I did not know him. One could argue that no one really did, even his own family. But there are two ways in which I could begin to understand Michael Jackson, if I were to put my mind to it. Like me, Jackson was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, and like me he rejected that faith when he realized that there was a deeper well of art and imagination that the Witnesses wouldn’t ever allow him to touch.
And like me, he loved Disneyland. In fact, I was there on the day he moved in.
Even then, my friends and I had no difficulties in making Michael Jackson the butt of jokes — crude stories that placed him in sexual congress with everything from Emmanuel Lewis to Bubbles The Chimp. Even then, we knew that Jackson’s world had gone sideways, and that there were things about him that we probably didn’t want to know. But none of that prevented us from showing up at Disneyland late on the night of September 20, 1986, hitting up the Main Street Candy Palace for a bag of sour balls (“because long lines mean sour balls,” said one of my friends), and getting into the ninety-minute queue for Captain EO.
We cracked wise about Michael Jackson as the line rolled up Main Street, past the building that would become Star Tours (“Get ready for the ULTIMATE THRILL EXPERIENCE!”) and into the Magic Eye Theater, recently converted from the Space Mountain Stage. We talked shit about Michael Jackson even as we put on our 3-D glasses and the Magic Eye Theater darkened to an enveloping canvas of stars. We snickered nervously as Jackson entered the film and issued an unconvincing ultimatum (“We’re goin’ in”).
And then, suddenly, Michael Jackson was dancing and singing, and every one of us was struck dumb. I was amazed, even giddy, as I watched the consummate performer do what he was put on this planet to do. He jackknifed his body in ways that made it seem like his voice and movements were coming through him, not from him. In a film packed with $16 million worth of special effects, he was the only one that was absolutely convincing. We were scarcely out of the theater for thirty seconds before we decided to get in line again.
In the wake of Michael Jackson’s death, I find that I’m several distinct states of mind on the entertainer. There are those who mourn the last mega-star the music industry is likely to produce, and I understand that. There are those who say good riddance to bad rubbish, who say that we shouldn’t mourn the loss of a man who mutilated his face out of self-loathing and conducted personal relationships whose intensity became a matter for the courts, and I understand those folks, as well. I sympathize with those who pitied him, those who worshipped him and even those who didn’t get a flying fuck about him. Michael Jackson tried to be all things to all people, and his passing is the passing of an idea.
Today, though, I’m thinking of the overgrown kid who was raised in a prohibitive religion, dreamed of flying in a spaceship and battling aliens, and achieved a dream a bunch of us had as children: He wanted to live at Disneyland. For ten years, he did just that. And though I’m just likely to cringe at the thought of what he became as I am to marvel at the thought of what he once was, I’m glad he had me to his housewarming party.