I first saw Michael Jackson leading the Jackson 5, live at the Michigan State Fair in 1971. The fair was just outside of Detroit and must have been a gig agreed upon before the Jackson 5 blew up. I say that because State Fairs are notorious for having the all and sundry with not a few “Rubes” as the Carney’s would shout out whenever there was trouble. The crowd, located in a tight outdoor arrangement, was as wide a range of people you'd ever want to be around. Michael, at a touchingly tender age, was admirably professional -- as were they all. They had been greeted wildly and then listen to with devoted attention. The Jackson 5 were on a small riser, playing up into the audience that sat in a bleacher arrangement, the kind of seating from which you'd watch a softball game. And indeed it was in a field that ranged off in all directions. Behind the rear of the stage was a very broad expanse that served as broad back road and storage areas for the Fair
But they put on a full show, totally up to par. Towards the end of the set I noticed various members of the Jackson 5 slipping off. Michael was the last. As he walked off the other non-Jackson 5 musicians kept playing. There was a lot of movement in the audience, I was not quite sure what was happening until I looked up into the distance and saw the Jackson 5 running at full tilt being pursued by not a few fans. Up ahead of the 5 was, of all things, an armored truck, the kind that picked up cash from businesses and banks. It lumbered at a steady speed. It became clear after a moment that the armored Brinks-type truck was not going to stop. And then, that the 5 were running for in. And they made it, one by one, every one running at top speed. The last one was Michael. He was the smallest with the shortest legs, but he ran like a track star, and nary a hair on his head was touched by the pursuing fans as he jumped up into the truck and it sped off with its precious cargo.
At first I was puzzled by the use of the armored truck, but it would hit me sooner than later that the Jackson 5 were indeed the equivalent of cash money, of the highest denominations.
It was said on some commentary on his recent death that he was in debt $400 million. Well, he will make that back all right. In no time.
Someone so boyish to die so young. Certainly, if his life appeared as a fantasy to those who followed him, certainly anyone who appreciated Black music, R&B, pop music, anyone who danced as a serious part of their life, anyone who was involved in the huge explosion of Black popular music inspired by and often accompanied by rap and hip hop -- that Michael was the man.
I remember Quincy Jones remarking that while they worked on “The Wiz” the Black theatrical musical version of that famous film, The Wizard of Oz, Michael knew everyone's lines, all the songs, and was up to date on other inner and outer aspects of the production.
It would be after that liaison that Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson formed a partnership that resulted in two classic long-playing records: “The Wall ” and “Thriller.” while the former, done with the Jacksons doing harmonies and vocals and some instrumentation, it was clear that Michael, with his voice having seemingly magically matured from a shrieking kid, into a get down adult, he possessed a range of pure intonation and a natural vibrato that would be the envy of any singer.
The success of Thriller is a story in and of itself. That stellar production of Quincy Jones remains and continues to build as one of the greatest studio productions of the 20th Century. So much so that from when it was a big hit, through many dance parties, up until the requisite memorial overplay, I never tire of hearing this work. I knew a woman. Bunny Hull, who sang in the chorus on a couple of the songs. She was famous in my heart because of the beautiful harmonies she contributed to on that great work, She was a protégé of, Thelma Houston (“Don't Leave Me That Way”) and pointed up the fact that L. A., Hollywood, was a big family with everybody pretty much knowing each other, from degrees of separation to connections at any kind of party, reception, screening, performance, get together, dinner, church and funeral. For Black people it was a family thing if only by vibe alone.
I remember helping a lawyer friend interview some folks about a legal situation involving Michael. I came through that with the distinct impression tha t Michael, as a child, had probably been molested by one of the parties (not a family member) to that particular lawsuit that ended up not going forward.
But it made me think back to how Michael as a child, as a boy, was so on point emotionally about feelings he was definitely too young to really appreciate – in my mind – as in the ballad, “Who's Loving you,” recorded when Michael was 7 years old.
Since you been away, don't you know I sit around with my head hanging down, And I wonder who's loving you
Hearing him sing that song, a slow drag favorite of my teen years by Smokey Robinson, by a now comparatively forgotten singer who was overshadowed by Michael in his cover version. It seemed to come together that somehow this young perfectionist had found a way, perhaps a difficult way, to these adult feelings.
Because, indeed, he was like an elf, a boy elf, singing these beautiful adult songs in such an understanding way, to the same adults who adored him if only for rendering their emotions of love and loss so clearly.
I loved it when Quincy Jones referred to Michael as his little brother. That's what the Jacksons became to me, to us, part of that extended family, somewhat dysfunctional, totally talented to the point of brilliance, yet deeply human, vulnerable, valiant.
I listened to the BBC and NPR’s utterly horrible programming in the immediate aftermath of Michael's death. Both relying on the immediate staff and in house talent (that have few if any Blacks) these outfits, put together the worst type of bunk you would expect from them. The British (and I don't understand why they all up in our business anyway these days) found some former music editor who was now in another department – finance, I think—who did an absolute horrid job of it. True to the Murdock doctrine they tried to make much of the legal difficulties he encountered with some of the boys he loved to host. For Michael, a boy who had no childhood, this Neverland/Peter Pan thing was a sad attempt to relive the boy's life he had missed. I remember a revelation from one of the accusing boy's parents who was so concerned about a quick and formidable financial settlement that it made me wonder about the origins of those complaints.
Could COINTELPRO still be alive and well?
Martin Bashear, a brown Brit who now is main man at ABC's Nightline gave Jackson his due when he said that when he shot a documentary of Michael a few years ago that he never got any hint that there might have been any improprieties. That Michael was a gentleman in an almost classical way. And, he also pointed out, Michael had been acquitted of any charges in a court of law. Certainly part of the denial of Black folks right of citizenship is the denial of verdicts in courts of law from O. J. Simpson to Michael. Jackson The press and some of the public know what the jurors did not – that these men were guilty, if only by accusation. Something like a secret tribunal, the likes we witness in foreign policy and recently on the books in national law that challenge basic constitutional rights.
Michael Jackson is associated with so many music categories: Bubble gum music, the beginning of the boy group trend (New Edition, Boyz 2 Men, New Kids on the Block) Michael blew up along with hip hop. His connection to that movement was so clear to me. I remember seeing early videos of MC Hammer. He was just dancing. Sometimes alone, or with a partner, or a small group; they would just be dancing to the music and you could see and feel all that energy coming forward, building. So it was not surprising that MC Hammer would connect with hip hop and build such a formidable fortress from just, essentially, jamming to the music.
Michael put his dancing more and more forward in his performance. Dance is what unites all that Black music, it is the currency of exchange the universal fluid. Michael as a dancer became a wonderment. Praise by Fred Astaire did not mean a lot to a good many B lack folks, as it did mean a lot to a good many. But for Michael he had long been acknowledged as a preeminent dancer, of unusual class. I liked it when I heard someone say how he always ordered a dance floor to be installed in his hotel suites when he was on tour or simply moving his residence around all over the world. Dance for Michael was serious business.
Thank God he took dancing so seriously. Indeed it is at the core of the musical realm. I always laugh when I hear critics of hip hop complain. They do not dance to the music. If they loved dancing and have ever been at a party where there was a great DJ driving the crowd towards dance ecstasy, mixing R&B, Dancehall, Disco and hip hop then they would have known something else. Something that was at the heart of Michael's song writing and star persona and master Quincy Jones's most excellent musicianship and exquisite arrangements.
That there is a place where you can go that is so divine that it can hardly be spoken of -- but it can be sung, and played and danced to, and if it is high enough then you are there. And you will never forget the feeling of that deeply mystical realm. That ecstatic place Michael is most associated with, and will always be.
© David Henderson 2009. All Rights Reserved