Michael Jackson

June 30, 2009

(reposted from Saturday sans music)

Word spread quickly at our office on Thursday that Michael Jackson had been rushed to the hospital. Less than two hours later, while I was navigating rush hour traffic and dodging hobos on the interstate, the announcement came over the radio that Michael Jackson was dead.

The news was broken by the host of a sports talk show. Such was swath that Jackson cut through the world of pop culture and music for forty years.

I arrived home to find Paloma tuned in to the drama airing on CNN.

It seemed surreal.

I was too young to be fully aware of The Jackson 5, but there are grainy images of them in my mind. Michael’s solo breakthrough, Off The Wall, had run its course by the time I was beginning to care about music.

Then, Thriller was released.

I was still listening to Top 40 at the time, but my interest was skewing toward more rock-oriented music and the emerging New Wave acts. The Girl Is Mine, Thriller’s first single, didn’t do much for me, but its follow-up had me hooked from the opening notes.

It was, of course, Beat It, featuring a blistering performance by guitarist Eddie Van Halen.

For the next two years, the string of hits from Thriller saturated radio and Jackson dominated entertainment headlines. He was an inescapable musical juggernaut.

Some of the songs I liked and some less so, but I – everyone – knew them all intimately. In 1983, if my friends and I had managed to get hold of a car, it likely didn’t have a tape deck. It was radio that served our need for sound (and it served us far better than it was often given credit).

It was a time of far greater shared collective consciousness.

So, I didn’t own Thriller. There was no need to own it when any run through the radio dial was certain – completely certain – to result in hearing at least one of its songs.

By the time Bad arrived, I was in college and pop music had mostly fallen from my radar, but each Michael Jackson album was an event and, as it had been years before, something that managed to cut through the increasingly fragmented clutter of modern pop culture to burrow into the collective consciousness of much of the globe.

And suddenly his brother Jermaine was stating that Michael was dead.

Watching Jermaine struggle to maintain his composure, I felt sad. I have a brother and at that moment Michael Jackson wasn’t Michael Jackson.

He was Jermaine’s little brother.

Over the years, I’ve been mostly a passive, casual fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but, I’m a music fan and I appreciated the singer’s considerable talent, but changed the landscape of pop music – and the music business – as few acts ever have.

(or probably ever will again)

Some songs that stuck with me from when it was only his music that mattered…

The Jackson 5- I Want You Back
from Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5

I probably first knew of The Jackson 5 through their Saturday morning cartoon. There’s really nothing to write about the ebullient pop/soul/bubblegum classic I Want You Back that hasn’t been said, but it’s still amazing to think that it’s a ten-year old singing the song.

Michael Jackson – Ben
from Ben

I seem to recall watching the 1971 movie Willard, about an army of rats, with a babysitter when I was about five. I don’t recall seeing the sequel Ben which spawned Michael Jackson’s first #1 hit without his brothers.

So, Ben is a song about a rat and it is syrupy. But it’s also a song about aching to belong and, after reading this excellent piece by LA Times music critic Robert Hilburn, hearing the song again is damned near heartbreaking.

The Jacksons – Can You Feel It
from Triumph

Can You Feel It was one of the last hits Michael had with his brothers before becoming a solo superstar. Accompanying the anthemic disco track was a video that, at the time, was pretty spectacular.

Michael Jackson – Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough
from Off The Wall

I don’t dance – not even at gunpoint – but the unbridled enthusiasm and hypnotic groove of Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough makes it impossible for me not to tap my webbed toes.

Michael Jackson – Human Nature
from Thriller

And then there was Thriller. You only get to discover fire once, but, apparently, Jackson was obsessed with trying to recapture the unparalleled success of that album for the rest of his life.

Personally, I always thought that the lush, dreamy Human Nature, despite being a massive hit in the late summer of 1983, was the most underrated song on the album.

"Something Profound Is Happening"

June 26, 2009

The universe truly offers up some unexpected and amazing moments and, less than three weeks after I wrote of how impactful it was to watch the events in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago, I’m again watching something happen with the same feelings of awe and wonder.

It’s the outmatched kid standing up to the gutless bully.

I’ve been riveted, following the events in Iran with the same attention to which I devoted to the student protests in China – only the medium has changed from CNN to the internet. At this point, I know who Mohsen Makhmalbaf is and I think I might even be capable of spelling it without looking it up.

During the first few days of protests, I wondered if there would be an iconic moment a la Tank Man in ’89.

And then there was Neda.

Many commentators have noted that these protests have no leader, no fixed point toward which the masses are marching. And as the government took a more stern approach in handling the crisis last weekend, I wondered if this fledgling movement would be cowed.

And then the powers that be killed Neda, delivering the opposition a perfect and powerful symbol, one that has resonated around the world.

It’s, obviously, anyone’s guess as what is going to happen in Iran and there’s no shortage of folks taking a shot at the answer.

“Something profound is happening,” one of the numerous experts opined in a calm, measured fashion over the weekend.

If the Iranians succeed and gain more freedom – and no matter how much time might pass before such a thing happens – I have to think Neda will be there at every plot twist (and there will be a lot).

And if thirty years from now Iran is a stable, democratic society, then this girl who most of us didn’t know two weeks ago will have affected a number of lives that is staggering to ponder.

Peter Gabriel – Biko
from Plays Live

Sparse and haunting, Peter Gabriel’s tribute to South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Bantu Biko, who was murdered while in police custody, is powerful, poignant, and fitting for not only Neda, but for all of the people courageously taking to the streets in Iran.

“You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
The man is dead

And the eyes of the world are watching now”

It’s Already Been A Long, Hot Summer (And The Thrill Of The Season Is Over)

June 23, 2009

It’s hot today.

It was hot yesterday.

And the forecast calls for this heat wave to persist for the next week.

Though Paloma and I have central air in our tree house suite, a glimpse at the unit’s guts when it was being repaired last summer leads me to believe that it has been built from surplus bi-plane parts manufactured in the ‘30s.

The fact that I am marinating on the couch leads me to question its structural integrity and cooling prowess.

The stifling heat makes thinking an effort. Each time I begin to follow a tangent to write about, it becomes a mirage and, if it doesn’t become a mirage, it’s an oasis far enough in the cranial distance that it doesn’t seem to be worth it.

And, given the events of the past week in Iran, time that would have been spent pondering nonsense has been devoted to following the history in the making.

Summer definitely had a lot more cachet as a kid.

So, I thought I’d pull up a Billboard chart from this week in 1982. Music was a relatively new obsession for me, Clear Channel was years away from homogenizing Top 40 radio and a heatwave simply meant more time at the pool.

Some of the songs I was hearing at the pool and in other places as summer arrived in 1982…

Human League – Don’t You Want Me
from Dare

Had I had interest in music a few years earlier, either disco or punk might have been the “new” sound that my friends and I would have adopted as our own. I’m grateful that, instead, New Wave and synthesizer bands from the UK turned out to be our find.

Human League’s Don’t You Want Me had to have been one of the first songs by a synth band I heard and I was hooked. My friend Chris spent the next year or so focused on collecting every single, 12″ inch single, EP, remix, and whatever else he could acquire by the Sheffield band. Personally, aside from a few tracks, my devotion to the band was uncommited.

Toto – Rosanna
from Toto IV

I have no qualms in acknowledging that I own most of Toto’s albums up through the mid-’80s and I rarely hit skip when one of their songs pops up on shuffle.

Rosanna was a constant on the radio during the summer of ’82 – all summer long – and I don’t think I ever tired of it. It’s still as joyously infectious more than twenty five years later.

J. Geils Band – Angel In Blue
from Freeze Frame

Although I was fairly lukewarm about the song Centerfold, I’d gotten a copy of J. Geils Band’s Freeze Frame as a gift and most of the rest of the album I loved. I don’t think any of us knew that the band had actually been around for more than a decade and was known to music fans as America’s answer to The Rolling Stones (I, at that time, certainly didn’t).

Although it wasn’t nearly as big as Centerfold or Freeze Frame‘s title track, Angel In Blue – a wistful ode to a girl from the wrong side of the tracks with the obligatory heart of gold – was a favorite then and, like that waitress, it hasn’t aged a bit.

Kim Wilde – Kids In America
from Kim Wilde

We didn’t know much about Kim Wilde when she arrived with the New Wave bubblegum of her song Kids In America. She was a comely blonde and I imagine that’s all we needed to know.

But we did love the song. It bounded along. It had a chanted chorus. It was about kids in America and we happened to be kids in America.

It had it all.