It's strange when a big celebrity dies - not just your average celebrity, but one that is iconic in your mind. Despite not knowing them, it seems weird that they could simply not exist. It seems like they are a permanent piece of the world, that should just always be there - like the Coliseum, or Stonehenge - a piece of a certain time that will just always be. And they will, to a certain extent in the legacy of their work in books, films, music, and so on, but still, strange.
So, too, with Michael Jackson. Perhaps even more so because he was someone that fascinated people for decades, for one reason or another, those reasons evolving and changing as he did. My real hope, though, is for balance in how he is remembered.
There are people who are already sweeping the rumours and question marks under the rug, wanting to remember him only for his contributions to music and to charities, wanting to make him a perfect but misunderstood genius. I think it is important to remember those things and make them a big part of his legend, for he will be legend, of that I am certain. They are the things he put out into the world, the bulk of his work and his public life. They were the things we knew and celebrated and even loved him for in the first place, the things that made him famous. I don't think it would be fair to overlook or downplay those things.
At the same time, the man was flawed, as all people are, and even more so, to be sure. To be honest, I have long said that I don't think he ever even had a chance of being normal. Being a star from an extremely young age, having a father who was, from all reports, abusive and a taskmaster more than a parent, being a meal ticket to many, all of these things could shape anyone into a disaster waiting to happen. The fact that this means any whim can be indulged and anything can be praised by those surrounding you would create a pretty warped view of the world at a time when you need guidance as you grow. Even people who become stars as grownups often enough seem to lose perspective when their environment becomes one of yes-men and enablers, so how could someone turn out fine when their whole life has been that way?
Some of the rumours have been dismissed by people who knew him - things like the purchase of the Elephant Man's bones, for example. Others are still pretty divisive and unknowable - most notably, rumours of child molestation. Lots of people have made up their mind on that and either refuse to believe them or condemn him on suspicions. Me, I feel there is no way to know for sure - only he and the boys who brought the charges or stayed with him themselves can know for sure. The fact is, he or any star make a great target for a lawsuit if you're looking to make some money, and there is no saying for sure that those children's parents didn't figure that leveling such a charge at an obviously strange man would bring in a great payday.
There is, too, the fact that we just can't know his intent, we can only know what we make of his love of being around children. It reminds me a lot of Lewis Carroll, in fact. The man loved the company of children. He was painfully shy, and had grown up entertaining his siblings, the one place where his bashful nature fell away and he could indulge his love of the comedic and theatrical freely. When he grew up, he continued to entertain the children around Oxford, dressing them up to take pictures (he was an avid photographer, loving the new technology of the camera), telling them stories, and so on, all with their parents' full permission - and he was good friends with the parents. Later, though, people began to question whether he was secretly a pedophile, or just a bit of a Peter Pan figure himself, who felt most comfortable with children.
So too, I think , with Michael. Here is a man who had no childhood of his own, having lost it to year of performing and working. Why would he not want to try and recapture some of that, enjoy as an adult the happy and carefree time that most of us enjoyed as children? I can buy that, totally. To be around kids and just enjoy their joy and freedom is pretty awesome, even for someone like me who had a great childhood of my own. I work with kids and love it. I'd be appalled for anyone to read anything into that. I suppose they could if they were looking.
I can't say there is nothing to the accusations, but I can say for certain that we just don't know, so I hate to condemn a man for something that might be purely innocent and simply looks strange to suspicious people on the lookout for something more. He himself seemed completely baffled in the famous interviews with him as to why people would find it weird that he loved to spend so much time with kids - that to me seems as telling as anything, that it was, in his mind at least, all completely innocent in intent. So in the end, I think it's an awfully black brush to tar someone with if we can't know, so I won't, though nor will I break out the white paint and make him without flaw.
More than anything about his legacy, though, I am very curious to see what will come out of his estate. The man was a prolific and wonderful songwriter, if nothing else, and everyone who spent time with him has said he was constantly writing down snippets of songs as they occurred to him. Like Prince (another strange and enigmatic pop music genius who lives in his own little world), there have been rumours of hundreds of unrecorded songs in his estate, waiting to be found. One rumour I heard suggested that he had purposely left a collection of some 200 unpublished songs so that no matter what happened with his finances during his life, they would have a windfall to keep them. I hope that's true, both for them and seeing him as a caring dad in that light, and for the possibility that there could be a whole range of fantastic pop songs ready to go. (And my vote would be to have Justin Timberlake perform at least a bunch - he fully emulated his voice, dance moves, and dress on Rock Your Body and did a fine job of it.)
I had forgotten until I saw these last pictures of him rehearsing for an upcoming series of performances, that I saw him once. Not performing in all his showman glory, but speaking at Carnegie Hall, introducing a panel of speakers on a parenting topic, something that his Heal the Children foundation had put together. I remembered with a jolt, because he looks in these as he had then, a slim, fashionable, androgynous man who hid a bit behind his dark hair. He talked softly, moved with the kind of angular, gentle grace I associate with fairies in movies. He seemed, on the whole, shy, a slightly uncomfortable and easily startled fawn. And oddly, for all that he was in his forties at that point, he had the manner of someone young and unsure. this might be one more part of the reason that I think of him as the quintessential Peter Pan.
I think it is too soon to see what shakes out as his legacy in the end, how people will remember him. Right now, people are reacting. When the hoopla dies down - and it will now that the memorial is done, I think, though it will flare up with each new revelation for about a year before it really calms down, and when it does - I will be interested to see where people stand.
As for me, I salute the musical talent, I feel for the children he has left, and I am left curious to know what we will see in days to come. I am, though, at peace with not knowing some of the unknowable things and keeping him as a grey figure in my mind, balanced between the bad he may have done or the sweet innocent he may have been. I only hope people don't all make up their minds too quickly, and without basis.
Fare thee well, MJ, I hope you can now capture some of your lost boyhood and the carefree joy you seemed to be eternally seeking.