By DeWayne Wickham
The king of pop is dead.
Death came to Michael Jackson as he was in Los Angeles preparing for a series of 50 sold-out concerts in London that was expected to breathe life back into his troubled career. The official cause of his death is said to be a cardiac arrest, but I suspect it was a broken heart that sapped the life from Jackson’s body.
Once a fixture on the pages of Billboard, the Bible of the music industry, Jackson spent the last years of his life trying to distance himself from the ugly tabloid headlines that tarnished his reputation. Twice he was accused of child molestation. Each time Jackson denied any wrongdoing. The first case, a civil lawsuit, was settled in 1993 for an undisclosed amount of money. The second one, a 2005 criminal case, ended with Jackson being acquitted of all 10 charges of a legal proceeding that had dragged on for two years.
“He just wanted to get it behind him,” Johnnie Cochran, Jackson’s lawyer in the 1993 case told me shortly after the settlement was reached. “He’s a pretty vulnerable guy, with a big heart,” the famed attorney said of Jackson.
Sadly, the taint from these cases – and Jackson’s bizarre lifestyle – put the brakes on his phenomenal music career. They also probably put some deep cracks in Jackson’s heart.
Jackson loved to be onstage. As a performer he had no equal. During his appearance on a 1983 television special celebrating Motown Records 25th anniversary, Jackson stunned a worldwide audience with his “moonwalk,” a dance move that seemed to defy the laws of physics. The next day he got a congratulatory call from Fred Astaire, himself an icon of American dance.
Later that year, Jackson produced another electrifying moment with the release of “Thriller,” a 13-minute video which revolutionized pop culture in much the same way that talking movies changed the silent film industry. After “Thriller” music videos increasing became mini-movies, though none has matched the success of Jackson’s breakthrough video.
But with extraordinary fame and wealth came greater scrutiny for Jackson, who spent many of his last years in a California on a 2,800 acre ranch he called “Neverland” - the name of a mythical island where the fairy tale character Peter Pan lived. Like Peter Pan, Jackson never grew up – not really. Not off stage.
“He’s just a big kid, at heart,” Cochran told me back in 1993.
What’s certain is off stage – away from the sanctuary of his music – Jackson behaved like a shy, confused little boy. He often appeared in public wearing disguises that fooled no one, but seemed to satisfy his desire to temporarily escape his celebrity. He spent a lot of time with his three children. He built a zoo filled with exotic animals and an elaborate amusement park on his ranch. Both of these he often opened up to the children of others. But Jackson moved out of Neverland after his 2005 acquittal and struggled to hold onto the property as his income dwindled and his debt increased.
This must have done even more damage to Jackson’s heart.
Like so many members of my generation, I grew up with the legendary music of Michael Jackson. I remember him as the soft spoken lead singer of the teen idol group in the late 1960s called "The Jackson Five." I went to the movies to see his film debut in “The Wiz,” the 1978 film version of “The Wizard of Oz.” I watched him claim the title of “King of Pop” in the 1980s and saw his career nose dive in the 1990s
But like so many others, I never really thought of him simply as a person. And in the end that was probably more than Michael Jackson's heart could withstand.