Donny Osmond: We suffer for his art

It's a neat trick when Mr. Squeaky-clean produces a flashback more terrifying than any acid reflux.

Published September 21, 1999 4:01PM (EDT)

Buying a Donny Osmond biography is very much like stealing one -- the forced nonchalance, the rapid scan for watching eyes, the quick grab-and-run. "Do you want a bag for that?" asks the cashier. "Yes!" I reply. Too vehement -- people are looking at me. They know.

And who understands that better than Donny Osmond? He's been a walking Donny Osmond bio all his life. Wisely, the 41-year-old singer kicks off "Life Is Just What You Make It: My Story So Far" by disarming the cheap-shot artists with a description of what it's like to be considered a walking joke by anyone who fancies themselves hip. He describes an encounter with jeering teens at a gas station and lists alternate titles for his book, such as "One More Joke About Big Teeth and the Old Lady Gets It" and "I've Suffered for My Art -- Now It's Your Turn."

Clearly, Osmond wants to break through the plastic laminate that has seemed to coat him since his heyday as a '70s teen pop sensation, and in fact it's surprisingly easy to sympathize with the guy. Read more than one Q&A from the press kit and you can play Wince-Along-With-Donny as yet another wise-ass thinks he invented all those Goody Two Shoes jokes.

In retrospect, the obnoxious Osmonds stack up rather well against other '70s acts in certain areas. They were genuinely talented singers and dedicated show business performers. I think by now most of us have figured out that, while it may make a screenwriter's job easier, the Jim Morrison life plan is no improvement on the Osmonds' strict anti-drug policy. Among public figures most closely identified with religion (or even just apple-pie wholesomeness), few proved so true to their principles in the end. While the family's Mormonism has always been the target of unmasked suspicion, it wasn't the Osmonds who ended up publicly betraying their faith with secret motel room trysts and/or misappropriated funds. (And as long as it's open season on religious faith, I've got a few pointed questions for the Presbyterians, too.) Donny Osmond, the target of as much innocent young lust as any teenager this century, was a virgin groom at 20. Say what you like, you can't call the Osmonds hypocrites.

And yet as Donny Osmond sets out to reshape his image yet again, he has his work cut out for him. To a generation of music zealots like me -- only six months younger than Donny himself -- that sweet voice represented the enemy from the very beginning. 1971 was, as they say, a dark time for the rebellion. Evil forces held Top 40 radio in a death grip, and not everyone had a readily available FM alternative.

Osmond himself unwittingly re-creates the tenor of the time as he recounts one of the happiest stories in the book: the day the family returned from church and turned on Casey Kasem's countdown to find out if their first big hit would move up or down from its previous chart position at No. 3. "We'd missed most of the countdown and tuned in just in time to hear Casey announce the No. 3 record: Lynn Anderson's 'Rose Garden,'" Donny writes. "Disappointment descended over the living room as Casey announced, 'And now the second most popular record in the country today: "Knock Three Times" by Tony Orlando and Dawn ...' And then the big moment. 'This is Casey Kasem --' We held our breaths. 'And the No. 1 record: the Osmonds and "One Bad Apple!"' With the first 'Yeah ...,' the five of us jumped up and screamed so loudly, I can't believe the neighbors didn't call the police."

A touching scene. So why am I covered with goose bumps? It's a neat trick when the squeaky-clean Osmond can produce a flashback more terrifying than any acid reflux, simply by recounting the top three hits of February 1971. A similar effect is created later when Donny describes a debacle in Houston -- a lip-synched Astrodome show with cutesy little brother Jimmy Osmond wearing an Elvis-style jumpsuit and riding a horse onstage to sing "Rhinestone Cowboy": "The music started and Jimmy's voice came over the speakers smoothly singing, and the illusion was perfect -- until suddenly the horse reared up and started bucking, startling Jimmy, who was hanging on for dear life. All this time, however, his voice came through the speakers sounding as relaxed as if he were sitting in a rocking chair."

What a horrible story. Jimmy Osmond; an Elvis jumpsuit; the Astrodome; "Rhinestone Cowboy." You can keep your Farrah Fawcett-Majors posters, your KC and the Sunshine Band compilations. That anecdote, to me, is the dark side of the '70s in sum.

The Osmonds, for all I knew, seemed to arrive full-blown in 1971 as white knock-offs of the Jackson 5 (whom I confess I also hated). But to Middle America the clean-cut Utah clan were as familiar as the precocious young barbershop singers featured on the Andy Williams show in the mid-'60s. (A tape of the Osmonds and Andy Williams doing songs from "Hair" is among the artifacts left on the moon by Neil Armstrong in 1969. Think of it as Earth's first line of defense.) By the time Kasem completed that fateful February countdown, they were seasoned (albeit still very young) show-biz veterans, embarked upon a determined campaign to ditch their decidedly un-hip barbershop image. In some ways, the Osmonds' career move provided confirmation of rock 'n' roll's new status in the world as the '60s drew to a close. Slick performing families like the Osmonds are a tradition in American entertainment, and short years before they might have slipped smoothly into place beside the Lennon Sisters and the Mills Brothers -- further back, perhaps into vaudeville. That they were instead heading to Muscle Shoals with producer Rick Hall proved beyond a doubt that mainstream culture now meant rock 'n' roll.

"One Bad Apple" was indeed a song written for the Jackson 5 and sounded uncannily like the Osmonds' black counterparts from Gary, Ind. But the favor was later repaid when Michael Jackson hit No. 1 with "Ben" -- a song originally intended for young Donny. Not surprisingly, Osmond identifies Jackson as one of the few pals he could find common ground with during his mid-'70s peak (if you're scanning the book for dirt on Michael, here it is, straight from Donny: The gloved one is not a good driver).

Osmond's treacly solo career ran parallel to the group's and consisted mostly of dredged-up sugar gumdrops like "Go Away Little Girl" and Paul Anka's "Puppy Love." The group was huge and Donny was even bigger. Between 1971 and 1973, Donny collected a total of 18 gold records (platinum awards had not yet been created), alone or with his brothers. In 1973 the Osmonds released "The Plan," an ambitious concept album with a thinly veiled religious theme. Its relative failure was the beginning of a downward slide from which the group never recovered. As for Donny, he learned firsthand the career-killing power of TV when he joined his sister to do "The Donny and Marie Show" for ABC in 1976. His pop career was essentially dead until a brief chart revival in 1989 with two new hits: "Soldier of Love" and "Sacred Emotion."

Readers who gravitate to celebrity tell-alls for the ugly stuff -- which is to say most of them -- may be disappointed by the relatively meager dirt buffet Donny serves up. (Item: Young Donny had a crush on the woman on the album cover for "Whipped Cream and Other Delights" by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Probably unconsummated.) Osmond gets some comedic mileage out of the wholesome angle, as in his description of a romantic evening with his future wife, Debbie, spent in the special Elvis suite at the Vegas Hilton: "You know me well enough by now," he writes, "to know what isn't going to happen."

But Osmond is honest about whatever Utah-bred demons he does possess, and those who brave the peppy prose style of collaborator Patricia Romanowski (a veteran of the ghosting game via Annette Funicello, Mary Wilson and Teddy Pendergrass) will find plenty of grist for pop psychologizing. Osmond describes episodes of what sound like serious depression, leading
full-blown panic attacks in the '90s while he starred in the Livent
production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." (Donny's
inside dirt on the legally entangled former head of the now-bankrupt
company, Garth Drabinsky: He's a nice man.)

Eventually, Osmond was diagnosed with "social phobia," a paralyzing fear that people are constantly laughing at you. As Donny admits, not everyone would call him deluded. But according to Osmond the main culprits were an obsessive life-long perfectionism and the ceaseless desire to please that came from being a member of the almost militarily precise Osmond clan. Early in the book he tells of touring Europe with the family at age 8 and writing a lonely, homesick letter to his mother back home. The result was a spanking from his father. Envy is not one of the emotions this book inspires.

Surprisingly, the book did lead me to reexamine a few of my formative prejudices. Some of them held up rather well. The Osmonds emerged as pop stars when I was 12 and beginning to choose my icons, both good and evil. I shuddered anew as Donny recounted the famous folks he'd associated with: the Reagans, Nancy Sinatra and, scariest of all, the one-time comedic partner of Dean Martin. As Donny wrote glowingly of working with Jerry Lewis, I was vaguely reminded of the memoirs of Albert Speer.

Donny is familiar with that kind of intense and deeply irrational ill feeling, usually playing the role of target. Rock writers have proclaimed his birthday the blackest date in pop history and suggested he should have been drowned as an infant. But, reading the autobiography of a decent individual who's had some ups and downs and taken far more than his share of crap (you have to like a guy who gets roundly insulted by a Tampa, Fla., DJ during a phone interview and responds by traveling to Florida and beating the guy in an arm-wrestling match), it's only natural to experience an attitude shift. Donny was a talented kid making a living in the family business. Nothing wrong with that. And it's all show biz anyway -- as Rolling Stone senior editor David Wild said recently, "Pearl Jam is in the same business Donny's in. Just different ends of it." (Thanks to "Last Kiss," maybe not so different.)

All true. But while I wish him nothing but success and happiness in the future, I am not ready to be reconciled with Donny Osmond's past. Notwithstanding the unromantic fact that yes, it's all just show business in the end, I will cling to the idea that rock 'n' roll ought to start out as something else -- something a little more spontaneous. And though today I'll groove along to the Jackson 5 singing "I Want You Back," not every musical memory improves with age. I still hate those old Osmonds records.

By Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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