So, where was I when I heard, then? On the 11.40 train home from a night in a Soho pub, checking my phone for amusement, reading a few Twitter messages about hospital (“blah blah blah”), about cardiac arrest (“oh…”) and then finally, the passing of Michael Jackson.
Weirdly, I’d seen an old colleague from my past job as an entertainment news journalist earlier that evening – turns out I left three months short of the biggest story in the genre since John Lennon’s murder in 1980.
The striking thing I notice is the lack of shock – I remember during his child abuse trial being prepared just in case he didn’t make it through; and he’d been in terrible health for years. Eight years ago I stood outside the Oxford Union in the rain waiting for him to address the students there – a slight figure, bathed in lights, moving slowly through the courtyard. Even then, it was barely possible to associate this almost other-worldly figure with the consummate performer I remembered from growing up. Earlier this year, up at the Dome, things seemed no different; but I remember – watching on a TV screen this time – how he seemed to spring to life when he danced a little for his fans.
But this is a tragedy felt across the generations – while he was the same age as Prince and Madonna, his emergence as a child star guaranteed him a wider appeal. And while celebrity deaths are often a chance to sit back and remember great talent and fond memories, in Michael Jackson’s case it was never going to be so simple.
It was no way and no age for a man to go – for news of his death to be broken by the horrifyingly unprincipled (even by UK red-top standards) TMZ.com just seemed to show how far he’d fallen. Once the mesmerising frontman of a slick, lean marketing and production machine – one gloriously, and rightly upstaged by Jarvis Cocker in 1996 – he’d been reduced to hiding out in the Middle East, chopping and changing managers and representatives, and finally reduced to an uncertain appearance at the Dome, the “secrets” leaking out of his team like a sieve, where his convoy even managed to get stuck in a traffic jam on the way there. A long way from the man who once floated a statue of himself down the Thames. Sure, Jackson needed the money, but nobody really expected the “will he, won’t he” game to end like this, did they? Perhaps that might end up in a court room. The aftermath of his death could be even more undignified than his messy passing.
There’s going to be a lot of cobblers spoken today – I’m keeping the tennis on here, for fear of seeing Uri Geller on my TV – and in the coming weeks. But that said, there is an element of truth in the “it’s a bit like Diana” cliche – like the late princess, many of Jackson’s fans were troubled souls who found something to identify with in their haunted hero. The passion and enthusiasm of his fans always struck me as something special.
Yes, some of them were plainly bonkers. But that was never a crime. You know a way to win them over? Don’t ever call him Jacko. They saw a hurt human being where we just saw a soap opera. They were right.
Did he get a little bit too close to his legion of young friends? It doesn’t seem to have done their parents any harm. It definitely won’t do them any harm now he’s gone, and the market for “Jesus juice” stories will shortly show an upturn. He was found not guilty in a court of law, and that is the judgement we should abide by. Sadly, though the villain of the piece is still with us – Joe Jackson, the father that whipped, beat and bullied his children. He lives to enjoy the riches of Michael Jackson’s talents. It doesn’t seem that Michael Jackson himself ever enjoyed his riches. Hopefully, he is at peace now.