At 7:55 a.m., an usher at the glass doors outside Staples Center in Los Angeles had a message for the thousands already gathering for the day’s public memorial for Michael Jackson. “We are aware of your sorrow!” he announced in deep, affectionate tones. “We are aware of your pain! And we are aware of your joy!”
The man in the purple polo shirt then instructed ticket-holders how to line up, and that fans would have to leave their flowers and other “gifts” on a table outside the arena, all while insisting that “it is our pleasure, it is our privilege to welcome you …” It was a moment of genuine warmth at an otherwise outsized international media event, and was maybe a better indication of what was to come than the chaotic days of planning that finally led to Tuesday’s gathering.
Part funeral, part musical celebration, the two-hour Jackson tribute was a deeply emotional and public outpouring of grief, with rousing testimonials to the late singer and inspired musical performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder and Jennifer Hudson. It was also the year’s hottest ticket. Though 17,500 tickets were distributed freely to fans by lottery, online prices were reportedly as high as $2,000, but fans outside the arena found scalpers selling for as low as $200 each.
The media encampment across the street was like the Oscars and a political convention combined, with satellite trucks and television cameras to the horizon. Updates were coming from virtually every direction and cell phone. Two hours before the ceremony began, word was that Jackson’s body would not be interred at L.A.’s Forest Lawn Cemetery (where a private ceremony was held early in the morning) but transported to the arena, either by hearse or chopper. A man with a shaved head could be heard barking into the phone: “So he’s not going to be buried?”
As most fans hovered by the main entrance, others gathered at the rear driveway to await the arrival of Jackson’s hearse. When the wagon finally rolled slowly past, the golden casket covered in red roses was clearly visible through a window, and a few cheered, but most watched quietly. “That’s amazing,” said Christina Garcia, 28. “It’s an honor to be here. It’s definitely a sad day.”
Others lined up near the entrance to sign the collection of large white Jackson banners, leaving thousands of scrawled messages of devotion to the singer: “Praise God for the gift of Michael Jackson,” “RIP Michael — you were the greatest” and “Always believed in you.” Another woman in black wept as a seven-foot floral arrangement in the shape of a heart was raised beside a bronze statue of former Lakers superstar (and Jackson friend) Earvin “Magic” Johnson. It read, “We love you, Michael” in red and white roses.
Once inside the arena, fans and mourners were handed free programs with pages of photographs and testimonials from Jackson’s brothers and other friends. But this was a memorial, not a pop concert. Funeral wreaths lined up against the stage. The mood was often solemn.
Smokey Robinson began by reading statements from Diana Ross and Nelson Mandela, and the first of many fans fan shouted, “We love you, Michael!” But it was mostly silence and then a standing ovation as Jackson’s family took their seats. The choir sang “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! …” and the singer’s golden casket was rolled out by his brothers acting as pallbearers, each of them wearing a single, sequined glove.
Mariah Carey was the first to perform, stepping out in a black, low-cut gown to begin a fragile “I’ll Be There,” the Jackson 5 hit, rising with passion as she was joined by Trey Lorenz. Pictures of the young Jackson 5 singer flashed on the big screen behind them.
At their best, the brief musical performances were like a flipside to the renowned Motown 25th anniversary show in 1983, where Jackson first unveiled his “moonwalk.” It was less a simple celebration of a musical legacy than a glimpse at the depth of feeling within that lineage of pop music. It brought out the best in Tuesday’s performers. Even Lionel Richie put away the smooth loverman ballads and turned up the gospel on a rousing “Jesus Is Love.”
Stevie Wonder sat at a grand piano and sadly told the crowd, “This is a moment I wish I didn’t live to see.” He sang “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer,” adding the line: “Michael, why didn’t you stay?” Usher sat on a stool in dark shades as camera flashes filled the arena to sing “Gone Too Soon,” soon walking down to the casket as he sung, closing with hugs with the family in the front row.
Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson was visibly pregnant in a white gown as she belted out “Will You Be There” as dancers circled around her. And after rolling out a pair of vintage amps, John Mayer unfurled a mostly instrumental take on “Human Nature” on his road-worn Stratocaster guitar. It was all tasteful and maybe too brief. But for all the shifts and apparent chaos reported in recent days, and all the changes in plans and venues, the memorial was strikingly well-staged at Staples, where Jackson spent his final weeks rehearsing for his planned 50 concerts at London’s O2 Arena.
Queen Latifah called him “the biggest star on Earth,” and read a new poem for Jackson by Maya Angelou: “Beloveds, now we know that we know nothing, now that our bright and shining star can slip away from our fingertips like a puff of summer wind.”
Motown founder Berry Gordy called him “like a son to me,” told of baseball games between the Jacksons and the Gordys, and concluded him “the greatest entertainer who ever lived.” An emotional Brooke Shields told of happy times they shared as teens and young adults, even once sneaking a peak at Liz Taylor’s wedding dress while the actress slept nearby. And Magic Johnson told of BBQs and tossing firecrackers with the Jacksons, and called a surprising, hilarious afternoon over a bucket of fried chicken with Michael “the greatest moment in my life.”
Others felt the need to defend Jackson, after years of legal and financial troubles, of ridicule and charges of pedophilia. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee was particularly indignant, and likely responding to recent comments from New York Congressman Peter King: “We know people are innocent until proven otherwise.” And Rev. Al Sharpton credited the singer with breaking racial barriers for the likes of Oprah, Tiger Woods and Barack Obama. His words roared across the hall to cheers: “Thank you, Michael!”
At the end, Jackson’s brothers and sisters huddled together onstage with his two oldest children. Daughter Paris, 11, tearfully stepped up to the microphone. “Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you can ever imagine. And I just wanted to say I love him so much,” she said, falling into the arms of Janet Jackson.
Minutes later in the lobby, a Michael Jackson lookalike posed for snapshots, appearing as the singer did in recent years: pale skin, straight black hair, rail thin. Fans lined up to be photographed next to him, but not everyone was amused. “Save me!” one man snarled as he passed, shaking his head. “The real one’s in a casket — we just let him go.” Another woman added: “Obnoxious!”
Outside, fans were downbeat but quietly thrilled with what they had witnessed. Standing under a spiky black Mohawk, Jesse Martinez, 19, snapped some photos with his mother. They drove 200 miles from California’s Imperial Valley to be here. “It was more than I expected,” he said of the memorial. Both of them wore $5 Jackson bootleg T-shirts bought the night before in East L.A. “She was the most excited out of everybody,” he said. “My parents have all the albums, so I grew up listening to him all the time.”
Watching as the hearse was rolled out of Staples were Levi Alvarez, 18, and Cori McManus, 17, both fans of blues and garage music, but they also grew up with Jackson’s hits in the air. Their seats inside were third from the last row. “It was pretty heartwarming,” Alvarez said of the event. “I just can’t believe he’s gone.”