Soon after word of Michael Jackson's death got around his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, bereft fans began looking for a focal point to gather and join in group-sings of "You Are Not Alone," "Remember the Time" or "Gone Too Soon." Finding the appropriate shrine wasn't an easy task. The streets leading up to Jackson's rented home in Bel Air and his old family homestead in Encino were blocked off by police. Hundreds turned up outside the UCLA Medical Center, where the star had been pronounced dead early in the afternoon, but by dusk, the atmosphere had turned into more of a party — complete with T-shirt vendors, impersonators, and dance-offs — than vigil. (Read about how fans mourned Jackson's passing in New York here.)
Devotees typically end up holding impromptu wakes around a celebrity's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but access to Jackson's prime spot in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre was blocked all day by the red carpet for the premiere of Bruno. There was even word that Jackson's star had been temporarily removed from Hollywood Blvd. just prior to his death, to prevent damage from scaffolding. That was just one more indignity for fans who felt their idol had been persecuted in life by the media and was now being punk'd in death by Sasha Baron Cohen.
So, in an only-in-L.A. transference, grievers gathered around a Walk of Fame star for a different Michael Jackson: the much older, much whiter, still-living talk show host who's been a staple of Southern California radio for decades. Told that the Vine Street star their tears were falling on really belonged to a more obscure MJ, some mourners refused to believe it, while others didn't care, given the paucity of legitimate King-of-Pop altars.
"They said Michael's real star is in front of the Chinese, but I came here to get a photo for the family anyway," said Miakka Russell, originally from Georgia, holding her smartphone in the air to get a shot of the candles and roses, jostling with TV crews for position. "I think I should get custody of Bubbles. I'd be good with Bubbles ..."
"They're disrespecting him. Get off the star!" said Christina Williams, objecting to cameramen stepping into the tribute area. "We were in Popeye's Chicken at Hollywood & Cahuenga when we heard he passed, and we just stopped eating. It doesn't seem like it's real yet." The Glendora resident, born the same year as Jackson, had earlier led the faithful assembled around the sidewalk memorial in prayer. "When we saw him accused of things he didn't do, it made us depressed, made us cry. People just wanted money from him because he was kind-hearted. He was good in business but a child at heart, emotionally damaged from his childhood. Maybe this was God's way of making everybody stop bothering him. He's at rest. Nobody is accusing him of anything now."
Williams had a long history of showing up for Jackson, at public and not-so-public appearances. "The first time I ever saw him in person was at Cedars-Sinai, when his hair got hurt [in a 1984 accident while filming a Pepsi commercial]. We were watching TV and I said to my husband at the time, 'Get in the car, I want to go see him!' " She used her knowledge of hospitals to sneak in and get a look at Jackson in a wheelchair in the emergency room. "When I was a little girl, I wanted to marry him. He probably would have died before he did if I married him, though, because I heard he doesn't like feisty women."
Hovering outside the crowd was John Linville, a DJ and attorney who dated his fandom back to the Jackson 5's first and most obscure single. "I go back further than all these people," he said. "A lot of them think Diana Ross discovered the Jacksons, but she didn't, though she kept them at her house for a year while she tried to record them. They were discovered by Bobby Taylor and had a regional hit, 'Big Boy,' in 1968 on Steeltone Records. I'm still trying to find a copy of that on vinyl." He conceded that task might be more difficult now, with eBay asking prices for collectibles having skyrocketed over the preceding hours.
"You know, the King of Rock died at 42, and now the King of Pop has died at 50 — that's kind of young to be checking out," Linville mused. "I heard he was 100 pounds. That's messed up. These guys live the lifestyle of three or four people. Maybe you don't want to be the King of anything."
Around the corner on Sunset, at the behemoth Amoeba Music store, fans were flocking to one of the few remaining local meccas for physical product, and coming away empty-handed. "Man, man, man! I cannot believe they sold out!" exclaimed Juliet Lawrence, coming across the giant, apologetic post-it note where Jackson's catalog should have been. "Well, I guess I can. I ordered all his CDs from Amazon, then decided I wanted them quicker, but they're not here. We're going to Best Buy now."
Longtime Amoeba worker Chris Dealist described the rush on Jackson product after word trickled out as "an annihilation of the section. They Godzilla-ed the section. You know how ants go after food at a picnic — one finds it, then the others engulf it? Everything was gone by the end of the afternoon: posters. 45s, DVDs, LPs, unauthorized biographies." He was bringing out one last souvenirs they'd found in the stock room: a single of "Man in the Mirror" pressed in the decades-defunct CD-3 format, priced at $14.99.
"My first concert was the Jackson 5 at the Forum, when I was 5 and he was 14," added Dealist. "It was like Beatlemania; you couldn't hear which songs were being played. I'll never forget it, because here were grown women screaming for a little boy."
Over at the UCLA Medical Center in Westwood, one philanthropic soul had bought a box of cheap white gloves and handed them out to fans — one per person, of course — who lined up atop a wall in an attempt at spontaneous choreography. A more enterprising type was trying to sell "In Loving Memory" T-shirts, which he said he'd had printed up at 4 p.m. at a cost of $5,000. "Michael Jackson tribute T-shirts!" he hollered, not finding many takers. "Twenty dollars or two for $30! The King of Pop will never die, baby!" Nearby, dozens of onlookers surrounded a man twice Jackson's size who was replicating some of MJ's signature '80s dance moves, cheering him on and singing along with the decidedly un-mournful "Black or White" and "The Way You Make Me Feel." A 4-year-old Jackson impersonator in a glittery mini-suit posed for photographers and TV crews for 15 minutes at a time.
If the mood outside the hospital was more fun than funereal — almost like a pre-concert parking lot bash — there weren't many apologies to be offered for that. "The crying is over. We're gonna celebrate now," said Ochuwa Oghie, a young Nigerian immigrant who'd been on the phone all afternoon, confirming the death to distraught African relatives. "It's not real, anyway. I'm gonna wake up tomorrow and it'll be 'Chill out, it was a dream.' "
Her coworker Lucy Mirando was also in professed shock. "Are you gonna be OK?" she asked. "I'm not gonna be okay. It's so random. On TV, they were starting to compare him to Anna Nicole Smith. I was like, nooooooo! Let him be him. The personal stuff was odd, and I don't know what really went on with him, but you're not supposed to focus on that stuff. He's free now, and he won't be judged by anybody anymore."
Her friend, Oghie, briefly struck an existential note. "I really thought we'd all live forever," she said. Then she stuck a gloved hand in the air and struck a pose, getting down with her "Bad" self.
Additional reporting by Mikael Wood.
More Michael Jackson:
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- Music World Mours Jackson's Death
- Rolling Stone's Essential Michael Jackson Coverage