Wow.  Stunning.

You know that scene in "Talladega Nights" where Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) is praying to Jesus?  And he keeps referring to him as "Baby Jesus" and asking him to use his "Baby Jesus" powers.

"Ricky: Dear tiny infant Jesus...

Carley:  Um, hey, you know, sweetie... Jesus did grow up.  You don't always have to call him baby.  It's a bit odd and off-puttin' to pray to a baby.

Ricky:  Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I'm sayin' grace.  When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want."

Well, Michael Jackson is the same way.  He's one of those guys who exists as all these separate and distinct versions of Michael Jackson, and for me, the one I like remembering is either "Off The Wall" Michael Jackson, when he was sort of rocking the whole disco thing and just plain cool, or my favorite, Little Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, when the sound of him singing was pretty much the happiest thing I've ever heard.  "A-B-C" or "I Want You Back"?  Those are bottled happiness in music form, and no matter how depressing and weird the end of Michael Jackson's life has been, you can't get deny that one of the most influential and omnipresent pop performers of the 20th century passed away today at the age of 50 in Los Angeles.

[more after the jump]

RT @NordlingAICN To Paul McCartney, in light of recent events: the girl IS yours.

Twitter erupted into a real-time evolution of the story as reports started to come in that he might be on his way to the hospital, and now it seems like the shock and disbelief are really setting in as people absorb the fact that Michael Jackson is, in fact, dead.

Working in Los Angeles for the last 19 years, I've had a variety of different jobs.  One of the ones I enjoyed the most was at a place called Dave's Video in Sherman Oaks.  It was a laserdisc only store, and I started there in 1991, when laserdisc was a niche market, mainly for wealthy film nerds and industry folks.

I met a lot of people in the business when I was working at that store, but one in particular stood out.  Michael Jackson would call us before we closed and tell us he was coming in just after closing.  We would wait for a few minutes after we locked up and, sure enough, Michael would pull up in his van and come in.  We'd relock the doors and then just let him shop for as long as he wanted.  He would typically take an hour or two and browse the racks, buying $1000 or more worth of discs each time.

The first time he came in, it struck me as surreal for it to just be the four employees who were closing and Michael.  He was soft spoken, as you'd imagine, and seemed to be buying movies at random, just pulling anything that caught his interest.  He came in a lot, though, so we got used to it.  My favorite evening he visited, he called like normal and said he'd be in after close.  Our manager at the time was in no mood for it, but Michael spent enough money that we had standing orders to let him in when he came by.  This was the week that "Home Alone" had just been released on laserdisc, and so we'd been playing the movie on an endless loop at the store, over and over and over, and we were all sick of it at that point.

That's important because when Michael showed up, he had a guest with him.  Macaulay Culkin.

My manager had his back to the door, standing at the front counter, when I opened up and let Michael and Macaulay into the store.  He was on the phone with a friend, talking about the past week at work, and as Michael went to look around and shop, Macaulay stopped, listening to Anthony as he ranted.

"... and if I have to watch that movie again, I'm going to stab my own eyes out.  Seriously.  That kid... it's like he's haunting me.  I go home, and all I can hear when I'm trying to go to sleep is him taunting Pesci and Stern, and I wish there was a cut of the film where they caught him.  That's what I'd watch."

By that point, it was obvious what he was talking about, so Macaulay settled in to wait for Anthony to turn around.  Michael noticed what was going on.  We all did, actually, except for Anthony, who just kept going, picking up steam as he talked.

"I just hate him.  I know he's a kid, but jesus... that face he makes on the cover of the movie... that's not funny.  It just makes me furious.  It's such a stupid movie, and everyone comes in here wanting to buy a copy and I have to pretend I like it so that we can move the 10,000 copies of the damn thing that Dave bought.  Miserable."

Finally, Anthony turned around, and there was Macaulay, right behind him, hands on his face just like on the "Home Alone" cover, and as all of us, Michael included, burst into laughter, Anthony turned about 47 shades of crimson and ran for the back office, where he stayed locked in until well after Michael and Macaulay finished their shopping and left.  That moment, watching Michael trying not to laugh as we all waited for Anthony to figure out what was going on, was the least guarded thing I saw from him.  It's always the little strange details about someone that super-famous that stick out, like when I helped him carry all the discs out to his mini-van after each shopping trip, and I'd see that the mini-van was essentially buried in McDonald's cheeseburger and Big Mac wrappers.  Seriously.  Like he lived off of them.  Or when he'd come in wearing a surgical mask and we could see fresh work underneath as he'd talk to us.  It made Michael seem real, and not just like some character on TV, and more than anything, he seemed to me to be a guy who was acutely uncomfortable with basic social contact, unsure of how to engage with people, always wary of what they might expect in return.

Michael eventually stopped coming into the store after an incident where he rented our Japanese import laserdisc for "Song Of The South," asking first if he could buy it from us.  Dave had a firm policy of not selling the rentals, though, particularly if they were hard to come by, and he told Michael no.  Oddly, Michael "lost" the rental and told us a few weeks later that he'd be happy to just pay for it instead.  Dave flipped out and banned Michael from ever renting from us again, and he blasted Michael's business manager on the phone one afternoon, furious and accusatory.  That was it.  I never saw Michael come into the store again.

I asked Mick Garris, my producer on "Masters Of Horror," for his memories of Michael this afternoon.  I met Mick when I was at Dave's as well, and during that period, Mick worked with Michael on "Ghosts," the short film that actually started life as another short film called "Is It Scary?".  His relationship with Michael went further back, though, since he also appeared in "Thriller" as a zombie dancer, as did his beautiful wife Cynthia, who was also a zombie dancer in "Thriller."  Here's what Mick sent me just a little while ago:

"Michael was a sweet and generous and amazingly talented man. The time I spent with him was filled with magic and joy and creativity, and I can't believe he's gone. Though I haven't seen much of him recently, I will really miss him.

Mick"

It's not going to seem real, I don't think, because for so much of the last decade, Michael hasn't seemed real.  He's withdrawn further and further in the face of scandal, and I'm not convinced those London concerts were ever going to really happen.  I just don't think he had it in him still to pull off that much live performance.  It's demanding under the best of circumstances, even if you're in top shape, but Michael's been disconnected from his work for so long that I can't imagine he was up to the challenge.

More than anything, that's the real tragedy of Michael's work and life... at some point, it just seemed to become too much work to actually be Michael Jackson anymore.  When you consider how much energy he put into the work in the "Off The Wall"/"Thriller"/"Bad" era, it seems unthinkable that he would have slowed down and then vanished from the public eye like he did.

I think his legacy is definitely tainted forever by the accusations against him of sexual abuse, and frankly, as a parent, I am baffled by anyone who would allow their children to spend time with him, even before the accusations went public.  Even if he didn't sexually molest anyone, I think he was deeply damaged by the pressures put on him in childhood by his father and his family.  He may have had an enormous, amazing gift as a performer, but he traded fame for childhood, and I'm pretty sure he got screwed by the deal.

RT @devincf It's been touching to share the death of America's greatest weirdo pedophile with you all, in real time.

I'm sure we're going to be hearing more reactions to this over the next few days and weeks, and that this is going to be one of the larger stories in pop culture for the year.

But for me, I'll always remember the quiet, soft-spoken movie fan who used to ask for recommendations while he browsed the aisles, doing his best to ignore any fans at the window of the store, always interested in any cartoon collections or any golden-era musicals.  No matter what I think of any other aspect of his life, in those long strange nights, he was just another geek, and that's the image of him I'll hold onto.

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