Moonwalking with Michael

2009-07-01 00:00

WHEN I was a young boy, I remember being at home when news of the death of Elvis Presley broke. It was an age without 24-hour news, but I remember playing his records (remember those things?) for the entire day. It must have been a life-changing day for my granny too, who allowed me to play Elvis’s records even though she felt pop music was the work of the devil.

June 26, 2009, 6.30 am. A day my daughter will never forget. A day the entire world will undoubtedly never forget. My mum phones to tell me Michael Jackson is dead.

My daughter begins to wail as if I have died. Poor child. Loved Michael Jackson like family. Had a Michael Jackson cake for her seventh birthday last year. Said she wanted to marry him since she was six years old.

And all I can do is stand guiltily in front of her. Guilty because my wife and I had repeatedly said how we “hated” Michael Jackson over the past few months. Not that we truly hated him, but because my daughter would play Michael Jackson continuously every minute of the day in the car. Once for 10 hours straight on our journey through the Karoo. The same two cassettes throughout. I hid the cassettes, but she got her cousins and aunts to buy her the CD and DVDs. To double the punishment for my sins.

“I don’t want to go to school,” she cries in-between heavy sobs. How can you send a child to school in such a state? And so she spends the whole day playing Michael Jackson and watching the whole world mourn the King of Pop.

How strange life is. Only three days ago, I bought a CD of Michael Jackson singing with the Jackson Five. Beautiful songs like Happy, One Day in your Life, Got to be There and Music and me. For the last three days before his death, this was all we listened to. It was then that the words quoted in the introduction of the article struck me as a perfect description of the life of Michael Jackson. It was then that I told my daughter that when Michael Jackson dies, these are the words they must engrave on his tombstone as a fitting epitaph.

“Don’t say that, you’ll put bad luck on him,” my daughter shouted in my ear. I only hope that she does not remember this conversation. But I drive to work with tears in my eyes. I remember opening the dance at my matric party to I just cant stop loving you. With my wife. I wonder if she remembers. I remember wearing pants that ended just above my ankles. I remember one irritant who liked my wife extending a Michael Jackson-clad hand, asking her to dance once too often. I remember my sister and I having a poster of Michael Jackson wearing a lemon sleeveless jersey and white pants adorning the wall of our room. I remember making a speech at my sister’s 21st birthday and quoting the words: “Into each life some rain falls, then comes the snow, but after it all, the flowers will grow …”

Yes, the commentators on TV were so right. He provided the soundtrack to all our lives.

Some choose to dwell on the negative aspects of his life. The damaging child molestation claims against him. People mocked him for changing his appearance. And his complexion. But sympathisers will remember him as the tragic hero of the modern age.

Have you seen my childhood? gave us a glimpse of the price he had to pay at the altar of success. But for me, the greatest tragedy is linked to Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye. In this book, she describes the subtle effects of racism on children — a young black girl wants so badly to look like the doll she plays with: white complexion, blonde hair and blue eyes. And this is the same tragedy that played itself out in the life of Michael Jackson. For, despite being the blue-eyed boy of music, commanding the title of “King of Pop” for almost three decades, Michael Jackson too wanted to be beautiful. And beautiful meant white with straight hair in the era that he grew up in.

Some say I am making too much of this — that his plastic surgery was just part of an elaborate persona; that his white skin was due to the disease.

But there can be no mistaking that Michael Jackson lived in an era when it was extremely difficult for black artists to break through in mainstream music. For me, the greatest tragedy is that he had one of the most famous faces in the world, but was never happy with it.

Some called him a freak, a wacko. But even his harshest critics will have to grudgingly concede he was a boy wonder, a legend, an icon, a king of kings. The greatest musician the world has seen. Greater than Elvis and the Beatles. Because none of them started their careers at five, an age when most children can’t hold a tune, let alone read. And only Elvis had the stage presence and dance moves to match Michael Jackson. But no one will be able to match that Moonwalk. It was quite simply not of this world. Ditto for its creator.

You are not alone

I am here with you

Though we’re far apart

You’re always in my heart

To Michael Jackson: From Kiara David

There have been others, but never two lovers

Like music, music and me. (Michael Jackson)

Above: The life of Michael Jackson on the front cover of Rolling Stone magazines.

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