The first LP I ever purchased was Michael Jackson's 'Off The Wall'. It was 1980, I was 10 years old. I saved my allowance money up and when I finally saved enough I walked inside the East Bremerton Value Giant and a few minutes later emerged with 'Off The Wall'. It is my favorite Michael Jackson album, full of unbridled joy, creativity - Little Michael, coming into his own as a writer, performer, singer, and a talent unleashed, no longer constrained or burdened by having to carry his less talented brothers. Don't get me wrong, the other members of the Jackson family were talented, they certainly weren't hacks, but none possessed the gifts bestowed on Michael Jackson from beyond the terrestrial.
I have probably listened to 'Off The Wall' 500 times, maybe more. In 1980 I would come home from school, watch Star Blazers, and then pop 'Off The Wall' on our turntable and listen...and read the liner notes and lyrics...look at the picture of Michael on the cover, confidence radiated from his smile (and his socks!) because he knew he recorded one hell of a debut solo album. There really isn't a dog of a track on the LP. From the opening 'wooooooooo' of 'Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough' to the inferno of 'Burn This Disco Out', the album just grooves. In between there is the mid-tempo gem, 'Rock With You', the sensual 'Get On The Floor' and the sugary sweet and playful 'Girlfriend'. And of course, 'She's Out Of My Life' - one of Michael's most honest vocal performances, so vulnerable you could almost feel the heartbreak pouring from the speakers.
'Thriller' hit in 1982, a tsunami of pop gems. By the time it was all said and done, 'Thriller' sold over 50 million copies worldwide and it is easy to see why. 'Thriller', like 'Off The Wall' before it, is in essence a dance record. But where 'Off The Wall' retained some disco influences, 'Thriller' embraced rock, pop, and soul. 'Beat It' is just an outstanding song with a killer riff and the famous (or infamous, depending upon whom you ask) Eddie Van Halen solo. The duet with Paul McCartney on 'The Girl Is Mine' is the closest thing to a dud on 'Thriller', but it worked at the time because it was harmless and lots of fans thought it was kind of cute that Little Michael was singing with an ex-Beatle. The best tracks on 'Thriller' are 'Billie Jean' - that bass line slithers through the song, taking what would have been a very good R&B tune and turning it into something sublime. 'Wanna Be Starting Something' is kind of a head scratcher, a song with somewhat spiteful lyrics in the verses, a challenge to the antagonist in the chorus, and an uplifting end with the chant 'ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa'. Color me confused.
Then there was the video for 'Thriller'. It is hard to imagine this in a day when there are something like a billion channels available at all times, but back in 1983 cable wasn't available to everyone...especially in tatty ol' Port Orchard.....and I was one of the unlucky souls that did not get to watch 'Thriller' when it debuted (if memory serves, didn't it first run on HBO before hitting MTV and Friday Night Videos?). I just remember everyone that did see it talk about it in home room the next day. I was devastated, I wanted to see the video so bad...werewolves! dancing Zombies! a really hot chic with a tight sweater!....it seemed unreal. So unreal that I could hardly believe that Mr. Tallquist not only taped the 'Thriller' video, but brought it to class with him and played it for the students....old school viral video, baby! The video was unreal, and a little scary, and a whole lotta cool - from that moment on, Michael Jackson seemed to be everywhere.
And then he wasn't. The musical landscape changed drastically between 'Thriller' and 'Bad'. A purple clad guitar humping Hobbit from Minneapolis unleashed 'Purple Rain' on an unsuspecting public, and Michael Jackson suddenly seemed quaint. Heavy metal was ubiquitous and soon dominated not only the radio, but MTV, Night Tracks, and Friday Night Videos. Bruce Springsteen made blue collared mouth breathers from New Jersey seem cool.
By 1986, 'Thriller' seemed silly, not only the song and the video, but the entire album. When Michael Jackson finally released 'Bad' in 1987 the music biz was rapidly evolving and no one was sure if Jackson was still relevant. Hip hop, a burdgeoning indie scene, and bands like Guns & Roses seemed to connect with listeners in a way the painfully shy and increasingly eccentric Jackson could not.
Michael thought 'Bad' would eclipse 'Thriller' in total sales and he reportedly believed it would sell 100 million copies. It didn't. While 'Bad' was most certainly not a flop, it wasn't the phenomenon Michael felt it would or should be. The album spawned several hit singles and Michael had grown some as a writer, but the overproduced and tinny title track was a little too slick to truly resonate (and the lengthy video was laughable at times) the way 'Billie Jean' did. My favorite cuts on the record are 'Dirty Diana' and 'Smooth Criminal' (the 'Smooth Criminal' video is also my fave MJ video, the longer version has amazing choreography) because they sounded different from anything else Michael had done to that point...and I always will wonder what this album would have sounded like with more organic production.
The most noticeable difference though, wasn't the music, it was Michael himself. Gone was the kid with poor complexion from 'Off The Wall'....also missing was the handsome and carefully unshaven young black man from 'Thriller'...in their place was a not quite white or black androgynous Michael Jackson, dressed like an artist's conceptual drawing of Edward Scissorhands, staring out from a mess of long hair. If Nikki Sixx and Vanity would have spawned, their offspring would have looked like Michael Jackson. It was after 'Bad' that Michael Jackson went from being a famous pop star, or the King of Pop, and began morphing into Whacko Jacko.
When the 1990's rolled around, Michael was still a viable pop star, although one with a seemingly out of touch belief of his place in pop music. When Nirvana knocked 'Dangerous' from atop the Billboard charts, the writing was on the wall....the King of Pop is dead, long live The King!
Being a Michael Jackson fan in the 90's was damn near impossible, and I'll admit that after 'Dangerous' (a much better record than most want to admit) I was done with Michael Jackson. I was entering my 20's and Michael was a relic from my past, a novelty act destined to Vegas greatest hits revues and what have you. Michael's insistence on being called the King of Pop bordered on pathetic...
In the 'Thriller' video Michael said, 'I'm not like other guys', by 1995 we knew the proper response was, 'Yeah, no sh*t.' 1995 was the year Jackson had 20 foot statues of himself erected on 5 continents, all part of an asinine campaign to promote his greatest hits compilation 'HiStory'. It backfired, and when Jackson had a statue of himself floated down the Thames, his hubris turned off all but the most maniacal Jackson fans.
We could forgive him trying to roll the bones for Merrick's remains, and the rumors of him bathing in Perrier and his mom supposedly injecting him with estrogen at puberty so his voice never changed. Those were all rumors and pretty much harmless. The allegations of child molestation, however, weren't so easy to dismiss, and Michael's behavior made it impossible for me to give him the benefit of the doubt. And although two juries acquitted him of wrong doing, there was just too much smoke to not believe there was some fire.
For the rest of 1990's, Michael's obsession with plastic surgery made him appear ghoulish, a reanimated corpse of the once brilliant performer. Michael went from famous to infamous to tabloid headliner. Reports of his nose falling off, or pieces of his ear being removed to repair holes in his face took the place of any discussions concerning Michael and music. Music became an afterthought to baby dangling, legal woes, and monumental financial troubles. Talks of a comeback never materialized into anything tangible, and even his charities were shrouded in doubt and talks of financial impropriety.
The above is not the Michael Jackson that I will chose to remember. To me, he'll always be the immensely talented performer and singer that prompted a 10 year old boy to save up his allowance to buy 'Off The Wall'. I'll play that album tomorrow night and dance with my daughters, introducing them to one of the most exuberant and joyful records in my collection.
Dennis Leary once joked that Elvis Presley should have been shot in the head when he was inducted into the army, sparing us the unfortunate sight of a fat and drug addled Elvis wobbling around a Vegas stage. Part of me wishes Michael Jackson had died before he too became a tragic caricature of himself, stumbling around the world one step ahead of creditors, lawsuits, and the realization that no matter what happened, he would never rule the world of pop music again.
As a child, Michael Jackson had the voice of an angel, but could sing with inflection that hinted at an old soul inhabiting his body. Perhaps that is why he lived the way he did, he was an alien talent that simply did not belong amongst the rest of us. The drugs and the plastic surgeries and the inexplicable behavior with children were his way of dealing with his epic lonliness.
It will be odd waking up tomorrow to a world with no Michael Jackson.
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