Thursday, June 24, 2010

Never Can Say Goodbye, Michael

Peer pressure is a funny thing. As a teenager it made me smoke, drink alcohol and do other things that my parents wished I had never done.
And, though the older I get the less I give a shit what people think, peer pressure has followed me into my adulthood from time-to-time.
Though it may sound strange, what has made me think about peer pressure is Michael Jackson, who died a year ago today.
As a child, I was an ardent fan of the Jackson Five, the Motown group he formed with brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon. But as an adult I actively worked hard to not to like him after he started to do weird things such as telling reporters he saw nothing wrong with sharing his bed with little boys and making a video that showed him-apparently for no reason-smashing a car to smithereens with a crowbar.
Part of my reaction to him was based on “peer pressure” generated by a bombardment of negativism about him that regularly rose from several fronts: prosecutors who saw him as an evil predator of children, rap artists who felt he wasn’t “real” enough and comedians who mercilessly made him the foil of their jokes.
Remember that old debate about who was better, he or Prince? How often did you hear Prince not declared the winner?
Michael Jackson probably led a very troubled life. He may have done many of the bad things people say he did. But when he died, I realized two things. One was that he was an extremely talented person. The other was that he was as much a part of everyone’s life—my own included—as any entertainer who ever lived.
With only a two-year age difference between us, I cannot remember any time in my life when Michael Jackson was not on the public scene, for good reasons or bad.
But now that I look back, it's more the music that comes to mind than his repeated plastic surgeries or his reported attempts to buy the elephant man's bones.
I was 13 years old when the Jacksons rose to prominence in 1969. I had never heard of them when my friend Billy Coxe walked up to the DJ at a party and asked him to play “I Want You Back,” their first big hit. Once I heard them, I like the rest of the world went through Jackson mania, even rushing down to the Soul Shack, a now long-shuttered downtown Washington record store, to buy their Christmas album.
As a young man I remember courting a woman to “I Want to Rock with You,” from his multi-platinum “Off the Wall,” album.
And then came “Thriller.” It’s not so much that every song on “Thriller” is a masterpiece, though it certainly has its share (as a bass player, I believe that “Billie Jean” has one of the tautest bass lines ever produced.) It’s that the album holds together—keeps an identity--while having something for everybody, from rock jams (Beat It) to schmaltzy duets with Paul McCartney. Santana's "Supernatural," which tied the eight Grammies Thriller won, has its foot well inside the door to that accomplishment. But "Thriller" remains the grand champion.
Post mortem, Michael Jackson’s talent became even more evident to me through his videos, shown almost non-stop in the days immediately following his death. The video of the song “Thriller,” with its werewolf transformation scenes and its elaborate dance routines, may have been his most lauded achievement, but I would vote for “Smooth Criminal,” where he almost seems to glide through the air while facing overwhelming odds. Perhaps he was telling us something about his own life.
I know I sound like everyone else who, after his death, began to sing his praises after criticizing him while he was alive.
But I guess that's just human nature.