Of all the myths enshrouding Michael Jackson's too-brief life, none was more potent than his image as the isolated artist, the tormented creative soul cut off from ordinary mortals.
It's an archetype with a strongly American pedigree, as grizzled and hoary as Citizen Kane clutching his snow globe while he sits alone in Xanadu, brooding on happier days.
Thoreau took to his cabin in the woods. Howard Hughes hid out buck-naked in germ-free hotels. Elvis holed up in Graceland under the sway of drugs and a byzantine retinue of friends and false comforters. J.D. Salinger squats behind his New England stockade, emerging every few years to threaten some or other writer with a lawsuit.
And let's not forget Gatsby, vanishing into the mob scene at his own lavish parties, or Norma Desmond, sustained by her delusional grandeur as she rots away in her Sunset Boulevard mansion with her stuffed pet chimp. (What is it about celebrity seclusion and simian fellowship?)
But few have inhabited the role of the reclusive eccentric more fully than Jackson, who at the time of his death, although decades past his prime, was still big -- at least to himself and the millions of us who came of age grooving and lip-syncing to his songs. It's pop music that got small.
Close friends described Jackson as the loneliest person they ever knew, entombed in his own celebrity, prematurely embalmed in his own legend. The King of Pop, who favored faux-military outfits, complete with braids and epaulets, lived out his adulthood as the sovereign ruler of his own private realm, Neverland, where normal codes of behavior didn't apply and the laws and taboos of the outside world didn't necessarily obtain.
The most painfully self-conscious of superstars, Jackson skillfully cultivated his own aura of apartness. In his later years during public appearances he was surrounded by bodyguards, his face sometimes obscured by a surgical mask or shaded under an umbrella, like a figure in a Magritte painting, as if he might wilt in the mega-watt glare of the omnipresent paparazzi.
"In a crowd, I'm afraid," he said. "Onstage, I feel safe."
His willful isolation turned him into an obscure object of desire, a human tchotchke, apparently so delicate that it might break if mishandled. Contemporary sculptor Jeff Koons recognized the fact in his 1988 work "Michael Jackson and Bubbles," in which he rendered the singer and his primate playmate in ceramic, as if they were a Dresden shepherd and shepherdess. "Look," Jackson's persona told his adoring masses, "but don't touch."
A famous person's impulse to withdraw may reflect either arrogance or humility. It may be a misanthropic turning of one's back or a desperate attempt to shield one's vulnerability, as seemed to happen with Judy Garland before her death at age 47.
Whatever was Jackson's motive, his decision echoed in his songs. Earlier in his career, the theme from "Ben" (a movie about a boy whose closest friend is a rat) was superficially sweet but left a cloying, queasy aftertaste. At the height of Jackson's fame and influence, "Thriller" (the John Landis video more than the song) playfully hinted at a frightening alter ego lurking inside the handsome, charismatic performer.
A couple of years later, with "Bad," Jackson's push-pull relationship toward his growing celebrity versus his desire for privacy made him ditch the tuxedo-clad dreamboat image he affected in "Off the Wall" and the seductive cover shot of "Thriller." For "Bad" he wore a black biker jacket and something closer to a scowl than a smile while warning others to keep their distance in the late '80s hit tune "Leave Me Alone."
It was quite a change from the adorable little boy with an Afro and funky clothes pleading "I Want You Back," or "Human Nature's" lovely, gauzy yearning for contact with a warm female presence and a giant city beyond the bedroom walls.
Jackson himself never made any secret of why he felt the need to retreat into a labyrinth of solitude. His Rosebud, of course, was exactly the same as Charles Foster Kane's. It was the childhood that had been stolen from him. "I never had the chance to do the fun things kids do," Jackson once said. "There was no Christmas, no holiday celebrating. So now you try to compensate for some of that loss."
By far the most troubling aspect of Jackson's withdrawal was the issue of whether he ever abused any of the children he invited to visit his fantasy world. Fans and cultural historians will be debating for years to come whether Jackson's self-exile was more a case of pathos or pathology, a misunderstood man's involuntary retreat into his own psyche, or a predator's escape into a safe house.
For a great artist, which Jackson unquestionably was, cultivating a rich creative life doesn't have to mean dropping out of the human race. Thoreau, in actuality, was no recluse. He received visitors regularly at Walden and remained vitally engaged with the community around him and with the issues of the day. He maintained his hermetic equilibrium by keeping the emotional and physical clutter around him to a minimum.
Jackson's solitude was more like Kane's, surrounded by gilded objects and haunted by the specter of irrelevance. One of Jackson's great achievements was to prove that a black man could attain the accouterments of the American dream in extremis -- money, mansions, global adulation -- armed with little more than his own prodigious talent. His greatest personal tragedy was to discover how poorly those trophies compensate for whatever else may be missing in a human life.