Clarence Page

Michael Jackson, Gone Too Soon
Michael Jackson (M. Ryder)

Which was your favorite Michael Jackson? Not your favorite Michael Jackson song, but your favorite Michael? There were so many of him.

News that the "King of Pop" had died at age 50 might well have felt more shocking had he not shocked us so often in the past.

He shocked the world in a good way back when he was a kid. Fronting for his older brothers in the Jackson Five, he thrilled a lot of us when we were kids -- decades before we would find ourselves trying to explain him to our own kids.

Even at age 11, when the group scored their first number-one hit, Michael's own versions of Jackie Wilson's and James Brown's stagecraft lifted the J-5's bubblegum soul from Gary, Indiana, novelty act to international stardom.

In the late 1970s, he shocked us again, this time with how much he had grown as an all-around music and dance artist.

He teamed up with producer Quincy Jones to enrich the last days of disco with "Off the Wall," which many critics call Jackson's best album. I'm partial to "Thriller," the biggest selling record of all time and one of the most influential.

Jackson's 13-minute "Thriller" video became a classic and encouraged the young and timid MTV to air more black musicians. It also led to Michael's next shock. He began turning white.

Questions began to grow around Jackson. Was he getting plastic surgery? (Gee, do ya think?) Skin peels? What else was he changing? Why didn't he have any girlfriends?

Even in the music world, where gossip is at least the second favorite leisure activity, questions about Jackson took center stage. It was a tribute to his prodigious talent that we even cared.

Jackson seemed to relish feeding our speculation. His friends ranged from Elizabeth Taylor to Bubbles the chimp. Or was he just being weird?

He built a new estate in Central California, complete with amusement park rides, and called it Neverland Ranch, after the place where Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, lived with Tinkerbell and the Lost Boys. Hey, it was his money, right?

But it also revealed a sad, lonely and confused side to the gifted star, a side that seemed to be confirmed by our next shock. In a 1993 sit-down with Oprah Winfrey, Jackson claimed to have vitiligo, a skin disorder that can leave its victims without skin color.

He revealed heartrending accounts of crying from loneliness as a child. He said he was abused so badly by his father that he sometimes would get sick and start to vomit when he saw the elder Jackson's face.

After his death, those stories give new meaning to his songs about the "Man in the Mirror" and how "it don't matter if you're black or white." Was he trying to convince us or himself?

As the man that the aging Michael saw in the mirror increasingly resembled his father, according to Jackson biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, he seemed increasingly determined to change his face. Sad.

Yet the same troubled-childhood stories that elicited so much public sympathy were turned against him when he was charged with pedophilia. He was never found guilty in court, but questions remain, fed by his many eccentricities, that both stain his legacy and enrich his mystique.

After all, Jackson was a victim but also a showman. Michael Levine, a publicist who represented Jackson in the early 1990s, called him a "disciple of P.T. Barnum," according to AP, who was "much more cunning and shrewd about the industry than anyone knew."

"There's a sucker born every minute," said the circus master Barnum, and "Every crowd has a silver lining." He promoted newsmaking hoaxes from time to time. Even when the hoax was exposed, Barnum reasoned, any publicity was good publicity. Stoking the gossip helped Jackson's ticket and music sales, too. But controversy ceased to be much fun when his fame morphed into infamy and threatened his freedom.

I don't know whether Jackson was guilty as charged. I don't know what it is like to be surrounded by people who are telling you how wonderful you are, after a childhood of being told that you're not. But it is not hard to understand how, after living so long with his fantasies, he might have lost sight of what's acceptable behavior in the real world.

Mourning Michael Jackson's death pulls us back through a kaleidoscopic montage of the many Michaels we have come to know over the years. He leaves behind more questions than we can ever answer. But his electrifying music and moonwalks never seem to get old. Preserved in music and videos, we can continue to appreciate his art and the childhood that he sacrificed in order to create it.

Michael Jackson: Michael Jackson's Creative Self-Destruction

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