Wednesday night on Letterman: Joaquin Phoenix and Tom Jones. First Joaquin - beautiful, brilliantly talented, very vulnerable, with his frequent "and um..." and hesitancy in answering direct questions. Then Mr. Jones - still hot and bothersome at 74 and counting. (And in case you're wondering, Joaquin Phoenix was born exactly nine months ahead of my daughter.)
I wonder how many other women of my generation have been taken with such a maternal possessiveness toward the Phoenix boys. River broke my heart more than once, but the last time almost did me in; after his death, I couldn't watch my favorite movie of all time (Stand By Me) for three or four years. (I taught my youngest child to dance with that movie playing on the VCR.)
I think what hurt the most was that in his very evasion of public life, River pulled off a major lie. We moms truly believed he was the beautiful, calm, stable boy he made himself out to be - the serious actor, the one with a gift, the Big Brother of the other young Phoenixes. And as the eldest of four, I'd cast him in the role of Guiding Light: the one who set the example, just as I was expected to do; the one who played it safe because the little ones would follow; the one who was cautious in taking risks, so the little ones wouldn't follow... And then, dramatically, suddenly, right there on a street corner in LA, in front of God and everybody, he up and died - OD'd. And one of the little ones - Joaquin - had to be the one to call 911.
Damned if that's not a comeuppance to mark you for life.
Joaquin isn't as pretty as River was. He's much the middle child, the odd duck, the one who pulls goofy publicity stunts that may or may not be research for a new role. Every time I see him, with that "birthmark" on his face, the first thought in my head is that if plastic surgeons have a real calling, it's to fix harelips as well as his has been fixed. I mean, really... But there's something about him. Maybe it's the intensity, or maybe it's just the goofy approach to being serious.
Or maybe it's just - as Billie Holliday sang so perfectly, 'way before MY time, let alone his - "them there eyes."
Then Mr. Jones - white-haired, bearded, solid - even stocky. No tight pants and shirt open to THERE, no shimmying pelvis - no real drama, even. The old image of Tom Jones is out the window. But...
The directness - the no-nonsense, lay-it-on-the-line honesty - of the delivery constituted one of the sexiest performances I've ever seen on TV. I mean, be honest: live is always better. It's all relative. If I'd been in the studio audience, I'd very possibly have felt it genuinely necessary to throw some intimately personal object onto the stage.
The song was a bluesy, not-quite-gospel thing about "I don't know what's gonna happen when I die and it scares the living crap out of me..." The chorus repeats, building in intensity: "Maybe there ain't no Heaven, maybe there ain't no Hell. Maybe there ain't no Heaven, no burning Hell..." The lyrics are plain, flat: there it is, deal with it. And the blunt delivery sends chills down my arms.
Because that's the question. What if?
Believe all you want, but remember this: "Faith" requires accepting not just what you can't see, but what you realistically can't even believe. Anyone who tells you they KNOW the truth is either (a) lying in their teeth, or (b) lying to themselves in their teeth. Believe all you want - I do. But don't tell me you know.
A kid the age of Joaquin Phoenix - or my daughter - can't deliver those cold chills as plainly and simply. For all "that age" is officially "adult," a Western 35-year-old these days isn't a "grown-up." Hard knocks have nothing to do with it; Joaquin Phoenix watched his brother die, and Bri dealt with traumas of her own. (And yes, they were real traumas, not adolescent "mountains out of molehills.") But in spite of the hard knocks, the lost siblings, lost friends, fear and alienation, and the outright tragedy it took them to grow up, these kids mostly haven't yet woken up at 2 a.m. wondering if they're really going to see their Granddaddy and their Aunt Murial when they die, or if the "crossing over" BS is complete and total BS.
Whereas Mr. Jones senses reality: the truth of the matter is something we can't know. And he lays it out there on the line in his performance, hard and uncompromising: I don't know. I don't have a clue. I will pray, I will try, I will hold onto as much belief as I can - even if it's the belief that if I approach the church altar right now, with as little faith as I have in my heart, a bolt of lightning will find me.
It's very late, and I'm very tired, but there is a point here. It's not so much that it escapes me at the moment as that my heart - my gut, my kishkes - knows the point, but that point totally refuses to travel to the logical, verbal side of my brain from where I can throw it out there.
But I think it's this:
The world is a bizarre place. A lot of what happens is a matter of being in the right place at the wrong time. Can you imagine, if either of these performers had taken one different turn? True, it wouldn't be as dramatic as "the end of the world as we know it" - because that would simply be the way it is.
But I'm convinced that art, creativity, music, drama, and even just flinging oneself out into the world - into life - is what keeps the world turning. It's us, at whatever level we are, wherever we are in our personal development, grabbing hold of that "love energy" that Glenn Henson defines as "God" and flinging it back into the universe, where it can build on itself and grow willy-nilly and attach to other beings and turn, again, into art, creativy, music, drama - beauty.
Gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, irresistible, undeniable, unflappable, indefinable beauty. The flotsam and jetsam that come together in an implosion of "love energy" and make us truly alive.