A Life Too Short – Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

(Today marks the 3rd Anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death.  Yes, it’s been three years since he passed away.  And it made me think back to those strange sad days.  I was lucky enough to attend the funeral, and wrote about it back then, and in honor of the anniversary, I thought I’d post it once more.  If you’ve seen it before, a new column will be up shortly, so please excuse my indulgence and come back soon.  And thank you.)

July 8, 2009:

What you saw on television was not what we saw inside the Staples Center yesterday.

Yes, you saw the crying family, the heaped accolades, the well-deserved praises and the joyful singing.  You might have even seen the crowd walking in, with their gold and silver wristbands, denoting whether you got to enter the actual event(gold), or were relegated to the smaller Nokia Center (silver) across the way to watch it on video.

I had a gold wristband.  Did I win it in the massive email raffle that threatened to crash the internet?  Nope, wasn’t that lucky.  But I did have a good friend who had a friend in Scotland who was unlucky enough to win.  I say unlucky, because once he had the code, he couldn’t get a flight out in time to be here. So he gave the code to my friend, Salena, who invited me.

Was I the biggest Michael fan?  No.  I never bought the shiny single glove or the red leather jacket, and only ever attempted to moonwalk (badly) on skates.  But was Michael a part or my life?  You can ask anyone from 5 to 50 the same question, and if answered honestly, the answer would be a resounding “Yes”.  Growing up, I’d listen to the music of Michael and his brothers as my mother and I struggled to make ends meet on her single income.  A cassette of “Thriller” escorted me through England and Europe in the 80’s, and I met people who didn’t speak my language there.  But they knew those songs.  We all knew those songs.  His music is part of the soundtrack of our lives… all our lives.

Now, there’s a strange vibe about this event.  Yes, the King of Pop is dead.  Yes, we all know that.  It’s not in dispute.  But the event itself is a living thriving thing.  It pulses with life and energy and joy and grief, all intertwined.  When I left work on Monday, my staff told me to have a good time, to have fun.  I readily accepted these wishes, but then was staggered.

This was a Memorial event…. akin to a public funeral.  With 9,000 special guests, and 17,500 more attendees.  How do you dress for something like this?  How do you act?  What is the etiquette we follow?  This was not a Head of State.  Not Royalty. Not a politician, or war hero, or great scientist.

No, this was an entertainer… possibly one of the greatest entertainers that ever lived.  This Memorial could never be a somber, sullen affair.  This had to be a celebration, a time of remembrance, of shared joy and shared grief.

And what you saw on television was not what we saw inside the Staples Center.

You may have seen Smokey Robinson read the telegrams and messages of remembrance from those who couldn’t be there.  But you didn’t experience the long reverent silence that followed.  Not really.  Some commentators filled in on TV, from what I understand, but being there, in the arena, the minutes of respectful quiet was a centering experience.

The familyYou saw the gold coffin, draped in roses, being escorted in by the mourning brothers.  But you didn’t feel the almost electrical jolt that pulled 20,000 people to their feet as they realized what was happening.  The applause you heard was the joy and grief of 20,000 people being given the honor of giving Michael his final standing ovation.  And while you may have seen the family sit back down, you didn’t see that every other person in the Staples Center waited until they were sitting again before they sat themselves.

Our Memorial programs were collections of letters and pictures, but no listing of speakers and guests, so we were as surprised as you as each new person came up to speak and honor Michael.  The entire arena seemed to hold its collective breath as Queen Latifah read Maya Angelou’s touching heartfelt poem to Michael “We Had Him.”  When Stevie Wonder said that “This was a moment I wished I didn’t live to see come,” we were all up on that stage with him.

My friend Salena held herself well until Brooke Shields began to cry and then it was over for her.  And as Shields read from Atoine de Saint-Expurey’s the Little Prince, you could imagine Michael in his possibly greatest role, the one he never got to play… because he was living it instead.

You may have heard the random shout-outs and blessings to Michael and the Jackson family, but you didn’t see the Japanese girl weeping softly behind us, rocking herself and whispering “I love you, Michael. Sayonara, Michael” over and over.  Occasionally, she would reach out inconsolably as if she could touch him.

But when Marlon spoke, choking back tears, asking Michael to hug his twin brother(Brandon, who died at birth from respiratory failure), and was followed by 11-year-old Paris-Michael Jackson, who choked out her simple declaration of love for her father and caused 20,000 people to want to rise as one to hug her and comfort her in her grief, we knew we were embarrassingly, heartbreakingly in the presence of a greater truth.

Because as much as he was idolized and adored by his fans and followers… as much as he was one of the best-selling artists of all time…  as much as he was celebrated and scandalized in his lifetime… as much as he was a great many things to a great many people… in the end, it came down to an eleven-year-old girl who put it all into the proper perspective:  He was a human being and a beloved person.  A father.  A brother.  A son.  A part of a large and loving (and even sometimes dysfunctional) family.  And like a great many families, when someone is taken too young, the void left behind is great and deep.  Sometimes it takes a great many to start building the bridge across the chasm.   Sometimes strangers can help.  20,000 of us tried yesterday.

So for those who would disdain the event as undignified or self-serving or too carnival-like, too Hollywood… for those who can’t comprehend the simple act of honoring another human being for their life and ignoring their shortfalls… for those who don’t understand that a larger-than-life public figure can also have a very different private life… for those whose hearts are too small and closed to understand that mourning and celebration can go hand in hand, and that grief shared is grief divided… to those people, I can only say one thing…

What you saw on television was not what we saw inside the Staples Center yesterday.


About TonyC

Voracious Reader, sometimes-writer, director and producer. Hopes to make a living from his words someday soon. And get a dog. Likes: Springsteen, good books, intelligent movies, clean modern architecture, smart cute girls with glasses, and rain. Dislikes: bad drivers, trendy food, heat waves, and writers block. View all posts by TonyC

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