Friday, June 26, 2009

The unexpected death of Michael Jackson Thursday prompted an outpouring of disbelief, nostalgia and sincere mourning among his fans - in real life, in the cyberworld, and on the radio.

In Washington, D.C.’s bustling U Street area, once known as the city’s black entertainment mecca, patrons who filtered into restaurants and bars were stunned and overwhelmed by the shocking news.

“Oh my God, I can’t believe he’s dead!” exclaimed Virginia Ali, 75, co-owner of the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl. “I’m just shocked and saddened … what was he, 50? I listened to his music when he was a kid. It’s so shocking, you know? He was coming back. We knew him as a kid when he was on Ed Sullivan.”

The mood was equally somber at other U Street mainstays. Kelly and Maze Tesfaye, both 55 and owners of Twins Jazz, wept openly as they pondered Mr. Jackson’s death.

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“A legend is gone,” Kelly Tesfaye sobbed.

“From when he was young until now he was big [but] he was in trouble. Why was there no doctor? Why was there no nurse? Why did they find him in a corner?” Kelly Tesfaye said of Mr. Jackson’s last moments. “Where was everybody to save this person, this king? At this age he shouldn’t die at all.”

Said W. Ellington Felton, 32, a local soul singer, “I cried when I found out,” as he prepared to take the stage at the Bohemian Caverns for a Thursday night performance.

“I can say ‘Man, where were you on June 25 when Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died on the same day.’ It’s like JFK’s death. Everyone’s gonna remember what they were doing,” he said.

In Lansing, Mich., Drew Bossler, 28, general manager of Troppo restaurant near the statehouse, quickly put on a Motown compilation CD with ‘60s and ‘70s Jackson music to remember the fallen entertainer as his death was confirmed by television reporters.

News of Mr. Jackson’s passing trickled through the upscale eatery as guests in the bar area watched the grim broadcast on Fox News.

“We just thought it would be appropriate,” he said, as strains of the songs “Ben” and “Got to Be There” played out on the stereo system.

In New York’s Times Square, a low groan went up in the crowd when a screen flashed that Jackson had died, and people began relaying the news to friends via cell phone.

“No joke. King of Pop is no more. Wow,” Michael Harris, 36, of New York City, read from a text message a friend sent to his telephone. “It’s like when Kennedy was assassinated. I will always remember being in Times Square when Michael Jackson died.”

Word of Mr. Jackson’s hospitalization sent millions of Americans to celebrity Web sites. So many rushed at once that many Internet connections were broken or slowed considerably. And within an hour of the first reports that Mr. Jackson had died, the event had taken over social networking sites.

Before 8 p.m., nine of the top 10 “Trending Topics” on were Jackson-related - “Thriller,” “MJ,” “RIP Michael Jackson” and others. The only exception was another recent celebrity death - “Ed McMahon.” set up a special “Spotlight: RIP Michael Jackson” section and Mr. Jackson’s music videos were uploaded dozens of times to the site Thursday. In a single minute, shortly before 8 p.m., more than a dozen new videos with “Michael Jackson” in the tags were uploaded to the site. Fans also posted on blogs and Twitter their favorite songs and television moments of the pop icon.

News channels interrupted regularly scheduled programs to go wall-to-wall with Jackson remembrances. Fox News Channel even ran complete Jackson videos next to a live shot of crowds gathering outside the Los Angeles hospital where he died.

Several radio stations turned their programming over mostly or exclusively to Jackson songs, including at least two in the Washington market - 97.1 WASH-FM and WIHT 99.5. Even stations whose format didn’t fit Mr. Jackson’s music and didn’t play his songs - such as WWDC 101.1 - had his death leading their Web sites.

A broken-voiced Larry King said on CNN he would run his live show for two hours and, contrary to earlier plans to devote it to Thursday’s death of Farrah Fawcett, “It’s an all Michael Jackson night.”

Mr. King also predicted round-the-clock coverage for some time related to the circumstances surrounding his death.

“You think the stories about Anna Nicole [Smith] were big - this is gonna” blow that away, said Mr. King, making a blowing sound.

Other people remembered the biggest stain on the Jackson legacy - his bizarre lifestyle and multiple charges of child molestation.

“As someone who served as Michael Jackson’s publicist during the first child molestation incident, I must confess I am not surprised by today’s tragic news. Michael has been on an impossibly difficult and often self-destructive journey for years. His talent was unquestionable but so too was his discomfort with the norms of the world. A human simply can not withstand this level of prolonged stress,” said Michael Levine, a Los Angeles publicist.

William McKeen, an author who served as editor of the anthology “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay,” said he would “try to remember him for ‘Off the Wall’ and ‘Thriller,’ one of the great one-two punches in popular music history.”

“When we first saw him, as a child, he was singing songs that were both nursery rhymes and love songs. Though he obviously sang with the voice of a child, his phrasing and delivery were those of a mature singer. That was a gift,” he said.

For his life away from the stage, Mr. McKeen says he’s recalling a quote from the poet William Carlos Williams that now seems most appropriate in defining Mr. Jackson’s life. “The pure products of America go crazy,” Mr. Williams wrote.

“I’m having death-of-Elvis flashbacks. Though there’s much more baggage with Michael’s death, I recognize this as another generational shock wave, a reminder of our mortality,” Mr. McKeen said.

Many fans and friends expressed anger and disappointment that he will be unable to do his comeback tour.

“It was clearly evident that this was going to be a whole new chapter. He was going to get back on top. I was hoping his kids would see him back on top,” Debra Opri, a family friend and attorney to Mr. Jackson, told Fox News Channel.

Kevin Holmes, a 17-year-old University of Pennsylvania student who had filtered into Ben’s with the after-work crowd, told The Times that Mr. Jackson “was trying to change and stuff, trying to make a comeback. He didn’t have a chance to redeem himself. The last image people have of him wasn’t as good as it could have been.”

Andrea Billups in Lansing, Mich., contributed to this report.

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