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Image: Michael Jackson
Neal Preston  /  Corbis file
Michael Jackson performs in Los Angeles during the 1984 “Victory” tour. He gave us such fond memories, but made it difficult to hang on to them.
Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com
updated 6/25/2009 9:03:55 PM ET 2009-06-26T01:03:55
COMMENTARY

My sister Janice has this memory of the night the “Thriller” video premiered on MTV. “Thriller,” the 13-minute Michael Jackson video directed by John Landis that changed the nature of music videos. The one that made a decent pop song seem better than it was.

Janice and our older sister, Sheryl, watched, jaws agape, as the story unfolded — an innocent date gone horribly awry: Exiting a werewolf flick, a young couple walks home (through the woods, of course). The girl clings nervously to the boy (Jackson), who delights in playing off her nerves. Suddenly they’re surrounded by the funky living dead. Turning to Jackson, the girl sees that ... oh no! He’s a zombie, too!

The music starts and the rotting horde pops, locks and rolls its way after the screaming girl, all under the middle-eight narration of horror-movie staple Vincent Price.

The video ends and my sisters shriek with delight. Like me, they love the Jackson 5 of our childhood, though by this time they are more metalheads than pop connoisseurs. Still, they agree: The “Thriller” video is the most amazing thing they’ve ever seen. They babble about the makeup and costumes, the dancing, Vincent Price and the “the funk of 40,000 years.”

They get about one minute into their review when our father, previously silent on the couch nursing one of his regular cluster migraines, starts to shout. Something about stupid million-dollar videos and idiot pop stars and shut the hell up! Shut the hell up!

All these years later, Janice can’t hear “Thriller,” or see or talk about the video, without remembering our father’s absurd outburst. This is her memory. I wasn’t there. But I didn’t need to be.

My own best childhood memories of Michael Jackson aren’t shadowed by my cranky dad, but the artist himself — his complicated and tragic life that ended on Thursday in Los Angeles. He was a long way from the little boy we’re told never experienced an actual childhood; Jackson was only 50.

Aside from our father’s scolding, Janice made it through the “Thriller” incident unscathed. She used to e-mail me Jackson jokes. I received the last e-mail in 2005, when Jackson was indicted for molesting and intoxicating a minor (though he was later acquitted on all charges). It featured an image-manipulated Jackson, sinus cavity exposed, choosing from a selection of noses, deciding on the right one to wear to court. I opened it once and deleted it.

Once upon a time ...
Janice thought this stuff hilarious, but it creeped me out — no more so, however, than recent unaltered photos of Jackson, his pasty, mutilated face pulled tight.

I’m pissed at Jackson. Not because he died suddenly and too soon. I’m angry for selfish reasons.

He shredded my childhood memories. The “Jackson 5” cartoon, kicking butt on those wimpy Osmonds’ own Saturday-morning show. My respect and awe for a boy who could moonwalk, move and make music like no living being. He made me, a punk-rock adolescent, respect disco with 1979’s “Off the Wall.”

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The Jackson story is so completely American. This is what happens when you have so much money. Jackson was fourth-stage Howard Hughes without the refrigerated urine. Like drug-addled Elvis, dead on the toilet. Genius gone to pot. Except Presley died at 42. Jackson lasted eight more years.

After 1982’s  “Thriller” — still the best-selling album of all time — Jackson’s oddness began to emerge. I wasn’t alone in long suspecting something terrible was bound to befall him, some early death or dark fate. He seemed too innocent, too sexless to survive. It was as if he were driven by self-destruction or a blind faith that made him unable to remove himself from danger’s path.

Slideshow: Michael Jackson: 1958 - 2009 The more oft-used metaphor for Michael Jackson was the car wreck from which we can’t look away. Increasingly pervasive gossip Web sites gave every bizarre Jackson tidbit top billing. A friend of mine — a journalist in Iraq covering what one might consider “real news” — tells me these ephemera catch his attention. Hey, who doesn’t love a scary movie? Jackson was our werewolf, transforming with Lon Chaney precision before our eyes. An innocent kid gone horribly awry.

Michael Jackson was so far out of our range of experience, so weird, so unfathomable, it’s still impossible to wrap your mind around him. The only thing left to do was either ignore him or relate to yourself trying to relate to him.

Many pictures of Jackson remain: an adorable little boy with an Afro dancing in perfect rhythm with his older brothers, singing adult love songs with absolute sincerity. Or the brilliant young man breaking from the tyrannical rule of his father and record executives to make a mark with his own musical genius. Or Captain EO. Or the Scarecrow in “The Wiz.” Or whatever version of Michael Jackson you find most human.

Transformation has always been a major theme for this embattled pop star now dead at 50. He changed his face, his fashion, his dance moves.

The only change Jackson refused to make is that from boy to man. Living in a reality seemingly of his own making was part of his genius. It was also his downfall. But as Jackson could attest, you only get so many good childhood memories.

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