Thursday, June 25, 2009

King O' Pop, 1958-2009

When I was 11 years old, I was preparing to be confirmed in the Episcopal Church on Long Island. I vividly remember wearing to my confirmation lessons, on more than one occasion, a more or less homemade T-shirt -- white with red rings around the sleeves and collar, and an ironed-on image of the Thriller cover smack dab in the middle of the chest. You have no idea how proud I was of this shirt, or how cool I thought it made me.

It would be another 15 years or so before I would fully appreciate Off the Wall, Michael Jackson’s previous album, or some of the best Jackson 5 material, like “ABC” and “The Love You Save.” In the mid-'80s, it was enough to know Thriller, and that every new Jackson video was an event. While artists like Hall & Oates were releasing videos filmed in someone’s basement -- with a black sheet pinned up in the background for some sad stab at formality or professionalism -- Jackson was churning out montages of him dancing up a storm in 24-hour diners and pool halls and on electric sidewalks and in zombie-filled graveyards. He still holds the record for Most Rousing Blatantly Lip-Synched Performance, his “Billie Jean” during the Motown anniversary event. I still vividly recall watching it at the time and realizing with a rush that this was superstardom.

Of course, Jackson spent almost every minute of the years after that proving why superstardom might not be the healthiest state of existence. It was like he set out to take the Freak Show Crown from Howard Hughes and didn’t know when to stop. One minute he was a charismatic showman, and the next he couldn’t appear in public unless he was dancing with an umbrella and a penguin on top of a limo while wearing a hazmat suit. Because of his obvious fragility -- mental, emotional, physical, you name it -- I’ve been saying for years that he seemed doomed to an early death. It’s almost weird that he made it all the way to 50. In ways that were both cultivated and tragically ingrained, he seemed more and more childish as he aged. It was impossible to imagine him as an old man.

Just today, I was walking up Broadway with a friend of mine, near Union Square. A store promoting New Jersey getaways (don’t laugh; there are nice beaches there) had hired two people to stand outside and hand out flyers. One of them was an orange-hued woman with long legs balanced on roller skates, wearing a tank top and short shorts. The other was a man dressed as Michael Jackson -- black hat, curly hair spilling out of it, black mask over his nose and mouth, buckles running up the length of his black pants. Jackson looked that way and acted so strangely for so long that we’re also doomed . . . to remember him that way. But he was a cute kid. And a hell of a talent before he seemingly lost his mind. His life turned into a cautionary tale -- or not even that, since who needs to be cautioned not to sell hundreds of millions of records, turn their house into an amusement park and start dancing with penguins? No, it turned into a grand oddity. One that held little pleasure for his fans and not much peace for him.



Blogger Matt said...

Before rolling over here, I was trying to guess which of his songs you'd post. I guessed that you'd post a video from his Jackson 5 days, since that was when he seemed most full of joy and hope. (And in a wierd way, I suppose that was also the period that doomed him to a life sleeping in an oxygen chamber and buying the bones of the Elephant Man in a desperate attempt to stay in the tabloids.)

I thought there was a good chance you'd go with "Ben" -- a love song to a dead mouse that is simply wonderful -- but I pushed my chips onto the slot marked "I Want You Back." It's 3 minutes of pure joy.

True story -- I begged my parents to buy me the jacket he wore in the Beat It video. After months of begging, they finally relented and bought me a cheap plastic version. I wore it once and felt so conspicuous that I never wore it again. They've never let me forget that.

8:52 PM  

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