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Always living off the wall

Sun Pop Music Critic

You couldn't escape him, and there was no need to. The music was so infectious, the performance style so smooth and technically sharp. When Michael Jackson debuted the moonwalk on that Motown special 20 years ago, he cemented his legend. James Brown was a clear inspiration, but Jackson was a brother from another planet, an entertainer unlike anyone before or after him.

In 1982, the singer released Thriller, the follow-up to his classic Off the Wall. The album would go on to sell 45 million copies worldwide. Today, it's hard to wrap your mind around such a phenomenon - that so many people flocked to record stores to buy one LP. But if you were around then, your memories are certainly vivid.

One person, a black man born and raised in Gary, Ind., had that much influence and an instantly recognizable look: the Jheri Curl, the dark aviator glasses, the white glittery glove that matched the thick white glittery socks, the black loafers, the red leather jacket with the silver studs and zippers. You also knew his voice right away and all its idiosyncrasies: the piercing woos and stuttering, rhythmic grunts. Jackson's demographic ranged from age 8 to 88. Even if you weren't a fan of pop, you knew of its king.

In 1993, however, his career took a hit from which it never really recovered. He was accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy. The teen-ager filed a lawsuit against Jackson, now a father of three, but it was settled out of court for a reported $15 million. No criminal charges were filed in that case.

Now, a decade later and a day after he released Number Ones, a greatest-hits collection, the pop legend faces new accusations of molestation. An arrest could mean the end of his career. But truth be told, Jackson's decline began years ago. In '87, he put out Bad, which failed to reach the artistic and commercial heights of Thriller. (It sold half the units its predecessor pushed.)

But beyond ho-hum music and sales, there was the singer's deepening eccentric behavior. He wanted to buy the Elephant Man's bones and was supposedly sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber. Jackson's ever-present buddy was a chimp named Bubbles. The singer's nose kept shrinking. His skin tone, seemingly overnight, went from dark to light, light, light (due to a condition called vitiligo, Jackson says).

He had a cleft put in his chin. His lips were thinned and colored rose-red. Heavy mascara lined his eyes, and his faux thick lashes rivaled those of Diana Ross. Jackson's face - once a handsome brown one with high cheekbones and a regal, broad nose - had become a hard, unsmiling, androgynous mask.

By 1995, it was clear that his throne was tarnished and tattered. That year, he attempted a comeback replete with a shamelessly vain multimillion-dollar campaign, featuring a commercial in which Jackson leads an imposing army and erects a statue in his image. All of this was to promote HIStory, a double-disc set that spawned "You Are Not Alone," one of Jackson's last major hits written and produced by R. Kelly, who, seven years later, would also be accused of having sex with children.

A quick marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis' baby girl, didn't help Jackson's career, either. And we barely remember his short marriage to Deborah Rowe, a nurse with whom he has two children. All the while, Jackson's music grew duller. Only die-hard fans cared. His last album, 2001's Invincible, reportedly cost almost $30 million to make but only sold just over 2 million copies. Not long after that, he accused then-Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola of being a racist, calling him a "devil" and accusing the company of failing to promote his work.

Last year, child care critics wanted to behead him after he dangled his baby over a balcony. And the entertainer shocked millions when, in an ABC special earlier this year, he told interviewer Martin Bashir that he still sleeps in a bed with children, although he said there wasn't anything sexual about it. If you saw this interview, then you surely felt uncomfortable as the pop star, with an easy smile and relaxed eyes, described how he, a 45-year-old man, plays music as he and his teen-age pals eat in bed. The boy may lay his head on Jackson's shoulder, the singer said. He made it all sound romantic, seductive. It was scary, and it was also clear that Jackson's problems, his disconnection with reality, was serious.

But what does this mean in regard to his music career? Well, the fact that his new single, "One More Chance," didn't even chart says it succinctly: It's over. Jackson peaked like no other artist in the history of pop. With his bizarre image, the accusations, the increasingly weak new music - there's no question that he's done. For the most part, he had become a top-notch nostalgia act, anyway. We wanted to hear the old stuff: "Billie Jean," "Beat It," "Rock With You," "P.Y.T." With the recent interest in all things '80s, Jackson's music dominates the soundtrack. It was a time, especially in black America, when Jackson was a beacon of sorts. Reaganomics was turning ghettos into hellholes, and the singer's spectacular image and mammoth success were rays of hope, his energetic music a fun escape. He seemed so beyond us, so unreachable.

And, sadly, Michael Jackson believed that more than anybody.

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