Reading Time magazine's special issue on Michael Jackson is a great way to get angry. The articles and personal testimonials are all very nice, but it is the pictures that make one's blood boil. When you look at the cherubic little black boy with eyes alternately showing irrepressible joy and a hint of shyness (almost sadness) and then see the more recent pictures of him, the question screams out -- "HOW!?? How could this have happened to this person?" Even when putting the ugly molestation stuff aside, just look at Michael Jackson and one realizes how things went terribly terribly wrong.
Yes, taking note of the ridiculous excesses of Neverland and everything else, a lot of this deterioration falls on Jackson's own head: He had all this talent and allowed his own ego and narcissism to drive himself hundreds of millions into debt.
But then again, if you've turned on the television of the last few days -- or checked the stories on the Internet -- you realize that with Michael Jackson, whatever he did to himself, there were at least a half-dozen people never too far away to help him ease on down the road to damnation.
It's as vivid in the barely a week since death as it was in his life. Joe Jackson, the so-called "patriarch" of the family who, at 79, can't let a media opportunity pass without shilling his new record company or some garbage that is being released on Blu-Ray disc. Goodness knows, if Billy Mays hadn't died a couple of days after Michael, you know Joe would have hired him to do the evening infomercial selling the memorabilia.
As horrible a man as Joe Jackson has been reported to be as a father -- the severe beatings when recording sessions didn't go right, for example -- one is tempted to give him a modicum of slack. As a 40-something black man, I'm uncomfortable judging the choices made by a man several decades my senior who -- growing up in an America with many states having Jim Crow laws -- saw the talent within his children and wanted to harness it in the best way possible to rise the entire family out of poverty. He played the hand dealt him -- and it was not done pretty.
That said, after decades of success, when he helped produce the biggest star in the world, someone who made himself and his family millionaires many times over (nearly all of which was squandered), is it really the case that his son's death is seen as just another hook with which he can gain one more buck in his dotage? His son essentially had his soul squeezed out of him -- left as a walking drained husk well before his heart gave out -- and this is the best Joe Jackson can do before his son is even buried in the ground? Just squeeze still more blood from a stone.
But this is why Michael Jackson is dead -- because those in his orbit, even those tangentially, could never subsume their own personal dramas to the good will for their supposedly beloved relative or friend. And, standing front and center, right by the rapacious Joe -- the political ministers of black America, Revs. Jesse Jackson (no relation, as much as it galls him) and Al Sharpton.
Michael's death has renewed the simmering rivalry between the political ministers and one-time presidential candidates. Did they step in to try and provide some order to the growing chaotic circus around all things Jackson? Hah! They had to become part of the show, of course! Thus, Jesse was zooming to Los Angeles within 24 hours of Michael's death to emerge as yet another spokesman to declare that the family wasn't satisfied with the first autopsy and requested another one.
Meanwhile, Sharpton held court in New York, rushing to the Apollo Theatre to take the lead in East Coast mourning. Sharpton, of course, has practice at this: He orchestrated the James Brown viewing and wake at the Apollo three years ago. In fairness, he and Brown truly were close: Sharpton's once signature pompadour hairstyle was directly modeled after the Godfather of Soul's. While he may have known Michael for 35 years, he was never quite as much an intimate of the King of Pop. Regardless, Sharpton was in California Monday before zooming back to the Big Apple to lead a cheering, dancing mini-revival memorial back at the Apollo.
For his part, Jesse Jackson knows something about gaining some personal prestige by being in the right place at the right time when a legend known as a "King" passes in untimely fashion. A late-era member of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s entourage, Jackson notoriously kept wearing a sweater stained with King's blood for days after the April 4, 1968 assassination. How the blood even got on the sweater was a point of mystery itself -- a fact that Sharpton didn't mind reminding media of some years back, when a reporter brought up Tawana Brawley between the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns. Regardless, Jesse has also made himself available to record a public service message to prevent overzealous fans from killing themselves over their idol's death.
It's sad. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have become famous themselves, controversial though their methods may be. But are they so starved for attention that they must bask in the reflected glory of a truly tragic entertainment figure? To ask the question is to answer it.
No wonder Jesse and Al needed to rush to be in front of microphones by Joe Jackson's side. Birds of a feather flock together. And vultures love to share in a tasty meal.