Thoughts on the passing of Michael Jackson:
1) When my teenage son told me the news on Thursday, my first comment was about what a sad, unenviable life he’d led, even among the ranks of sad, unenviable star lives. Son proceeded to tell me that it was too early to start making jokes. No, no, I said. I’m serious.
2) When I ran into an old acquaintance at a restaurant, she remarked on what a — well, there was a din, maybe I misheard the word — phenomenal day it’d been. I asked what she meant, and she said something about Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett, icons of her youth. I assumed she meant “phenomenal” as “monumental." But I was afraid to ask.
3) FLASHBACK: I had the pleasure of interviewing Quincy Jones between Off the Wall and Thriller. Among the things he talked about: a) The incredible respect that he had for Michael as a studio perfectionist who’d turn in endless takes of the smallest nuances, the difference between one sigh and another to get it right. b) The pressure they felt to make this upcoming Thriller as big of a hit as Off the Wall had been. It would only become clear how much effort (not just in production but also in PR and behind-the-scenes arm-twisting) was and would be poured into making Thriller something more than a black radio/R&B/dancefloor hit like its predecessor, particularly to get “Beat It” past the barriers of AOR (Apartheid-Oriented Radio, as it was often called) and MTV (likeminded at the time).
4) Back to the Quincy Jones production of Thriller. At the height of its success, I recall a Detroit DJ playing “Billie Jean” repeatedly one night, slowing the 45 down to 33 rpm. Could it have been Mojo? Who could have done that other than Mojo? Anyway, it was brilliant stuff, something to drive the long way home to hear more of. Little obbligatos on trumpet or synthesizer that flit by at regular speed come into focus at the slower speed. And the song’s paranoia becomes all the stronger. And speaking of Michael Jackson's achievements, the large ones are being cited everywhere: the size of his fame, “We Are the World,” his messages for brotherhood and against racism, here's a small one: In the world of music, all the longing and wooing and sex rarely leads to procreation. Hank Ballard’s “Annie” and Michael's “Billie Jean” were exceptions to the rule (whoever fathered “the kid”).
5) Later Thursday night, a friend called to ask when it would be appropriate to go from mourning to dispelling tension with MJ jokes. Not that he had one. He was just curious. Which brought up the subject of “Michael Jackson’s Original Nose,” a tune our old band, Dry Guitar, had performed at least once in public. Rumors that we’ll reunite to perform our sub-underground hit are widely exaggerated.
6) Actually, that should be rumor-singular, and it began (and probably ended) with the aforetyped sentence.
7) My old friends Bruce Britt and Donna Britt grew up in Gary, Ind., in the same neighborhood as the Jacksons. This proximity to the lightning bolt of superstardom was a sometimes topic of joking conversation, a sort of lighthearted variation on Job: Lord, why not us? At least as members of the entourage? Both of them, rather than cursing their fate, went on to become excellent journalists, Donna, for a longtime as a columnist for The Washington Post. I wish I could put my hands on the Metro Times piece that Bruce wrote in the heyday of Jackson-mania, I believe at the time the brothers went to the White House to meet President Reagan. Speaking truth to stardom, Bruce wrote to the effect that the Jacksons were America’s worst fear come true, and I’m paraphrasing from memory: effeminate black men who dressed like Muammar Qadaffi.
8) FLASHBACK: I saw Michael Jackson at the Silverdome (I mistakenly wrote the Palace originally) after spending the day reporting on the crowd scene and then watching the King of Pop in action. What stands out for cynical jazz-guy-me was Michael’s emotional rendering of one of his ballads. Wish I could recall which one. He actually seemed to be on the verge of giving in to the emotions called up. On the second night I felt
a little conned when I realized that the touching moment had been choreographed, including every sigh and muscle micro-twitch. Was that artistry or a bar on a prison?
9) I expect at any moment that my phone will ring and another old friend will revisit his certainty that those 1993 sexual abuse allegations against Michael — which is to say, the point where his kingdom began to unravel — were racially motivated, a vendetta to bring down the King of Pop. Meanwhile, The Washington Post has reposted something Donna wrote at the time, about seeing a pre-star Michael and reflecting on the bizarre adult he’d become: “Whatever the tabloids, self-crafted appearances and his own actions suggest, most of us haven’t a clue as to who Michael Jackson really is. Certainly, he once was a child who needed more help, more protection, than we knew.”