‘Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald
When I heard about Michael Jackson’s death, I was sitting in a bar with a friend. I was already on the way to being drunk; not half an hour before I had been gushing about how much I was looking forward to the O2 concert. Sky News was on in the bar, so I saw the story tick across the bottom of the screen like an unbelievable nightmare…
THERE ARE UNCONFIRMED REPORTS THAT MICHAEL JACKSON HAS DIED
I didn’t need the reports to be confirmed. I knew it was true.
Shock. Like a bullet. I began getting texts immediately. I ran outside to call a friend, who was in Spain but would still always be the first person I called. I was bent over against a wall outside the pub. I later asked my friend what I said on that phone call; she told me I just announced that he was dead, and then cried.
I straightened up, went inside. Drank some more with my friend. Cried a little. Tried to think of other things.
It was when I left my friend that grief really broke loose. I walked to my dad’s office, which was nearby and where I often stayed, collapsed onto the floor and just forgot I had any responsibilities to anything.
Apparently by this time my family were in a panic trying to reach me. My dad eventually found me in the office; I got sick all over the floor and later in my dad’s car.
My dad took me home. I slept for a few fitful hours then got up and went into work, still drunk and shocked, and now feeling like I was coming down with the flu. I was printing out the wrong things in work, finding it hard to speak coherently on the phone. I left as soon as I’d done what I needed to do that day.
I spent most of the weekend in bed, wallowing in the TV news coverage. I couldn’t listen to his music or see his face without sadness swelling inside me.
It was Monday before things began to change. My best friend, returned from Spain, was going to come up the following Friday to watch some MJ DVDs with me, and I found myself looking through my collection to see which particular live version of Billie Jean I’d show her, whether we’d look at parts of Moonwalker or Ghosts…
Some of the videos I hadn’t seen in some time, though I still knew them inside out. And I discovered I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the man dance, saw that perfection he touched time and again in his performances. There were so many reasons to be sad, but mostly I just felt grateful that I had become a fan and known MJ’s music and life that way for the last 13 years.
This is a time of profound change for Michael Jackson fans. We’ll no longer have our idol’s physical presence to follow. But we can take heart in many things. Here’s my two (or rather five) cents.
1. He made the best use of himself
None of us, except perhaps the most troubled, choose when we leave this earth. And so all we can do is make the best use of ourselves in the time we’re granted: whether it’s through the art we need to create, the kindness we show to others, the legacy of a family, or simply finding a line of work that we were born to live in. Michael Jackson made the best use of his life: his endless humanitarian and charitable work; his devotion to his children, as corroborated by anyone who knew him. Most of all, he was constantly creating music and using his stunning talent right up until the end.
2. There’s still music to look forward to
Ironically, the world will see more ‘new’ Michael Jackson material now than we have in the last decade of his life. Every unreleased recording, every demo tape, every concert on film will be dusted off, packaged and appear on record store shelves. There’s already talk of producing a DVD from the footage of the London concert rehearsals, which includes a professionally filmed full dress rehearsal two days before he died. Former Sony Music CEO Tommy Mottola describes the archives of unreleased MJ songs as ‘endless’, and we know over the last few years Michael had been recording with contemporary artists for a new album. If the few previously unreleased tracks on 2004’s Ultimate Collection are any indication of what’s in the Sony vault, Michael left much greatness still unheard. While the endless commercialism will no doubt prove nauseating, there is some comfort in the thought that we’ll discover even more of the deep, rich musical legacy left to us.
3. The world remembers how much it loved him
For more than ten years, in the mainstream media, Michael’s music has been a footnote to the scandals; now, the scandals have become the footnote and the music and the man are the story. Of course there is still the tabloid/TV circus and the detractors are still there, but the tenderness and compassion with which MJ has been treated is astonishing: praise and appreciation has come pouring in from all sections of the media and the public at large. All of a sudden he was ‘Michael’ and not ‘Jacko’. The surge in sales of his music has been covered everywhere. In the days following his passing, MJ albums accounted for 15 of Amazon UK’s top 20 albums and all of the top 10; HMV in the UK saw an 80 times increase in sales of his albums overnight – the largest for any artist ever; in the UK chart MJ had five albums in the top 20, including the number one spot for Number Ones; on the Big Top 40 chart show in the UK Man in the Mirror reached number one 20 years after its original release and he had 12 other songs in the top 40; 43 of the top 200 songs in the UK were MJ tunes; at one point 50 of the 100 most-downloaded songs on iTunes were MJ songs; his songs topped iTunes downloads in every country except Japan; he sold a record 2.6 million downloads in one week, making him the first artist ever to sell over a million in seven days; in the US alone, nearly half a million of his albums were sold in the week after his death; in the States, the top nine albums on Billboard’s catalogue pop chart were his; In Ireland currently, Michael has seven albums in the top 20, including the one, two and three spots, and 16 of his songs are in the top 40 singles; in the global chart, he has four albums in the top 20 and 11 songs in the top 40 singles. On a personal level, friends have been sharing stories of their favourite songs, albums and videos, the things that soundtracked their lives – even pals who had little interest in MJ are discovering and rediscovering things they liked about him. On the bus in and out of work this week, so many times I have heard people, mostly teenagers, listening to or singing Michael Jackson, and chattering about him in glowing terms. A whole new generation is finding and downloading him. The world truly loved this man; it forgot that for a while, but it will never forget again.
4. He came back
After his trial four years ago, Michael Jackson was an empty man: you could see it as he left the courthouse. He spent years as nomad, travelling from country to country, before announcing his comeback gigs in the O2. The night before he died he told Randy Phillips of AEG Live, promoter of the London shows: ‘Now I know I can do this.’ Look at the rehearsal video that was released and you’ll know he could have too. Michael looks better, stronger than he has in ages. He’s not playing full out, but you can tell it’s there, waiting behind the tentative motions of a rehearsal: his timing and precision are perfect. Michael died doing what he was born to do: ready for the stage again. He came back. There was nothing more to prove.
5. What more could he give?
This final point returns to the first. Both life and art are about a constant striving for perfection. We are always following an ideal, whether it’s the image we have in our head of the perfect book we want to write, or our dreamed-for life: three kids, a beautiful wife, and enough money to provide – whatever the dream may be. We all have to be content with pieces of perfection, things we find as we take pleasure in the journey, always pursuing the ideal but never realising it, at least in quite the way we imagine. Perhaps we get to kiss the girl we love so much, but not marry her; perhaps the song we wanted to write in our head turns out to be very different on paper; perhaps, as Michael Jackson found, being the most successful person on the planet is twinned with inevitable tragedy – the loss of a childhood, innocence never to be recaptured. There is no pure perfection on this earth; if there were, the world would end, for it is the tension between triumph and tragedy that actually keeps the world moving. No great creation without madness. No great learning without suffering. No progress without loss. We must love people as they come (and leave us) and in the end not ask for more. Far easier written than done of course. Michael Jackson goes down in history as the most successful entertainer of all time (according to the Guinness Book of World Records), selling 750 million records; Thriller – the biggest selling album of all time; he was inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame; he won 18 Grammy Awards, 22 American Music Awards, 12 World Music Awards and endless other accolades including Artist of the Decade, Artist of the Generation, Artist of the Century and Artist of the Millennium; he broke musical and social boundaries of colour and genre, gaining unprecedented global influence and appeal; he supported more charities than any other entertainer and set up the Heal the World Foundation. He became, quite simply, the king not only of popular music but of global popular culture. Not bad for a half century. And MJ was breaking records right up until – and even after – the end. He set a record for the fastest London ticket sales with his O2 concerts. After his death so many people were searching for him that Google interpreted it as an automated attack – at one point 70 percent of all searches worldwide were for his name. Michael Jackson lives, and will continue to live, until the earth crumbles to dust. For all that makes him a legend, however, perhaps the most wonderful thing is that – according to those around him – in his final days, this man was so happy. He’d given so much to earn it. It’s nice to remember him smiling.
In recent times I have thought a lot about friendship, what it means to me.
Some years ago I met a woman. Very quickly we became best friends; very quickly I fell in love with her.
She knew how I felt, but didn’t feel the same. Yet I would never say that she loved me less than I loved her. In some ways her love was purer and more fundamental. She called me her brother; family meant so much to her, I knew there was no higher title she could give.
Romantic attraction has little to do with merit or choice. You could be the finest guy in the world, but if you don’t possess the features (not just physical) that turn on the woman who turns you on, you will not end up with her. Attraction is a fitting together of genetic Lego blocks; it is largely controlled by smells that subconsciously tell us who we will make the ‘best’ children with.
So goes the cliché: we can’t choose our family, we can’t choose who we fall in love with, but we do choose our friends.
Friendship is a calm love. A great friend can be more of a partner through life than a ‘life partner’. C.S. Lewis wrote that lovers stand gazing into each other’s eyes, friends walk side by side facing the world. When I look at the collapse of romances in the lives of those around me – the ‘perfect’ girlfriend ditched after a few months, a marriage that falls apart after 30 years – it’s not hard to appreciate the security and value of a true friendship, untainted by the whims of the physical.
In my case, of course, there was the agony of unrequited feelings. It wasn’t simply a matter of falling in love; I was so irrepressibly drawn to my friend – I thought she was the sexiest woman alive, frankly.
At some point I knew that if I really loved her, I must tailor my love to her needs. She needed a best friend, that constancy that would be there for her no matter what – I knew because she told me – and I was lucky enough to be it. I needed a best friend too.
Keeping a lid on my feelings has required the most astonishing level of sublimation, so much so that I often wondered if I was poisoning my heart. But all the while our friendship grew and deepened and blossomed. We share everything and still talk or joke about my feelings – how it’s strange that there should be this open secret between us and still we’re so, so close.
In some ways our friendship is defined by that difference – her feelings and mine – it’s what makes it. I know that I would not seek to know her as much as I do, to pick the perfect present every year, and be there for whatever she needs, if my love wasn’t tinged with attraction. She knows that she couldn’t trust me the way she does, reveal what she does, and know that we’ll be here for each other forever, if she thought of me as a man and not a brother.
A friendship can be stronger and last longer than any other bond – life and fiction provide many examples (my own favourite is Alan and Denny from Boston Legal): but this friendship? Across the gender line, where one person clearly feels differently to the other?
I’ve got this idea of romantic love which has little to do with reality: that someone should come along and essentially make all other relationships in my life irrelevant; that while it would still be nice to have parents and sisters and friends, this person would become all I needed. My best friend, I know, could never feel that way: she could never choose me over her mother or a boyfriend over me. She has what I somewhat amusingly described to her as a healthy, multi-pillared emotional view.
I can’t deny that I have poured into this friendship over the years what I might have poured into a relationship – not because I expected anything, just because – and I wonder how my friend and I will be affected if I ever do, as I still hope to, meet someone and develop a long-term romance.
Life’s questions and the tension of our separate feelings, however – which is not awkward just a taut difference – are part of how my friend and I exist together.
Not long ago, she came up to my house. We talked into the night and she fell asleep beside me, as the half-light of the dawn washed onto everything.
Our friendship is like that half-light, to me: not quite free of the darkness, of the pain of never getting what I wanted so badly, yet filled with peace and promise and beauty, before we would get too involved in each other and the stresses of the world.
It’s a constant dawn. The best part of the day.