The first time I encountered Michael Jackson, he was a cartoon.
I watched his animated adventures with his brothers and dog each week. At least I think there was a dog. The show was interchangeable with so many other cartoon shows of the day, like the Globetrotters, except for those songs. I had no idea there was a real Michael Jackson behind those songs.
That changed in the late 70s/early 80s when I purchased Off the Wall. It had to have been 1980. It was summer and the album had been reeling off hits for a while. I wouldn't have been on the vanguard such that I bought it when it came out. Not possible. Too young. But I knew from what I heard on the radio that this was something else. Something unlike anything I'd heard before. Something, to borrow from LL Cool J, of a phenomenon.
I grew up, went to high school and junior high. Jackson became a superstar to the point where it seemed everyone was issued a copy of his album Thriller along with their birth/marriage certificate, home loan, etc. I didn't own it at the time. Jackson was not 'cool' in my circles, which leaned toward Iron Maiden and AC/DC. He was ridiculed for everything you can think of. But then, I didn't need to own it. Radio, parties, TV, everyone played his music. It was as pervasive as the air you breathe.
But this is a lot of me and my impressions. It's not anything about Jackson. So let me flip it a bit. Imagine a shy teen with several hits and more than a few fallow years as a solo artist behind him. Adulthood is looming and his career is tied to that of his brothers, mainly. He wants to break out, make a big statement. So he steels himself, approaches Quincy Jones and asks the venerable producer if he knows someone who can produce his next album. Quincy recommends himself.
You can give a lot of credit for the success of Off the Wall to Q's production, Jerry Hay's serpentine horn arrangements, Ben Wright's heavenly strings, songs by people such as Rod Tempterton and Stevie Wonder, the incredibly clean and catchy riffs laid down by a Brother Johnson, Rufus members and keyboardist Greg Phillinganes. But that first song on the album was Michael's. Yoked to sentiments of the power of love, Michael works it like it's his one and only shot, kind of like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. Whatever you say, he's already won. The template for everything that would follow is right there, not just in his music, but in all R&B. The song has aged like a wine will. It gets better and better with time.
Even better, it leads into Rock With You, a ready-made from Rod Temperton that is like a gift right from heaven. As amazing as the song is, in anyone else's hands, it wouldn't feel so indispensable. Jackson plays suave and sure from the start. Trust him, you're in good hands. He colors the song with aspiration, with unlimited opportunity, with affluence. You, and he, can have it all, whether it's the good life or true love. There are no limits.
Thriller was the triumph, the take over. As an album, it's weaker than Off the Wall, but its high points advance, almost eclipse, the finest moments of Wall. Maybe it's just that Wall was my introduction. There couldn't quite be that same sense of surprise, of discovery, but there were rich rewards. The nervy stutter funk and venom of Wanna Be Startin' Somethin', the audacious Billie Jean (we actually took his side!) and the finely honed rocker Beat It were all Jackson songs, and were the best the album had to offer. More triumphs followed. Like Armstrong, he captivated a generation when he moonwalked on TV, and he transformed MTV into Michael TV, a forum previously closed to R&B. In doing so, he made R&B the dominant musical form.
There's a lot you can say about Jackson that has nothing to do with his music. I acknowledge that. Let me quote a song recorded by Jr. Walker: "We won't talk about that/because it's understood/everybody sees the bad/but what about the good?" The good is the music, which endures despite anything he did, or anything you can say about him, if you have ears to hear it. His influence reverberates through all of the R&B and hip hop you hear today. His legend is such that it seemed to intimidate even him. Releases grew more infrequent and more uneven, traded a bit on past glories, but he still could knock off a standard with impeccable ease when he took his eye off of trying to top himself.
The thing I realize is that all celebrities, like Jackson, are cartoons in our eyes. What we see is an illusion. We don't really know them. Their achievements are just as magnified as their failings. The closest that anyone could hope to approach even a piece of him is the vulnerability in his music, his voice. Like the tears that seem to well up in his eyes at the end of She's Out of My Life. You can almost hear the heartache. A heartache that went beyond any expressed in any song he wrote or performed.
That it was his heart that gave out seems appropriate, if too modest a cause to fell such a legend. And I think that's one of the reasons why people are so shocked. Through TV, radio, etc., Michael has been such a part of their lives, like family, that they can't conceive of a life without him, or that any thing so common could claim him. It just serves as one last reminder that, however larger than life he may have seemed, Michael was human, just like you and me...