Books, News & Commentary, Non-Fiction

Live from the Apollo: a hack remembers the day Michael Jackson died

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Hack in a Flak Jacket – Wars, Riots and Revolution – Dispatches from a Foreign Correspondent (Hachette Australia) by Channel 9 foreign correspondent Peter Stefanovic (below) is what it says in the title. But sometimes a hack can find himself in the trenches with the paparazzi and obsessive fans. This extracted chapter is a break from Stefanovic’s war-torn tales as he reports from New York on the unexpected death of Michael Jackson in 2009.

Peterweb Stefanovic

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DEATH OF THE ‘SMOOTH CRIMINAL’

The planet stopped spinning on 25 June 2009, the day that Michael Jackson died. At least that’s how his fans felt, anyway.

It was one of those ‘wow’ moments that comes along every so often, when something entirely unexpected catches the world by complete surprise. The biggest ‘celebrity death’ since Princess Diana. The ‘gloved one’ was gone and very few people outside his inner circle had seen it coming.

Jackson suffered a cardiac arrest at his rented mansion in the Holmby Hills district of Los Angeles after he was plied with a fatal cocktail of prescription drugs. One of those drugs was the anaesthetic propofol, which is usually only available in hospitals and administered intravenously. Jackson had been preparing to relaunch his career with an ambitious fifty-date concert series in London, but he’d looked a shell of a man in his final weeks and had played a dangerous game with painkillers and sleeping agents. While his body ached in agony after years of torment, his heart ultimately packed it in. He was only fifty.

Although I was based in Los Angeles in 2009, I was in New York at the time of Jackson’s death, and even the city that never sleeps screeched to a halt when the news hit.

I was at the famed Madison Square Garden, a stage that Jackson moonwalked across on more than one occasion. But he was not why I was there. I was covering the 2009 NBA draft where young Australian basketballer Patty Mills was about to be selected by one of the big American teams. Patty is a lovely bloke who had a big dream that was about to be realised. I was fortunate enough to be there to tell it.

The draft pick moved into the second round, and then the call about Jackson’s death came in. Unfortunately, Patty Mills slid right off the news agenda.

Mark Calvert, the Channel Nine news director at the time, asked me to stay in New York for a night to provide a point of difference to LA. The Jackson story was major world news. Cable TV channels, fan pages, and tabloid websites were struggling to keep up with demand for even a sliver of new information about what had happened. The smallest crumb of a detail was chewed over for hours by talk-show hosts. Music channels filled programs with Jackson’s elaborate and classic videos. Call it the Jackson effect. Whatever your opinion of the man, it cannot be denied that he’d made a huge mark on the world and many people were devastated by his untimely passing.

Very few events capture the world’s attention at the same time so when they do it’s a big story.

Before Nelson Mandela died a few years later in South Africa, I hadn’t seen mourning like it. Grown men and women wailing on the street. Children breaking out into Jackson-esque dance moves in honour of their musical hero. Whether it be Los Angeles, his hometown of Gary in Indiana, or New York City, the images were the same.

Very few events capture the world’s attention at the same time so when they do it’s a big story. Channel Nine provided rolling coverage of events in LA and people’s reactions to Jackson’s death throughout most of the day. My responsibilities were to sum up the mood. Speak to the people and relay it all back to our viewers.

I was based outside the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem where a spontaneous wake had formed, attracting thousands of people from across the city. It may not have been LA, where Jackson had lived and spent most of his career, but many New Yorkers claimed to have a spiritual connection to him because New York was where it all began. The first stop on the road to a frighteningly successful career that came with untold riches.

The Apollo Theater calls itself the soul of African American culture. The greats had all played there, from Ella Fitzgerald to Louis Armstrong; gospel supremos such as Sam Cooke as well as soul kings including Ray Charles, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin. Big, big names. The stage had a certain magic about it. But the jewel in the Apollo’s crown may well be that Michael Jackson made his debut there in 1969 as the fresh-faced lead singer of The Jackson 5.

Cameraman Joel Wilson and I were amongst a crowd of deeply depressed Jackson fanatics whose turbo-charged emotions switched regularly from tears of loss and heart- break to celebratory cheers of support and encouragement about the life that was. People of different colour – black or white, as one of his songs was titled – gathered and consoled each other. They didn’t care who was watching or listening. Some reached up towards the heavens as an endless stream of Jackson’s hits were played on repeat through the venue’s speaker system outside. People swayed and sang along. In key or out of key. It didn’t matter. It struck me at the time how amazing it was that one person had affected so many.

Above us, a flashing marquee read ‘In Memory of Michael Jackson: A true Apollo legend.’ Even at four o’clock in the morning local time, when I crossed live into the Nine network’s evening news bulletins in Australia, the crowds were still there and still vocal.

In the final years of his life Jackson was plagued by sex abuse lawsuits, relentless paparazzi and rumours of plastic surgery. Despite any personal failings he had or had suffered, I was reminded time and time again that evening at the Apollo Theater, and beyond that night, that Jacko was one of history’s greatest pop stars. Recognised around the world. An undisputed musical pioneer, and a philanthropist of epic proportions.

I was back in LA within days but the mourning continued for weeks. Huge queues of fans would gather at his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They stood and sweated in the hot Californian summer sun for hours for a chance to lay a flower, light a candle, or leave a card or a picture with a personal handwritten tribute. Similarly, many people formed queues and took pictures outside the sprawling estate where Jackson died. I imagine that the feeling would have been very much the same when Elvis died in 1977, and then John Lennon three years later.

Just as it was with Presley and Lennon, fans were searching for answers. Why? How?

I reported a few times from the front gates of Jackson’s estate, inside a sealed-off section for media, and couldn’t help but notice that if he had died close to bankruptcy, as some reports suggested, then by the look of the property he still appeared to be living very well – even if his health was failing and his body shutting down.

Answers to how and why he died would come during the months and years of highly publicised court cases and legal battles, but at the time, it all seemed very tragic.

This is an extract from Hack in a Flak Jacket by Peter Stefanovic, published by Hachette Australia 

You can buy the book here

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