The Aviator, Part I: Michael Jackson
Can you just imagine digging up the King,
Begging him to sing
About the heavenly mansions Jesus mentioned….
He went walking on the water with his pills.
Warren Zevon, “Jesus Mentioned”
When Elvis left the building a generation ago at what seemed then the very advanced age of 42, I loved a few of his songs, but mainly considered him a bloated, Eskimo Pie-addicted man-cartoon that some kids’ parents liked. Only later did I discover what the fuss was about: the Memphis truck driver getting “real, real gone” in the magical Sun Sessions; the swaggering sex machine; the out-of-control mystery train that not even a dozen corny movies and a thousand prescriptions could completely derail. No wonder even Nixon cited Elvis as the explanation for the Bermuda triangle (“Elvis needs boats”).
This week, at the young, tender age of 50, another larger-than-life man-cartoon made an inglorious exit. Like Presley, Michael Jackson walked on water, first with his brilliance and later with his pills. And as with Elvis, I dismissed most of what he did long before he left. But MJ was an arresting presence even for those who, like me, did my best to ignore him. Elvis even seems an inadequate comparison for his stratospheric global reach. A closer comparison might be Howard Hughes, another man-child of erratic brilliance, whose master aviator’s soaring heights later gave way to reclusive paranoia and heartbreaking tailspin.
For now I will set aside the aspects of Michael Jackson’s life better left to the justice system and to his maker. As an admiring non-fan, I’ll count down five of his huge accomplishments:
1. He Liberated Eastern Europe from Communism.
Who do you think accomplished this, Reagan and Gorbachev? Please. The invasion of Afghanistan was bad enough, but the Kremlin’s most self-destructive act was its 1985 decision not to censor a vinyl version of Thriller. Long before MJ built a 35-foot statue of himself in Prague, his invisible gloved hand shook like a thousand Adam Smiths, securing our opportunity to visit McDonald’s in Vilnius.
Michael Jackson, HIStory Teaser
2. He Made Globalization Irreversible.
Don’t blame him for the shortcomings of NAFTA, GATT and world-beat fusion music. The new century would still be inconceivable without globalization, and MJ was its mascot. If there’s any doubt, listen to Caetano Veloso’s version of “Billie Jean.”
Caetano Veloso, “Billie Jean”
3. He Stopped Quincy Jones from Making Bad Solo Records.
Quincy Jones has a great ear for talent other than his own. Long ago, Q made five-martini bachelor pad classics like “Soul Bossa Nova,” which featured the amazing Rahsaan Roland Kirk. But by the late seventies, he’d spent far too much time making lame film soundtracks. Soon after Q started mentoring MJ, he woke up and started sailing the high seas of Eighties soul-funk cheese, producing bizarre period classics such as 1981’s The Dude, which even features a zany cover of a song by Ian Dury and the Blockheads sideman Chaz Jankel. The Dude abides.
Quincy Jones, “Soul Bossa Nova”
4. His Voice Was Better than Your Favorite Singer’s Voice.
Maybe that’s stretching it. Still, once you get beyond the tabloid crassness, Jackson had a voice so divinely inspired that comparisons are almost unfair. Production values and taste are things that can be questioned, and I’ve criticized those in most of his work. But his abilities were already astonishing by the time the J5 featured his preteen lead on “I Want You Back.”
Jackson Five, “I Want You Back”
5. He was Jackie Robinson in Aviator Glasses.
It’s hard to describe how segregated most of the pop mainstream was at the end of the seventies, with much of white America (including me) still in “Disco Sucks” mode and rap still emerging from the underground. Off the Wall and Thriller shattered that rigidity. If the path that followed has had some cracks in the pavement—like having to endure Fred Durst limply pretending to be funky—MJ still helped prepare the country and the planet for their multiracial future.
Indian version of “Thriller”