After Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009, his music dominated my airspace for days. It seemed like all the car owners in town had come to some formal agreement that they must all blast Jackson's songs from their radios, or else face some sort of soul-deficit tax.
Artist Jason Lazarus remembers that day well. Not a Jackson fanatic, he was nevertheless a fan. Thriller was the only record that both he and his father owned, he says: "It's hard to think of another contemporary artist who is as embraced—or at the very least, tolerated—as he was." An instructor at SAIC and Columbia College as well as a conceptual artist with a photography focus, Lazarus has explored issues of memory in some of his past work—including Nirvana, in which he asked people to talk about the first person who introduced them to the band's music.
In April, Lazarus and his intern (and former photography student at SAIC) Jasmine Lee started working on Michael Jackson Memorial Procession (June 25, 2010), a project to recreate the "sonic space" of June 25, 2009. Their final plan: a caravan of cars, decorated with Michael Jackson-related messages, pictures, and flags, that would travel to Jackson's hometown of Gary, Indiana, for the city's one-year commemoration and unveiling of a monument in front of Jackson's boyhood home at 2300 Jackson Street. The caravan would then head back to Chicago, radios blasting Jackson's music as broadcast by an all-Jackson radio station headquartered in Lazarus's Subaru Outback. The wall of synchronized sound, Lazarus hoped, would create a "multiple blocks-long traveling audio blanket . . . a temporal, sonic memorial."
I went along for the ride.
At 3:15 PM, Lazarus picks me up at the northwest corner of Ashland and Chicago with Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" blasting and a carful of random objects: orange flags that say "MJ," temporary paint markers, dried apricots, bottled water. And then there's the homemade radio station, built by a friend from a transmitter, an amplifier, and what Lazarus describes as "some kind of voltage meter." It's ten watts strong, enough to cover a four- or five-block radius. Lee, who's riding shotgun, holds a megaphone. I climb in the backseat.
Lazarus and Lee have traveled to Gary earlier in the week to scope out the scene. Jackson's old neighborhood is rapidly changing, Lazarus observes. "We're seeing his house in its 'nondestination phase' for the last time."
Lee hands me a map of the procession route, which includes stops at supermarket parking lots to give people who fall behind in traffic the chance to catch up with the group. From 2300 Jackson we'll head north on I-94 and take the 87th Street exit to the Jewel parking lot at Lafayette and 87th; then to the Fairplay at South Halsted and 47th, the Jewel at Roosevelt and Ashland, the Dominick's at Halsted and Division, the Jewel at Milwaukee and Paulina, and finally the Aldi at Milwaukee and Leavitt. A post-procession party is planned at the J&M Tavern, a dive at Leavitt and Augusta.
Traffic is heavy heading out of town, and the air inside the car is thick. Lee pores over a red, white, and black map, which she claims already smelled like incense when they bought it, and Lazarus takes advantage of the standstills to text progress reports and instructions to Nick Wylie, a friend who text blasts everyone else. This is how the communications will work all night.
In Gary by 4:30 PM, we stop for a fill-up and a bathroom break. Inside the convenience store, a box of fireworks sits next to the cash register. I snap a photo, and the guy behind the counter looks at me. "We don't have fireworks in Chicago . . ." I try to explain. "Never mind." Outside, the guy at the adjacent pump is wearing pants with little bumblebees on them.
At 4:45 we park at an athletic complex. Near the car, a broken toy football lies on the pavement. It seems like a metaphor for something, probably Gary.
We walk to the memorial celebration, taking place in the intersection just outside the old Jackson family home. It's crowded, dusty, and hot, like a county fair without cows or pie. There's a barbecue pit with smoke rising from the grills, and a stage. Katherine Jackson's apparently on the premises somewhere, but I don't see her or anyone else famous.
Sometime after 5, Mayor Rudy Clay goes onstage to talk about the planned Michael Jackson performance center and museum, which he hopes will bring jobs and business to the city. Then a pastor takes the mike. "Let's give it up for God and blessing the Jacksons," he says, and people clap. This leads into a rendition of the song for Africa, "We Are the World," led by a choir onstage. People in the crowd wave sequin-gloved hands and sing along. A band comes on to play old funk songs, and a tween reprises Jackson's role in the video for "Smooth Criminal," in which he played a dancing gangster. The kid's spot-on, and the crowd goes wild.
From the words said, the songs played, and even the T-shirt graphics displayed, people seem to be celebrating the young, cute, almost-real-nose-version of Michael Jackson, and not so much the troubled, sickly older version.
At 6:30 we head back to the car. Around 25 carloads of Lazarus's students and friends have showed up at the parking lot. A guy with a peach-fuzz mustache has donned a floral print dress and a clip-on earring for the occasion.
Half an hour later the ride kicks off. We hit the road blasting "Working Day and Night," from Off the Wall. The radio works! In the car ahead, a caravanista sticks a glitter-gloved hand out the sunroof, eliciting honks of approval from cars coming in the opposite direction. At red lights, families at rest on their front stoops get up and move toward the procession, smiling and waving.
Back in town, on South Halsted, we pass weedy lots and buildings with plywood in the windows. People waiting at bus stops or walking down the street turn to watch as we pass and start dancing when they hear Jackson's beats. At a stoplight Lee shouts hello to the driver one car over—a young man who smiles and bobs his head to the music—and offers him a copy of the mix CD playing on Radio MJ. He takes the gift, then drives away, looking like his day has just been made.
In the Fairway parking lot, caravanistas use disposable cameras to take pictures of one another dancing and smoking cigarettes, tossing popcorn in the air, hugging each other. At the end of the night, Lazarus will collect the cameras. There's a full moon.
We reach Pilsen by 8:45. I spot Chicago Urban Art Society executive director Lauren Pacheco standing on the stoop of her spacious new art gallery at 2229 S. Halsted. Inside, I happen to know, hangs a painting of Michael Jackson during his Thriller era by artist Ray Noland.
Our ride up Michigan Avenue is where the sequins truly hit the fan. Taste of Chicago is underway, and people—including lots of cops, in groups of eight or ten—are out strolling around Millennium Park. The slow traffic lets the caravanistas interact with the public. Some of the police officers dance to the music. Others stare at the caravan, expressionless.
On the sidewalk, one young guy after another busts into a dance routine. By the Salvatore Ferragamo store, a fellow in a Pirates baseball cap with a string of rosary beads around his neck runs up to my rolled-down window and performs a short Jackson-flavored show while his friend doubles over laughing.
9:45 PM: A man leans against a stop sign a few feet from the passenger side, looking glum. Lee gets on her megaphone and repeats, "Michael Jackson loves you." On her third try, the man breaks into a smile.
11 PM: At the Jewel at Division and Halsted, the parking lot lights make everything look yellow, and our party is broken up by a security guard, who asks the group to leave ASAP.
Near the Jewel at Milwaukee and Paulina, some folks are sitting in lawn chairs outside the David Leonardis Gallery, which is having a liquidation sale. I think I see one of them wiggling to "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)."
Friday night on Milwaukee Avenue: woooooo! Clusters of bros stand outside the bars, smoking cigarettes and chillin'. The bros and their girls give the procession WTF looks. Do these people actually have fun, or do they just text each other about "fun"? At the Crotch we see a few smiling faces, and a slim blond man does a pop-lock for us.
11:30 PM: We're at the Aldi parking lot in Bucktown, the finish line. Somebody breaks out some sparklers. At this point, I'm getting a bit tired of Michael Jackson's music and wonder if anyone else shares the sentiment. But asking seems like it would be sacrilegious. I find Lazarus by his car, smoking a cigarette and watching the last flickers of his creation burn out. He looks tired but his eyes are twinkling. "It all worked out!" he says with relief. "I wonder what Michael Jackson would have thought about all this."