A look at his final days and a tribute to the mysterious star that rocked our world

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated July 03, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

Michael Jackson. Even at the end, his life was a spectacle. On the afternoon of June 25, as the first news reports broke that the singer had suffered cardiac arrest and been raced to the hospital in the back of an ambulance, fans and reporters began to gather in front of the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. The crowd soon swelled to more than 500 gawkers. A swirl of news helicopters hovered like hungry mosquitoes while cameramen jostled for position. TV personalities floated unconfirmed theories in Japanese, Spanish, and Italian, dutifully replaying a media ritual as old as celebrity itself.

As more and more fans flooded the hospital grounds, some having ditched work to hold vigil, they broke into songs with lyrics well known to anyone who’d lived on planet Earth in the latter part of the 20th century. They held candles. They held home-made signs. They held their breath.

Seth Casteel, a 28-year-old Jackson fan dressed in shorts and flip-flops, ran the three blocks from his home and hoisted a boom box over his head, blasting Jackson’s 1991 plea ”Heal the World.” When the song ended, he explained why he’d wanted — no, needed — to be there. ”Michael Jackson’s my favorite artist of all time,” he said. ”His music has brought people together all over the world.”

Suddenly, a man in a black T-shirt jumped in. ”You’re so full of s—, man! Everything you just said is bulls—!”

Casteel looked confused. ”Michael was all about positivity,” he fired back, ”and I choose to look at the positive side of him.”

”Do you think he was good for children unfortunate enough to cross his path?” the heckler asked. ”Do you think that‘s positive?”

Casteel held his ground. ”Michael meant something to people. Why do you think all of these people are here?”

”People are here for the spectacle, that’s why!”

Fifteen minutes later, it was confirmed: Michael Jackson was dead at 50.

How do you write the epitaph of a man as complicated as Michael Jackson? Can you simply focus on his talent? That angelic falsetto voice? The innocent, thousand-watt smile of the 11-year-old R&B prodigy belting out ”I Want You Back” with his brothers on The Ed Sullivan Show? The quicksilver magic he would later conjure as a solo act on stage, blowing people’s minds as he moonwalked to ”Billie Jean”? Do you celebrate him as an artist who sold more than 60 million albums, notched 13 No. 1 solo hits, and single-handedly bridged the gap between black and white audiences as no one ever had in the history of popular music?

Or do you acknowledge the sad truth that in many ways, that Michael Jackson vanished years ago? Because as great of an entertainer as he was — and make no mistake, he was one of the great entertainers — it’s all the other stuff, the messy stuff, that has dominated our thoughts about Jackson over the past 15 years. The lost childhood that he tried, in vain, to re-create. The plastic surgery. The molestation allegations — first in 1993 (settled out of court for a reported $20 million) and again in 2003 (resulting in a trial and acquittal in 2005) — and the rumors that emanated out of Neverland suggesting Jackson’s self-authored Peter Pan fairy tale had, at its heart, been something less than pure.

Many of Jackson’s fans would rather remember the phenomenally talented performer as they first found him, whether they came of age in the ’70s, when the bell-bottomed, Afroed teen was fronting the Jackson 5; or the ’80s, when Thriller turned the Gloved One into the biggest star on earth; or even the ’90s, when Jackson’s still-sensational musical output was beginning to be eclipsed by his offstage weirdness.

Jackson may go down as the last truly global superstar. When Top 40 radio and record-store racks were still segregated into black (R&B) and white (rock), Jackson’s music united races, spanned generations, and defied genres. In the studio, he was a brilliant songwriter with a golden ear for the perfect hook. On stage, where Jackson always seemed most comfortable, he was completely hypnotic — the most dazzling personification of physical grace since Fred Astaire. He moved so effortlessly, so whisper-smooth, that you never stopped to consider how much work went into what he was doing. And while Jackson may not have invented the music video, with ”Beat It,” ”Billie Jean,” and especially the epic-length ”Thriller,” he was the first to recognize and tap its full potential, turning it into an art form. Jackson’s influence was so pervasive, it’s impossible to imagine pop culture without him. It can be seen in a thousand small ways — how Usher moves, how Justin Timberlake sings. ”I don’t know any artist I’ve worked with who isn’t a huge Michael Jackson fan,” says singer Akon, another disciple. ”He set the standard for everyone to follow. Period. He set the tone for what a mega-superstar can do for an audience.”

While Jackson’s autopsy results didn’t conclusively determine the cause of death (a crucial toxicology report may take four to six weeks), it didn’t take long for what was initially thought to be simple cardiac arrest to spiral into a much darker narrative about a skeletally thin, hopelessly stressed-out, and chemically dependent 50-year-old man, surrounded by his three young children, a retinue of questionably motivated yes-men, and a nanny who reportedly pumped his stomach more than once as a result of all the pills he was supposedly gobbling.

”I think his death is a drug overdose,” says Deepak Chopra, a friend of Jackson’s for 20 years who remained close to the star until his last days. ”It is the result of these terrible doctors who are drug peddlers, who put people on drugs and continue to enable them and perpetuate them. I confronted Michael many times about it. He would deny it. Then he wouldn’t call me. Then he would get upset. And then he would apologize. I would tell Michael ‘You are going to die’ all the time. And he would say, ‘No, I’ve got pain. I only take them when I’m in pain and the doctors think it’s okay.’ Personally speaking — and I’m not a criminologist — this is a homicide.” According to Chopra, Jackson’s drug addiction began during the lead-up to his 2005 trial. ”When the reports about child abuse emerged, that’s when it started,” says Chopra, a doctor and spiritual adviser. ”After the not-guilty verdict, he came straight to our house and stayed with us. One day he asked me for a prescription, and that’s when we knew he had a problem.”

By many accounts, that problem spun out of control as Jackson prepared for a sold-out string of 50 concert dates in London that had been slated to kick off this month. Jackson was frail, severely underweight, and reportedly taking a dizzying cocktail of sedatives, painkillers, and antidepressants. The ironically titled This Is It shows were being billed as Jackson’s most spectacular comeback yet. They were set to earn him a mind-boggling payday that would help keep his myth afloat. The pressure must have been incredible.

In death Michael Jackson quickly proved to be as colossal as he was in life. As word spread around the globe, Internet sites seized up and crashed. TV networks pre-empted their prime-time lineups to air (and sometimes re-air) minor-chord retrospectives of the King of Pop’s soap opera life. Heavy sales of his back catalog quickly vaulted him to the top of the charts again, and radio play of his songs increased a staggering 1,735 percent.

All week long, fans came together for impromptu vigils. From Hollywood to Harlem, Tokyo to Karachi, and beyond, the Jackson faithful gathered to sing, dance, and cry. Outside of New York’s Apollo Theater, the famous musical proving ground where Jackson and his brothers won an amateur-night competition on Aug. 13, 1967, hundreds of fans, both young and old, celebrated Jackson’s musical legacy. If his ever-lightening skin color had once made him a divisive figure in the African-American community, all seemed to be forgiven. Asked what brought her there the night after Jackson’s death, Kim Simmons, 50, said, ”You felt his spirit in every song. It’s such a sad, sad day. You want to grab somebody, you want to dance, you want to sing, you want to shout, you want to cry, because it’s so overwhelming.”

Three thousand miles away, in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, fans clustered around Jackson’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where flowers, balloons, and framed portraits covered the sidewalk. A Jackson impersonator moonwalked. ”I was crying, I couldn’t believe it when I heard,” said Danny Holt, 28. ”Michael Jackson had that indescribable thing. He just had an effect on people — it was totally magical. I really thought that he was going to make a comeback and I might actually have a chance to see it. So for this to happen so suddenly and so out of the blue is devastating.”

Meanwhile, celebrities came forward to share their grief: Madonna, Paul McCartney, even President Obama. ”He was perhaps the greatest performer of my lifetime,” says Sheryl Crow, who was a backup singer and musician on Jackson’s Bad tour. ”People underestimate how remarkable it is to create something that no one has ever seen or done before. It’s like discovering the vaccine for polio. I don’t think artists like that come along but once in a lifetime. There’s not a household in the world that doesn’t know who Michael Jackson is. And I don’t think we’ll see that again for a very long time.”

A week after Jackson’s tragic death, as his fans continue to mourn the legend that’s been lost, there are still plenty of questions that remain unanswered: What’s going to happen to Jackson’s three children? Was he hundreds of millions of dollars in debt? Sick with any number of serious diseases? Will the promoter of his planned London concerts release live rehearsal recordings that he might not have wanted anyone to hear? And if he had lived, was he too ill to have played those 50 concerts in the first place? Would he have had the strength, or the chops, to resonate like he once did?

Of course, the irony is that now Jackson’s triumphant comeback has finally been realized in a way that it never possibly could have been if he were alive. As sad as it is to write these words, maybe this tragedy was the only way that he could be truly forgiven and loved again. Maybe his death is the only way we can all make peace, once and for all, with Michael Jackson.
Additional reporting by Paige Parker, Whitney Pastorek, Nicole Sperling, Christine Spines, Tim Stack, Simon Vozic-Levinson, and John Young