When Ed McMahon passed away at 86 it wasn’t too surprising considering his age. And even when Farrah Fawcet died a couple of days later it was not unexpected because of her long struggle with cancer. But having Michael Jackson die suddenly from cardiac arrest at age 50 was indeed a shock.
I wouldn’t call myself an MJ fan by any stretch, but I do feel a connection to him in that he was one of the first pop culture icons I became aware of in my youth. The Jackson 5 were a big hit in the early 70s when I was in first and second grade. Songs like “Rockin’ Robin” and “ABC” were some of the first pop tunes I can remember and I got the distinct impression back then that Michael was about my age, although he is actually six years older.
The Saturday morning cartoon show featuring the Jackson 5 had the biggest impact on me, no doubt.
Years later, Michael Jackson would retake the center spotlight by storm, taking advantage of the new music video genre and MTV to become a household name and an established pop icon. Videos for Billie Jean and Beat It ran in heavy rotation on MTV when I was in high school, but the tour-de-force was the 13-minute video short for “Thriller” that sent his popularity into orbit. I remember being at a mall somewhere and noticing a big crowd of people gathering around a storefront window where there was a TV set up. The reason? Thriller was about to air. People were tingling with excitement.
Thriller was still a big hit when I started college. And yet it would be years later before I would get around to purchasing the album for myself. In fact, I had the Wierd Al Yankovic parody long before I picked up the original. But the next year when his big follow-up album “Bad” was released I broke down and bought a copy on cassete. Wierd Al, I think, owes MJ a big debt of gratitude for all the mileage he got off of his two big parody songs - “Eat It” and “Fat.”
I also picked up the “We are the World” album around that time which Michael Jackson was instrumental in producing. I was very impressed at the time with his efforts on that front and still feel it is a large part of his legacy.
Years later, as Jackson devolved into the sad, strange shell of a man that he became, I had mixed feelings. I was never as condemning as many people were. I mostly felt sorry for him. I do believe he had some serious problems especially with regards to the issue of inappropriate contact with children. He should never have been allowed to have unsupervised contact with children after the problem first came to light, but money and power can often shield people from the kind of help they need. In the big molestation case from a couple of years ago that destroyed his image despite his eventual acquittal, I always felt that the real villians were the kid’s parents. It was well known by then that Jackson had this problem, and yet they still allowed their child to spend the night alone with him. That was a complete failure of parental responsibility. And then to turn around and file a multi-million dollar lawsuit made it seem like they were using their kid to fish for money all along. Really sad.
We still don’t know why Jackson suffered cardiac arrest at 50. He had a long history of health problems and was taking untold numbers of medications which could have contributed to his death. I suppose we will eventually find out. But in the meantime I am going to dig out my double CD of Michael Jackson’s Greatest Hits.