I lack anything profound to say about the passing of Michael Jackson. I have been scarce around these parts to a degree because whenever I hear music news of import these days it’s to do with death (and the woes of the labels…which presages their demise). The facts is I have critiqued Michael Jackson and his life choices — not from a professional perspective but as an around-the-way American Negro — oftener than anything else over the past 20 years. Also: have mostly not liked any of his cultural production for roughly the same period. I don’t feel guilt for this now — he was weird in his Charles Foster Kane-style retreat from the community sphere and engagement with fame. I do feel the plight of his children who have never had a normal life and will now have the veil lifted on their relative shelter.
When it comes right down to it, though, I am an American Negro — significantly of a particular post-deseg generation. And, as much as our gnosis is defined by the golden eras of Jackson’s fellow Motown stars Stevie Wonder & Marvin Gaye, by the Kemetic kozmic blues of Earth Wind & Fire, by the waning days of soul and rise of hip-hop, we are also creatures of Jackson’s Thriller-spurred global success. Blackness and its parameters have been forever altered since his early ’80s ascent…time has shown this is not necessarily a great thing. At any rate, I am quite torn, only able to cotton to the music he made with his brothers and the first two major collaborations with Quincy Jones. Once he went supernova, he literally and figuratively lost his roots (gone in up in flames with his Jheri curled silky locks) and alienated me. So here’s a list of how I will choose to recollect the sacrificial lamb of the post-soul/crossover era:
1. “The Love You Save”: This is my favorite Jackson 5 song, perhaps the best of the Sly Stone ripoffs — besides y’alls Human League — but still lesser to the great Eddie Kendricks solo cuts (keep on truckin’, baby…).
2. The Jackson 5ive: We weren’t really allowed to watch TV as children, but the novelty of a cornucopia of black programming gave us a pass. The Rankin/Bass cartoon exploits of this family band was stiff competition for Bill Cosby’s junkyard morality plays with Weird Harold.
3. “I Wanna Be Where You Are”: Leon Ware is The Man…finally saw him perform this sonic Grail last fall at the Blue Note in Manhattan; butter. Lil Michael’s take on this oddly enough trumps Marvin’s cover and remains the finest exemplar of bubblegum to these ears.
4. “Enjoy Yourself”: When the Motown-emancipated Jacksons cut this and “Show You the Way To Go” with Gamble & Huff, it was simply the get down bomb. The cookouts in Chocolate City are coming back to me today…
5. “Blame It On the Boogie” / “Can You Feel It”: Guess Michael the pubescent boy-man was getting touched and lost in the shuffle by now — certain rumors I won’t repeat swirled in the black community about what befell him (even if they didn’t make Jet) — but I was too young to notice his flesh and sexuality. Our focus was on the jams — and these were the first “videos” I ever saw, one afternoon after coming back from getting our hair did way over in Northeast, when they aired special on Soul Train. Don Cornelius – hollaback, son!
6. THE WIZ: Sidney Lumet’s cinematic adaptation of this hi-tech minstrel mash-up starring Jackson’s idol/Muse/pop doppelganger Diana “The Boss” Ross and Lumet’s then mother-in-law Lena Horne was the great pop event of my black power youth after the historic airing of ROOTS. My entire grade was taken to the Embassy (right by where Reagan was later shot) to see it in the middle of the schoolday (wow). I will never forget the regal Miz Lena singing from the blue starry heavens, but my favorite sequence is MJ as Scarecrow carrying on with “You Can’t Win” in the ghetto corn-patch. See: it was all about the black Crows even then!
7. Off The Wall: All praises be to Q & Rod Temperton! This is Jackson’s enduring masterpiece, NOT Thriller. Yes, I will always give it the edge: when I first moved to West Africa with my Mother and sister, we literally had three cassettes for several months — until Maman ordered a Bang from Denmark and my father brought over some LPs in 1980. Those tapes were: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, a mixtape of Dionne Warwicke’s Bachrach-David hits made by our neighbors the Wauchopes, and Off The Wall. By the time Reagan forced us back to the States, that little putty Epic cassette had been played so many times it just squeaked and wouldn’t play through anymore. This is one of the most cherished memories of my family, and why whenever I hear the title track or “I Can’t Help It” or my beloved “Burn This Disco Out” I get misty and want to throwdown.
8. “Beat It”: I no longer have affection for the behemoth that is Thriller, but I don’t front that it was an all-encompassing phenomenon. We saw him throw the hat in real time, take his first moonwalk across the world stage; we aspired to a Beat It jacket, and (unfortunately) wore the one glove look to parties. My true love is y’alls Hammer House of horror and the presence of Vincent Price invoking “the funk of 40,000 years” made the title track immortal. Still, Eddie Van Halen’s appearance on this track coincided with my unforeseen move away from funk and African music into the then-current mainstream of ’80s arena rock.
9. “Remember the Time”: I realize now I never liked/bought any Michael Jackson music from Bad forward. I loved the video for this song, though. Was heartening to have a brief respite in which the world’s leading superstar — by then parchment white — cast ancient Egypt as wholly black…despite the growing backlash against Afrocentrism amidst the culture wars. I was at art school then and one of my professors was Leonard Jeffries’ wife — everything was at stake, life or death then.
10. “We Are the World”: It’s excruciating to hear now, but we were very swept up in the whole Live Aid zeitgeist at the time. My late Mother’s friend & hero, Harry Belafonte, asked her to serve on the board for USA For Africa, so we had all the schwag early on and an internal blow-by-blow of developments. The first time I saw the video of the recording, it was exciting to see all the black stars we knew, had grown up with like Brother Ray, the Pointer Sisters, and Lionel Richie mixed with all these foreign people from the realm of rock like Springsteen and Dylan. It was quite the marker between the past and the present.