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Commentary: Michael Jackson: Kept alive by fame that consumed him

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 9, 2009 - Despite the best resuscitative efforts of television news crews, Michael Jackson remains deader than disco. The talking heads have been known to try a keep a story alive by beating it to death. In this case, they've offered breathless, 24/7 coverage of the "breaking story" of Jackson's demise for two weeks.

That narrative revolves around the fact that a 50-year-old man who was reputed to be addicted to prescription drugs apparently overdosed on a powerful sedative, thus joining his erstwhile father-in-law, Elvis, in pharmaceutical Valhalla.

Of course, nothing about Jackson's life was uncomplicated, so it was predictable that his death would be equally troublesome. He required two autopsies, for instance, which is always a bad sign. And his funeral, such as it was, took place in California so we can't rule out some sort of Lazarian resurrection. In fact, Tuesday's "Farewell to Michael" spectacle at the Staples Center generated civic turmoil unseen in L.A. since the month before when the Lakers won the NBA championship.

Jackson came onto the scene as a cute black kid with a winning smile and a magnetic stage personality. He left this mortal coil an alabaster curiosity with a fondness for the company of little boys whose painted face belied the tortured man-child trapped behind it.

His passing drew televised commentary from the normally reclusive Jesse Jackson (no relation) and Al Sharpton, as well as random observations from an entourage of other hangers-on and has-beens. Hordes of adoring fans gathered around the globe to advance the counter-intuitive notion that death is actually some kind of celebration of life. It's hard, I suppose, to mourn a cartoon character.

While the popular press obsessed over this freak show, other stories of note went largely unreported. Not the least of these was the appearance of a giant severed head at the corner of Eighth and Market streets in St. Louis.

When I first noticed the head lying at the southeast corner of the new downtown sculpture park, Citygarden, I assumed it was a work in progress. Once I learned that the head was the finished product, I had trouble deciding whether it was an argument for -- or an argument against -- the return of the guillotine as a more humane alternative to lethal injection.

Curious as to its significance, I phoned a friend who works for Downtown Inc., for clarification. He listened patiently to my concerns and then wearily explained that the head was "art." Never one to be satisfied with facile dismissals, I demanded further details whereupon he agreed to send me a brochure detailing the park's statuary.

Here, then, is the official account:

Eros Bendato (Eros Bound) has the feel of an ancient relic that has been excavated and reconstructed. Artist Igor Mitoraj is inspired by ancient cultures and particularly characters from Greek and Roman mythology. In this sculpture, the dismembered head of Eros, the Greek god of love and desire, lies on its side. The bandages that wrap Eros's face suggest that the eyes and mouth have been covered indicating that desires and ideas have been imprisoned. The bandages also symbolize two opposing views of the world -- either that civilization is broken beyond repair, or that it is being held together despite destructive forces.

Well, that was going to be my second guess. It's obvious in retrospect: a thoroughly Freudian decapitation -- the Cliff Notes version of "Civilization and Its Discontents." The suppressed id struggles against the chains of societal constraint; the inner child trying to escape the prison of social stricture. Eros apparently lost his head to forces beyond his control, which brings us back to the strange case of Michael Jackson.

He was hardly the first performer to fly too near the blazing star of celebrity, only to crash and burn. Nor will he be the last. Somewhere along the line, he morphed from a talented entertainer who could put on a good show to being the show itself. It's been, what?, 18 years since his last notable record release. Yet, as the pop icon, he remained center stage in the tabloid universe simply by existing.

Behind the surgically fabricated clown's mask that passed for the final edition of his face, there must have lurked a human being, which would explain the pain-killers and sedatives that ultimately took his life. And the fans who initially elevated him, eventually consumed him, thus accounting for the circus surrounding his death.

His fate brings to mind Lao-tse's observation that "the gods treat men like straw dogs" -- sacrificial icons that were first worshipped and then burnt. Like the dismembered head of Eros, Jackson's image lingers after the person behind it has perished.

There remains, however, the riddle of Eros' bandages: Do they represent a "civilization ... broken beyond repair" or one "held together despite destructive forces"?

Based on the fore-going, I'd have to say that the jury's still out on that one...

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.