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October 23, 2014

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Daily Memo: Entertainment:

A grateful Jackson disciple

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Sam Morris

Erich Bergen plays the role of Four Seasons songwriter Bob Gaudio in “Jersey Boys” at the Palazzo.

When I heard that Michael Jackson had died, one of my first thoughts was of actor/singer/songwriter Erich Bergen, who plays the role of Four Seasons songwriter Bob Gaudio in “Jersey Boys” at the Palazzo. I knew Bergen would be taking the news harder than most.

When I interviewed Bergen in April, I joshed him about his lifelong love and admiration for Jackson: A search on YouTube delivers a video (made at a make-your-own-video booth at a Macy’s department store) of a 4-year-old Bergen dancing and lip-syncing to “Billie Jean,” holding a toy microphone fashioned for him by his mom; there’s also a video of the grown-up Bergen, now a polished pro, performing the song on a New York City stage. Long after the point when it was considered cool, through Jackson’s bleaker days, Bergen, now 23, remained outspokenly loyal to his embattled artistic hero.

I’ve had my say about Jackson in the paper. So I reached out to Bergen and invited him to share his thoughts in the space below.

Bergen tells me he’s putting together a Michael Jackson tribute concert to benefit a local charity, bringing together other Vegas performers who were inspired and influenced by Jackson’s life and art. Check twitter.com/erichbergen for details as they emerge.

King of Pop began performer’s music education

My parents didn’t know what to do with me, an only child who had more energy than a shaken can of Red Bull. “Sesame Street” did the trick for a little while, but I outgrew that by age 3. That’s when, in addition to cartoons and “Goodnight, Moon,” they showed me MTV and handed me Rolling Stone magazine. I suppose, looking back, they were desperate.

Soon my entire focus became fixated on one performer who dominated TV, magazines and every other form of entertainment. His name was Michael Jackson.

The first video of Michael’s I remember watching was “We Are the World,” his 1985 mega-anthem written with Lionel Richie and sung with 400 other people. I still credit my musical ear to that song. I used to sing it in full, imitating each performer’s unique voice, entertaining guests at my mother’s parties.

I became a total Michael nerd. I didn’t just own a copy of “Thriller” and watch the “Motown 25” TV special over and over again. By the time I was 14 years old, I had enough Michael Jackson memorabilia that the Village Voice did a feature on me for the paper’s “Money” column.

My love of everything Michael led me to discover a universe of music. His inspirations became mine. I studied Jackie Wilson and James Brown and by age 7 I knew the entire Motown catalog. Instead of an allowance, I got a new CD each week, and my musical world kept expanding. But I always came back to Michael.

What sparked this obsession with the King of Pop? I think it was his energy. It was the way I felt when I watched him perform. It made me want to get up and do it myself, and for years, I swore I came pretty close. I wasn’t just casually copying the leg kick, or the moonwalk. I would watch these videos with a mental note pad, studying each moment as if I were about to play the man in a biopic.

I remained fascinated even through Michael’s dark days. And while eventually the posters came off the wall, and the memorabilia collection was put in boxes, I never stopped listening, never stopped watching and never stopped dancing.

At the newsstand today, I was confronted by Time magazine’s special edition commemorating Michael’s death, with Herb Ritts’ beautiful photo from the cover of the “Remember the Time” single, and the words “Michael Jackson 1958-2009.”

It’s an important piece of Michael memorabilia, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy it. It seemed so final. While I’m not in denial that my hero is gone, the constant reminder is too much.

An audience member who watches my performance in “Jersey Boys” on any given night would never know it, but inside, I’m just imitating Michael. From Day One I’ve been chasing his energy, hoping to somehow affect one person the way he affected me from afar. I’d like to think that in my own way, I can carry it on.

Hey, Mike, thanks for everything.

— Erich Bergen

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