Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Late, Great Michael J

"I was reading a magazine
And thinking of a rock and roll song.
The year was nineteen seventy-nine
And I hadn't been playing that long.
When a man came on the radio
And this is what he said
He said I hate to break it to his fans,
But Michael J is dead, yeah, yeah, yeah."

Michael Jackson announced his coming of age in 1979 with the release of Off the Wall, the first of a trio of consecutive albums whose total sales now approach one hundred and sixty million copies and are still going strong (and nothing gooses sales like death. If the promoters of the London O2 Arena shows could figure out a way to do it, they could quadruple the number of shows slated there, starting next month and sell ALL of them out as well as the fifty they claimed were already sold-out).

As a fossil of fifty-seven years of age, I grew up listening to white rock and roll music. That The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks and countless others who crossed the musical bridge from England based 'their' music on black American rhythm and blues meant almost nothing to me. I learned of Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Bo Diddley, Lightnin' Hopkins and more through the long-haired Englishmen who mentioned them in every interview and who were visibly stunned that more (white) American fans didn't know of them.

While some of us had Gary (Lewis) and the Playboys, Paul Rever and The Raiders and Tommy Roe, there was the music of Motown getting played beyond the 500 watt AM day time radio stations in the middle of the country. When Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey (Bill) Robinson and the Miracles, Gladys Knight and The Pips, The Temptations (with and without David Ruffin), Martha (Reeves) and the Vandellas (what the heqq was a Vandella anyway?) took the Top Five spots on "Music Radio! Seventy-Seven Double U, A, B See!" countdown, pop music had crossed a line even if many of us couldn't. Check out the soundtrack to Forrest Gump to discover how transcedent music had become.

For radio stations, long after the listeners had made the leap of faith, the segregation continued and when Music Television launched on 1 August 1981, with The Buggles' Video Killed the Radio Star, musical apartheid was still alive and well. It was Michael Jackson's Thriller album, with the John Landis epic film treatment of the title track, but more especially Beat It with Eddie Van Halen's lead licks that kicked open the video door for artists of ALL colors and musical genres. No one ever looked back, at least not until last week.

All of that was made possible, if not inevitable, by Michael Jackson who died suddenly Thursday and many across the globe were maddened by the loss and saddened by the circumstances. In recent decades, Michael Jackson had seemed to be more of a Greta Garbo, in terms of sightings and stories. There was Wacko Jacko who slept in a hyperbaric chamber, the man who married Lisa Marie Presley, had fathered children through some variant of the Immaculate Conception, dangled one of them from a balcony, was the subject of rumors on every aspect of his personal life and as deeply in debt as some entire nations. And if you think his life was one, long tabloid tale, we may never get the last of the deathly details.

Sad as it sounds, when I heard the news last week, it was the first time I had thought of the King of Pop in any context in many years. Shame on me? Shame on him? A life ended before its time, a gift of great price not fully shared and the tragedy of what could have been, overshadowed and measured by what was in its place.
"And the two of us went to this bar
And we stayed to close the place
And every song we played
Was for The Late Great Johnny Ace, yeah, yeah, yeah."
-bill kenny

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