talked about his life with such stunning candor that he convinced a few of us he truly feels he is done forever, such is his disdain for the game that made him the world’s first and longest-running reality show.”
Tyson rambled throughout the post-fight debriefing, speculating that he might do missionary work in Africa, declaring that he can’t stand the idea of being a boxer anymore, and downplaying any attempt to celebrate his triumphs. He’s 39 now, and while it’s highly possible that Tyson will attempt another fight (he still owes the IRS millions), and there will be a mass of the curious on hand if he does, it may be more likely that Tyson’s next big bout will be with himself, his past, and the demons that brought him down. That is lonely work, far from the glare of the spotlights (which may be exactly what he needs and/or desires), a world away from the groupies and reporters and the cheering multitudes, now off in search of the next sensation.
And that is the thing about train wrecks. We love to see them crash, but we remain blissfully oblivious to the fact that they leave an awful mess. In the aftermath of that staged event in 1896, both trains’ boilers exploded and three people were killed, many others injured. The photographer who shot a picture just before the moment of impact lost an eye to a flying bolt. And somebody had to haul away the wreckage. But everyone else went back to their lives, armed with a couple of stories to tell. So it is with the human celebrity variety of train wrecks. We live for the “blowed up real good”. We cannot get quite enough of chronicling the downfall. But once the downfall is complete, such wrecks are no longer useful to us, except as cautionary tale (VH-1’s Behind the Music, E!’‘s True Hollywood Story). We feel no more emotion for the fallen celebrities as people than Crush’s throng did for the two dead trains.
But perhaps that is just as well, if that is the only way one can gain the space and privacy needed to clean up after a human train wreck. That’s the situation Michael Jackson finds himself in now. Just two days after Tyson’s path down the track reached its point of massive collision, Jackson dodged the worst possible impact of his case, with 14 not-guilty verdicts in his back pocket from the child molestation trial. But Jackson can hardly be seen as unscathed by the whole sordid mess, even if his family and fans still wish to equate his freedom with minor world events like the fall of Communism.
Jackson’s litany of issues has gone from rumor to fact to the stuff of pop culture legend. No one doubts that he had a miserable childhood, even if he was one of the most famous pre-pubescents the world has ever known. No one doubts that the last 15 years have been anything but fruitful artistically, at least by the lofty standards he set on Off the Wall (1979), Thriller (1982) and Bad (1987). It is commonly accepted that he’s now in a tight spot financially. No one can fathom why he looks and dresses the way he does. And even the jury that set him free can’t accept his sharing a bed with little boys.
Within hours of the verdicts, speculation turned to what he’d do next. (His lead defense attorney, Tom Mesereau, got in front of the curve by declaring that Jackson would no longer sleep with boys). Then came the issue of resuscitating his career, not to mention his reputation. The 25 June Billboard offered advice from various music industry figures. Some of it seems to make sense: lay low for a while, get back to good health, get some better advisors, reassess his life. Two music producers and Joe Simpson, father/manager to Jessica and Ashlee, urged him to get back in the saddle and make music again (so did D-Rock of the Ying Yang Twins, who suggested that Jackson “needs a real black woman . . . Mike has not had his toes curled”; it may not be wise for a man who just survived a child molestation trial to take advice from a guy whose current hit single carries the refrain “wait’ll you see my dick.”).
Unless Jackson drops out of sight forever, though, he will never be immune from an impending train-wreck scenario. He is reliable, clean-burning fuel for the celebrity-industrial complex, that amalgam of movies, music, TV, advertising, and media that creates our stars and gives breathless exposure to their every bounce on Oprah’s couch, and then sends us running to gobble up every morsel of gossip they can place on the news and tidbit of product they can shovel into Wal-Mart, thus keeping the multi-billion dollar American entertainment juggernaut humming. A key component of the complex is a regular supply of train wreck fodder for the exact same reason today that Crush staged his event 109 years ago: it’ll make money, and folks’ll talk about it for years. Maybe they’ll even make a song about it.
Should Jackson re-emerge with new music someday, it will be treated much the same way that news of a new Tyson fight was these last few years. There will be initial hype, the buzz that the hype generates, and millions of people contributing some precious attention, if not some precious bucks, to see how the whole thing turns out. Jackson’s true believers will hear signs of brilliance even if the music sucks, the haters will find a way to sneer “we told you so”, and the rubber-neckers and lookie-loos will be equally satiated with either his triumphant return or a new round of wall-to-wall train wreck coverage.
But lest you think that all could well be hopeless for Messers. Tyson and Jackson, lest you come to believe that the jones for watching human train wrecks is all-encompassing and woe be onto anyone who finds her/himself on such a track, consider the ongoing saga of another brotha who fell from grace with a thud. His name is Jayson Blair - unless you are a journalist, in which case his name might well be Mud.
Blair, you’ll recall, was a talented writer who had managed to land some high-profile newspaper internships while a student at the University of Maryland, then got a gig at the New York Times. In 2003, his serial plagiarism came to the surface, and he left the Times in disgrace, thus throwing the paper (and the industry) into fits of finger-pointing, self-examination, and general embarrassment. In his memoir Burning Down My Master’s House (2004), Blair attempted to explain that, in addition to his ethical misdeeds, he was a booze and coke fiend, and only until after his train wreck did he discover that he was also manic-depressive.
Since then, he has apparently gotten a bit better, and is attempting a new life for himself. He is looking to begin a career in human relations, possibly to help others faced with the same demons that overtook him at the Times. He recently wrote an article about his recovery process for bp, a magazine for the bipolar community. He’s even gone so far as to weigh in on the decision to outsource the employee assistance program at the Times, a victim of cost cutting along with 22 editorial positions and 108 slots on the business side of the house.
The decision to end the program, along with some of the other cuts, “means less compassionate service for people at The Times,” Blair wrote in a June 15 post at the Romenesko web page, the world’s most popular hanging-out spot for journalists and news industry junkies. “It is with great sadness that I have watched the events of the last few months at The Times, which in many ways will amount to rolling back the commitments that The Times has made to its employees and managers.”
I’m reasonably certain that many Times people, and others in the industry, read or heard of Blair’s post and speculated on the size of his cojones, probably with a declaration that included the words “how dare he” or “the nerve”. I can relate to some extent, seeing as how I don’t appreciate how Blair’s actions tarnished a craft I’ve pursued since college and an industry I’ve been part of for almost 20 years. But he does have a unique and possibly valuable perspective to add to the issue - he’s been through the program, and is merely coming to the defense of a process that he credits with helping to save his life.
On a larger scale, why shouldn’t he speak out on what he believes? Why shouldn’t he draw from his own experience to aid someone else? Why shouldn’t he attempt to make something positive of his life? Yes, he went through a train wreck he pretty much brought upon himself. And yes, the nature of his particular wreck has done immeasurable damage to his credibility. But if the evidence we are seeing proves consistent, Blair is on the path to finding his way through the wreckage. He will always be known as a disgraced reporter, but perhaps someday he’ll be able to add another, more flattering line to his bio. What he did back then was wrong, but it doesn’t have to be the end of his world.
Sometimes, with luck and faith and fortitude, you can emerge from a train wreck and not be defined by it, at least not to the extent that it’s allowed to render a de facto death sentence. Mike Tyson and Michael Jackson have, the gods be willing, many more years of life to live. They will never be able to unwrite the history books that detail their misdeeds and pathologies, and the gruesome public spectacles that followed. But they may be able to give something good to the world once more, assuming the world will let them.
Just watch out for the flying bolts.