x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Farewell performance

Michael Jackson's lavish LA memorial featured plenty of effusive praise and the occasional touching tribute.

Members of the Jackson family, from left, Marlon, Jermaine, Tito, Randy, Paris Katherine, Janet and Rebbie gather around Paris during her tearful good-bye.
Members of the Jackson family, from left, Marlon, Jermaine, Tito, Randy, Paris Katherine, Janet and Rebbie gather around Paris during her tearful good-bye.

Michael Jackson was a celebrity with an unfailing knack for the extravagant public gesture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same spirit infused the memorial his family and friends threw for him to bid their final farewell. Tuesday's two-hour Jackson fest, in the somewhat inauspicious setting of the Staples Center sports and convention arena in downtown Los Angeles, did not lack for gaudiness. It was filled with music and soaringly rhetorical speeches and a slight over-eagerness to please. It contained a surprise or two, none more touching than the first public appearance of Jackson's three children, including his 11-year-old daughter, Paris, who made the beginnings of a speech about how wonderful she found her father before she collapsed in sobs in the arms of her aunt Janet.

And, of course, it all took place under a mass-media microscope, the 20,000 people in attendance eclipsed by the millions watching on television and on the internet around the globe. On the small screen, it might have all given the appearance of running with an effortless smoothness. To anyone on the ground in Los Angeles, though, the occasion was shot through with another quality closely associated with Jackson during his lifetime: the sense that it could all have gone horribly wrong in an instant.

LA city officials scrambled to mount a hugely complicated security operation on next to no notice over the Independence Day holiday weekend. The producers of the memorial scrambled to invite the likes of Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey, Lionel Richie and the blues guitarist John Mayer to perform alongside an improvised backing band with almost no opportunity to rehearse. The organisers distributed more than 17,500 free tickets to fans selected by lottery, only to unleash a frenzy of selling over the internet by people hoping to make a quick buck out of the opportunity.

The Staples Center, perhaps appropriately, had to make some hurried alternate arrangements for the incoming Ringling Brothers circus, whose elephants ended up being walked across downtown Los Angeles in the dead of night and led into a back entrance to the building - where they began a residency 24 hours after the Jackson show. In the end, though, everyone did their part with admirable efficiency. The hordes that police were afraid would show up in downtown Los Angeles without a ticket failed, for the most part, to materialise. Traffic was only slightly more nightmarish than on the average Tuesday morning, and the event went off with a tiny handful of arrests.

If the event could be faulted, it was perhaps for failing to find a consistent tone for the occasion. Some of those in attendance were dressed for a funeral, in dark suits and long black dresses. Others clearly treated the occasion as a belated Jackson concert gig and pulled out sequinned T-shirts, Thriller-style jackets, sharp hairdos and shiny ankle boots. Just as he did during the more lurid episodes of his life, Jackson somehow managed to attract exhibitionists and camera-muggers in abundance: the boy in a white suit and a black porkpie hat, the rapper calling himself Cyrano who came up with a rhyme about Jackson as a way to promote his own work to a hungry media pack, the quartet of theatrical costume-shop workers from the distant LA suburbs who not only sported Michael Jackson-inspired outfits but were only too happy to take orders.

One television actor in attendance, Vincent de Paul, was one of a clutch of minor entertainment figures claiming some of Jackson's reflected glory. De Paul, switching unmistakably into self-promotion mode when he realised he was talking to a reporter, said he met the singer after a concert in Washington about 20 years ago. "We bonded because we were both Virgos," he confided. Jackson's nearest and dearest reflected the impulse for easy image-making: his brothers wore identical suits, sunglasses, bright yellow ties and red rose buttonholes, as though the matching-outfit days of the Jackson Five were still with us.

The speeches were high on rhetoric and lavish praise, but remarkably reticent to talk about Jackson's flaws and eccentricities. To speaker after speaker, Jackson was a man who had been "misunderstood" and "persecuted" by ungrateful hordes. The man known to newspaper readers - the headline-grabbing, lawsuit-happy eccentric with multiple plastic surgeries and a history of painkiller addiction, not to mention troubling friendships with children - could scarcely be discerned.

Berry Gordy, the Motown record label legend who discovered Jackson at the age of 10, talked about "questionable decisions" but quickly passed over them, declaring Jackson to be "the greatest entertainer that ever lived". At many junctures, in fact, the praise became so lavish as to seem downright suspect. Al Sharpton, the charismatic preacher and erstwhile presidential candidate, set Jackson in the pantheon of great civil rights leaders and even tried to deny that he was a strange character. "Wasn't nothing strange about your daddy," he said, addressing Jackson's three children. "It was strange that your daddy had to deal with."

Equally hard to swallow was a claim by Magic Johnson, the basketball star who became fast friends with Jackson's older brother Jackie. "I truly believe Michael made me a better point guard and basketball player," he said. When it wasn't absurd, much of the rhetoric was still hyperbolic - boosting Jackson's considerable achievements as a performer, singer, dancer and all-round entertaining into something not just for our own age but for all ages. Much more convincing were the touching personal anecdotes, many of which underlined Jackson's persona as a sensitive little kid at heart, even well into adulthood.

Johnson told a funny story about dinner at the Jackson family house at which he ended up on the floor eating KFC with Michael and Brooke Shields, a fellow survivor of childhood celebrity who became Jackson's "date" at public events during the height of his fame in the early 1980s, and talked about sneaking into Elizabeth Taylor's bedroom on the eve of one of her weddings, only to find her fast asleep in the bed.

Shields also revealed that Jackson's favourite song was Smile, from Charlie Chaplin's classic film Modern Times - an anecdote that led into a rendition of the song by Jackson's brother Jermaine, who donned a white sequinned glove straight from his brother's wardrobe for the moment. Little in the memorial reflected what we know about the circumstances leading up to his death two weeks ago at the age of 50 - the prescription painkillers, the coterie of dubious doctors and other advisers, the multiple financial and personal disasters that led him to contemplate one final comeback tour, and so on.

There is, of course, nothing unusual about a funeral service that focuses on the positive. But Jackson's troubles have been so palpable as to make them almost impossible to escape. The Staples Center, for example, is where he was rehearsing for his London concerts right up to the last night of his life. The Center is owned by AEG, the company that was promoting his tour and is now looking for ways to recoup an investment estimated to be somewhere well north of $20 million (Dh73 million).

There was a sense, in fact, that many aspects of the memorial had a commercial subtext. (Jackson did, after all, die more than $400 million [Dh1.5 billion] in debt.) US media commentators pointed out that the three top-selling albums in the country right now are all Jackson titles. Some said they expected Jermain's rendering of Smile to become a hit. Others said they had already heard that video footage of Jackson's final rehearsals would be released on DVD.

Alongside the calculation and the hyperbole, there was also a healthy dose of sincerity, some of it coming from people who freely admitted not knowing Jackson at all. The actress and singer Queen Latifah proclaimed herself the representative of all the ordinary fans who knew Jackson solely through his music. "You believed in Michael, and he believed in you," she said to cheers and applause. Latifah also read out a poem by the celebrated writer Maya Angelou that reflected on his sudden passing and much of the pain of his life - in ways many of the other speakers did not come close to emulating. "Though we are many," the poem read, "each of us is alone, achingly alone."

Everything we know about Michael Jackson suggests this is how he experienced life much of the time. After the traffic redeployments, the T-shirt hawkers and the desperate fans offering money for copies of the memorial programme, that line retained a peculiar power.