Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson Dies at 50

Across the country this afternoon, news departments were preparing tributes to Farrah Fawcett, who lost her three–year battle with cancer earlier in the day.

Then, abruptly, plans changed as word spread that the "King of Pop," Michael Jackson, had collapsed following cardiac arrest, lapsed into a coma and died this afternoon.

There was still considerable uncertainty about Jackson as I prepared to leave for the monthly Communications Commission meeting at my church a few hours ago. The Los Angeles Times was reporting that Jackson had died, but it was not basing its report on anything that had been said by someone connected to UCLA Medical Center, where Jackson was taken. CNN, apparently, was still waiting for that confirmation and would say only this for certain — Jackson had suffered cardiac arrest and was in a coma.

But now, a few minutes after my return from the meeting, it seems to be official. CNN, along with all the other media outlets, is no longer hedging.

Michael Jackson is dead.

I must confess that I'm not sure how to respond to this news. As I am sure it is with millions of others my age and younger, it often seems to me there has never been a time when Jackson was not a part of the entertainment scene.

And not just part of it. At times, Michael Jackson seemed to be the entertainment scene.

As Brooks Barnes writes in the New York Times, "As with Elvis Presley or the Beatles, it is impossible to calculate the full effect he had on the world of music. At the height of his career, he was indisputably the biggest star in the world; he has sold more than 750 million albums."

In my case, the truth is that I was never a Michael Jackson fan. For a time, when I was a child, I considered myself a fan of the Jackson Five. I used to listen to a collection of 45 rpm records of the group's top singles. But when Jackson embarked on a solo career, my interest began to go in a different direction.

And, when everyone else was buying "Off the Wall," "Thriller" and "Bad," I was buying albums by other performers — Dire Straits, Tom Petty, Pink Floyd, ZZ Top. But I knew Jackson's music. It was everywhere. You couldn't miss it. When you drove your car, it was on the radio. When you switched on your TV, you stood a good chance of seeing Jackson doing his moon walk. When you visited a friend's home, "Thriller" was likely to be the record that was already on the turntable. When you went into a store, you would probably hear "Billie Jean" on the P.A. system.

That, it seems to me, is how you tell if someone has left a large impression on a nation and the world. And everything Michael Jackson did, he did in a big way, whether it was selling albums or constructing Neverland or going on a concert tour.

In the days to come, I'm sure there will be those who will write of how Jackson's legal troubles late in his life ushered in his decline, strangling his creativity. Well, they said the same thing about Lenny Bruce. Different factors but the gist was the same.

The entertainers of my generation are disappearing in rapid–fire sequence lately. In a few short days, we've lost Ed McMahon, Fawcett and Jackson. When I was in the newspaper business, the accepted truism was that these things came in threes. If that really is how it works, I guess others in the entertainment field can relax a little now. They dodged that third bullet. Well, for now.

But how are the rest of us supposed to feel after losing Johnny's sidekick, the most popular of "Charlie's Angels" and the guy who sang "Beat It," all in the space of three days?