We turned to see the dazzling white Bentley automobile. It was moving slowly along Solvang’s main street, Copenhagen Drive. As the English-designed classic slowed for a stop light, the car’s tinted rear window began to open, inching down. Suddenly, there he was. The shy smile, hand gently waving, aviator sunglasses, his golden silk shirt flowing in the breeze. Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, was out for an afternoon drive.
We waved, calling his name, a magnetic force pulling us toward him. Then the light turned, and just as quickly he was gone. Leaving us to daydream about our lucky sighting and muse about his mythic celebrity.
What was it about Jackson’s life and death that intrigued, captivated and stunned so many of us? His androgynous persona was juxtaposed against two short marriages, three children and an extraordinary career that spanned four decades. Perhaps we became spectators to his astounding public vulnerability. For most of us, our inner lives and personal dramas are private affairs. Not Jackson’s. His life astonished and amazed us. Again and again.
To his legion of fans, Jackson seemed to have discovered a formula to make what is invisible real. His lyrical alchemy was magical, a pathway into pop’s subconscious.
Jackson’s other worldly musical novella, Thriller, would become the biggest-selling album of all time. While his music would transform the way pop culture is perceived, Jackson’s internal world ultimately would begin to unravel as he faced an anxious future.
But Jackson would survive. Four years after his acquittal, questions would again swirl around his highly anticipated “This Is It!” London shows. It had been 12 years since Jackson had performed an extended run of concerts. Could he fulfill his fans’ frenzied expectations and silence skeptical critics? We will never know.
When pop icons die, suddenly or tragically, it can fragment our personal “hard drive.” They become a part of us. We know their lyrics by heart and stand in line for hours to capture the best concert seats. A real part of our lifeline may be shattered, that connection severed. The intimate influences of pop stars may be amplified more than we are aware of — or will admit. It feels true that we don’t understand their precise effect on our lives, until they are gone.
The aftermath of Princess Diana’s tragic ending foreshadowed the reaction to Jackson’s passing. Each caused emotional shock waves, a tsunami of angst.
As Jackson’s startling death was confirmed by his brother, Jermaine, the nonbelieving collective gasp was audible. The communal distress was monumental and genuine. It was as though for a moment in time, our lives actually stopped. We were stunned and couldn’t immediately recover our balance.
The family had witnessed the impact that Jackson’s abrupt passing had produced. Fueled by ravenous media fervor, his death caused waves of emotion and propelled instinctive behavior in devoted fans. While the tabloids speculated about autopsy results, Jackson’s admirers were flying into Los Angeles by the hundreds, arriving from numerous foreign counties. The momentum seemed to be building each day. Compelled to be near his last vestige, Jackson’s saddened devotees streamed to his country manor and camped at his rented Beverly Hills mansion.
The family wrestled with how they could create a memorial that would equal the public’s expectations and capture the extraordinary impact of Jackson’s life and fame. As his mother shared her fears about Jackson’s wandering soul, the momentum to stage a significant public event took shape. Speculation about both the memorial and Jackson’s burial taking place at his rural estate turned out to be unfounded rumor.
The Los Angeles Staples Center was the logical choice. Owned by concert promoter AEG, it was the location of Jackson’s final rehearsals for the London ‘02 Arena shows. The “This Is It!” concerts would be the most expensive and technologically advanced extravaganzas ever produced, featuring 22 stage sets. At the time of Jackson’s death, British ticket brokers were offering seats to his sold-out shows for 16,500 pounds ($10,000) each.
The announcement was made. Jackson’s memorial would be aired live at 10 a.m. July 7, 2009. The event would be broadcast worldwide, made available for free through MTV to all major media outlets. Working on an impossibly tight schedule, AEG’s staff would work through the weekend to practice the memorial’s complex timing cues and rehearse the growing list of invited musicians, singers and guest speakers.
At the news conference, it was emphasized that the memorial’s main purpose was to recognize and reach out to Jackson’s millions of fans. The memorial was to be “all about them.” One of the memorial’s most remarkable features was the Jackson family and AEG’s decision to make thousands of tickets available to the public. The randomly selected Internet lottery winners would pick up their tickets at Dodger Stadium, never having to leave their cars.
A few tickets eventually would show up for sale on Internet sites, but the great majority of ticket holders would no more consider selling than auctioning off a prized heirloom. More than 15,000 public audience members would view the memorial from either the Staples Center or next door at the Nokia Theatre on an oversized video screen. All three Jackson sisters would later appear in person to thank the Nokia’s fans.
Los Angeles police estimated they would need to plan for a million fans converging on the memorial’s downtown site. With repeated warnings that all roads leading to the Staples Center would be closed except to those with tickets, the initial forecasts turned out to be wildly overstated. Other than legitimate memorial ticket holders, there were nearly as many members of the media present as unticketed fans. Defying prediction, there were no arrests in the area surrounding the Staples Center that morning.
Jackson’s memorial was one of the most extraordinary “live” events ever staged. It was as dramatic as a presidential inauguration or royal funeral. The marquee listing of A-list celebrity presenters included superstar vocalists, music industry legends, pro athletes, actors, politicians and renowned religious figures.
Like a traditional African American rite, the memorial’s structure allowed for deliberate pauses in the service to let the audience absorb the experience. During these “resting periods,” Jackson’s images, words and music would flood the arena’s video screens. The event included both uplifting gospel selections and songs picked by guest artists, personal remembrances and inspirational oratory. Neither those at Staples nor the TV audience knew exactly how the Jackson family would bring the memorial to a close.
Finally, the appointed hour had arrived. The lights were dimmed within Staples, leaving the audience hushed and still. Jackson’s golden casket moved forward, covered with a bouquet of red roses. It was slowly escorted to the stage’s apron by pallbearers, including brothers Tito and Jermaine Jackson. Each wore a sequined glove on their right hand.
As the last strains of the choir subsided, Mariah Carey with duet partner Trey Lorenz segued into the great Jackson Five hit: “I’ll Be There.” With her eyes closed, Carey reached toward the sky as if her fingers could gather Jackson’s music from above. The memorial had truly begun.
Lionel Richie’s stunning performance of the gospel “Jesus Is Love” with backing from the Andrae Crouch Singers followed. Industry icon Berry Gordy then told the story of how 10-year-old Michael, covering “Fools Loving You,” had outsung Smokey Robinson. It was a song Robinson had written. He nodded a resounding “Yes!” from the audience. Gordy said Jackson had “accomplished everything he dreamed of.”
The camera panned to a grand piano as Stevie Wonder settled in to sing the medley “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” and the gospel “They Won’t Go When I Go.” Wonder paused, saying, “This is a moment I wish I didn’t live to see coming,” and wondered, “God must have needed him far more.”
Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant approached the podium. Johnson’s story about how he and Jackson sat on the floor in the Neverland kitchen, eating KFC chicken, tickled the audience. Bryant reminded us of Jackson’s humble beginnings in Gary, Ind.
Dressed in a brilliant white gown, Jennifer Hudson took the stage. Her rich, soaring voice reached every corner of the arena. Hudson sang the beautiful gospel “Will You Be There?” Next, New York’s fiery orator, the Rev. Al Sharpton, described Jackson’s working-class roots, highlighting his outreach to Africa.
Rock guitarist John Mayer followed, playing an extraordinary instrumental version of Jackson’s song “Human Nature.” Mayer’s soulful, understated rendition was an astonishing tribute, showcasing his extensive musical reach.
Close friend Brooke Shields shared her lifelong memories of Jackson, including his mischievous presence. Echoing a theme of his cherished book, The Little Prince, Shields said Jackson “believed that what’s most important is invisible.” She revealed that Jackson’s favorite song was composed by Charlie Chaplin for the movie Modern Times. On perfect cue, Jermaine Jackson stepped forward to sing a heartfelt rendition of “Smile.” Both Martin Luther King Jr. and sister Vernice offered their blessings, placing Jackson’s passing into the historical continuum.
With a yellow rose in his lapel, R&B singer Usher began his tribute to the musical strains of “Gone Too Soon.” With a hand resting on Jackson’s gold coffin, he removed his dark glasses to sing through his tears. Robinson chose to speak to the audience rather than sing, concluding, “The world will never forget Michael.”
After 12-year-old Shaheen Jafargholi performed a spirited version of the Jackson Five’s “Who’s Loving You?” memorial co-producer Kenny Ortega related that Jackson was impressed with the English “Idol” contestant’s voice. He had planned to have him sing during the “This Is It!” concerts.
More than two hours into the memorial, we began to wonder what was planned for the finale. Of course, we knew. It had to be a rendition of “We Are the World.” Co-written with Richie in Jackson’s Encino bedroom in 1985, the tribute raised millions of dollars to combat world hunger. It was reprised in medley with “Heal The World.” Vocalist Judith Hill sang Jackson’s part with the choir’s backing harmonies. The stage swelled with the addition of Jackson family members, dozens of smiling children and the event’s musical stars, who sang the chorus again and again, “We are the world, We are the children.”
As its repeated crescendo slowed and faded, brother Marlon Jackson stepped to the mike. He told of once seeing a strange looking man with makeup and buck teeth buying CDs in a local music store. He only realized the man was his brother because of the shoes the odd man was wearing. His brother always wore the same shoes. Out of disguise, Michael Jackson could not walk across the street without a crowd forming around him.
It was Jermaine Jackson’s difficult role to say the final goodbye. He did it with simple grace, “We thank you very much.” But it wasn’t quite over. Jackson’s 11-year-old daughter unexpectedly stepped to the mike. Her spontaneous, tearful outpouring felt unscripted, “Ever since I was born, he has been the best daddy.” Paris reminded us how deeply those left behind are affected by the death of a parent.
As Jackson’s casket disappeared into the shadows, a lone microphone was silhouetted against the darkened stage. We had witnessed history. It was a transfixing and unforgettable tribute. A last rite for the Emperor of Pop, the most famed entertainer of all time.
It’s ironic that during his memorial there were no pictures shown, nor mention made of Jackson’s most inventive endeavor, a domain transformed by his fortune. He proclaimed it Neverland. Its metamorphosis from a Santa Ynez Valley cattle ranch began in 1988. Jackson would live within its aura for 16 years. Neverland would become the most famous personal residence in the world. And for good reason. It was Jackson’s invisible world come true.
Neverland’s ornate-gilded iron entrance gates were one of the estate’s pièces de résistance. At twilight, they began to glow. Bathed in blue neon, the Neverland script swept back and forth. Jackson’s full name was etched in color against the night sky. The gate’s intricate gold-crowned emblem was bathed in deep crimson. It felt as though you were entering a fantastic new paradise.
Once inside, the rolling lawns and manicured pathways circled around a two-acre lake. Its central fountains shot 100 feet skyward as swans glided by in lazy circles. Jackson’s main home and guest cottages blended into the estate’s landscape. It was a dream space that filled one with a sensation of déjà vu. Jackson had created his own vision of Eden.
Jackson revealed that his inspiration for Neverland came from Peter Pan’s fantasy island home, “Never-Never Land.” Once completed, the estate would incorporate motifs from Disneyland, including a massive working clock made from floral designs and boxed hedges.
Jackson said he wanted his home to be a place where underprivileged and sick children could escape their problems, at least for a short while. The image of Jackson and wife Lisa Marie Presley walking hand in hand, trailed by dozens of excited children, was a legacy Jackson hoped Neverland would provide.
When kids were present at Neverland, snow-cone carts would dot the famous carnival midway. It held 18 full-size amusement attractions, including an oversized Ferris wheel and colorful carousel. When in residence, Jackson was often seen driving the miniature racing go-karts. A small, rideable railroad train circled Neverland’s grounds, blowing its whistle to pick up passengers at the replica train station.
Neverland’s zoo had an impressive animal collection, including elephants, giraffes, monkeys, orangutans, tigers, white llamas and an aviary of multicolored parrots. It also housed miniature horses, a brown bear, pink flamingos and Bubbles, the famous chimpanzee. Jackson was once photographed holding a baby lion cub on his front lawn.
Down another pathway was an oversized arcade. Children and adults alike played pinball and popular video games, no quarters required. The estate’s video library held hundreds of previously released motion-picture titles. If you were lucky, you might be Jackson’s guest to view a new film in Neverland’s movie theater. Before sitting down in the plush red-velvet seats, a full-sized concession stand beckoned company with popcorn, candy and soft-serve ice cream.
In the main house, the rooms and hallways were enlivened by life-size mannequins, from a Star Wars Wookiee to replicas of yesteryear’s movie stars. Just inside the front door, a life-size plastic-molded butler offered guests cookies from a silver platter. Jackson explained the figurine’s presence: “I used to be lonely, painfully lonely, you have no idea, even during Thriller. I would walk alone at night and ask perfect strangers to be my friend, and they would say, ‘You’re Michael Jackson!’ It’s not what I wanted, not to see the external me. So the mannequins were my company, my companions.”
Jackson’s home also had rooms containing one of the world’s largest doll collections. A glimpse into Jackson’s personal bedroom revealed a bedspread made of small gemstones. It cast a luminous glow, like thousands of tiny mirrors. The mansion was filled with Louis XIV faux furniture, elegant inlaid floors and elaborate rococo candelabras. His art collection featured oversized Dutch Master-style paintings in gilded frames. Many depicted Jackson’s likeness. Despite tabloid headlines, neither a “hyperbaric chamber” nor golden Egyptian sarcophagi were on display at Neverland.
While Jackson gathered an eclectic collection of belongings, first impressions could be deceiving. Seeming to choose impulsively and spontaneously, Jackson’s trips to bookstores were legendary. He would come home with dozens of titles, including coffee-table books and magazines. Few knew Jackson was a voracious reader. He had an enormous library, read constantly and was interested in a diverse range of subjects, from architecture to art and poetry.
Neverland also was designed as a space where Jackson could focus on songwriting and develop choreography that became a hallmark of his concert performances. His recording and dance studio was one of the few places in Neverland rarely seen by the public.
While living at Neverland, Jackson released his 1991 “Dangerous” album. His 1993 Super Bowl concert marked the first time a halftime performance had received higher ratings than the game itself.
Jackson’s subsequent 1995 hit single, “You Are Not Alone,” became the first song to ever enter the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 1. His reissued 2001 album “HIStory” included 15 new songs. While Jackson collaborated with other writers, including Rod Temperton, Quincy Jones and Paul McCartney, his solo songwriting credits also were impressive. They included, among many others, “Beat It,” “Billy Jean,” “Bad,” “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and “Will You Be There?”
Jackson repeatedly stated that he believed in maintaining a childlike nature, not just to enjoy life but to get to the source of his creative process. “Everything I do is inspired by children, from songwriting to choreography,” he said. His response to a question from a visiting 8-year-old girl was revealing. She asked: “Can you do your moonwalk?” Jackson responded: “The moonwalk? I learned it from you.”
Jackson was the first to admit he didn’t invent the dance step that he made so famous. It was originally performed by Cab Calloway in 1932 and again captured on film in 1955 by legendary tap dancer Bill Bailey. Both pantomime artist Marcel Marceau and soul singer James Brown performed their versions of the backslide.
Jackson’s moonwalk was first seen in 1983, when the Jacksons reunited for Motown Records’ 25th anniversary concert. The audience went wild as he floated effortlessly across the stage in his sequined jacket and black fedora. He appeared to defy gravity.
Jackson’s ingenuity as an artist was highlighted by his unique ability to integrate highly fueled pop music with complex “signature” dance moves. His energy level and skill as a dancer were simply stunning. He left it all on stage. There was never a laid-back attitude attributed to his shows. His performance goals were focused on building the concert’s momentum, song by song, finally reaching a frenzied finish. Jackson said he wanted to leave the audience both “spent and in awe.”
If Jackson ultimately became the prisoner of an illusory lifestyle, his captivity would have been voluntary. It’s likely that Jackson was precisely who he desired to be. He chose his destiny deliberately. He lived a life most mortals would hardly want to escape. Ultimately, his Neverland exile was self-imposed.
Perhaps Jackson’s underlying anxiety and insomnia were symptomatic of the paradox that many pop/rock superstars face, that fame and fortune don’t provide immunity or insulation from mortal problems. Rather, those human dilemmas become magnified and complicated by a celebrity’s iconic status. Only in fiction or fantasy can one escape the trials and dimensions of free will, with its challenging choices and uncertain fate.
The symbols of shadow and light help describe Jackson’s life. His dramatic five-decade saga was an artistic enigma etched with joy but trailed by agony and perhaps regret. It was this dichotomy that revealed his flaws and measured his shortened lifetime. Will Jackson’s legacy be defined by those dark edges or by his astounding creativity?
Within this matrix of memories perhaps we will recall the imagery that made Jackson incomparable: his omnipresent black umbrella shading the sun, the majestic Neverland oak tree he climbed to find his “magic creation space,” a wardrobe and style unlike any other, fans choosing to keep their London concert tickets as souvenirs rather than receive refunds, his soft voice, gentle smile and — forever — the music.
Sleep well, Michael. Now, it’s as easy as 1-2-3.
— Noozhawk contributor Mark Brickley is a freelance writer in Carpinteria.