The King of Pop died the same day as Farrah Fawcett, eclipsing her loss that June 25th and turning the entire music world on its ear. The most famous living Pop star in the world drops of cardiac arrest while rehearsing for the biggest "come back" tour in history, never making it to the stage, tragic timing for a life both extraordinary and horrific all at once.
I loved Michael Jackson's music, and still do. Michael was four years older than me, so I grew up with him as a peer. His death makes me feel old, as does Fawcett's, realizing my icons, my stars are starting to die.
I first met Jackson on his Bad tour. I was a staff photographer and writer for the R&B Report in Burbank, CA. Frank DiLeo was managing Jackson and was friends or associates (given DiLeo's history and alleged mob ties most didn't question much) with the publisher of the magazine. So, when the Bad Tour came to Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre the magazine got unprecedented access, the magazine meaning me.
After signing more papers than on my first mortgage I was allowed to photograph MIchael on stage, back stage, prior to stage. Most of the photos never made the light of day but the three above did, were used, approved and rights released back to me as a "thank you" for the coverage and the great shots.
Meeting him was exactly as I expected, soft spoken, über guarded polite...he'd been meeting people like me since he was six. We made a few jokes, asked a few questions, then, whisked away by an entourage of 20 or more.
I was lucky enough to see three of Jackson's last tours, Thriller, Bad and the Victory tour with his brothers. Seeing him live was seeing the best Pop music had to offer. Expert dancing, great Pop/R&B songs, pyrotechnics, magic tricks (Ziegfried and Roy taught him how to disappear and reappear on stage) and a man that never seemed more alive then when he was on stage. In time, we'd find that to be true.
His shows and music were pure energy, pure soul, pure Jackson.
A year later I found myself photographing the entire Jackson men, except for Michael and Joe Jackson. They were being honored by our magazine in Chicago, and I got an exclusive photo session with them. The photos were great, in fact, in time I'd run in to Jackie Jackson and he told me the photos were on the wall at the family home, including my tour photos of Michael.
Whoa! Now having been in the industry for years and always having a camera stars having photos of themselves that I took was nothing that new. But, the Jacksons, all of them, having my pictures in the family home! I was more than a little thrilled to know that MJ himself looked at some of my work. The whole six degrees of separation thing.
Michael's career then went in to the personal scandal mode. America and the world loves to tear down that which we build so high, and Jackson was no different. As soon as the entire world loved him and he proclaimed himself the King of Pop, the backlash began almost immediately and was very, very hateful.
For the record, I do not believe any of the allegations against Jackson. Maybe they're true, but after meeting him, going to Neverland, seeing him with children I realized this man doesn't want to screw these kids, he wants to be one of them. Was there innocent child's play at time...I don't know. I don't know how regressed parts of his mind were, how much a child he fancied himself. After all, his was robbed from him by a father that mistook talent and opportunity for a reason to work your children in to musical slavery. So what really happened? We'll never truly know, but as I have said all along, if Michael wanted to have under aged sex Thailand unfortunately could have provided him months of "pleasure" and basements full of 13 year olds ready and waiting. An ugly truth, but the extraordinarily wealthy don't have to get caught doing horrible things: there are countries across the world that will oblige them willingly.
My belief was vindicated by a jury. I remember that day. Karen, my dearest friend, called from her teaching job from Westwood College. Students were gathered around the speaker phone, as I read each verdict for each count as CNN read them off. Not Guilty all the way across. I heard cheers, yes, cheers from the students. I was elated. Vindication, of sorts.
Unfortunately, the trial not only humiliated him, but bankrupted him. The once mighty had fallen so low most could not imagine. It would have killed many. I know. In today's economy I have seen mighty entertainers in radio and TV humbled by media companies going out of business, film studios cutting projects, TV shows not being picked up or fortunes lost through Madoff or other such foibles.
Yet, there was the music. I watched him from backstage at all the major awards shows I attend, Grammy, American Music Awards, on and on. I sat quietly photographing him in studio as he wrote "We Are the World" and stayed the entire night with that superstar group assembled to sing a Jackson song...I still have the USA for Africa shirt, signed by Quincy Jones himself. Yes, I can sing every Michael Jackson song from A-Z (well, there's none that begin with "N" or "Z" that I can find, and the only "Q" in his music was Quincy Jones...) then and now. Michael was, and is, music through it all. Just put on the beginning of "Billie Jean" and argue that fact.
When Michael moved to Vegas, I wanted him to do a show like Bette or Cher. All the hits. Great staging. I always said it would have sold out each night, we all would have gone, fess up, we would have. Instead, he just lived, and loosened up. The masks came off the kids. He went out shopping and for food and such, yes, often covered, disfigured from surgeries to make him NOT look like his father (the general consensus is Michael did all the surgery to make sure he did not look like Joe and to make sure that the things Joe used to pick on like his wide nose or lips would never be the source of fodder for him again). He smiled and waved as auction houses readied his most personal belongings for sale and his private bedside belonging went out around the world in an auction house list complete with photos. None of us can imagine.
Through it all, he remained alive. Medicated at times, whacked out at times, but alive. And true to form, he reinvented yet again and announced a three year world tour, embarking on it yet again at 50. What else was he to do, really? it's all he knew, all he had ever done. When all else failed, get on stage. When all was great, get on stage.
The world said he was irrelevant in the new age, yet his tickets sold out at a pace yet unrivaled by any singer. Even after all the drama, crowds gathered adoringly anywhere he went. And even in death, a tour bus was out front of his $100k a month rented house in Holmbly Hills watching the paramedics take his lifeless body away, an on scene videographer trying to get a shot through the glass...chasing the image even as it slipped from the Earth.
The news hurt, physically. I've been going through a rough time in my career. Fired from a major station during the election for a "fleeting expletive" that happened during a break, dragged through the national media and called a whole bunch of unkind names. Nothing like Jackson, but hey, no one's heartburn is like your heartburn. After the public firing, zero severance pay and the naysayers acting like they had won some huge victory I quickly had to...say it with me...reinvent. I started a new show in March and all was going great until June 24th, when the flagship station said they could no longer afford the show and are switching back to music, a cheaper alternative. So, just starting back and now another blow. Financially, 25 days late on the mortgage, no real income on the horizon...yes, I felt Jackson's pain. And he inspired me on the 24th of June, 2009. Truly.
I thought of losing my home, Park Howard. I'll do all I can not to but when you're worried and part of a shrinking, broke business fear sets in. I thought of MIchael leaving Neverland for the last time...his refuge, his sanctuary. I have a home studio, and have made my home a place for people to come and visit and stay and work in the arts. Very Andy Warhol. It's my sanctuary. Leaving it would devastate me, and I thought of Jackson and his prized ranch, leaving for Bahrain to live in a Burka with a Saudi Prince and his kids to hide his pain.
I thought of the days when my husband Andrew was alive. He died unexpectedly eight years ago, no life insurance and the moment he did my professional income was cut from $250k a year to $50k in one day (he was my on air partner, too). Gone were the days of not worrying about money, and while I couldn't go shopping like Michael and just point, I didn't have to worry about paying the light bill or the check at dinner. Very different today, and very dehumanizing, being nothing more than a person that gets up every day to worry about income. I thought of Jackson, as his financial woes played out in the press, but there he was, smiling, waving and planning a new show, and if he could do it...
I thought of America. We've been pretty humiliated on the world stage over the last eight years by the Bushies. We went from the most prosperous nation in the world to a debtor one, borrowing from our enemies at times to survive, looking for loans, capital...how similar to MIchael's plight. The once mighty nation, reduced to being hated by many and broke. The once might pop star the same.
But there was hope for Michael. He was going to do it again, right? And we feel there's hope for us, we're going to do it again, right? And there's hope for me, I'm going to do it again, right?
And then the morning of June 25, 2009 Farrah Fawcett dies and makes a generation of aging baby boomers think of their own mortality, and later that day the biggest Pop star since Elvis dies prior to making a comeback, all hopes of regaining the tarnished King of Pop crown gone. He was robbed of a chance, maybe even robbing himself, who can say, but robbed nonetheless. And the death showed that not everyone lives long enough to turn things around...they die trying, and that sobering thought set me off the rest of the day.
There is not now nor will there be for some time another entertainer like Michael Jackson. Today's Pop stars have no idea the work, the dedication, the sacrifice he and his family went through to put a smile on faces and make people dance. They truly didn't sign up for it, their father did, and once they realized it wasn't all just a fun way to get out of school, it was far too late to be any kind of "normal" and way too complex to leave. While many of the brothers did, the little star had to grow up and shine, turning in to a super nova and like all stellar events, eventually imploding and dying out. Our galaxy will do it one day, too.
There are many that will remember the scandals short term. Long term the music will survive, the legacy of showmanship and unmatchable song and dance. And the ever popular showman even sang his own legacy song with "Gone Too Soon." It may have been for Ryan White, but what lyric does not apply to him. So for his final eulogy here, I'll let him write it:
Gone Too Soon
Music by Larry Grossman.
Lyrics by Buz Kohan.
Produced by Michael Jackson.
Like A Comet
Blazing 'Cross The Evening Sky
Gone Too Soon
Like A Rainbow
Fading In The Twinkling Of An Eye
Gone Too Soon
Shiny And Sparkly
And Splendidly Bright
Here One Day
Gone One Night
Like The Loss Of Sunlight
On A Cloudy Afternoon
Gone Too Soon
Like A Castle
Built Upon A Sandy Beach
Gone Too Soon
Like A Perfect Flower
That Is Just Beyond Your Reach
Gone Too Soon
Born To Amuse, To Inspire, To Delight
Here One Day
Gone One Night
Like A Sunset
Dying With The Rising Of The Moon
Gone Too Soon
Gone Too Soon
Goodbye, Michael Jackson. You're now at a place where your rest can no longer be disturbed by anyone, where you never have to put on a happy face again while dying inside, where you are always on stage with your family doing what you loved the most. My heart goes out to Janet (his little sis), to all the family, to Liz Taylor and Diana Ross, to all those that called him friend and whom he trusted as such. It's a public death and a personal tragedy on so many levels.
He died trying. He kept going. He gathered up his "mess" and always kept it moving forward. He didn't rest on his former greatness but always wanted to do more. He was a pop icon for an entire generation and I, for one, will miss him.