Remembering Michael Jackson: As a fellow Gary native and former Motown artist, I shared lots with the King of Pop
But my life and Michael Jackson's have run along somewhat parallel lines for years, back to our earliest days growing up in the shadow of steel mills in Gary, Ind.
I still remember the day, more than 30 years ago, when my father pointed to a house a few streets over from my grandmother's home. The address: 2300 Jackson St. -- the legendary space, really just a modest house tucked into a row of millworkers' homes -- where the young Jacksons honed their performing skills and dreamed of something better.
The Jacksons were already gone by then, but their legend in Gary was massive -- held aloft by a proud citizenry who were happy someone, starting from nothing, could scale the highest heights. Six years younger than Michael, I watched him scurry across stages on The Mike Douglas Show and Soul Train, dreaming my own fantasies of escape and achievement.
Though I never met him, Michael and I shared a few odd similarities, starting with our Gary heritage. He was one of Motown's brightest stars; I eventually made a record for Motown in the '80s, just before legendary founder Berry Gordy sold the company. (Suffice to say, unlike Mike, however, Berry never really liked our group's work.)
When Michael locked lips in the most awkward kiss ever televised, plastering trophy wife Lisa Marie Presley in a stilted display which left no doubt how little physical passion actually existed between them, I was just a few feet away, chronicling the oddest start to the MTV Video Music Awards ever in the bowels of Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
But the only thing I learned from such synchronicity, was how to separate the man from the material. From the moment he sang a love song to a pet rat in 1972's Ben, we always suspected something was odd about the shy performing dynamo; when his skin began to grow as light as pal Elizabeth Taylor's, the suspicions were confirmed.
In Gary, folks seemed to have a love/hate relationship with the Jacksons, particularly as Michael's fame grew in the late '80s. I still remember how many in Gary hoped that a post-Thriller, superstar Michael Jackson might revisit the crack-ravaged city and lend a helping hand.
Instead, legend has it a few of the lesser-known Jacksons -- perhaps Tito and Marlon? -- stopped by in an armored car. Even Gary's most famous sons were too scared to return home without serious protection.
In an odd way, that same dynamic played out across the media the night he died, as news outlets struggled to memorialize Michael Jackson in a manner befitting the world's largest pop star, while also acknowledging that he was one screwed up dude (click below to read more).
Here's my fave MJ moment on TV; his first televised moonwalk:
Could the same man who gave us Rock With You, Thriller, ABC and the moonwalk be the same guy accused of abusing young boys, sleeping in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, struggling with massive debt and possibly abusing prescription medication? And can we celebrate one side of this complex, often tortured artist without seeming to mitigate the awfulness of the other?
That's a tall order. Especially for television, which usually has just one emotional setting per story (I'm still snickering over Keith Olbermann calling Michael's dangling of his son over a balcony before the paparazzi one of the most horrifying images of the era).
And that poignancy is always what made Michael Jackson so compelling. He'd floor you with his mastery of dance moves during an amazing rendition of Billie Jean during the Motown 25 celebration -- his moonwalk on that 1984 show was when we all knew he was a superstar -- then astonish you with a head-scratching personal oddity like trying to buy the Elephant Man's bones.
In the end, despite all our similarities, I think I felt the same connection to Michael Jackson that every pop culture lover of a certain age maintained. His music was the soundtrack to our best moments, deepest passions and most treasured experiences.
But our desire for bigger and bigger pieces of him -- combined with his own drive to be the biggest star of all time -- seemed to eat away at his life.
Which leaves all us fans to wonder: Did we admire him so much that we helped kill him, even just a little bit?