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STYLE & CULTURE | AL MARTINEZ

This Michael Jackson is the one twisting in the wind

November 25, 2002|AL MARTINEZ

Michael Jackson is in the news. Both of them. The one with a pointed nose who dangles babies from windows, and the other who brings a clear, articulate voice of reason to L.A. Guess which one gathers screaming teenies and which one attracts adults concerned with their world?

If you said the Jackson who dangled the baby is the king of weird, I mean pop, you're right. The other Jackson offers intelligence to a fad-weary, hip-soaked city, which is too bad for him, because he's being canned. KLAC-AM (570), where he's been a talk-show host for 14 months, is changing to a music format, and this Jackson doesn't sing.

Taking the two men in order of least importance, the one who has been undergoing cosmetic surgery for years to look like his sister has been in the news lately because he's being sued for $21.2 million for allegedly ducking out on two concerts. Called to testify, the Moonwalker floated into court wearing dark glasses, a face mask and, after removing the mask, his vague and distant trademark smile.

A few days later, we saw him on television dangling his baby son from a fourth-floor window in Berlin, where he had gone to receive an award. Why did he dangle the baby? Why did he have his nose shaved to a point? One can only guess. Maybe the effects of too many years walking in reverse.

Now, for the other Jackson. The real Jackson. The one who dangles truths, not babies, and challenges us to think and wonder and debate. Everyone I know listens to him, but our numbers apparently don't count. He's out again. And it's not the first time.

After three decades at KABC, Jackson spent several years bouncing around L.A. radio stations noted for changing formats as quickly as a diva changes lovers. He was off the air for six months in '98 until KRLA hired him. In the two years he was there, IQs began to crawl slowly upward within range of his voice. Then the station tossed him aside until KLAC, abandoning a "pop-nostalgia format," brought him back. Now it's dumping him to return to what is essentially the nostalgia format it had in the first place. Go figure.

We live in an age that celebrates fools and discards thinkers. Rush Limbaugh makes millions because he represents a single, clouded point of view. He doubts not for a moment that his opinion is the right one, allowing no challenges to divert him from his single-mindedness. Jackson, although essentially liberal, allows for hesitations in thought, for reasonable debate, for questions without answers. He treats adversaries with respect, regardless of their political cant. "The world is made up of more than liberals or conservatives," he says. "So much more."

His programs over the years have been varied and expansive. His guests have included everyone from Prince Philip to Joe DiMaggio, from Mickey Cohen to Henry Kissinger, and every president since Richard Nixon. No issue, large or small, has escaped Jackson's focus. He devours books, newspapers and magazines like a kid eating candy, never interviewing without background. War, disease, terrorism, comedy, politics, religion, sex, traffic, crime, the weather, the world. Jackson has deconstructed the issues of our time with the precision of a surgeon and has been acknowledged for it over and over again. Emmys, Golden Mike awards and honors from here and abroad fill his walls and shelves.

If a reason he's being silenced is due to the transitory popularity of lock-minded conservatives, the stations are forgetting their market. This is California, a state led by liberals, and this is L.A., a city that doesn't concern the syndicated right-wingers. Jackson cares deeply, and he shows it every day he's on the air.

Bruised but unbowed, he remains amazingly unbitter after being pushed aside again in favor of the format of the moment, although he has no idea where he'll go next. "I've had such a lovely time in this business," he says, then adds with a sense of optimism that has always landed him on his feet, "And the best years are ahead."

So we have two Jacksons in the news, one the voice of moderation, the other the king of strange. I suspect that the Moonwalker will ultimately vanish into a Robert Ripley collection of oddities. The real Michael Jackson, the radio guy who searches for answers, will, I'm afraid, face hard times. This isn't an age of reason. It's an age of noise and threats and posturing, of violent computer games and flatulence jokes and babies being dangled from windows. One can only hope that though he may be swimming against the current, Jackson will find a new home, and that the voice of civility will return once more to teach and to enlighten.

*

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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