When I first moved to Los Angeles in 1987 my best friend Bruce and I were nosing around the Tower Video store in Sherman Oaks when suddenly, visible over the rise of the shelf cutting through the middle of the room, I saw the familiar visage of Michael Jackson—fedora, sunglasses, white surgical mask covering his nose and mouth—glide through my field of vision. The two of us couldn’t believe it was him—this was in the pre-Bad days, when the allegations of hyperbaric chambers and monkey BFFs and serial plastic surgery had really begun to overwhelm Jackson’s seemingly untouchable pop music legacy, and seeing him in the flesh carried with it its own degree of instant reality twisting, as if suddenly we were in a video store designed by Dr. Caligari. We tried to gawk in that way that would become all too familiar to me as a resident in a city where this kind of thing happens from time to time—that is, gawking while trying to seem not to gawk—but we were surely less subtle about it than we would like to have believed, especially when we turned the corner and realized that he had with him a young girl, probably about 10 years of age, towing along silently behind. And it was apparent that the staff and other customers were keeping their distance in the same way—no one approached or engaged him in any way, as far as I was able to notice. As we headed for the exit to the parking lot in back of the building Bruce and I were buzzing with the excitement of having seen somebody who, freak or no, until that moment literally seemed too big to really occupy a space in the same world in which we lived.
But when we got to our car in the tiny lot, which was only big enough to hold four or five cars, we realized there was a huge Mercedes parked squarely in the middle of the space, blocking in all of the cars that were legally parked there, including ours. I got in my car and honked the horn, but to no avail. One more honk got exactly the same response—none. So I got out and began to head toward the door back into the video store, where I was planning to request that the cashier ask whoever was so thoughtlessly parked to please move their vehicle. I got only a couple of steps from my car when suddenly Jackson, along with his mysterious companion (I’m sure she looked or behaved nothing like this, but I remember her much like the eerie Damian-esque little girl who unnerves Angie Dickinson in the elevator in Dressed to Kill), burst through the door. Without making eye contact he offered several apologies for blocking our way as he fumbled for his keys—and yes, I could now see that he was also wearing a pair of white gloves. Finally the two got in, backed out of the lot and drove away, leaving Bruce and I to stand in the lot briefly, dazed, and contemplate an entourage-less, security-less Michael Jackson trying to remain incognito in a video store, and the two of us calling attention to him in a way he probably least desired. The question that came up later was— Could Michael Jackson have reasonably expected, given this personage and look he had cultivated, to not be noticed? Or was he actually trolling for attention, some way of reconnecting to an everyday world that had no more place for him?
The death of Michael Jackson seemed unreal to many of us who spent Thursday afternoon, in the shadow of breathless reportage of his hospitalization and then confirmation of his death, talking about the various effects he had on our lives simply because, I think, for many of us Jackson, the performer, the pop icon we prefer to remember, had already faded away many years ago. The mind-bogglingly talented 11 year-old who belted out “ABC” and “I Want You Back;” the assured star who, in the face of a staggering fear of being rejected by audiences who missed that precocious miniature tornado of talent, unleashed Off the Wall, his purest and most directly thrilling record; even the moon-walking master of the world whose phenomenal success with Thriller eventually swallowed whole whatever remaining clarity and perspective he had about his place in the creative chain of pop culture—that person had not been in evidence for a good 20 years before the day of his death. Jackson’s public image of natural happiness and exuberant success, which had been his hallmark even in the pre-Off the Wall days when he experienced his first exposure to public indifference and plummeting record sales, had long since acceded to the unrecognizable man in the mirror, a man who turned his face into an ever-shifting landscape of modeling clay, who craved acceptance from the public but created an entangled tabloid-fed universe of bizarre behavior which assured only that he would amplify his isolation from the rest of the world.
The natural inclination in mourning the loss of a superstar of Jackson’s status—and honestly, beside Elvis, Sinatra and John Lennon, who else belongs in this club?—is to downplay the dark stuff and lionize the entertainer for the joy he gave to fans, for the emotion spilling out of some of us who figured we were long past such a reaction. But even if you accept this downplaying as the inevitable way of things (in a media age where even mourning can seem prefab), one could be forgiven if one concluded from the immediate coverage, certainly in Los Angeles, where people choked up traffic and swarmed the UCLA hospital where Jackson was admitted, and where people continue to stand vigil outside his Encino home, that the love affair between Jackson and the public had never ceased. For some, apparently, it didn’t. But for the rest of us (and I speak not entirely inclusively but as someone who assumes there must be a few out there who feel the same way), it seems there must be a way to acknowledge Jackson’s contributions to the shape and sound of pop music without also ignoring the paranoia, megalomania, fear and other disturbing aspects of the man’s personality (insofar as we knew it) that totally subsumed his image in the latter part of his life. It is, it seems to me, a disservice to what he may have meant to any of us to pretend, in the overemotional, sanctimonious terms of TV news, that his impact on us was limited only to his ability to transport us through song and dance, as much a disservice as it is for TMZ and the rest of the tabloid universe to relentlessly shovel his eccentricities at us by the minute as a form of "tribute." Somewhere there must be some middle ground, a way to acknowledge the things that thrilled us as well as the things that we found disturbing about Michael Jackson, to acknowledge the complexity without further stripping away at his corpse or deifying him beyond recognition.
Thoughts of Michael Jackson and what he meant to us have been stirring around over the last couple of days, naturally, and as I entered Dodger Stadium with my father-in-law and daughters last night I wondered if the Dodgers would somehow pay tribute to the star during the game. The tribute came in a surprisingly subtle way that was integrated very well into the atmosphere—Matt Kemp, Dodger center fielder, had replaced his usual at-bat music with a cut from Off the Wall, and various Jackson tunes could be heard pumping over the loudspeakers in between each inning. Finally, in between the end of the game and the procession of the usual Friday night fireworks show, as fans filed onto the field to watch the giant sparklers, the Dodgers put together a nice, simple clip reel featuring performances from the Jackson Five, Off the Wall, Thriller and even Bad. Though interspersed with off-the-cuff thoughts from various celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Alyssa Milano projected as quotes on the DiamondVision screen, the clips were otherwise unadorned, uncommented upon, and a tonic in the wake of such bad, yet seemingly inevitable news. The fireworks themselves were accompanied by more Jackson tunes, and it really was surprising how good it was to hear them again thumping so loud against the night sky. There were reminders enough in the sound and video on display-- in seeing the face that had changed so radically, the voice that sounded so strong and confident resonating with our memories of how timid that voice seemed by comparison in simple speech-- that Jackson’s legacy is one marked by a complicated humanity, one borne of pressures and distortions of perception that we, if we are lucky, will never know. And if the media cannot contain their impulse to sanctify this man who they tended to openly mock a mere week earlier, then the best thing to do is ignore the constant news coverage of the weeping hordes outside the Jackson mansion and seek out intelligent considerations of the fullness of Jackson’s life, his triumphs and his uncomfortable oddities, available from writers like Jim Emerson and Seth Colter Walls, for starters, neither of whom shy away from Jackson’s dark side as they also acknowledge the light, and remembrances like those gathered Friday at The House Next Door and in Salon magazine. These are but a few of the sources for intelligent commentary and reaction to the legacy of Michael Jackson. For a direct line to the sheer pleasure the man was capable of conjuring, turn off your TV, cue up “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” turn it up loud and bid your farewell.