SPECIAL REPORT: The Death of a King – One Week Later

“Farah Fawcett’s gotta be pissed.”


That’s the first thought that springs to mind as I step onto Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame from its western terminus near La Brea Avenue.  On assignment for Music Zeitgeist, my destination is Michael Jackson’s Walk of Fame star, located just west of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where untold thousands had gathered to reflect or pay tribute in the hours since his death.  En route, Fawcett’s own star laid on a quiet, shade-covered section of sidewalk, adorned with a simple standing remembrance wreath anchored with handful of notes and mementos, but otherwise deserted — conspicuously free of the fanfare and madness which had brewed to the east.

Fawcett's Walk of Fame star: the spotlight's shift to Jackson left her in shade.

Fawcett's Walk of Fame star: the spotlight's shift to Jackson left her in the shade (photo by author).

I had awoken Saturday afternoon to find myself severely hung over, clad in a single sock and my “Donkeys Do It Just For Kicks” t-shirt, which I’d won in Tijuana.  The unmistakable stench of meerkat vomit wafted into my stirring nostrils, a sure sign that Tomás had gotten into the gin again.

Noticing my phone’s voicemail and text message capacity was at full – never a good thing, as it signaled that people must want something from me — I immediately cast it aside and resigned myself to another afternoon of watching old episodes of Hardcastle & McCormick.

In short, it was a Saturday like any other.

I was rooting around for the remote control, which I suspected might be under Tomás, as the phone rang.  The caller ID claimed it was L. Bearden Cartwright, one of the backers of Music Zeitgeist, so I quickly muted the ringer and hoped he would go away.  He called back.  Just as well, as sleeping meerkats are best left undisturbed while recovering from an evening of excess, and – judging from a shredded copy of Zonpower at Tomás’ Ground Zero — the night had witnessed the severest of extremes.

“Jones,” bellowed Cartwright through my phone, “we need you on the street, pronto.”

“Mi meester no esta aqui ahora,” I stated in reply, raising my voice two octaves and adding what I hoped was an accent authentic to somewhere south of Nogales.

“Don’t give me any of that housekeeper noise, Jones,” Cartwright delivered.  “I know you live below the poverty line.”

Busted.

“We have serious work to do,” he continued.  “We need you to cover Michael Jackson’s death.”

This perked me up – the death of a celebrity the magnitude of Jackson was significant, if only because it would provide sound footing with which to get me out of any forthcoming assignment:

“Well, if he’s dead, every real news outlet in the world is going to be covering it.  There would be no point for a lil’ site like MZ to get involved,” I offered, quietly musing about a King of Pop article running alongside something about industrial Tuvan throat singers.   “How did he die?”

“Cardiac arrest, Thursday afternoon.”

Thursday?  My last recollection had been of…Tuesday.  That could explain the recurring dream I thought I had had of listening to Thriller on repeat while underwater.  Not a dream at all, I surmised — a reality based on my neighbor’s stereo, a bottle and a half of red wine, two ambien and a percocet.

“In that case, L.B., unless the aliens came and claimed him, it’s old news now.  Nothing for me to contribute.”

“Nonsense,” he countered.  “There’s a media circus up and running at his star on the Walk of Fame.  I need you to get down to Hollywood & Highland and get the view from the crowd, so to speak.”

“But…Hollywood & Highland – that’s…west of Vermont!”

“No arguments now, Jones.  Just get it done.”

I glanced wistfully at my barely started feature film treatment for Hardcastle and McCormick: The Movie, then gave it one final shot:

“My last paycheck didn’t clear.”

“That’s because we don’t pay you.”

He had a point.  My eyes darted from the script to Tomás, gently snoring away, snuggled in his own vomit, which, on second glance, appeared as though he had attempted to eat some of it, post-ejection.

“Alright chief,” I sighed.  “I could use some fresh air anyway.”

Now doused in SPF 90 making my way east toward Jackson’s star from Fawcett’s, I can’t help but wonder at the timing of Jackson’s death.  The media spotlight had rapidly been whipped away from Fawcett’s own untimely demise (not to mention Ed McMahon’s, David Carradine’s and in the near future, Billy Mays’) to cover Jackson’s.  In fact, the only person pleased with the shift of the media’s attention to the death of Jackson must have been Ben Bernake, rendered the happiest man in America since Gary Condit the morning of September 11, 2001.

But other celebrity deaths aside, all recent indications after Jackson had announced and then instantaneously sold out 50 upcoming concerts at London’s O2 arena were that he was poised to achieve something of his own ’68 Comeback Special.  Jackson’s death, then, seemed incongruous with the images I had previously conjured in my mind of him busting moonwalks, BeDazzling new gloves and attempting to shatter crystal with dolphin-like screeches in some kind of Rocky-esque training montage.

Arriving at the corner of Orange and Hollywood, I discover L.B. wasn’t far from wrong when he described the scene as a media circus.  Over a half-dozen satellite news trucks block the south side of the street, while various videographers and photographers rome the block, capturing images of Jackson’s star and the amassed crowd.  Various talking head correspondents feign authority as they attempt to describe what the atmosphere is like, or in words I overheard — “try to make sense of the tradgedy…” — in long-stale monologues that echo events from the past such as shuttle disasters and 9/11.

Is everyone maybe taking this a little too seriously?

Not leftovers from the Bruno premiere, fans and media litter the site of Jackson's Walk of Fame star

Not to be mistaken as leftovers from the Bruno premiere: fans and media occupy the site of Jackson's Walk of Fame star (photo by author).

It’s impossible to continue walking east on Hollywood – the entire area has been cordoned off with bicycle rack, forcing people to approach Jackson’s star from the east and walk west into a single-file bottleneck.  Instead, I’m directed to join a crowd crossing to the south side of the street, and then re-cross Hollywood near the El Capitan Theater to join the procession.  It’s a bit of a goofy arrangement, but overall, it works well.  You have to hand it to Hollywood – when it comes to superfluous media events, no one excels at traffic control like this city does.

Indeed, cops litter the vicinity, directing pedestrian traffic and otherwise enjoying their minimal duties in exchange for overtime hours and soaking up some rays.  If that sounds harsh, consider that LAPD’s online maps show that reported incidents of crime within a mile of Jackson’s star in the five-day window since his death were up to 27 from 17 in the five-day window before he died (an increase of almost 59%).  Whether or not the rise in crime had anything to do with there being a greater number of people in the vicinity of Jackson’s star is really something a real reporter — like whoever’s left keeping the lights on at the LA Times — should be examining, but it’s certainly food for thought.

Now on any other Saturday, while I would be engrossed in another hardboiled TV tale of crimes that could only be solved by driving a high-performance kit car, the sidewalk in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater is overrun with both tourists ogling the Walk of Fame and various aspiring actors dressed as famous movie personalities — who whore their costumed selves in exchange for photo opps which typically yield them a dollar a click.  Today however, the area resembles the remains of a trodden ant hill, such is the amount of foot traffic.  Street traffic is not much better, as tour busses and regular passers-by repeatedly slow down or even stop entirely to snap some pictures and survey the hexapodal-like mess.

More impressive than the LCD device-armed crowd, however, is the staggering amount of assumedly unauthorized Michael Jackson merchandise being hawked on the street corners and in the shops that surround MJ’s star.  It’s staggering to consider the amount of shirt ordering, silkscreening, printing, binding, disc-pressing, shipping and so on that’s all taken place in under 48 hours as marginally employed opportunists cash in on the King of Pop’s death.  More incredible still is the fact that this industriousness transpired in the shadow of the still-warm corpse of GM and their bankruptcy declaration – which, in a perfect world would send some kind of message to corporate America.  Even now, I can practically hear the Sony machine groaning awake in an attempt to organize their first conference call on the topic of exploiting Jackson from over 2,800 miles away; in the meantime, the first death dollars which accompany any celebrity’s passing have long since come and gone.

Heat and crowds are not two items most people will list as favorite things on their social networking profiles, and I’m no different.  After swimming upstream against the milling mob for a few minutes, I consider that it might be easier to track down and interview the then-baby Jackson dangled over the side of a hotel balcony in Berlin in 2002 than it will be to finish this assignment.  Suddenly, however, I’m caught by the glimmering fishing lure-like shine of what can only be the garbage can costume of my buddy Hector, who does an Oscar The Grouch routine in front of Grauman’s on weekends.  As I make my way to the blinding glare of sun striking polished aluminum, I’m overtaken by the pungent stench of urine amplified by the heat of the day.

“Hector…man…good to see you.”

“What goes on, Truffle?”

“That stink…”

“Yeah, some lady’s Pomeranian let loose on the side of the can,” he confirms.  “It happens at least once a week.”

He pauses for a moment as a troika of children approach him, their father at the ready with his camera, then turn away with wrinkled noses.

“Anyway, what brings you west of Vermont during daylight?”  He casually lights up a cigarette, oblivious to whatever smoking ban must be effect, let alone the children in the area.  “There’s not an in-store at Virgin, is there?”

I throw my thumb westward over my shoulder toward the burgeoning line.

“Yeah, Jackson’s all the rage, that’s for sure.  Business has been pretty brisk for all of us today,” he says, gesturing to his costumed comrades.  “Those guys over there are really killing it.”

I follow his wave toward a pair dressed as Star Wars stormtroopers, one of whom has eschewed part of his official costume for a sequined glove a la Jackson.  The same youngsters that bailed on Hector moments earlier pose for a snapshot while we watch.

“Maybe you would get some of that easy Jackson cash if you washed the piss off your can Hector,” I offer, as a clearly German couple calls next-ies for a shot with Imperial Jackson.

“Nah, it makes me more authentico this way as far as I’m concerned,” he shrugs.  “Keeps the fair-weather Sesame Street fans away.”

Fair weather Sesame Street fans?

“Alright then,” I say, sensing I’ve delayed the inevitable long enough.  “I’m gonna jump in line for his star.  You need anything before I go — like a water?  It’s gotta be hot in that get-up.”

“Nah, I’m gonna knock off soon anyway – I’m not stoned enough to deal with all this extra crap,” he says wistfully.  “Besides, I’m not wearing any clothes under the can.”

The Emporer would not be pleased: an Imperial Stormtrooper parlays Jackson's death into some extra photo cash, OR a nerd waits in line for the 2023 premiere of the next Star Wars movie at Grauman's (photo by author).

The Emperor would not be pleased: an Imperial Stormtrooper parlays Jackson's death into some extra photo cash, OR a nerd waits in line for the 2023 premiere of the next Star Wars movie at Grauman's (photo by author).

I nod a goodbye, but before I can queue up to see MJ’s star, the crowd parts ways as a coterie of pro-life advocates make their way on-site from across the street, bearing their trademark oversized placards depicting slogans and grisly ends met by various aborted fetuses.  I wonder for a moment if they proselytize at Hollywood & Highland every weekend or if they, like seemingly everyone else, are exploiting the crowds gathered in the wake of Jackson’s death.  Regardless, as they jockey for prime position around the Jackson star line, I have to think twice whether or not their decision to exercise their first amendment rights by trumpeting pro-choice at the tribute site of an alleged pedophile is commendable, hilarious or reprehensible.  As I decide a moment later the answer is probably D – all of the above — I notice the text of one of their signs reads “we all began life like this.” I decide then that, whatever the case, they need to fire the head of their marketing department as in point of fact, not a single person capable of reading that sign will have started life as an aborted fetus.

Pro-life advocates at the scene of alledged pedophiliac's death tribute (photo by author).

Pro-life advocates at the scene of an alledged pedophiliac's death tribute (photo by author).

Finally allowing myself to get caught up in the jetstream that is the line for Jackson’s Walk of Fame star, I prepare myself for what I assume is the absurdity that comes with waiting to look at a piece of marble.  The line lingers, bordered by Grauman’s to the north and the media circus just to the south.  Suddenly I feel the presence of every video camera whirring, news host speaking, each car slowing as it passes.  It’s as if those of us in line are sharing Michael Jackson’s spotlight – and in fact, as several news cameras pan across us – to a degree, we are.

Jackson fans ARE the news: the media scavenges both Jackson's corpse and his fans (photo by author).

Jackson fans ARE the news: the media scavenges both Jackson's corpse and his fans (photo by author).

I ponder the American Dream and how what was once reachable excess defined as “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” evolved into a dream of equality for men and women of every race, then was replaced by the simple thought of a night’s sleep without fear of nuclear Armageddon.  Not too long ago, we then decided it would just be enough to make it through a day without justified worries about envelopes full of powder or dirty bombs, or errant jets piloted by religious extremists making horrors out of our everyday existence.  Lately, stock in the American Dream can be cashed in for nothing more than a decent job or a roof over our heads.  But somewhere in there, the hard work that should go with making any incarnation of the American Dream possible was ultimately devolved by an intense lust for lottery-like celebrity.

Michael Jackson, who was at the height of achievement at the dawn of the Extra Media Age, was the first bona-fide celebrity to truly discover, in the words of Freddie Mercury, the price of “fame and fortune and everything that goes with it.”  At a time when media outlets started to expand beyond the rudiments of the evening news, the daily paper and basic magazines, Jackson was the guinea pig for non-mainstream reporters starved to fill air time and column inches with something substantive.  Of course they failed on all counts – instead legitimizing scandal sheet and yellow journalism mentalities that had lurked in the background since TV shoved print media aside decades before.   But more than any other celebrity, Jackson was the target of their ambition.  In the media, the dissection of his personal life overshadowed his considerable talents.

And that’s what the media consistently missed – regardless of whether his hair caught on fire, whether he did anything inappropriate with children or of his continually changing appearance, Jackson achieved stardom by working his ass off.  Unlike many of today’s top celebs, he was never famous just for being famous.  He dreamed not just the American Dream, but beyond that, he dreamed the impossible – and more often than not, made it happen.  Standing in line now, I find many of those surrounding me to be genuinely broken up about the loss of one of the world’s greatest entertainers.  On a stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Orange, the public speaks: he was ours, and all is forgiven.

To be sure, in just a week since his passing, purchased Michael Jackson downloads have exceeded 2.6 million.  The top 40 downloads chart is dominated by 17 tracks of his or The Jackson 5’s, including five of the overall top 10.  DJs for clubs that never would have played an MJ track 60 hours ago scramble over themselves to replace last-call remixes of Kings Of Leon’s “Sex On Fire” with something – anything — by Jackson, all of which seems more fresh and relevant in comparison.  And just over 24 hours from now, after Phoenix ends their brilliant Wiltern set with a flawless “1901,” the house lights will come up to indicate the show is over, but virtually NO ONE will leave as a spontaneous dance party erupts when Jackson’s “Rock With You” pours out of the house P.A. as what is supposed to be egress music.

Like the long ride uphill before the first downward drop of a rollercoaster, there is ample time for these reflections, fueled by stacks of flowers, notes, wreaths, candles, stuffed animals and other gifts, which are piled over a foot high on the sidewalk  starting several feet from Jackson’s star.  Some of them are baroque in their dedications while others are finely honed, simple sentiments, but all of them were left by people who took the time to purchase or make them and then come to leave them here.

Gifts and tributes to Jackson, stacked high around his Walk of Fame star (photo by author).

Gifts and tributes to Jackson, stacked high around his Walk of Fame star (photo by author).

Finally arriving at the site of Michael Jackson’s Walk of Fame star, I find it’s barely visible, and that his name is printed facing the opposite direction – so all of us who waited in line come upon it upside down.

As I stand looking over it, those next in line jostling me to move on, I realize: under siege by all the gifts and the crush of media and onlookers, Michael Jackson’s star, glinting in the afternoon sun, is partially obscured and facing the wrong way —

Just as he was in life.

Michael Jackson's Walk of Fame star: as in life, Jackson's star was eclipsed by a bunch of stuff that didn't matter (photo by author).

Michael Jackson's Walk of Fame star: as in life, Jackson's star was eclipsed by a bunch of stuff that didn't matter (photo by author).

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