The week before Michael Jackson died, I bought “Say Say Say” from iTunes. To be honest, this was a coincidence: I was in a cheesy-former-Beatles mood, and not on a Michael Jackson bender. However, I have all my life felt obligated to turn Michael Jackson jokes around with, “Okay, but he made some great dance tunes.” Sometimes I felt so obligated that I even said something aloud. As I recall, before Michael Jackson was dead, he was a freak of nature, and it was open season on him. He was a total joke.
Then he was dead, and I was listening to some early Jackson 5 tune I hadn’t heard before, blasting out of a lush cream Cadillac at Quik Trip. On a lazy evening, I even watched a hastily prepared tribute on network television. What a genius he was. What an amazing dancer. Fred Astaire loved him.
The Michael Jackson coverage reminded me of when I went to a funeral for a man no one liked. It wasn’t that he was rough around the edges or grouchy. For the whole time I knew him, he spent his life alternating between doing only two things: drinking a bottle of vodka, and sleeping it off so he could drink another. His wife was only sometimes able to support the two of them on her salary. They struggled from day to day, and people brought them stuff like laundry detergent and canned goods to keep them going. Then he got cancer, and people gossiped, everyone secretly thought: good.
We went to his funeral six months later, and of course people talked about how he had turned to Jesus at the end, and what a good guy he was. It was a strange thing to sit through, because all along, I was thinking, I wanted this guy to die. I thought it would free him and everyone around him from a painful situation. Then he was dead, and it seemed wrong to hate his addiction and the pain he’d caused his wife.
I have dead grandparents and living grandparents. The dead ones, even the dead ones who were thoroughly challenging characters, at least remain static, and allow the wounds they inflicted to heal peacefully. Live people have annoying needs like hunger and needing to get to a bathroom, and they have unbearable neurotic routines that they wrestle with acting out all day long. Living relatives may harp at you about how you should or shouldn’t be like them, when you are not them, and might not ever be.
One of my great-grandfathers, in fact, was an undertaker by trade, and I think he would agree with me here. He used to remark, when people expressed fear of his workplace, dead people won’t hurt you. It’s the living ones you ought to be afraid of. Dead people are easier to admire, easier to trust.
I imagine the next time I dance to “Billie Jean” at a wedding, no one will have to preemptively joke about what Michael Jackson was about. We can just dance.