Though I was never a huge fan of the man or his music, there's no denying that Michael Jackson was prodigiously talented, and if I didn't enjoy his classic work as much as a few hundred million others did, that's probably more a matter of my having spent the 80s rather monomaniacally wrapped up in punk rock than with any shortcoming on his part.
Still, by the time he passed away this week, even the most charitable apologist would have to acknowledge that his best days as a performer and/or recording artist were far behind him. That's sad in itself, since under the right circumstances — the right circumstances being his not turning into a circus freak — he could have carried on for many more years. A bit of the spring might have gone out of his dance steps, but it could have been more than made up for by the experience and wisdom gained from a life well lived.
That didn't seem to happen, either, though it's also dangerous to make assumptions about people whose only presence in our lives is via the media. But in this case, one could make an exception, because, based on all available evidence, there doesn't seem to have been much to Michael Jackson beyond a media image.
That's an unhappy thing to say about someone recently deceased, and I'm not even sure why I felt compelled to say it, except that his life and death seems like such a valuable object lesson into not just the cult of modern American celebrity, but also the dangers of choosing an insular and self-absorbed existence just because you're able to. You don't have to be famous or fabulously successful to do this, either, but if the unfortunate death and even more unfortunate life of Michael Jackson teaches us anything, it's that no matter how rich you are, you can't afford it.
I've been on TV a couple times and had some stuff written about me in magazines and newspapers; even that minimal level of “fame” made it evident how quickly one's view of oneself and objective reality can be distended and distorted by the looking glass eye of a voyeuristic world. When I was a young hippie on acid, I would sometimes spend hours staring into a mirror watching myself morph into unrecognizable shapes and personas at the rate of millions per millisecond, simultaneously believing myself to be in possession of infinite creative power and wondering why, with the entire universe seemingly at my feet, I still felt so terribly, ineluctably lonely.
Is that anything what Michael Jackson might have felt like in his declining years? If, in the face of what may have been chronic drug abuse, he felt much at all, I'm guessing yes. One report has him being regularly injected with the powerful synthetic narcotic Demarol. I was given that stuff once, in a hospital emergency room, and it was just awful. Yes, it's effective at temporarily taking away the pain, but it takes everything else with it. If you're familiar with the Harry Potter books, think of the Dementors, who suck all the hope and joy out of life. Yeah, it's like that. If I were having my leg amputated, I could see where something like Demerol could come in handy. But to live like that on a daily basis? You could forgive somebody for asking, “Why bother?”
That, ultimately, may well be what happened to Michael Jackson. Twenty years ago he was the most famous and possibly one of the richest performers in the history of show business; everything since then has involved a sometimes slow, sometimes precipitous decline. Some people, especially those who've had to struggle with the conventional vicissitudes of life, can adjust and even thrive in the face of diminished circumstances, but to others it's a fate worse than death itself.
Face it, the man was never going to recapture more than a modicum of the brilliance he once possessed as a performer, and if he was as doped up as current rumor has it, his attempt at a comeback would have more likely become a study in unrivaled bathos. What else was he supposed to do? Someone possessing normal social skills and moral perspective might have downsized, given up the trappings (and isolation) of megastardom in favor of the simple joys of family and friends. But Michael Jackson, whether through his own poor choices or — more likely — the misguidance of the sycophants and leeches who inevitably attempt to attach themselves to any star, no longer seemed to have that choice. That being the case, his death, even at the relatively premature age of 50, probably comes as a blessing, not only for the man himself, but for his children, who might still be young enough to have a chance at a normal life.
Harsh words? Perhaps, but they needed to be said. I've made — perhaps most of us have — some of the same mistakes, albeit on a far smaller scale, and I've also known the kind of loneliness and depression where my only desire was to die. Thankfully life is not like that for me anymore, and hasn't been for quite a while. Michael Jackson, it seems, was not so fortunate.
I don't rejoice in his death, but neither is there much to mourn in this passing. He was, in Claude Brown's phrase, a manchild in the promised land, perpetually hamstrung between youth and senescence, capable of manifesting all and touching or enjoying none of it. May his soul finally find some rest, and those he has left behind, some joy and some peace.