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Remembering Michael Jackson

Big talent, bizarre persona

Jackson dazzled the world with his music and baffled it with his

July 12, 2009|Geoff Boucher and Elaine Woo

Michael Jackson was fascinated by celebrity tragedy. He had a statue of Marilyn Monroe in his home and studied the sad Hollywood exile of Charlie Chaplin. He married the daughter of Elvis Presley and told her that he expected to die just like her father, lost and alone behind mansion gates.

When Jackson did meet his own untimely death on June 25 at age 50, he left a legacy more complicated than any of those past icons. As a child star, he was so talented he seemed lit from within; as a middle-aged man, he was viewed as something akin to a visiting alien who, like Tinkerbell, would cease to exist if the applause ever stopped.

It was impossible in the early 1980s to imagine the surreal final chapters of Jackson's life. In that decade, he became the world's most popular entertainer thanks to a series of hit records -- "Beat It," "Billie Jean," "Thriller" -- and dazzling music videos. The best dancer of his generation, he created his own iconography: the single shiny glove, the moonwalk, the signature red jacket and the Neverland Ranch, a name plucked from "Peter Pan."

In recent years, he inspired fascination for reasons that had nothing to do with music. Years of plastic surgery had made his face a bizarre landscape, and he appeared frail. He was deeply in debt and had lost his way as a musician. He had not toured since 1997 or released new songs since 2001. Instead of music videos, the images of Jackson beamed around the globe were tabloid reports about his strange behavior, including allegations of child molestation, or the latest failed relaunch of his career.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 19, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Michael Jackson obituary: The obituary of singer Michael Jackson that appeared on June 26 and in the July 12 commemorative section said Jackson was the fifth of nine children. He was the seventh. The article also said his album "Thriller" won five Grammy Awards. It won eight.

A still slight but more robust Jackson had spent his last weeks in rehearsal for an ambitious comeback attempt and 50 already-sold-out shows at London's O2 Arena. A major motivation was the $300 million in debt run up by a star who lived like royalty even though his self-declared title of King of Pop was more about the past than the present.

"It's one of the greatest losses," said Tommy Mottola, former president of Sony Music, which released Jackson's music for 16 years. "In pop history, there's a triumvirate of pop icons: Sinatra, Elvis and Michael, that define the whole culture. . . . His music bridged races and ages and absolutely defined the video age. Nothing that came before him or that has come after him will ever be as big as he was."

The singer sensed the dangerous undertow of fame. Fourteen years ago, during Jackson's 20-month marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, he brought up the subject of her father's 1977 death. "He stared at me very intensely," the Graceland heir divulged after Jackson's death, "and he stated with an almost calm certainty, 'I am afraid that I am going to end up like him, the way he did.' "

Jackson, in a wry twist, achieved his comeback in death. Thousands of fans who bought the $80-$120 tickets to his London shows have opted to skip a refund in order to keep the ducats as collectibles. There has also has been a massive demand for Jackson's music; there were 2.5 million downloads of his songs in the week after his death, and stores sold out of his CDs.

Not everyone was singing along, however. In Washington, when the Congressional Black Caucus called for a moment of silence in the House, some lawmakers walked out. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) later shut down a resolution that would have honored the singer, citing "contrary views."

At Staples Center, Jackson was remembered July 7 with a memorial service that became a shared global moment, watched around the world via television and the Internet. The singer made his last stage appearance in a closed and gleaming gold casket. Among the many speakers was the Rev. Al Sharpton, who brought the crowd of 17,500 to its feet by drawing a direct cultural line between Jackson's incandescent 1980s pop success and the 2008 election of President Obama.

"Those young kids," Sharpton said of Jackson's massive crossover audience, "grew up from being teenage comfortable fans of Michael to being 40 years old and being comfortable to vote for a person of color to be the president of the United States of America."

Sharpton chided the media for looking at Jackson and fixating on "the mess" instead of "the message." For many people, though, the easiest way to approach Jackson's death was through his music.

Jackson "had it all. . . . talent, grace, professionalism and dedication," said Quincy Jones, Jackson's collaborator on his most important albums and the movie "The Wiz." "He was the consummate entertainer, and his contributions and legacy will be felt upon the world forever."

Jackson was born Aug. 29, 1958, in Gary, Ind. His mother, Katherine, would say that there was something special about the fifth of her nine children. "I don't believe in reincarnation," she said, "but you know how babies move uncoordinated? He never moved that way. When he danced, it was like he was an older person."

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