Michael Jackson, 1958-2009

Pub date July 1, 2009
WriterAndre Torrez
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

It was a strange day. It didn’t start normally, nor did it end that way. It began with a disturbing run-in with one of my roommates. I was getting ready to work at 6 a.m., while he was trying to hook up after pulling an all-nighter. After that awkward encounter, I made my way into work with an uneasy, ill feeling. It was inexplicable. My sour mood took twists and turns and like the onset of what I imagine feels like a nervous breakdown. Something was wrong. Everyone knows peripheral, typical job frustrations, but I had a scowl on my face for my entire shift. I work in a newsroom at an all-news radio station.

Early on, the death of Farrah Fawcett was announced. Hmm, that’s too bad, I thought to myself. I heard it was cancer. She was very much an icon and sex symbol, but her bout with the disease was lengthy, much publicized, and we all saw it coming. Let’s see … Ed McMahon, Farrah … uh oh. Famous people die in threes, right? Something bad was going to happen.

After leaving work, I wanted to stop at a few record stores before going home. In between Rasputin and Rookie Ricardo’s, I got a text from a friend who had dressed as Michael Jackson along with me a few Halloweens ago: "MJ in the hospital!"

My previous inkling about trios of death had now become more of a dark premonition. I thought it was strange that the story had completely evaded the wires in the newsroom. I was off the clock, and I had been scooped. Things soon took a dire turn when the friend called to say she got an IM that TMZ had confirmed his death. Yet I remained skeptical. It was a bit much to process so quickly.

Once I was inside Rookie’s, people came out of the woodwork via text message and I started to believe the unbelievable. I’m not usually one to make a fuss or bring attention to myself, but this was one instance where I just had to know: Did Michael Jackson really die? I was more than moved, compelled even, to make a public announcement. Actually it was more of a question. So I went ahead and shouted out in despair to the clerk and all four customers, "Did you guys hear about Michael Jackson?" Everybody sorta perked up and looked at me strangely. "I think he might be dead." A patron checked his iPhone and the sad truth was revealed. I left soon after. I was in no mood to look at the old soul records that were the primary foundation of Michael’s musical roots.

In the early 1980s, MJ just looked cool. The jherri curl, aviator shades, and that mysterious sequined glove were all signs that someone special was about to do something great. Up on stage (the place where, like many icons, he claimed to be most comfortable), his tall, slender body was perfect for much of the angular choreography he created. He took inspiration from and expanded on the stage moves of his hero, James Brown, to create his own repertoire. He popped and locked in the ’70s to the Jackson 5’s 1973 "Dancing Machine," doing the robot with such precision, I’m convinced to this day that he must have been at least part alien. I don’t need stock footage or YouTube to remember when he debuted his mind-blowing moonwalk at the Motown 25 TV special. His voice had a flair for high notes, but could also make the walls resonate like thunder. Listen to him shudder toward the end of "The Lady in My Life," on Thriller (Epic, 1982), or as the Scarecrow in The Wiz (1978) during his opening number "You Can’t Win." So deep. Quintessential soul. He will probably always be every bit as enigmatic as he was charismatic.

No one will ever truly know the inner turmoil of Michael Jackson. But his decaying exterior over the years is a good clue. People tend to disregard his creative efforts post-Bad (Epic, 1987). But there is much to be said about MJ’s latter-day lyrics. His mood and tone can be cold, agonized, and despairing. On "Will You Be There" from Dangerous (Epic, 1991), almost crying instead of singing, he assures us that he’s only human (despite the monster that we’ve made him out to be) and prone to mistakes — essentially, a child that needs to be held. The lyrics are of a shocking introspective nature, most poignant during a spoken passage at the song’s close where he expresses loneliness and violent frustration. Clearly it is gospel-influenced. He’s singing for salvation.

The opening lines of "Stranger in Moscow" (a new track on the 1995 Epic compilation HIStory) couldn’t have been more clear. I was wanderin’ in the rain / Mask of life feelin’ insane, swift and sudden fall from grace. At that point, MJ was aimless — having achieved uncharted greatness, but the glory behind him. In a sense, his mask, or face, was both his fault and ours. We are the ones who put him on the pedestal since childhood and gave him the fame that would eventually eat him alive, whether he liked it or not. We saw him grow up then blow up and couldn’t get enough. Maybe he didn’t want to be recognized anymore. Maybe he wanted to become a monster so that we would leave him alone. If so, it all backfired and made "Jacko" a laughingstock to the mainstream media for the remainder of his life.

The same song also contains the line "Armageddon of the brain." Those four words always resonate with me when it comes to analyzing MJ’s psyche. They paint a picture of an explosion inside his head, a virtual inferno of the mind. Perhaps a reference to the moment he snapped or reached his breaking point.

Yeah, I am a genuine fan of Michael Jackson. His musical gift, contributions, and accomplishments are unfathomable. I don’t blame people for calling him a freak. I know he’s misunderstood, and if I were in his shoes I’d probably have slit my wrists long ago. I don’t know what he was guilty or innocent of in his private life, but I do know that in death, he’s free of persecution. If anyone believed in magic, it would be MJ, so maybe he knew I was having a shitty day and gave a true fan a final parting gift. He knew I needed all those texts from people checking on me to see if I’d heard the news, showing they cared. I guess you know who your true friends are when Michael Jackson dies. God bless tortured souls.