My past came back to visit me last week. It came in the form of Donny Osmond.
The one-time teen heartthrob is here in town, doing the lead in the musical
“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” He came in to do a radio interview with me. The studio door opened. The producer said, “Donny’s here.”
“How you doing?” I said, my voice deep.
“How are you?” he said, his voice deep.
Now, I want to say, right here, that back in his high- pitched youth, Donny Osmond — and his singing family — were part of our late ’60’s life-in-front-of-the-mirror. My younger brother and I would shape our hair to mimic theirs and practice dance steps as their albums played. I was probably too old, even then, to be doing that, and if not for what I’m about to tell you, I would never confess it.
But we secretly thought the Osmonds were cool. Sure, the Beatles were the best, and the Stones were raucous, and Jimi Hendrix was what we “should” have been listening to — but the truth was, those artists were men and we were children.
The Osmonds were children, like us. They climbed trees. The had their photos taken on Ferris wheels.
And so my brother and I danced in front of the mirror, secretly, imagining we were a famous pop family, until one day, we got older and stopped.
And the Osmonds faded from the top.
“Was it hard for you to cease being the ‘cool’ thing?” I asked Osmond.
He titled his head, ready to speak. I could tell he had been asked this before. It comes and goes
“What happens,” he said, “is that everyone wants to be involved with the cool thing. Whatever’s new and latest is cool. And after a while, I guess I stopped being that. It made my career hard. . . .
“I tried being more adult. I used my full name on a record. Donald Clark Osmond. I grew a beard. No one knew who I was.
“Then, a few years back, when I did a song called ‘Soldier of Love’ (which went on to become a top 10 single), the record company liked it and released it but didn’t want to use my name. So they called me ‘anonymous artist.’ “
“Yeah. I was ahead of Prince.”
The Artist Formerly Known As Donny?
As I listened to this, I felt kind of bad. The guy never did anything wrong. He just hit the jackpot the same time he hit puberty. Oddly enough, he and Michael Jackson had parallel careers for a while, both up and down. True, Jackson again became a megastar, but I can tell you, of the two, Osmond behaves much more like someone from this planet.
Which got me thinking about this whole notion of “cool.”
Let’s face it, being “cool” is the driving force of our teen years, our college years, and for many of us, even the adult years that follow. We talk certain ways. We dress certain ways. It is fashion over form.
After all, are Nikes really any better than other sneakers? Do convertibles run any better than hardtops? Is “Friends” really any better written than other TV shows?
“Being cool,” Osmond said, “comes and goes.” Born to be mild
A few years ago, I did an interview with John Kay, the lead singer of Steppenwolf. This was the group that, in the 1960’s, did “Born To Be Wild,” the raunchy anthem of a motorcycle generation. I asked Kay what kind of bike he owned.
“I’ve never driven one,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“I have a problem with my eyes. I don’t even have a driver’s license.”
I learned that day that cool is how you see it. All these years, we pictured John Kay gunning some Harley Davidson — and all that time, he was hailing cabs.
And now, here was Donny Osmond, sitting next to me, a grown man with a good sense of humor. As we talked, I slowly admitted once having his records, and mimicking his hairstyle. And you know what? It didn’t feel stupid. He laughed and I laughed.
And here is the point of this whole thing: When you’re younger, what’s cool is what you want to be. But after a certain age, what’s cool is what you were.
So our pasts are cool now. We baby boomers love remakes of our old TV shows, the rebirth of John Travolta, a new Beatles song. Much of it is fad, of course, but part of it is saying, “You know, we were OK back then. We didn’t have to pretend we were more adult than we were.”
It’s a way of making peace with your past.
I didn’t say all this to Donny Osmond. I just wished him luck and said good-bye. But I thought about those days in front of the mirror, my brother and I, giving a secret concert. And for the first time in 25 years, I wondered what happened to those albums.