Posted by Tania Kindersley.
A small note on the text.
I have hesitated for two days over whether to put up this post. It is going to make some of my loyal readers very cross, because I know they are Michael Jackson fans. I hate the idea of trampling over tender feelings. There is a real danger that I am being too judgemental and unforgiving, or just plain wrong. This dilemma has made me ponder what blogs themselves are for. Who cares what I think? Perhaps I am falling into the blogger’s trap, the accusation of the mainstream media that the whole thing is merely an exercise in self-indulgence. I love the community aspect of blogging: I like it when we are all agreeing and getting along and laughing at the same jokes. The people pleasing part of me, which years of therapy could never quite erase, says I should just trash the whole thing and write a snappy little jingle of a post about how the sun is shining and the swallows are swooping past my window and a girl with a pretty voice is singing a cover of Joan of Arc, which is making me smile. The cussed part of me says: publish and be damned. The rational part of me says: your readers are grown ups, they can take a difference of opinion once in a while. For whatever reason, I am going to take the risk. If the comment board goes up in smoke, I have only myself to blame.
So, here goes:
In the summer that Thriller came out, I was deep in the Nievre on a French exchange with my friend Ally, listening to Leonard Cohen. The summer before I was in the West Indies, where my first and nastiest stepfather had taken my mother to live, and I spent two months listening to nothing but Bob Marley, in homage at first to my surroundings, in sheer awe and wonder, in the end, at his raging brilliance. The summer after that was the season of two songs only: Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown by the Stones, and Heroes by David Bowie. That was the soundtrack of my teenage years.
Through the long French summer of 1982, I ate pork rillettes for the first time, developed impossible crushes on a Portuguese and an Englishman, both equally dark and thrilling and out of reach, and was taught to do le roc by a wry Scot called Archie who made me laugh so much I could not see straight. I heard the heartbreaking sound of Fado, played on four guitars under a black sky littered with stars, and was not as kind as I should have been to the third exchange student, an upright serious boy called Lancelot, who wore tweed jackets and did not listen to any popular music at all. (I hope now that he is a brilliant professor of history or an expert on moral philosophy, and I hope that my memories of teasing him are overblown, and if I ever had any advice to give to the Young People it would be: never be mean to the geeks, because if you stop to listen, they are always more interesting than the cool kids, and will probably go on to conquer the world.)
In an old stable where we played ping-pong, its brick floor and whitewashed walls sheltering us from the scorching heat of the day, Ally and I waged a fierce battle over the turntable. She wanted Thriller, all full volume, all the time, and each moment she was not looking I rushed over and put on Songs of Love and Hate, or Songs from A Room, or The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Back and forth we went, from Billie Jean to So Long, Marianne. It was a war of attrition, and I don’t think either of us ever won. So even in when he was in his pomp, I never got Michael Jackson. As I grew older, he lived in the margins of my consciousness: I was dimly aware of the increasing freakishness, the mutilating plastic surgery, the allegations of child abuse, the odd collection of friends (Elizabeth Taylor, Uri Geller, Deepak Chopra), the massive debts, the bizarre way he created his children, the strange television interviews, the rehab visits, the court cases, the Jarvis Cocker stage invasion. I assumed that he had gone way past the tipping point, and was never again to be taken seriously.
And then he suffered a fatal coronary. Overnight, he was washed clean; people cried in the streets, Twitter crashed, spontaneous tributes were performed as crowds moondanced in public places. The King of Pop was gone; it was the day the music died. I felt: nothing. I read myself a narrative, because all humans need one of those. A sad man, who never really had a shot at life, died at a young age, before his time. Surely there is a sorrow in that? I, with my nice bleeding liberal heart should feel it, even from a distance. Fame, John Updike once said, is a mask that eats the face. Jackson’s face was almost literally consumed by fame, until there was barely anything recognisable left; he was a fable, a cautionary tale, a walking tragedy, right there up on the stage. I should feel: something.
I did, in the end, feel something. I felt a bafflement that came close to anger. It seemed inexplicable to me that people I liked, writers I admired, clever columnists I loved to read, were bending in homage to a man who frankly admitted to welcoming young boys into his bed. All our idols are flawed. The three writers I most worship, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Mrs Woolf, were a drunk, a misogynist and a snob. The singing voice I perhaps love most of all came out of Frank Sinatra, who consorted with mobsters and behaved unspeakably to his wives. But there was something about a powerful, famous man spending many nights with starstruck adolescents that I could not get past.
I called my friend Paul. He is the one I call when I have a question to which I do not know the answer. ‘Yes,’ he said, picking up on the third ring. We have the kind of friendship which goes so deep that even when we have not spoken for weeks there is no hello-how-are-you small talk when either of us answers the telephone. ‘Why is it,’ I said loudly, for I had grown intemperate, ‘that the entire world is in mourning for a man accused of fiddling with little boys?’ Slight pause. ‘I’ll take you off speakerphone,’ Paul said.
Later, he called me back, and we talked it over. Paul can be stern and rational when it is called for. He spoke of forgiving our heroes, and loving the music, and the crucible moment of a black artist going mainstream and what that meant. I spoke of Sam Cooke, and Al Green, and Etta James, and Nina Simone, and Stevie Wonder, and Ben E King, all of whom I thought wrote and sang greater songs than Jackson ever dreamed of. ‘But he was pop,’ said Paul. ‘Maybe you just don’t like pop.’ I stopped and thought, determined to be fair. I always like to be fair. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I love pop. I just don’t think he wrote great pop. It sounded to me commercial and overproduced. I think Jarvis Cocker did perfect pop, and Ray Davies with The Kinks, and Neil Hannon with The Divine Comedy, and all the boys in Blur, and I adored those great songs from the sixties that went build me up build me up buttercup or the concrete and the clay beneath my feet begin to crumble. If you stretched your definition a bit, you could even say The Ramones were pop. And I loved them like brothers.’
The conversation started to wind down. In a final burst of confusion, I said: ‘And that whole thing about him being a hero for the black community, how does that count for anything when he spent his life trying to look white? How does that work?’ There was another pause. Paul said: ‘I don’t think it’s as simple as that.’
So I got no answers, even from one of the men I most trust to give them to me. I have no answers now, only questions, than run around in my head like characters in a film on fast forward. I think it is curious the things that people forgive, and to whom they offer their forgiveness. Our members of parliament, who earn a tenth the amount in a year what Jackson could pull in from one concert, are excoriated and hounded through the market place for claiming bath plugs and scatter cushions on expenses. There is no absolution for them. They are booed on live television; they are all the same, only in it for what they can get. If one of them, however hardworking and untainted by expense scandal and dedicated to the democratic process, had admitted, as Jackson did, that he thought it a charming thing to share his bed with a thirteen year old boy, even if no impropriety was ever proved, just imagine the headlines in the Daily Mail, picture the paedo frenzy in The News of the World. The career would be over, all moral authority gone, any obituary would have only one lead headline. Many of those elected representatives are now packing it in, even though they have never taken a single Demerol, or told a young fellow that wine was good for him because Jesus drank it, or dangled a small baby over the balcony of a German hotel room. The public prosecutors who tried desperately to bring charges against Jackson, who believed the frightening stories that were told to them by the young children who slept at Neverland, who could never quite build a case that a jury would buy, told interviewers, over and over again, ‘He could get away with it because he was Michael Jackson.’ They did not mean that he got away with it because he was a brilliant dancer or a dazzling showman or a gifted songwriter; they meant: it was the fame and the money and the power. Comparing pop stars with MPs might be a case of apples and oranges, but it seems strange to me that Jackson is held to such a radically different standard than any other adult male, and I am not quite certain that I understand why.
I do have a fatal tendency to hero worship, which means I have to distinguish between the work and the person. I have written before about how it might be too much to expect a writer of genius to be also a great human being. I don’t so much forgive TS for his treatment of his wife, or F Scott for his petulant drunken outbursts, or Mrs Parker for her sottish episodes of slatternly self-pity, as try to read the work without remembering all that. I do think there are degrees of egregiousness. All rock stars are expected to do junk and sleep with hookers and do the diva jive; their public almost demands it. What would Keith Richards be without the smack, or Janis Joplin without the nights in the Chelsea Hotel, or Sid without Nancy? When Roger Daltry took up fly fishing, that was much harder for The Who fans to take than stories of debauchery and throwing television sets out of windows.
I find a slight tinge of the madness of crowds in this revisionist mourning. Maureen Orth, who wrote long and thoughtful articles about Jackson in Vanity Fair, has been called ‘evil’ because she went on television and described him as a failed human being. She covered all the accusations from the young boys who were interviewed by psychologists and judged plausible, whose stories all ran along identical lines. She reported on the $25 million paid to Jordie Chandler and the enduring belief in Jackson’s guilt of Tom Sneddon, the district attorney who tried the 2005 case. Despite her forensic reporting, we shall never know the whole truth. There is the chance that all of those children were making it up, for attention, because their parents were bent on extortion, because Michael Jackson was Michael Jackson, and he was naive enough to say, on national television, that there was absolutely nothing wrong with a grown man sharing a bed with a young boy. It was natural, he said, and beautiful. There is the possibility that he was more victim than victimiser.
I can’t tell if I loved Michael Jackson’s music more I would give him more latitude. I did not get him as a person, and I did not get him as a musician. This sad, freakish man makes me now feel like a freak myself, because I cannot join in this public mourning, this great uncritical outpouring of grief, this we shall not see his like again valediction, because I am too haunted by the faltering memory of those young boys, and the stories they told.