Friday, Jun. 26, 2009

With a Dramatic Pause, the World Mourned the Death of a Brilliant but Troubling Idol

Michael Jackson kept his most stunning performance for the very end. Always able to command an audience, he knew how to bring whole arenas to fits of exultation with his moves and then silence them to the point of tears with his poetry. He was brilliant, excessive, maudlin, tacky and possibly criminal, but you could never ignore him. So it was fitting that in death, he momentarily silenced the largest arena humanity has ever known, the Internet.

News of this middle-aged man's sudden passing nearly broke the Web. Google's news section malfunctioned under the weight of "Michael Jackson" searches. The volume of Jackson-related tweets reached 5,000 per minute the day he died; Twitter was so overwhelmed that some users couldn't get into their accounts. Wikipedia buckled temporarily after hundreds of edits were made to Jackson's page. Across the Internet, more than 24,000 Jackson collectibles were offered for auction or sale. Jackson was crowned the King of Pop back before new media helped crack the monolith of radio pop into innumerable subgenres, from hip-hop and house to praise rock and adult contemporary. But the old-media monarch showed, one last time, that he still reigned: the world stopped for him for a few hours on June 25.

Not just online. Huge crowds gathered in Hollywood, in Harlem, N.Y., and near the home where he grew up in Gary, Ind. Travelers passing through the Miami airport huddled close around its TVs. Street tributes went up from Paris to Karachi, from Moscow to Mexico City. A candlelight vigil was held in Beijing. In Japan the Defense Minister eulogized him.

The consummate performer, Jackson may well have suspected that his final exit would be a spectacle. The combination of sudden death and pop-cultural universality has triggered global mourning in the past: Elvis, Diana, John Kennedy Jr. Jackson fit the pattern, almost eerily. The day after he died, one of his ex-wives, Lisa Marie Presley, wrote on her blog that Jackson once looked at her intently and said, referring to her father, "I am afraid that I am going to end up like him, the way he did." Elvis, a heavy prescription-drug user, died in August 1977 after crawling a few feet away from a toilet he had been sitting on. The coroner's report listed as Elvis' cause of death coronary arrhythmia; Jackson was rushed to the hospital after suffering cardiac arrest.

In the theater of celebrity tragedy, each play has three acts. The first is confusion. Why did it take hours for someone to find Elvis? Why wasn't Diana wearing a seat belt in a speeding car? What was J.F.K. Jr. doing flying his own plane? For Jackson, the questions revolve around his health. If he was ill, why didn't anyone do something about his fragility? What we know is that someone at the Los Angeles mansion he was renting called 911 at 12:21 p.m. that day. "He's not breathing," the man said. "He's not responding to CPR, anything." He said a physician, identified in news reports as Dr. Conrad Murray, "has been the only one here." Murray seems to have tried hard to save Jackson — his voice is muffled but frantic in the background of the emergency call — but he kept to himself in the days after Jackson died. The police impounded the car Murray used — not because he is under suspicion, authorities said, but to check for medications that might have played a role in Jackson's death.

Accounts differ on the state of Jackson's health in the days, weeks — even years — before he died. At least since his 2005 trial on child-molestation charges — charges he beat — reporters and other observers had noted his frail appearance and slow, almost pained carriage. Some suspected substance abuse; last year a British journalist reported that Jackson had a genetic disorder that weakens the lungs.

Jackson's camp had long denied that he had any serious health problems, and as the star rehearsed for 50 sold-out London concerts that were to begin July 13, he seemed to be himself again. Grammy Awards executive producer Ken Ehrlich, who attended a June 24 rehearsal, told People that Jackson had "great energy." He said the singer wasn't "giving it full out, but ... I thought he was in great form."

There was talk, however, that Jackson was taking painkillers to recover from the grueling pre-London sessions. For years, Jackson seems to have swallowed a variety of pills ad libitum. "I do not want to point fingers at anyone because I want to hear what the toxicology report says and the coroner says," former Jackson attorney Brian Oxman told CBS. "But the plain fact of the matter is that Michael Jackson had prescription drugs at his disposal at all times." quoted a source close to the family as saying the pills included not just painkillers but also antianxiety meds like Xanax and Valium.

Even more troubling, a Jackson family member told that Michael had been receiving daily injections of Demerol, an addictive painkiller. In high enough doses, Demerol can slow respiration to the point of suffocation, which can deprive the heart of oxygen and lead to sudden death, according to Dr. Douglas Zipes, a past president of the American College of Cardiology. Jackson was fascinated with Demerol. On his 1997 track "Morphine" — an unusually discordant Jackson song — he sings, "Close your eyes and drift away Demerol ... Today he's taking twice as much Demerol." Deepak Chopra told CNN the day after Jackson died that one night when the singer stayed at his house, he asked if Chopra had any of the drug. Chopra told TIME that Jackson was "totally enabled by these Hollywood Mafia drug-dealer doctors who have medical licenses and should be brought to justice ... Instead of managing his stress, they would give him drugs."

And yet the cause of death could be something much more straightforward. After all, Jackson was a man who, as the singer Patti Austin told CNN, rarely ate right and didn't usually work out — he just worked. He may simply have had a heart attack. "When you live like a hummingbird," Austin said, "you don't have a long life span."

The second act of a celebrity tragedy is cleaner, simpler than the confusing first act: everyone suddenly begins to heap encomiums on the dead. After Diana was killed in a car crash in 1997, strangers hugged one another in the streets of London. Celebrities around the globe who had known Diana sent heartbroken tributes.

And so it was with Jackson. Brooke Shields called him an "extraordinary friend, artist and contributor to the world." Elizabeth Taylor said she and Jackson shared "the purest, most giving love I've ever known." On MTV, music writer Kurt Loder said Jackson's genius reached beyond singing and dancing. Jackson, he said, had been able to negotiate complex business deals with Sony in his spare time. In the days after Jackson's death, music critics stumbled over one another to praise him for the way he blended black music and white as well as for the rigor of his stage performances.

Jackson longed to please people and worked hard at it all his life: he tried to satisfy his demanding and abusive father, his insatiable fans, his own bottomless ambitions. All those long rehearsals for his London comeback were typical; after all, this was a man who literally burned in service to pop culture — his hair famously caught fire as he filmed a Pepsi commercial in 1984 — and who routinely performed through injuries. Yet for so public a figure, Jackson was socially awkward, inept at small talk and terrified when the distant audience became an adoring mob. Donald Trump told TIME that Jackson used to drop to his knees to crawl away from maniacal fans after concerts. "I guess the stress, the anticipation and the passion he was emitting, wanting to do this comeback so badly, maybe that got to him," Jackson's friend Uri Geller, an illusionist, told the Press Association.

The second act reached its apogee when the Rev. Al Sharpton appeared in front of New York City's Apollo Theater, where Jackson had performed as a child and where traffic slowed to a crawl the day he died, to place him in a highly flattering historical context: "Way before Tiger Woods, way before Oprah Winfrey, way before Barack Obama, Michael did with music what they later did in sports and in politics and in television."

Probably true. Yet as we all witnessed while Jackson's career played out, the star was never comfortable in his own skin. Even as Sharpton spoke, Facebook and other sites were host to raucous debates about whether the instant hagiography wasn't minimizing too many troubling details. Jackson had lived as a man frozen in puberty — his voice a weird falsetto, his hand continually grabbing his crotch, his clothes sometimes stitched with faux military regalia of the sort that should interest only a boy. For a while, a constant companion was a chimp called Bubbles. When he died, Jackson was heavily in debt, a man beset by financial and legal predicaments caused largely by his inability to control his enthusiasms for expensive baubles and inviting little boys to his bedroom. He paid a reported $20 million to settle one case brought by an alleged sexual-abuse victim.

The third and final act takes longer: we set emotion aside and let investigators do their work. The thousands of flowers left outside the Manhattan apartment building where John Kennedy Jr. resided had long withered when the final reports on his plane crash were issued. So it will be with Jackson: now we wait for the blank parts of the day he died to be filled in.

By his death, Jackson had — like many wealthy people — accumulated "friends" who turned out to be knaves or useless hangers-on. (On her blog, Presley called them "the awful vampires and leeches he would always manage to magnetize.") One associate has been portrayed in the press as a physician, but it's unclear whether he has a medical license. Jackson was often sued by employees who may have been looking for a quick buck. His death may well be accidental, but investigators and journalists will spend months determining whether it could have been prevented if those around him weren't so often using him as an ATM.

Although his family has other issues to attend to — custody of Jackson's three kids as well as the ruins of his empire — it will doubtless ensure a thorough inquiry. The L.A. authorities autopsied the body June 26, but the coroner won't release a final report for weeks. In the meantime, those accused in the media of abetting Jackson's decline will surely highlight the star's appetites. After all, they might point out, this is a guy who settled in 2007 with a Beverly Hills pharmacy that claimed he owed an astonishing $100,000 for prescriptions it had filled.

On the day he died, many who knew Jackson described him as "gentle," which seemed to be a kind of code, an explanation, an excuse. In fact, he seems more like a character in a show he had no control over, a boy turned into a man too soon and a man who tried to become a boy all over again. His greatest performance may have occurred June 25, when sudden death ensured that we will always wonder who he really was. —Reported by Barbara Kiviat, Tim Morrison, Alice Park and Andrea Sachs / New York and Alison Stateman / Los Angeles