As most of you are aware by now, Sundance 2019 will be premiering a hit piece directed by Dan Reed and sponsored by HBO and UK Channel 4, a four-hour sobfest in which the same two scam artists who recently had their cases against Michael Jackson’s estate and companies thrown out of court-Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck-will claim that they were molested. While trash stories about Michael Jackson have come and gone in the last ten years (most notably since Robson’s sudden about face in 2012) the understandable concern now, both within the fan community and for those who care about justice, is that in this era where the lynch mob mentality of #MeToo and the “Cancel Culture” it has helped spawn is drowning out all voices of reason or due process, this could be one injustice against the name Michael Jackson too many. It is long overdue for this kind of endless defamation to end. I have a post in the works that will analyze the full extent of Michael Jackson’s legacy in the MeToo era. As always, we must keep uppermost in mind four crucial differences between Jackson’s “case” and that of other celebrities who have fallen under the scrutiny of MeToo, namely:
That Michael Jackson, unlike many of these other celebrities, had his full day in court over a decade ago (and to that we must add that this was a court case that put his entire life under intense scrutiny, as it didn’t become “just” about the Arvizo case, but every friendship with every child he had ever known!)
There has never been one bit of actual inculpatory evidence presented against him, even after one of most thorough prosecution investigations on record. In every single instance, it has come down to an accuser’s word against Jackson’s. And now he is not here to defend against such accusations, making these actions all the more reprehensible.
A decade long investigation by the FBI yielded nothing!
The role of race, Hollywood double standards, and how Michael Jackson was used as a scapegoat within the industry to divert attention from the crimes of others (namely one Harvey Weinstein!)
That these allegations have been led by a man who endlessly sang Jackson’s praises as a mentor and guiding light of his life-until he was fired from a prestigious gig directing the Michael Jackson Circus du Soleil show, a loss that cost him millions.
In the meantime, though, please work to voice your disapproval!
This week marked the occasion of what would have been Michael Jackson’s 60th birthday. It was a day long marked on the calendars of fans across the world, and in the countdown to August 29th, 2018-with diverse celebrations spanning from Las Vegas, Nevada to Brooklyn, New York to all corners of the globe-the excitement was palpable.
Unfortunately for this particular fan (yours truly) Michael Jackson’s 60th birthday, which fell in the middle of the week, passed as just another day of work in the classroom. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t quietly reflecting and celebrating in my own way. As I periodically checked into my social media accounts, I was heartened to see no less than three MJ-related hashtags trending worldwide, simultaneously. Truly, the world still loves Michael Jackson, and always will. As the week of celebrations played out, many thoughts crossed my mind and I wanted to share a few here, for what they’re worth, both good and bad.
When Michael Jackson was born in the late summer of 1958, he officially joined what many consider to be “The Holy Trinity of Pop” who all made their world debuts in that particular summer. Prince was born first, on June 7, 1958. Madonna arrived a few weeks later, on August 16, 1958, and only a little less than two weeks later, baby Michael arrived to complete the triptych. It has always kind of boggled my mind that these three icons, who collectively would change the face of pop music and popular culture in the 80’s, were born in such close proximity. Clearly, in the summer of 1958, God was already planning the pop cultural zeitgeist that would be the 1980’s. But even though Michael may have been the youngest and last arrival of the three, his life path was already set to make him the one that was predestined to lead the way. Chronologically, he was the last of the trio to arrive, but he was the first to be thrust into the world’s spotlight. While both Madonna and Prince were going through the rites of a normal childhood, Michael was already singing and performing by age five. By the age of ten, he would be a Motown recording star. And from age eleven to the day he died at fifty, an internationally known legend. It was he-the youngest born-who would actually inspire and help create the path that Madonna and Prince followed. Michael Jackson may have been the last one of this particular pop trinity to be born, but he was already a veteran of show business and a very old soul by the time his fellow “summer of ’58” birthmates had caught up to him.
That came at a high cost. During the time of his drug rehab stint in 1993, Elton John was quoted as saying that Michael was “damaged.” Even though I have always been outspoken against attempts to publicly psychoanalyze Michael, this quote has never been one that put me on the defensive. Was Michael damaged? Absolutely. How could he not be? How could anyone thrust into the world of entertainment and performing at such a young age not be damaged? I don’t know of any child stars, living or dead, who have not been damaged individuals. Michael knew this as well as anyone, which was also why he formed such close alliances and friendships with other child stars throughout his life (both former and current). He recognized the kindred spirit of these individuals who had suffered through the same things he had endured.
But conversely, Michael Jackson was born to be a performer, and as much pain and damage as he may have suffered, I honestly don’t think there was anything else he ever wanted to do differently, or could have done better. (Indeed, I’ve tried to imagine other occupations he might have pursued, but it is virtually impossible to imagine Michael Jackson as anywhere but on stage). Living the life of a performer, a pop icon, was something that Michael would have an intense love/hate relationship with for the rest of his life.
In an interview once, Katherine Jackson said of her son, “I think about my son every day, and how his life turned out.” That statement always struck me because when Katherine said “how his life turned out” you could tell by the sad expression on her face and pained tone of her voice that she was NOT thinking of the fame, or the glory, or the big houses and millions of records sold. She was thinking, instead, about all the crap he went through and the high price he paid to achieve those things-including, at the end, his own life.
Thus, I can’t ever celebrate Michael’s life or legacy without remembering, to some extent, the sacrifice he made to bring his gifts to the world. It came at the expense of any kind of normalcy his life might have otherwise had. Imagine a life in which Michael Joseph Jackson might have quietly and uneventfully come of age in Gary, Indiana, working in a steel mill, perhaps, and marrying some local girl. Could we imagine him buying a small, modest house-perhaps one not unlike the one he grew up in, in a neighborhood not too far removed from Jackson Street? Could we imagine him becoming a father at a much earlier age (because he would not have been detained from this ambition by a rigorous life of recording, touring, and focusing on a career) so that he would have actually raised his family by middle age, rather than just starting it? Could we imagine him as a grandfather at fifty, instead of the father of small children? Could we really imagine him walking idly out in his slippers to get the morning paper? Would Michael Jackson have been happier living that life? It’s one of the great “What if” mysteries, as we’ll never know. The thing about most adult performers is that they go into their profession by choice. Child stars like Michael do not necessarily get that choice. Even if we can argue that there are children who already exhibit a love of performing, singing or dancing, it doesn’t mean they have the adult capacity to make those kinds of life defining choices for themselves. Michael was a kid who loved the attention of being in the spotlight; he knew he loved singing and dancing and the way people reacted to him when he did it. I don’t doubt the stories that he actively begged to be part of the Jackson Five. And it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Michael, at age five-with his cunning show business intuition already coming into blossom-didn’t intentionally plan his recital of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” as a way to finally convince Joe and Katherine that he had the chops to front the group.
But at age five, he could not have had the adult capacity to see past those moments of initial gratification to understand what he was really committing himself to-an entire childhood essentially sacrificed. No, make no mistake, that choice was made for him.
Even so, Michael could have clearly chosen a different path as an adult. By the time he was twenty-one, he had made enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life. He could have chosen to drop out of show business. He could have gone on to college. He could have taken the quiet path of least resistance, satisfied with the fame he had achieved as a member of the most influential boy band of all time.
Instead, he made Off The Wall and Thriller. The rest is history.
I was reflecting on all of this when I saw the mural advertising Spike Lee’s Brooklyn birthday block party, and I think it is the reason I fell in love with this mural.
It beautifully depicts what we might call the “Two Halves” of Michael, the innocent and bubbly child merging with the shattered and disillusioned-but still beautifully strong; still invincible-man. It also reminded me that those who truly love and “get” Michael Jackson are the ones who fully embrace who he was and what he represented at all stages of his life. His “changing appearance”-as the media has always loved to dub it-was not so much a reflection of some body dysmorphic disorder (the most popular ongoing theory) as it was simply the morphing of one shell into another. While the world often applauded the artistic daring of artists like David Bowie, Madonna, Prince and others for constantly reinventing themselves, it seemed that the world often wanted to keep Michael forever frozen in time, always either the eternal, cherub boy with an Afro singing “ABC” or the young man with the jheri curl and single white glove, moonwalking across our TV screens to “Billie Jean.” Not for Michael the artistic luxury and indulgence of reinvention. He was part of our nostalgia, collectively representing the memories of a generation. Perhaps it would be fairer to say Michael was allowed at least one major transformation. His chrysalis from an awkward teen phase into the megastar, hungry-eyed phenomenon that was Michael at the height of the Thriller era was nothing less than spectacular. To this day, I can still remember how he dropped every jaw of my generation, all of us who assumed he was just this has-been kid who dropped off the radar when The Jackson Five had their last hit. How many times do child stars really get a second chance to become adult superstars? Michael truly beat every odd on that one, and in so doing, instantaneously became an icon of not one, but two distinct generations, in the early 1970’s helping to establish Blacks in mainstream pop radio, and in the 1980’s, leading the way to break Black artists into the MTV era.
Michael’s 60th birthday also brought on another sentiment, as well. I was feeling nostalgic thinking of the good times I have had at some of Michael’s past birthday celebrations in Gary, Indiana. Every year, there is always a big block party around the family house on Jackson Street, and up until this year, members of the Jackson family including Michael’s kids and mother Katherine, have taken part in this annual celebration. To my knowledge (and someone may feel free to correct me if I am wrong) but I do not believe any of the family visited Gary at all this year. Instead, the focal point of Michael’s birthday celebration seems to have shifted to the glitzier allure of Las Vegas. While I’m sure the Diamond celebration was lovely-and I do want to make it out to see the One show at some point- I can’t help but feel a bit sad to see the spotlight shifting away from the city that the family has always called “home.” Don’t get me wrong. I realize that Michael himself spent very little time in Gary, only returning (I believe) a couple of times throughout his entire adult hood. For him, there may not have even been that much in the way of personal attachment to the town. After all, the family had left and moved to California by the time he was ten years old, and most of his formative memories would have been in the Encino community where the family settled. His memories of Gary would have been, at best, the sporadic memories of a very young child. But I think that is an important and vital part of what makes any trip to Gary special for me. For me, when I stand in front of the Jackson house and gaze at the side bedroom window that I know was his- where he often stared out in wonder at the Christmas lights of their neighbors- or when I walk the back alley where he and his brothers used to race their go carts, or the abandoned field behind Garrett Elementary school where he would have played, I am reminded that this was the last vestige of Michael’s innocence; the last time when he would truly know what it was like to be a normal child doing normal child things.
Vids Like These Exploit The “Urban Decay” Reputation of Gary-Fairly or Not
As a tourist destination, of course, it would probably be an understatement to say that Gary leaves a lot to be desired. The town certainly has its own beauty (including those breathtaking old Gothic Revival churches) but anyone who comes into Gary expecting five star hotels and restaurants is certainly going to be in for a letdown. The town’s economic decline, as well as its reputation (undeserved, I think) as one of the most crime ridden cities in America has not exactly made it a tourist mecca for Jackson fans, and those who do come often consider it as some sort of daring venture; a challenge on a par with “Survival.” Most are content to grab a few, quick pics in front of the Jackson house and be on their way, back to the safety of their air conditioned vehicles and out of “that neighborhood.”
Indeed, many of the comments and reviews left from “fans” who have visited the house seem to sadly bear this out. Here are a few typical reviews that were left on the TripAdvisor website:
You can drive through a neighborhood of closed and dilapidated buildings to see this little house that is not open to the public. Whatever monument used to be in the yard is gone now. The town of Gary has disintegrated into a slum area. You can’t even find out the story of the Jackson family here. Run away!-Melodycthomas
Area was so bad and run down with broken windows caved in roofs burnt out houses and burnt down buildings broken windows abandoned houses galore and a few sketchy people milling around that we turned around before getting to the dead end destination afraid to go further. We Decided to take a second run at it from a different street only to find exactly the same thing with abandon cars more burnt out houses run down houses a motorcycle went by A couple of slow cars and a few people about very very sketchy. Turned around a second time as we were coming up to the dead end again where the house is. Shocking how this is how the town honours those who have done so much for them. Very disappointing-berrypocket
Well don’t expect much. The entire house is gated from the public. You can drive by, stop and take a picture by the gates…but that’s it. Don’t think you’re going to peer into the house or even touch the door (lol). The property has been well maintained (especially compared to other homes in Gary). I guess its okay to just say…you saw the house where the Jackson’s grew up…right????-NickiNi
Granted, I am cherry picking a handful of the worst reviews (most of them are pretty decent and written by fans who understand that going to the Jackson house kind of is what it is) but these were the ones that leaped out at me and made me feel both sad and a little angry that some seem to have such an apparent sense of entitlement about visiting Michael’s childhood home and town. Michael Jackson’s life began as a poor Black child living in Gary, Indiana. What exactly are some of these people expecting when they come to visit-Graceland, for crying out loud? And come to think of it, even though Elvis’s birth home in Tupelo is just as small and humble as Michael’s childhood home in Gary, you don’t see half the number of complaints about “the neighborhood” or “I would visit the Presley house but I’m afraid of getting mugged in that neighborhood” or “If you visit the Elvis Presley birth house, don’t go alone.” Yes, I’ve heard variants of all these comments through the years leveled at the Jackson house and its neighborhood, and just about every time I have ever visited Gary, despite the fact that in my personal experience, I have never been treated less than warmly and cordially by the local residents. At worst, some of the old folks of the neighborhood may sit on their porches and stare at you curiously-or maybe pay you no mind at all, seeing as how most of them have gotten used to all of the traffic of the curious coming through. Yes, it is a poor community, but that is all the more reason why it needs to be appreciated, for we cannot begin to appreciate what Michael Jackson accomplished in his life without acknowledging where he came from, and in so doing, understanding the obstacles he and his family had to overcome. To appreciate Michael’s legacy, we have to understand and appreciate where he came from. When we see the hospital where he drew his first breath as a crumbling ruin, or his childhood playing field overgrown with weeds and abandoned, or his childhood home-well tended but so, so tiny, only then can we appreciate the magnitude of what this man achieved with his life. The various states of decay in which one may find these monuments of Michael’s childhood, however, only serve to remind us of the ephemeral and transitory nature of life and indeed existence itself. For me, they are bittersweet reminders that Michael himself has long transcended these very places and the boundaries they represented-he had already done so in life, and death has only added another, final layer.
Throughout the last decade, various organizations in and around Gary have tried to host annual conventions and other events to celebrate Michael’s birthday and to draw tourism to Michael’s birth town, but invariably, all seem to have eventually petered out, while annual fanventions continue to flourish in big city meccas like London and Vegas. Eventually, even the last remaining fanvention in Gary had shifted its locale to the more “tourist friendly” Chicago. And with the passing of Joe, who had remained a consistent Jackson presence and supporter of keeping the Jackson legacy alive in Gary, it seems the last of what has already become a very fragile tie may have been broken. I hope time proves me wrong.
Lastly, to think of Michael being sixty years old is certainly a mortality wake-up reminder. Wow, wasn’t it just yesterday that I remember music critics writing lines such as, “These young performers like Michael Jackson…” Where does the time go? When you realize that the guy whose poster you hung on your bedroom wall as a teenager has now officially joined the ranks of the sexagenarians, it definitely has a way of putting things in perspective.
Wait a minute, did I say sexagenerian? Well, you know if he’d lived he would still be the one putting the “sex” in sexagenarian! Yeah, I had to go there.
I realize this blog has not been active in several months, and first of all, I would like to express my gratitude to those loyal readers who have remained patient and faithful. After a series of setbacks, personal issues and other factors that have kept me out of the saddle for some time, I am slowly getting my groove back and catching up on all things MJ.
However, it saddens me that my return blog post could not be under happier circumstances. As we all know by now, the observation of Michael’s ninth death anniversary was marred by more sad news with the passing of his father Joe Jackson.
Normally I have always written a post to commemorate each passing year without Michael, but for some reason, this year I really struggled. What could I possibly say that I have not already said better in the last eight years? A nine year anniversary is a frustratingly odd number, not like the bench mark of, say, a ten year anniversary. Still, it is “almost” a decade. It is long enough that a baby born in 2009-the year Michael left us-would now be entering third grade (and, no doubt, still recognizing the iconic beat of “Billie Jean”). It is more than enough time to reflect on what a decade without Michael Jackson has meant for us, and for the world.
For sure, that light has not dimmed. Thousands of roses and floral arrangements decked Holly Terrace. Social media blew up with remembrances and the hashtag #9YearsWithoutMichaelJackson. No sooner had Joe Jackson drawn his last breath than a new “duet” featuring Michael Jackson and Drake was blowing up the charts (more on that topic to come). The last few months has seen an explosion of television specials and documentaries (of varying degrees of quality, it might be added, but the sheer fact that they continue to be made is an attestment to the continued drawing power of Michael’s name).
Perhaps best of all, the anniversary came and went in relatively quiet, dignified fashion. No newly invented “scandals” invented by the likes of Radar Online rocked the headlines. Perhaps with the Wade Robson case officially dismissed for good, the incentive just wasn’t there. A sign of progress? Is the world finally ready to let Michael Jackson rest in peace? That would probably be wishful thinking, but at least it was nice to have a relatively quiet anniversary in which the world only remembered that we loved and lost him.
However, it was by no means an uneventful anniversary, as the media “death watch” over Joe Jackson had already kicked into high gear. Speculation that Joe might actually pass on June 25th was rampant, and didn’t we just know the media was salivating over that golden prospect, already thinking what headlines that would make!
The “coincidence” of Joe possibly passing on his son’s death anniversary wasn’t just being talked about by the media, however. Among colleagues at work and even in private conversation, many were speculating: Could it happen? It would have seemed strangely fitting, in a bizarre kind of way, for this to have been the final chapter of what had been a lifelong and complicated father-son saga.
According to at least one tabloid story, Joe was hoping to “hold on” long enough to see his son’s ninth death anniversary. But many could not resist speculating that Joe Jackson-ultimate showman to the end-was already envisioning what a story it would make if he bowed out on the 25th. Well, we can’t presume to know what was going through Joe’s mind in those final hours. Joe had been in failing health for years, having already suffered a series of strokes. The thin and frail man who appeared occasionally in recent interviews and public appearances was a shadow of his former, robust self.
Joe was appearing and sounding increasingly frail in recent photos and interviews:
I had met Joe back in 2010 at the King of Pop Fanvention in Merrillville, indiana and spent most of that weekend seeing him at various functions. At the time, he was already eighty-two but nevertheless was the picture of vitality. (I know because I still have a vivid memory of trying to catch up to him and being literally outpaced by an eighty-two year old man who could still strut fast enough to make a fit, 48 year old woman winded!). The Joe Jackson I had seen in more recent years bore little resemblance to that man.
For all the world knows, it could well have been the grief precipitated by the approach of the nine year anniversary that exacerbated his already failing health. But, whether it was indeed sad coincidence or the last breath of Joe Jackson’s infamously manipulative and stubborn will, he managed to make it close enough. Joe Jackson passed on June 27, 2018 just two days after Michael’s ninth year of transition.
Unfortunately, his death brought out some of the best and worst of an already divided fan community, for just like everything else in the Michael Jackson fandom, Joe Jackson has been a polarizing figure, either respected and admired as the iron rampart behind the Jackson family or villified as an abuser. As someone who has heard all of the stories from both sides, it’s hard to know how to filter all of it to come to some sort of middle ground. As I have said often enough, based on my own experience, I witnessed many sides of Joe the one weekend that I spent in his presence. I knew the moment I was in his presence that he was every bit the intimidating figure his children described. I know he would have terrified a sensitive child-he terrified me! Over the years, I have gotten pretty seasoned about approaching celebrities. But I shook in my shoes when Joe Jackson stood in front of me, and it wasn’t anything he said or did. As Michael said, it was just the fact that he could give you a look and you knew instantly where you stood.
But the very next day, Joe was seated behind me when Jennifer Batten, Michael’s lead guitarist, was conducting a seminar. He asked her to play a song for him. “In all the years you played for my son, I never got to hear you.” She played a song for him, and when I next stole a glance at Joe, he was visibly fighting tears. Abruptly, in the middle of the song, he got up and walked out. I honestly believe that he was still old school enough to believe that a man should not cry in public.
I was further surprised that weekend when Joe actually gave the ok for me to interview him for this blog; however, I misheard the location where we were supposed to meet (the Star Cafe’, NOT the Starbucks!) and due to that stupid mistake, was forever robbed of the chance I might have had to sit one on one with the man, however briefly. This would have been interesting because it would have been more of an informal conversation over breakfast than a formal interview. I will always regret that mistake because I can tell a lot about a person within a few minutes of talking to them. On the other hand, when I look back on it, I always wondered why I didn’t pursue the opportunity more aggressively. Sure, I had screwed up-very unprofessionally-but it wasn’t as if I couldn’t have explained what happened and requested another opportunity. For some reason, I didn’t and looking back on it now, I am still not sure why. Perhaps it was because I really was feeling very nervous and scared about doing the interview (almost as if I was relieved when I didn’t see him waiting in Starbucks). I realized that somewhere between the very intimidating reputation and the sheer force of the man’s physical presence, I had turned from a confident writer and journalist to the state of a terrified six year old child! In short, maybe something in my subconscious will prevented me from pursuing it any further (i.e, did I simply chicken out?). It wouldn’t have been the first time. This was a man who could bring the biggest superstar in the world shaking to his knees. Many stories from those who worked closest with Michael attest that the sheer knowledge that Joe Jackson was on the premises would be enough to make the color drain from his face. “I don’t want to see him,” would be the usual response, leaving it for some unlucky employee to be the go-between. Those stories always bothered me, and still do. I felt sorry for the abused son who evidently had felt so traumatized that this kind of avoidance was the only way he knew how to cope with it. At the same time, though, I couldn’t help feeling sympathy for a father who simply wanted to see his son. (Michael, of course, would have said it was not that simple; that this was about Joe wanting something else from him, and that was probably true, also, at least most of the time).
The next day, a Sunday, I saw Joe again at the Jackson house in Gary. This time, it was more of a family reunion type of event, with the public invited, of course. The tough guard was down. Joe was just uncle, cousin, grandpa, great-grandpa, brother. He was cutting birthday cake with one of his nieces, smiling and laughing at some family joke. Joe really had a great smile that lit up his face, and his entire demeanor changed. I realized that in his older years, Joe’s face had settled into very harsh lines and the media loved to play that up, always posting only the most unflattering and sinister looking, scowling pics. They loved demonizing him just as they similarly loved playing up Michael as “the freak.” But among family, he could let his guard down and just be Grandpa Joe.
One thing I do know is that Joe always gave back to the city of Gary, Indiana. The man was a walking contradiction-intimidating, yes, but also a man who genuinely enjoyed being sociable among Michael’s fans. He was tough, but also had his moments of unexpected tenderness. People who knew Joe best say that he had mellowed with age, and I realize this would have been the version that I met. By then, he was only a shadow of the man who had once terrified his kids, and only a shadow of the force that had swept them from poverty to world fame. But the last vestiges of that gale force remained.
There is a lot that the world still doesn’t understand, or properly acknowledge, about Joe Jackson. The media tears him down without ever once considering the world of the Depression era South that shaped him. Michael himself came to recognize this, and spoke about it eloquently in his Oxford speech on forgiveness. Joe was a Black man growing up in the Jim Crow era South, which in itself tells us all we really need to know. But there was so much more. He was also the son who had to grow up too fast and learn to be the man of the family when his beautiful but emotionally unstable mother, Crystal Lee, abandoned the family. He developed his aspirations for a better life while taking care of his siblings and steering them through the Depression. He would go on to raise nine children in one of the toughest industrial cities in America, and later, as perhaps the very first African American “stage father,” he fought an uphill battle against a white dominated music industry that would never allot him the respect he deserved (Joe always knew this, and to a large extent, it shaped his character, the final indignity that firmly hardened whatever layers of vulnerability remained intact). No matter what we say about Joe Jackson, we have to acknowledge that he always fought as firmly for his family as he fought with and against them.
It is not my place to either defend or villify Joe. Only the Jackson children really know what they endured and what they feel for him. If Michael’s own words are taken into account, his were the conflicted feelings that are almost always the product of a complicated parent/child relationship. It is a tough thing to deal with because along with all of the hurt and anger there is guilt as well-the guilt of knowing this is your parent, whom the Bible teaches us to love and respect-and yet knowing this does not eradicate those feelings. It only adds to the confusion and pain. It is a feeling shared the world over by all of us who know what it is to love a parent and yet know that we simply can’t be in the same room with them for more than five minutes without feeling like we might burst a blood vessel. And then we hate ourselves even more for feeling that way, despite whatever the parent has done.
Michael Opened Up Candidly About His Feelings For His Father In His Spech at Oxford, 2001:
Michael and Joe did eventually come to a hard won “understanding” but it is doubtful those wounds ever healed completely. In his old age, Joe Jackson had learned the hard way that we are all products of the mistakes we have made, and for better or worse, we live with those consequences. But I think in his own way, he was at least trying. The moment when he took his son’s hand at the 2005 trial was a symbolic gesture to the world that “we are united and we stand together” but it also went much deeper than that. It was, finally, the simply show of affection that Michael had craved from his father his whole life. It would not be enough to permanently seal the damage, and indeed not even enough to bring about a permanent closure to their rift. But it was something-a gesture; however small.
There has also been one other memory that I have continued to go back to in the week since Joe passed. I remember that Joe was once asked which, of all Michael’s solo hits, was his favorite. The question automatically disqualified anything from The Jackson 5 or Jacksons era. It could only be something from Michael’s adult solo career. And I’ll never forget how Joe’s answer both shocked me and yet taught me that there was so much more to the man than I thought I ever knew. You see, I was thoroughly expecting that he would have said “Billie Jean” or “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” or something similar from the Quincy Jones era, in which Michael had stayed closest to his r&b/Motown roots. Instead, he said, “That song that he did about the animals” and I knew he meant “Earth Song.” I would never in a million years have thought of “Earth Song” as something that Joe would have even liked, let alone singling it out as his favorite. But I remembered that Michael had always said that his father loved animals, and that in fact his own love of animals had come from his father.
It reminded me of one of the many joys that this journey of discovering the man Michael Jackson has been all about. It is not always about the big things, but those moments of little discoveries that make you rethink everything you thought you knew about someone. Only in this case, it said more about the man he simply wanted to call “Dad” for all of his life. Anyone who loves animals can’t be all bad.
This week, in whatever form these things take, father and son have been reunited. It is not for us to speculate on what that means for either soul. I can only say that I hope Michael was there to greet him and guide him home. Death brings understanding to all things, and Michael no longer has to be that scared child cowering in fear, for he is awash in God’s love and grace.
I always dreaded the inevitable time when we would no longer have Michael’s parents with us. Katherine and Joe are both, in their own way, institutions. Between them, they created and nurtured a musical dynasty. Like stalwart war horses, they seemed destined to stick around forever. They have endured a lot and have shared many struggles. They represent the values of “The Silent Generation,” a generation shaped by the struggles of The Great Depression and the trauma of World War II, a generation that is rapidly thinning in number but from whom we can still learn much.
They shared the bittersweet triumphs of their children’s success and the shared pain of their darkest chapters. It sometimes seemed as if they were both going to go on forever, but even with the benefit of great genes (they both had parents that lived well into their nineties and early hundreds) and all the best medical care that money can buy, we knew it couldn’t be. Sooner or later, one of them would have to go. It is sad, though, to see the start of this chapter. It is one thing to see many of Michael’s friends (and frenemies!) passing, but the loss of Joe-and inevitably, Katherine too-signifies something else, a much deeper kind of loss. As his parents, they have signified that connection that we call the mortal coil. Now that coil has been broken. Katherine remains, but Joe’s passing is a sad reminder that her time with us, also, is limited and growing shorter by the day.
Although I never met Michael, I am grateful that I was blessed with the opportunity to spend time in the presence of both of his parents. In both cases, those occasions were made possible due to Joe and Katherine’s continued support of their home town and community. In both cases, it allowed me a glimpse-however briefly-of the man and woman behind the public facade.
I knew that everything Michael had ever told us about Joseph Walter Jackson was absolutely true. But as always, “truth” can contain many facets. Joe was not a perfect parent. Where he excelled at providing and driving his family to succeed, he failed at providing emotional support and stability. To Joe, being able to put bread on the table said, “I love you.” Only very late in life did he seem to finally “get” that bruises don’t heal just because the discoloration goes away, or that those he loved maybe needed to hear it once in awhile, too.
Hopefully it was not a lesson learned too late. The touching bedside vigil for Joe-which included Michael’s children-is a testament to the fact that love and forgiveness are indeed stronger familial bonds than hate, pain or holding grudges.
I know that words are easier written than put into practice. I know that just because someone died it does not automatically wipe the slate clean. But I think now is a good time to take a cue from the family and let them have their space to grieve and to assess for themselves what Joe meant to them (yes, Bette Midler, I am addressing you, too!).
The legacy of Joe Jackson will continue to be a complicated one, marred by the legacy of abuse, and will no doubt continue for many years to both cloud and divide the fan community, who will always uphold him on the one hand as the man who “made” Michael Jackson and by the same token, as at least one of those responsible for his emotional destruction. It is not surprising that even Michael’s own speeches about the man are peppered with these same conflicting emotions-love, admiration and respect on the one hand; guilt, fear, anger and hatred on the other. All of it comes through, loud and clear-all of it equally genuine, and equally valid.
How then, do we really determine the legacy of Joe Jackson? Is it possible to admire what he accomplished, while refusing to whitewash his actions? Even the movie An American Dream, so long considered a classic staple and often accepted as Biblical truth about the Jacksons’ upbringing, depicts a driven man whose determination for success often came at the expense of his children’s emotional well being. This was a tyrant who literally blew up, going into a fit of rage, if the kids missed a step or someone left a dirty towel by the pool. At one point, he traumatically forces a terrified Michael to board an airplane during a storm. But this was also the same father who was there, in a heartbeat, when Michael was severely burned on the set of the Pepsi commercial. Making a stand to a reporter, who asked him how he felt, Joe asked him if he had any kids. The reporter replied “no.” “That’s my son in there,” Joe said. “My son.”
This was not just a scripted moment from the film. It was emblematic of everything this complicated father/son relationship stood for. The love was there, but too often it was “tough love” and not the language of love that Michael understood. As a baby boomer, Michael was already of a different generation, the generation that gave us Ward Cleaver and the era of “let’s talk it out” parenting. But I think as Michael grew older, he came to realize that we don’t get to choose who our parents are. They come to us, given by God, faults and warts and all.
We can’t always love them as unconditionally as they may love us. But in time, most of us learn to accept what we cannot change about them and to forgive what can be forgiven.