Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Jackson was Beethoven, Dickens and Astaire of his era
By DeWayne Wickham
It was a prophetic beginning to a tragic end.
During a brief appearance at London's O2 arena in March to announce his return to the stage after a 12-year absence, Michael Jackson told a crowd of screaming admirers that the 50-concert tour he announced that day would be his last. "This is the final curtain call," he said.
That curtain fell prematurely on June 25, just hours after a late-night rehearsal of the highly anticipated concert in Los Angeles' Staples Center, when Jackson was rushed to a hospital in full cardiac arrest. The King of Pop was pronounced dead 18 days before his "This is It" concert was scheduled to open in London.
Jackson's life and musical genius will be celebrated today at the Staples Center, with a program that's expected to be viewed worldwide by hundreds of millions of grieving fans of the 50-year-old pop music icon who spent nearly all of his life in the public spotlight.
Much will be said, no doubt, about the Jackson 5, the family group for which a young Michael Jackson was the charismatic lead singer. There also will be talk about the solo career that lifted Jackson to the outer stratosphere of fame and fortune. People will talk about his love of children and family and his big heart. The program will be laced with prayerful words and musical praise.
Then when it's all over, when the Staples Center empties out and the doting TV viewers turn their attention elsewhere, the cops, lawyers and prosecutors will take center stage. Michael-mania will be replaced by the chilling finger-pointing search for someone to blame for Jackson's early death and the infighting over what he leaves behind.
I'd like to understand the Michael Jackson most of us never got to know, the man-child who sang so hauntingly of lost adolescence in Childhood. In that 1995 song, which was released a year after he settled a child abuse civil suit, he asked sadly, "Have you seen my childhood?"
I'd like to know what Jackson saw when he looked into a mirror, a question born of his 1988 hit, Man in The Mirror. To make the world a better place, "take a look at yourself, and then make a change," he sang. I wonder what problems he saw when he looked into a mirror. Was it a reflection of his troubled childhood? And if so, what did he do about it?
If megastars like Jackson have a troubled past, they don't have the same opportunities to work through their troubles as people who are not constantly in the spotlight, Kendra Ogletree Cusaac, a clinical psychologist in South Carolina, told me.
"The stage becomes their outlet. But offstage they look in a mirror and see someone they are unhappy with," said Ogletree Cusaac, who also teaches at the University of South Carolina. Too often, people around megastars like Jackson hear their requests for drugs, but not the pain behind those pleadings, she said.
While a pending toxicology report will tell us what, if any, role drugs had in Jackson's death, I, like many of the people at his memorial service, am more interested in celebrating his life than discovering what triggered his cardiac arrest.
What's important to know about Michael Jackson is that he was the Ludwig van Beethoven of pop music, the Charles Dickens of musical storytellers and the Fred Astaire of his generation.
Every era has its legends. But the world of music has never produced one bigger than Michael Jackson.