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The Nature of the Hero: Shelley’s Adonaïs vs. Rilke’s Samson -or- A Lament for Mr. T: FlavorWave Oven Turbo Sell-out?

November 13, 2009

Whilst astride The Porcelain Pony the other day, I read from Bill Wyman’s autobiography, Stone Alone. I’d been listening to The Rolling Stones a lot in recent weeks and had begun thumbing through the worn paperback to get a sense of some of the people and times behind their early music. I’d had the book since high school but hadn’t touched it since then; I recalled quickly that it doesn’t stray far from this formula, repeated in nearly every chapter: take straightforward, somewhat dry (if still mildly fascinating) descriptions of chronological events taken from Wyman’s journals, add frequent complaints about not seeing enough of the money they raked in, and multiply that by mostly chaste (yet copious) accounts of bedding loads of girls.

It ain’t poetry, and it isn’t exactly deeply insightful (as Richards himself can be, surprisingly, albeit near-unintelligibly), but it’s worth the time of a music enthusiast (pointless aside: I resist the current practice of calling myself a “nerd” or a “geek” about any and every interest I have) steeping himself in the anecdotal artifacts of a favorite group.

But I digress.

As I read on through to the end, where the books drops us off in 1969, just after the death of guitarist and early bandleader Brian Jones, I arrived at a moving passage that describes Mick Jagger reading part of Shelley’s “Adonaïs” in a tribute to Jones during their first concert after his alleged drowning. Essentially, Jagger painted Jones as a heroic figure by framing him in this context, and he did so broadly: Jones was the sparkplug for the band, playing for and managing them from their earliest days as a blues and R&B outfit. As such, he had been a hero to not just Jagger, but to all (or, at least many musicians and fans–Jones was far from heroic as a husband and father, as the book confides), and yet, as such a figure of praise, he was not dead through the life of the body of his work.

Sure, it’s a little overwrought, but touching nonetheless.

But, then something strange happened that got me thinking about my own heroes. You see, the, erm, pasture in which the Porcelain Pony grazes is within hearing (and, well, viewing) distance of an old television, and I clearly heard a familiar, gruff, and authoritative voice–echoing back to my childhood–issue forth from the tinny TV speakers. I hastily tried to put a face to the voice; I suddenly felt the urge to stay in school and say “no” to drugs, to refashion myself as some sort of soldier of fortune and take orders only from elderly, cigar-smoking white guys with impending emphysema and possible early-onset dementia. A desperate compulsion overtook me to hang out with the local Coventry gymnastics squad to help them  “solve mysteries” (as I assured my wife), and I resolved to, once and for all, treat my mother right.

And then it hit me like a Clubber Lang right-hook: It was Mr. T, and he had something to say. Maybe a much-needed positive, moral lesson, like from the Mister T cartoon, for all of us kids. Something to believe in. Maybe even a healthcare proposal that a cautiously hopeful country could rally behind. An unexpected and eloquent defense of The Privacy Scarf. Something!

Unfortunately, that message was this: buy a FlavorWave Oven Turbo. O, B.A. Baracas! How could you?!

How could I bear to see him don an apron and trot out his catch-phrases, one after another, in the service of this new-fangled fleecing (a marvel of cutting-edge technology that uses heat and air to cook food)? Why, T looked like some kind of mincing, mowhawked, and (e)masculated Fred Sanfordian junk pusher! Was he truly just a self-interested shill, a swirling void of hollow, meaningless slogans wrapped in a blinged-out role-model facade?

I’d patterned so much of my life, my upright carriage, my ridiculous beard, and my demand for chemical sedation on airplanes after him. Maybe my childhood hero was less the Adonaïs of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s elegy and more that of Rilke’s Samson, the hero revealed to be false via the subtle employment of self-contradictory images, in the Sixth Duino Elegy. Or some shit.

What if he never was a hero? For every sorta-cool appearance or endorsement (hilarious Conan cameos, World of Warcraft spots, donating money to Katrina victims), there’s been an obvious, ugly cash grab (those cheap-ass Mr. T dolls; nothing else explains Silver Spoons). I fear that I placed him upon too high a pedestal–I know I’d be exploiting every opportunity that came my way if I were in his place. Screw integrity; you won’t see me waving away the dump truck full of money if it ever backs up to my front door. I’ll endorse anything if it frees me from doing any more “monkey tricks for little green rectangles,” as Dennis Miller phrased it, back when he was still cool. What would you do?

Furthermore, maybe I shouldn’t even put so much stock in heroes, or the concept of the hero, especially given that they may be only superficially so (like Brian Jones, like Samson). Maybe, like Rilke, I should put more effort into imaginative self-actualization than in constructing or coveting the ideal in another and move beyond. Or, to paraphrase it as John Lennon put it via Ferris Bueller’s lips, I should stop believing in Beatles and just believe in me.

Or perhaps I should save such pseudo-profound rumination for the Pony rides. Still, I anxiously await the imminent arrival of Rowdy Roddy Piper’s Supercharged HaggisBlaster Pro™, and I’ll try to keep this water-closet wisdom alive.

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