I was saddened by Ed McMahon's death earlier this week, and would have written about it -- except that I don't have any great personal anecdotes about Ed, despite the fact that I once worked at the production company that did StarSearch... AND saw him daily when I worked at the Tonight Show. He was the same jovial person you saw every night, offering cheery greetings each afternoon as he passed my desk to go to his office. That's pretty much the extent of my memories of him.
The news of Farrah Fawcett's death was disheartening - but not unexpected. I might have more to say if I'd been a teenage boy in 1976, instead of a 20-year-old feminist college student.
But the news that Michael Jackson died of cardiac arrest this afternoon... now, THAT's something I need to talk about. After all, we grew up together. Well, not "together" -- I never met Michael, although the Jackson family lived in a compound here in the Valley -- a friend of my sister went to middle school with him and was his math tutor.
But forty years ago, when the Jackson 5 burst on the scene, I was 13 and Michael was 11 -- and like everyone else in the country, I watched him grow up. It's hard to believe now that the media portrayed the Jackson 5 and that other group of singing brothers - the Osmonds - as equals vying for the hearts of American teenyboppers. I mean, in a battle of the bands, would you pick "One Bad Apple" over "I Want You Back"? (Or "ABC," "The Love You Save," and "I'll Be There"?)
And then, there was Michael's transformation from teen idol to adult superstar. It began with "Off the Wall," his first collaboration with Quincy Jones -- and went into hyperdrive three years later, with the release of "Thriller." That record is understandably considered a classic - but those of you who are not in your 50's may not realize exactly how revolutionary it was.
I was working in the music industry then, and MTV had only just launched as a kind of video radio channel (it truly was MUSIC television then, playing nothing but videos interspersed with music news delivered by cute, mostly young hosts dubbed "vee-jays"). But there were a lot of gripes that they didn't play any music by artists of color... UNTIL Michael Jackson delivered a one-two punch with "Billie Jean" and "Beat It." Never mind how great the songs were -- the accompanying videos were mind-blowing. I don't know if MTV's racial barrier was deliberate or not, but here was something they could not ignore. Michael Jackson became the first African-American on MTV, and the rest is history.
He cemented his standing with the outrageously budgeted video for "Thriller," directed by John Landis at a cost of $1 million. And then - his legendary appearance on the NBC-TV television special commemorating the 25th anniversary of Motown records, when he performed his famous one-gloved moonwalk.
I thought of him as a tragic figure in his later years. Do I believe the allegations of child molestation? Yes. But I also believe what Michael said years ago about being abused himself as a child. His was not a normal childhood. I am more surprised when child stars grow up to be well-adjusted and normal.
I'm looking forward to the inevitable video retrospectives that will air on the news tonight. I want my daughter to see Michael as I saw him years ago, before the weird behavior, the plastic surgery, the aura of creepiness. That is how I want to remember him.
Michael Jackson, R.I.P.