Michael Jackson is dead.
If I say this enough times, I will believe it. But in the interim, I feel, well, like what I am: a lousy poet who wants to write real elegies.
"Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be/an echo and a light unto eternity," I want to say. So I borrow Percy Bysshe Shelley's words, composed in abject grief for his young friend John Keats, who died of tuberculosis at 25, and whom Shelley, very sweetly, believed was killed by the unkindness of the world, of his detractors.
Or maybe I want to be a songwriter of terrible, yet agonized songs. To sing, I Can't Live (If Living Is Without You) by Air Supply, and mean it.
New York Times writer and critic Margo Jefferson writes, in her memoir of the King of Pop, that Jackson "speaks to and for the monstrous child in all of us." This child is crying in disbelief. This child feels, together with the news of Farrah Fawcett's death, that fate has taken to acting like a deranged serial killer.
The day of Jackson's death, I had been looking at a YouTube video an acquaintance had posted on Facebook: Chris Rock's infamous screed against Jackson, in one of his many angry and blue HBO specials. I laughed as Rock described Jackson, incapable of impersonating "a mammal" on 60 Minutes after the second sex scandal broke; laughed at his description of the bewildered artist showing up at court "dressed like Captain Crunch."
As I was laughing, Jackson, it would turn out, was dying. I feel that the man was murdered by a manifestation of this sort of cruelty, too large and vicious to apprehend.
When Elvis Presley, whose life is inexorably intertwined with Jackson's, died in 1977, he had already been assassinated by the public and the press; and by his closest friends, who were poised to publish Elvis: What Happened? , an intimate tell-all and first-class back-stabbing account of Presley's pill addiction, obesity and increasingly depressive, wild behaviour.
The National Enquirer published a cover story that showcased the singer, sweating and pumpkin-headed from opiate abuse, lashed into a skin-tight jumpsuit (by means of a corset, his vicious biographer, Albert Goldman, would gleefully inform the world.) The tabloid would pay a hick cousin of Presley's to shoot a picture of him in his coffin and regale us with news about his having died "fat and alone."
Many years later, Jackson would marry Presley's only daughter, Lisa Marie, in what many viewed as a cynical attempt to evade the first child-molestation scandal (involving, in 1993, the then-13-year-old Jordie Chandler, whose diaries were the subject of author Victor Gutierrez's Michael Jackson Was My Lover ). Still others viewed the marriage as Jackson's attempt to make literal his monarchic nickname, by marrying the child of the King of Rock 'n' Roll. His sons' absurd names, Prince Michael Jackson I and II, demonstrate his deep fascination with legacy and history, with grandeur and playful decadence.
The recent planned auction of Jackson's belongings at Julien's in California - called off at the last minute, possibly because of the level of derision afoot - offers insight into the superstar's unspeakably chic, high-camp aesthetics, as also witnessed in the notorious 2003 Martin Bashir interview/documentary. In it, Jackson's taste ran to heroic self-portraiture; red velvet thrones; golden epaulets and other royal detritus; lavishly large and horribly rendered oil paintings of gods and children; neoclassical crapola and life-size statues; and, imperiously, other human replicas or remains - subjects, effectively, in his perverse and beautiful kingdom.
Jackson had returned, after a wrenching absence, in the last few months, and was planning a comeback tour. When he announced it in London, his real fans, who are so charmingly innocent, acted as if the man they love is the very same man who shredded music and pop as we knew it, with the release of 1982's Thriller .
And he was, wasn't he?
But his eccentricity was so great, his reputation so crippled, that the world cut him dead. For years, he has been drifting - wretched, yet still stylish; like Blanche DuBois, reliant on the kindness of rich Saudi strangers; leaving his Neverland ranch and its menagerie of exotic animals to languish in disrepair and neglect; in a kind of haze that more than one observer attributed to morphine addiction.
His exile is easily traced to the second child-molestation charges, for which he was tried in 2005. He had stopped making music, or perhaps people had stopped listening. Two obscene rumours were enough. And when he attended his trial in a series of (I think) cutting-edge pyjamas, sleek black jackets, long lashes and pageboy wigs, he would appear to have pressed the public's sympathy too much.
He seemed indifferent. He seemed oblivious. He won the trial, but nothing else. He may as well have been a homeless drag queen attacking us on a street corner. We responded like the smart party guests in A Confederacy of Dunces , regarding the gauche antics of the brilliant and ridiculous protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly. "He's truly awful." "So inappropriate." "How unbelievably gross. A bad, bad dream."
Even Quincy Jones, who produced Thriller and made millions from his protégé, allegedly refused to have anything to do with him, when approached by Jackson himself.
Roman Polanski admitted to having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977, then fled for Europe, where he continues to defend himself by saying, "All men like younger women." He is lionized, and given standing ovations by high Hollywood, in absentia, for his films.
Jackson was never convicted of anything. He was strange, he was audacious. He was the lonely child of an abusive parent.
His art is without precedent or succession.
Will the popular press and the public continue to feast on his controversial life, or will they elegiacally "forget the Past," and let him have even a measure of dignity - dignity that the many refused him, because of his profound otherness and profound beauty that became greater each time he asserted - through surgery, fashion and performance - his own gorgeous freakishness.
Michael Jackson must be remembered for the music he wrote. For his impossibly perfect motion; his thwarted, abject love; and the face of trauma he presented as an artistic gesture to exquisite pain, pain we all beheld, and turned away from - as he expected - in disgust and terror.
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