I remember just where I was sitting when the news of Michael Jackson’s death flashed onto my phone: a conference room in a Santa Barbara hotel where the annual conference of The National Society of Newspaper Columnists was about to commence. Those of us of holding office in that organization were gathered at an oval-shaped table making last-minute plans and back then, in long-ago 2009, I was probably the only one impolite enough to have my phone out. (Nowadays even at weddings ceremonies you wouldn’t be surprised to see the bridal couple tapping and scrolling, tapping and scrolling during snoozy moments in the very service.)
For whatever reason, in in that room, I was the one who knew first. “Michael Jackson died!” I exclaimed, interrupting.
You just couldn’t believe that Michael was dead. You thought he would go on and on, having cosmetic surgeries and then corrections on the surgeries ad infinitum. You thought he would always be giving himself whole-heartedly to his audiences the way he did. (How many shows did he have booked for his upcoming London concert run at the time of his death? Fifty, wasn’t it?
And now, these eight years later, it any easier to accept the fact that Prince too is gone? We’re not even used to the idea that Bowie will never again sing for us.
Still, there’s a new immortality available to us with this miracle of technology that we take so entirely for granted.
When the news of his death went out yesterday, I spent a solid hour watching YouTube videos of Prince, the mischievous lad, the intelligent man. In 1981, when he opened for the Stones in nothing but bikini bottoms and a trenchcoat, he was booed and had things thrown at him by the audience. Afterward, Mick Jigger called him to offer comfort. “You’re ahead of them, is what it is,” Mick told him. “The world will catch up” and he was right about that. In the early 80s the Stones drew a macho crowd. Think of the way the Hells Angels themselves were hired to provide security at the testosterone-drenched Altamont concert where real violence erupted and one person lost his life. Big swaggering males aren’t a big part of the audience at a Stones concert now, boy. The Stones evolved, and so did we all.
Michael, in his teen years was marketed as a nice hetero boy, though really he was just a nice boy. (I never believed for a moment that he was seducing children there at his Neverland ranch.) The victim of parental abuse himself with the hitting and the shaming he suffered at the hands of his father, I believe he took refuge in a kind of permanently childlike, asexual realm.
Prince, by contrast, was never asexual in his presentation He played with the idea of gender norms and rightly so when you get down to it sexuality is a mystery to us all. It’s the sacred fire, the thing that brings the babies – or doesn’t – and in his celebration of it, he gave a whole lot of people the courage to be who they are. We will miss him.
San Francisco’s City Hall, lit up in Prince’s memory