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I can imagine no worse curse to afflict someone, in America, than dying while famous.

He was strange to the point where he became a poster child for strange, but it was all the sadder because you could tell exactly where the trouble had come from. Since he was a child, he never once had a normal life or happy family or, apparently, any stable cadre of friends that would not defend him against his own absurdities, or screw him over for a little money. His childhood was bitter, brutal, and short. He was a superstar, and perhaps an addict. He was a dominant American force, and perhaps something malevolent. He was undoubtedly unbalanced, mentally and physically frail, maybe even insane. And he was brilliant.

F. Scott Fitzgerald could have written his life story. His was the essence of modern American fame and wealth; an icon of both the selflessly good and the shockingly bad; famous, but alone; shining genius and grotesque self-destruction in constant competition.

Even at his peak he was a tragic figure, already isolated. Wasn't it always obvious why he used his millions to build himself a full-fledged childhood? And how sad it was that he had, apparently, nobody around who could act as an adequate foil. He surrounded himself with friends as he could, but also with fools and clowns and hangers-on.

He was like the kid from the Twilight Zone, I always thought, the one who could get anything he wanted, or wish anyone he wanted into the cornfield, and nobody would or could say a thing about it. Everyone around him seemed afraid of him, except the people who thought maybe they could use him. He was not human, not like them. And he seemed to feel it exquisitely. He mutilated himself -- there was no other word for it. Over decades, he tried to turn himself physically into something else -- a thing in his own image.

Michael Jackson was a dismembered soul; bits and pieces of him had been long ago sold off, and of his own volition. His physical appearance was stark, but uncannily apt, in a world where such things almost never are so literal.

He lay in death as he lived in life, alone but surrounded by thousands. Even as corpse, there are police cars and helicopters and television cameras everywhere, and all his friends (supposed and true) and business partners (close and distant) and hangers-on (of all stripes and demeanors) are on all the networks expressing their sorrow on live television.

One or two voices, mean and self absorbed, leap into the fray with the supreme confidence of an alpha vulture jumping into a flock already thousands strong. Was this one really a true friend? Was that one? Who can tell? Apparently he had about ten thousand closest friends, all of them loved, and every damn last one of them is going to appear before a television camera or do a telephoned interview while old stock footage of the person they loved gets played on a continuous loop, moments of genius and despair carved into a video tombstone.

MSNBC shows the goddamn ambulance footage -- the ambulance backing up through his gate, backing into the street very slowly and cautiously to avoid the person with the video camera who is filming the unfolding tragedy and will not move farther away. And then as the ambulance drives off, the tour bus drives in, careening past the fire vehicles, blocking the driveway so the tourists can get a good view of the day and place Michael Jackson died.

Gawd, what fuckers these people are. I think if they didn't have police protection on the hospital, people would be going in with scalpels to dismember him piece-by-piece, selling his remains as mementos. If his soul goes to heaven, it will first have to get past a hundred paparazzi with butterfly nets.

He was Norma Desmond, but played larger; he was his own Captain Ahab, seeking to find and murder himself. But goddamnit, he was brilliant too, a nuclear force of music, and no matter how his own soul failed him, that much cannot be denied. Hearing his young voice once again, touching each note flawlessly and effortlessly and with such weight, is nearly shocking. Then video of the gold and green helicopter, spiriting the corpse away. And what luck, in the control room -- we have video of the corpse, unnervingly small and light, wrapped in a brilliant white.

He was loved. By uncountable millions as idol, and by some too-few friends as a person. I hope that in the end he at least knew as much, and that even the most famously, visibly, agonizingly tortured soul in the world could find a little peace in that.

Originally posted to Hunter on Thu Jun 25, 2009 at 06:55 PM PDT.

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