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The ghost in the mirror

Motown in the shadow of Michael Jackson

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Published 7/1/2009

You know death don't have no mercy in this land. — The Rev. Gary Davis 

Singer Michael Jackson, 50, is gone. The suddenness of his passing was shocking. Not that anyone entertained the fantasy that Jackson could defy death. Just as the old blind bluesman Davis sang, you know that someday death will overtake all of us. What's so shocking about Jackson's passing is that, at age 50, he was so young. He seemed healthy, unlike Farrah Fawcett, who died the day before Jackson after suffering from rectal cancer. She was a youngish 62, but we were forewarned that her days were coming to an end.

An untimely death is always shocking, but not that unusual. We all know somebody who was "so young" when it ended. The news media carries stories of those who somehow died young every week. My first personal experience of it came when a schoolmate died from sickle-cell when we were just seven. 

One of these days you know your family's gonna be gone.

When I was 12, my 19-year-old sister, after getting pregnant by her married lover, accidentally died from trying to cause a miscarriage. In the early 1990s I went through a horror show of untimely deaths. It began when a couple of my cousins were murdered in an apparent drug deal gone bad. Not long after, I found my 3-year-old daughter dead in her bed from complications due to her premature birth. A few months later my half-brother died from a heart attack at 54. Two weeks later my eldest full brother died from a virus at 48. Just a few years ago, my sister died at 57 after fighting cancer for seven years.

I'd be the first to tell you that none of us has any guaranteed time on earth. Some barely get here, like my younger brother's daughter, who died just hours after being born.

I guess there's hope for me to have a long life. Both my parents made it to their mid-70s, and most of my aunts and uncles made it into their 80s. There's no choice but to accept what time we get. I work at trying to live in the now. And I try to accept death as the natural extension of birth. In the end, the total existence of human beings on earth will be but a blip in the time of the universe. In the meantime, it helps to remember that "all things shall pass." That includes Elvis, John Lennon and Princess Diana, all of whom died suddenly and well before what was considered their time. Bessie Smith, Charlie Parker, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Curt Cobain, Aaliyah … the list of the music world's early deaths goes on and on. And they are just a smidgen of the larger list. Early death is so pervasive that it's a wonder that we even get that upset about its untimeliness.

Good thing my parents had nine children. The rest of us are gathering in Philadelphia next month to celebrate my now-oldest sister's 60th birthday. She's my parents' fifth child, but she'll be the first to hit the 60-year threshold.

Death will leave you standing and crying in this land.

I know the grief the Jackson family is feeling now. I know what his brothers and sisters are feeling. I know his parents' loss. Actually, quite a few people know that pain. When my daughter died, people who had lost a child came out of the woodwork to let us know. It's like a club you join when that happens. It's the only group that you know truly understands the extent of your grief. No matter how famous, no matter how weird he might have been, Jackson was still somebody's child. I've had grieving parents fall into my arms crying, "You know." And, sadly, I do.

Grief is mostly us feeling sorry for ourselves, that we'll be deprived of our loved one's presence, their essence. We tell each other that our loved one is in a better place, when in truth all we really know is that he or she is not here. There is emptiness in our lives where they once were. When that person has been ill we tell ourselves that the dead one had suffered enough. Maybe Michael Jackson had suffered enough. Maybe the pain of being robbed of his childhood, the long, grueling hours of molding himself into one of the world's best dancers, the emotional deformation of pulling it together to perform in front of millions, and the defamation of defending himself against humiliating criminal charges snuffed out the candle of his creativity and shortened his life.

Come to your house, you know he don't take long.

No mercy, indeed! The grim reaper cut down Jackson just as the curious man-child was ready to step back into the public spotlight with 50 shows scheduled at London's 02 Arena. That would have been quite a feat, though in my mind it would have fallen far short of a "comeback" as it has been called. To me, a comeback for a singer who blew the top off music's racial divide, and had the biggest-selling album ever, would mean a new recording with at least one hit on it. A song that spoke of the experience he'd garnered since "Billie Jean" and "Bad," something to set fire in the hearts of a new generation.

Lacking something new for the ears and an actual tour on the home front, this was just a bigger-than-usual version of the requisite reunion show any band has when the aging members realize that they have one last shot at reliving the fame and recouping some of the money wasted on cocaine, cars and wild parties. 

From most reports, Michael Jackson was hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. Yet he owned a stake in Sony/ATV — owners of 251 Lennon and Paul McCartney Beatles songs, and Jackson's music — the value of which is estimated at $1 billion. He'd closed up most of his Neverland ranch and came close to auctioning off a bunch of his personal memorabilia in April. The London shows were maybe his last chance to right his financial woes without milking the cash cow of Sony/ATV. 

Maybe there was a little mercy in this death. Now Jackson won't have to attempt to make it through 50 grueling shows. He won't have to continue his sequestered existence as a modern-day Howard Hughes, never knowing the ease of acquaintance without having to suspect someone's motives. Different and defiant is what Jackson was. He defied the odds by becoming the world's best-selling singer. He defied race by crossing his music over more than anyone else, and then by visually changing his skin color. I remember a white co-worker once telling me that her children wouldn't believe it when she told them Jackson is black. He even defied the popular sentiment that he was a child molester by winning acquittal in two trials. 

But that's all past. The man in the mirror is a ghost. No one gets out of here alive.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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