Jackson memorial a somber, spiritual celebration

LOS ANGELES - Michael Jackson's fans and family bid him farewell at the Staples Center on Tuesday in a somber, spiritual ceremony, watched by millions around the world as they celebrated a man whose immense talents almost drowned beneath the spectacle of his life and fame

They sang his songs among the stars and imagined him dancing across the moon, and for a few hours, during this most public of memorials, all eyes were on Michael Jackson one last time.

Some 20,000 people gathered inside the Staples Center on Tuesday for a somber, spiritual ceremony, watched by untold millions more around the world as they celebrated a man whose immense talents almost drowned beneath the spectacle of his life and fame.

"Don't focus on the scars, focus on the journey," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist whose fiery eulogy was an emotional high point of the service. "Every time he got knocked down, he got back up," Sharpton said, and the applauding crowd again jumped to its feet.

Sharpton rode the moment, building to a crescendo. "There wasn't nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with!" he said to Jackson's three children in the front row, drawing the longest ovation of the service.

Jackson's daughter, Paris-Michael, later provided the only real surprise of the service: the first public statement of her 11 years.

"Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father I could imagine," she said, dissolving into tears and turning into the embrace of her aunt Janet. "I just want to say I love him so much."

Unlike Jackson's life, the ceremony was not spectacular, extravagant or bizarre. Outside the arena, however, the celebrity-industrial complex that Jackson helped create ground on.

More than 3,000 police officers massed downtown to keep the ticketless at bay. Helicopters followed the golden casket as it was driven over blocked-off freeways from Forest Lawn cemetery to the Staples Center. Inside, however, the atmosphere was churchlike, assisted by an enormous video image of a stained-glass window with red-gold clouds blowing past that was projected behind the stage.

The ceremony began with Smokey Robinson reading statements from Jackson's close friend Diana Ross - "Michael was part of the fabric of my life" - and then Nelson Mandela - "Be strong."

A silence of several minutes followed, punctuated only by a steady twinkle of camera flashes. The thousands of mourners spoke softly to those in neighboring seats or contemplated their private thoughts.

Celebrities made their way to their places in front of the stage: Kobe Bryant, Spike Lee, Wesley Snipes, Lou Ferrigno, Don King, the Kardashian sisters, Magic Johnson, Brooke Shields, Larry King. While Jackson was among the most famous faces in the world, today's megastars were largely absent. Those present mostly reflected some connection to Jackson's life or work.

Among those conspicuously elsewhere were Elizabeth Taylor, Ross and Debbie Rowe, Jackson's ex-wife and the mother of Jackson's two oldest children.

The pre-ceremony stillness was broken by the organ strains of "Soon and Very Soon," a gospel hymn by Andrae Crouch. "Hallelujah, hallelujah, we're going to see the King," a choir sang. The crowd cheered and rose to its feet.

The Rev. Lucious W. Smith of the Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena gave the greeting, standing on the same stage where Jackson had been rehearsing for a comeback concert before his death on June 25 at age 50. Then Mariah Carey sang a sweet rendition of the Jackson 5 ballad "I'll Be There," a duet with Trey Lorenz.

Queen Latifah read a poem composed by Maya Angelou for Jackson. Lionel Richie sang gospel, "Jesus Is Love." Berry Gordy remembered the prodigy of young Michael, drawing a standing ovation when he said the title King of Pop would no longer suffice: "He is simply the greatest entertainer who ever lived."

When Sharpton brought down the house, it seemed as if some sort of wall had broken. Shouts went up from the crowd of "We love you Michael!" After Sharpton left the stage, chants of "Mi-chael! Mi-chael!" filled the arena.

The parade of famous names continued: Jennifer Hudson, Stevie Wonder, Usher, Martin Luther King III and his sister Bernice, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Kobe Bryant. Magic Johnson cracked up the crowd with an anecdote about Jackson and a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The ceremony had a remarkably black cast. John Mayer and Brooke Shields were the only white celebs with major roles.

It was not clear what will happen to Jackson's body. The ceremony ended with Jackson's family on stage, amid a choir, singing "Heal the World."

"All around us are people of different cultures, different religions, different nationalities," Rev. Smith said as he closed the service. "And yet the music of Michael Jackson brings us together."

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