Posted By LIZ BRAUN, Sun Media
Updated 12 days ago
Depending on who you ask, Michael Jackson was either a freak or a genius.
We’d pick both of the above.
If you followed his career from the beginning, it’s difficult to reconcile the Jackson who died yesterday after a long slide into cloud cuckooland with the Jackson who ruled popular music in the 1980s.
The surgically-altered, bankrupt ghost who floated around the world with his veiled children is nothing like the vital pop star who grew up in the public eye. Long before cellphones and the Internet or even MTV, Michael Jackson was a global phenomenon. The instant fame accorded people like Susan Boyle today makes it difficult to explain just how huge Jackson’s success really was all those years ago, but anyone who experienced it will never forget it.
On the other hand, superstardom brings a special brand of scrutiny, and many who encountered Jackson can tell you that the guy radiated weird long before there was any public exposure over his unusual collections of exotic animals and adolescent boys.
I worked for Jackson’s record label during his ascendancy and met him the first time in 1981 during The Jacksons’ Triumph tour. Their touring show included extraordinary special effects put together by famed illusionist Doug Henning, and when the show came to Maple Leaf Gardens (all pyrotechnics and live panthers) there was a chance to meet Jackson backstage.
He lost me at hello. Extending the gloved hand, and whispering in that other-worldly voice, Jackson made an immediate impression: Shy, sweet, fishy handshake, bizarro boy. He was very slim and very beautiful. And so very weird. Most celebrities hide behind a public persona, but this guy was living in a bubble already, and it was obvious. That would have been a few weeks before his 23d birthday.
Eighteen months later, Jackson released the Thriller album, which sat at No. 1 for what seemed like forever. He sold 100 million plus copies of that thing. Only in retrospect, of course, did anyone realize it was the pinnacle of his career, or that the disastrous burning-hair Pepsi commercial a bit later was just the start of a much bigger flame-out. That incident would be the first in a long list of increasingly strange and scary public mishaps.
The next time I encountered Jackson was during the Victory Tour in 1984, and by then, the entire Jackson fame and family juggernaut thingy appeared, from the outside looking in, to have turned into a monstrous, three-ring circus.
The Victory Tour was fraught with problems from the beginning, and by the time the Jacksons were wandering around their carefully guarded area backstage at CNE Stadium, the visual high points were Emmanuel Lewis being carried around on Michael’s shoulders and Don King’s vertical Science Centre hair. Jackson’s fame was enormous, and he and his brothers had an entourage to match.
No matter how much we loved his music, Michael Jackson “ended” for a lot of people in 1993, with the first child molestation settlement. At that point, the pop star was beyond the pale, and everything that came afterward for Jackson was tainted by those allegations.
Of course, much of what came afterward wasn’t good news to start with.
Besides all his other physical, emotional and financial issues, Jackson seems to have had a lot of problems with prescription drugs and addiction, and several people close to him, including Liza Minnelli and Jackson family attorney Brian Oxman, have already mentioned his drug habit with regard to his death.
The performer was said to have been generous to friends and to charities and a lot will be written about his legacy, musical and otherwise. In time, maybe even all the crazy crap (the hyperbaric chamber and the Elephant Man bones and the marriage to Lisa Marie Presley and the plastic surgery and the baby dangling) will fade away, and the moon-walking musical genius will be what people remember. For other people, Jackson’s true achievement will be his contribution to positive change in American race relations via his music and his domination of the pop charts. His video for the single Billie Jean was added on MTV back in 1983, no mean feat for a black artist at the time.
Maybe if Michael Jackson had lived long enough to perform those 50 dates at London’s O2 Arena, his story could have had a happy ending. But it’s doubtful. He seemed fated to move further and further into isolation and weirdness, his feet firmly planted on the path to palookaville.
Jackson is not unlike another musical genius who’s been in the news lately for coming unravelled (Phil Spector also had his day in the sun when he was busy producing the biggest hits for the biggest acts of the 1960s and ’70s, and we all know how that turned out).
Considering Newton’s first law of motion, Jackson’s timing and his exit might prove to be perfect. Nobody really wants to see you in the mug shot or the nursing home without your weave on, and he knew that. Better to burn out than to fade away. To coin a phrase.