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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Reality Check

Michael Jackson 1958-2009
James Campion
In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period so ever in life is always a child. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Michael Jackson is America's celebrity experiment. A kind of preternatural Skinner Box child, who grew up in a fishbowl with no boundaries and sense of self beyond what the Billboard charts indicated.

Michael Jackson 1958 - 2009
The scars of physical and emotional child abuse were always etched on Michael Jackson's countenance, long before he deconstructed his face to mask it. It is one of the great feats, this incredibly talented prodigy -- exploited, beaten, and robbed of precious childhood innocence and the foundation of self esteem by those who claimed to love and protect him -- becoming one of the most influential and dominant forces in American pop culture.

It is a wonder the man the papers continue to flippantly call Jacko didn't end up balled in a fetal position, sucking his thumb and babbling nursery rhymes. And maybe he did; holed up in his many bunkers from the Neverland Ranch to secret compounds and hotel suites from London to Nigeria. But that was long after he had overcome being reared by a twisted gargoyle of a father and his enabling matron, and bearing the pressures of carrying his fairly competent musical siblings, who relied heavily on his startlingly gifted talents and incandescent star quality to even get a sniff of life outside of Gary, Indiana.

From the start, Michael Jackson was the bread-winning, bacon-hauling strength and breath of the Jackson Five -- those sparkling eyes, blinding smile, and a playfully endearing personality far beyond his eleven years. And although anyone who came close enough to this phenom clung hard to his hem at every turn, it was the young Jackson's ability to focus on the blessed music that allowed him to not only endure, but thrive. It's curing melodies and furious rhythms, the highs and lows of its keys and its soothing structure of scales, arrangements and the flawless dance steps of campy routines that accompanied it all.

Jackson's juvenile voice -- the one that predated the falsetto yipping adult screech version -- barely trained, raw, and preternaturally distinctive was one hell of an instrument. What he's doing in "I Want You Back", "Got To Be There", and "Never Can Say Goodbye" is downright eerie. He alone created the Jackson myth: A bottomless well of magically imbued DNA, when all along it was little Michael and a bunch of hanger's on.

You think a moderate talent like Janet Jackson would have been outfitted with a Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis School of Funk tutoring if her name had been Jones and her brother wasn't the biggest pop star on planet earth?
Hey, but child stars, whether mediocre ones like Danny Bonaduce or legends like Shirley Temple all have their tales of woe. It's as old as traveling carnival freaks and pathetic dog acts; cute kids who can carry a tune and hoof a number to pay daddy's bills. But it was far more than that for Michael Jackson, who was almost immediately emasculated by his family and driven hard by the factory corral at Motown, both of which conspired to tell the world that the already amazing whiz kid was three years younger at a time when a pre-teen boy is eager to add a half-year on every turn of the calendar, to inch closer to his more mature and handsome older brothers who were banging groupies across darkened hotel rooms on endlessly grueling tours.

It was a strange confluence of emotions for a boy caught in the spotlight, hobnobbing with glitzy celebrity, handling nagging newsmen and appeasing clamoring fans, trapped in airless studios for weeks and run ragged in rehearsals, while also being healed and exhalted by song. For Michael Jackson, it was more than a love affair with showbiz and the adulation that came with performing; it was a measure of pride and identity. Most of all, it was escape. Escape from the looming prospect of failure in the shadow of an incessant badgering for perfection, all the while being looked upon as nothing more than a cash machine.

It is why years later Jackson told gurus and spiritual advisors he wouldn't dare trade the sacrifices and abuses he endured as an imprisoned child star for a life filled with the peaceful anonymity of uneventful mediocrity. This was a being literally created to entertain, so much so that all of the lunacy that became his personal life was just a way for him to keep up the performance, maintain the "put on". The Show was his safe place, like his arrested development, a state of naive inertia, caught between a clamoring for the affection of millions and the abject horror that they would eventually uncover his demons.

In J.Randy Taraborrelli's exhaustive 1991 biography, Michael Jackson; The Magic & The Madness there emerges a character that defies all psychological reasoning. It is as though you are peering into not so much an abnormality in the human condition, but one without the proper wiring to cope at all. And this is the nut about all the bizarre and allegedly criminal behavior of the aging and morphing Michael Jackson; he was expected to act as if he were a properly developed and nurtured person, when he was anything but.

And maybe you can say as much for his genius, of which there is little doubt -- its impact equal to that of any African American artist of the 20th century, and that's saying something. For genius is defined in Webster's as a "peculiar, distinctive or identifying character or spirit", right next to "a personification or embodiment especially of a quality or condition", which could scarcely better describe Michael Jackson from the tender age of eleven until his final breaths in a lavish Hollywood estate a week ago, with all the good and strange stuff in between.

In an interview I conducted for this magazine in March of '08, Counting Crows front man and prime songwriter, Adam Duritz reminisced about the impact the Jackson Five had on his initial love of music. Turns out the first album Duritz owned, like myself, a seventies kid raised on pop and soul and folk and humming melodies and showstoppers, was the Jackson Five's fourth studio album, "Maybe Tomorrow".
As an aside, I chuckled to myself, "What happened?"
And without thinking, Duritz, a man who has publicly grappled with his own demons of fame and identity whispered, "Oh, he's in there somewhere."

© James Campion July 4th 2009


Dear James,
Thank you for your sensitive and insightful words about that poor kid's 'life.' (MICHAEL JACKSON 1958 -- 2009 -- Issue: 7/8/09) People do not understand the irreparable damage an abusive parent can wreak on a child's psyche. It's a life sentence. I know. Joe Jackson had nothing on my father, believe me. My sister Donna and I were constantly slammed around, closed fists, and always to the head. And then index finger touching the tip of our noses he'd snarl, "Don't cry! Don't cry, you son of a bitch, or I'll finish killing you!" and we had to muffle our sobs with pillows or bunches of clothing so he wouldn't return, even more ferocious than before... Rotten marriage? Take it out on the kids. Back in the 50s, there was no help for 'domestic violence.' We were property, chattel, to do with as they wished. And in an Italian-American neighborhood, NOBODY interfered, not even family members. It wasn't 'their business.' He deemed us 'failures' and 'putains' early in life, and permanently destroyed us. I'm trying to write the story, but it's difficult. During a bad bout of depression, I once said to my mother, "I can't get rid of the memories. Maybe if I write about it, the demons will stop..." You know what she said? "If you do that, I'll take my own life. I couldn't live with the shame." The shame??? What about the PAIN we're living with every fucking day of our lives, Ma?? She was born totally bereft of any 'maternal instinct' and sacrificed her children for her marriage.

Back in the 1982 Thriller days, I knew Michael Jackson's then-manager and asked if he would deliver a little painting I made for Michael. He did, and true to Michael Jackson's gracious spirit, I received a beautiful thank you letter from him (I tried to attach it, but it's blocked.) He signed it "Love" with his big, sprawling signature, and his manager told me that he was 'so excited and happy' when he looked at it ... just like a child. People are telling me "Sell it, sell it!" but I can't bring myself to do that, as dead broke as I am. I made that painting for Michael from my heart, and cannot betray this tiny link I have to a beautiful soul by cashing in on his death. It's just not in me to do that. (If you'd like to see the letter, it's on my website ~ ~ "Some Nice Things.")

So, James, thank you for coming to the defense of all children everywhere whose lives are hijacked by the very people who are supposed to 'love' them. I really did understand Michael Jackson's intense inner loneliness, and I'm glad you put it into words.
I hope you and your family are well.
Thanks again. You made me cry, but it's okay. I'm allowed to cry now.
Paula DeMarta Mastroianni

Nicely done. Just ... some might see the line about "as any African-American artists" as pigeonholing or even diminishing MJ. I mean, he blew away most of the white artists, too.
Vince Czyz
PS -- Not that I was a Jackson fan OR an Elvis fan. I'm a Jim Morrison kind a guy.

I cannot understand this disgusting fascination and worse-off celebration of a known pedophile! If this was anyone else besides a celebrity there would be outrage and good-riddance instead of endless tributes and weeping as if we lost Mother Theresa. I am appalled at the utter lack of compassion this nation has for the victims of these pie-in-the-sky stars, who think they own the world! This whole thing has been a mockery. Jackson was a criminal who did not do time because he had money and connections and fame and all the rest. We see it time and again, and as much as your piece did bring to light his many mental issues stemming from abuse and neglect and exploitation, it does not excuse the evidence of his deeds.
Think about it, people! This is a man who more than once was accused of diddling little children AND openly admitted playing, sleeping in the same bed with, and preferring their company to that of adults. Yes, Michael Jackson was insane! But his insanity rolled over into the realm of social indecency at best and criminal behavior at worst, and for that he should NEVER have been give the send off of an American icon anymore that Al Capone or Ted Bundy.

Did I miss something? Michael Jackson was good for about two or three years in the eighties after he was basically Donny Osmond in the late sixties. What the fuck? It's as if he ruled the Western Hemisphere for six decades. This is what is happening to this media-crazed generation of dummies; everyone who does anything for fifteen minutes is the King of it and every accomplishment is applauded as if it were the invention of the wheel. This idiot was a dancer and singer, and a pretty good one at that, but nothing ground shattering. Did he invent a style of music like the Ramones or Miles Davis or even goddamn fat Elvis? Was he a trendsetter for anything musically? Could he even play an instrument? Someone please explain to me why we are treating Michael Jackson as if he cured cancer? Please, someone, somewhere!!!
Adam Suffin

I really enjoyed your send-off to Michael Jackson, for nothing else, but it did not sing praises or bash him into cinder, but simply pointed out the dangers of celebrity and the fragility of the human psyche and especially that of a child. Jackson remained a child all of his life because his childhood was stolen from him; he and his parents (the real culprits) gambled it away for stardom and hits. The most surprising line of all was when you pointed out that Jackson had told numerous interviewers that he would have done it all again, that it was worth being damaged and abused for fame and fortune. This is our culture. This is our country in a nutshell. It represents all that is wrong with us. We are a consumer happy, celebrity hungry pack of voyeurs, who have the audacity to mock the rest of the world for not having these amazing freedoms to destroy the human spirit.
I did not like Michael Jackson or his music. I found him at the end basically a human oddity, like a circus freak or a traveling clown, but his was a tragic life ultimately, and I am glad you saw fit at the time of his passing to make that abundantly clear.
Thanks again for always providing the less attractive but oh-so important take.
J. Aquardo

The Allah Stomp
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Thomas Jefferson, one of history's most articulate dreamers, saw uprisings as a kind of spiritual right of passage for the human spirit, a Jesus/Mohammad king-hell joust with tyranny

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