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Personal demons aside, Michael Jackson was a dazzling pioneer

Years before cable, long before 500 channels and a generation before MTV, a group of rowdy kids piled into my living room because we had the only house on the block with a long-distance antenna.

In the early 1970s, Tallahassee had one commercial station, a CBS affiliate. If you wanted to watch another network, you had to have an antenna and you had to go out in the yard and turn it in just the right direction to catch the NBC airwaves coming from Panama City.

We were lucky enough to pick up the signal, and I can't imagine what would have happened if we had failed. With eight children from the house to our left and six children from the house to our right, the floor model television with the silver knobs had to beam in the show we had waited all week to see.

Why? Marlon, Tito, Jackie, Jermaine and especially Michael. I was only 7, but I still remember how the Jackson 5 meant must-see TV.

Their guest appearance on The Flip Wilson Show left us breathless. How many times did we get to see someone who looked like us singing and spinning, cooing and dazzling?

Flash-forward 12 years to the University of Florida and the scene plays out again. Students who normally devoted nights to textbooks and term papers crowded around a TV in the bowels of Broward Hall to watch Motown's 25th anniversary special. Michael whirled into his moonwalking magic and we marveled amid screams and cheers.

On the soundtrack of my life, I associate a Jackson 5 or Michael Jackson song with all of my formative years. Grade school? Never Can Say Goodbye. Middle School? Dancing Machine. Ninth grade? Blame It on the Boogie. Eleventh grade? Rock with You.

In college, I drove the sandy beach at Daytona and heard everyone playing a different song from the Thriller album. Race didn't matter. Billie Jean drew whites to the dance floor and blacks rocked out to Beat It while discovering Eddie Van Halen.

"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," Al Sharpton told CNN.

Still, in the minds of some, Michael doesn't deserve to be lauded, even in death. They point to the failures in his private life instead of the triumphs in his public performances.

I separate the two. I refuse to be denied the joy he crafted as a phenomenal entertainer.

I don't condone all of his choices and I don't excuse what he did and allegedly did. However, I'm not sure if any of us fully understood the demons emanating from his tortured upbringing and lost childhood.

How could he carve out normalcy from a life that never was?

Those considerations make his music all the more amazing. He yielded greatness out of sorrow, and left a legacy no one has rivaled since his popularity peaked a decade ago.

Even in death, he spans generations. A childhood friend called from Hawaii on Thursday night to lament Michael's passing, and my 16-year-old son sent me a text, showing more sensitivity then I knew he possessed.

In the end, I cherish all the memories Michael's music provided, but I'm saddened that he may have never given himself the happiness he delivered to so many others.

That's all I'm saying.

Personal demons aside, Michael Jackson was a dazzling pioneer 06/26/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 26, 2009 8:27pm]

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