(From June 2009)
Michael Jackson dead at 50. Michael Jackson dead. The words didn’t look right. When I first heard the news Thursday afternoon, my reaction surprised me. The first word in my mind: finally.
At last the boy who never wanted to grow up doesn’t have to anymore. There would be no more charges of molestation or stiffing promoters. No more babies dangling over hotel balconies. No more photos of a man who seemingly wanted to surgically transform himself into some sort of burrowing creature.
When it was announced that Jackson would perform again, selling out 50 nights in London, it reeked of a disaster. But the self-proclaimed King of Pop will never again have to live up to expectations.
In death, Michael Jackson became the way we want to remember him, and in my case it was as the most supremely gifted entertainer who has ever lived.
The first time I saw the Jackson 5 was on “The Andy Williams Show” in 1970. Michael sang “I Want You Back” and I was hooked. I played that first album over and over again and bought each subsequent recording the day it came out. “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” “I’ll Be There,” “Mama’s Pearl,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” “Maybe Tomorrow” – it was just one instant classic after the next.
My first concert, in September 1971, when I was 15, was the J5 at the Honolulu International Center. The way the Jackson 5 were marketed was that each member had something that set them apart. Jackie was the oldest. Jermaine was the heart throb. Tito was the musician. Marlon was the dancer, and Michael was the singer.
But seeing them in concert doing the funky chicken in a row, it was easily apparent that Michael was the best dancer. He was a genius of movement, as MTV would show the world a decade later.
“Thriller” is not really a great record, aside from opening track “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” and the empty-headed funk workout “P.Y.T.,” but the videos are spectacular. The rhythm track of “Billie Jean” is a straight lift of “Broken English” by Marianne Faithfull, and “Beat It” is just plain awful, but when Michael danced to the music the songs were just the soaring ship to the stratosphere.
My fascination with Michael Jackson amused my hip friends, but I wasn’t kidding. I just couldn’t get enough of the guy in the high-water pants whose feet were gifts from on high. It should be said, without room for debate, that Michael Jackson was the greatest dancer of all time and anyone who’s thinking Astaire, Kelly or Nureyev right now should probably just head on over to the books or travel pages. A teenage Michael’s moves on “Dancing Machine” in 1974 popularized the popping and locking still seen at bus stops around the world.
And his “Motown 25” performance in 1983 destroyed Gene Kelly’s famous “Singing In the Rain” puddle stomp.
In 1983, Jackson was a worldwide phenomenon, whose fans ranged in age from 3 to 103. Before “Thriller,” Jackson had negotiated the highest royalty rate in history, so he was also incredibly rich.
He later bought the Beatles’ publishing catalog and married Elvis Presley’s daughter, just in case there was any doubt he was the King of Pop.
But things were starting to get a little weird. Some say Michael changed after receiving second-degree burns to his scalp while filming a Pepsi commercial in 1984. But unprecedented doses of fame and adulation also could have negatively affected a young man who was trained to be the family’s cash cow at a young age.
The first real trace that something was off with this musical giant was when the Martin Scorsese-directed video for “Bad” came out in 1987 to trumpet the arrival of the “Thriller” followup. In “Bad,” the effeminate-voiced Jackson was cast as a street tough, placing himself in a laughably foreign universe. Even the song’s opening line, “Your butt is mine,” sounded like play-acting from an outdated script. But what was worse was the way Jackson kept grabbing his crotch. Obviously, there had been a meeting where it was determined that Jackson would have to sex it up, but it was a pose without transition, a choirboy playing the pimp.
Four years later came the “Black Or White” fiasco, when Jackson emerged as more white than black. The video featured the “Home Alone” kid lip-syncing a rap break. The album debuted strongly, but sales dropped off pretty quickly. “Remember the Time” and “In the Closet” were modest hits, despite lavish, star-studded videos and millions of marketing bucks.
And that’s pretty much where Michael Jackson’s career ended. Well, there and when he settled a lawsuit in 1994 charging him with child molestation. He was becoming more known for sleepovers with minors than crossover hits. In the past two decades Jackson hasn’t been much use to anybody. It was hard to listen to the old records because they just reminded you of the innocence that was lost.
But on Thursday I played Michael Jackson’s records until I woke up in my chair at 3 a.m. and went to bed.
I haven’t read anything about Jackson’s death because I don’t care what anyone else has to say about him. Michael Jackson was a special person in my life who gave me thousands of hours of pure joy and exhilaration. That’s how I remember him. The other stuff doesn’t matter.