(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
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
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
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.