Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson, RIP

I remember where I was when Jim Morrison, the lead singer-songwriter of the Doors passed away. I was in a camera shop which had decided to branch out into different kinds of merchandise and had just started selling stereo equipment. One of the units on the shelves was tuned to the local top-40 AM station. As I was leaving, after having picked up some darkroom supplies, the national news came on. The top story was that Jim Morrison of the Doors had died of a heart attack in a hotel in Paris, where he and his girlfriend were living at the time. I never even knew he was living abroad. From that point on, their latest single “Love Her Madly” would haunt me every time it was played.

I remember where I was when John Lennon was assassinated. I was in the bedroom of my three-room postage-stamp apartment on the second floor of an unassuming 19th-century house in a working-class neighborhood, owned by a sweet old Jewish lady. I was listening to the local album-rock FM station which the general manager of the college radio station I DJ'd for had a paying gig at. At about 11PM, he interrupted the show he was DJing to read the Associated Press bulletin. He read the copy exactly as it came off the wire. He was on the verge of tears. I myself was stunned. Who, I wondered, would want to shoot a Beatle?

I remember where I was when I learned that Frank Zappa had died. I was in my girlfriend's living room listening to National Public Radio when the talk show Fresh Air came on. Host Terry Gross relayed the Zappa Family's announcement that Frank “had embarked on his final tour”. I did what thousands of his fans did, and called friends to tell them the bad news.

When Michael Jackson died yesterday, I was on a bus returning home from a health care rally in Washington, DC. A passenger's daughter had text-messaged her father that Mr. Jackson had passed on. Our group leader broke out her laptop and surfed a few websites before finding a story stating that Jackson had been taken to the hospital, with no word on his condition. Only about an hour later did we learn that the King Of Pop had indeed, died of cardiac arrest.

As a teenager, I'd always lumped The Jackson 5's music in with a late 60's-early 70's musical trend called bubblegum. Bubblegum to my peers was little more than light-duty pop marketed to impressionable pre-teens, with trite lyrics only a notch or two above the Mother Goose rhymes we got tired of halfway through nursery school. The Jackson 5 TV cartoon series only served to reinforce this notion. Looking back, I think we were a bit hasty in our judgment of the Jackson music family. Yes, The Jackson Five's music was aggressively marketed to children, but nonetheless Motown Records built the Jackson's catalog with the same approach which had made the Supremes, the Temptations, and Stevie Wonder household names. Where other bubblegum productions often used session musicians, Motown threw the Funk Brothers into the mix. Not many bubblegum tunes get played on oldies radio, but songs like “ABC” and “I Want You Back” (most notably covered by British pub-rocker Graham Parker) have stood the test of time. Samples from Jackson 5 records have powered many hip-hop tracks.

I was never a big fan of Mr. Jackson's later releases after he'd grown, though I must concede that I never gave his all-but-pivotal album “Off The Wall” an adequate hearing. Its sound set it squarely apart from the avalanche of cookie-cutter disco of the era in which it was produced. I scoffed at his 1980's efforts like Beat It, though I thought his collaborations with the pop icons of earlier decades, Mick Jagger (State of Shock) and Paul McCartney (Say, Say, Say) were rather brilliant.

Michael Jackson to me epitomized everything that was wrong with the music business. His concert ticket prices were among the highest in the industry. A rock critic who attended three Jackson shows on three consecutive evenings noted that each show was literally identical to the last. Every second of those shows, including things that were supposed to be spontaneous, was in fact scripted and acted out to a fare-thee-well. His appearance at the White House with then-president Ronald Reagan, a Doctor Feelgood who massaged the egos of American voters while his administration did its best to undermine the social progress of the previous two decades, was as grotesque to me as Elvis Presley's impromptu photo-op with Richard Nixon.

And then there was his appearance. As a young man, Jackson was an attractive African-American. In recent years, he became a grotesque parody of himself. He bleached his skin almost white. His facial features, the product of several plastic surgeries, some of which his doctors actually advised him against, made him look. androgynous and almost mannequin-like. And that voice. How did the pipes of that sweet little boy, that handsome young man become transmogrified into the alien, robotic whine of recent years?

Much – let me correct that, not enough has been said about Jacko's terrible childhood. Yes, the kid had talent, industrial quantities of it. But when any kid gets pushed to succeed as Jackson was, you've got to wonder what's going on when the camera lights are off and the microphones are closed. According to various sources, his father, a brutal taskmaster, would literally whip the preadolescent Jackson into line by among other things, holding him upside down by one leg and beating him on his back and buttocks. There were also allegations of sexual abuse. And according to Wikipedia, the elder Jackson had other interesting pastimes: One night while Jackson was asleep, Joseph [Michael's father] climbed into his room through the bedroom window. Wearing a fright mask, he entered the room screaming and shouting. Joseph said he wanted to teach his children not to leave the window open when they went to sleep. For years afterwards, Jackson suffered nightmares about being kidnapped from his bedroom.

Now the man who embodied incredible talent combined with incredible excess is gone. We shall probably not see his like again. The tragicomedy of Michael Jackson's life is over, at what's usually referred to as “midlife”.

That's sad.


Wolf said...

I really appreciate the honesty with which you've posted. The nostalgia of your work hits really hard... and I would assume you might feel at least a little nervous about posting something less than totally glowing about such a massively popular entertainer. I'm not really sure where I stand as far as forming any solid opinions on Michael Jackson since I've not followed him as closely as most people probably have, but I know his influence on my 80's childhood was subtle yet strong. It's odd to notice that the same guy who became such a social pinata is the same boy in that video, isn't it?

I don't even know what to think about that realization (I'd not seen footage of him at that age which was as raw as what you've shared).... I knew he went through a lot growing up, but wow. Almost unbelievable transition. Wonder what his intentions were with the transformation that he was in control of?

C.S. Lewiston said...

First, thank you for your very well-written comment.

The video was one which I originally saw on Susie Bright's web site. I'd never seen Mr. Jackson auditioning as a child that young. Even in that clip, Mr. Jackson had considerable dancing and vocal chops.

I was in fact a bit nervous about telling it like I saw it about Mr. Jackson's life and career. I tried to be as fair and factual as I could. Even though I was never really a fan, it still hurt to see that child prodigy mutate into a tragic figure. I too wonder why he mutilated himself as he did? Was this his version of adolescent “cutting” behavior? We may never know, lurid postmortem tabloid pieces notwithstanding.