Jackson Dive

Jackson Dive

The whole world seems to be talking about Michael Jackson, so I might as well add my lonely little voice to the chorus. . . although what I bring to the table is mostly bewilderment.  .  . and not just about the sad circumstances surrounding his untimely death, which was somehow a shock and yet not at all surprising.

I am one of the few people on the planet who has always been bewildered by the success which Jackson achieved at the height of his fame.  Of course, no one has ever accused Greg Berg of having his finger firmly fixed on the pulse of American pop music, so this should come as no surprise – but truly, the delirium which Jackson inspired is as incomprehensible to me as the devotion of Maria Callas fans is to your average aficionado of rap.  But come to think of it,  Jackson and Callas had more than a little bit in common with each other.   Both were greatly gifted – both pretty much missed out on normal childhoods – both shot to the top of their respective fields – both managed to crash on the rocks professionally, overtaken by personal missteps of one kind or another – and both died too young:  Jackson at the age of 50, Callas at the age of 53.

I’m struck by one more parallel – that when Callas died in 1977, her fans reacted as though death had tragically silenced her voice and artistry and deprived them of all that she had yet to give- when in fact she had already been silenced by a combination of poor choices and insensitive handling by those around her.   And Jackson?  From what I can tell he has not sung in front of an audience in thirteen years – silenced by a similar combination of spectacularly poor choices and handling/enabling by his inner circle that has probably bordered on the criminally negligent.   True,  he was working hard on a comeback but given his extreme fragility (physical and mental) it’s hard to imagine how he would have managed such a feat.  No, Jackson has been pretty much artistically mute for quite some time now, and whatever you think of him as a singer and composer,  death didn’t draw down the curtain- As far as I can tell, that curtain was already lowered in deference to all kinds of other matters  – almost none of which had anything whatsoever to do with music.

Neither Maria Callas nor Michael Jackson would win any awards for Stability or Sanity – but surely a lot of what made them such flawed and controversial human beings can be traced back to childhoods that were far from ideal.  And for an account of Jackson in this regard,  I turn to one of his friends during the height of his fame –  the legendary actress Katharine Hepburn.  In his fascinating memoir titled About Kate,  author A. Scott Berg  (no relation, as far as I know) quotes Hepburn as saying this:


[Michael Jackson] fascinated me,” she said. “He’s an absolutely extraordinary creature.  He’s worked his entire life, entertaining professionally since he was three, and he’s never lived a single moment, I mean not a moment, in the real world. He doesn’t know how to do anything but write his songs and thrill an audience.  He’s this strange artistic creature, living in a bubble, barely touched by anything in the outside world.” Kate had been quite stern with Micheal one morning in New Hampshire [he was there to visit the set of “On Golden Pond”] when she discovered that he had not made his bed, then was stupefied to learn that he didn’t know how. “He had never made a bed in his life!” she exclaimed.  “He’s E.T.!”

An astute judge of people was Katharine Hepburn, and in these few words I think she really hit the nail on the head.  It is so easy to call Michael Jackson a freak – a loon – a nut job – pick your adjective.  (I’ve used all of those and more.)  But to be perfectly fair,  he does not deserve all or even most of the blame for the downward spiral which ultimately claimed him.

pictured above:  the front page of today’s USA Today.  By the way,  I may not have found much to enjoy in Jackson’s most famous work (I can scarcely make out a single word of “Beat It” or “Billie Jean”)  but I sure loved the way he sang in his early years with the Jackson Five.  That was a stunning voice when he was young and he used it with flair and impressive musicality.  On the other hand,  it’s a bit disconcerting to hear a 9-year-old singing “O baby, give me one more chance” instead of “The Farmer in the Dell.”