I spent most of Thursday evening writing a post about Michael Jackson for WNEW.com. I’m the resident historian over there (although a better way to describe my role might be that I’m the old geezer who’s always reminding the kids that things today aren’t the way they used to be), so I was focused on sketching the contours of Jackson’s career. My goal was to show readers who know only the tabloid version of him why his musical career mattered. I’m not the only writer doing that, because there’s a need for it. Now, however, I’m ready to reflect on a more personal level.
You’ll find lots of comparisons between Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson today, and here’s another. When Elvis died in 1977, it had been 15 years or so since he’d been the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He’d continued to record and perform, but his lifestyle had become extremely self-indulgent and his behavior downright odd. His appearance had changed greatly from what it had been. When he died, there was a whole generation of people who knew him only as a tabloid joke—“a fat guy who croaked on his toilet,” as one description had it at the time. When Michael died yesterday, it had been at least a dozen years since he’d been the King of Pop. He, too, remained part of the pop world, but his lifestyle, behavior, and appearance were what made headlines. And to the generation that’s come of age since the mid 1990s, he, too, is a tabloid joke.
That’s not to say older people never think of him that way. I was on the air yesterday when stories of Jackson’s death began to circulate, and I got a couple of phone calls that astounded me with their meanness: “One less freak in the world,” one person said, a note of glee in the voice. The callers spoke as though Jackson had finally gotten the death penalty he had deserved all along. What I said to them was that I’d rather focus on his music. The rest of it happened, yeah, and it’s irresistible to people who take pleasure in the suffering of others, or to people who enjoy seeing the mighty bought low (and to cable news channels, which are exemplars of both the latter and the former). But it’s not what made Michael Jackson famous, and it’s not why we should remember him.
My first radio, the green plastic Westinghouse tube-type, still plays in my head whenever I hear one of the songs that captivated me during my first months of listening, beginning in the fall of 1970. I can hear it now . . . WLS is cranking hits, jocks, and jingles—one of which sings “89 . . . WLS!” But the record that follows this particular jingle starts in a quieter fashion than most, with a simple harpsichord figure topped by a shimmery high-hat cymbal. The figure repeats itself, and then a bass guitar provides a little bit of bottom as the singer begins: “You and I must make a pact/We must bring salvation back. . . .”
“I’ll Be There” was the first thing I ever heard Michael Jackson sing, and of all the records he ever made, it remains my favorite. The innocence of it was breathtaking long before it became ironic, and Michael sings the hell out of it. The kid was 10 or 11 years old, for chrissakes. Where on Earth does a 11-year-old learn to sing like that? Ever since, it’s represented a frozen moment in time, not just in Michael Jackson’s life, but in my own. For as long as it takes “I’ll Be There” to play—3:45 on the single—I can be 10 again, where my life is all potential, and where none of the losses and disappointments I will suffer have happened yet; indeed, they’ll never happen. I have always wondered whether Michael Jackson heard that song the same way as his life unraveled around him.
There’s another Jackson Five single that means a lot to me, but unlike “I’ll Be There,” which I loved from the jump, it’s one that took me years to fully appreciate, and I think I know the reason why. “Maybe Tomorrow,” which was the first Jackson Five single to miss the Top 10, contains a declaration of love so powerful that you have to know what it is to love and lose before you really get it. Michael couldn’t have known it in 1971 any more than I could have:
My beautiful bird, you have flown away
I held you too tight, I can see
You’re all I need to get by
No one else can make me cry, the way you do baby
You are the book that I read each day
You are the song that I sing
You are the four seasons of my life
But maybe tomorrow, you’ll change your mind, girl
Maybe tomorrow, you’ll come back to my arms, girl
And as you listen to him sing it, remember: kid’s 12. How do you get the conviction to sell something like that so convincingly when you’re only 12?
Michael sold eleventy-nine bajillion records, with his brothers and by himself, but I wouldn’t take them all in trade for “I’ll Be There” and “Maybe Tomorrow.” And I’m willing to bet that long after the white glove and the plastic surgery and Neverland Ranch and Debbie Rowe and all the rest of it are forgotten, it’s songs like these, and others, that will endure.