At Wednesday night’s rehearsals, the middle-aged man of 50 was showing the kids how it’s done. “He’d take the stage with this group of dancers, all in their 20s, but you couldn’t take your eyes off him,” says Dorian Holley, vocal director for Michael Jackson’s This Is It series of concerts, planned to begin this month in London. During Jackson’s run-through at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, “he was giving a clinic to those dancers,” recalls Bashiri Johnson, the percussionist on the tour. “Whenever he would do a move, he’d raise the bar.” If somebody screwed up, the star took it placidly, saying over and over, “This is what rehearsals are for.” He was psyched to see his comeback extravaganza finally taking recognizable shape. “He was aglow that night aglow and afloat,” Johnson says. “His feet barely touched the stage, and he wasn’t stressed at all.”
The following afternoon, Jackson was dead. His physician, Conrad Murray, said when the star had stopped breathing, he had done CPR but delayed calling 911 for up to 30 minutes because he wasn’t sure of the street address of Jackson’s Holmby Hills home. The star was declared dead at 2:26 p.m. local time on June 25, and the awful news raced quickly from the ER through the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Even veteran nurses reacted like many of his fans soon would. “They were hysterical. They’re going, ‘Michael Jackson is dead, he’s dead!’ They were catatonic,” Irena Medavoy, wife of studio chief Mike Medavoy and a junior high school friend of Jackson’s, told People. She was arriving for an appointment when the ambulance bearing Jackson pulled up. “I was there for about an hour and a half, and by the time I got out, people outside are sobbing and other people dressed up as Michael are dancing.”
So began the tribute from millions. Mourning is usually a song of celebration in a minor key, but the memorial services, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and around the world, took on the tone of a jubilant revival meeting. MTV remembered that it used to be a music network and became MJTV for a few days. And Jackson’s CDs, which sold torpidly in the past few years, were again best sellers.
The high-speed flowering of interest, melancholy and remorse is common at the sudden early passing of a superstar James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, Princess Diana whose life is marked by achievement and controversy. Jackson’s death and commercial resurrection are eerily like those of Elvis Presley, dead at 42. One Hollywood cynic, learning that Presley had just died, commented, “Good career move.” Cutting but prophetic: Elvis sold far more records after his death than before. Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie, Jackson’s wife for 20 months in the mid-’90s, recalled a few days ago on her MySpace page a conversation with Jackson: “He stared at me very intensely and he stated with an almost calm certainty, ‘I am afraid that I am going to end up like [Elvis], the way he did.'”
Unquestionably, Jackson is worth more dead than alive. The 1,000 hours of video of the final rehearsals of his London show could be worth about $500 million in gross sales of DVDs, CDs and other items. His assets include half ownership of music publisher Sony/ATV, worth $1 billion. His small remaining interest in Neverland could skyrocket in value; so will his personal items when sold. But his staggering debt, perhaps $500 million, reflects a lifetime of indulgence on antiques, houses, helicopters, more than $100 million in annual upkeep on the 2,500-acre Neverland estate and the hosting of an army of parasitic hangers-on, pseudo advisers and business partners whose main concern did not seem to be him. Says a source with knowledge of Jackson’s finances: “All these other guys tried to set these deals up lucrative deals up everything from starting theme parks in different countries to other brand-extension-type ideas. They were trying to set up deals and take fees regardless if they made him money or not.”
The King died from a surfeit of pills and junk food. But what or who killed the King of Pop Amateur pathologists in the entertainment-news industry flooded TV, newspapers and the Internet with lurid theories. British tabloid the Sun claimed that an autopsy revealed that Jackson’s body, weighing an emaciated 112 lb. , was riddled with needle marks from painkiller injections, a report swiftly denied by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office.
Not that Jackson hadn’t punished his body sculpted, spindled and mutilated it on his own. The extensive plastic surgery he permitted on his face left a beautiful young man looking like the Phantom of the Opera; he often wore a mask to hide his disfigured features. After he was injured in a fire while shooting a Pepsi commercial in 1984 and, later, in a stage fall, he became dependent on prescription medication and on the Dr. Feelgoods who cater to the pharmacological demands of the stars. “The doctors prescribed so much drugs, it was crazy,” said a longtime Jackson-family attorney, Brian Oxman. Jackson often looked frail and wasted away in his public appearances, the result, said another tabloid, of a malady called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic condition that leads to the breakdown of the lungs. Yet according to those who worked with him, he was vital and tireless the night before his death.
A harsh spotlight fell on Murray, the cardiologist who had been hired to accompany Jackson on the tour. The autopsy dismissed foul play, and Murray denied injecting Jackson with Demerol, a powerful painkiller.
The star’s survivors and friends are also pressing for answers. “The doctor has showed some bizarre behavior,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has ministered to the family in recent days, told People. “Apparently, the doctor was with Michael, maybe administering to his back pain. And then, the next thing that happens is there is a 911 call … Then, of course, the doctor did not confer with the family … He didn’t sign the death certificate. He didn’t talk with the coroner. And then he was missing in action. Finally, when he surfaced, he surfaced with a lawyer. All these are rather bizarre actions. There may be plausible answers, but we don’t know.”
Bizarre behavior was a phrase often applied to the Michael Jackson who, for the past 20 years, seemed so remote as to be extraterrestrial the moonwalking moon child. But that was just the last of many Michaels who fascinated, seduced and troubled the world of popular music. In his first prodigious eminence, at 11, as the Cupid and Kewpie doll of the Jackson 5, he was no more complicated than he was adorable: the family singing group’s star, dimpled and lithe, the young emperor of elfin cool. Five of Katherine and Joe Jackson’s nine kids were in the group, which had a slew of hits for Motown Records, then went to Epic, called themselves the Jacksons, and let Michael branch out on his own.
See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.