Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Never can say goodbye

There’s talk of a concert in his honor in L.A., a show with his new music and moves and everything but him. There’s also been some discussion of a memorial concert for him sometime in August, back at the Apollo in Harlem, N.Y., back where it all started. If they happen, they’ll be just two more attempts to hold on to him, to let that flame burn a little longer.

And there was no celebration for doing that quite like what happened today at the Staples Center in L.A. Los Angeles, the nation and the world said formal goodbyes to Michael Jackson in a memorial service that was maybe slightly less emotionally exhausting to witness on television as it must have been inside the arena in the City of Angels.

It may well have been the single most draining marathon television experience since the all-day anguish of September 11, 2001. And the fact that the rawness of emotion, the passion, the sorrow, the joy, the humanness of the moment was thoroughly communicated over the medium most of the country used to witness that moment speaks volumes about our peripatetic nation's ability to chill for a minute and gather around the galvanizing event — as we did on 9/11, as we did after Diana, as we did after Bobby, and after Martin and John.

◊ ◊ ◊

It started, oddly enough, the way many urban dramas do in America: with a long helicopter tracking shot of cars in motion on a freeway in southern California. This wasn’t O.J., of course, or even one of the knuckleheads we see from time to time, jacked up on bravado and some illicit substance, leading the Highway Patrol in a hopeless 70-mile-an-hour attempt at escape.

This was the motorcade that moved from the Jackson family compound in Encino to celebrated Forest Lawn Cemetery and from there to the Staples Center. Much of this morning, cable viewers were treated to what amounted to free advertising for the Rolls-Royce Phantom and the California interstate highway system.

There were plenty of opportunities to act out, or so L.A. officials feared in the days before the ceremony. Their early crowd guesstimates soared to well above 500,000 people anticipated as a turnout at or near Staples Center, a scenario that seemed to almost invite trouble.

But Los Angeles knew how to represent itself. This wasn’t the Lakers winning the championship. This was different, it was heavier and L.A. knew it. In a city known for the unpredictable, for things that aren’t in the script, the potential was there for something out of control. But L.A. rose to the occasion, with dignity and class. Rodney King’s long-ago question was answered; at least in the short-term, at least in the Staples Center and in the vicinity, we could all get along.

◊ ◊ ◊

Over the last twenty years it’s been so easy to demonize Michael Jackson. We all did it. We cruelly lampooned the champion of splendid isolation; the manchild with the frequently surgically altered face; the musical prodigy channeling Charles Foster Kane, Howard Hughes and the Phantom of the Opera.

Today’s service negated much of that — negated, in fact, a lot of the cult of celebrity that attended Jackson’s life from almost the very beginning. We had forty years of Michael the Phenomenon. What we got today, what we needed badly, was Michael the Human Being.

There was Rev. Al Sharpton remembering a young Michael from back in the early days. Magic Johnson sharing a memory of downing a bucket of Kentucky Fried with MJ. Brooke Shields recalling how she and Michael sneaked into Elizabeth Taylor’s room on a lark.

And there was the testimony of Paris Katherine Jackson, the 11-year-old daughter of the King of Pop, whose unplanned, utterly unscripted testimonial at the end of the service topped everything that came before.

"I just wanted to say ... ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine. And I just wanted to say I love him — so much," she said before all but breaking down. Just like the rest of us.

Nekesa Mumbi Moody of The Associated Press nailed it: “It was a deeply emotional moment, the most profound part of a memorial that accomplished what Jackson could not in life: humanizing a man who for so long had seemed like a caricature.”

And more than just humanizing Jackson: this painful cry of love and affirmation by his daughter is a powerful counter to the allegations of child molestation that dogged the latter half of the singer’s career.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s been hard for all of us, this letting-go thing. Strangers weep in the streets; grown men burst into tears in their living rooms at the sound of “Billie Jean.” And Usher, deep deep brother Usher, sang “Gone Too Soon” at the services and wept out loud. He knew. We all knew, whether we talked about MJ like a dog or not while he was alive. Something’s wrong. The world’s more off axis now than it was before.

So we needed what happened today. The memorial was bigger than what went down at the Staples Center itself, though that was important, and necessary.

But we needed to start up the electronic fireplace that is television, and gather to grieve and laugh, and to remember a man whose demons and prisons could not contain a foundationally humanist spirit that would not be extinguished; a man whose emotional, musical and physical gifts held our thrall like a train wreck, or the aurora borealis, or a meteor shower or the greatest show on earth — like an irresistible force of nature, and culture, and humanity.

Nobody wanted to let go of Michael today. And nobody will tomorrow. Whenever tomorrow is.
Image credit: Casket: AEG pool feed. Jackson motorcade: Unknown original source, via The Huffington Post.

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