I don’t know what I’m up against. I don’t know what it’s all about. I got so much to think about…This week, former pop idol David Cassidy announced to the world that he has dementia and, after nearly 50 years of performing, he is retiring. His life has been an extreme rollercoaster ride that has touched many and, as much as any, tells a cautionary tale of a brand identity run amok, lost and later found.
A working actor and musician in his teens, Cassidy always sought stardom, appearing on a slew of early 70s high-profile television series, including: “Medical Center,” “Bonanza,” “Ironside,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Adam-12.” But nothing could have prepared him for his role in the Cowsills-inspired “Partridge Family” that would, virtually overnight, elevate his status to one of the most famous and sought after pop stars ever while leaving him wondering who he really was.
For Cassidy, the fame would become both a blessing and a curse as he has described the phenomenon of “him” in interviews over the years. Media of the day worked both for and against him. At a time before cable, the Internet, MP3s and video games, there were only three national TV networks; as such, millions watched while millions more bought Partridge Family records (myself among them). As such, to much of the world David Cassidy was Keith Partridge – whether on television, Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine covers, lunch boxes or in concert (where he sang series songs).
Exacerbating the problem for Cassidy was that in a time before the Internet and cable, there were few media platforms to appear as “yourself” – no personal websites to tell the tale of who you really were as an artist rather than fictional character; no E! Entertainment cable network to run stories on a day in your life. And, further, there were only a handful of network TV talk shows where one might appear “out of costume” as it were; the granddaddy being “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” although this aired late nightly and long after most teenyboppers went to bed. As a result, David Cassidy lost himself with a personal brand and identity virtually hijacked by a TV network (ABC) that owned his likeness and a recording company (Bell) that owned his voice. It was a disastrous recipe for typecasting and, for many years, resulted in something akin to career suicide. Just ask one-time “Batman” star Adam West.
Cassidy eventually would resurrect his career and take his talents to Broadway and then Vegas and, in time, return to touring and playing (and enjoying) the songs that initially made him famous enough to sell out Madison Square Garden and Wembley Stadium, among others, back in the day. However, it would take walking away at the top of his fame and drastic measures (appearing mostly nude on the cover of Rolling Stone). Radio and music buyers would largely eschew his new offerings for years.
They say time can heal all wounds and hindsight is forever 20/20 and, to be sure, in recent interviews he has talked about the positives of extreme celebrity and how it has allowed him the opportunity to positively impact the lives of many. As he enters the twilight of his life and a difficult road ahead, perhaps David Cassidy has also finally come to terms with and accepted the pivotal role Keith Partridge played in his life. One would think that, at the very least, he’s met him halfway. And you know what they say about that.