So on Thursday as I left one meeting to go to another I was called by a friend of mine from out of town. He had some news for me. He called me to tell me Michael Jackson has died of a heart attack in Los Angeles. My first reaction was just shock. I had no idea he was sick. In fact I had no idea he was even in Los Angeles. I had heard he was gong to try and mount a comeback tour in Europe. Other than that I really had no idea what Jackson was up to. As a long time Beatles fan the deaths of John Lennon and George Harrison affected me deeply. I felt I had gotten my love of music and my love of writing about music from The Beatles so for a brief moment all I could feel was shock and then I had to go on and go into my meeting. It was only after my meeting as I drove home, trapped in typical LA traffic that it started to hit me…Michael Jackson had died and I started to realize what a pivotal role he played in my life growing up.
As a kid in Jr. High I went from listening to the Beatles to playing guitar and learning the latest guitar solos by bands like Ratt, Van-Halen and Judas Priest. The social networking “camps” as I like to call them were being set up from 6th grade on through high school and although my genetic make up dictated I was to be in one camp (R&B, Funk, Soul, early Hip-Hop) I was a card carrying member of the other camp (Rock, Hard Rock and Heavy Metal). No matter what I was listening to however I could not escape Michael Jackson. No one could. He was everywhere! He took every award possible on the Grammys and the American Music Awards. His videos were everywhere and I didn’t even have MTV at the time. The Thriller mini-movie was shown on Nightline and I had to stay up and watch it. I can remember Def Leppard saying that their next disc had to do as well or better than Thriller! And through it all I watched. I had to…I mean if you grew up in the 80’s Michael Jackson became the soundtrack to your life whether you were into him or not. We all moonwalked, tried to strike that pose on the tip of our toes with our shoes on. He wrote “We Are the World, participated in USA for Africa and helped spur other artists to take responsibility for local and global issues. We watched in awe as Jackson could make girls scream with just the slightest gesture of his shoulders from left to right. I mean really, what young musician/performer wouldn’t want that kind of power?!!? We rocked member’s only jackets and big sunglasses. He hung with Paul McCartney and recorded two songs with the former Beatle…yes I know “Say Say Say” was horrible and in the end Jackson ended up owning the rights to the Beatles catalog to the chagrin of McCartney, but there was always something special about both of these two icons being able to share space and form a friendship with each other, however short-lived it may have been. Even the hard rockers had to admit Jackson was the “real deal” and Jackson won the hearts and minds of the heavy rock community when he enlisted Eddie Van Halen to rip a serious guitar solo in the song Beat It! Years later Jackson would team with Guns and Roses axe-man Slash and ex Living Colour bassist Muzz Skillings on another musical project. He had always seemed to transcend race. On many levels this can be a good thing. But he became a “race man” for a brief period in time when he and his record company took MTV to task. MTV in its early years played very few Black artists on its station. David Bowie was the first to criticize the station but Michael Jackson went further. MTV was on the fence about airing the videos from the Thriller album. CBS records gave MTV an ultimatum, play Jackson’s videos or they would pull ALL of their artists’ videos from MTV. MTV complied and not only did they help break Thriller’s album sales world wide, Michael was one of the first African American artists (along side Prince) to garner primetime exposure from MTV. He paved the way for a diversity of Black artists to come from Public Enemy, Bobby Brown and Usher to Tracy Chapman, Living Colour and Lenny Kravitz. He did this while creating a soundtrack that just seemed to never end.
As I pulled into my drive way I felt a sadness come over me. I felt sad about what Michael had become. I was sad about all the bizarre behavior. The goings on at his ranch, the time spent with little boys, his “marriage” to Lisa-Marie Presley, The dangling of his own child on a balcony, his plastic surgeries and ever changing complexion. He was about to try and salvage and possibly redeem himself this summer with a European tour but sadly, this won’t come to pass. He may have been a mega-star but in the end it seemed, all he wanted was a childhood…a real, “normal” childhood. He seemed to be a ten year old kid trapped in an incredibly talented fifty year old body! Just as you had no choice but to hear and enjoy his music, one has no choice but to be baffled and ultimately feel sad for the tragic figure he had become. I watched about fifteen minutes of TV and I had to turn it off. The media frenzy was in full swing. People camped out at the hospital and at the family home. Celebrities calling in and “twittering” (I still don’t understand what this is…534-HELP) their thoughts. I assume it will be like this for the next few days. We will have to struggle and work to find out what is happening with Iran or with President Obama’s healthcare plan and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford can rest assured we won’t be reading his e-mails he sent to his mistress in Argentina for a while (I hate to be smug but he is one guy who is breathing a hard sigh of relief!). As I turned the TV off I turned to the internet to see if there was something that could or would make a little sense pertaining to this loss. I found a You Tube clip of a singer/songwriter named David Ryan Harris. David Ryan Harris is out of Atlanta and has been in and out of bands for over a decade. He simply set up a camera and with an acoustic guitar played Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” with a different set of lyrics:
“The way you made me feel
Your music turned me on
You knocked me off of my feet M.J.
The King of Pop is gone…”
I sat alone in silence as the clip ended and realized that, that would probably be the most dignified tribute I was going to see for Mr. Jackson. I e-mailed Harris a quick thank you for the clip and organically tried to remember where I was when Jackson was at the top of his game in the 80’s. The soundtrack did indeed stop on June 25th 2009. I’ll do my best to remember the performer that could electrify a crowd with only a slight move or gesture. I’ll remember the child like innocence he seemed to posses. I’ll weep for the mysterious, lonely man he became and I’ll reflect upon the soundtrack he created for my life…you knocked me off my feet also M.J. Thanks for the music and for the memories…peace.