The Thrill Is Gone: A Valediction for Rob Ford, and a Nostalgic Meditation on his “Thriller Years.”

So the news today comes in two flavours: the short version and the long version. As always, the long version tells a fuller story and gets closer to the truth.

In the short version, Toronto’s mayor-in-name, notorious village idiot and town drunk Rob Ford, has finally admitted (at least to us) his uncontrollable alcoholism and is finally willing to “get help.”

In the longer version, no less than three news sources have reported new footage, videos, pictures, and other forms of direct documentary evidence, of Mayor Ford smoking some more crack as recently as last Saturday (it’s currently Thursday, folks). Another filthy, sleazy, homophobic tirade has already been published here courtesy of the Toronto Sun. And let us now qualify the “leave of absence” Ford has asked for: it’s 30 days, making it just enough time to enter a 28-day rehab program, leaving him one day to celebrate completing rehab by getting crunk and hyphy with his mob-trash friends before getting right back on his usual schedule of not showing up for work the next morning.

If I sound skeptical of Ford’s intent, sincerity, or motives for seeking help, that’s only because he’s exhibited a fundamentally dishonest character in the past, especially around the issue of his substance abuse problems. This should not surprise those of us who know anything at all about alcoholics and drug addicts.

At this point, a 28-day stint in rehab is a savvy (if desperate) campaign move. It’s a lot of re-election time to devote to the gesture of seeking help, but now that Ford has gone and shoved his conspicuous crack-and-booze habits straight in our face again, there is no way at all to stave off criticism except to make some kind of pretense toward “getting healthy.” Hiring a convicted steroid trafficker as a personal trainer isn’t going to cut it this time: a much bigger and more conspicuous lip service to recovery must be paid.

If I were a campaign manager desperate to salvage the sinking Ford ship (let’s all remember, he’s not taking his name off the ballot yet), I’d say 28 days seems just about perfect. Remember the charming Sandra Bullock movie 28 Days? That rehab looks like a lot of fun. We get to “fix” the one conspicuous problem of the Ford brand, while Ford—our story’s Sandra Bullock minus the beauty, charm, smarts, and one-liners—gets to hang out with wacky supporting characters like Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk, flirt nonstop with a pre-Rings Viggo Mortensen, and otherwise have a great montage of feel-good moments while learning to love himself again, to a winning pop-Motown soundtrack.

Because God knows, Ford doesn’t love himself too much already.

The truth is, however, that he really doesn’t really love himself enough; if you’ve ever lost someone to addiction, you already know this deep down. Underneath the calculated (or at least habitual) façade of megalomania is a frightened and powerless man, helpless in the grip of a master to whom he never expected to wake up enslaved. Even Ford’s detractors can no longer call him a puppet mayor for his smarter, savvier brother Doug. Nowadays, no doubt to Doug’s chagrin, the only puppeteers for whom Ford dances are Alexander Keith, Jim Beam, and Johnnie Walker. The only man who can pull rank on him is Captain Morgan.

Still, a puppet mayor is a puppet mayor—and I’d be happier knowing a smart human being, and not a bottle, was pulling the strings.

Ford loyalists often fall back on a bastardized version of Pierre Trudeau’s “bedrooms of the nation” defense: namely, it’s none of our business what goes on in Ford’s private life, on his off-hours, with his own money. To an extent that’s valid. If a mayor spends his private time and money on visiting prostitutes, it’s a character stain, maybe, or a bad move as far as getting elected goes. But once seated firmly in office, that kind of vice—even if it’s illegal—doesn’t affect his ability to do the day-to-day work people have put their trust in him to do. Thus, it’s not necessarily fodder for public criticism or a vote of no confidence.

This brings us to why Ford’s substance abuse problems are, in fact, very public business. The hypothetical prostitution case changes completely if our example politician contracts syphilis. Advanced-stage syphilis gets all up in your nervous system and can cause all sorts of mental problems, and those are not the kind of problems that take a nap when you come in to the office.

That’s the problem with the mayor’s substance abuses. Even a single use of crack cocaine (Ford’s now been caught in at least two) can start to rewire the brain on a sustained and even permanent basis. The irritability, the excitable outbursts, the bizarre, erratic behaviour, hallucinations, disorientation, delirium, psychosis and other well-documented effects of crack use do not conveniently confine themselves to weekends, nor do they gracefully clear up when you arrive at the office at 9 a.m. (or, in Ford’s case, some time mid-afternoon most days).

If Ford had a gambling addiction or a sex addiction, that’d be to an extent a private matter. But no, where substance abuse is concerned it’s a very public matter—not because it’s illegal, but because it’s damaging. In this case, in case you hadn’t noticed over the past four years, it’s completely destroying his ability to do his job. And yes, it’s on his own time, and with his own money, which allows him to claim the free right to do as he pleases. But if a bus driver, “on his own time and with his own money,” decides to gouge out his eyes with a rusty fork, usually you don’t let that guy drive the bus at work anymore. When the thing you do at home destroys your ability to do your job, you bet it matters.

This is the point at which we’ve arrived with Ford. Enslaved by the bottle, answering its call even above and beyond the desperate cries of his brother to try to become more saleable by election time—“he ain’t heavy; he’s my ticket to power”—Ford is who he is today because of self-destructive, brain-melting addictions that have steered him completely off the rails from the competent human being he used to be.

Now what’s that, you say, fellow Ford haters? A competent human being? I’m starting to believe he once was one: the unflagging support of Ford Nation is starting to convince me of that. People don’t look up to completely incompetent heroes for no reason. They look up to heroes out of loyalty, which is a hard thing to foster and an even harder thing to lose.

Let’s take a few timely examples from the music world: B.B. King, perhaps the greatest living bluesman and certainly the last of his kind in the world, recently played a disastrous show at the Peabody in St. Louis, Missouri. Heavy on muttered rambling and light on anything resembling good blues guitar, the King of the Blues sat and monologued until most of the audience just left. It remains to be seen whether this was an “off-night,” as any 88-year-old performer (!!!) is bound to have, or whether it marks the beginning of the end for King as a touring musician.

His rock’n’roll contemporary, Chuck Berry, reached that point a long time ago, yet continues to tour alone, playing with a completely different band of strangers each night, forgetting the words and playing wrong notes to audiences all across America, who see his concerts as more of a rock’n’roll pilgrimage than an evening of live music. The Sphinx doesn’t have to have its original nose and paint job to be an awe-inspiring sight either—speaking of which, I’m sad that Michael Jackson’s gone, too. There’s another extraordinary example of the toll drugs can take.

What do Michael Jackson—dead at 50—and the famously clean-living B.B. King—alive at 88, and playing brilliantly as recently as last year (and maybe still)—have to tell us about substance abuse? The answer should be clear. And yet in the context of Canada’s most famous substance abuser, they can help us paint a more complex picture of Rob Ford, one that puts both the farce and the tragedy of his decline into perspective, and maybe explains why those who like him, like him a lot.

For a moment let’s reflect on the blues together. Let’s remember, for instance, B.B. King from “mid-career”—a staggering 40 years earlier—and remember what he gave us musically. It’s important, fans will tell you, to remember him like this—and for the most part, with celebrities, we can. We can go back and listen to Clapton play with Cream as an unbelievably fast kid in his twenties. We can still enjoy Angela Lansbury as the ravishing young princess in Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester. Speaking of Michael Jackson, we’ll always have the Thriller album, one of the greatest ever made by an artist whose true “peak” lasted barely more than a year, from the release of Thriller one month before 1983 began to the horrendous second- and third-degree burns he suffered filming a Pepsi commercial one month after it ended. Only the autopsy ordered after his death revealed just how much damage he suffered to his head and face, how much constant pain he was in for the rest of his life, and how dependent on powerful drugs he quickly became as a result of the accident. That was pretty much the end of his own natural hair—those famous little lamb-curls—and the damage to his face required some reconstruction that famously became an addiction of its own after that. He was literally the most famous person in the world at that moment, an abused kid whose performances were the only way out. The amount of psychological damage an accident of Doctor-Doom proportions can do to somebody like that is beyond my armchair commentator’s ability to diagnose.

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Just like Indiana Jones said: “It’s not the years, honey; it’s the mileage.”

As a result of all this horror, the Michael Jackson that fans like to remember is almost invariably the guy from 1983. Virtually everything iconic about his look, his style, his music, comes from that narrow window, a window of time both he and his fans were obsessed with reliving forever. The legendary red jacket? 1983. The single white glove? 1983. The moonwalk? 1983. The entire narrow repertoire of sexy-robot dance moves that would define him for the rest of his career? 1983. (Before that, he could do and did do anything as a dancer. Check out how well the man could do classical jazz & tap from the Gene Kelly/Fred Astaire schools—the crotch-grabbing antics of later years completely whitewashed just how versatile an entertainer he was before 1984). The most favourable, adoring Michael Jackson caricature has 1983 written all over it.

Whatever you believe he did or didn’t do in later life, Michael Jackson circa 1983 was untouchable. That voice, those moves, a face and an impossibly honed body that both women and men found ethereally gorgeous, and an immensely sweet, shy, innocent character made for a pop-hero package never seen before or since. All these things were in decline—and in some cases, suddenly and publically destroyed—for the rest of his life. People characterized him as a man-child with Peter Pan syndrome, desperate to recapture his lost childhood—but I think most of all he wanted to recapture his 25th year, the last year in which he lived without constant pain and drugs, the last year he felt attractive enough to have a real conversation with an adult woman, the only year he fully escaped the spectre of his family and his father and lived, for a short time, on his own terms. In B.B. King’s terms, it was the only year of his whole life he lived without the blues.

From that day forward, we can say, Michael Jackson’s blues were of a specific kind. It’s a kind you get no matter how rich you are—and no matter how white you are. I think I need to acknowledge that before circling back around from B.B. King, Chuck Berry, and Michael Jackson—three once-very-talented African-Americans—to Rob Ford, who for all his gamey attempts at Jamaican swear words may just be the whitest politician in the history of Toronto.

There is also, whiteness aside, an important talent gulf in this example. Rob Ford’s detractors will find it hard to believe he’s good at anything. But we must remember two things: first, Rob Ford’s on-the-job responsibilities have been stripped, reduced to showing up at the office, standing around at ceremonial functions, and waving at parades (axe that; he’s no longer invited to the parades). Second, he’s reached the point of substance abuse where even that is too much for him. It’s telling that he’s reached that point at 44, exactly half of B.B. King’s age. That’s what hard living does to the body and mind.

In spite of it all—in spite of the babbling and belligerence, the drunken stupors, the massive criminal investigations into Ford and his entire after-hours entourage of domestic-abusing drug-dealing mob-trash John Gotti wannabes, there is always Ford Nation. There is a large and very vocal group of people whose loyalty to Ford runs deep, who stand by him and would keep standing by him, their single white gloves affectionately clutching their Ford bobbleheads, until the day he martyrs himself in his own vomit.

There is an ongoing belief among all of Ford’s detractors that Ford Nation is composed solely of complete idiots. I don’t think this is true. And I especially don’t think accepting the assumption that Ford’s supporters are idiots is any way to start convincing them to stop supporting this poor wretch’s deluded political ambitions. Ford, when confronted by his own stupidity, doesn’t see the error of his ways; he doubles down on it, a trait admired and perhaps shared by many of his supporters. Instead, it’s important to recognize that this support, this uncanny fanatical loyalty, comes from somewhere. I tell the Michael Jackson story  because Ford, too, had his Thriller years. It’s important to recognize this as a stepping stone to understanding how he came to be where he is now, how he got to be this way—and most importantly, why he must leave politics, and never come back.

Let’s look back to the year 2000, 14 years ago, to what I’m calling Ford’s “Thriller year.” The big romantic comedy of the year was What Women Want, starring that lovable young charmer Mel Gibson (and ladies, he was what women wanted back then). If you liked music, a pop duo called Savage Garden was all the rage on Napster. The tallest buildings in New York City were the unbreakable World Trade Center, the symbol of America’s invincible financial power and security. This was the year that Rob Ford, the dark horse candidate from Etobicoke’s gang-ridden Ward 2, was elected to city council. He was a surprise upset, and at the age of 31 (oh Lord, that’s a year younger than I am right now) he was a promising young buck, a diamond in the rough who had the necessary traits of a great politician. What he didn’t need at the time was refinement, tact, the shrewdness that comes from long years in politics, the management or policy or administrative skills that you expect a long-established politician to have. These are things the kid would pick up along the way, no doubt. Better to have charisma, a tie to the common people, an earthy good sense. These are things you couldn’t learn from years in office. All the rest would come later, because Ford was promising.

That was, of course, before Ford’s struggles with alcohol and drugs reached the point they have today. Lots of people will speculate, but few if any will really know, when his troubles began. And who, really, can predict how things might have gone differently? Can we imagine a world where drugs and violence didn’t destroy good people before their time?

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“My friend John says it’s easy if you try, man. Mike just keeps going back to 1983: he says it’d be like the end of Return of the Jedi, except with musicians, and his real body would come back, you dig?”

 

Without years of alcohol abuse, without the repeated crack smoking, who knows what kind of Rob Ford we’d be looking at today? Would we have a fitter, smarter, more even-tempered politician? Someone ready for higher office, ready to lead the Conservatives away from Stephen Harper’s elitist “oiligarchy” with just the right blend of rich white man advantage and common-folk demeanour? Would we have a still-young wolf gunning for power in the Senate? At the very least, would we have a capable “people’s mayor” of Toronto with the clout and leadership to make even an unpopular agenda work on the floor of the Council?

Without years of alcohol abuse, without a major crack problem, I’ll tell you what we would not have: a feeble-minded, babbling, belligerent clown who can neither walk like a competent adult nor talk like an articulate human being. We would not have a huckster whose biggest contributions to the city include the thousands of plastic bobbleheads soon to be clogging its landfills, or a pretended arm-wrestling victory over a 60-year-old Hulk Hogan (fair counterpoint: high doses of crack cocaine have been known to cause wildly unpredictable bursts of physical strength, particularly in aggressive or confrontational situations).

We would not have an impotent shell of a man who is completely unable to live up to the version of Rob Ford that Ford Nation knows…and perhaps, a version that Ford Nation remembers. Ford was already in decline when he became mayor—though perhaps not enjoying the rapid free-fall he’s in now. But that’s no guarantee he was always this way—and no guarantee he ever would have been, but for the damage that he’s done to himself. It is sad, in a way, to watch this man who was once the great white hope of Etobicoke’s gang-ridden slums dragging himself day after day into the office in the mid-afternoon, hungover and brainblown, for another day of paranoia and aggression filtered through a haze of confusion as reporters hound him with questions whose true answers are horrid, while councillors increasingly keep him out of the loop and away from anything resembling executive power. We have a man who, as I’ve pointed out in the past, has been reduced to the same level of executive power as Mayor Stubbs, the lovably furry cat mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska. We have a man who, at only 44 years of age, has been pushed into a doddering, premature dotage by the damage he’s done to himself. Putting aside for a moment the intense hatred from Ford’s political opponents (and, you know, from women, LGBT people, and everyone else who has ample reason to detest Ford), we can admit in an objective sense that this man is in no shape to run a sidewalk lemonade stand, much less Canada’s largest city. He can’t do it, and continuing to think he can is a major part of what’s killing him on TV before our eyes, not just as a public figure, but as a very damaged human being.

The people of Ford Nation are not idiots; they’re just a little behind the times, maybe. Ford is their hero, and maybe not without reason. Like diehard Michael Jackson fans who faithfully wore their 1983 props, their red jackets and white gloves and moonwalking loafers, throughout more than 16 years of child molestation allegations, Ford’s supporters have a powerful sense of nostalgia that we just can’t understand as people who have only known him as Toronto’s own personal train wreck. Their fantasies of a decent leader in Ford are all the more dangerous if they’re based in obsolete truths: things that once were true are harder to let go of than things that never were.

Is there hope for Ford, if not as a politician, then as a person? Is there still good in him, to carry the Return of the Jedi metaphor forward? That depends on what he means by “getting help.” Like a cussing, sweaty, homophobic Darth Vader, Ford is really just a slave to an actual evil—and only by standing up to the evil that pulls his puppet strings, and pitching it down a reactor core forever, will he redeem himself as a human being.

In the Star Wars fantasy universe, a universe which is governed by an absolute immanent morality of good and evil, every one of us has in us the strength to reject the Dark Side. In George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, an amoral universe governed as much by chaos theory as any kind of determinism, aspirations to such moral and inner strength are futile and usually gets us killed. Rob Ford, whose uncanny resemblance to Gollum I have noted in the past, might stand the best chance in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, where some Men have the strength to resist evil, but your chances are especially good if you’re one of the bigger, whiter people, and doubly so if you come from a royal background.

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And what is Gollum, if not a very particular crackhead with a One Ring substance abuse problem?

In the real world, the inherent goodness of the cosmos is a music at times much harder to hear. If we, on the first day of May, at the old fertility festival of Beltaine, cannot hear that music anymore in our homes and our yards, how much harder must it be to hear in the fractured council Toronto’s beleagured City Hall? The Force that empowers us—the Force that “drives my green age,” in the words of fatal alcoholic Dylan Thomas—tends to avoid human politics at the best of times. At times like these, I cannot imagine how much harder it is to feel that force and reach out to it.

With that in mind, I have some harsh words of goodwill for Mayor Ford. You must forgive me if they follow an envenomed valediction: as a human being, I’m on his side because I’m a human being myself. As a politician, I hope he never shows his face in public again.

As a public figure, the biggest Village Idiot of Canada’s biggest village, as a public buffoon and professional sleazebag, it’s well past time for Rob Ford to clear his garbage out of the office, get out of our collective lives, and to take his drug-dealing wife-beating thug friends with him. If he returns to the public eye at all, I hope it’s as a D-list reality star, like the Pauly Shore of Canadian politics he is, or on late-night TV as Jimmy Kimmel’s own personal dancing bear. Ford is an addict, and addicts don’t discriminate in their addictions: he’s as helplessly enslaved by attention and fame as he is to alcohol and crack, and I hope for his sake almost as much as ours that his disastrous career in public office is at an end.

This brings us, though, to Ford as a human being—always an uncomfortable area for those of us who wish nothing but misfortune on the public figure. Politician Ford can go hang, but private-citizen Ford deserves better, and I very much hope his time in rehab, even if it begins as a publicity-stunt quick-fix, turns into something that can help him fight back against the demons that have reduced him from whatever he once was to the Rob Ford we now know. I wish him an end to this particular, twisted brand of “livin’ large,” and hope his leave of absence turns into a small, modest retired life replete with healthy living and second chances. It is those things, not money or drugs or fame or political power, that are the real measure of success in life. And as a private citizen who no longer has the political power to let his drugs and drinking ruin our lives the same way they have ruined his, I find myself wishing him those successes.

I hope his rehab works for him. I hope that he recognizes that changing Toronto for the better, if that’s what he wants, is something he can only do by starting with the man in the mirror. I hope the next 28 days hold a personal renewal for a very sick man. While it will no doubt be far less pleasant than Sandra Bullock’s dramedy on the subject, maybe Rob will get lucky and meet a roguishly handsome Viggo Mortensen at his treatment centre—someone to remind him that the strength of Men has not yet failed.

My last (I hope) words to Rob Ford as public figure mirror my last words to him as a human being suffering from a terrible disease. They mean something entirely different in each of those contexts, but I am no less sincere in the first sense of the phrase than in the second. I want him gone from office and from public life forever…but I want him to rid himself of the poisons that have turned him into the awful shell of a man we all love to hate so much.

Mr. Ford, I implore and encourage you, in one sense as an exiled political opponent, but in another different sense as a sympathetic human being:

Just beat it. Beat it. Beat it. Beat it.

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