Once upon a time, there was a boy who channeled the gods.
He invoked them through his feet, moving without friction across the gleam of a thousand stages. They possessed him though his voice, now rough like bark, now sweet like butter and brimming always with an emotional depth once thought inaccessible to children.
You felt the gods of soul and of show — James, Jackie, Sammy — moving through him when that first big record hit the streets late in 1969. The glissando splashes down into an urgency of guitar and a wriggling of bass and in comes the boy, moaning with real need about that girl he let get away. “I want you back,” he cries. And you don’t doubt him for an instant.
If you are lucky enough to be old enough to have been there then — not to have listened to a greatest hits CD or watch a video on YouTube, but to have been there, buying the albums, staying up for the TV appearances, feeling that rush of discovery — perhaps you felt a kind of detachment Monday from the cheers that went up when the verdict came in. Justice, people called it.
There can be little doubt jurors got it right when they found Dr. Conrad Murray guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson. In using a dangerous surgical anesthetic to treat Jackson’s insomnia — in allowing a drug-addicted patient to dictate the terms of his treatment — Murray transgressed not just law, not just medical ethics, but also common sense and simple decency.
When an addict dies it is fair to blame the pusher who sold him his final fix. But what do you say of the addict himself, for never seeking or accepting help, for not grasping the hands of those who reached out?
After all, people pleaded with Jackson, and family tried to stage an intervention. None of them could save him, nor induce him to save himself. And that is the lasting tragedy here, the thing that will haunt long after Conrad Murray has served his sentence, written his book and been forgotten.
Jackson lived 40 years in the spotlight, four decades that saw him transfigure from a handsome, preternaturally talented adolescent with an irrepressible grin to a parchment-colored wraith with fright wig hair and a collapsed proboscis.
Over those years, he became famous to a degree for which he was unprepared, a degree for which, arguably, no one could be. And in the darkness beyond the floodlights, Jackson lived a life noteworthy for its bizarreness, its unrestraint and its detachment from reality.
For the last quarter century of that life, the outside world received occasional glimpses from within, like dispatches from some Iron Curtain country, and the things we saw were troubling. From elephant man’s bones to Jesus juice to sleepovers with children to drug addiction, we tracked the slow disintegration of what had once seemed a charmed life.
And Murray’s fate does not fix nor even address the loss you feel if you met him in the last months of the 1960s. It is as if the future betrayed you, as if promise told a lie. Indeed, it is difficult even to believe this moment grew from that one.
Once upon a time, there was a boy who channeled the gods, whose song made you feel young and clean and believe you might stay in that state of grace always.
Tomorrow came much too soon.