It was with some naivety that I agreed to speak at MJ Day Naples. I often exist in a dreamlike state, so this, along with the detachment from reality inherent in Facebook communication, meant that I had more-or-less sleepwalked into the arrangement. The rude awakening began as the plane approached Rome. Flying over the Vatican as it throbbed in the glow of a superlative sunset, awestruck at its splendour, it suddenly dawned on me:
What on Earth am I doing?
I’m a writer, not an orator. The last time I attempted public speaking I ended up with knees that knocked audibly, as my blushing face shone with profuse perspiration.
I looked like an erubescent jellyfish. If jellyfish had knees.
I was brought up a Catholic. So I started to pray.
It was a nervous drive from Rome to Sorrento, where I was staying. Anxiety exacerbated by what can only be described as the Italian’s shoulder-shrug attitude to road safety. My own shoulders, on the other hand, had never been so tense.
Fortunately, such is the sublime beauty of the place, upon arriving in Sorrento it’s impossible to feel anything other than a deep sense of peace. My accommodation had a view of the Gulf of Naples – its coast a spectacular palette of human-inspired iridescence, a sight only surpassed by the natural majesty of the watchful and dominant Vesuvius.
It wasn’t difficult to understand why Michael opted to holiday there in 2006.
(Still, as was standard procedure in Michael’s life, his presence in the area powered up the rumour mill, with this particular story concerning Michael’s intention to set the contemporaneous Pope’s prayers to music.)
My nerves returned during the drive from Sorrento to the venue in Naples. The very thought that I would be imminently taking to the same stage Siedah Garrett had graced last year. The woman who wrote Man In The Mirror! La Velle Smith Jr would be there. The man who was a stalwart of Michael’s touring entourage! I felt nauseous with anticipation.
But then something truly magical happened.
At the precise second the car pulled up outside the venue, the radio began to play You Are Not Alone. The coincidence was extraordinary. It made me realise that I was there to do a job. That I had a responsibility to fulfil.
As I walked in, the speakers emanated Keep The Faith. Another sign. Another shot of courage.
The atmosphere was incredible. Fedoras and faith. A sun-baked celebration of Michael. People from all over Italy and from all walks of life milled around, absorbing the absolute contentment of it all. It made me feel so proud to be there. It made me feel like I had come home.
It was some hours before I was due to make my speech. Hours filled with joy at watching the performers – young children and teenagers everywhere enrapt in their showcasing of Michael moves. The dancing competition demonstrated so much talent. But more than this, it was resplendent in hope. Hope for Michael’s legacy.
One contestant stood out. A young boy named Samuel Mastrilli. Prior to Samuel’s arrival on stage, there were murmurings amongst the crowd as to how good he was. It was reminiscent of the introduction to the Smooth Criminal short film when a dancer says, “Watch him!” before Michael throws the coin.
Billie Jean started to play. And the boy began to sing. The spectators were gobsmacked at the sheer brilliance of it. All I could think was how much Michael would have appreciated such immense talent in the tribute.
My turn to speak came after a beautiful rendition of Will You Be There performed by a local choir. Completely contrary to the fears I had harboured, I suddenly didn’t feel anxious at all. The crowd was so friendly, and I felt comfortable in what I wanted to say.
The translator of The First Book of Michael had been instrumental in creating the opportunity for me, and I had had the pleasure of her company since I’d arrived. She then translated for me on stage. She is a wonderful, wonderful woman.
As I spoke, I sensed that my words were altering the mood of the crowd. The ambience of sheer joy that had preceded my speech was now tinged with an air of the sombre. I almost felt guilty. People had gathered to celebrate Michael’s life, after all.
But the day is also one of reflection. A chance to think about what Michael’s existence meant for the planet; to appreciate the poignancy of it; the pregnancy of its potential.
The reaction afterwards was heartwarming and humbling, if somewhat surreal. Members of the crowd approached me for autographs and selfies, some tearful as they told how my words spoke for them. But as I said in the speech, the support I’ve been blessed with has been a huge surprise, with it having grown out of a very simple love I have – writing about my hero, Michael Jackson.
It was a privilege to be able to put names to faces. I made so many friends in Naples. I’m so excited to return one day.
But next time, I’m not driving. I need my shoulders when I dance.
English edit of the speech:
I never imagined upon writing those first words of the blog that they would evolve into having a following, and certainly not the creation of this: The First Book of Michael, nor indeed the opportunity to be here now, speaking to you all.
It has been a bewildering and humbling experience. Because I honestly just love writing about Michael.
So standing here now is actually the realisation of many dreams coming true.
Of course, we all know who gave me the courage to follow these dreams.
Such was Michael’s universal appeal, it follows that a whole spectrum of personalities admire him. Ergo, the Michael Jackson fan community is comprised of many factions that, although consisting of like-minded people, have nevertheless interpreted Michael in their own particular way.
Perhaps the one thing that the many different groups can agree on, though – albeit ironically – is the importance of his aspirational message of promoting understanding and peace.
Karen Faye was someone who knew Michael intimately for three decades. During this time, she was his confidante, his protector, and his advisor. She rubbed cream into the piebald patchwork that was his back and shoulders: a torso that no-one else got to view, unless she had applied concealing make-up beforehand.
Michael felt very insecure about his vitiligo. He felt very insecure about his overall physique. During times of stress, he would often fast to feel better about himself – often miss meals, try to concentrate instead on making his work as perfect as possible. Fasting and exhaustion landed him in hospital on numerous occasions. Stress exacerbates the effects of vitiligo. Karen tried to ensure he was fed.
Karen was much more than Michael’s make-up artist. That chair in which she applied his make-up. It was the same chair in which they talked. The same chair in which they cried together. The same chair in which they laughed together. The same chair in which they would put the world to rights.
For thirty years.
Michael trusted her. Implicitly. Karen prepared Michael for his final resting place. His deathbed.
I had many worries whilst writing The First Book of Michael. However, once I knew Karen Faye was eager to write the Foreword and endorse my sentiments, these concerns began to alleviate. These worries were further allayed once I’d read her contribution. I felt incredibly proud that my efforts in trying to do right by Michael’s legacy were being so keenly supported by a person who had been so uniquely close to him.
I’m quite embarrassed that Karen was so effusive with her praise of my writing. I’m an Englishman, after all. However, please allow me to indulge in relaying a short quote from her Foreword to The First Book of Michael,
“When I clicked on Syl’s blog, I actually cried when reading his insights. It brought me so much joy to find someone who heard Michael’s message so clearly, and could articulate it with the depth that Michael intended.
Syl’s writing opened up my own understanding of Michael’s life – from a point of view other than my own – that rang true. Syl Mortilla’s writing is the blood pulsing from Michael’s heart to all of his fans. The First Book of Michael is a beautiful and honest contribution to the legacy of Michael Jackson, from a person who comprehends the messages Michael created, and left us to discover for all time.
I know everyone who has been touched by Michael will enjoy this book, and those that didn’t understand Michael, will find clarity in Syl’s writing.
Michael’s life spoke, and Syl Mortilla was listening.”
Grazie, Karen Faye.
I’ve tried, but I simply cannot remember when I first fell in love with Michael. However, I can recall the first time I tried to emulate his dancing.
Perhaps it happened at the same time.
I was seven years old – and, along with my siblings and some friends of ours, we tried to recreate the ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ short film. Naturally, being the eldest sibling, I assumed the role of Michael, and the girl I fancied from down our street got chosen (at random, obviously) to play the role of the object of Michael’s desire – the model Tatiana Thumbtzen (one of those beautiful ironies of existence that inclines me to believe in a parallel universe, is that these days, the real Tatiana Thumbtzen follows me.
Albeit, on Twitter – but I maintain it counts).
The ensuing years of my Michael-dancing self-education are a chronicle of excruciating memories involving mirrors, hairbrushes, failed crotch grabs, broken ornaments, and concerned expressions etched on the faces of my parents upon unfortunate bedroom interruptions.
I competed with myself as to how many spins I could accomplish in one attempt – though, not just any old revolutions, mind. Spins in which you stop in perfect time, with a closed fist at the end of an arm outstretched in the chosen direction. Or a pointed finger, into which, as Michael instructs in the ‘Jam’ video, you “Put all your energy… and – fire!”
As a teenager bullied at school, Michael gave me the refuge of his dance, and for this I shall be eternally grateful to him.
I continue dancing to this day. I doubt I’ll ever stop. I imagine I’ll be putting on shows when I’m elderly and in a nursing home. Or, at least, dancing in the privacy of my own room.
When my parents – finally – won’t be able to intrude.
I’ll concede that a devotion to Michael can inspire some ostensibly odd behaviour.
I once ran alone into the deserted streets of a small coastal town in the south of England, whereupon I tore off my shirt, fell to my knees, and wailed incoherently with primeval, ecstatic joy.
Because a woman had just released fourteen white doves: one to represent each of Michael’s acquittals in his 2005 trial for child molestation.
Somewhat melodramatic, perhaps. But it was an instinctive response.
How does one explain the magnetism of Michael? How so many are so heartbroken at the death of someone they never met? To the same extent of sadness that accompanies losing a close family member?
There are many reasons: Michael provided the world with quality, unique, timeless rhythms and melodies, that he divined with the sole purpose of healing the world. He was the plausible, flesh-and-blood superhero; he was a surrogate parent; he filled the vacuum of self for so many people confused by the tragedy of loss; he was the Unknown Soldier, with millions of identities willed onto him by the bereft.
The world talks about Michael Jackson as an unbreakable enigma. But he wasn’t. Not to us. Not to those of us that walked through hell with him, its raging fires starkly illuminating the man’s vulnerabilities and faults – for anyone that cared to see.
What he gave us in return is this: he gave us musical flags to plant as life milestones; he was our support system; he was an indicator for our identities – our very souls; he was our moral paradigm, a totem for our tried-and-tested, stoic-and-steadfast belief in the power of the truth – in the tireless advocating of it when confronted by egregious, audacious and unrelenting slander.
The fable of Beauty and the Beast tells the tale of how decency is often ostracised by cynical societies obsessed with the superficial. How scapegoating, promoted by the insecurity of bullies fearful of deviants, manifests in the Beast as his becoming more and more isolated. The love story in the fable demonstrates how two people find solace in each other after this rejection from society. This is the same as between Michael and his fans. Michael would not give up because he had the love from his fans. And we would not, and will not, give up because we had his.
With the increasing brutality Michael endured, the more we were drawn to him. The poor black boy born as a single permutation of the infinity of fate into – to borrow Janet’s phrase – “a world sick with racism”, who then went on to defy all odds by using his talent to help his family escape poverty and then trying to transform the world into a better place.
And in this lies the answer to the conundrum of the world’s sense of grief at his death: It is simply that humanity mourns, en-masse, the tragedy of its losing an opportunity to catalyse the realisation of world peace.
Michael holds up a mirror to humanity. His fans were given the opportunity to perceive the world through his own particular pane of the prism: one painful, yet privileged. Each of us fans, as individuals, is in some way a reflection of the man himself, an instrument in helping to fulfil a common goal: to help heal the world.
Those who project themselves onto Michael and see a monster are merely construing themselves.
If I could wish for anything, it would be that everyone could perceive Michael the way we do.
The perpetuation of the lie of Michael being a child molester undermines his life’s work, his message and his mission. This is the single issue, above all others, which is the most crucial with regards Michael’s legacy. To fight against this, the fan community can disregard other differences. This is the true cause that unites the Michael Jackson fan community.
Michael performed to hundreds of millions of people during his life. Every crowd he played to was comprised of an adoring ocean of people, in which each individual had fallen as a nuanced raindrop, forming a harmonious sea of love: a form that was fluid, yet entire – like the dancer and the dance that had summoned them all to be together. And Michael gleefully received this love. More than that: he was energised by it. Arms outstretched, awash in the pulsing warmth of the love of a hundred-thousand people, he absorbed the adoration the way a butterfly imbues heat – in order to generate enough strength to fly.
As Michael’s fans, every single one of us is loved unconditionally (let’s call it an occupational perk). Our collective inhalation of inspired breath, upon being exhaled, carries the requisite potency to combust Michael’s pilot light dream into an incendiary reality. His dream of a universally recognised reverence for the unique preciousness and majesty of childhood.
It is our responsibility to ensure that the sadness Michael was forced to endure makes sense in the end. That it meant something. Let us not allow the phenomenon that was Michael Jackson be a missed opportunity for an ambassador; an emblem; a paradigm of peace. Michael encouraged the people of planet Earth to adopt his unprecedented fame and utilise it as a chance for global unity: as a catalyst for the positive progression of the human race.
People underestimate the fact that Michael Jackson was the most famous person on the planet. A heavy fact, with unimaginable repercussions for the man in question.
One day, people will envy our privilege as having been alive in the same time as a living Michael Jackson. History is a weapon in the battle for objectivity. Michael understood this.
One of my main motivations for writing The First Book of Michael was to assist in ensuring that there is something out there, somewhere, that exposes both the extent of Michael’s genius and how he chose to utilise it with such pure intent.
Michael’s legacy will endure to legend. The only question is what the myths entwined within that legend will entail.
The First Book of Michael is an effort to balance the legend in Michael’s favour – ballast that negates the cynical promulgation of him as a pop caricature, and instead promotes him as a prophet.
I’d like to thank everyone in our much-maligned community who has stood up and been counted for in our fight to defend our hero’s legacy.
Michael Jackson, we owe you everything.
Michael Jackson, we miss you.
Michael Jackson. Happy birthday!
Italian translation available here: http://amzn.to/1O85aRV