A tribute by Julian Matthews
The day Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009, I received a SMS from my eldest brother. He rarely messaged me, but since I was the only journalist in the family, I was the go-to person when any major news broke. “Is it true?” he asked.
I was away in Gua Musang, Kelantan, attending a funeral of a relative on my wife’s maternal side.
We had ferried my aging in-laws there from Ipoh. We checked in at a tiny hotel that didn’t have a lift and had to walk up three flights of stairs. My 90-year-old father-in-law was a little hard of hearing and had poor eyesight. So, when we placed him in a room several doors away from us, I showed him where ours was — he could knock if he needed anything.
The hotel didn’t have internet access, and I was unable to confirm the news with my brother.
My wife and I chatted about “MJ”, how we went to his concert in Singapore in 1993 and how we were blown away by his singing, dancing and the special effects at that memorable show.
Michael had taken ill after the first show, and we were informed of a postponement on the second show only after we had all gathered inside the Kallang Stadium. We chose to stay, extended our leave and burnt our return train tickets. We definitely were not going to miss this once-in-a-lifetime event. Expectations were raised by the delay but Michael did not disappoint.
I refer to Michael in the first person because I grew up watching him, as part of the brotherly quintet, The Jackson 5. Their afros rocked and they were a lot hipper and cooler group than the strait-laced, clean-cut Osmonds.
The Jackson 5 appeared on popular musical shows of the time: The Andy Williams Show, The Flip Wilson show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, and eventually had their own self-titled variety show. Even on the black and white screen TV, you could tell their outfits were colourful and funky with floral motif tops and wide bell-bottom pants.
Michael, as the lead singer with his fancy footwork, always took centre stage, never missing a beat in coordinated choreography with his brothers or sliding smoothly out to do his solo turns.
His stage presence was magnetic; he was the consummate performer, an entertainer extraordinaire, the star of every show. As kids, we often tried to mimic his trademark move — multiple 360° spins — and flopped miserably in front of the TV in fits of laughter.
Fast forward to my mid-20s, I remember after late-night partying, I often crashed at a buddy’s house in Bangsar. He would always blast Michael’s solo album Off The Wall on his stereo system with its meter-high speakers and we would lie in bed, happy and high, mouthing the lyrics to Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Rock With You, Workin’ Day and Night, and end with the lovelorn pathos of She’s Out of My Life, until we drifted off to sleep.
Then came the follow-up album, Thriller and we were sucked in by the mesmerising MTV music videos from the album — Beat It, Billie Jean and Thriller, the last with its iconic zombie-dance and Vincent Price’s ghoulish monologue and trailing creepy laugh.
In 1983, at Motown’s 25th anniversary concert, Michael unveiled the moonwalk, a gliding stride so smooth that it almost seemed he was floating backwards on stage. It was epic and became his new signature move, just when breakdancing was taking the world by storm.
Each subsequent album — Bad, Dangerous and HIStory — added to Michael’s popularity and allure, whether the songs leaned towards harder, edgier rock numbers, Bad, Dirty Diana, Smooth Criminal; or message-laden anthems in Black or White, Heal the World, Earth Song; or softer tunes reflecting his vulnerability in Liberian Girl, You Are Not Alone and the confessional Man In The Mirror. Only Michael could pull them all off.
Michael had transitioned from the precocious child star to adult superstar. And we were fans for life.
But by the mid-90s, along with fame came infamy.
Michael was nicknamed Wacko Jacko, the subject of tabloid fodder with some bizarre stories about his exotic pets, his penchant to sleep in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber (note: later denied), his multiple plastic surgeries, his failed and supposedly “sexless” marriage to Elvis’ daughter (note: Lisa Marie Presley was quoted as saying the couple’s sex life was “very hot”), his extravagant shopping sprees and endless scrutiny on his changing skin tone (note: he had vitiligo).
Michael was quoted as aspiring to be Peter Pan, the boy who never grows old. He even named his palatial home Neverland, built his own private amusement park and movie theatre there and lived with a chimpanzee named Bubbles and llamas named Louie and Lola.
Along with the rumours, came more credible pieces on an abusive father, being robbed of his childhood, and a desperate need to connect with children by inviting them over to Neverland for park rides, to play arcade games, watch movies over popcorn, or just climb trees. And, unfortunately, for sleepovers.
In October, 1996, Michael was scheduled to have his first-ever concert in Malaysia. My wife and I were expecting our first child and we were deep in the throes of preparing, with gynae visits, birthing classes and acquiring baby things — the crib, baby bottles, diapers, baby car seat.
By then, we were over our concert-going, partying phase and were looking forward — albeit with nervous, fevered anticipation — to welcome our new-born.
The news headlines suggested Michael was also expecting his first child with an Australian nurse and the gossip mill was churning out exposés on the surrogacy.
A previous accusation on child molestation had also re-surfaced.
The week that Michael was in Kuala Lumpur, we heard of a few sightings of him about town. We were rushing to a family gathering one day and stopped by at Toys ‘R’ Us to get a last-minute gift. Something was obviously amiss at the mall when we reached there. There were children dressed in costumes aligning the escalators and as soon as we entered the store, we heard screaming outside. Suddenly, a group of men in suits, surrounding a slender shadow, entered the shop and the staff pulled the shutters down. We were trapped inside, along with 20 or so other shoppers.
It was Michael Jackson and his entourage. We were distracted, but only momentarily, as we knew we were late for our event and eager to just shop and leave.
Then Michael appeared in the very aisle we were browsing in. No bodyguards, no minders, just him alone. He was in understated black and had dark glasses and a black mask on.
He pointed at my wife’s pronounced bump, gesturing in a semi-circle and mumbled. I remember acknowledging she was pregnant and introducing us. I proffered a hand and he shook it gently but firmly with a pale, un-gloved one. His dusky, bright eyes peered over his glasses and it appeared he wanted to lower the mask and say something.
It was a surreal moment.
Perhaps, he was trying to convey our commonality, the three of us as expectant parents – a language we could share, just a normal chat with normal humans on upcoming baby matters. But somehow, he sensed we were not up to that conversation. How could we be? Something had changed. Here before us was not the superstar we knew but just another man in disguise, who maybe, just maybe, had a predilection for young boys.
We just wanted to get our gift and go. He moved on — and so had we.
The years rolled by and after awhile, I tired of repeating the story of the encounter and seldom spoke of it.
Back at the wake in Gua Musang in 2009, a light, dreary rain came down and we huddled under the makeshift tent which stretched across the narrow road in the village. Amid the chanting, tiny bells rang with regularity, and the air was infused with the smell of joss-sticks and burning charcoal from a nearby kitchen. It was a Taoist ceremony, the family was of Hakka descent and all the close family members in the funeral procession wore white.
My father-in-law was seated in his usual long-sleeved light blue shirt, pressed brown pants, shiny black shoes and although it was already night, still had his dark glasses on. He had undergone eye-surgery again recently to rescue his vision after an earlier operation was botched. The dark glasses were for protection from the glare of the lights. This small-framed, Ceylonese man stood out in a sea of white.
As relative after relative came by to convey condolences to the family, there were whispers, a murmuring in Hakka among the older aunties and uncles, then raised voices recognising his presence.
Back in the day, my father-in-law, as a young medical officer, was a hospital assistant based at the General Hospital in Kota Baru in Kelantan. He must have treated many of those present at the funeral. They came up to him, acknowledged him, shook his hand and bowed low, almost in reverence. There was no language barrier in their paying homage to a 90-year-old man, who they obviously respected. With his dark glasses, under the glow of lights, he was a star in his own right.
Sometime in the middle of the night, after we returned to the hotel to sleep, I was awakened by someone knocking in the distance. I knew it wasn’t our door. The knocking grew louder and more persistent. I tried to get back to sleep, then realized, it might be my father-in-law!
I bounced out of bed, opened the door and sure enough, it was him.
He was knocking furiously on some stranger’s door, two rooms down the hotel corridor.
“Papa! Papa! Here!”
I alerted the wife and we sorted him out, got him a glass of water, and returned him to his room.
The next morning, on the return journey, the radio stations were playing many of Michael Jackson’s hits: Ben, Bad, Billie Jean, Beat It, Black or White, Man in the Mirror.
The one that finally got to me, though, ferrying my in-laws home, was Gone Too Soon:
“Like a comet, blazing ‘cross the evening sky…Gone too soon.”
We grew up with Michael. We watched him evolve from the lovable child prodigy fronting his brothers on our black and white TVs, twirling and spinning for us, to churning hit after hit as a solo artist. He was a brilliant, talented musician who gave us his all in exhilarating music videos and energetic performances in live concerts, as he ascended into superstar status.
For Michael, at age 50, the boy who never wanted to grow old, death came a-knocking too early. And indeed, like a comet, blazing across the evening sky, he was gone too soon.
Julian Matthews is a former journalist and trainer currently expressing himself in poetry, short fiction and essays. He is based in Malaysia
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