Every Father’s Day, I try to take a look back at the dual roles Michael played, as both a son to a father, and as a father himself.
I have always had very mixed feelings about Joe Jackson. I’m sure a lot of that ambivalence comes through when I write about him. Michael once said he wished he could understand his father better. I think Joe Jackson remains a bit of an enigma to every Michael Jackson fan. We’ve heard so many stories, and so much conflicting and even contradictory information from the family, but what is the truth?
On the one hand, I have the utmost respect for Joe Jackson, a man who, by all accounts, was a hard worker and good provider, and who managed to take his children from a lower working class neighborhood to the heights of success. We have to credit Joe with instilling in Michael the work ethic that made him such an incredible performer. Yet, always in the back of my mind, there are the stories Michael told about this man-stories that I can’t help wondering are true, and if they are true, would certainly color any amount of respect I could feel for this man.
After all, what can you really say about a father who refused to allow his own children to even call him “Father”?
I met Joe Jackson briefly in 2010, when I was in Gary, Indiana for the Fanvention and Michael’s birthday weekend. I also observed him on a number of occasions throughout that weekend; occasions when we were in the same room even if I didn’t get to speak to him directly. What I observed personally was a man with a very commanding, intimidating presence. Standing in front of him, with those hard, gray/green eyes staring into you, one can really start to understand what it might have been like to be a small, frightened, sensitive child in this man’s presence. One thing you can pick up on very quickly is that this is NOT a man you want to be on the wrong side of. He can freeze you with a single glance, and make you feel as worthless as a gnat-if that’s what he chooses.
However, I also had an opportunity to witness him among the comfortable company of many family members and old time acquaintances. When he lets his guard down, Joe can be personable and engaging. He loves to laugh and joke around with the people he feels comfortable with. Like his son, he has a very contagious laugh-it is not Michael’s wild, shrieking giggle, but it has a kind of music and resonance all of its own, a rich belly laugh that you sense he doesn’t allow himself to give in to often. It struck me that a lot of Joe’s harsh demeanor is a kind of protective mechanism, against the media and people he doesn’t trust. As a poor black man growing up in the South during the Great Depression, and later as a black father fighting to ensure his children’s success in a very difficult industry to break into, Joe had to learn to be tough.
“If you don’t look mean, white people will walk all over you,” goes one of my favorite movie lines, spoken not by an African-American, but by a Native American character. However, there is irony in that line, as less than two minutes later, the character’s “warrior look” completely fails him when two cowboys on the bus nevertheless refuse to give up their seats. But I think this was the philosophy that was ingrained in Joseph from a very young age.
When Joe spoke to Jennifer Batten at the event, he told her that everything Michael knew, he had learned from him. Many people applauded the speech-“Tell it, Joe; tell it!” However, a few thought this was another example of Joe being his usual, arrogant self (“Yep, there he goes again, trying to take credit for everything Michael accomplished!”). Well, let me set that record straight. Joe wasn’t trying to take all of Michael’s credit. He was simply saying that Michael’s intense work ethic and perfectionism-that drive to always be the best-was a value that he, Joe Jackson, had instilled in him. And that value was at the core of everything Michael achieved professionally in his life.
This was the first time Joe and Jennifer Batten had met each other face to face, and I understood what Joe was telling her. He was saying, “If my boy drove you hard, look to me cause I was the reason he drove you all so hard. He instilled in you all what I instilled in him.”
That all seems very admirable until you hear Michael’s words painting a very different picture of what that “being driven” was like. Michael often described himself, both in private and public conversation, as a child who never felt anything he did was good enough to please his father. All of his performances were driven by a desire to make his father proud, but it never seemed enough.
In this concert in Munich, when a technical malfunction caused the bridge that was part of the stage prop for Earth Song to collapse and slammed Michael 60 feet to the ground, he stunned everyone by pulling himself back onstage and finishing the performance, despite being in excruciating pain for the rest of the performance. Later, people asked how on earth he was able to pull such a feat? He said all he could hear in the back of his mind was his father’s voice, telling him he couldn’t let the audience down.
But where in all of this did the child-the human being-ever come first? When did his needs come before the audience, or giving them the best show he possibly could?
When Joe asked Jennifer to play a song for him, she humorously played him a song she had written, she said, “just for” him-a little song called Ass Whoopin’. Joe was sitting very close to me, so as Jennifer played the song, I could occasionally glance to catch the expressions on his face. He listened intently, without twitching a muscle. His gaze never left her. For all purposes, there were only two (well, maybe three) people in that room-himself, Jennifer, and the ghost of Michael, the son he never allowed to call him “Father”; the son who always felt he was never good enough; never loved enough.
Tears welled in Joe’s eyes, and the deep lines of his face creased even deeper with the intensity of an emotion that he could feel, but could not quite allow to just let go. Joe Jackson would never be a man to allow himself to cry in a room full of strange people. But as soon as the song was finished, he rose abruptly, thanked her, and quickly left the room, his attendees making sure he was able to exit swiftly without being further questioned or hounded by the curious fans.
That one instance revealed to me a lot about the nature of his relationship with his son. Joe is a tough old man, and not very articulate. He’s not someone who can ever just say “I love you,” let alone “I’m sorry.” I think it is possible that he lives with a lot of unspoken regret; maybe if he had it to do over, he would have done a lot of things differently. Maybe he regrets all those times he never just said, “Son, I love you.” Maybe he regrets all the hugs he never gave.
Maybe. But we can’t really know what goes through an 80-year-old man’s mind when he’s thinking about the son he buried too soon. All I can say is that on that day, I saw Joe Jackson cry.
We also know that, for better or worse, it was Michael’s relationship with his father that shaped the father Michael became to his own children. Even if it was mostly learning what not to do by example. That Michael was an exemplary father to his own kids is a fact that is well documented. He went above and beyond to ensure that his own kids would never lack for the emotional bond he had lacked with Joseph. He taught his kids to call him “Daddy.” He never raised a hand in anger, but rather, instilled in them the discipline that comes from a place of respect, rather than fear. He was never afraid to tell them “I love you”-and, by all accounts, to look them directly in the eye when he said it.
Most of all, he was determined that his own kids would never have to question his love. But I think it was also more than that.
It was his own insurance that he would never be an old man filled with sorrow and regret for all the things he didn’t say to his children.
“But now I am a father myself, and one day I was thinking about my own children, Prince and Paris and how I wanted them to think of me when they grow up. To be sure, I would like them to remember how I always wanted them with me wherever I went, how I always tried to put them before everything else. But there are also challenges in their lives. Because my kids are stalked by paparazzi, they can’t always go to a park or a movie with me.
So what if they grow older and resent me, and how my choices impacted their youth? Why weren’t we given an average childhood like all the other kids, they might ask? And at that moment I pray that my children will give me the benefit of the doubt. That they will say to themselves: “Our daddy did the best he could, given the unique circumstances that he faced. He may not have been perfect, but he was a warm and decent man, who tried to give us all the love in the world.”
I hope that they will always focus on the positive things, on the sacrifices I willingly made for them, and not criticise the things they had to give up, or the errors I’ve made, and will certainly continue to make, in raising them. For we have all been someone’s child, and we know that despite the very best of plans and efforts, mistakes will always occur. That’s just being human.
And when I think about this, of how I hope that my children will not judge me unkindly, and will forgive my shortcomings, I am forced to think of my own father and despite my earlier denials, I am forced to admit that me must have loved me. He did love me, and I know that.
There were little things that showed it. When I was a kid I had a real sweet tooth – we all did. My favourite food was glazed doughnuts and my father knew that. So every few weeks I would come downstairs in the morning and there on the kitchen counter was a bag of glazed doughnuts – no note, no explanation – just the doughnuts. It was like Santa Claus.
Sometimes I would think about staying up late at night, so I could see him leave them there, but just like with Santa Claus, I didn’t want to ruin the magic for fear that he would never do it again. My father had to leave them secretly at night, so as no one might catch him with his guard down. He was scared of human emotion, he didn’t understand it or know how to deal with it. But he did know doughnuts.
And when I allow the floodgates to open up, there are other memories that come rushing back, memories of other tiny gestures, however imperfect, that showed that he did what he could. So tonight, rather than focusing on what my father didn’t do, I want to focus on all the things he did do and on his own personal challenges. I want to stop judging him.”-Michael Jackson, Oxford Speech, 2001
As another Father’s Day rolls around, three children are without a father, and a father is without a son to say “I love you.” Both are equally tragic, but at least Michael’s three children are secure in the knowledge and memory of their father’s love.
The greatest tragedy of Michael’s life was that he never had that assurance. The tragic relationship of Michael and Joseph should be a reminder to us all that life is too short to allow things to go unsaid.
“..Now, tell the person … tell the person next to you that you care for them. Tell them that you care for them. Tell them that you love them. Tell them that you love them. This is what makes the difference.”-Michael Jackson, Speech at Exeter Football Stadium, 2002