Thoughts on the Passing of a Fellow Collector
(by Mike DeNero)
I debated whether I, a mere sportscard collector turned dealer, should attempt to eulogize Michael Jackson, the "King of Pop." After all, other people are far better equipped for the task than me -- plus, ours is only a sportscards e-Newsletter and accompanying blog. But by trolling the Internet the night of his untimely death, I quickly realized that our blog (i.e., a blog about collecting and collectors) is quite appropriate, as Michael Jackson was one of us -- yes, the King of Pop was a collector to the degree that most of us can only dream of.
By the time I was six-years-old (1976), I was spending my entire weekly allowance (fifty cents) on baseball and football cards. Because of my limited "income" at the time, my insatiable appetite for sportscards was far from quenched. I remember vividly a recurring dream of my childhood -- it involved me walking down to the local five-and-dime with my little red wagon in tow and, upon my arrival, discovering that the waxpacks of cards were free and that the store’s saintly proprietors were allowing me to take as many packs (and even boxes full of waxpacks) as my wagon could hold. The image of me walking home with my little red wagon full of cards is as vivid as any of my actual childhood memories.
As one of the greatest spenders of money in the history of that noble pastime, Michael Jackson lived my childhood dream … hundreds and possibly thousands of times. If you have ever seen the film footage of the King of Pop in a certain Las Vegas antique shop -- "I’ll take two of these, six of these … I’ll take one of these … wait, is that a painting of Apollo? I’ll take that too …" -- you know exactly what I mean. Yes, Michael Jackson was the quintessential collector; from comic books to antiques, from prized entertainment and popular culture memorabilia to Disneyana, he was one of the biggest collectors in the world. As such, Michael Jackson knew the thrill of suddenly finding something, a collectible, that he had to own, even though he knew not of its existence seconds before -- the essence of the collecting addiction. You and I know that feeling, too.
Yes, there is a little Michael Jackson in all of us.
The Greatest Auction That Never Happened
Just a few short months ago (from April 14th through April 25th), Julien’s Auctions, the leading entertainment memorabilia auctioneer, presented The Collection of Michael Jackson exhibit at Beverly Hills’ famous Beverly Wilshire hotel, featuring Michael’s prized collectibles and personal memorabilia from his storied career. Interestingly, all of the items featured in the exhibit were originally scheduled to be auctioned by Julien’s at that time. The massive five-volume auction catalog featured nearly 1,400 items, which were forecasted to rake in approximately $30 million at the auction (although the auction never occurred, you can still purchase the five volume catalog collection for $500, or individual catalogs for $100 each, by visiting Julien’s Auctions website).
How did a planned auction of Michael’s collection and personal memorabilia turn into an exhibit? While Michael’s notorious spending habits, high legal bills, and presumably underperforming investments led him to a point at which he needed to generate a large amount of cash. The auction seemed to be the easiest way to solve his cash flow problem. But, it appears that Michael Jackson quickly suffered consignor’s remorse. In early March, he sought an injunction to prevent the auction; eventually, he and Julien’s settled amicably just prior to April 14th, turning the planned auction into an exhibit, after which all 1,400 items were returned to Jackson.
Interestingly, on March 5th, on or about the same date that he turned to the legal process to prevent the auction, the King of Pop announced that he would play ten concerts at London’s O2 Arena. Due to overwhelming demand, the ten show series ballooned to fifty, allegedly much to Jackson’s reported dismay and anxiety, at least initially. While the reports, believable or otherwise, of Jackson’s reluctance to play a series of fifty shows at the age of fifty are ubiquitous, at a minimum, we know that he postponed the start of the tour from July 8th to July 13th.
What does this all mean? To me, a lifelong collector (of sportscards, animation art, etc.), the timeline above means that while Jackson needed to raise an enormous amount of cash, he initially took the road of auctioning off his collectibles and personal memorabilia. But, a true collector only sells his stuff as a last resort!
As one of the greatest entertainers in history, Michael Jackson had another option: hit the road to play some concerts, whether he wanted to or not. If you’ve seen the film footage of his press conference announcing the initial ten shows in London, interestingly named the This Is It! concert series, you see an entertainer who, at a minimum, is unsure of whether hitting the stage for a comeback tour is the proper (or comfortable) decision for him at that point in his life and career.
But, as a true addicted collector, he chose a path that reportedly provided him great anxiety (again, at least initially). We collectors would have made the same choice -- do whatever we can to avoid losing our collections. As such, we understand Jackson’s decision and sympathize with him in a way that non-collectors cannot.
Yes, there is a little Michael Jackson in all of us.
For now, like many others in the coming weeks, I will convey to you my personal Michael Jackson stories. Please understand and forgive my indulgence.
I was born in 1970. While that year is of no obvious importance, for the present purposes, it means I grew up with Michael Jackson. His Off The Wall album was the first I ever purchased with my own money -- and due to my childhood addiction to sportscards, it was an especially meaningful purchase, as I either spent my birthday money to acquire it, or I saved up my allowance for several weeks to do so. Either way, as a ten-year-old sportscard addict, I thought it advisable to spend $5.00 on Off The Wall, rather than several waxpacks, a torturous decision which, presumably, weighed on my mind for days before I ultimately strolled into my local Sam Goody.
In 1982, the same year I managed to put together my first complete TOPPS baseball set (thanks to my friend Steve, who traded me the elusive #662 Luis Salazar to complete it), I heard Billie Jean smoking the air from my older sister’s clock radio to my bedroom across the hall. I had never heard anything like it; and I have since not heard its peer. Needless to say, I was one of 25+ million who spent a fiver on Thriller (incidentally, I am listening to the Ipod version of it as I write). While I was unable to score tickets in the summer of ‘84 to The Jacksons’ Victory Tour, which stopped at Giants Stadium, about an hour from my hometown on the Jersey Shore, I recall listening enviously to Z100’s (New York’s most popular hit radio station of the day) pre-concert coverage of the first show on my massive boom-box as I watched the New York Yankees on WPIX (channel 11) with the sound turned down -- my belated apologies to Yankees broadcasters Phil "the Scooter" Rizzuto, Frank Messer, and Bill White.
As a mature seventeen-year-old in 1987, I purchased Bad at Tower Records in New York’s Greenwich Village either the day of, or shortly after, its release. While that memory is vivid to me, I am unsure of the exact circumstances, as my parents typically only allowed me to venture into the Big Apple to attend concerts and sporting events at Madison Square Garden. While I recall purchasing the record, I don’t recall attending a sporting event or a concert that day. Yet, this confusion provides me with the perfect transition to the story of my first Michael Jackson concert, which was on March 3, 1988, at Madison Square Garden. What an experience!
How did I get tickets? My kind mother allowed me to spend the night (by myself) waiting in line outside Jack’s Music Shop in Red Bank, New Jersey -- Jack's had a Ticketmaster location inside the store.
Inside Madison Square Garden, I literally got chills during the show’s opening seconds -- with curtain closed, a huge panoramic scoreboard was lowered to reveal an animated version of the King of Pop’s feet (floods, short white sox and black shoes, of course) dancing his signature moves, culminating with his patented short vertical jump with tiptoe landing; this final introductory animated move was accompanied by the eardrum splitting crash of a guitar strum and the opening of the curtain to a smoke-filled stage commanded by the King of Pop himself. I cannot possibly describe the excitement in words -- as one of my college professors once told me, "the written word can be such a pain, sometimes."
Months later, I had the privilege of witnessing the show again, albeit this time at a different, but equally legendary venue, London’s Wembley Stadium. My Aunt Robin, who always has been one of my favorite persons on the planet, took me to London as a high school graduation present (not a bad gift, eh?). Three of us (my Aunts Robin and Karol and me) landed in London’s Heathrow Airport the day after Michael Jackson’s celebrated arrival. On the plane, we watched the news clips from the previous day. Shortly after our arrival, I walked into a record shop near our hotel and asked the clerk how I could score tickets to one of Jackson’s five sold-out Wembley shows -- "Somewhere in Piccadilly Circus," he replied, as he stroked his pathetically sparse goatee. So, off to the tube we went in search of a "tout" (the colloquial term for a "scalper").
As fate would have it. We found a tout’s "shop" located up an incredibly narrow stairway above another local business. "How much for a Michael Jackson ticket?," I asked, trembling at the thought of what his answer would be. "Thirty-five pounds, mate," was his wonderful reply. "Thirty-five pounds? That’s it?," I answered, as only an excited stupid American teenager could have. "Where are the seats?" "No seats, mate," he answered tersely. What he meant was that there were no assigned seats in the 100,000 "seat" Wembley Stadium -- all the tickets were general admission.
Days after we paid the £105 for three tickets (a price double face-value, a steal considering the circumstances), we rode the crowded tube to Wembley. Upon arriving inside Wembley Stadium before opening act, Kim Wilde, was about to take the stage, we chose "seats" in the stands near the side of the stage, at which point my Aunt Robin said to me, "If you really wanna go stand on the field, go ahead. We’ll try to find you outside somewhere after the show."
So, I ventured to the pitch on which so many legendary international footballers had tread before me. The sense of history that Wembley provided was simply overwhelming. And then it happened, on the stadium’s video screen, they showed a live clip of Prince Charles and Princess Diana meeting the King of Pop backstage -- apparently, Michael forked over a huge donation to the Prince’s Trust that night. Minutes later, Prince Charles and Princess Diana entered the stadium and took their place in the Royal box. Here I was, standing on the Wembley pitch, thirty yards from Princess Diana (and Chuck too), surrounded by wonderfully drunken Europeans waiting for the King of Pop to take the stage -- a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will never forgot.
After the show, as I strolled aimlessly around the perimeter of Wembley, I felt a tug on my shirt. My aunt Karol had found me in a sea of 100,000 people. As we arrived in the tube station, which was the most crowded place I have ever been inside, I was literally lifted off my feet for seconds at a time due to the thickness and excitement of the crowd.
Fast-forward three months later to October 3, 1988 -- Jackson schedules three shows at New Jersey’s Meadowlands Arena. I scored tickets in the upper deck and took my mom for her birthday. Before the show, my older sister, who did not have tickets, decided to drive up to the show with us. Her thinking was that she’d score one, albeit for a princely sum, outside the show. We stopped to have dinner with my cousin (who was one year older than me), aunt and uncle, and grandparents, who lived minutes from the arena.
My cousin, also a fan of the King of Pop since his childhood, decided to accompany us to the show. The plan was for he and my sister to score a pair of tickets and, thus, sit together. For this purpose, my cousin brought an enormous wad of cash with him. Outside the arena, we found a woman who was selling two tickets (5th row, center, allegedly), that nobody believed were real --- she was selling them at their $50 face value (she claimed to have received them for free from her father, who had "connections" to the arena). My cousin quickly stroked $100 off his wad of cash and grab the tickets. They were real, all right. Minutes later, as my mother and I sat in the upper deck, I enviously peered through my binoculars and saw my sister and cousin walk the length of the floor to be seated by the usher 5 rows from the stage. Blimey!
After the show, my cousin and sister were still in hysterics. My cousin (a fellow sportscard addict) was screaming, "It was awesome; and you’ll never guess who we saw? Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee and Vince Coleman. They all signed my ticket stub! Look!"
Yep, the three prominent members of the St. Louis Cardinals, who finished their season against the Mets the day before the concert, decided that it was worthwhile to stay in New York an extra two nights, just so they could take their families to see the King of Pop.
While I have not had the opportunity to attend another of the King of Pop’s concerts, I have remained one of his millions of fans throughout my life. And as a fellow collector and father, he and I shared a common bond. But while it is difficult to describe accurately, I can only express that I am deeply saddened by his passing. However, I take comfort in the fact that he was probably welcomed to a better place by Princess Diana, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly.
Michael, thank you for the memories ...