I haven’t written in weeks. My plan was to return with a blog that celebrated Black Music Month, and shared my impressions of the latest Maxwell CD, but as in most cases over the last 30 years, Michael Jackson will receive the higher billing. Maxwell can wait; his new project is butter; it will get its just due soon. Stay up.
As I’m writing this, it’s been a little more than 36 hours since TMZ broke the devastating news of Michael Jackson’s death. Tears have been shed, e-mails, IM chats and phone calls sharing mutual condolences with close friends and fam have provided the needed outlet to both reminisce and mourn. Amongst my friends and extended family, the reaction has ranged from nostalgia, to hurt and shock. How could such a voice be silenced at such a young age?
A FAMILY AT WORK
Ironically, The King leaves us in a year that coincides with the observance of the 50th anniversary of the founding of Motown, the dream factory where he was groomed to be the most important recording artist that America has ever produced. I’ve sampled some writing on his life of great accomplishments and squandered opportunities. I’ve watched as much cable coverage as I can stand. Earlier in the week, MSNBC was playing in the background; they’d gone wall-to-wall King Of Pop since Thursday night’s dinner hour. An MSNBC correspondent was periodically filing reports from in-front of the LA County coroner’s office. She interrupted a roundtable discussion on MJ with the breaking news that there wasn’t a final autopsy report yet. For the purpose of this segment, the concept of “news” was being liberally interpreted.
Alleged advisors, confidants, friends, and former business associates were wallowing in the lurid muck of prescription drugs, self-mutilation, child abuse, court cases, media manipulation, surrogate parenting, alleged child molestation, and financial ruin. Some had that glazed-over expression that seems to be a requirement of ill-prepared guests taking part in a tabloid-driven celebrity wake. In order to adequately fill the news-cycle, producers have scrambled for “gets” that have dragged the discourse down to its lowest-common denominator. They’re all offering recollections about their association with a “legend”. In life, as well as death, stories concerning any aspect of the Michael-Jackson-phenomena all but guarantee ratings, serving to remind us that, despite his eccentricities, Jackson was a beloved, cross-generational figure in the Black community. We take a dim view of exploitative media coverage of his tragic, and untimely, death.
The coverage lacks a certain something. Unbelievably, there doesn’t seem to be anyone who has related a story about what it was actually like seeing a picture of the J5 cut out from “Right On” magazine, and taped to the bedroom wall of seemingly every young girl you knew or were related to. No one appeared to have had the experience of witnessing a seamless, killer performance of a J5 hit on “Soul Train” or Ed Sullivan’s must-see Sunday night showcase. Apparently no one had ever heard “Rockin’ Robin” blaring from every possible radio station encountered during the summer of 1972. There didn’t seem to be any testimony of a family outing to see the young King concertize and dedicate his performance of “With A Child’s Heart” to his fellow icon and label mate, Stevie Wonder, as the blind genius lay at death’s doorstep in a Durham hospital.
Not one “connection” interviewed could attest to the ultimate power of the Swahili-sung break in “Wanna Be Starting Something” or that track’s ability to work a packed dance floor in to a frenzy. Not one could relate a tale of the feel of new love experienced as “The Lady In My Life” quietly played on a home stereo. No one spoke about the goosebumps felt the first time the pattern of the kick, snare, high hat, bass and synth locked in underneath the strings of “Billie Jean” and then the awe of seeing the footsteps of The King light up those sidewalk sections in that first breakout video. No one spoke of the pride felt when The King broke the color-line at MTV with that same clip.
Also on Thursday, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. led the US Congress in a moment of silence, I guess he remembered the Operation PUSH benefits at which the band of brothers could be counted on to appear. Or maybe he was remembering the mysterious Atlanta child-murders from the early ’80’s that prompted a benefit by the Jacksons to raise money and point the spotlight on the F.B.I.’s inability to find a killer following twenty young black men who were reported murdered.
The only people I’m certain had knowledge of these experiences, and other variations, were the ones whom I saw gathered at the UCLA Medical Center for the spontaneous vigil; the Times Square pedestrians who had fond, rich memories of hearing “P.Y.T.” when it was newly released, the crowd who gathered beneath the marquee at the world-famous Apollo Theater, singing “Rock With You”, in unison… I’m certain they knew; I saw it in their eyes and heard in their voices. They knew how much joy The King had given them, and they were grateful.
A YOUNG HARLEM RESIDENT AT THURSDAY NIGHTS CELEBRATION
PERHAPS WORKING TOWARD THE DAY WHEN HE CAN LIGHT THE
SIDEWALK BENEATH HIS FEET (photo courtesy of Sareenah Davis)
As a guest, I wouldn’t be of much use to the type of coverag I’ve watched. I never had a meal with Michael Jackson, never worked with him, never had a phone conversation with him. But I feel as though I may have known him better than many of the so-called experts I’ve been watching. You see, I knew him in the way that was most important: his music. Oddly, none of the other angles, stories, or guests would be of importance at all, if not for all that music that was so ubiquitous.
Thanks to the seemingly endless choices I’ve found on YouTube (where the past does live forever), the Black Magic that marked most of Michael’s 40-year career as an entertainer has been posted on my two Facebook accounts. With each clip seen, or song heard – vivid, sharp, and bittersweet memories flood my consciousness. The Jackson 5 performing a medley of their hits with Cher, who quickly caught the feeling, sharing lead vocals with The King. Without anything to blame but the boogie, she soon started rocking a little J5-style choreography, as well. In the clip, she is adapting like a fish to water. I’m reminded that she hit it big with the soulful working-girl anthem, “Gypsies Tramps and Thieves.”
In another clip, the young brothers are making an appearance on “The Merv Griffin Show” and The King steps into an uncertain and mostly-white audience to gain votes for his campaign to be elected King Of Pop. In an excerpt from “The Carol Burnette Show,” her second banana, Vicki Lawrence, was schooled on how to “express yourself” to the strains of “Body Language” the under-appreciated, lame-duck first single from their last Motown release “Moving Violation.” By the time this last record dropped, it was clear that the bulk of the family would be moving on to CBS Records and Motown chieftain, Berry Gordy, didn’t put his best, good-faith effort forward in support of the single. But still, it was dope!
Also found was the historic rendition of “Billie Jean” from the Motown 25th Anniversary Special, “Today Tomorrow and Forever”. In the heat of the moment, The King accents his track date performance of the classic cautionary tale of a paternity suit with the simple, yet revolutionary, idea of walking backwards to the beat. With that stride of genius, he propelled the Black Music game forward and took all of us with him. Once again, the reliable healing power of soul is doing its thing. Again, I am beginning to feel inspired.
I only met Michael Jackson once. We were both invited guests at a party that Diddy threw at the home of West Coast billionaire Ron Burkle. The MTV Movie Awards had been taped earlier in the evening, and Diddy did what Diddy does: he took advantage of a networking opportunity and threw a Diddy-fest. The evening was A-list all the way, and there were more than a few headliners in attendance. A film producing acquaintance, Mark Burg, was in the place to be. He was accompanied by his date, the late Farrah Fawcett, and he introduced us. While the two of us spoke, my old friend Brett Ratner motioned me over to his table to be introduced to The King. Mark and Farrah saw the signal and followed me suit. I thought it was odd that “Angel” and The King hadn’t met before, but I was pleased to have been a part of these two icons meeting.
When I shook his hand, The King felt frail and appeared to be medicated. We didn’t chat for long because I didn’t want to impose. He was polite, but not quite present. I excused myself and began to circulate through the rest of the party. At the time, I was surprised by The King’s lack of vitality.
Later that same summer, I was extended an invitation to Neverland, the 33-acre estate of the King, just north of Santa Barbara; the long-time aid to The King, and his family, Steve Manning, invited me. I took a date and her girlfriend; Joe Jackson’s 70th birthday was the occasion.
I’d always felt connected to Michael through his music. Soul City residents Freddie Perren, and Larry and Fonce Mizelle had been members of the crack Motown songwriting and production team that had given the J5 many of their first hits. Larry and Fonce’s youngest brother Rodney and I were schoolmates and he’d invited me to their family home on a summer’s day long ago. A wall in their living room was covered with platinum and gold RIAA album certifications. Many had been awarded for participation in the success of J5 projects. Even then, The King was lighting a path to creative success with that uniquely bright light that was produced from the biggest recording star that the world had ever known. It’s still shining. Thriller is the number one selling i-Tunes download today, 27 years after its initial release. I love the music of Michael Jackson. I just wish I had told him when I had the chance.
Mad love to Cynthia Horner, Flo Anthony, Karen Tinsley-Farrakhan, Sandra Edwards, Valerie, Rhonda, Barry James, Tammy Lucas, Bernard Belle, The Ab, D’Angelo, Pam Hall, Suzanne DePasse, Skip Miller, Pam Lewis, Rush, T.C. Thompkins, Larkin Arnold and the Jackson family