When You Think Of Michael Jackson, What Do You Remember?

Michael Jackson

Posted: 03/12/11 09:46

Michael Jackson is many things to many people. Music maestro, misunderstood, molester - they've all been bandied around. Now, as Dr Conrad Murray files an appeal in a bid to avoid time behind bars for his part in the superstar's death, it seems the dogs are still barking, the circus has not moved on. And I wonder which one of these epithets will prove to be the most enduring.

Creative singlemindedness

Of all the adjectives thrown at him, Jackson was actually musical the longest, since the time his cherubic face first beamed out from the line-up with his brothers. From the outset it was clear that, from the Jackson 5, there would emerge a Michael One - the feet just slightly faster, the voice already distinctive, the charisma to bottle.

Even while audiences jived to I Want You Back and ABC, the seeds of future unrest were being sown. We later heard that, behind the frothy frontier, father Joe was instilling in Michael and his brothers a lack of self-confidence that would pervade their adult lives - it is noteworthy how many of them have dabbled with plastic surgery ever since.

But soon, we were too busy being thrilled by Jackson's solo efforts. His era-defining Thriller was unprecedented in its pure pop ambition. True, it tapped into the advent of music video and everyone under 18 having a television, but universal disco anthems don't come out of nowhere, and their creators don't normally enjoy ever-growing success.

Some, aware of Jackson's youth, lay the credit squarely at producer Quincy Jones's door. But Jones himself told stories of long days spent in the studio, waiting for Jackson to be happy with what they produced.

Private dancer

Then Jones would go home, finally content, only for the phone to ring in the middle of the night and discover that Jackson was back at the mixing desk. This extra effort, Jackson explained, was the difference between being number one for a week and for a year. And thus it proved.

It wasn't just sounds, either. His dancing was phenomenal, even before he debuted his Moonwalk. Jackson didn't invent it, but he practised it, perfected it and, at Motown's 25th anniversary concert in 1983, he unleashed it to stunning effect.

Around the same time came the first wave of communal euphoria that is the appropriate reaction to talent on this scale. As Jackson took his tunes and moves around the world, he was feted like a deity, and we got little portents of the madness that was to follow.

Plastic surgery had yet to rob him of his wholesomeness. His friendships with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Brooke Shields, Bubbles, seemed merely the elite fiefdom of the truly famous. Even the more frequently seen masks could be passed off as enigma.

When Jackson married Lisa Marie Presley, it was a bit weird, yes, especially when their embraces were caught on film, but the magical union of two musical dynasties meant we didn't ask too many questions.

It helped then that the music remained excellent, chart-topping, and he could still pull a world-beating performance out of his hat. It was Jackson's contribution that made We Are The World a transcendent pop gem, and he was in A-list demand for duets.

Courting controversy

At some point, though, around this time, the circus became a freak show. Neverland, the idyll to childhood Jackson built for himself in California, went from being a charming and innocent playground to an insidious training camp for we knew not what.

Where previously a menagerie of animals had wandered, there was now police tape and belongings that would be construed evidence in a bewildering catalogue of court cases.

Somewhere along the way, Jackson had his own children in circumstances either purely private or downright questionable, depending on who was speculating. We saw Prince, Paris and Blanket wrapped in shrouds whenever they went out with him in public. Their godfather, British actor Mark Lester, made the point after Jackson's death that this was actually good sense; it meant that, whenever they weren't with their famous father, they could go around completely normally, and unrecognised.

Jackson's good sense was not so apparent, however, when he got carried away by the adulation of waiting crowds and dangled his younger son Blanket (Prince Michael II) from a third-floor balcony.

If this was a terrible mistake, as he later admitted, then his decision to sit down with Princess Diana's interviewer Martin Bashir was a catastrophe. Putting aside the conversations with and about young boys that would land him in court again, for me the shoe dropped when Jackson patiently and unblinkingly explained to Bashir that he had never had any plastic surgery.

This meant that Jackson suffered from either a) a Canute-like arrogance where he truly thought that anything he said would be believed, or b) he was in a state of denial bordering on the pathological. Either way, he had become an unreliable witness. We need our stars to be greater than us, yes, but we also need them to co-exist as one with us, and Jackson in one fell swoop moved himself irreparably beyond reach.

From then on, it became a whirligig of more court cases and exile in the unlikely bookended countries of Bahrain and Ireland, until 2009, when he sought, finally and fatally, refuge from debt, humiliation, anonymity, boredom, creative frustration, in the only home he really knew - the stage.

It was an overreach - in promising an unprecedented 50 London concert dates, Jackson wrote a cheque neither his body nor his fragile mental state could support.

And it fatally brought him into contact with a doctor who cared less than he did for his well-being. The irony of Dr Murray’s ludicrous daily rate (a reported $160,000 a month) is that, with that dividend, Jackson thought he was buying control.

The truth is he would have been safer, healthier and better-protected if he had been a vagrant on the streets of LA, where the police could have scooped him up and delivered him to an ER department.

Instead he was holed up in his luxurious bunker, with children and hangers-on, in an illusion of power. This was always going to end badly, it was just a case of how and when. Now he is dead, a man sits in jail and there is no more music.

So what do we remember when we think of Michael Jackson? At the moment, it remains a blurry montage of images - masks, courtrooms, chimps, Elizabeth Taylor, the Moonwalk, the nose - but there are no more scandals to feed the machine, and the mists will eventually clear.

When they do, they will reveal a troubled character, a tragic example of how the complications of fame and privilege can undo a most extraordinary talent, and for whom a magical gift for music-making proved to be no buffer when it came to dealing with the everyday world.

A flashback of Michael Jackson's life in pictures...

1  of  26
PLAY
FULLSCREEN
ZOOM
SHARE THIS SLIDE 
(L-R) Jackie Jackson, Marlon Jackson, Randy Jackson, Tito Jackson and Michael Jackson of the Jacksons (aka Jackson Five) pose for a studio group portrait in 1977 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

FOLLOW HUFFPOST UK ENTERTAINMENT