july 2009

Try To Remember

Late-night Thoughts On Michael Jackson

(August 29, 1958 - June 25, 2009)

by David McGee

I've never told this story before. Not that I was sworn to silence until all the participants were dead, or anything like that. There never was a context for it in any work I was doing. Now, sadly, there is, but it's relevant only because of the complex—some might say deceitful-personality at its center.

In the early '90s I was working on a biography of Carl Perkins, with Carl's full support. One afternoon I arrived at Carl's home in Jackson, TN, for another round of the 100-plus hours of interviews we conducted for the book. As I prepared my recorder for the day's session, Carl mentioned that Michael Jackson had called him the day before. Jackson was seeking to buy from Perkins the publishing rights to "Blue Suede Shoes," Carl's signature song, one of the defining text of early rock 'n' roll music and culture. Carl refused, explaining that the song was his legacy to his children and grandchildren and no amount of money would pry it from him.

"When we first started talkin'," Carl said, "he was speaking in this soft, childish voice, saying to me, 'Oh, Mr. Perkins, your song is so great, and you're so great, I've always loved your music so much. I would really like to buy 'Blue Suede Shoes' from you for my publishing company. And I promise I'll take care of it.' We went back and forth a little bit, me telling him why I wouldn't sell the song, him trying to talk me into it. Finally, just to get him off the phone, I said, 'No. I won't sell it. Don't ask me no more.'

"And then," Carl said, "a different voice was on the phone, like an older man's voice, and nasty, talking ugly, things I won't even say to you right now. And then he hung up."

A few years later, in an interview with Rolling Stone after the collapse of her marriage to MJ, Lisa Marie Presley told of how often she beseeched Michael to stop speaking in that silly child's voice and use his man's voice, and described the sonorous, masculine timbre, and liberal profanity, she was used to hearing. Earlier than that, in 1984, when I was editor of Rolling Stone's all-music monthly, Record Magazine, I sent writer Deborah Frost to London to interview Paul McCartney for a cover story. She returned with what I still regard as the definitive take on Sir Paul at that time. Among the anecdotes McCartney divulged to Ms. Frost was that Michael Jackson, after buying the catalogue of early Beatles songs Paul himself was seeking but lost, told Paul to his face of his, Jackson's, intent to sell the songs to be used in commercials, knowing full well how the Beatles always rebuffed attempts to have their songs "exploited" in this manner. Being cold-blooded in business matters is one thing; being sadistic for the pure pleasure of it is quite another.

These fleeting factoids were little noted at the time, and not long remembered. But in the wake of Jackson's death on June 25, and the ensuing coverage of the event, they complicate the portrait of this beloved entertainer, although probably not to any greater degree than he complicated it himself with his outlandish behavior.

By any standard, Michael Jackson is a tough subject to wrap your head around. This was apparent in the TV coverage on the day his death was announced. On MSNBC, for example, the mood between 8 p.m. and 8:20 p.m. went from one of near-idolatrous adulation to one of ominous foreshadowing. Providing a needed balance was Professor Michael Eric Dyson, who pretty much doused the idolatry with a more reasoned examination of the artist's achievements. In a spirited, articulate, informed summation of how MJ had merged various, and disparate, elements of both African-American and white popular culture into a visionary new model of black art form, Prof. Dyson made it clear how this gifted artist had achieved, well ahead of Barack Obama's ascension, a post-racial, worldwide appeal. When the mood shifted, it did so with unremitting impunity. Investigative reporters Diane Dimond, who followed Jackson's child molestation trial from day one to day of acquittal, and Maureen Orth, who contributed an in-depth and fairly frightening profile of the artist to Vanity Fair a few years back, commented on the evolution of Jackson's increasingly twisted world and aberrant personal behavior in the post-Thriller years. Like Prof. Dyson's remarkable summation of Jackson's artistic and cultural milestones, the sober assessments of Ms. Dimond and Ms. Orth tipped the scale back to level. Unfortunately, history has taught us that in the coming days, weeks and months, we will not often have the benefit of insight from such seasoned professionals who have really done their Michael Jackson homework. It promises to get worse, these revelations of how Jackson's personal habits may have contributed to his demise (as Jackson family attorney Brian Oxman asserted on MSNBC) and in the unsavory particulars of a private life that may have been rampant with paranoia, depression, drug addiction, and who knows what else—and this doesn't even take into account what are sure to be multitudinous analyses, learned and irresponsible, assailing father Joe Jackson for his hard driving, allegedly abusive regimen that permanently scarred young Michael before he ever had a chance to find out who he was. As for the children, let's not even go there—it was too weird even before Michael's passing.

This is going to be the most outrageous, and possibly most irresponsible, celebrity post-mortem in history. The circus is pitching its tent for a long run of scouring every nook and cranny of the secretive, damaged star's private maneuverings. The vultures are already nibbling on the carrion. Nasty doings are afoot.

For the vast majority of the public, though, Michael Jackson was alive only when he was on stage and on record—maybe he himself felt that way, too, as he clung ever more desperately to his Peter Pan complex. Here's hoping that in all the ensuing madness of picking at his bones and the media trumpeting its latest scandalous revelations, Michael Jackson's music, so grand for so long, will not be extinguished by the sordid tales many will tell. He made no significant music, or even any interesting music, after Thriller. But from 1969 to 1982, oh, what a grand sound he bequeathed posterity. But...but...

In the past 10 years, does anyone recall any MJ headlines relating to his considerable and landscape altering artistry? (Discounting the anniversary press for Thriller, that is.) Does anyone remember Off the Wall, the brilliant 1979 album that preceded Thriller, generated four Top 10 hits and two #1 singles, and to date has sold some 20 million units worldwide? Does anyone recall headlines about anything but cascading lawsuits, the disintegration of Neverland, allegations of child molestation, the squandering of fortune, the baby being dangled out of an upper story window, the bizarre public disguises, the ill-fated retreat to Bahrain, the nose falling off? This is truly, Homerically sad.

So while the dirt digging ensues by those who lust after it, and the family and the lawyers and who knows who else go 'round and 'round, we will regret that Michael could not or would not be helped, saved from himself, and left a sordid personal history that is not irrelevant but must be balanced by an appreciation for the better angels of his soul as expressed in his art: so here, in these pages, we will remember Michael's gift, and his gift to us, with this indelible moment from Off the Wall, and pray he has at last found the peace that eluded him in life.

Get flash player to play to this file
Michael Jackson, "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough'

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

And just for the fun of it, here's the complete "Thriller" video...

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024