God, David Cassidy was sexy.
He was sexy in a way that was so hilariously of its time: that feathered hair, billowing at every moment as to perfectly frame those cheekbones, those dimples, and those ebullient eyes. He was so pretty you couldn’t look away, but not so pretty that you were too distracted to nab a look at that chest hair peeking out of his shirt, always teasingly unbuttoned.
But he was also sexy in a way that is timeless. Not “can you believe you ever found that attractive?” but “why don’t they look like that anymore?” Of course, the androgynous good looks are evergreen. Always have been, always will be.
The public persona was sexy, the sort of non-threatening genial guy you’d bring home to charm the pants off your mom, while hoping he’d literally do that to you later that night. The voice was sexy: serviceable, sweet, lilting, and familiar, like he was singing to you.
The charisma exploded from every frame of The Partridge Family, powerful enough to reach the rafters of the arenas he’d set records selling out. It was a star-power that burned so bright, so fast that, despite maintaining a lifelong career in show business, it always seemed as if he was playing catch-up to that peak, chasing a comeback that could never be achieved. The desire to reach it, though, that was sexy, too—even throughout his darkest struggles.
Cassidy, one of the biggest and perhaps most iconic of modern music’s teen idols, died Tuesday night of complications from dementia. He had been hospitalized because of organ failure for several days. He was 67.
Few performers in the ’70s had his Midas touch. But his career—let alone his life—was hardly perfect. They rarely are, as we’ve learned, when a megawatt smile becomes that famous. And as teen idols go, boy was he famous. And, similarly, boy was he also a cautionary tale.
He wasn’t the first. There was Elvis, Sinatra, the Beatles. He certainly wasn’t the last. Michael Jackson, the Justins, both Timberlake and Bieber, and a newsstand’s worth of Tiger Beat fixtures have all been compared to Cassidy in one way or another, continuing to reshape the mold of the pop supernova just as Cassidy himself had.
Stretching back to generations of singers and performers, we chart those comparisons on the merits of albums sold, covers plastered on, and decibels of fans’ screams, but also on the toll all of that takes on a person.
Stars of today are, for all their handlers and gatekeepers, still somehow at least artificially accessible. There’s social media, incessant press tours, and the 24-hour paparazzi coverage of sites like TMZ to keep them always at your fingertips. Cassidy’s fame in comparison seems untouchable.
There were stampedes at concerts, including one that was fatal. Cassidymania was so hysterical during a tour in Australia that calls were made to have him deported for the disturbance. He set attendance records at the largest stadiums in the U.S.
For a matinee star best known for sending millions of American pre-teens into early puberty, his fame transcended space and time. He was still, somehow, cool. At least mostly. Hell, everyone can still sing along to “I Think I Love You.”
He’s also the great example of the singer desperate to be an edgy, respected rock star, but saddled in the role of teen idol that he, at times, rebelled against.
The deafening screams can blow your eardrums out. Maybe, too, they blow out a little bit of your sense of reality, a little of your perception of the world around you, a little about your common sense, your decency, and maybe even the fabric of what makes you you.
You write about the Biebers of the world today, chronicling every misstep with maybe slightly more glee than each victory or milestone, and you wonder what the pressure of fame must be like for a person like that. It’s different, sure, than the pop deities that came before him, but also a little bit the same. You can chronicle the “acting out” of these stars and recognize the familiar pattern. You can even preemptively mourn a fate that seems destined.
For Cassidy, struggles acclimating to such a level of fame so early in life seemed to manifest itself decades later. Stylish sex, drugs, and rock and roll profiles at the peak of his celebrity lionized a party-boy image, hinting at demons the rollicking was masking. Fame has a way of eventually exposing them.
He was arrested on three different occasions for DUIs, finally admitting to a problem with alcohol in 2014. The Daily Mail recounts an incident in 2010 when fans walked out of a show after Cassidy suffered an apparent meltdown, “either strung out on drugs or drunk,” as one witness reported. In 2005, after a career that included nearly 30 million records sold and fan clubs that counted more members than Elvis Presley’s or the Beatles’, he filed for bankruptcy. It wasn’t the first time he cried financial ruin. In 1986, he claimed to be $800,000 in debt, with only $1,000 to his name.
The fall from grace is all too familiar. Now, in fact, it would be considered predictable to the point of cliché. That an experience with fame like the one Cassidy struggled through wouldn’t serve as a more foreboding cautionary tale for rising pop stars makes the repeated cycle all the more tragic.
Will we ever be kinder to these idols we worship?
In his later years as a performer, Cassidy started to earnestly embrace the teen idol image he spent so much of his early career fruitlessly rebuffing. Shows in Las Vegas and national tours became popular, especially with the Q&A sessions he’d often participate candidly in afterward. He leaned into the notoriety of being David Cassidy, too, most recently playing Aaron Carter’s manager in the 2005 film Popstar and starring in the children’s series Ruby & the Rockits.
Petulant behavior from today’s rising stars is so disturbing because we’ve seen the rubble and destruction down at rock bottom. Too often, you can’t shake the feeling that these people sometimes even know they might be falling, but are unable to stop it. Similarly, we haven’t ever been able to stop enabling it, and then gawking at it.
A quote that introduced maybe the most famous profile written of Cassidy, the shirtless black and white Rolling Stone cover from 1972, “Naked Lunch Box: The Business of David Cassidy,” written at the height of his fame, is especially tragic now:
“There’ll be a time when this whole thing will be over. I won’t do concerts anymore, I won’t wake up in the morning feeling drained, and I won’t be working a punch card schedule. I’ve had to sing when I was hoarse. I’ve had them with a gun at my head, almost, saying ‘Record, ’cause we’ve gotta get the album out by Christmas!’ I’ll feel really good when it’s over. I have an image of myself in five years. I’m living on an island. The sky is blue, the sun is shining. And I’m smiling, I’m healthy, I’m a family man. I see my skin very brown and leathery, with a bit of growth on my face. My hair is really long, with a lot of grey. I have some grey hair already.”