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.
Jackson met his own untimely death Thursday at age 50, and more than any of those past icons, he left a complicated legacy. 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. Perhaps 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.
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. 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 world were tabloid reports about his strange personal behavior, including allegations of child molestation, or the latest failed relaunch of his career.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 02, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Jackson chronology: A timeline of Michael Jackson's life and career in Friday's Section A said that on Nov. 6, 1971, the Jackson 5 released its first solo album, "Got to Be There." That was the first solo album by Michael Jackson. An article on June 14, 2005, included the same error.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 16, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Michael Jackson obituary: The obituary of singer Michael Jackson that appeared in the June 26 Section A and in Sunday's commemorative section said Jackson was the fifth of nine children. He was the seventh. The article also said the album "Thriller" won five Grammy Awards. It won eight.
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 frail-looking 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."
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. I've lost my little brother today, and part of my soul has gone with him."
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."
Katherine Jackson, who worked for Sears, Roebuck and Co., taught her children folk songs. Her husband, Joseph, a crane operator who once played with the R&B band the Falcons, played guitar and coached his sons. The boys were soon performing at local benefits. Michael took command of the group even as a chubby-cheeked kindergartner.
"He was so energetic that at 5 years old he was like a leader," brother Jackie once told Rolling Stone magazine. "We saw that. So we said, 'Hey, Michael, you be the lead guy.' The audience ate it up."
By 1968, the Jacksons had cut singles for a local Indiana label called Steeltown. At an engagement that year at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater, singer Gladys Knight and pianist Billy Taylor saw their act and recommended them to Motown founder Berry Gordy. So did Diana Ross after sharing a stage with the quintet at a "Soul Weekend" in Gary.
Ross said later that she saw herself in the talented and driven Michael. "He could be my son," she said. Another Motown legend, Smokey Robinson, would describe the young performer as "a strange and lovely child, an old soul in the body of a boy."
Motown moved the Jacksons to California, and in August 1968 they gave a breakthrough performance at a Beverly Hills club called The Daisy. Their first album, "Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5," was released in December 1969, and it yielded the No. 1 hit "I Want You Back," with 11-year-old Michael on the lead vocals. "ABC," "I'll Be There" and other hits followed, and the group soon had their own television series, a Saturday morning cartoon and an array of licensed merchandise aimed at youngsters.
There was a price: childhood.
"I never had the chance to do the fun things kids do," Jackson once explained. "There was no Christmas, no holiday celebrating. So now you try to compensate for some of that loss."
Joseph Jackson ruled the family, by most accounts, with his fists and a bellowing rage. In a 2003 documentary by British journalist Martin Bashir, Jackson said his father often brandished a belt during rehearsals and hit his sons or shoved them into walls if they made a misstep.
"We were terrified of him," Jackson said.