It was the best of times and the worst of times for Michael Jackson. A year ago, the King of Pop was working furiously, by some accounts day and night, to hone an over-the-top production that he hoped would mark a triumphant return to the world scene during an unprecedented 50-show run at London's O2 arena.
His final weeks were spent preparing for the unlikely comeback that he hoped would show his three young children what daddy used to do for a living, after he'd spent most of their young lives off the stage. He was also eager to prove to fans and doubters across the world that his once unbeatable pop machine could moonwalk back into their good graces despite nearly two decades of controversy, shame, broken promises and missed opportunities.
Ever the perfectionist, Jackson wanted to blow fans away with a production the likes of which the world had never seen in order to retake his mantle as pop's greatest showman. At the same time, years of alleged abuse of prescription pills had left the singer fragile and rattled, unable to sleep at night due to chronic insomnia, rail thin and allegedly dependent on a toxic mixture of sedatives and propofol. The latter, a previously obscure surgical anesthetic, would become a household word in the weeks after the singer's unexpected death on June 25, 2009.
Just 50 years old when he died, Jackson had risen from humble beginningsin Gary, Indiana, to worldwide pop stardom by his mid-20s, cementing a reputation as a hard-working, restlessly inventive hit machine and totally dominating the music business in the 1980s with such hit albums as Off the Wall and his legendary smash, Thriller. But years of false starts, diminishing returns on his musical projects and a crushing trial on child molestation charges (which ended in 2005 with an acquittal) appeared to smash his spirit.
Though he had amassed unimaginable wealth (while also reportedly indulging a voracious spending habit) and reached the pinnacle of stardom, according to various reports that emerged after his death, Jackson's final days were a mix of euphoria and nervousness about the comeback. Those around him had already expressed grave concerns about his seemingly frail health.
With three separate rehearsal studios going at once, in the days before his death Jackson was in the final push to get his This Is It show in shape before the production moved to London in anticipation of a July 14 kick-off date. Jackson had hired a personal trainer to get him back into performance shape, and his band, choreographers and dancers had been going through their paces in nearly a dozen studios at the CenterStaging rehearsal complex in Los Angeles since April.
Demand for tickets had been intense, and the notoriously detail-oriented Jackson appeared to be feeling the heat, working feverishly and taking an even more hands-on approach than he had in the past. Insiders at the time said despite a long lay-off from live performance, Jackson's dancing and singing was strong and his focus was clear. The production moved first to the Forum in Los Angeles and then to the Staples Center for final U.S. rehearsals in June.
Amid rumors of multiple missed rehearsals, Jackson was reportedly three hours late to his final rehearsal on June 24. As always with Jackson — who spent much of his adult life alternating between hiding from the glare of the spotlight in strange getups and gated homes, and making oddly splashy appearances that appeared to feed his need for attention — his whereabouts in the days and weeks leading up to his demise were a closely guarded secret. The world knew the musical Willy Wonka was brewing up something special, but Jackson and tour promoter AEG Live kept a tight lid on what was in store.
But by the time June 24 rolled around, there were only eight more Los Angeles rehearsals left, according to a report in the Times of London, and then the whole production would be shipped to London for two weeks of full dress and technical rehearsals.
We do know that Jackson spent the last night of his life where he had spent so many nights: on stage. He was rehearsing at Staples, pleased with the giant set pieces that had just been completed and brought into the space, according to a report in Time magazine.
One of his vocal coaches said Jackson was unusually present during the preparations for the tour, attending auditions for backup singers and dancers and chatting up the crew about his concepts for the show. Plans called for elaborate 3-D effects, gravity-defying aerial stunts and re-creations of some of his most iconic videos. Jackson was going to fly out over the audience on a wire that would rotate him 360 degrees. And, if he had had his way, the set would have included an enormous waterfall that would have been one of the largest set pieces ever assembled for a live concert.
"He'd take the stage with this group of dancers, all in their 20s, but you couldn't take your eyes off him," said coach Dorian Holley, who marveled at Jackson's focus during what would turn out to be the final weeks of rehearsal. "He could still do everything. ... The only difference now was that he would sometimes talk about how it made him sore." But one fan who got a chance to see one of the final rehearsals, which sometimes lasted up to 10 hours a day, told People that Jackson was not the robust performer the tour's promoters portrayed him as, but "a skeleton" who she thought, "may die."
Longtime choreographer Kenny Ortega said he'd been at Jackson's home in the weeks before his death and seen the singer playing with his children, showing no signs of the multiple medical conditions that would be revealed after his death. (The coroner reported puncture wounds up and down his arms, seemingly from the near nightly intravenous injections of propofol, chronically inflamed lungs and an arthritic lower spine.) And while Jackson was never one to eat very much, Ortega was constantly trying to get the slightly built star to nibble on something during their long days on the Staples Center stage.
Jackson left Staples around midnight on June 24 on his way to a few more meetings before calling it a day. Ortega said Jackson's last words to him were, "I'll see you tomorrow." And then Jackson left with a big smile on his face, waving to everyone.
"One of our movie producers ran over to thank Michael for the work we had done that night to finish the films," Ortega said. "He came running back to me and said, 'You won't believe what Michael just said to me: "Make sure those ghosts come through the screen!" ' " It was a fitting final demand from a man who had made his adult life a childlike playground and who friends often said loved making people laugh and scaring them with juvenile pranks.
When Jackson didn't show up on time the next day, on which he was scheduled to begin rehearsing "Dirty Diana," Ortega said he immediately knew something was wrong. News slowly leaked out that Jackson had been rushed to the hospital, and within hours it was confirmed that the King of Pop had died following cardiac arrest.
Jackson left behind more than 100 hours of high-definition footage of his rehearsals that were edited together to create the "This Is It" documentary, which went on to become the highest-grossing music doc of all time.
According to reports, after a fitful night of trying to get to sleep, taking multiple injections of sedatives from his personal physician, Conrad Murray, Jackson died alone in his bedroom from a mixture of prescription drugs that stopped his heart.
On the cusp of what might have been the greatest comeback in the history of entertainment, in death, as he often did in life, Michael Jackson left his millions of fans wanting more.