In the 1988 documentary film, Michael Jackson- The Legend Continues, the narrator, Actor James Earl Jones, aptly describes the fascination and mystique about Michael Jackson’s collective body of performances as a “Presentation of Showtime”
The only argument that can be leveled against this description of Michael Jackson is that his whole life was a presentation of Showtime, and not just the magic he unleashed on stage or through his signature vocals that brought to life his music that continues to transcend generations of millions of fans around the world.
It’s hard to truly appreciate both the magnetism and the reality of such a statement until you personally experience the magic of an individual who has most definitely earned the right to be considered the greatest entertainer on earth. Not many people had the privilege of witnessing in person, the phenomenon that is “Whacko Jacko”, and for those who did, they will continue to bear witness to a magnificent talent and a consummate professional who despite being deeply troubled, arguably gave up any semblance of a normal life to provide the world with the gift of music that is destined to be immortal in its truest sense.
What can you say about such a person?
The first thing that comes to mind for me is the sadness this brings and the profound irony that in death, Michael Jackson is literally uniting the world as hundreds of millions of fans and non-fans alike from all corners of the world, mourn the passing of the greatest superstar we will ever know, yet Michael died a very sad, lonely and broken man.
A lot has been written out there about every aspect of the saga of Michael’s life and death, and as a shameless fan of the man and his music, I would be lying if I said I haven’t been affected by his demise. Perhaps there’s nothing as therapeutic as expressing in my own words, my experiences and how the man, his life and his music influenced me. Call it my own little Stone Cold tribute to the enigma that is Whacko Jacko!
I went back to 1988 because that was the year my dad surprised us and came back from a business trip abroad with the first VCR the family owned. Before then, I had to be content with wishing that a day would come when I could credibly hold conversations with other kids in the school playground and talk from an informed position of having a VCR at home.
I think my folks were cruel in that by striving for the best for their children, they took us to school right across the rail tracks, to a school where class and social identity was more important in reality, than the performance in the classroom…or at least that’s what it seemed to be.
It was hard to cope in such an environment where kids were talking about stuff I couldn’t even pronounce and constantly bragging about the videos they saw over the weekend, so you can picture the excitement in my household when the VCR landed, particularly since no one expected it.
More importantly, dad had taken his time to pick a sample of some low budget tired movies that escape my mind, as well as a variety of music video collections from well known artists of the day such as Elton John, Phil Collins, Madonna, Julio Iglesias, and to illustrate his tired taste, he didn’t forget his favourites like Jim Reeves and Dolly Parton among others.
While scrambling through our first collection of video tapes with that cheeky contempt that a teenager would have for his parent’s tired and old fashioned taste in anything – there it was – sitting pretty at the bottom of the pile. A double video pack of Michael Jackson – The Legend Continues, and the collection of Videos from his sister – Janet Jackson’s hit album, Control.
Naturally, I homed in on the Janet album…Who wouldn’t. She was hot and I challenge any male teenager or grown man for that matter to deny they wouldn’t get a boner just from watching the videos in that collection, especially the Pleasure Principle, but I digress…. The Legend Continues video did it for me. Dad knew we loved Michael Jackson, and give him credit for not disappointing.
If there was ever any crime for over-playing a single video, I think I can comfortably lay claim to hold some sort of record of over playing the Jacko documentary. I could probably narrate it word for word.
The only comparison I had with the collection of material on that video at that time was the Thriller movie – though some would insist on calling it a music video. I think I had only seen the entire Thriller video a couple of times at a friend’s place or something, but I was more than content that we had samples of both the making of Thriller and clips from the video itself. That did the trick for me, though I decided I was going to collect anything Michael Jackson that I could get my hands on.
Even from watching the documentary, it was very safe to rationalize that my obsession with the man was not a sad monopoly.
I can remember thinking I would never get to the stage of some of the footage on that video of fans crying their guts out because Michael had touched them, or because they simply saw him and he waved, or in some cases, grown people clearly fainting and passing out simply by seeing him.
Pictures I’m told, are worth a thousand words and there was no denying the sheer impact this enigma of a human being was having on fans around the world. No normal person had the power to influence and move people the way Jacko did, but you can probably understand why this is so, considering for example that in the immediate period after his death:
- AT&T suggest that only in the USA , 65,000 sms messages were being sent per second.
- 22% of Twitter messages were about Michael Jackson.
- Google had to block any searches of Michael Jackson to stop their servers from thinking they were under an attack.
- The speed of the internet literally slowed down as millions of users around the world desperately tried to look for information
July 31st 1992 was the day that made me realize Jacko was larger than life, and whatever I’d seen of him on video was no illusion.
Through a radio competition a week earlier (being anal about the man does have its advantages you know), I was lucky to receive complementary tickets Pepsi were throwing around to promote Jacko’s Dangerous World Tour. The only major concert I’d been to in my life was in 1987 when Jermaine Jackson and the legendary Franco and his TPOK Jazz band performed at the grand opening concert of Kasarani Sports Complex in Nairobi leading up to the All Africa Games that year.
I wouldn’t have otherwise bothered if it wasn’t the fact that Jacko was on stage, and a cynical part of me wanted to go and find out for myself what all this fuss was about.
My only interaction with Wembley was what I knew from watching the FA Cup football matches being screened on the Road to Wembley shows on TV back home.
The folks at the radio station had said that I had won a gem of tickets and I will thoroughly enjoy myself – but again, my arrogant self thought that they probably said this to every Tom, Dick and Harry who won concert tickets for any gig.
I don’t know what I expected when I got off the train at Wembley Park, but by the time I got to Wembley Way, it was already clear that the party for the London leg of the Dangerous World Tour had started. Folks didn’t seem to mind being fleeced by hawkers lined up through the Way to the arena with anything Michael Jackson from T-shirts, gloves, jackets, and other Michael Jackson costumes, to clearly fake memorabilia…LOL!
Everyone was just excited and swinging into the party mode. After I got comfortable with a few folks I met on the way, we all vowed to hang out together as we were in the same ticket section.
Dangerous World Tour
By the time Carmina Burana, the classical hit by Carl Orff was pumping as an intro through the massive speakers around the arena, there was absolutely no doubt that this was no average show. This wasn’t a tired “concert” that we’ve come to get used to say from wanna be African artists who jump on stage miming backing tracks in a tired and dingy joint in East London. There was method in the madness we were about to witness.
Beforehand, we had been looking at some pamphlets being distributed about the Dangerous World Tour, and I guess publishing the tour facts and statistics was a deliberate strategy to “shock and awe” our asses into the mood. It was hard to understand how Jacko’s stage would require 2 747 jumbo jets to fly it around the world, until you got to see that stage and the sets on it. This was no ordinary concert and the choice of Carmina Burana as a shall we say – blood pressure raising and adrenaline pumping intro did the trick.
No one expected what was to follow in a stunt that we later came to know is called “The Toaster”. Short of looking for the panther that was roaring on stage with a powerful microphone (LOL), everyone was duped to assume that Black or White was to be the first song, as it’s the only song folks knew that Jacko used a panther in the video. The shock and awe was completed with Jacko being dramatically catapulted onto the stage from a trap door amidst a blast of pyrotechnics.
“What the Fuck!” was the only thing I vaguely remember thinking, and right through the first performance (I think it was Jam), I was still in shock and awe. I doubt if I recovered from it as I was dancing my ass off and screaming out “Anasema anataka sambusa” with some 60 something year old white haired guy to my right by the time Jacko was performing Wanna be starting something.
Two things stuck out for me as the concert went into full flow.
First, it was the sound quality of the gig. It was almost like the sound was beating to your heart and you could feel the base pumping as you go. It was loud, but it was not intrusive or annoying. The sound was well balanced and regardless of how powerful the sound system was, it was clear that it was a well coordinated part of the showpiece. I guess the best way to describe this is by saying that you were feeling the music.
The second thing that was crystal clear and in Technicolor is that the young man on stage was the greatest dancer and entertainer you were ever likely to see on this planet. WOW! When they say Jacko’s dancing seems to defy the laws of physics, that was not an illusion or overstatement. Jacko could dance and this was nothing like you saw on the Smooth Criminal or Remember the Time music videos. Seeing it live was out of this planet.
I had my answer all around me to the question “How is it possible that people could lose the plot because of this human being”.
It’s a reflex and involuntary action. You don’t know you’re doing it coz the atmosphere and electricity around you sucks you in. You find yourself hugging the next person and locking into a dance move and you find yourself screaming the lyrics of the song.
You see people around you screaming and crying like babies who’ve just had their favourite toy snatched from them, while other overwhelmed folks who have fainted are passed over your head like a sack of potatoes to the nearest first aid point on the sidelines.
There were other magical moments that linger in the mind especially the quality and meticulous detail that went into creating sets for individual songs and the seamless change in between. The fact that it was happening live in front of the crowd made it more of the spectacle it deserved to be.
I think it was after he performed human nature with the crowd waving (a significant amount of them holding lighters flickering above their heads) when the lights on stage blacked out for a few seconds – and when they came back on – two chaps with huge brooms swept across the stage from one side to the other and then the lights blacked out again for a few seconds. When they came back on, Jacko and his 4 dancers were all dressed in their Smooth Criminal regalia – him the light suit with a blue arm band and the rest in similar Mafioso style suits.
Despite the unbelievable dancing being unleashed on stage – all you could do is open your mouth wide in wonderment with that “how the fuck did they do that so quickly” look on your face. It was unbelievable. As they seem to say in recent years (shows my age…LOL!), it was off the hinges.
I remember thinking Gitonga is totally useless…LOL! Side bar here if I may…Gitosh was a legendary cheer leader in high school and his signature tune that he cheered the rugby crowds with was none other than Smooth Criminal. Gitosh though , with the help of the crowd, sang the entire tune in Kikuyu…You had to love the act, there was no other option. Gitosh even pulled the famous slap on the thigh, a lift of the thigh with a swift jig of the hips in imitation of one of Michael Jackson’s signature moves as the crowd roared “You’ve been hit by, Umegongwa – na Muici Munyoroku!” (You’ve been hit by, you’ve been struck by, a smooth criminal)
But standing and watching the man himself perform the song, Gitosh had no toe to stand on. Jacko was the genius and trying to compare what was happening on stage with Gitosh’s comedy was absolutely no justice to Jacko.
After performing Smooth Criminal, Jacko threw his Stetson into the crowd like a Frisbee after toying with the crowd about which direction he’ll throw it. The person who caught it was mobbed though I think they were prepared to die for it…! and you literally lost count of the number of panties and other items of clothing being thrown on stage.
What was funny is either when he moved to one side of the stage or during a change of set or intermission, someone collected the panties and stuff off stage like they were being paid to do it and it was normal…this was something they were used to and their only concern was probably that Michael might trip on them when dancing so they had to be removed.
The concert did not even attempt to disappoint at the end as during his performance of the last track Man in the Mirror, the stage behind him and to his side was being set up for what seemed to be a rocket launch. It was like a scene out of NASA and what was surreal is that he was performing Man in the Mirror oblivious of what was happening around him with the folks giving an impression that something galactic was about to happen.
People were walking around on stage with headsets and clipboards, giving others different directions etc., before finally Michael was asked to put on what seemed to be a space suit. In the midst of the chaos on stage, what seemed to be a rocket belt was then put on him and a launch sequence was started – counting down to zero. This concert had dramatically changed to a live movie without anyone even noticing.
As the launch sequence hit zero, the rocket belt lit up and the man in the space suit took off and literally flew outside the stadium as pyrotechnics mesmerized the crowd before a commanding voice over the sound system declared “ladies and Gentlemen – Mr. Michael Jackson has left the stadium”.
The only disappointment was that we were later to discover that the person who flew out in a space suit was stunt man Kinnie Gibson and not Michael Jackson, but then again, in between wondering at what point did Jacko switch with the stunt man, how do you not get mesmerized and totally blown in shock and awe of a once in a lifetime show like that.
That was no concert…that was a damn movie…LOL! I concluded on that day that there will never be a show that magically captivates and drives people crazy like that one did. It was one of them moments in life that you think back and say – WOW, I was there!
So what is it about this enigma of a human being who through life and in death continues to captivate people all around the world?
I think it was Quincy Jones who when asked to comment about Michael Jackson’s death said something like (and I paraphrase) “Michael doesn’t come along once in a while or once in a generation. He isn’t one in a million. He is just one. There will never be another Michael Jackson.”
You can’t argue with that, and perhaps one of the consequences of Jacko being just “the one” is that his whole life was a media spectacle. Since the age of 5, he has known nothing else but to live his life in the spotlight. And it’s also no surprise that with his talent and ability to mesmerize he is a global phenomenon in life and death.
Michael Jackson wasn’t just an influence in the lives of those who had the ability to watch his videos or follow his soap opera of a life in the western media. If you traveled to any village in any corner of this planet – whether it was the indigenous communities of the Amazon, or the remote villages say in Jirapa in northern Ghana, or the far reaches of Chittagong in Bangladesh, or the bundux of Gulu district in Uganda – the only globally recognized brand that could rival the global reach of Michael Jackson is Coca-Cola.
Having a soap opera of a life inevitably has its consequences and like many other public figures of fascination like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Princess Grace of Monaco and Diana Princess of Wales, Michael did not disappoint in his exit off stage by going out in a blaze of controversy – almost as if it was part of the plot of his soap opera.
The mystery of his life and how he lived it was therefore a constant fascination to the global media who were always looking for a story to sell, and as drama goes, the more controversial, the better the copy will sell. There was never any doubt that Michael knew how to work the system to his advantage – it was his job as a show man, and he revelled in it.
He was savvy enough to manipulate the media to suit the project of marketing himself, but he was also a true living testament that if you live by the sword, it is very possible that you will die by it.
His latter years in life were shrouded by different scandals, and I think that when reflecting on his whole life and what purpose Jacko served on this planet, it is very unfair to equate his life to the scandals of child abuse allegations that dogged him in recent years. My take on this is that Jacko stood in front of a jury of his peers and answered to these allegations, and his peers acquitted him of all charges – and as much as the continuation of the scandal provides a constant talking point, the man was acquitted and he remains innocent.
The two aspects to his life couldn’t be more contrasting. On the one hand, the only place he was ever comfortable was on stage. He owned the stage and once he was in performance mode, there was never any doubt that you were looking at a genius and a dedicated professional who will stop at nothing to entertain the world because that was the only thing he knew.
The cost of being the enigma he was on stage was that he never grew up, and refused to give himself a chance to grow up – but then again, who are we to judge and lay blame. This was someone who had their childhood totally yanked from them and while other kids played in the park, he was sweating his guts out in rehearsals and on stage, and as a grown man, he never seemed to want to give up on rebuilding that childhood that was stolen from him.
It was that innocence and naivety that eventually signaled the beginning of the end for him with one of the fatal blows being the day that he met a one Martin Bashir. A long time friend of Michael Jackson, the illusionist Uri Geller confesses that his biggest regret was introducing Bashir to Jacko – after Bashir begged and pleaded for that introduction to a sad point of even presenting a crumpled note, apparently hand written by Diana Princess of Wales vouching for Bashir as “good guys”.
It’s my belief that the domino effect of that subsequent Martin Bashir documentary – Living with Michael Jackson – is what landed Jacko on the slab in the autopsy room of the Los Angeles coroner’s office.
Michael had always had a troubled existence behind closed doors – whether it was his dependency on pain killers – or his awkward and non-conventional life choices – but the last 6 years had been an unbearable burden on the man that was to eventually break him down.
“This is it” the series of London concerts at the O2 arena seemed an apt way for the King of Pop to rise from the stooper that dogged his recent life. I must admit, when I heard he was to do 50 shows, the first thought was that it was a ludicrous idea. 15-20 years ago, he used to do 50 or so shows but over a period of 2 years…and frankly speaking, it’s not that he was a spring chicken any more. The dude was 50.
There was also the risk that with his crocked body, maintaining the level and quality of performances that he had previously done was an extremely tall order at 50, and coupled with his recent personal drama and lifestyle, this was going to be a step too far even for the King.
They say God works in mysterious ways and maybe with his sense of humour, God found a way of not only relieving Michael Jackson off his very sad, lonely and broken existence – but he also found a way to preserve his legacy and music in a way that guarantees Jacko will never be forgotten.
God was kind to Whacko Jacko. The man needed to rest and God obliged. Jacko had already given us all his life, and maybe it was time for him to have it back in peace.