Posted by on Jun 26, 2009 | Comments (13)

There are certain deaths whose sting of importance have always stayed with me. I heard about Kurt Cobain on TV, inside a Tower Records in London. Jerry Garcia, on tour driving through Kentucky, on the van radio. Joe Strummer, on a computer.

I was born in 1975, and Michael Jackson was the first superstar I ever loved. His was also the first death I watched unfold slowly online, in a sterile, digital environment made suddenly alive by speculation. During the purgatory of truth, when TMZ had the story but no reputable news sources could confirm, I, like the rest of the world, went to about 10 different news sites which had nothing—and then to Facebook, which had even less. A Twitter search for “Michael Jackson” turned up countless entries, and after a mere 30 seconds went by, the mind-boggling message: “There have been 5,675 new entries since your last search. Click here to refresh.”

Upon finding the L.A. Times confirmation, I swallowed a hard lump in my throat. I’d been joking about it with my co-worker, suspending just enough disbelief to make light of the situation, but I’ll admit it: I was sunk.

I lament the demise of the superstar from time to time, but what I’m really pining for, personally, is to have another Michael Jackson. To have another icon so completely capture the world’s attention, without any haters or snark. That such a thing will never happen is as much a statement on Michael Jackson’s greatness as it is on the changed landscape. The entertainment industry was far more consolidated in 1983, and one’s choices were either Michael Jackson or Black Flag, with not much in between. Now there’s a million options, and a million opinions, and an internet to dilute it all and to serve as a platform for information and negativity instead of knowledge and hope.

But also, sure. I was 8. At Mark West Elementary School, where I loyally wore a white sequined glove most days, Michael Jackson was king. No one questioned his superiority. It seems incredible to have once been in an environment where I agreed with everyone’s musical tastes, and perhaps this is part of the idyll of Michael Jackson. Nowadays, we pay $50 to share an experience with like-minded people; in 1983, we just had to go to the playground and there’d be a group of kids surrounding a flat piece of cardboard practicing the moonwalk.

But after a while, I woke up one day and Mark West Elementary had decided that Michael Jackson was a fag. The worst insult stopped being “You shop at Kmart” and instead became “You like Michael Jackson.” This was a sad and confusing day for me. I tried to tell everyone they were wrong, that Michael Jackson was the best. Thinking about it now, my campaign was worse than unsuccessful—it actually completely decimated what little  social standing I’d managed to acquire.

“If you love Michael Jackson so much,” one particularly knuckleheaded bully demanded, “then why don’t you go out on a date with him?”

“I would go on a date with Michael Jackson,” I replied, and, further twisting the knife on my own suicide, added, for reasons unfathomable to me now, “In fact, if I had a piece of his poo I would keep it in a jar by my bed.”

I got beat up a lot in the next five years.

Why would I say such a thing? I’d like to think I was keenly reacting to unfair treatment of a genuine talent with theatre of the absurd, or that I was presaging the vicious cycle of celebrity at work and wanted to monkeywrench its purveyors.  But basically I said it because it was the truth. I loved Michael Jackson’s music, but I loved even more what Michael Jackson gave me: a sense that I was really a lot cooler than I really was.

If I could just master the moonwalk, I‘d think to myself, incessantly rewinding the Motown 25 special we’d taped on the family VCR and scrutinizing Jackson’s every step in slow-motion. If I could just wear my pants high, or memorize all his songs, or play them on the piano, or get that red jacket, I could have a piece of what he has. Such innocence is as tragic on the outside as it is triumphant from the inside, but it wouldn’t have been right for someone to tell me that Michael Jackson couldn’t solve all my problems. Foolish innocence has to run its course naturally and brutally.

In the next year or so, I got into Herbie Hancock, the Force M.D.s and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam. Then Run DMC came along, and everything changed. Michael was still great, but he wasn’t the only great. In the shadow of rap music, his tough-guy act in the corny video for “Bad”—all eyes glued for the world television premiere—was unconvincing.  The album was good, but it was 1987, I was 11, and I’d discovered other good music. How can a kid actually worship Michael Jackson after discovering the Smiths?

Dangerous was an afterthought; the party was over. Michael Jackson’s music entered that weird area occupied by the Beatles and Huey Lewis—music that I loved and memorized by heart and that I never needed to hear again. I discovered punk rock and criticized the corporate music industry and its sinister star system, and I turned my back on its most successful product. Plus, when Jackson started getting weirder and weirder, I was ashamed that all those years ago, Mark West Elementary was sort of right.

My story isn’t far different from anyone else’s. We all watched him slide, and we all groaned at the late night TV jokes, and we all shrugged our shoulders. What good would worrying about his well-being do? He lived on another planet, one where talent was processed by his lungs and where shame was used as currency. One where real money was used to recreate Graceland’s gaudiness and to buy the Beatles’ catalog from under McCartney’s nose, and where laughably unrealistic confidence in Invincible caused him to lose everything.

Watching the events unfold online yesterday, the quip I saw repeated most was that “the real Michael Jackson died a long time ago.” But the real us died a long time ago too. We all got so callous and sure and filled with judgment that the part of us once able to be spellbound by an intoxicating pop song and an unbeatable performer died, and we failed to realize the Dorian Gray effect of his deteriorating face reflecting the grotesque nature of the world.

And still, from inner-city nightclubs to suburban wedding receptions, his music never failed to fill the dance floor.

I don’t have my sequined glove anymore, or my sheet music to “Say Say Say,” or my demographic-assured allegiance to Pepsi. I have not listened to one note of his music since he died yesterday. Gravity tore us apart. But I cannot deny what he once meant to me, and how he once gave me hopes and dreams far beyond reality in a distant world completely different than the way we know it now.

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  1. K.L.
    June 27, 2009

    Wow, Gabe…that is so well written. The line, “How can a kid actually worship Michael Jackson after discovering the Smiths?” definitely applies to me too! But, like you, I did both at different points in my life. It is strange how everything that’s happened brings us right back to those early Mark West days.

  2. Oona R.S.
    June 27, 2009

    I was too young to fully appreciate the awesome stages of MJ’s career, but my sister wasn’t. She, too, worshiped him, and would definitely have gone on a date with him when she was 8, as well. But more importantly, that incomparable genius in his feet and hips and hands lit the fire under her own feet, and she became (in my eyes) an equally untouchable dancer. I watched first hand the effect of what someone with an excess of magic in their body can do to perfect strangers. Sure, I have no sympathy for adults who do bad things for children, except for the fact that those adults are usually a product of the shit that happened to themselves when they were little. But it’s also true that he is just a product of us: We, the world, demanded he dance, so he did. Until he broke.

  3. H.H.
    June 27, 2009

    Wow! That was great, Gabe. I have to admit I shed some tears reading it. We used to listen to MJ in the car, I remember his soft, glowing photo where he is reclining in a white tux. And during my softball playing days my batters glove was often mistaken for a Jackson glove. Thanks.

  4. Schell
    June 27, 2009

    Well said.

  5. T.A.
    June 27, 2009

    Admirable scope to this, gives me pause for being among the uncharitable. To me, it’s not so much that he was dead already, but that the balance of time between when he was an achievement and when he was an indictment, of a particularly humiliating sort, has long since been tilted toward the latter.

  6. N.V.
    June 27, 2009

    “and we failed to realize the Dorian Gray effect of his deteriorating face reflecting the grotesque nature of the world.” Wow. Well put!

  7. J.B.
    June 27, 2009

    Yeah, the Smiths reference and the Dorian Gray metaphor both really got to me too.
    Thanks for posting, Gabe. I’ve always enjoyed your writing.

  8. Scout Hatfield Gonzales
    June 28, 2009

    How can a kid actually worship Michael Jackson after discovering the Smiths?

    Perfectly true. I felt the same way. And, when I *finally* got old enough to like what *I* liked without influence, I remembered how much I had loved Michael Jackson, too. A handful of his greats are excellent songs to run to, and I have appreciated the mileage they have gotten me.

    On a side note, the outbidding of The Beatles catalog from Paul McCartney actually always entertained me. Really, what was McCartney thinking? How *do* you let anyone raise the stakes on something infinitely valuable? Not just in sentimental terms, but as an actual investment. No matter the cost, it pays for itself. Pfft.

    I’ll miss you, Michael.

  9. David Sason
    June 28, 2009

    Beautiful article, Gabe. :)

  10. Tony Stoufer
    June 28, 2009

    Hey Gabe,
    Well written , I am a Bit older then you and have earlier memories of The Jackson 5 , Michael was so talented as a 10 year old kid and I was buying those J5 records and learning ,and admiring the great production that Berry Gordy was putting out thru Motown Records ..The Funk Brothers , James Jamerson ( Bass ) were big hero’s of mine..

    I believe It will be a Long time before anyone as talented as Michael come’s around…
    Thanks for the Great personal reflection
    Or Tony Lonely as you might remember me…

  11. Lisa Rohe
    June 28, 2009

    The poop comment made me laugh and the Dorian Grey comment hit home for me. I was surprised by the manner at which MJ’s death startled me and couldn’t quite put my finger on it, except to say that he felt immortal to me- an immortal presence from my childhood… If MJ dies, what does that mean about my permanence? Death can be a great tool for personal realization and examination…

    Thanks for another well written commentary.

  12. Kate
    July 8, 2009

    Well-written, Gabe. Such a sad and bizarre day. I’m glad to have shared it with you in our MJ-loving environment rather than at my other job surrounded by the numb and uncaring. So much more sincere. Your non-stop a cappella Michael Jackson medley of hits helped, too.

  13. Kate
    July 8, 2009

    By the way. . . I had totally forgotten about that grade-school taunt, “I pledge allegiance to the flag, Michael Jackson is a fag. . . . ”

    Kids are lame.


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