Commonwealth Journal

July 2, 2009

‘Human Training Wheels’




CJ Columnist

“The end hangs on the beginning” is the motto of the school I went to as a child. For whatever reason, mottoes are often written in Latin and Andover’s was “Finis origine pendet.” Maybe Samuel Phillips, who founded Phillips Academy outside Boston in 1778, thought it looked classier that way, but it simply means “the end hangs on the beginning.”

I thought about this when music superstar Michael Jackson died at the age of 50. Suddenly, television news was “all-Michael all the time.”

Looking at the pictures and video footage of this iconic figure as a little boy singing with his brothers in what would become “The Jackson 5,” I was struck by the twisted path life had set before him.

Michael Jackson began his career as an exceptionally gifted young boy with a great singing voice and the grace of a child who was born to dance. What happened to him as he grew older is a warning sign to us all about what can sometimes be the hidden price of success. At the start of his career, he looked like a million other small black kids. Only his immense talent made him stand apart from the crowd.

But as time and stardom unfolded, Michael became stranger and stranger both physically and mentally. His singing voice never dropped much from the high-pitched level he had as a kid. His dancing, however, became more and more advanced, until it was as much or more of the “package” he represented as his music. Michael was an electrifying performer you simply could not take your eyes off of when he was on stage.

While I found his grabbing at his private parts area a disturbing piece of choreography—I guess the shock value was why he did it--I still admired the grace and agility and sheer athleticism he packed into his dancing. Michael Jackson was one of the best dancers we will ever see. Combining amazing gymnastics with jazzy balletic moves was his specialty.

He didn’t invent the “moonwalk.” I’ve seen it done in very old movies with dancers back in the 1930’s. But he took it to a new level and it became his signature trademark dance step.

No performer I have ever seen, including Elvis Presley, could match Michael Jackson for sheer animal magnetism as he performed. Jackson the entertainer was truly the “King of Pop,” a title he earned by being the best at what he did. I doubt I will live long enough to see anybody even comes close to the fireworks Jackson generated in live performance. He moved effortlessly, as if he didn’t weigh anything at all. His dancing was frantic, robotic, and yet incredibly fluid at the same time. He was simply the best.

Yet for all his lightness on his feet, Michael was heavily burdened in his private life. He got weirder and weirder as he grew older.

What began as quirky eventually degenerated into the bizarre. His trademark single glove and military-style costumes competed with his fear of germs and reclusive nature to make him unique and unusual. He was one part Stevie Wonder, one part Diana Ross, one part Rudolph Nureyev, and one part Howard Hughes—the eccentric billionaire also renowned for his obsession with privacy and germs.

Jackson was also one part junkie and one part child molester. In many interviews when he was asked about his obsessive attraction to young boys, he just seemed to be totally puzzled why the world thought his desire to “cuddle” in bed with young boys was unacceptable. He could not figure out why everybody wasn’t okay with his obsession to treat children like living teddy bears. This disconnect was stunning.

We will eventually be forced to hear about all the drugs he was taking after the results of tissue and organ examination become known. Like other gifted folks whose work I admire—from the comedians Peter Sellers and Lenny Bruce to musicians like Jimi Hendrix and, yes, Elvis—the ordinary reality you and I occupy was not sufficient for Michael. He needed more and found it in the chemicals he put into his body.

While he was married—what-ever that may have meant—to the “King’s” daughter Lisa Marie Presley, Jackson allegedly confided to her that he was “going to end up like your father.” He apparently knew the road he was on was going to kill him, but he couldn’t get off it. Like many of the rich and famous, Jackson had nobody near him with the guts and standing to tell him “No!” The parasites who attach themselves to celebrities like Michael usually do and say nothing that would upset their meal ticket.

Joe Jackson, Michael’s father, was evidently abusive and cruelly driven to get everything out of his kids’ talent he could. He was like the evil Simon Legree—the slave owner who has Tom flogged to death in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Joe mercilessly drove those youngsters to perfect their songs, their choreography, and their stage presence. He beat and harassed them until they became a smooth theatrical and musical machine, as in synch physically as they were vocally.

Their father’s obsession for show biz perfection became Michael’s mania as well. It twisted Michael to transform himself from the cute little boy he started out as into a mutant—neither male nor female, black nor white. The fact that Michael cried often as he saw other children at play while he was being marched into a recording studio left deep scars on him. He never was allowed to have a real childhood, so he tried to create one for himself as an adult. His home—”Never-Land”—was like a theme park. His relationship with little boys was sick and strange.

As time passed, Jackson’s behavior—as when he dangled one of his own children from a balcony high above a throng of reporters—was more and more disoriented and unreal. There are probably as many “explanations” for all of his crazi-ness as there are psychiatrists and fans. What I think is that Michael’s early childhood, or lack of it, doomed him to become hopelessly messed up. How else can you account for the intense life he led and the lonely death that caught up to him?

For all his wealth and fame, Michael Jackson died as pathet-ically as Elvis did, and for a lot of the same reasons. Oxycontin and demerol and a host of other drugs made his body as sick as Joe Jackson’s harsh and fanatical upbringing had made Michael’s mind.

The other day, as I was driving back from the post office, this all flashed before me as I passed by a young dad helping his son learn how to ride a bicycle. Richard Stephens, who I saw near the family home in neighboring McCreary County, was holding the bike steady for his five year old son Christian in a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting of ideal American life. The image was made much stronger for me because at the time I was thinking about what Michael’s boyhood was like. Suddenly I was shown the exact opposite by this fine young father’s care and support helping his child start down a real and symbolic path.

The contrast was so stark that I stopped, turned around, and went back to ask if I might take a picture. Richard and Christian graciously consented. But the picture is not just a shot of a father and son at an historic milestone in a child’s education. It is really emblematic of what all of us need as we grow up—the steady hand and kind support of a loving parent.

If only Michael Jackson had received the love and steadiness little Christian Stephens was getting the day I saw them, perhaps his entire life would have been different.

We will never know. But to all the parents who take the time and trouble to raise their kids with love and compassion I tip my hat. When a good father or mother says “No!” to their child, and endures the anger and resentment that setting proper limits can generate, they are actually giving their children the most precious gift a child can receive—a good and decent set of values which will stand them in good stead for their entire life.

Michael Jackson made and spent more money than most of us can even imagine. Yet for all his wealth, his money could not buy him the one thing he needed the most. Little Christian Stephens may or may not know great wealth as he travels his life’s path. But whether he knows it or not, he is already far richer than the musical superstar whose pass-ing we mourn.