When the Fun Stops: An In-person Report from the Michael Jackson Memorial

Guest post by Former Housemate Mike.

Austin, TX 7/7/09

Austin, TX 7/7/09 (Photo by Gordon Winslow)

I consider myself quite the lucky guy. And what a roller coaster it was.

On Saturday, July 4th, I became aware of the Michael Jackson Memorial to be held at Staples center here in Los Angeles and subsequently of the free ticket lottery to said service. Like many people I know, I registered. I told my roommate Laura, a huge MJ fan, about and she registered as well. I received an e-mail saying I would be notified by 6 P.M. Sunday.

The next day at 6 P.M. I was working and received a call from my girlfriend saying our roommate had won tickets. I was amazed. She also said that the e-mail stated that the tickets had to be claimed by 9 P.M. I gave her my pass code and she checked my e-mail, as I would not have been able to do so in time.

Against all odds like Phil Collins, I had been selected as well. The next morning the three of us drove to Dodger Stadium to pick up the tickets. I was amazed at how painless the process was. We didn’t even have to get out of the car and there were our four tickets to what would prove to be possibly the most incredible experience of my life.

All day Monday we heard nothing but doom and gloom about how much of a pain the next day would be. No parking, scary crowds, you name it. My roommate almost decided not to go. But in the end, the three of us woke up at 6 A.M. Tuesday, and hopped in my car, ready for the worst.

Knowing the roads pretty well, we avoided the highways and amazingly made it downtown with virtually no traffic. It took about 15 minutes. Once downtown, we were hit by the street barricades we had heard about, but still found relatively cheap parking (for downtown LA for such an event) in minutes. It was about 7:45 at this point. We walked straight to Staples in about five minutes and realized the hassle was almost non-existent. The only real hassle was all the exploitative street vendors selling boot-egged, sweat-shop Michael Jackson shirts and buttons every ten feet. But that’s another story.

Credit for the ease should go to the LAPD. They were so organized, so well staffed and set up. And actually very polite and helpful. Kudos.

A large sector around Staples was blocked off as to where only press and people with tickets could walk in. We entered this area with ease and still had time for breakfast before going inside. We actually entered Staples about 8:45 A.M.

The energy inside was electric. Chants and shout outs to Michael came in regular succession. The crowd was also pleasantly diverse. Many different races, economic sects, and ages were represented. And almost everyone there felt like a sincere fan. Many red, zippered jackets. Many one-glove wearers. Even an Elvis impersonator.

The wait until the beginning of the ceremony was made pleasant by a wide scope of Michael Jackson songs being played, from Jackson 5 to Off The Wall to Thriller to Triumph. There was even MJ’s recording of “Smile,” foreshadowing beautiful moments from Brooke Shields and Jermaine Jackson.

The crowd looked oddly empty for a long time, but filled greatly just before the ceremony’s start. The general quiet, respectful anticipation in the crowd was only broken by the occasional eruption when a celebrity was seen entering. Jesse Jackson received some cheers, but Kobe Bryant by far got the loudest reception.

The event began with the announcement of Smokey Robinson coming to the stage. He read two quotes from friends unable to attend. The first was from a friend who wanted her mourning to be private, and ended with “Diana Ross”. The second was quite powerful, with South Africa references hinting at the sender. It ended with, “Nelson Mandela”.

Smokey then left the stage and a very long break followed. I’m not sure what of this was shown on TV. I expected a lot more unrest and shout outs from the crowd at this point, but again there was a patient, respectful, and quiet feel to the crowd.

The Jackson family entered to a huge response. They were followed by Michael Jackson’s casket. This led to a great deal of response and talk in the crowd, as us Angelinos were made to believe that his body was to be buried before this service. Possible a very smart redirect.

Most of the rest was seen entirely on TV, I assume, so I will focus on crowd response the rest of the way. The choir that opened set an amazing spiritual feel to the event. Queen Latifah’s reading of Maya Angelou began the emotional surge that was in the crowd throughout.

Mariah Carey and Trey Lorenz rehashing their infamous MTV Unplugged duet was expected, but very well taken and performed. I don’t know how it sounded on TV, but Trey Lorenz was particularly impressive.

Stevie Wonder had the first big emotional moment felt throughout the crowd with his statement of “I prayed I would not live to see this day.”

Lionel Richie was tremendous, showing particularly impressive restraint during “We Are The World,” the song he co-wrote with Jackson.

The crowd broke into clap-along mode almost immediately during Jennifer Hudson’s awesome “Will You Be There?” You could tell they were waiting to set that moment up later, but the crowd beat them to it.

John Mayer was a real surprise. Very nice touch on the song, and excellent choice on not singing. I heard this muttered by several people around me also.

Usher seemed genuinely moved. I was kind of afraid he was going to embrace the casket at one point, he seemed so in the moment. They was a very audible “aww” in the crowd when he began to break up at the the final line of his song, and a very respectful wait for him to finish embracing the Jackson family.

Jermaine Jackson’s rendition of, as Brooke Shields stated, MJ’s “favorite song”, really hit an emotional note. He sounded amazingly good live though he looked like he was having emotional and equipment difficulty the whole time. Hope it sounded as good on TV.

The speakers today had a great thing in common. They made you feel that you not just at the memorial of an icon, but also one of of a real person that meant a lot to many people on a personal level. He was their brother or buddy.

Brooke Shields was the favorite of many as she seemed very real and genuine, and really epitomized the whole “Michael was a real person and a great one” theme. Her Liz Taylor wedding story drew great response. Magic Johnson’s KFC story filled a similar role, and made up for the pointless waste of an appearance and chance to speak by Kobe Bryant. Barry Gordy and Smokey Robinson’s shared story of a ten year old MJ out-doing Robinson on his own song also brought great response. What an anecdote.

Gordy also shared biggest crowd response/fastest standing ovation with congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee from Texas and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Gordy’s entry was his reference to the title of King of Pop not being “big enough” for Michael Jackson, and he should be called “the greatest entertainer who ever lived”. Not to be outdone, Sharpton caused an insanse eruption with his line directed to MJ’s children of there being “nothing strange about your daddy.” Sheila Jackson Lee answered with saying that she and her fellow congress members know the law, and “a man is innocent until proven guilty.” Fantastic.

By the time the Jackson family got on stage, hardly a dry eye was to be found around me. And Marlon took out the rest. “I hurt”. So real, it was overwhelming. He appeared to say that Janet wanted to say something. You may have not heard this on TV, but at that point a few guys in the crowd started yelling “I love you, Janet” and were immediately greeting with shushes and boos. Inappropriate. Then Paris came on stage.

If any eyes were dry after Marlon, an end was put to that. It was so unexpected. I literally saw gaping jaws and covered mouths all around me. I realized that inadvertently, I had covered my heart with my hand. To my knowledge none of his children has ever spoken in public or on record. What a brave girl, and what a statement to all those who doubted MJ as a parent.

And then it was done. The casket carried away, and the tears began to dry. Once again, the event was so well organized that exiting was also a breeze. Which was a good thing, because we were all no doubt spent.

As I said before I am quite the lucky guy. I am lucky to have been blessed with the chance to be at this once in a hundred lifetimes event.

But more than anything, I am blessed and lucky to have been alive in an era where a man like Michael exists. Though it is sad and tragic that he left us so soon, not many in the history of man have had the honor of having a heart and talent like him at all. But, in the words expressed this morning by Maya Angelou, “We had him.” And that is all the luck and blessing we should ever expect to have.

Jermaine Jackson – “Smile”

Michael Jackson – “Billie Jean” (Motown 25th Anniversary)

Editor’s note: A hearty thank-you to Former Housemate Mike for covering this important event. A hearty thank-you to Michael Jackson for the music.

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