While crossing Barcelona’s Catalonia Square on the night of June 25th of last year I came upon a Michael Jackson devotee arranging candles around several posters of the troubadour. As the shrine began to attract more curious tourists I walked away without giving its raison d’etre much thought.
When I later learned from CNN that Michael had died under strange circumstances I wasn’t surprised one bit. I had been expecting some such denouement, even suicide, given his deteriorating appearance and bizarre comportment. I certainly didn’t expect him to die of old age. And once the lurid details of Michael’s final days were disclosed, they only confirmed what I had suspected, that his eccentric lifestyle had spun out of control.
What did surprise me, though, were all those people saying that they were “shocked” by Michael’s death. Were they blind to his emaciated physique, abnormal skin color and cosmetic surgery, all of which had turned him into a freak, and to the dark side of his Peter Pan syndrome? Did they delude themselves into believing that Michael was the same endearing innocent of his halcyon days, turning a blind eye to his visible misery?
When The Jackson Five arrived on the American music scene, they were Black America’s answer to The Osmonds, a talented family of fresh-faced Mormonds embodying wholesome entertainment. As The Osmonds matured, the less talented siblings dropped out of the group, leaving the stage to Donny & Marie, the most successful brother and sister duo of all time.
As The Jacksons matured and the novelty of their family act wore off, it became obvious that Michael, and later Janet, was the true family talent and that the other brothers were mere back-up singers and dancers. On his own, Michael became the King of Pop, while Janet has enjoyed a very successful solo career, including a notorious “wardrobe malfunction” at Super Bowl XXXVII that dropped America’s collective jaw.
A friend of mine from Gary, Indiana, remembers the Jackson brothers when they were growing up in that steel town. He says that his uncle, a Gary boutique owner, always kept a close eye on the brothers when they entered his hip boutique, because they had a habit of taking items without paying.
Since I grew up listening to The Four Seasons, Mo’town and The Golden Oldies, neither The Osmands nor The Jacksons resonated with me. The former were too white and squeaky clean; the latter were too commercial and without soul. It was only after a friend of mine was unabashed in his praise of Michael that I gave the baby Jackson brother my grudging respect. That was 1971.
In 1982 I turned a Blues aficionado on to Michael’s “Thriller” video. By then I too was unabashed in my praise of Michael, though the aficionado still thought of him as the boy who sang simple songs like “ABC” and “Ben.” After seeing the video, the aficionado no longer doubted the troubadour’s talent.
If you didn’t look too close, Michael seemed to have discovered the fountain of youth. He was Peter Pan and the Pied Piper of Hamlin rolled into one. Although on closer inspection he was an aging freak whose abnormal “friendship” with young boys almost led to his ruin. In 2005, Michael looked decrepit when he arrived at his judicial hearing for alleged child molestation, using a cane and needing assistance to enter the courthouse. I half expected him to commit suicide then.
When watching television I often comment on how certain entertainers are showing their age, if not getting old looking. Every time I saw Michael, he just got weirder and weirder looking. And I'd say to myself, "What's happened to that poor boy?"
And yet, those around Michael during rehearsal of “This Is It,” his mega comeback planned for London, were amazed by his youthful energy. Perhaps this is because the stage, Michael’s spiritual home and fountain of youth, was the only place where he could escape his demons and be rejuvenated. But just as a filament is brightest right before it burns out, so was the troubadour.
Given that Michael had lost his childhood years to the demands of the family act/business, it is not surprising that he would spend his adult life trying to re-live those lost years. We thus have Neverland Ranch, a fantasy world replete with a zoo and amusement park and inspired by the Never Land of “Peter Pan.” “We won’t grow up!” is the mantra of Peter and his band of Lost Boys.
Michael was life imitating art. If anyone could have joined the timorous foursome -- Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow -- of “The Wizard of Oz,” traipsing the Yellow Brick Road in search of a way home, a heart, courage and a brain, respectively, it was Michael. In his case, a search for childhood lost. Instead of Munchkins at Neverland Ranch, there were children. And Michael was a natural for “The Wiz,” an African-American musical adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz,” in which he played the Scarecrow.
Since someone gave me a concert ticket for free I joined the multitude that waited for hours at Chamsil Stadium, in 1996, to see Michael perform. What I remember about that interminably boring night is seeing Michael with his arms outstretched like “Christ The Redeemer” while perched high above the crowd in the basket of a cherry picker. But it was no more than a perfunctory performance.
In one of the rooms of Barcelona’s Picasso Museum, there is a small chalk and ink work entitled“Decadent Poet.” In 1901, Pablo Picasso did this portrait of an idealized poet with raven locks and draped in a black cloak when he (Picasso) was 20 years old, new to Paris and discovering its demimonde. I was struck by the poet’s eerie likeness to Michael. And I find it truly amazing that Michael would become the embodiment of the Catalonian artist's vision; for a century later decadence would doom Pop’s poet laureate.
It is hard to believe that Michael Jackson was 50 when he passed. Even though he left us too soon, he has achieved immortality and will remain forever young.
Jack Soul .@dgu.edu
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