RIP Michael Jackson

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Michael Jackson as a child
The Jackson Five made me a music fan


Michael Jackson peaking on Motown’s 25th Anniversary TV Special, 1983

I had intended to write a significant post today about Purple Rain in honor of the 25th anniversary of its release, and the fact that this is now a post about the death of Michael Jackson is a mind-blow.

The rise of Prince due to the breakthrough of the film and soundtrack was a serious challenge to Michael Jackson, at least in America. Until then, he enjoyed a level of success that was unprecedented and is still unmatched in the history of show business, if not politics or culture in general.

Thriller was his last great album, and starting in 1988 with Bad, he was not able to overshadow his increasingly bizarre behavior with hit music. There was a fantastic tour that year, which I saw at the Meadowlands from very good seats!

Though he had become a star with his brothers in the Jackson 5 at about the age of 9, the group had been trying for years before getting signed to Motown, and it took several releases before they had a hit single.

Michael Jackson had incredible talent, talent shared with his brothers. But they also worked and practiced and honed their craft as entertainers on the chitlin circuit around their hometown of Gary, Indiana under the often-brutal supervision of their father, Joseph.

Michael documented some very scary stories of playing places like burlesque theaters from the age of five. Joseph beat them until they played like the Jackson Five, a band with precision, discipline and execution beyond bands twice their ages. In 1969, when Michael was 9, they won Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater. How late were you allowed to stay up until when you were 9 years old? Joseph forced Michael into this life, and with talent reminiscent of Little Anthony and borrowing heavily from Jackie Wilson, Michael became a great front man at 6 or so.

The Jackson Five’s Motown Audition


Their TV special “Goin’ Back to Indiana” was what got my attention, and I was an ardent enough fan of the Jackson Five cartoon series that I soon bought a few of their albums (with money stolen from my mother’s change dish). They were the first albums I ever bought, at age 7.

Jackson 5 Cartoon Intro:

“I Want You Back” from Goin’ Back to Indiana (f. Bill Cosby)

Incidentally, the cartoon featured Michael’s first exotic pet, Rosie the snake.

The Jackson 5’s hits were written by “The Corporation,” a songwriting collective headed by Berry Gordy himself, and came a few releases into their Motown career. As the brothers grew up in the 70s, Jackie or Jermaine left and was replaced by Randy, and the group changed their name to The Jacksons. Still, they struggled for a hit until the disco song “Dancing Machine” connected for them. At this point, they hosted their own network variety show “The Jacksons,” and sister Ja’net joined the troupe doing skits.

18 Year-old Michael leads his brothers through “The Love You Save” in 1977

In his first non-family project (though still a Motown/Berry Gordy production), Michael was in the movie The Wiz with mentor Diana Ross. The key to the Wiz is he met Quincy Jones on the set. In the late 70s now, Michael would be seen in pictures from Studio 54 with Halston, Liza Minelli, Andy Warhol and was also cultivating friendships with old Hollywood types like Elizabeth Taylor and Vincent Price. He “dated” Tatum O’Neil and Brooke Shields, and in 1980 made his adult solo debut with Off the Wall. It was a smash, with Quincy and Michael teaming to make modern, funky, pg-rated party music.

A bluesy version of “Rock with You” performed live in Japan on the Bad tour

“Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” “Rock with You,” etc. Off the Wall was an album you could put on and not turn off for an entire Sweet 16. I saw it happen more than a few times. It was also the last we would see of Michael’s face without plastic surgery, and hair that hadn’t been treated.

Michael introduced his new look in the video for “Rock with You.” The album had four or five hit singles and Michael Jackson was a solo superstar. He wouldn’t reunite with The Jacksons for several more years, and only under intense pressure.

Thriller, the second album with Quincy Jones was released in 1982. Of course, the album is all things to all people, even including hair metal guitar god Eddie Van Halen on “Beat It.” Michael Jackson invented the rock video w/huge budgets, scripts, make-up, choreography and so on, but his singing and dancing is what made him a staple of early MTV, and the only black artist on the channel! How ironic that I turn on MTV now and they are showing “16 and Pregnant,” with lazy un-energetic teens living a “non-traditional” life.

In the repressive environment of the 80s, Michael Jackson and E.T. were our biggest entertainment properties, and they were good clean fun. We heard about Neverland and Michael was carrying Emanuel Lewis where Brooke Shields had been a few years earlier, but his music and performances were wonderful.

He had two incredibly successful lives in show business, and unlike most every child star in history, re-created his career as an adult and had even greater success. Of course, he never achieved the normalcy that kids whose careers end at some point. Shirley Temple may have been scarred but she at least came back to Earth. Michael’s competitive nature and boundless talent as a performer made him stay in the game.

He only made about 5 albums in total. They were clearly huge efforts, with thousands of hours recording and re-recording songs crafted for him by the top writers and chosen with Quincy Jones’ help. After Thriller, with the rise of Prince, Michael re-united with his brothers for the Victory tour, but his music never regained the edge of the first two solo albums.

The Victory tour was sponsored by Pepsi and this press conference was typical Michael

While filming a commercial, Michael was badly burned, which freaked him out even more.

It’s hard to imagine how famous he was in this age of hundreds of channels, with music on television being a routine experience. When Michael and his brothers were on their show or appearing on someone else’s, like Flip Wilson or Cher, they lit up the screen. There were only five channels, competition was huge. Remember the Osmonds? The DiFranco Family? The Jets? Menudo? The Jackson 5 had a long list of imitators, but no one came close to Michael’s energy and exuberance while performing.

From my perspective, it was very difficult to defend Michael Jackson after Bad was released with only a few good songs on it, and as he descended into stranger and stranger behavior, culminating with the Martin Bashir interviews and his child molestation cases. I saw him perform on the Bad tour and it was fantastic.

The last good experience I had with Michael Jackson was when my band Nirvana knocked his album “Dangerous” off the top of Billboard’s chart during Christmas week in 1991. That was a real changing of the guard that I was very proud to have participated in, as much as I was, and remain, a fan of Michael Jackson’s music.

I cannot be a fan of his behavior and life behind the scenes. The bottom line is he had a difficult life and the story of his fame and demise will go down in human history. Who has been as famous in history? Caesar? Muhammad Ali? Babe Ruth? Bob Marley? Shakespeare? He wasn’t wrong to compare his life to these guys. I just wish he had survived his own fame better.

When Michael took over the world in the early 80s, I was proud to have been his fan as a child and felt his popularity affirmed my taste as a seven year old. Someone who had a big influence on my life has died, too young. I hope you are re-convening with Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, James Jamerson and James Brown. Say hi to Poodie for me too.

I am very interested to see what Prince, Barack Obama, Berry Gordy and other colleagues and comrades have to say about him. Madonna and Sheryl Crow have already weighed in. The death of Michael Jackson reminds us of the value of American entertainment to the world. His singing and dancing reached all corners of the planet and will never, ever, stop being played.

Michael sings “For the Good Times” to his mom

Michael collecting Grammys in 1984, one of the greatest nights of his show business life

Links of Note

BBC Obit and an interview with Michael Jackson Fan Club president.

Ann Powers and other LA Times critics remember MJ.

Michael Jackson’s impact on race.

Hometown of Gary, IN reaction.

Goodbye, Michael, thanks for the music.

Michael Jackson in 2009

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