The Pop Star, The Friend, and Me

Every one knows where they where two years ago when the news broke that Michael Joseph Jackson, The King of Pop, died suddenly following a massive drug overdose at his home in Holmby Hills, California.  Some remember watching the drama unfold through cable and the Internet; word trickled to others through friends and friend’s friends, calling to tell them their childhood icon was gone.  By the time the world made its way around the world, over a billion people would witness his funeral live on television, making it the most publicized in history–more then JFK’s, MLK’s, John Lennon and Kurt Cobain combined. The controversy remains a point of contention for many–but the impact psychically and economically is immeasurable in ways those closest to him are struggling to quantify even today.

I’ve never met the pop star personally.  In fact, I am not much of a fan at all.  But in a strange and surrealistic way, our lives are connected by a single thread–my friend Jason Davidson.  We haven’t spoken much since we parted ways in 1998, but for the five years we knew  each other, Jackson remained the glue that kept our friendship together–through good times and bad.  Our relationship wasn’t always perfect, and both of us had our faults, but the impact of his loss still weighs on me to this day.

To understand why our relationship is so important, let’s rewind eighteen years.  It’s 1993.  Grunge is still in its ascendancy. Women (and not a few girls, I suspect) swoon to the crooning sounds of New Kids on the Block. TGIF is the most popular block on American television. School shootings are practically unheard of, and terrorism exists only as a plot point in a dozen Steven Segal movies.

For two grade school boys from Nowhere, U.S.A, it’s a good time to be alive.

It’s been two years since Jason  has befriended me. Having hit it off by chance following a particularly cruel day (for me, anyway) at Burton Grove elementary school, our love of video games, television and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is sustaining us through some of the most torturous physical and emotional abuse we will ever experience in our lives.  My torture is nowhere near coming to an end, but for the time being our mutual escapism–and hatred of the school administration–is keeping us us together.

Jason is a chipmunk of a kid, with a face that would make Alvin proud.  By that I mean, he actually looked like a chipmunk at the time.  With auburn hair and a childlike disposition, he is something of an idealist.  Jason also has cystic fibrosis, a potentially fatal disease that drowns its victims in their own fluids.  I didn’t understand that then, but then again i was a ten-year old.  A snarky, cynical ten year old at that.

But as two peas in a pod go, Jason and I couldn’t be more different. As the son of a musician who played with the Platters, Sam and Dave, and Chubby Checker, I have a much more critical ear for pop music. Jason, on the other hand, could care less.  To put it in perspective, I’m more like Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, he’s more like the main character on Life with Bobby.  He reads comic books, I read Mark Twain.

And here is where The King of Pop comes in.

One Saturday, Jason and I are hanging around at his house. I’d just spent the night before at his house.  I’m tired and probably anxious to get home.  As we get our fill of cereal and God knows what, out of nowhere Michael Jackson suddenly appears on the TV, his eyes pleading as he reads a statement denying he’d ever touched the 13 year-old boy who claimed he’d been molested at Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Even though I barely kept up with pop culture outside of The Real World at that point, the news of the scandal is hard to miss.  Hard Copy and Inside Edition cover it nightly.  The facts of the case are well known to anybody with a remote and cable TV.

But not Jason.

Almost immediately after the broadcast was over, Jason turns to me and says ‘You know he’s innocent.’

I barely keep myself from chuckling.

‘You really believe that?’ I retort.

A group shapshot of me, taken in happier times. I am the next to last kid on the second row--Jason Davidson is not pictured.

I knew how Jason felt about Jackson  Jason had been the one to screen Moonwalker in front of me during a previous sleepover–the very first time I’d seen Joe Pesci in a film, ever.  Regardless of my feelings of him as a person, there is no denying Jackson’s artistry, his ability to create a world that is both fantastic and believable.  It was  his calling card ever since Thriller–and though we did not know it yet, he’d have more tricks under his sleeve for many years to come.  But Jason didn’t see it through a critical lens as I did–he was a fan.

Being the smart ass that I am, I tell him about the payoffs, the accusations how Jackson slipped some money under the table to the accuser’s family to settle out of court. Even for a ten year-old without any background in the law, it reeks. But my friend would have none of it. Boil it down to another one of our differences–namely, that an adult can do something bad.

‘I refuse to believe that!’ Jason yells.

Words are said, voices are raised, and before we knew it we are not just arguing, we’re shouting.  In the heat of the moment, adrenaline coursing through our veins, we’re too focused on ourselves to think much of anything else. We want nothing less than to emasculate each other like two wrestlers in the ring, aching to tear each other apart.

Out of nowhere, I feel something strike my head violently.  I crumple over and cradle my skull, aching and bruised, wondering what could possibly do so much damage.  Tears stream from my face as I spy Jason twirling a pair of big, fat nunchaku as he towers over me. I glance at the array of throwing stars and martial arts paraphenalia in his room, suddenly remember what I got myself into.

“The fuck?!” I scream. “Why’d you do that?”

To my surprise, tears were streaming down his face too.  This’ll hurt me a lot more than it’ll hurt you, his eyes seem to say. We cry for several minutes, more upset about the way our conversation ended than the way it began.  Yet I still feel violated by the attack.  I call my mom to pick me up and leave, feeling angry and vowing not to go there again.

A week later we’re hanging out at my house, messing around as though the incident never even happened.  Over the next several years we continue to see more of each other, he taking me across the Virginia border to ride go-karts and explore the woods outside his parent’s new home, while I treat him to a day of jumping off my rickety bunk bed, mere inches from the ceiling fan (at this time, I’m harboring a dream of joining the 182nd Airborne).

But it’s not to last. Eventually we go our separate ways, he into his world of computer games and toys while I go about attending workshops, writing scripts…among other things.  Becoming a published writer is a passion I would pursue intermittently throughout the rest of my life. I moved to Macon Georgia in the summer of 1995. During the nine years I lived there I experienced crushes and heartbreak, even had a romantic fling or two with girls I’d met in class..  Not once would I speak to Jason, even over the telephone.

Summer, 1998. We reconnect on a whim at my dad’s house in Stoneville, North Carolina. Jason’s older than I remember, the baby fat around his face having melted to reveal a handsome young man with auburn brown hair and piercing blue eyes. A young woman is draped around his arm. She stands at six feet, with fiery hair and long legs that would make any teenager go wild. He tells me she’s a gymnast from Philadelphia, a casual hookup that’s suddenly gotten serious.

I should be glad for him, I really should. But I’ve just broken up with a girlfriend of my own.  Consumed with my own grief and self-pity, I rage at him. How dare he have a girlfriend when I have none! Without thinking much of the consequences, I tell him as much, using some choice words that don’t bear repeating. He blushes with embarrassment and leaves. I never see him again.

Which isn’t to say I don’t hear about him, in a manner of speaking.

A few years after we part, I receive word through a mutual acquaintance about allegations of child molestation have surfaced against his step-father. My understanding is several children have been coaxed to point the finger at him, a hard-working blue collar family man who slaves to put food on the table for his wife and kids.  The stepfather has no previous criminal record or history of sex offenses. Whether Jason was forced to testify as well I will never know, but I imagine the ordeal is rough for all concerned. The charges against his step-father are later dropped, and the family goes off the grid.

But Jason’s story never ends there. Because of his illness, time is not on his side. He could be alive and well, he could be on life support in intensive care. He could be buried on the family plot in Virginia. For all I know he could have kids of his own. A million possibilities, and the final chapter may well be unwritten.

I was a jerk for letting our relationship end the way it did.  Perhaps it was time for us to move on.  But a friendship like ours is–was–rare.  Even dynasties never last forever, but over a period of a few months years in the early 1990s,  we were more than just friends, we were brothers.  All because of the Prince of Pop.

Thank you, Gloved One. Thank you.