On this day in 1958 a baby named Michael Joseph Jackson was born. He was the eighth child of the family and just six short years later, he would debut as the youngest member of The Jackson 5. The fact that Michael Jackson and I shared the same first name combined with the fact that we were, near enough, the same age made him an object of special interest as we both grew up. He developed into an American icon and were he still alive, I would have sent a card: “Happy Birthday MJ,” like many of his fans.
Michael Jackson became a man of many hats. Businessman, singer, dancer, writer, philanthropist. Before he died from the heart attack that killed him in June 2009, he was called other things. Things that were never proven and his death at age 50 left the issues still unanswered and appear as a stain on the life of an amazingly talented and giving man.
Like millions of his fans, I grew up watching Michael on the television. I can still remember seeing him on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1969, five years after Paul McCartney and the Beatles made their first appearance on the show. Later Sir Paul and Michael would work together and still later, Michael would buy out the Beatles catalogue from under McCartney causing a rift between the two.
Michael Jackson had a host of legendary performers who influenced his younger Jackson 5 years. Sammy Davis Jr, Gene Kelly, and of course the phenomenal James Brown were just a few who he learned from. It was fitting that the stars who influenced the young Michael were legends in their fields. He himself became a legend as his popularity grew.
Michael Jackson lived one of the most public lives in history. He was the focus of paparazzi and the press from the first time he stepped foot on stage to front The Jackson 5. Growing up “alongside” MJ, I was able to see the changes he made in his career as well as his more personal changes. One thing never seemed to change though, and that was his speaking voice.
When he put out the historic music video Thriller, the first music video to use a big Hollywood director, before it was aired a “making of” featurette was produced and shown on television. It showed director John Landis, actress Ola Ray and Michael going through their paces as they rehearsed for the video shoot. Michael was 25 years-old when he worked on Thriller and his voice and actions, were of someone much younger. Apart from his actions, his “youth” was apparent in his speaking voice right up until his death.
Michael had a firm grasp on his inner child and he exhibited it without hesitation. I had to constantly remind myself that we were the same age. He always seemed much younger. It was this youthful side to MJ that would later cause him so much grief. Accusations of child abuse and inappropriate behaviour towards minor children followed him to the grave. Other people stepped forward after his death to continue the allegations.
During his time as a performer he gave selflessly to charities around the world and used his own personal playground, Neverland, to entertain children, a lot of whom were from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. These acts of generosity and kindness were questioned after the abuse allegations were made. But by that time, Michael had closed Neverland because of financial problems.
Michael Jackson fans are some of the most loyal in the world. They are almost excessively devout. Heaven help you if you ever choose to denigrate their idol. He inspired that sort of devotion the world over and the one thing you could say about his fans, no matter where they came from or lived, they all had the same fierce protectiveness of their hero. Were he alive today, they would have celebrated his birthday with him via Twitter or Facebook and posted many “Happy Birthday MJ” messages. They still observe their idol’s day of birth, but it is tinged with sadness.
If ever there was a performer who really seemed ageless, who could be called the real Peter Pan, it was Michael Jackson. Even MJ having children did not change his inner child. Even when things were not going well, Jackson paid his own homage to his fans and let them know that he loved them.
In 2009 when he began preparations for his “comeback” tour, he was starting to feel his age. On stage, he worked to maintain that youthful illusion. But what the body can absorb when younger, starts to hurt once you have reached a certain age. In order to get his levels up where he could still give his fans what they wanted, he turned to prescriptive medicine.
Pain killers to enable him to still dance and move like a youngster and other pills that either gave him more energy or helped him to relax. All these things fought against one another in his system and ultimately killed him.
The world went into shock when “Peter Pan” died at the relatively young age of 50. I was also shocked. I had grown up with MJ. I had a lifetime of a love/hate relationship with the performer. When I was a kid, the same age as Michael, I was envious of his lifestyle and his enormous popularity. As I got older, I admired his talent and the range that he had as a performer.
Then when the allegations came about his relationships with young people and of course the issues of his apparent eccentricities, especially in the area of plastic surgery it looked like he was losing his tenuous grip on reality. I felt sympathy for the man who had never really had a childhood or a real private life.
But take away all those allegations and problems and you had a man who had more than his fair share of talent and who knew what his fans wanted and needed from him. So I take my metaphorical hat off to my Christian namesake who would have been 55 on this day. An American icon who changed the face of entertainment just as surely as he changed the way music videos were perceived. Happy birthday MJ.
By Michael Smith