I feel guilty for being so cynical.
When the reports started rolling in that Michael Jackson was rushed to the hospital in “critical condition,” I remembered back when he was missing court dates due to “illness” and getting sued for backing out of commitments (most recently for allegedly reneging on a promise to play a Jackson family reunion concert in the States this Summer). And the first thought that came to mind was, “I bet he’s pulling a stunt to get out of his commitment to play those 50 shows in London. He’s afraid that he can’t pull it off.”
I wish I was right, because if I was, then Michael would still be alive, and would still have a chance to fix the messes that remained in his life, do right by all those who suffered for his unwise decisions, and ride out on a high note.
In spite of his circus — like his personal life, and the fact that he had produced very little music since 1995 that could even attempt to compare with the songs of Off the Wall or Thriller, part of me still hoped he would pull a rabbit out of his hat and make the comeback to beat all comebacks. So what if the prospect of working with will.i.am was a major yawn? Who cared that he was lip syncing much of the time during his appearance at his own 30th anniversary tribute concert in 2001? Did it really matter that his album of that year, Invincible, was the most disappointing album he had ever released?
There was still hope. “One More Chance,” the R. Kelly-penned and produced track that was bundled with Michael’s 2003 hits collection Number Ones, hearkened back to the MJ of old, the one who shined so brightly on smooth R&B classics like “Rock with You” and “Human Nature.” And it actually sounded pretty refreshing blaring out of the car speakers as I was driving around Jacksonville, Florida, during a major transitional period in my life -– the period where the groundwork was being laid for me to finally be able to live and love the way I wanted to.
The love part didn’t go quite as planned, but the living part did. At least I have that much. Whether Michael Jackson truly had either of those things, at any point ever in his life, I can’t say. But I can say this: the man could sell a song. Even if Quincy Jones wasn’t convinced that Michael was truly feeling the lyrics to “The Lady in My Life” as he sang them, somehow he (with Q’s coaching) was able to sell them to us.
And no matter what you thought about Michael’s interactions with children, he never came across as somebody with sinister intentions. It’s my opinion that he was a man-child, somebody whose sense of boundaries between adults and children was blurred by the fact that he never really grew up. I won’t try to change anyone’s mind -– it’s a sensitive subject for many, and only those who were there know what really happened. But in time, more pieces of Michael’s convoluted, fantastical, nearly-unreal story are bound to come to light. Even if all the facts are already out there, whatever the truth is behind Michael’s less-than-flattering life events, it has yet to be expressed in a way that a majority of us can agree with. And maybe that expression isn’t even possible. But it certainly won’t stop folks from trying.
No matter what happened in his private life, one thing is for sure: Michael’s music touched many, many lives, and mine was no exception: It marked the aforementioned critical period of my gradually unfolding and developing adulthood.
Hearing “Rock with You” on the radio for the first time when I was 3 marked one of the earliest, most colorful preschool memories I have, in the aftermath of my mother’s friend’s unhinged husband leaving their house in a hurry, as my proactive pint-sized self cleaned up the mess of albums he left on the living room floor.
It was and is a common musical denominator with just about everybody I know regardless of taste, something I can talk about with anyone.
And for crying out loud, some of the best responses I’ve ever received from a karaoke crowd have been when I’ve sung Michael Jackson songs like the aforementioned “Rock with You” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” (only Prince and Rick James songs have ever had a similar effect for me).
But more than that, the troubled person that was Michael Jackson touched my psyche. Martin Bashir had a golden opportunity to get to the root of the real Michael Jackson, and reveal to us the fragile human beneath the celebrity in his infamous 2003 interview. In some ways, Bashir succeeded, and confirmed my suspicions that MJ was simply a man-child who was out of touch with the more commonly accepted ways of behaving like an adult in modern Western society, and thus prone to doing things that would inevitably get him into trouble, no matter how benign his intentions. But if Michael wasn’t satisfied with the final product, and if the rest of the world was still left in doubt, it couldn’t be called a true success.
For this reason, I secretly wished I could someday talk to Michael, one on one, off the record, just like regular human beings away from cameras and microphones, just to see for myself whether this guy really was who I thought he was. But he was rich beyond imagination, in debt beyond imagination, surrounded by yes-men in an unhealthy environment, loved by far too many people who would never know him, and wasn’t particularly eager to grant interviews to just anybody. So obviously this was little more than fantasy. What’s more, he wasn’t even one of my all-time favorite artists, and the Paul McCartney fan in me should loathe Michael for sneaking the Beatles’ publishing catalog away from its authors.
And yet, I wanted to be able to look him in the eye, shake his hand, and express to him that same sort of universal love that was conveyed in his music, to give a little of it back, without expectations. Just as I have done for others in my life. Just as others have done for me.
Instead, I will remember Michael’s positive qualities: his generosity, his positive spirit, his unparalleled musical abilities. And I will honor them just as I would honor anyone else who touched my life — by continuing to do good in the world in my own unique way, and by taking a look at the man in the mirror everyday to see where I need to make that change. After all, he was “just another part of me,” and I always want every part of me to be in the best condition, for my own good and for everyone else’s.
Rest in peace, Michael. Thanks for the memories, the inspiration, and – most importantly – thanks for the music.