Michael Jackson’s Lonesome Highway Remembering the King of Pop on the fifth anniversary of his death

The final years of Michael Jackson might seem to some as a sort re-imagining of Sunset Boulevard (the tale of how second acts fail spectacularly in America): a brilliant performer becomes a has-been, doesn’t know it or doesn’t want to know that he knows it, tries for the great comeback that ultimately kills him, a comeback he may have never really believed in it, his greatest performance being the tragedy of his death, sufficiently untimely to constitute a cultural heartbreak of mass proportions.

RememberTheTimeIt is one thing that happens to Jackson that is not a pseudo-event. And such an American, pop-culture death it is at that, an overdose of sleeping medication, a bit like Marilyn Monroe, the fading sex goddess. Jackson might have liked how his death echoed hers, in its way. A bit less sordid and despairing than Elvis Presley, sitting in a bathroom sticking needles in himself like some cheap, street-corner junkie, reminisced of a dead-drunk, homeless Tom Conway on skid row. A bit less gruesome and violent than Jayne Mansfield’s decapitation in a car accident. A bit less blowsy and pulp-fiction-like than a broken-down, vocally dead Whitney Houston drowning in a bathtub.

How awful it is to be over the hill, past your prime, a tabloid version of your own unreality, falling crazily into a vat of your own corruptibility, seeing the infallibility of your myth unravel even as so many are trying so hard to preserve it, if only for the sake of the benjamins. And if there was any faith Jackson and those like him engendered it was the belief in dollars, stemming from our misguided illusion that having a lot of them is better than not having enough of them, an illusion that keeps so many of us, to borrow a phrase from Joseph Conrad, from being able to “live decently” and “die easy.”

June 25, 2014, marks the fifth anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson. It is hard to believe that he has been dead for that long. I sometimes find it hard to believe he is actually dead at all. There was something about him, for those, like myself, who grew up with him, knowing his music from his childhood days of the Jackson Five to the hysteria generated by the modern musical and visual masterpiece Thriller, something that seemed so vital, so eternal, and so troubling that it was inconceivable he should die. His mortality was linked in such imaginative and uncomfortable ways with my own that I was truly shaken by his death, not as a fan, but as a believer in his permanence as a flawed, but fixed, monument of my generation. His physical transformation became for many, contrarily, a sign of his shallowness, his racial self-hatred, and his ebullient liberation from race through self-re-invention, through fashioning himself as a bridge, a pass-through. Because he had so surgically altered his face over the years, I found it hard at times to think of him as getting older, an impression I am sure he wanted to convey, of Peter Pan-like youth. Aging, in some respects, undid him. He was forced by concert promoter Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) to perform 50 comeback concerts in the summer of 2009 instead of ten, something he was physically unable and psychically unwilling to do. Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, two of Jackson’s former bodyguards and co-authors of Remember the Time, not that The King of Pop couldn’t go 15 minutes on a treadmill without becoming completely fatigued. (Jackson was 50 years old when he died, older than Elvis at the time of the Memphis crooner’s death in 1977.)

“People want me to dance from beginning to end. That’s a lot of wear on my body. My body can’t take that anymore,” Jackson said. But he had no choice. He was in too deep financially to AEG. His finances, on the whole, were monstrously labyrinthine and infested with greedy, obsequious, manipulative opportunists. It had become too precarious for him to continue living the extravagant lifestyle he enjoyed without doing the concerts. (Amazingly, despite the fact that Jackson was no longer “current,” all 50 concerts sold out in less than 24 hours after tickets became available.) The pressure of preparing for this marathon of performance exacerbated his unrelenting insomnia that led to the overdose on propofol, an anesthetic administered by Jackson’s doctor, who was eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison.

It is hard to believe that he has been dead for that long. I sometimes find it hard to believe he is actually dead at all. There was something about him, for those, like myself, who grew up with him, knowing his music from his childhood days of the Jackson Five to the hysteria generated by the modern musical and visual masterpiece Thriller, something that seemed so vital, so eternal, and so troubling that it was inconceivable he should die.

Of course, the accusations of child abuse troubled the waters of that bit of image-building to the point where the public could not decide whether he was a Peter Pan sort of man-child, deluding himself with his own fantasy of innocence, or some sinister J. M. Barrie-type, vamping young boys because he was rich enough and famous enough to want whatever he wanted, and get it. (Why did he call his sprawling mansion, Neverland? What grown man would name his home that? He would have been better off naming it after Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, if the point was to show how juvenile he was.) On June 13, 2005, Jackson was acquitted of criminal charges of endangering the welfare of a minor. That is, of having sex with a boy in his home. The prosecutor never came close to proving his case. The stigma stuck nonetheless. Jackson had paid a reported $22 million in 1994 to settle a lawsuit against him by Evan Chandler, who accused him of molesting his 13-year-old son Jordan. That convinced many that Jackson must have been guilty; otherwise, he would not have paid off the family. From then on, Jackson found it increasingly difficult to be the soft-spoken, charming boy, our Little Lord Fauntleroy, so to speak, with substantial portions of the public believing him to be a pervert, a sexual deviant, a seducer of little boys. Or, at the very least, an irresponsible weirdo. Eccentricity is fine but pathology is, well, pathology. The public must draw the line where it must, and where it can. So Jackson played as well as he could the Victorian/Edwardian child in Disneyland as his compensation, his reparations for a lost childhood. But Whitfield tells us in Remember the Time how, as Jackson’s bodyguard, he was perceptive to the limitations, the sham, the pretense of the act:

Whenever I hear that whole thing about how Michael Jackson missed out on his childhood or how he never got to be a kid, I hear it different than most people. He wants to play with toys and ride roller coasters and have sleepovers and this and that. Okay, that’s some of what he missed out on. That’s part of what childhood is, but it’s also a lot more than that. ‘Clean your room.’ That’s childhood. ‘Take out the garbage.’ “Apologize to your sister.’ That’s childhood. It’s not just about playing games and having fun. Childhood isn’t just about being a child. It’s about becoming an adult. Because eventually you will be an adult, whether you want to or not.

The irony for Jackson was that since he had no childhood as a child, he could only imagine what childhood was from the untrustworthy and sentimental perspective of an adult, further clouded by the marketing fantasies of a popular culture which makes children nothing more than compulsive and impulsive consumers. And how would Jackson’s behavior be characterized? Compulsive and impulsive consumption, flavored with sentimentalism and the moody angst of adolescence.

Remember the Time, told by bodyguards Whitfield and Beard in alternating voices with Tanner Colby, has been receiving good notices. Surprisingly, it is one of the better books about the singer. It’s certainly sympathetic to Jackson, although it is also realistic in its assessment of Jackson’s character and circumstances. Both men believe strongly that Jackson never molested any children. They were also convinced he was a good, caring father. They thought him to be surrounded by people who took advantage of him, and that his employees seemed to rule him, rather than the other way around. He signed anything for his lawyers, and kept no tabs on his dwindling fortune.

This assessment I found thoroughly predictable and slightly defective, even if true in its way, as Jackson seemed to exhibit, in this book, a sort of imperial passive-aggressive attitude toward many of the people around him, trying to manipulate them as much as they wanted to manipulate him. In the end, Jackson managed to get rid of people he did not want to have around even if he never openly fired them or avoided confrontation. (Jackson hired pettifoggers, drama queens, and power-mad taskmasters so he would not have to stoop to such tactics himself.)

What Whitfield and Beard fail to see is that the chaos of Jackson’s various circles of “vultures,” as Jackson melodramatically but correctly called them, was simply the intrigue of his court; for what Jackson ran, haphazardly or lazily at times but with more pleasurable cunning than the authors give him credit for, was a monarchical court. Nothing gives a king greater pleasure and a greater sense of martyrdom, of noble, patrician suffering, than enduring sycophants seeking his attention, his approval, and his money with the appalling appetite of beggars, the pestilential persistence of insects, and the ghastly greed of thieves. This “Great Game,” as it were, was all about the recognition of the king’s power and charisma. I suspect that Jackson rather loved his misery, his emblem of superiority, loved being the poor little rich boy, who just longed to be a “normal” person playing publicly with his children and hoisting brewskis with dear friends in the local pub. Alas, fame, that demanding bitch-goddess, made such a life impossible. He was always slipping through back doors, riding service elevators, wearing outlandish disguises, and throwing hissy fits at photographers and mounted cameras in an attempt to have privacy for himself and his children that the world simply would not give him. But what would Jackson be without the burden of his fame? It was not that Jackson lacked reality, but that his reality was entirely premised on his being recognized, on the inevitability of his being recognized, on an entire cast of lawyers, accountants, managers, bodyguards, hangers-on depending on the fact that he was seemingly imprisoned by the imprimatur of constant recognition. (Why else would he so re-design his face except to make it more memorable?) Jackson crafted the image of the aggrieved artistic isolato so adroitly that that is precisely what Remember the Time gives us: Michael Jackson as a somewhat bizarre and moving version of Richie Rich, the children’s comic book character, who, in this altered version, is both generous to a fault and maddeningly self-centered. No reader doubts the accuracy of this, yet no reader can doubt that it is all something of a romantic performance on Jackson’s part. It seems both true and contrived.

There are revelations here: O. J. Simpson stayed at Neverland with Jackson after he was acquitted of murdering his wife in 1995; Jackson carried two Oscars awarded to the film Gone With the Wind and a suitcase filled several hundred thousand dollars whenever he traveled; Jesse Jackson had to pay for Jackson to attend the minister’s birthday party because the singer could not afford to go; Jackson did not know that his sister, Janet, starred in a Tyler Perry movie; whenever Jackson gave his bodyguards money to run errands for him, he expected his change; Jackson had a couple of secret girlfriends with whom he made out in the back of his luxury SUV; Jackson listened only to classical music while being driven in his SUVs, any classical music; despite being a musician and having a deep interest in his children’s schooling, the education of his children did not seem to consist of learning music in any way. There is no mention in the book of lessons on musical instruments, music appreciation, music theory, or anything of the sort. And there is much in the book about their education.

Essentially, Remember the Time is an on-the-road narrative of lonesomeness and escape: It tells the story of how two bodyguards became close to The King of Pop after he returned from Bahrain and Ireland in 2006 and needed to hire security people who were not connected to the Nation of Islam, a source of unfavorable publicity for him. (The vaunted Fruit of Islam has long had a fearsome reputation as the paramilitary arm of the Nation; providing security for black celebrities and luminaries has become a lucrative endeavor for them. By the end of the book, the Nation of Islam returns as Jackson’s security force.) Bodyguards Whitfield and Beard become close to Jackson, in part, because Jackson, at this time, had so few people around him as he moved from place to place with his children, including Las Vegas, Virginia, New York and New Jersey. His finances crumbling, he tries to make some recordings, but without much success or even much interest in them. He is unable or unwilling to return to the stage as a performer. He wanders around, like a vagabond, spending money profligately and childishly, neglecting his bills, dodging his creditors, and playing indulgent dad to his three kids. Whitfield and Beard are with Jackson and his children all day, every day, for many months, neglecting their own families, running errands, serving as companions, and providing security. Jackson stops paying them; he even stops giving them their per diem for food. He blames this on his manager who seems to ignore her boss’s wishes about paying them. As Whitfield and Beard note, Jackson carried enough personal cash around to easily have paid them, if he wanted, but he never made such a gesture. They were hurt by this, but not enough to quit. The bodyguards stay despite not being paid, reasoning that they have a better chance of getting by staying close to Jackson, rather than joining the long list of disgruntled ex-employees and creditors suing him. They also like Jackson and his children, and probably feel some sense of importance because Jackson, an extraordinarily famous man, has become so dependent on them.  The first two-thirds of the book are very good. The last third less so as the bodyguards have clearly been supplanted and exiled to the outer fringes of the court. Although they still work for Jackson, they are not really around very much. They were not present when he died.

I hope on this June 25th everyone might take a moment to listen to some of Jackson’s music and watch a few of his music videos. He was a pioneer—taking us from the soul music of the 1960s to the hip hop of the 1990s– and in some ways the last of his type in the age before digital music, a bona fide pop music star. What may have frustrated him at the last was not the weighty stress of his outsized fame, but the feeling that he did not become nearly as big and dominant as he should have, had he been luckier, and had he been slicker.