I realize this blog has not been active in several months, and first of all, I would like to express my gratitude to those loyal readers who have remained patient and faithful. After a series of setbacks, personal issues and other factors that have kept me out of the saddle for some time, I am slowly getting my groove back and catching up on all things MJ.
However, it saddens me that my return blog post could not be under happier circumstances. As we all know by now, the observation of Michael’s ninth death anniversary was marred by more sad news with the passing of his father Joe Jackson.
Normally I have always written a post to commemorate each passing year without Michael, but for some reason, this year I really struggled. What could I possibly say that I have not already said better in the last eight years? A nine year anniversary is a frustratingly odd number, not like the bench mark of, say, a ten year anniversary. Still, it is “almost” a decade. It is long enough that a baby born in 2009-the year Michael left us-would now be entering third grade (and, no doubt, still recognizing the iconic beat of “Billie Jean”). It is more than enough time to reflect on what a decade without Michael Jackson has meant for us, and for the world.
For sure, that light has not dimmed. Thousands of roses and floral arrangements decked Holly Terrace. Social media blew up with remembrances and the hashtag #9YearsWithoutMichaelJackson. No sooner had Joe Jackson drawn his last breath than a new “duet” featuring Michael Jackson and Drake was blowing up the charts (more on that topic to come). The last few months has seen an explosion of television specials and documentaries (of varying degrees of quality, it might be added, but the sheer fact that they continue to be made is an attestment to the continued drawing power of Michael’s name).
Perhaps best of all, the anniversary came and went in relatively quiet, dignified fashion. No newly invented “scandals” invented by the likes of Radar Online rocked the headlines. Perhaps with the Wade Robson case officially dismissed for good, the incentive just wasn’t there. A sign of progress? Is the world finally ready to let Michael Jackson rest in peace? That would probably be wishful thinking, but at least it was nice to have a relatively quiet anniversary in which the world only remembered that we loved and lost him.
However, it was by no means an uneventful anniversary, as the media “death watch” over Joe Jackson had already kicked into high gear. Speculation that Joe might actually pass on June 25th was rampant, and didn’t we just know the media was salivating over that golden prospect, already thinking what headlines that would make!
The “coincidence” of Joe possibly passing on his son’s death anniversary wasn’t just being talked about by the media, however. Among colleagues at work and even in private conversation, many were speculating: Could it happen? It would have seemed strangely fitting, in a bizarre kind of way, for this to have been the final chapter of what had been a lifelong and complicated father-son saga.
According to at least one tabloid story, Joe was hoping to “hold on” long enough to see his son’s ninth death anniversary. But many could not resist speculating that Joe Jackson-ultimate showman to the end-was already envisioning what a story it would make if he bowed out on the 25th. Well, we can’t presume to know what was going through Joe’s mind in those final hours. Joe had been in failing health for years, having already suffered a series of strokes. The thin and frail man who appeared occasionally in recent interviews and public appearances was a shadow of his former, robust self.
Joe was appearing and sounding increasingly frail in recent photos and interviews:
I had met Joe back in 2010 at the King of Pop Fanvention in Merrillville, indiana and spent most of that weekend seeing him at various functions. At the time, he was already eighty-two but nevertheless was the picture of vitality. (I know because I still have a vivid memory of trying to catch up to him and being literally outpaced by an eighty-two year old man who could still strut fast enough to make a fit, 48 year old woman winded!). The Joe Jackson I had seen in more recent years bore little resemblance to that man.
For all the world knows, it could well have been the grief precipitated by the approach of the nine year anniversary that exacerbated his already failing health. But, whether it was indeed sad coincidence or the last breath of Joe Jackson’s infamously manipulative and stubborn will, he managed to make it close enough. Joe Jackson passed on June 27, 2018 just two days after Michael’s ninth year of transition.
Unfortunately, his death brought out some of the best and worst of an already divided fan community, for just like everything else in the Michael Jackson fandom, Joe Jackson has been a polarizing figure, either respected and admired as the iron rampart behind the Jackson family or villified as an abuser. As someone who has heard all of the stories from both sides, it’s hard to know how to filter all of it to come to some sort of middle ground. As I have said often enough, based on my own experience, I witnessed many sides of Joe the one weekend that I spent in his presence. I knew the moment I was in his presence that he was every bit the intimidating figure his children described. I know he would have terrified a sensitive child-he terrified me! Over the years, I have gotten pretty seasoned about approaching celebrities. But I shook in my shoes when Joe Jackson stood in front of me, and it wasn’t anything he said or did. As Michael said, it was just the fact that he could give you a look and you knew instantly where you stood.
But the very next day, Joe was seated behind me when Jennifer Batten, Michael’s lead guitarist, was conducting a seminar. He asked her to play a song for him. “In all the years you played for my son, I never got to hear you.” She played a song for him, and when I next stole a glance at Joe, he was visibly fighting tears. Abruptly, in the middle of the song, he got up and walked out. I honestly believe that he was still old school enough to believe that a man should not cry in public.
I was further surprised that weekend when Joe actually gave the ok for me to interview him for this blog; however, I misheard the location where we were supposed to meet (the Star Cafe’, NOT the Starbucks!) and due to that stupid mistake, was forever robbed of the chance I might have had to sit one on one with the man, however briefly. This would have been interesting because it would have been more of an informal conversation over breakfast than a formal interview. I will always regret that mistake because I can tell a lot about a person within a few minutes of talking to them. On the other hand, when I look back on it, I always wondered why I didn’t pursue the opportunity more aggressively. Sure, I had screwed up-very unprofessionally-but it wasn’t as if I couldn’t have explained what happened and requested another opportunity. For some reason, I didn’t and looking back on it now, I am still not sure why. Perhaps it was because I really was feeling very nervous and scared about doing the interview (almost as if I was relieved when I didn’t see him waiting in Starbucks). I realized that somewhere between the very intimidating reputation and the sheer force of the man’s physical presence, I had turned from a confident writer and journalist to the state of a terrified six year old child! In short, maybe something in my subconscious will prevented me from pursuing it any further (i.e, did I simply chicken out?). It wouldn’t have been the first time. This was a man who could bring the biggest superstar in the world shaking to his knees. Many stories from those who worked closest with Michael attest that the sheer knowledge that Joe Jackson was on the premises would be enough to make the color drain from his face. “I don’t want to see him,” would be the usual response, leaving it for some unlucky employee to be the go-between. Those stories always bothered me, and still do. I felt sorry for the abused son who evidently had felt so traumatized that this kind of avoidance was the only way he knew how to cope with it. At the same time, though, I couldn’t help feeling sympathy for a father who simply wanted to see his son. (Michael, of course, would have said it was not that simple; that this was about Joe wanting something else from him, and that was probably true, also, at least most of the time).
The next day, a Sunday, I saw Joe again at the Jackson house in Gary. This time, it was more of a family reunion type of event, with the public invited, of course. The tough guard was down. Joe was just uncle, cousin, grandpa, great-grandpa, brother. He was cutting birthday cake with one of his nieces, smiling and laughing at some family joke. Joe really had a great smile that lit up his face, and his entire demeanor changed. I realized that in his older years, Joe’s face had settled into very harsh lines and the media loved to play that up, always posting only the most unflattering and sinister looking, scowling pics. They loved demonizing him just as they similarly loved playing up Michael as “the freak.” But among family, he could let his guard down and just be Grandpa Joe.
One thing I do know is that Joe always gave back to the city of Gary, Indiana. The man was a walking contradiction-intimidating, yes, but also a man who genuinely enjoyed being sociable among Michael’s fans. He was tough, but also had his moments of unexpected tenderness. People who knew Joe best say that he had mellowed with age, and I realize this would have been the version that I met. By then, he was only a shadow of the man who had once terrified his kids, and only a shadow of the force that had swept them from poverty to world fame. But the last vestiges of that gale force remained.
There is a lot that the world still doesn’t understand, or properly acknowledge, about Joe Jackson. The media tears him down without ever once considering the world of the Depression era South that shaped him. Michael himself came to recognize this, and spoke about it eloquently in his Oxford speech on forgiveness. Joe was a Black man growing up in the Jim Crow era South, which in itself tells us all we really need to know. But there was so much more. He was also the son who had to grow up too fast and learn to be the man of the family when his beautiful but emotionally unstable mother, Crystal Lee, abandoned the family. He developed his aspirations for a better life while taking care of his siblings and steering them through the Depression. He would go on to raise nine children in one of the toughest industrial cities in America, and later, as perhaps the very first African American “stage father,” he fought an uphill battle against a white dominated music industry that would never allot him the respect he deserved (Joe always knew this, and to a large extent, it shaped his character, the final indignity that firmly hardened whatever layers of vulnerability remained intact). No matter what we say about Joe Jackson, we have to acknowledge that he always fought as firmly for his family as he fought with and against them.
It is not my place to either defend or villify Joe. Only the Jackson children really know what they endured and what they feel for him. If Michael’s own words are taken into account, his were the conflicted feelings that are almost always the product of a complicated parent/child relationship. It is a tough thing to deal with because along with all of the hurt and anger there is guilt as well-the guilt of knowing this is your parent, whom the Bible teaches us to love and respect-and yet knowing this does not eradicate those feelings. It only adds to the confusion and pain. It is a feeling shared the world over by all of us who know what it is to love a parent and yet know that we simply can’t be in the same room with them for more than five minutes without feeling like we might burst a blood vessel. And then we hate ourselves even more for feeling that way, despite whatever the parent has done.
Michael Opened Up Candidly About His Feelings For His Father In His Spech at Oxford, 2001:
Michael and Joe did eventually come to a hard won “understanding” but it is doubtful those wounds ever healed completely. In his old age, Joe Jackson had learned the hard way that we are all products of the mistakes we have made, and for better or worse, we live with those consequences. But I think in his own way, he was at least trying. The moment when he took his son’s hand at the 2005 trial was a symbolic gesture to the world that “we are united and we stand together” but it also went much deeper than that. It was, finally, the simply show of affection that Michael had craved from his father his whole life. It would not be enough to permanently seal the damage, and indeed not even enough to bring about a permanent closure to their rift. But it was something-a gesture; however small.
There has also been one other memory that I have continued to go back to in the week since Joe passed. I remember that Joe was once asked which, of all Michael’s solo hits, was his favorite. The question automatically disqualified anything from The Jackson 5 or Jacksons era. It could only be something from Michael’s adult solo career. And I’ll never forget how Joe’s answer both shocked me and yet taught me that there was so much more to the man than I thought I ever knew. You see, I was thoroughly expecting that he would have said “Billie Jean” or “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” or something similar from the Quincy Jones era, in which Michael had stayed closest to his r&b/Motown roots. Instead, he said, “That song that he did about the animals” and I knew he meant “Earth Song.” I would never in a million years have thought of “Earth Song” as something that Joe would have even liked, let alone singling it out as his favorite. But I remembered that Michael had always said that his father loved animals, and that in fact his own love of animals had come from his father.
It reminded me of one of the many joys that this journey of discovering the man Michael Jackson has been all about. It is not always about the big things, but those moments of little discoveries that make you rethink everything you thought you knew about someone. Only in this case, it said more about the man he simply wanted to call “Dad” for all of his life. Anyone who loves animals can’t be all bad.
This week, in whatever form these things take, father and son have been reunited. It is not for us to speculate on what that means for either soul. I can only say that I hope Michael was there to greet him and guide him home. Death brings understanding to all things, and Michael no longer has to be that scared child cowering in fear, for he is awash in God’s love and grace.
I always dreaded the inevitable time when we would no longer have Michael’s parents with us. Katherine and Joe are both, in their own way, institutions. Between them, they created and nurtured a musical dynasty. Like stalwart war horses, they seemed destined to stick around forever. They have endured a lot and have shared many struggles. They represent the values of “The Silent Generation,” a generation shaped by the struggles of The Great Depression and the trauma of World War II, a generation that is rapidly thinning in number but from whom we can still learn much.
They shared the bittersweet triumphs of their children’s success and the shared pain of their darkest chapters. It sometimes seemed as if they were both going to go on forever, but even with the benefit of great genes (they both had parents that lived well into their nineties and early hundreds) and all the best medical care that money can buy, we knew it couldn’t be. Sooner or later, one of them would have to go. It is sad, though, to see the start of this chapter. It is one thing to see many of Michael’s friends (and frenemies!) passing, but the loss of Joe-and inevitably, Katherine too-signifies something else, a much deeper kind of loss. As his parents, they have signified that connection that we call the mortal coil. Now that coil has been broken. Katherine remains, but Joe’s passing is a sad reminder that her time with us, also, is limited and growing shorter by the day.
Although I never met Michael, I am grateful that I was blessed with the opportunity to spend time in the presence of both of his parents. In both cases, those occasions were made possible due to Joe and Katherine’s continued support of their home town and community. In both cases, it allowed me a glimpse-however briefly-of the man and woman behind the public facade.
I knew that everything Michael had ever told us about Joseph Walter Jackson was absolutely true. But as always, “truth” can contain many facets. Joe was not a perfect parent. Where he excelled at providing and driving his family to succeed, he failed at providing emotional support and stability. To Joe, being able to put bread on the table said, “I love you.” Only very late in life did he seem to finally “get” that bruises don’t heal just because the discoloration goes away, or that those he loved maybe needed to hear it once in awhile, too.
Hopefully it was not a lesson learned too late. The touching bedside vigil for Joe-which included Michael’s children-is a testament to the fact that love and forgiveness are indeed stronger familial bonds than hate, pain or holding grudges.
I know that words are easier written than put into practice. I know that just because someone died it does not automatically wipe the slate clean. But I think now is a good time to take a cue from the family and let them have their space to grieve and to assess for themselves what Joe meant to them (yes, Bette Midler, I am addressing you, too!).
The legacy of Joe Jackson will continue to be a complicated one, marred by the legacy of abuse, and will no doubt continue for many years to both cloud and divide the fan community, who will always uphold him on the one hand as the man who “made” Michael Jackson and by the same token, as at least one of those responsible for his emotional destruction. It is not surprising that even Michael’s own speeches about the man are peppered with these same conflicting emotions-love, admiration and respect on the one hand; guilt, fear, anger and hatred on the other. All of it comes through, loud and clear-all of it equally genuine, and equally valid.
How then, do we really determine the legacy of Joe Jackson? Is it possible to admire what he accomplished, while refusing to whitewash his actions? Even the movie An American Dream, so long considered a classic staple and often accepted as Biblical truth about the Jacksons’ upbringing, depicts a driven man whose determination for success often came at the expense of his children’s emotional well being. This was a tyrant who literally blew up, going into a fit of rage, if the kids missed a step or someone left a dirty towel by the pool. At one point, he traumatically forces a terrified Michael to board an airplane during a storm. But this was also the same father who was there, in a heartbeat, when Michael was severely burned on the set of the Pepsi commercial. Making a stand to a reporter, who asked him how he felt, Joe asked him if he had any kids. The reporter replied “no.” “That’s my son in there,” Joe said. “My son.”
This was not just a scripted moment from the film. It was emblematic of everything this complicated father/son relationship stood for. The love was there, but too often it was “tough love” and not the language of love that Michael understood. As a baby boomer, Michael was already of a different generation, the generation that gave us Ward Cleaver and the era of “let’s talk it out” parenting. But I think as Michael grew older, he came to realize that we don’t get to choose who our parents are. They come to us, given by God, faults and warts and all.
We can’t always love them as unconditionally as they may love us. But in time, most of us learn to accept what we cannot change about them and to forgive what can be forgiven.
It’s all we can do.