I spent much of yesterday in the car (or, rather, cars — more about that later) and listened to Michael Jackson’s two great albums (Thriller and Off the Wall) several times each. I don’t have any Jackson 5 on CD or on the iPod, but I’ve been playing those LPs this morning.
Jackson had descended so far into self-parody (and then all the way through it to a truly disturbing character, some sort of badly reanimated corpse that made you hope Sarah Michelle Gellar would show up with Mister Pointy) that it was easy to forget how damn great he was. He was a tremendous singer, he worked his ass off, he was smart enough to outwit Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono and get the Beatles catalog, and his great records are among the best pop music ever made.
Thriller is an almost-perfect album.* Nearly every song on it was a successful single, and even the non-megahits are great songs. It came out in 1982, which was the year I got my driver’s license. My first car only had an AM radio and in those days, WABC and WNBC still played music, and half of what they were playing that fall probably came from that album. Along with the formerly whites-only MTV**, I was finally starting to escape the apartheid “rock” music I’d been brought up with, and that album was a revelation. Everyone liked it, regardless of color, regardless of whether they’d been hardcore “Disco Sucks” segregationists a few years earlier.
And sure, that album wouldn’t have been what it was without master musicians like Greg Phillinganes and Rod Temperton and the towering genius of Quincy Jones. But it was unquestionably Jackson’s album, and Jackson’s genius that made it into the top-selling album in history. Jackson is much more entitled to his “King of Pop” title than Presley was to be called the “King of Rock and Roll.”
It’s all just sad. I feel like he is a great loss, but he’s been a great loss for something like 20 years. I remember the long-awaited release of Bad in 1986, and how tremendously disappointing it was. Prince was at one of his heights, U2 and REM were doing great work, Public Enemy was getting started, and Bad was just … bad. And he looked bad too. And then things went from Bad to worse and worse and then much worse.
He was an abused child, really, forced by a tyrannical father into an intense spotlight that distorted his whole life. His brothers certainly fared better, but he was the most sensitive of them all, and that’s why he was so great, and why he fell so hard.
Driving home late last night, I was done with pop music and, scrolling through what happened to be on the iPod, played Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones, without even remembering the last song, “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” which he wrote after John Lennon died.
Well, I really wasn’t
Such a Johnny Ace fan
But I felt bad all the same
So I sent away for his photograph
And I wait until it came
It came all the way from Texas
With a sad and simple face
And they signed it on the bottom
From the Late Great Johnny Ace
*I say “nearly perfect” because of the insipid McCartney duet, “The Girl Is Mine,” which sits in the middle of the first side like bird droppings on a barbecued steak. The two most glaring examples of wasted talent in pop music argue over “the girl” like New York State senators, engaging in dialog so painfully stilted it makes you want to hear the awful chorus again. And of course “the girl” has no name, nothing to say in the matter, and appears in a schoolboyish Jackson drawing on the LP’s inner sleeve being tugged apart like a wishbone by the two superstars.
**Does anyone remember that for the first few years of its existence, MTV steadfastly refused to play videos by black artists? I remember David Bowie giving some bubblehead VJ a tongue-lashing during an interview about this, but it took Jackson’s brilliant videos — and threats from CBS — to finally break the color barrier.