26 - 27 June 2009
I hesitated to post one of my ‘quick-ones’ (thus making it not such a quick one, after all, no?) the other night (well my blasted computer and laptop had something to do with it, too); but having just come from Joshua Pieper’s opening at Rosamund Felsen (good show, by the way – conceptual/material handled with a very dry, delicate wit), where I had a conversation with Steve Hurd and friends on this very subject, I’m thinking I’m not the only person in the L.A. art world to have been similarly affected by the sudden (and still so very shocking) death of Michael Jackson – a genius entertainer and true pop superstar, whatever else you want to say about him.
Like so many of my generation (no – I can’t remember what that is exactly – (x + y + z)2, I think), I watched Michael Jackson’s career unfold practically from its inception. I listened and danced to Motown music, including many Jackson 5 singles, some of which struck me as Motown bubblegum, some which actually had an already distinct pop verve – a kind of fusion of Motown-style rhythm & blues and Lennon-McCartney inflected Anglo-American pop (“The Love You Save”; “Never Can Say Goodbye”; “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground” – which seems in retrospect like the Motown precursor to his later “Wanna Be Starting Something” – that brilliant lead track off Thriller). I think “Ben” was actually my favorite Jackson 5 single at the time simply for its sheer perversity. (I confess that my early pop music tastes leaned in the direction of hard blues (Anglo-American, alas) rock and downtown/art/underground sounds (the two poles of which I’m thinking would be somewhere around groups like the Stones and the Velvets). In other words, this was a pretty white pop culture. There were outstanding exceptions, of course: Aretha, Stevie Wonder, to say nothing of scores of black jazz artists from Miles Davis to McCoy Tyner. But jazz and the classical world stand somewhat off to the side of the mainstream pop world. And it was that world that the grown-up Michael Jackson would take by storm and utterly transform within less than a decade from his first solo records for Motown.
That said, it was an explosion heard round the globe that somehow only penetrated my very white, punk downtown world when, inevitably, it penetrated almost every style of pop music being produced during the decade that followed – with its sheer exuberance, eclecticism and irresistible rhythmic energy. That ‘force’ had ‘a lot of power.’ Within a couple years of its release, there was no escaping it – and who would want to? I recall a hipper-than-thou loft party in SoHo sometime in 1982 where the dance music mix began and ended with music from Off the Wall. Everyone there was super-smart, punk or professional – or both, hyper-educated, informed, engaged, so cool we would have turned blue if the party didn’t start heating up – and it did. We tried so hard to be detached and dispassionate, clutching our scotch and joints (and checking each other out, too, natch) – but the sound system was very good and the music swept everyone away. There was no holding back. ‘Get on the floor and dance’ the music commanded; and we obeyed. Half-way through the Off the Wall tracks on the mix, the loft was swirling with movement – jagged, lyrical, undulating, pulsating – just like the music. It was pure joy. I don’t think I had sex that night, but I definitely had an orgasm or two.
A couple of years ago, I was on my way home from a late and very frustrating night at my Flynt Building office, feeling like death and wondering for the umpteenth time how I could possibly wake up the next morning for more of the same. I was spinning the radio dial between news, jazz, classical and indie-rock stations aimlessly, not even caring what I heard from one to the next, when the first bars of “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” – with those urgent moans of Michael’s – suddenly began seeping from my speakers. Something compelled me to turn the volume up. And up – the music poured from the speakers as if on an ecstatic wave (I have a great sound system in my car). At that moment, it was like a musical speedball – dreamy, ecstatic, yet pulsating with energy. I was in heaven. And I wasn’t going to stop ‘til I got enough – which meant a stop at Amoeba to pick up a CD (my vinyl copy bit the dust what seems like millennia ago). (Good thing, too, huh? Amazon reported that the entire Michael Jackson catalog had sold out. They’re going to have to bloody re-issue most of the catalog. Who knows? – Michael’s $400 million debt may be liquidated a lot quicker than any of us would have guessed.)
Beyond the music, what made Thriller magical – really a kind of pop miracle no different from one of the great Freed-unit M-G-M musicals – was its conceptualization as a kind of global multi-media entertainment package. The amazing dancing and choreography that may have been born out of disco and musical theatre but went so much further. There was Astaire and Robbins in it, sure – but also Fosse and something you can only call Michael Jackson. We were witnessing the birth of a superstar and it was something to see. Something you had to be blind not to see – you couldn’t take your eyes off him.
Thursday evening (25 June), I was out with Opera Buddy – looking at an opera on film natch – an amazing 2008 Salzburg Festival production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. (Claus Guth did the production and Bertrand de Billy conducts members of the Vienna Philharmonic. The Don Gio is a very powerful Christopher Maltman, but he is almost eclipsed by his amazing – and very sexy – Leporello, played by Erwin Schrott. It’s a strange, almost surreal, very contemporary production – but I loved it; and of course the music is sublime – more on that in a second if I don’t run out of steam.)
Anyway, we almost got into an argument. “Michael Jackson dead!” – she all but cackled. Well, there was no escaping the shock of it. “ … (yawn) Oh so what … another pervert bites the dust…. What was he going to do with his career, anyway?...” Well, setting aside the probable fact that, whether his tour or new material would have been successful or not, whether he would have actually succeeded in making a comeback that, to many, seemed something of a long-shot, there would have been much he might have offered as a producer or mentor for new talent – i.e., the role that Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones and others had played for him; how, I asked, can you deny, not simply his manifest talent, but what he did actually produce. Joy, pure and simple. He brought joy to hundreds of millions if not billions of people all over the planet.
He was a strange cat – completely over-the-top-twisted, screwed up – issues for years. He did weird stuff and some terrible and probably out and out criminal things to some people (although regarding these incidents, you have to wonder: where were these kids’ bloody – more like blood-sucking – parents? – vultures.) And, come on for chrissake – nobody died. In fact they probably had a fabulous time (so they need a few years of therapy – at least we know they can afford it). Jackson was no Phil Spector – a complete menace to society who was a one-man argument for preventive detention years before he actually offed some poor girl.
Maybe Michael’s best years were behind him. Oh they probably were. But, like entertainment geniuses before him, he brought magic to thousands of millions. He brought us joy and will keep on delivering it as long as we can still hear music. No, he was not Mozart; and no we are not always in the right space, physically, emotionally, to enjoy what he offered us. But when we are – and we always will be at some point – it will seem like the amazing gift it is – a bacchant’s cry (and laugh) – a power of rapturous joy that we can never have enough of.