View photos in the Michael Jackson memorial slideshow.
And then the casket carrying Michael Jackson’s body came in. It washed away the memories of the helicopter swarms and camera eyes staring at us outside. We, the few witnesses, an itsy representation of the world at large, gathered in an arena downtown to bid farewell. Before the body’s arrival, and then during the service, the Staples Center felt unlike it will ever feel again. There was silence, there were mumbles, there were the occasional outbursts of I LOVE YOU, MICHAEL!, but, unlike the chattering, electric outside, in here it felt confined and warm.
The shimmering casket, a mound of red roses atop it, was rolled onto a blue carpet and placed below center stage. As it rested, the eyes of 17,000 opened a little wider, some gasped audibly, there were whoas and the whispers, and soon a rough consensus in an uncharted territory: There should be applause, or acknowledgment, of the late Michael Jackson’s arrival. His family entered. More whispers. Applause. Silence. “WE LOVE YOU, JACKSONS!”
The audience divided its time between looking at the overhead screens broadcasting well-composed shots and gazing at the spectacle before them. As a choir came out and stood to sing on the stage above the casket, the Staples Center became a church, replete with a digi-stained-glass-window projection with fake sunlight bursting through. Peppered throughout the quiet were shouts of grief into the ether. “MICHAEL, I LOVE YOU!” The cries carried through the arena. You could hear the sniffles.
There were testimonials and stories; Berry Gordy, Jr. talked about seeing the Jackson 5 for the first time; Brooke Shields wept as she talked about commiserating with Michael regarding the challenges of childhood fame. Michael’s daughter, Paris, bravely took the microphone.
“Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine, and I just wanted to say I love him so much.”
Outside the Staples Center before the service, there weren’t any overt indications that Jackson was a father, let alone a daddy. The L.A. Live plaza, a high-tech outdoor flat-screen paradise, flashed iconic images of the King of Pop, while below, hundreds of cameras aimed at the attendees. We watched the cameras while they watched us, unsure of our motivation in this unknown role. The helicopters surveyed it all from above. The people in the plaza pointed their iPhones at the helicopters, snapped shots of TV reporters interviewing bloggers who were tweeting and twitpicking about the overwhelming number of news outlets here. It’s a wonder the media didn’t collapse in on themselves.
But that was outside. Inside it reeked of perfume and hot dogs, and the freshly printed programs still had that new-ink smell. After Smokey Robinson read letters from Diana Ross and Nelson Mandela, and an awkward five minutes of unplanned silence, a choir filed out to sing “Soon and Very Soon.” The casket was gold, but it could have been a pine box with a couple of carnations atop it and we wouldn’t have cared; and the Staples Center might have been a rickety band shell in a Gary, Indiana, public park, the hundred million lenses could have been Uncle Tookie’s point-and-shoot, but the feeling would have been the same.
Roll your eyes at the spectacle if you want. You’re right. It’s insane, and says something about something. But, still, a man, once filled with supreme musical inspiration and overwhelming charity, has fallen, and the joy that he sought, uncovered, delivered in life offered no protection from this collapse, indeed, aided and abetted it. That sucks, regardless of whether said man was a kook or not. He left behind three children. His parents outlived him. His brothers and sisters, who traveled this incredible journey alongside him but were an existential ocean away, could not save him. All that love, all those records broken and sold, the keys to Neverland — none could rescue the man. Most tragic, not even his children could save him.
“Though we are many, each of us is achingly alone, piercingly alone,” recited Queen Latifah, reading a Maya Angelou poem, a direct acknowledgment that even those who seem so loved and cherished can’t escape the human condition; the desire to bury the dread with shopping sprees and Neverland becomes stronger when all the escape routes are being staked out with paparazzi. People watch everything. It’s not a normal life.
Addressing Jackson’s children, the Reverend Al Sharpton echoed this: “There was nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with.”
Though Sharpton was spot-on and delivered a truly memorable speech, I beg to differ. Yes, his existence was surreal. But, too, there was something shockingly strange about their daddy. Something as unreal as Robert Johnson’s fingers or Billie Holiday’s voice. Something different, or we wouldn’t be here like this. We wondered on that strangeness. We felt its heat. We rocked with it. It was strangeness that begat The King of Pop. The precise construction of his body allowed such grace, the curve of his torso, the strength in his feet. The twinkle in his eye outlasted a dozen surgical enablers and random certified motherfuckers. It was strangeness that kept us focused on him. Remove that from the equation and you’ve got Usher. Add it and you’ve got Jennifer Hudson’s cavernous capacity and emotion; you’ve got Stevie Wonder’s … everything; you’ve got Jermaine Jackson stepping up to the microphone and nailing it. You’ve got four brothers twirling and sidestepping, cockeyed fedoras riding low on their heads, and a little dude called Shaheen Jafargholi out front melting the microphone.
Cut to the overhead monitors, and a shot of the moonwalk. The people at Staples rejoice as if seeing MJ unveil the move anew — the sheer energy in those eyes, the smile that could propel a spaceship, a twist of a wrist, a turn of a pinkie, the cock of an elbow. That a mere dance move can change everything is mindblowing. That it can affect little kids in rural Missouri and East L.A. alike is not normal; that the move can go viral before the term meant anything, can travel from Nairobi to Rangoon to Moscow to London, is weird and wonderful. Sometimes forces collide. You can’t have a diamond without millions of tons of pressure and millennia of desire. Every once in a while these people arrive. They’re strange. Thank god, they’re strange.