LOS ANGELES – It was not spectacular, extravagant or bizarre. There were songs and tears but little dancing. Instead, Michael Jackson’s memorial was a sombre, spiritual ceremony that reached back for the essence of the man.
Singer, dancer, superstar, humanitarian: That was how some 20,000 people gathered inside the Staples Center arena on Tuesday, and untold millions watching around the world, remembered Jackson, whose immense talents almost drowned beneath the spectacle of his life and fame.
If there was a shocking moment, it came in the form of Jackson’s daughter, Paris-Michael, who made the first public statement of her 11 years.
“Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine,” she said, dissolving into tears and turning into the embrace of her aunt Janet. “And I just wanted to say I love him – so much.”
Outside the arena, the celebrity-industrial complex that Jackson helped create ground on. More than 3,000 police officers massed downtown to keep the ticketless at bay. Helicopters followed the golden casket as it was driven over blocked-off freeways from Forest Lawn cemetery to Staples Center. A bazaar of T-shirts, buttons, photos and other memorabilia sprouted in the blocks around the memorial. Movie theatres played the service live; people paused around the world to watch.
Inside, however, the atmosphere was churchlike, assisted by the enormous video image of a stained glass window, with red-gold clouds blowing past, that was projected behind the stage.
The ceremony began with Smokey Robinson reading statements from Jackson’s close friend Diana Ross – “Michael was part of the fabric of my life” – and then Nelson Mandela – “Be strong.”
A lengthy silence of several minutes followed, punctuated only by a steady twinkle of camera flashes. The thousands of mourners spoke softly to those in neighbouring seats or contemplated their private thoughts.
Celebrities made their way to their seats in front of the stage: Kobe Bryant, Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes, Lou Ferrigno, Don King, the Kardashian sisters, Brooke Shields, Larry King. While Jackson was among the most famous faces in the world, today’s megastars were largely absent. Those present mostly reflected some connection to Jackson’s life or work.
Among those conspicuously elsewhere were Elizabeth Taylor, Ross and Debbie Rowe, Jackson’s ex-wife and the mother of Jackson’s two oldest children.
The fans, clutching tickets that 1.6 million people had sought, were a visual representation of Jackson’s life: white, black and everything in between; from Mexico, Japan, Italy or America; wearing fedoras, African headdresses, sequins or surgical masks. Actor Corey Feldman showed up fully costumed as Michael Jackson.
“Words can’t express how I feel,” said Dani Harris, a 35-year-old stay-at-home mom from Los Angeles.
“You think about one person, larger than presidents and kings and queens,” Harris said. “People in countries you can’t even see on the map know his face, his music.”
The pre-ceremony stillness was broken by the organ strains of “Soon and Very Soon,” a gospel hymn by Andrae Crouch. “Hallelujah, hallelujah, we’re going to see the King,” a choir sang. The crowd cheered and rose to its feet.
The Rev. Lucious W. Smith of the Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena gave the greeting, standing on the same stage where Jackson had been rehearsing for a comeback concert before his death on June 25 at age 50. Then Mariah Carey sang the opening performance with a sweet rendition of the Jackson 5 ballad “I’ll Be There,” a duet with Trey Lorenz.
Queen Latifah read a special poem composed by Maya Angelou. Lionel Richie sang gospel, “Jesus Is Love.” Berry Gordy remembered the prodigy of young Michael, drawing a standing ovation when he said the title King of Pop would no longer suffice: “He is simply the greatest entertainer who ever lived.”
Emotions peaked when the Rev. Al Sharpton delivered a fiery eulogy highlighting all the barriers Jackson broke and the troubles he faced. “Every time he got knocked down, he got back up,” Sharpton said, and the applauding crowd again jumped to its feet.
Sharpton rode the moment, building to a crescendo. “There wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy,” he said later, addressing Jackson’s three children in the front row. “It was strange what your daddy had to deal with!”
Jubilation erupted, with the longest standing ovation of the day. It seemed as if Sharpton broke through some sort of wall, freeing shouts from the crowd of “We love you Michael!” After he left the stage, chants of “Mi-chael! Mi-chael!” filled the arena.
The parade of famous names continued: Jennifer Hudson, Stevie Wonder, Usher, Martin Luther King III and his sister Bernice and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. Magic Johnson cracked up the crowd with an anecdote about Jackson eating a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
For a performer who smashed the race barrier on MTV and did as much as anyone to make black music mainstream – not to mention was accused of trying to turn himself white through skin treatments and plastic surgery – the ceremony had a remarkably black cast. John Mayer and Brooke Sheields were the only white celebs with major roles.
Another unexpected aspect was the logistics. The mayhem and traffic snarls that had been feared by city officials never materialized. The thousands of ticketholders began filing in early and encountered few problems, and traffic was actually considered by police to be lighter than normal. An estimate of up to 700,000 gawkers turned out to be about 1,000.
The city of Los Angeles set up a Web site to allow fans to contribute money to help the city pay for the memorial, which was estimated to cost $1.5 million to $4 million. AEG, the event promoter behind the memorial, has not addressed whether it will give money for the effort, but did contribute $1 million to the city after it staged a victory parade for the Los Angeles Lakers last month.
It was not clear what will happen to Jackson’s body. The Forest Lawn Memorial Park Hollywood Hills cemetery, where a private service was held, is the final resting place for such stars as Bette Davis, Andy Gibb, Freddie Prinze, Liberace and recently deceased David Carradine and Ed McMahon.
But Jackson’s brother Jermaine has expressed a desire to have him buried someday at Neverland, his estate in Southern California.
The ceremony ended with Jackson’s family on stage, amid a choir, singing “Heal the World.”
“All around us are people of different cultures, different religions, different nationalities,” Rev. Smith said as he closed the service. “And yet the music of Michael Jackson brings us together.”