*When I was a kid, I used to do something that I occasionally do today: I’d cast my eyes on something–a table lamp, a hillside, a wristwatch, jar of food, a collection of clouds in the sky, an automobile–it could be anything, really–and just stare at it for several minutes.
If you gaze at something long enough, with minimal blinking and trancelike concentration, it begins to appear surreal, as if otherworldly.
That’s what happened the other day when my eyes fell upon a commemorative Michael Jackson magazine lying on the floor of my office with the cover line, MICHAEL JACKSON, 1958-2009. I stared at that line, trying, as the phrase goes, to wrap my brain around the concept. The more I stared at those words and dates, the more freakish they appeared.
Almost a year after his death, I wrestle with the reality that Michael Jackson is no longer here. There are days when I accept it. Other times, the idea of his death seems like a “Twilight Zone” episode I can’t escape.
Michael Jackson dead? Really? It still just doesn’t seem true.
It’s not like I can’t handle death. When I lost my mother suddenly at age fifteen, the pain and sense of loss seemed unbearable. But I also remember that as a child, when mama was alive and well, I’d ask myself, “What if mama ever died?”
It was one of those morbid, forbidden pubescent musings I’d privately dare consider, between wishing I owned an ice cream truck and imagining having the ability to fly. In retrospect, I believe thinking about mama’s death before it actually occurred in some way prepared me for the inconceivable. Because I’d thought about it, maybe her passing didn’t completely blindside my young emotions.
As late as a couple years ago, that kind of infrequent meditation of the unfathomable would prepare me for the unlikely death of Michael Jackson. Or so I thought. I used to wonder what it would be like if he went early–how he would go and what kind of reception the world would give his passing.
Ghoulishly, my friends and I would really go at it: if it ever happened, we asked, would Mike’s death and the public’s subsequent mourning outsize the world’s grief for, say, Elvis? Martin Luther King, Jr.? John Lennon? Lady Di?
It all depended, we concluded, on Michael’s impact and popularity as an entertainer at the time of his death vs. his assorted weirdness and damning court cases. Of course, now we know the truth–that for nearly a month after his death, Michael Jackson dominated the global media, if not the earth’s collective consciousness.
Nevertheless, despite what he himself predicted would be a tragically early, sudden and clichéd death befitting cultural icons, I actually envisioned Michael Jackson living a long life. I imagined him existing in old age pretty much as he had in the years before his death, in relative seclusion.
I saw an elderly Michael publicly resembling his friend Elizabeth Taylor: proud, rickety and mostly good natured, dressed up and made up, always looking, as his idol James Brown insisted a true star should, “like somebody people would pay money to see,” creating a paparazzi stir anytime he ventured out for something to eat or to shop.
So sure was I that Michael wasn’t going anywhere, I chose instead to contemplate what the ultimate passing of his mother would do to him. I know. I think too much. But just as his kids appeared to redefine the pop star’s life, I was sure losing his mother, whom he loved dearly, would have torn Michael to shreds. I wondered what kind of Michael would eventually emerge from such sorrow. Would he have been moved to create music again, or become even more reclusive?
The days I truly know Michael is gone are those that I tune into “E.T.” or TMZ or flip through a “People” magazine or glimpse an Enquirer cover and ask myself Who are these people? Indeed, Michael’s departure left a raging lacuna in the strange and perverted culture of celebrity the size of the milky way. With one of most famous men of all time gone, even the biggest stars suddenly seem like B-listers.
Sure, toward the end of his life, before the “This Is It” rehearsals, we’d nearly become immune to the annual rumors of yet another come back. Word that Michael was in the recording studio with any number of hit songwriters and producers certifiably unqualified for the task of directing Jackson, was downright depressing.
However, as long as he was alive, we could still engage in the nagging hope that he’d again do something great. Plus, it was entertaining to simply watch Michael be the magnitude of star he was. The last time I witnessed that phenomenon in person was last year at the lavish, invitation-only 50th birthday party of Ed Hardy designer Christian Audigier.
The ever audacious Audigier had taken over Los Angeles’ four-story Peterson Automotive Museum, transforming one floor into “Heaven,” and the floor below it into “Hell,” complete with clouds, scantily clad roaming angels and devils, magicians, acrobats, two D.J.-powered dance floors, truckloads of gourmet cuisine and free-flowing alcohol. Fergie and Snoop Dogg performed short sets each, while the likes of Britney Spears looked on.
The whole thing resembled Fellini’s cinematic interpretation of a Salvador Dali painting, at the chaotic height of which I turned to a party guest and quipped sarcastically, “All that’s missing now is Michael Jackson.”
And as if on spooky cue, Audigier took the stage and announced to the drunken revelers, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d now like to introduce you to my good friend, the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.”
A D.J. cranked up “Thriller,” and out from backstage, in a blue sequin shirt, black pants and shades, strolled none other than Jackson. Flanked by four beefy bodyguards in black, he casually walked the fashion runway stage out over the stunned audience, now going positively insane as they held up cell phones to visually capture the moment.
Jackson, who looked to be in a playful mood, glanced down into the mad crowd as if he wanted to risk shaking a couple of hands before briefly taking the mic with Audigier and declaring the giddy designer “King of Fashion.”
Jackson might have been there for all of 15 minutes. He didn’t sing, dance or initiate a single rhythmic gesture, knowing it could have caused a riot. Plus, that would have cost extra: according to an associate of the designer, for his brief appearance Audigier paid MJ $250,000.
If Jackson never did anything else with the rest of his life, I’d have been amused watching him create traffic jams.
Instead, I’m trying to gaze at MICHAEL JACKSON, 1958–2009 from an angle that makes sense.