What Michael Taught Us
This Is It
a psuedomentary of Michael Jackson’s final days, opened
Wednesday amid all the fanfare Sony Pictures and it’s music arm,
Sony Music, could muster. The Michael Jackson accidental death
story having quieted down considerably, Sony has invested
millions in the heavy lifting to get us riled up about it again
and promote their film. Sony wanted This Is It for the end of
August but bowed to director Kenny Ortega’s insistence the film
not be merely a hastily cobbled-together hack job designed to
cash in on the death of one of the world’s leading figures.
Those expecting a great MJ performance
will likely be disappointed, as, in the film, Jackson
concentrates more on the practical aspects of putting his show
together rather than on stellar vocal performances, but the film
itself affords a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at one of
the world's greatest performers, and tells a compelling story of
an ill-fated comeback effort. Both the film and compilation album are most obviously designed to attempt
to recoup a reported $50 million investment by concert promoter
AEG in the singer’s planned “This Is It” tour, an effort which
suffered monumental losses upon the singer’s sudden death. While
I’m sure every effort will be made to make both film and album
(and subsequent merchandising tie-ins, and the rumored Jackson
Family reality TV show and concert tour) tastefully reverent of
the singer’s life, there is no doubt what all of this is about:
Michael Jackson, the monster of all cash cows, is dead. It is
now time to build a lasting legacy such that, even though the
King of Pop is gone, the checks keep coming. “This Is It” is the
first test of the Michael Jackson Legacy Machine.
People have gotten rich writing books claiming to tell us the truth about a guy who seemingly lied every hour of every day of his life, a guy we idolized and adored and made excuses for not out of respect for who he actually was but in homage to the family-friendly, adorable wunderkind he once was. Only, that guy—our naive play-vision of Michael Jackson—died a long time before his body was discovered in a rented house. Jackson was trained to lie, first as a child by his grotesquely dysfunctional father, a presence and, surely, a face Jackson spent most of his life trying to escape. Jackson lied about his age, lied about who discovered the Jackson 5 (Bobby Taylor, not Diana Ross), and lied about practically everything from how many plastic surgeries he had (he claimed only two on his nose), to whether he lightened his skin to the paternity of his children and much, much more.
It’s ironic that, only after he died, do we now begin to realize how famous this guy was. We’ve all had our fun with Michael Jackson over the years, but the most profound truth about this deeply troubled and now eternally-young man is that he was, quite simply, one of the world's most phenomenally talented people. His vocal style has been often imitated but never duplicated with any commercial success. I mean, if there was anybody out there with a more impressively unique vocal style than Michael Jackson, he or she would have put Michael Jackson out of the Michael Jackson business—or, at the very least franchised it a la sister Janet—years ago. Jackson was simply one of a kind, a marvel. A guy who tended to repeat the same dozen or so dance moves over and over and yet we never, I mean never, got tired of seeing him do it. A guy who could hiccup and sneer his way through Happy Birthday and amaze us with it. He was every bit the outsize phenomena Elvis Presley had been, only moreso because Jackson was black. A poor black child from a blue-collar Indiana family. Both Jackson and Presley had to overcome poverty, but Jackson had to overcome racism as well. By racism, I mean there were some radio stations that refused to play Presley's music because he was considered too sexual. But there were entire cities in entire areas of this country that would not play black music in 1968 simply because the artist was black—cute little boy or not.
Hours after his death, movers were seen crating and removing personal items from Jackson’s rented home. His family claimed to not know who hired these movers, what they were taking or where it might be going. I could speculate Jackson’s most trusted staff rightly knew the family, the police, the media would be all over that house. It would be a shameful legacy for anyone to discover items that would have been deeply private if not illegal to possess. Tapes and books and toys and perhaps souvenirs of decades of heinous sin we all made excuses for.
Dangerous: In full manic swing, Jackson dangles Blanket.
Time On His Hands
CBS played an old video of a young Michael explaining how Diana
Ross discovered the group and brought them to Berry Gordy, which
was a complete lie. A lesser Motown star, Bobby Taylor, caught
the Jacksons’ lounge act and arranged an audition for Gordy who
was reluctant to see them, Gordy not being interested in kid
acts. But, once Gordy saw how talented the family was, he
immediately signed them, then cooked up the story about Ross,
Motown’s biggest star (who has, from that day to this, never
once “discovered” another act) having discovered them. In other
words, Michael Jackson was coached to lie. He lied about his
age, claiming to be three years younger than he actually was,
lied about having been discovered by Ross, and from then to now,
has lied repeatedly about most everything. As I said in my
previous essay, Jackson was a guy who just lied. He lied every
day. Lying was not a problem for him. He wasn’t particularly
evil about it, that’s just what he’d been conditioned to do:
But we should believe him when he tells us he never touched those boys.
Although deep in debt (rumored at $400 million), Jackson was hardly broke. The UK concerts alone could have restructured and wiped out most of his debt. A successful comeback album would have propelled him back to the top again. If he’d just lose the cartoon music (despite Jackson's conspiracy claims, I believe it was the childish clankity-clank of Unbreakable that tanked his final release, 2001's Invincible) and the bloated syrupy/preachy crap. If he’d get back to basics and take his producers off the leash, yeah, he might have risen to dominate music again. Let’s face it, music is pretty lame these days. There’s not a whole lot to challenge a truly engaged Jackson. But Jackson, as we all knew, was a fog-headed addict. He wasn’t terribly interested in making music so much as making money to keep himself afloat. I have no idea if Jackson simply burned out, as artists tend to do, or if his growing addictions simply fogged his mind to the point where his main concern at any given moment was how to score more pain killers. That a musical genius does not make. Ironically, Jackson is now poised to make the comeback in death he could not muster in life. There is most surely an album out there being prepped for release, as well as hundreds if not thousands of tracks locked in a vault or on a hard drive somewhere. The Havenhurst crew, accustomed as they are to Michael's financial support, will undoubtedly release Jackson albums with some regularity for years to come--something Michael himself either could not or did not do. Some may be phenomenal--music he shelved for ridiculous reasons (like a rumored suite of tracks produced by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, shelved because Michael was insulted by Jermaine's dis record Word To The Bad, produced by Edmonds). I've no doubt Jackson's next release--hopefully an unmolested release of the CD he was surely prepping for his comeback tour--will be a monster hit. Film footage from the Jacksons' Victory tour--a planned theatrical release shelved because of squabbling among the Jackson brothers--may also finally see the light of day. Epic's MJ box set--an incredible retrospective released, bizarrely, during the nadir of Jackson's popularity, the 2005 trial--may get a nip and tuck and re-released. There'll be the good, the bad, and the ugly as everyone rushes to cash in on Jackson's demise. Jackson himself will, likely, skyrocket to fame. Not on the strength of who he is so much as who he was--glamorized and heavily retouched photos, whitewashed biographies, sanitized memorials. In death, he will once again become the playfully innocent man-child we used to welcome in our homes.
In the end, Michael Jackson was a monster. Perhaps a monster of his own creation, perhaps a monster we created by lavishing him with our love and worship and royalties. But he was a monster. Let me put it another way: when I was a kid, I didn’t have a lot of babysitters. My sister and I usually stayed with my grandma. But we did occasionally, for one reason or another, stay with a sitter, usually some half-wit teenage girl. There weren’t many of them, but I can’t remember a single one who didn’t molest me. Oh, in little ways, nothing even remotely close to what Jackson’s been accused of, but overly intimate play, making a game of it. Letting me touch her. Teenage girls are curious about boys, and boys, even at a young age, are curious about girls. The fondling and bath time play never got reported because, hey, I liked it. I was a boy, and these were usually attractive, giggly teenage girls. I knew they’d catch hell if I told anybody. Was I damaged by this? Gosh, I hope not. Do I approve of such behavior? Absolutely not. But, this kind of stuff does go on. And I’m not even Michael Jackson. Only an incredible and self-serving naïveté could possibly convince us that, of the perhaps hundreds of boys brought to Jackson’s bedroom, he never sexually engaged a single one of them. Thus, even if he abused even one, he—and by extension, all of us who admired him and enjoyed his art—are guilty of them all.
During his last 60 Minutes interview with the late Ed Bradley, Jackson continued to deny having engaged in any sexual activity with young boys while defending his practice of sleeping with them. Then he began insisting that he’d love everyone as Jesus commanded before launching into mangled, invented quotes of Jesus Christ, Whom, I presume, Jackson knew little or nothing about. All that time on his hands, all those books in his house, and so far as I can tell, he never bothered to read a bible. Which is, in and of itself, the most tragic part about all of this.
The last fifteen years of Jackson’s life were a tragic spiral. Immediately upon his death, all of the surreal, histrionic nut jobs he routinely surrounded himself with rushed for the nearest news camera. You can’t urn on a TV in these first few days without seeing some pontificating mouth breather giving us yet more “inside” information on Jackson and his world. And this is, finally, his legacy: the family he’d been supporting for four decades now going into The Michael Jackson business while humiliating him at every possible turn. These folks will surely start churning out Michael Jackson albums with a regularity that may surpass even the much-deader Tupac Shaqur as they ride Jackson’s corpse all the way to the bank. Meanwhile the parade of sycophants will march on, these fat, pimply wide-eyed mousketeers leaping out of tiny clown cars and rushing for the nearest camera. This dearth of simple dignity is Jackson’s reward for decades of drug-induced surrealism..
HIStory in Spiral
Whatever else happened in Holmby, it is not beyond reason to
suspect Michael—either purposefully or passively—was ultimately
responsible for his own exit. Jackson was reported to have been
upbeat and in high spirits mere hours before his untimely
passing, but the truth of addicts is most especially true of
Michael himself: addicts lie. And Jackson had been lying to
almost everyone he’d ever met for a very, very long time. A
troubled, lost, lonely individual, in both physical and
emotional pain, drowning in debt, exhausted, paranoid and
training hard to keep up with dancers half his age, Jackson
hadn't recorded much in the way of even mildly interesting music
in more than fifteen years (including the stillborn HIStory,
it's shockingly lackluster remix CD Blood On The Dance Floor
(wherein Jackson sorted through dozens of fairly compelling
remixes of the boring HIStory stuff and chose the lamest ones to
collect for the CD), at least two-thirds of Invincible and the
spectacularly wrongheaded, embarrassing duo remixes on the limp
Thriller 25th Anniversary Edition). His musical judgment is,
from all evidence, nonexistent. I have no reason, none, to
expect his rumored forthcoming album would be any better.
Jackson was huffing and puffing through CBS’ 40th Anniversary
tribute which, sadly for Jackson, aired the day before 911. How
much moreso had eight additional years of inactivity and drug
abuse impacted his frail body? The sold-out 50-date comeback
tour he was preparing himself for was, possibly, his only hope.
And it’s just as possible he knew he wasn’t ready, he couldn’t
go 50 rounds and he couldn’t perch himself onstage in a chair
like a bloated Elvis. Most of the songs in 2001’s Invincible
were pitched well below Michael’s former glorious alto, and
Usher mopped the floor with him at his own tribute concert.
Jackson was rumored to have had a fractured vertebrae in his
back, which would certainly make performing pure agony for him.
Michael was a wheezing, aging prizefighter who’d stayed too long
in the ring—and that was nearly eight years ago. Among the many,
many theories being floated out there was the inherent
possibility that Michael knew, likely from the beginning, that
he’d never finish that tour. That he’d been doing what he’s
always done—lying. Perhaps first and foremost to himself. That
the end of Neverland—not the ranch but the vision in Jackson’s
head—loomed large was certainly true. In the final analysis, it
was likely reality, not pain, that Jackson was medicating
himself from. And that, quite possibly, it wasn’t drugs so much
as truth that killed him.
Reporting alleged "details" from the coroner's sealed autopsy report, The UK Sun reported the singer weighed only 133 pounds, was bald (they allege he'd been wearing wigs, which might explain the unnatural hairline of many of his more recent photos), had partially-dissolved pills in his stomach and four injection sites around his heart. The conventional wisdom at the time was Conrad Murray, Jackson's live-in doctor, dosed Jackson with Demerol and, either before or after, high doses of OxyContin (NBC News reported neither drug were found in his home). The compound effect of the drugs likely slowed his heartbeat and suppressed his breathing. By the time Dr. Conrad Murray, Jackson’s live-in cardiologist, found him lying in his bed, the singer was likely already dead. Everything else may likely have been about Dr. Murray trying to save his own skin. The useless and pointless CPR, the begrudging 911 call and his insistence the paramedics not pronounce the singer at Jackson’s rented Holmby Hills estate but transport him to UCLA Medical Center—all of that was simply for appearances. Jackson's fate had been sealed before the doctor ever found him. And this is Jackson's sad legacy, that he died the way he lived: lying. Jackson was, simply, a guy who lied about most everything. A subsequent disclosure by Murray had him admitting to administering an unfathomable sequence of sedatives in an alleged effort to wean Jackson off the surgical anesthetic Propofol, which Murray ultimately administered to Jackson anyway before leaving the room to make a phone call (patients' heartbeat and other vitals must be monitored at all times when under surgical anesthesia). All of which is likely to earn Murray a reckless homicide charge in Jackson’s death.
In the end, of course, the question should be, “Did Michael Jackson know Jesus?” From all available evidence, one might conclude that he did not, but only God knows what occurred between Jackson and Himself in those final moments. We can only pray that, as the circus now begins, that, somewhere among Jackson’s twisted legacy, some kernel of truth might emerge, some lesson learned.