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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2009/07/27
by Mike Gruenberg

A Funeral for a Friend

In My Life
Our society has an insatiable appetite to know everything there is to know about the celebrities that grace our movie screens, who sing and play for us on our iPods and that we see on our favorite television programs every week. We are sad when a beloved character on a TV program goes away, such as Grissom leaving CSI. We still cant get over Brad leaving Jennifer to go with Angelina. And were happy that Britney has seemingly straightened out her life. And many of us are even happier that Paul is no longer married to a person that did not seem quite right for him. Not that its any of our business as to who marries or divorces whom. As a result of constant media attention, our celebrities become our imaginary friends since we seem to know so much about them.
Quite frankly, I am not a celebrity watcher. I am not interested in which rock star is back in rehab. Nor do I care how much money is paid to a Hollywood starlet for a film that flops at the box office. And I certainly dont want to know why Brad left Jennifer. However, I must admit that I would like to see Grissom back on CSI.
Perhaps its the media frenzy that turns me off. Celebrities feeding off the paparazzi is not a pretty sight no matter if it is from the standpoint of the star or the photographer. I think a person like George Clooney should be allowed to go out to dinner without having his picture taken as he enters the establishment, orders his meal and exits through the rear door of the restaurant. Nevertheless, we all seem to have this strange fascination to know the minutest of details about the people who entertain us.
Like many of us, I enjoyed listening to Michael Jackson sing and watched him dance so effortlessly across a stage. When the Jackson 5 burst upon the music world, we were all fascinated with the immense talent and stage maturity of this cute, little boy. We often wondered what the other four brothers added to the musical equation, but it soon became apparent that Michael was the star. Everyone knew that if the Jackson 4 minus Michael auditioned for Berry Gordy at Motown, all four would have been back in Gary, Indiana on the next train out of Detroit. Hard to tell if his brothers would have had as much success without him, but at the very least, sans Michael, stardom would not have been so swift for the other Jacksons. His parents knew that Michael possessed a rare gift and they did everything possible to exploit that talent.
At an age when most kids were playing with their peers in a park or having ice cream and just having fun, Michael was instead hard at work in a recording studio. Only later did we find out that in those early years he yearned to be just a kid and was severely pained to have had his youth taken from him from the adults in his life. But his father immediately knew that the incredible talent of his young son was the familys ticket out of Gary. Some have called the relentless drive of Michaels father to make his young son a show business success at all costs a form of child abuse.
With Michael leading the way, the Jackson 5 had a very successful run at Motown, but as the boys became young men, they became disenchanted there. When they were able, the Jacksons left Berry Gordys record company and found a record label home elsewhere. I recall that they left Motown due to contractual and monetary differences with the man who first gave them their big break in show business. The Jackson 5 became The Jacksons and soon Michael was making distinctive solo record albums apart from his siblings.
None of us at that time realized the incredible scope of his talent until Michael struck out on a solo career leaving his brothers behind. All of a sudden, this little boy became a handsome young man singing and dancing his way into our lives. He had it all good looks, charm, dating Brooke Shields and most of all, possessing an amazing stage persona. It can be easily said that Michael was one of the primary reasons for the early success of MTV. It was always a special event when the new Michael Jackson video was first shown on MTV. His MTV video with Paul McCartney was a mini-movie. And then he collaborated with musical genius, Quincy Jones to release the most popular album of all time Thriller which to date has sold over 40 million copies.
At the height of his popularity bringing him untold wealth and fame, something strange happened. Handsome Michael became a caricature of someone we thought we knew courtesy of far too many facial surgeries. Wealthy Michael became financially troubled and we began to see a man we didnt really know and in some cases did not want to know. Ill advised relationships, lavish spending and poorly directed financial ventures gave fodder to the press and this person whom we loved became the butt of cruel jokes and tasteless skits by late night comedians. Hurt by the negative press, Michael retreated from performing to his Neverland Ranch where he could be the kid he never was allowed to be. But here too, reality reared its head and his monetary setbacks caused him to leave his happy home. He soon realized that he needed to make enough money to settle his mounting financial debts. It was decided that he make one last tour even though he had not toured in quite some time.
While preparing for his last tour that would cover 50 concert dates grossing enough money to get him out of debt, Michael suddenly died. Perhaps it was exhaustion that did him in. Or maybe too lethal a combination of prescription drugs for his constant pain was the cause of death. Or maybe Michael just had enough. We probably will never know the true cause of his death.

When I learned of his demise, like many of us I was saddened by the passing of this man. After all, so many of us grew up watching Michael. We saw him on MTV and bought his records. Like many of the celebrities we watch and admire, he was our friend. We knew him and we respected his talent. I had hoped that his funeral would be a private and dignified affair, but even in death, the media and family circus surrounding MJ was in full force. Although we saw some very touching moments as his family mourned, the entourage of hangers-on and so-called friends of Michael were also there. While there were many people who expressed heartfelt memories of Michaels love and kindness, there were also times during the program when some of the speakers seemed self-serving and self-promoting.
In the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Cameron get a call from Ed Rooney. After Ed questions the death of a loved one, Cameron berates Ed by saying "A family member dies and you insult me! What the hell is the matter with you anyway!?!!" I kind of felt that way watching the Michael Jackson funeral. A friend of ours has died. Give him the respect and dignity to let him rest in peace. That assemblage of people at Staples Center seemed to me more like an event than a dignified tribute to a man who gave us so many hours of entertainment. Maybe the enormity of his talent and the way in which he touched so many lives warranted such an event. Or maybe this is the way show business says good-bye to one of its own. For me, a private and quiet service for the family would have sufficed. I for one will always be grateful for the music MJ created and shared with the world. I hope that I will be happy someday to see his kids raised in as normal an environment as possible. I am also hopeful that his finances will somehow be straightened out so that his financial debts are settled and that the family members that he designated in his will rightfully share in their inheritance. Given the cast of characters who have since surfaced on all the news programs claiming to be close confidants of Michael, my hopes of normalcy for his family and heirs may be overly optimistic. But I have hope and I also wish that Michael can finally rest in peace.

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