Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Michael Joseph Jackson: 1958 - 2009

Oil Painting by me, 1989
Oil Painting by me, 1989
It's been said repeatedly the past few weeks that the deaths of famous people "come in threes." In truth, fame is relative and death visits the well known and the obscure with equal indiscretion and finality. In the last several years however, there have been three celebrity passings of note which managed to move me to tears. The common denominator stringing them together was the measure of joy they brought me in my formative years.

They were my heroes.

In 2003, I was first saddened to learn of the death of Fred Rogers, whose television show was an absolute fixture of my early childhood. He was 74 and had been suffering from cancer; as such, his passing was not unexpected. Still, I remember the pang I felt knowing that such a kind soul was no longer sharing this world with us. But his gentle wisdom lives on.

In 2004, the passing of Christopher Reeve hit me harder than I would have expected. He was 52, and had labored for nine long years as a paraplegic. His personal resolve during that time was remarkable. During my mid-childhood, he brought Superman to life and made me believe that character could fly. In my adulthood, his personal character made me believe he might walk again. His inspiration lives on.

On June 26th, 2009, not even two weeks ago, Michael Joseph Jackson passed away at the age of 50. The worldwide outpouring of emotion has been unprecedented. For anyone who doesn't understand why the death of someone who was not a friend or family member or even an acquaintance could stir so many people to mourn - yet still celebrate the fullness of his life - I don't have concrete answers.

All I can say about what he meant to me is he was my guy. He was really my guy. Someone recently said that Michael Jackson made more than music; he made memories, and that's the finest summation of his career one can make. So as the doves and vultures congregate in the air above Los Angeles today, I wanted to finally offer my formal thoughts on Michael Jackson.

While Jackson was always a presence during my life, and I can't remember a time his music wasn't on the radio, or he and his family weren't on television, it was THRILLER which brought him to the forefront of my attention. That album was released when I was 12 years old, the perfect age for a figure like him to come across as something magical. I can tell you exactly where I was the first time I heard each of the songs from that album. The same holds true for the videos. The same holds true for much of his career from that point on.

Eddie Murphy famously quipped back then that Jackson had lots of appeal but he "wasn't the most masculine fellow in the world." However I admired that a young, talented, handsome and successful black man could break world records while remaining sensitive and graceful and artistic. It's what I yearned to do! He never surrendered his sensitivity. That's an accomplishment, and I was inspired.

Pencil drawing by me, 1983Pencil drawing by me, 1983I was inspired but I never idolized Jackson; my beliefs didn't allow for that. He was a human being, and an extremely complicated one at that. His life story (surely well known to everyone at this point, with no need for me to recount it here) and childhood were revealed to be far from enviable. He was flawed. He stumbled. He made mistakes, sometimes large ones. But tremendous talents are prone to tremendous mistakes, and I don't think it could be otherwise.

We Americans also have an ever-increasing tendency to place celebrities - our figurative royalty - on slippery pedestals with the sole purpose of inciting them to fall. Jackson in turn both embraced (even needed) the attention, yet spurned it when he couldn't control it. Yes, as a fan I found it maddening at times. For all the astonishing footwork he was capable of, the media made for a fickle dance partner.

I will say unequivocally, I refuse to believe the worst allegations about Jackson. I never have, and never will. It angers me that the suggestion of such remains wrapped up in his history, and in truth we'll never completely know what happened. Had he fought the initial accusers with fervor, there may not have been others and he may have been vindicated more fully. It's all speculative now, but it would have made it easier to appreciate the music.

The court of public opinion renders damning verdicts, and it's always chipping at the pedestal.

However I'm heartened that so much of the world has chosen to celebrate his life in the way that truly counts: by singing and dancing. He was marvelous, wasn't he? When you stripped away the hype and rumors and odd behaviors...Jackson was born to entertain.

He masterfully wrote songs that glided to the top of the charts with lives of their own. He sang angelically and danced like a man possessed. In concert (and thankfully I got to see him live when the BAD tour came through Pittsburgh) he was unrivaled. When performing, Jackson's frailties and flaws and inner demons were exorcised through the soles of his feet.

And they left blood on the dance floor.

I do wish Jackson hadn't felt the need to cut away at himself, trying to carve out a person deserving of the affection he only seemed to feel onstage. I wonder, when all is said and done, if Jackson had even an inkling of how much he was loved during his time on this planet. Or how much he would continue to be loved now. I hope his soul is at peace.

And I hope his children will be alright. For anyone who can't understand the simple tragedy of children who woke up with a father one day and went to bed without him that night, that's beyond my ability to explain.

Faux-animation cel art (acrylic paint on transparency) by me, 1991Faux-animation cel art (acrylic paint on transparency) by me, 1991With Jackson's passing, I lost the last of my living childhood heroes. A pair of well polished loafers stuffed with spangled socks now resides next to a pair of household sneakers and a pair of bright red knee-high boots. Rogers, Reeve and Jackson all inspired me in different ways, and brought me a large measure of joy.

As Fred Rogers would have explained, Jackson was always special just the way he was. And while Christopher Reeve made me believe the Man of Steel could fly, Michael Jackson showed me that the King of Pop could walk to the moon.

The music lives on. Dance in peace Michael...and burn that disco out!

- Marcel Walker, 07-07-2009

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