Oddly Old When Young, And Even More Oddly Young When Old
For the last ten years or so, in my in-depth discussions with friends and well...pretty much anyone on the subject of Michael Jackson, I would find myself invariably saying, “I just don't see him living past fifty-five.” This remark would oftentimes be met with deep disagreement and sometimes...outright anger—particularly from those who held a particularly large soft spot for him (oddly enough, that group would actually include even me, but I could get past my sentimentality where others were hampered by it). My response would then be, “Come on...close your eyes and picture him at seventy-five years old. You can't. You just can't do it. What does that tell you?”
My stating this is not an “I told you so!” eruption, post Jackson's untimely (to many) demise, but merely an anecdote that has relevance against the backdrop of the last few weeks' stunning events.
That aforementioned soft spot of mine for Michael is subcutaneous. Bone-deep, and to the marrow. He was (“Was?” That's a hard word to write here about him—“Was”.) only five years older than me. But I always considered it four, as he and I were summer babies—me being born in July, and he in August, and for a month or so every year, Michael Joseph Jackson and I would be, without rounding upwards—four years apart, age-wise. Why though, would I, and so many other folks of “that age” want so badly to be closer...or more kindred to him? Well...one need only go back some forty-odd years, to what was a near-nadir of hope in American history—that optimism-murdering spring / summer of 1968, where we lost in the span of thirty days, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Francis Kennedy, found ourselves foot-stuck like some keening dinosaur fighting the sucking tar-pit of a war that was Vietnam, and lastly, witnessing the ushering in of the green-beard shadowed avatar of avarice into the Most Powerful Office In The Land, one Richard M. Nixon.
I'm old enough to recall the time's doom-fear and despair. The unease that blanketed the country like a cheap, itchy, wet poncho whose weight made it hard to move around. No one knew what was coming next. There were riots and institutional take-overs, and establishment vs. upsetters disagreements and shootouts galore. The country was bifurcated—fuck—tri-furcated, quad-furcated probably—with various groups set on the verge, where one bad move would set all against all in a crazy, construction helmets vs. black tams vs. longhairs vs. Bryllcreem-ers Ragnarok with the stars of the Goddamned Columbia Record Club's stamp-sized album covers providing the end-of-days soundtrack. And then...
1969 would come, with all still loose and freshly-fridged-Jello unsettled, and at the end of that year would come a group of kids—five to be precise, fronted by the youngest of them at eleven, a kid named Michael Joseph Jackson, who without knowing it, would find themselves, (himself, really) moved into the pop-cultural breech by the simple law of space's abhorrence of a vacuum.
Take a look at him then...And remember...he's eleven years old here...
Michael Jackson was...the post-civil rights era's first, and foremost Black superstar entertainer to emerge from that blood-spattered, bomb-rubbled incubator.
Aretha had “hit” in '67, “The Summer Of Love” (after a few years of toil in the fallow ground of watered-down pop at Columbia Records)—just before things got all messy and bloody on the regular, so that title didn't belong to her. It wasn't Stevie Wonder either. We'd had him as a “Twelve Year Old Genius” since 1963. And it wasn't Marvin Gaye, who'd been a Doggoned, Peculiar bit of Pride and Joy since that same time. Yes, those last two would make their voices—their true voices—heard loudly with a run of high musical art a couple of years down the pike, but they were already established personas, albeit maturing one—but again, established personas nonetheless. Michael Jackson was something new entirely. A quite literal “child” of the movement, having been born just a few years post Brown vs, Board of Ed. and in effect, representing the next wave—the generation that would inherit all the good born of all the pain of the previous decade-and-a-half of bloody, sweaty, tear-filled struggle.
“Michael Jackson was...the post-civil rights era's first, and foremost Black superstar entertainer to emerge from that blood-spattered, bomb-rubbled incubator.“
Go ahead...name someone else. Think long and hard on it. Surprising, isn't it?
I was of age—seven years old thereabouts when Michael exploded onto the pop consciousness. There were no “conks” or tuxedos to be found with him, harkening to the preceding generations trappings of stardom. There was an almost perfectly-rounded mushroom-cloud of an afro, an “Applejack” newsboy cap dipped slyly to the side. Bright, striped bell-bottoms and florid, printed shirts, kerchiefs, bad-ass vests and hip-as-all-hell ankle boots. The next generation had effectively arrived and attired itself without irony or hewing to a pre-existing context. It wasn't running away from anything—but rather, just running toward something exciting. Now, you'll of course dig about and find all the old Berry Gordy quotes meant to assuage a worry-filled music-buying public that what the J-5 and Michael were doing was “Bubblegum Soul”. And maybe that was what he intended when he signed them up—to be young, malleable pop automatons many years removed from the cries of independence that a Stevie and Marvin were making daily as the decade closed out.
But he got something more in the little eleven-year-old from Gary, Indiana.
Something wholly unexpected.
Namely, a cultural anomaly that you just don't see every day.
Most folks develop their first sense memories around the age of four or so. It's about the earliest you can go back for the most part and pull sentient, cohesive memories that hold together. Gordy had in his hot little profit-making hands a Superstar that had arguably the shortest talent incubation period in modern history. Sentient memories at four, a seasoned triple-threat superstar at ten / eleven years old. Damn near Mozart-ian when you think about it. Yes, there had been other child stars—Shirley Temple for example—maybe the biggest child star America had ever known till that point. But Shirley was revered for her preternatural, childish cuteness. In her, America cherished the baby, the moppet, and cherub-faced doll. Michael however was star-made because of his combination of child-like looks, but grown-man / soul man-ism. He was Muddy Waters' “Mannish Boy” come to broadcast color life. Singing with an odd, off-centered authority when you think about it now—commanding girls to “Get up! I think I LOVE you!”, while simultaneously melting hearts from six to sixty-six with his impassioned, love-struck crooning on the ballad “Who's Lovin' You”. Go, listen to that last number and you'll want to walk up to Berry Gordy, slap him awake and yell at him, “B...that don't sound like no bubblegum I ever heard.” Gordy had on his hands a young performer who had mainlined every great 45 by Ray Charles, James Brown, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Clyde McPhatter, Smokey, Marvin and everybody else who mattered, held the high they produced and could output that potent mixture into his own otherworldly style on record, and more amazingly on stage. It was as if you took a little bit of each of their DNA, put in in Seth Brundle's “Fly” machine and gotten in record time, a crazy amalgam that left to natural selection would have taken far longer to come to fruition. This was a kid savvy enough to be able to channel Frank Sinatra—maybe the most bodacious “Guy's Guy” of the latter half of the century and perfectly, convincingly “get” him—while all of twelve years old. And if you don't remember that little tidbit...here it is...
But there's a trade-off with going all gaga over a kid you cast as a miniature man. You can mess him up...to where he never really ends up maturing into the “man” you enthusiastically, prematurely cast him as while still a child, and the child he remains is a horribly maladjusted one because he never got to become a child with any sense of normalcy.
I remember sitting in the back of my school bus in 1970, with ten other boys riding home from school and listening on our well-smuggled transistor radios to Michael tearing it up on “The Love You Save” on 770 AM WABC. We were all around his age—pre-pubescent, and reedy-voiced and when we sang along to the song—no knock on Jermaine, Jackie and the rest—but it was Michael's parts we sang in gleeful, screechy unison.
He was the leader. The guy you couldn't help but look at, and thus, the guy we mimicked. He was the dude we wanted to be because of the blazing heat of his stardom while he maintained that brotherly sense of “cool”. We were too young to grasp what the deal was with him as all we saw was the superficial—someone from our generation, that “new” generation, who was brilliantly, “doin' it”. He was ours and we were proud.
And yes, he was...an escape.
An escape from all that awfulness just a year before. The things that made our parents sit in the dark and cry as horse-drawn caskets rolled by on TV. We never for a moment thought about him, and what was going on in his house. It had to all be good, right? Look at how he smiled while performing...that confident swagger on stage when he rocked Sullivan's show. Who knew (or cared) that he was getting his ass whipped like many of us were, and like a sad few of us—brutalized by a domineering, demanding father from a generation where saying “I love you, son” could be viewed as a weakness. You think about that when you think of Michael—“How would things have gone had Papa Joe not been so demanding, and driven. So relentless in pushing his boys and maybe over-pushing his greatest prize of all, Michael?” Think about The Beach Boys and their crazed father Murry Wilson, that manic drive of his and the trauma he inflicted particularly on his most talented son, pop songsmith extraordinaire Brian Wilson. How he so damaged him...and the fact that we even have Brian Wilson around now is that the drugs he took to escape his daddy-enhanced demons probably made him so high that he just didn't have the coordination to plunge the needle or pop the pills enough to ever actually pull off a full-blown, classic Sixties-star O.D. What if Papa Joe Jackson had shown more love and less lust for success? In that alternate universe Michael maybe ends up an incredibly successful and popular 250 lb. accountant / car salesman / pharmacist from Gary, Indiana who loves his daddy, has healthy relationships and is renowned for his amazing dancing...at office parties and family gatherings.
We'll never know.
And too many of us would probably rather not know. We'd rather take the art...the things he could do to dazzle our senses than to consider that maybe, just maybe if he hadn't been so pushed as hard to do those things on the public stage we fix our gaze so strongly to that life could have been happier for him. We (the public) want our art and damn the artist who gives it to us until he does something that makes us feel bad about our single-minded thirst for his or her work. This is not to cast Michael as some messianic figure (although oddly, he did have a messianic complex—look at the cover of his “HIStory” DVD with him as a hundreds of feet high statue to be revered by the ant-like people below, or his predilection in his later years to suddenly copping and holding the crucifixion pose in performance.)—Michael did not “die for our sins”. (Those sins being a single-minded gluttony for his talents) But one of the sad realities of stardom is the myopia of star-worshippers. The art...the talent is all that matters to us, the public until our puffing up of said star's balloon bursts all loudly and messily when it touches the needle of human frailty. “POP!” goes The King Of Pop”, one would suppose.
He grew up. literally before our eyes. What was happening in our peripheral vision that we didn't see was the messiness of that growing up. The natural sibling rivalry in-house—a group of brothers, all talented in varying degrees, but the youngest of the group undeniably the catalytic agent among them. The bold-faced star. Think for a moment about the stresses that put on the family—and him. He was in efffect, an eleven-year-old breadwinner. There were jealousies and the typical pettiness in large families, just magnified exponentially because of the stardom. Two of his brothers were practically grown men—Jackie and Tito—and they were in many ways dependent on their pre-pubescent little brother. That's an ass-kick and a half to the ego. I can't imagine that in spite of the familial love they shared, that there wasn't also a bit of what we now call “hateration” on Michael. And on his part, being the center of attention, the sun around which the Jackson solar system revolved, Michael for all his sweetness in the public arena was probably not always the most deferential little brother he could have been. Add to all of this the weirdness of his living for extended periods during his formative years (coinciding with his explosion into a pop-culture icon) outside the home with people he idolized—folks like Diana Ross, and Berry Gordy—grown-up mega stars / moguls replete with their own well-documented messiness. These odd surrogate parents must have seemed a comfort in a way to him...assuming they, as famous folk could somehow grasp or relate to what he was going through himself.
But Diana and Berry were already adults when fame came a' knockin'. And they could barely handle their own business—even as adults. They were, for whatever amount they cared for Jackson, no help really in terms of guiding him through the rocky shoals fame would carry him through. Not to mention the strangeness he probably saw while living amongst all of that Nouveau-Riche Negritude.
He would move from that pre-pubescence to an incredibly awkward teen period—from cherub, to a gangly whippet of a young man. I remember the covers of “Right On!” magazine—the cheap bible of Black entertainment / tanned “Tiger Beat” for the young set back then. The rumors of all the “relationships” Michael was having with this girl and that one—all of them lies, of course. Garish cover blurbs “Michael tells you what YOU need to do to be HIS girl!” There was no special “Lady In His Life” beyond Mom—which really was the issue right there. The rough relationship between his mother and father—rampant cheating and gruff domination on Papa Joe's part, and his mother's quiet suffering probably addled Michael's view of relationships forever. It's not an issue really about what his sexual preference may have been..what he saw at home close-up just wasn't very healthy, and unhealthiness like that will mess a person up whether they're Straight or Gay. The rough-hewn die was set early for him on matters of companionship. He was emotionally crippled in a lot of ways...and his inability to work through all of that was compensated for by him with an amazing dedication to honing himself as a performer. He was still an entertainment dynamo at this time, but the man-child wonder of him was wearing away right along with that soaring boyish soprano of his thanks to a simple thing called time.
In 1973, the Jackson Five would release the “Get It Together” album, boasting a somewhat funkier sound than their previous, more youthfully inflected releases. The album itself was fairly forgettable (outside of the peppy stepper “It's Too Late To Change The Time”), save for the disc's final song—which on LPs in those days meant it was a throwaway. But that song was no trash...it was the song that would signal a rebirth for the group and first boast the new, almost fully-changed “Michael” voice that we'd hear pretty much until his death.
That song was the unforgettable “Dancing Machine”.
I remember seeing them do the song for the first time one Saturday afternoon on Don Cornelius' “Soul Train”, and it was heart-stopping. Those staccatto moves, the spins and then, the revelation of that perfectly-hinged “Robot” dance of his. Machined—like the song said—smooth and almost hydraulically powered, with that kill move of the waist-drop into the broken-arm swing of a thing made more of tin and screws than bone and sinew.
“What the hell? Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, sweat!”
Later that day, everyone I knew was out and about doing lame-ass versions of his impeccable “Robot” all over the streets. Stiff-assed, and busted-winged we aped the moves we'd just seen. Awesome moves! And we all just had to do it...because Michael was doing it...and doing it well. Later that year, the group would guest on “The Carol Burnett Show”, with Michael still growing like a weed, but more dance-tastically fluid than ever. And he'd do the song again, with the moves honed that much sharper for the rest of the world for whom the eleven a.m. broadcast of “Soul Train” wasn't the must see it was for folks “round the way”. He killed it again, and the group was back—back until Disco...most notably the bad Disco being crafted by mercenaries who didn't know the difference between a Latin Mass and The Latin Hustle sodomized our ears with their awfulness. The group—Michael was floundering again. The sonic sands had shifted under them and they could not quite get centered. And then, it became clear to them that they were also NOT getting paid what they should have been (as others had previously discovered to their chagrin) by the boss, Berry Gordy, so tensions mounted. Rifts were riven deeper. The group was split between Gordy and Family, most notably through Michael's brother and sometimes pop rival, Jermaine's relationship with Gordy's daughter Hazel. The family felt they were getting screwed by Gordy while Jermaine, if you'll forgive the brutal French here, quite literally...was. The four Jackson brothers would leave the Motown nest,—but the cherished “Five” suffix would be left behind as the cagey Gordy owned that moniker, and Michael would feel ever more alone as Jermaine, always to his left onstage, and his closest sibling stayed behind at Motown, marrying the boss' daughter.
Those late teen years were rough ones for Michael, as they are for all kids. Your face breaks out, your body changes—not always for the better. “Cute” can fade. It can be especially rough on child stars, as they are always judged against how we first fell in love with them. The aforementioned Shirley Temple, Alfalfa Switzer, and Danny Bonaduces of the world are but a few manifestations of that phenomenon. Self-image issues are de riguer for teenagers. But Black teens have to deal with a second, more pernicious self-image demon as well...that Sissyphean Caucasian beauty standard that is near impossible to get around. Imagine you're a world star going through a shaky adolescence where your appearance is drastically changing—not for the worse, but something different than what your world-wide fan base (those who look like you still love you, though) reveres. You're insecure as it is—you can't hide, really, “You're a star!”—and then, just heap on generations worth of self-loathing born of good old American racism.
Oh yeah, your dad is still kicking your ass, your livelihood is threatened by a fickle public, and the pressure is on you to do something to stay relevant...remain desirous...
You begin changing what you can about yourself to slake the thirst of a grasping world, and to settle the demons of insecurity leaping at your psyche. It doesn't help timing-wise that plastic surgery had become a lot more than just bobbing a nose as it had been for decades. And so, Michael's sad, desperate journey to the land of de-nubification would begin—first with the throwback conk / curls and as time would go by, the more extreme, outré modifications to skin, sinew and bone. And these changes coincide with the stepping out from the five-wide line of Jackson brothers into the bright spotlight of solo fame downstage. “Life ain't so baaa-aaad at a-a-alllllllllllll, when you're livin' off the waaaaaalllllll.”
This would be his second act. The synthesis of all he'd learned and loved about entertaining people, with a matured, and almost physics-defying body, and...a fully-honed sense of pop songcraft. This was the Michael of “Off The Wall”, and following that, the phenomenon of “Thriller”.
“Thriller”...which was the single best thing and single worst thing that could have ever happened to him. Over 100 million albums sold. seven hit singles. A clutch of revolutionizing videos. A pop-culture ubiquity that would many times over, dwarf the damaging, but moth-to-the-flame attractive fame that he'd known almost forever. It catapulted him into a wealth class that few performers have ever seen, and simultaneously played to his worst, most immature excesses—one being a clear tendency to pour all into the the perfection of performance and almost nil into employing even a little bit of objective self-awareness. An objective self-awareness that could have easily made life more normally fun for him, and perhaps even have extended it. “Thriller” was so Goddamned big that it effectively changed the music industry—and not in a good way. Having been done once, the bean-counters and gangsters at the labels of course thought that the lucrative equation could be replicated / reverse engineered—hook-y tunes, heavy airplay, eye-catching videos and a P.R. push to make ubiquitous whatever the hell the product was. And Michael, living the heady high of “Thriller's” deep reach into pop culture, naively bought into the same bit of stupid the suits in the industry did—albeit destructively internalized. The problem was, that “Thriller” was an utterly un-replicable thing. A once-in-a-generation phenomenon, really. That many high-quality songs on one album, with the accompanying multimedia extras (the videos...those videos), and, let's face it—a performer who could in this age of hot-house flowered, so-called “studio singers” who cannot get loose live—a performer who could in a four-minute live performance become a jaw-dropping, flesh-and-blood special effect (Motown 25, ya'll) is something beyond rare. He would spend much of his remaining life trying to re-capture “Thriller's” energy and scope—realizing I think only in the end, that it was impossible. Not just for him to consciously attempt, but for anyone to attempt. The record was a divine confluence of things...his undeniable talent, but also a stroke of genius in production, and fortuitously timed with the ascent of the “video” age, and a well-documented down point for pop music per sé around him.
It was a lightning strike, a tornado and an earthquake all happening at once in the same place. Amazing...but un-repeatable. It was a rush one could only really do once. In talking to a friend about Jackson and “Thriller”, the image of Daffy Duck's infamous, un-repeatable vaudeville trick to top his nemesis Bugs Bunny in the classic Warner Bros. cartoon “Show Biz Bugs” came immediately to mind.
The irony of a heaven-bound Daffy lamenting the stunt's un-repeatability is not lost here.
MJ's now-impossible level of stardom with “Thriller” was a cash-cow indeed, but as noted, it played to his worst demons...that willingness to suspend self-awareness, and an annoying, benign imperiousness. No one could tell him “No.”, and him knowing they could not, it allowed him to indulge every silly whim a maladjusted, fame-addled and yes, damaged individual could. This is where the rubber meets the road for Michael, because it's where his personal responsibility as an adult should have manifested itself. People go through all manner of trauma and travails as children, yet many times manage to transcend those painful, psyche-damaging things to come out as functional adults. In spite of those things, a certain normalcy can often prevail. While understanding what he may have endured, there is a point where as an adult, one still can step back and say, “I'm not going to let those things define me.” Strong-minded folk with a shred of self-awareness do this every day. Michael apparently didn't even have that shred. A friend of mine who is now a social worker had a simply horrific childhood and a brutally destructive adolescence fraught with every kind of abuse you could imagine—and then some. She said to me, ˆI know I'm not perfect. But hey...at least I know that, and I know the reasons why. And knowing that, I have to affirm that shit. I scream at myself inside, every day, 'Transcend mother-fucker, TRANSCEND!' And you know what? I do. It's my survival mechanism. If I don't, I'm the sum of all the shit I went through...and nothing more.”
Michael became the sum of those things. Not his fault exactly, but again...he himself never transcended it. And that rests within the individual. How willing is one to...how hard does one...want to fight? These are the decisions an adult must make, and sadly for him and us, Michael clearly chose to err on the side of “not hard enough”. Knowing that non-choice, he instead opted for a patently childish alternative. He amped up the “weird” factor—showing out for attention's sake, and playing the oddball to the hilt to diffuse attention from his actual peculiarities like some real-life version of Ally Sheedy's contrived, over-the-top-oddball “Allison Reynolds” character from “The Breakfast Club”. Except at a certain point, he started to get off on the attention the weirdness was getting him, especially as his influence as a pop music tastemaker began its precipitous decline. (Partly due to his cultural isolation and partly due to the rapidly shifting tastes of the consumer public...again) The “Ha-ha! Look how weird I am” moves swiftly melded into his inherent, natural strangeness and it all became to us, a ghostly, lank-haired blur of “Oh my God!” The purchase of The Elephant Man 's bones...the picture of him lying in the hyperbaric chamber, the increasingly bizarre physical appearance—both costumed and surgeried, and then of course...the weirdness with the kids.
Ohhhhhhh, the kids. The kids, The kids.
At this point in time, we still don't know for certain with him what he really was about with all of those disturbing abuse stories. I'm of the belief that if the allegations were truly the case—lockbox solid—there'd have been scores of damaged kids and angry parents coming forth. Child sexual abuse sadly doesn't happen on a small scale when the possible abuser is a person of great influence. And just playing the numbers game, considering the multitude of children he was exposed to (no pun intended) it seems there would have been many, many more victims coming forward. Not everyone can be “bought off” as Jackson's harshest critics would say. That said though, when you are as overtly off-kilter as Michael was—a mess inside and out, and you initiate and then foster oddly juvenile “relationships” with children, when most poeple your age are dealing with their fellow adults, you are unfortunately inviting fate. We live in an age where people don't look the other way any more, or engage in the denial previous generations did when that ugly spectre would materialize. Whether he did the deeds or not, he at the very least gave more than an ample opportunity for the allegations to gain traction—speaking again to that stunning lack of self-awareness of his. We know his childhood as it was, was a chaotic, furtive and oft-interrupted thing, lived inside a fishbowl with a possible variety of awful abuses against him. We know that he spent much of his post-childhood trying to come to grips with that, and failing so, trying to clumsily recapture / re-live as many of the fun aspects of that childhood (that he could remember or at least, visualize / manufacture vicariously) as he could...
As much the victim as he was though, he did not help himself at all with the over-the-top weirdness (and at the end, with him seemingly no longer in any control over it) when it manifested itself around young people. A simple realization or two about the world beyond him could have saved him a lot of grief. Michael though, was sadly hung up on the superficials. All he saw, or wanted to see in the end were the waving, adoring crowds—of which there were still a lot of, particularly beyond the U.S. borders.
That cocoon of fan worship was his world, or rather, the world he chose to dwell in.
Remember the odd, off-putting dance atop the S.U.V. post-acquittal in Los Angeles? Loopy as it seemed, it was par for the course for a person who could only see things through the prism of a performer or performance. It was as if the trial, and that climactic moment at the end was all a long-form video for him, and the “dance” was the spinning, multi-cut flourish just before the freeze-frame ending. Credits at the lower left. Fade to commercial for acne medicine.
And worse yet, stylistically, the world of music was passing him by. “Thriller” was not so much innovation as it was pluperfect power pop. He would do well, with the initial, also single word-titled follow-up albums—“Bad” and “Dangerous”, but there was a palpable frustration in his camp that those were not as “Thriller-esque” in chart-conquering scope. Nothing else could be, really. And as the music industry collapsed into quick mini-fad after quick mini-fad with the public's attention span shrinking ever faster as distractions / new modes of entertainment grew like “Topsy”. (iTunes and the now ubiquitous iPod have forever altered the dynamic of music delivery—and effectively ended Top Forty Radio's stranglehold on hit-making / star-making) Michael, as good as he was could never seem to get back out in front of the wave. This was a hell of a blow to the man who was arguably “The World's Greatest Entertainer”, and more ironically “The King Of Pop”. A performer who lived for the adulation of the public and found validation through his ability to dominate a form that was no longer playing by the rules he was a master of...was effectively set adrift. Absolutely not the place for an emotionally, socially fragile person to be. Minus the toe-tapping earworms of his mega-hits to set us humming, all that was left for us to consume (and all he had left to give) was the weirdness. (One aspect of which I've never seen noted—namely his odd, crypto-Oedipal “Diva” fixation. He had a peculiar attraction to troubled, but status-quo challenging women—Diana Ross, ElizabethTaylor, Liza Minnelli, Lisa Marie Presley, et.al.—women who for all their known difficulties with men still very much controlled their own destinies, unlike Michael's own long-suffering mother Katherine who has forever lived in the rough shadow of Papa Joe. His attachment to these women doesn't take a Freud disciple to fathom. What girls Michael “wanted” were girls very much unlike Dear Mother. Looking at them en massé in relation to him is a disturbing case study of misplaced affection.)
Eventually, the “Thriller”-spawned money would begin to run low. He would not be “broke” as some have made out. Assets and interests he held were worth hundreds of millions of dollars...but his liquid assets were ebbing swiftly as his “Thriller”-spawned expenses were massive. And the guy who never really grew up certainly didn't have the most secure handle of finances either. Throw in his supporting several siblings for the better part of two decades and you can see the big, swirling smear of green going down the drain. Credit was extended based on his assets—song catalogs owned, future royalties to be paid, and tours yet to be embarked upon. But reality was hitting home for him. Debts mounted, much of his beloved Neverland Ranch was sold off and he would come to depend on the kindnesses of burnoosed strangers far from home, agog at the idea of an icon of Western Pop being even a little bit beholden to them. There was more quiet time as “the business” slowed down, and Michael set about at long last building a family—loving and beautiful, but still, pre-fabbed and crafted with the precision of a series of choreographed dance moves or a sequence of songs on an album. Chance and randomness was not his bag and it manifested itself with his children, from conception onward. But in the end, as we saw at his funeral, children in grief are guileless. His daughter Paris shattered the hearts of millions when she spoke so lovingly of her father...
Adopt 'em, test-tube 'em, hell...kidnap 'em or however you wind up with 'em, if you love your children—really love them—when you are gone, the wound to them is a deep and punishing one, and we saw that in Paris ' tear-wracked attempt to convey her thoughts about her late father. It moved many from thinking about “Michael the Weird” to considering what a joy he must have been to those kids of his. In that small-to-us-who-did-not-live-with-him way, he evidently transcended at last.
But it took his death to see it brought to light. Alas.
And his death was effectively the close of the third act in our watching The Great 20th Century American Pop Culture Play. Yes, in spite of the aforementioned messianic excesses, he was in fact the last of something of a “Trinity”. Sinatra, Elvis,“ and Michael—The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghostly Apparition. Linked through time and irony. Sinatra's croon wowed the the Bobby-soxers” of the 40's. Elvis' blue-eyed soul, snarl and McCarthy backhanding gyrations stirred the teens of the 50's, and Michael's beyond-his-years innate soulfulness and performer's polish captivated a generation in the late 60's and 70's. When Frank was at his creative peak in the mid-fifties, a young Elvis hit with the hammer that was Rock & Roll, knocking Sinatra down several pegs as popular music upheaved huge and fearsome stalagmites around him. Elvis would then go off to the Army and come back effectively a boy no more, but now a man. And his return to the world of stardom took place where? Fittingly, on the stage of Frank Sinatra's short-lived TV variety show—welcoming him back to the world proper, effectively, a kissing of the ring of “The Man”. Fast forward ten years, and there's the new kid, Michael—literally a kid, paying homage to “The Father” again...
This was a kid savvy enough to be able to channel Frank Sinatra—maybe the most bodacious “Guy's Guy” of the latter half of the century and perfectly, convincingly “get” him—while all of twelve years old.
All three bearing titles bestowing power...“The Chairman Of The Board”, “The King”, and the more direct definer “The King of Pop”.
And to tie it all up in an incestuous little bow of symmetry, whose daughter did that nutty, koo-koo kid wind up marrying—an effective merging of the last two generations' of pop mega-stardom?
Sinatra “retired” at fifty—just past the “September Of His Years”, his hitmaking on the wane. Elvis' excess-slurred words could barely be made out at his concerts eight years before that half-century milestone he'd never make, a sad mess and a brakeless freight train going downhill fast. Michael? Well...we see how that turned out. The half-century mark seems a pivotal time for these oddly-scarred talents we projected so much upon. Fade away or flat-out disappear it seems. With a trail of mental illness, suicide attempts, susbtance abuse and relationship craziness on their tuxedo-pumped / white-booted / glitter-socked heels. In all of their cases, but Michael's in particular,—the big question is, as noted before...would we, the public be better off without the art he (they) gave us if maybe, just maybe their personal circumstances were different in a way that left them less as stars (or perhaps not stars at all) but happier as just regular people?
Was it worth it?
We're a selfish culture when it comes to our art. Many would say, “But I loved 'I'll be There'. I fell in love with Susie / Omar / Eddie / Svetlana to that song! Michael didn't have to have all that drama for that music to exist. No...I'll take the music please. Sorry.” It isn't always the case, but in large part, art...high art—is messy. The things that captivate the world are oftentimes born of drama, turmoil and yes, even crazy.—i.e. the lurid messiness of cultural game-changers like Chaplin, Picasso, or worse yet, a Frank Lloyd Wright. The line from Orson Welles' “Harry Lime” (from “The Third Man”) comes to mind over this paradox...
“You know what the fellow said—in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Not that there's anything wrong with cuckoo clocks per sé...but there we are...
And if we look at Michael's death just a little bit closer, it hits with a double significance—you see...something else also turned fifty years old this year as well...Motown Records, Jackson's springboard to super-stardom and the one-time symbol of Black America's true arrival in terms of capitalist “equality”. Sadly, Motown too had become a shadow of itself...a repository for musical memories only, sold off by Gordy years ago and a cultural non-factor many years before that. It was in fact, in far worse shape than Michael. Though long gone from the label, there is a symmetry in its last great star's fading out at fifty years old—the same year that shell of a once-culture-defining company itself also turned fifty. There were half-hearted, stillborn attempts to commemorate the should-have-been-auspicious anniversary, but...the folks involved just couldn't seem to get it together. The Lord moves in mysterious ways.
And sometimes, he just drops a boulder on your head to make his point clear.
So, with the person / artist gone, we the public at large are left with the things that superficially remain...the sad and typical post-death wrangling and jockeying by grasping “family”...swirling factoids and boiled--over rumor stewing into anger and of course, the blame-gaming that so often accompanies loss...the zest for ultra-deification by the myopic and the bloodlust for dissery by rabid contrarians looking to grind an axe or make a bold and cheap mark for themselves...
And what we had here really—beyond the superficial in The Curious Case Of Michael Joseph Jackson was your usual messy artist—brilliant when performing but addled as so many of us are in the regular course of life. A flesh-and-blood prism through which millions of people viewed their dreams coming true in post-civil rights America, while being an odd wind-up toy / possession of sorts to even more (including some in his own family) who failed to acknowledge that he was...but a child when we got him, and never really allowed him the room to grow up with any semblance of normalcy.
The ultimate irony lay in how we as a culture viewed him...getting it wrong at the start and the awful everything cascading from there. Seeing him and locking him in as charmingly old when he was so very young and in so doing, helping to warp him into something freakishly immature when he defied us and grew older before our eyes. I think back to those days on the school bus, all of us boys seeing the little him, no bigger than us—seemingly happy, confident, eyes a-sparkling with the wonder of the culture-changing moment as we saw him perform.
He was a dream come true for us. All proud and dazzling. Fearless with millions of eyes—our eyes—the world's eyes upon him. In a land where fifteen years before, a Black boy his age was murdered for “sassiness”, there he stood...and shimmied...and spun, again “commanding girls (and really...every grown-ass woman watching that night) to 'Get up! I think I love YOU!'”
Maybe it was different for you. It was just a bunch of catchy tunes perhaps. But it—he was a lot more than that to many. Me, included. This is said, knowing the full of him, flaws and all. I acknowledge them fully. The mega-talent and the messiness. It's like family. You love them because of who they are to you, but if you keep it real, you recognize the humanity in them, and in so doing, deal with the screw-ups. Some will hold that family member to their bosom forever, while others rightfully will have to push him or her away. “Sorry...I can't deal with you any more.”
And in those quiet moments in our minds, even if we push one away...we think back—even with all the hurt—on the happier times. When we loved that person unconditionally. We mentally anesthetize to keep from letting anger consume us entirely. We go back...and yes, we can't help but smile...
Yes, the truth was being warped even then. Diana most certainly didn't “discover” them, and Sullivan was fudging Mike's age by a year for show-biz effect. But look at him there...a blazing spirit seeming to burst from him on stage. I look at him and smile.
The visibly awed Sulllivan's final words?
“The little fella in front is incredible.”
He damn sure was.