Trying To Get To You

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Ecstasy Of Michael Jackson

I’ve struggled the last few days with how to address the death of Michael Jackson. I wasn’t particularly moved or surprised when I heard the news – the sadness in the Michael Jackson story has been slowly playing out for the past 25 years. On first hearing of his death, my thoughts were that this was, unfortunately, a somewhat unsurprising and pathetic conclusion to his story.

Michael Jackson was always someone who I admired from afar, but could never relate to, unlike all of my musical heroes. Even during the Thriller era, before the disfiguring plastic surgeries, the off-putting crotch grabbing, the accusations of pedophilia and the draining of joy from his music, he seemed almost like an alien to me; an insanely talented star whose gifts for singing, melody, songwriting and especially dancing were phenomenal, but who seemed as though he had been dropped in from another planet. (It always made sense to me that he identified so intensely with E.T.) The fact that he was the first black artist to be recognized as the biggest artist in the world meant little to me - it was a reach for me to view him the same heroic context with which I view Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali. But I’m a white boy. (King Of Pop? Why on earth would anyone want to be the King Of Pop?)

Of course, he was a genius. He was touched at birth – his parents knew it, his brothers and sisters knew it, and he knew it. And he busted his ass to develop himself as an artist. As a boy playing on the chitlin' circuit with the Jackson 5 before they signed to Motown, Michael keenly observed the soul stars of the day, soaking them all up and absorbing the best of their music and routines. Years after the fact, Jackson could describe Sam & Dave’s show at the Apollo – how they danced, what they wore – as though he had seen it the day before. With every great artist he encountered, no matter the medium or genre, the young Michael would pester them with questions – How did they get their sound? How did they prepare themselves to perform? How did they do what they did? It was the behavior of a master continually in the inquiry of his own work. He wasn't just blessed with talent. He worked harder than everyone else, too.

ec⋅sta⋅sy   /ˈɛkstəsi/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [ek-stuh-see] Show Use ecstasy in a Sentence –noun, plural -sies. 1. rapturous delight. 2. an overpowering emotion or exaltation; a state of sudden, intense feeling. 3. the frenzy of poetic inspiration. 4. mental transport or rapture from the contemplation of divine things.

To be in ecstasy is to be out of oneself. It’s a concept and experience that Michael Jackson, during his golden age, was obsessed with. It informed the best of his music and it was a mystery that he sought answers for. When interviewed upon Thriller's release in late 1982 by writer (and soul maven) Gerri Hershey, he inquired of Hershey if she knew how to get the famous footage of James Brown performing at the T.A.M.I. show in 1964. “He gets so out of himself,” Michael said worshipfully of James. “There are things I need to know about how I do what I do.”

Michael had a lot of reasons why he wanted to get out of himself. He had a father who beat and terrorized him and his family. His family depended on him for their livelihood for as long as he could remember. He had no childhood. As an idol, millions wanted a piece of him (“Being mobbed hurts,” he once exclaimed), and it’s likely he had no idea who he could trust. Most people terrified him. When he looked in the mirror, he clearly saw much he did not like.

But in the best of his music – most of Off The Wall and Thriller, and his early hits with the Jackson 5, all of that baggage was transformed, and it became a non-entity. The joy of his music and performance carried him out of the pain of his identity and what you saw and heard was a master singer and showman, filled with self-assuredness, confidence and power. The reason why he became so enormous is that he provided that same ecstasy through his music – the experience of being out of oneself – for millions, regardless of boundaries of race, nationality, age or any other consideration.

Somewhere along the line – my sense it was sometime in 1984, when his hair caught on fire at a shoot for Pepsi and the Jackson’s Victory Tour became far less than the triumph it was designed to be – Michael’s access to that ecstasy diminished. His music turned inward – filled with empty bragging (“Bad”), paeans to his own victimhood (“Leave Me Alone,” “They Don’t Care About Us,” “Childhood”), or expressions of an unseemly anger (“Scream,” the closing video segment of "Black & White"). The music stopped being communal – instead, it simply reflected Jackson’s increasing isolation and his distance from reality.

Instead of getting out of himself through his music, Michael tried to do it through changing his face, recreating his childhood by vicariously experiencing it through sleepovers with children, and of course, drugs. Naturally, it didn’t work. He thought he was Peter Pan, and maybe he thought with enough record sales, money and adulation, he really could be Peter Pan. Not seeing that that was an impossibility is what killed him.

Michael Jackson’s ecstasy became present for me while at a party on Saturday night. There were about 100 or so people there, milling about, and “Billie Jean” came on. The room lit up. People started dancing and smiling at each other. Everyone’s self-consciousness melted away; everyone sang those lyrics, whether they experienced them the first time around or not. For five minutes, people got caught up in each other, the beauty of the others around them, the joy of music, an experience of what’s possible for humanity, with all of our flaws, to create. It was then that his death hit me for real. And I was flooded with sadness and compassion for him. For what he gave to the world, he deserved better than what he got.

But as sad as his story may be, it is the ecstasy of his greatest music and performances that will endure. That ecstasy is present somewhere around the world at practically every moment - on dance floors and cars and bedrooms on every continent. That's Michael Jackson's true legacy - and the only one that really matters.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Bootleg Friday: Ray Charles, 1976

For this week’s Bootleg Friday, I’m going back to a Founding Father, Brother Ray.

I didn’t grow up listening to Ray Charles; I only started getting into him during my early 20's. But he was always there – on radio and TV and in the ether, with that voice that was always immediately recognizable no matter what song he was singing, or where you heard it. He's one of those artists that people who don't follow or even care much about music can identify him as the artist within four bars of his vocal. That voice, much like Sinatra's, is part of the fabric of America.

When I was 10, I got a compilation of Rolling Stone interviews, and while I quickly memorized the John Lennon and Pete Townshend interviews, I remember not really being able to get into Ray’s interview. I’m not even sure I read the whole interview for years. He gave what seemed to me to be defensive answers. He didn’t want to share everything. When the interviewer (Ben Fong-Torres) inquired about Ray’s experience in therapy, Charles blew it off, saying that he spent most of the time talking to the Doctor about how the Doctor’s life was going. Of course, I now understand the reasons for that “defensiveness” I perceived - born dirt poor, losing his sight at 7, orphaned at 15, on his own from then on. A scuffling musician, a target for other musicians and unscrupulous promoters to take advantage of, a heroin addiction and much more. He intimately knew the blues he sang - and he also knew to be careful about how much he gave away.

But as I got into his music – via the great early 90's Atlantic/Rhino box set, The Birth Of Soul, and then the epochal Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music – I came to realize that to interview Ray Charles was, in a way, a futile gesture. What you needed to know about him was in the music. It was there that the tools and defenses he used to survive a world he had known as hard and cold were no longer necessary, and he could shine without impediment, conjuring a range and depth of human emotion in his own singular way.

I can’t help but think that when I listen to this show, recorded in Stutgart, Germany in 1976. It’s a towering performance, especially the opening track, “How Long Has This Been Going On,” a song about discovering infidelity. Charles conveys more than just the hurt of being betrayed; he sings in the voice of a man discovering his own blindness, and now with sight, knows what a fool he has been. And sometimes, it seems like he sings the song with a very wry smile on his face.

Download: "How Long Has This Been Going On" 9/28/76, Stutgart, Germany
Download: "Feel So Bad" 9/28/76, Stutgart, Germany
Download: "Am I Blue" 9/28/76, Stutgart, Germany
Download: "I Can't Stop Loving You" 9/28/76, Stutgart, Germany
Download: "Country Road" 9/28/76, Stutgart, Germany
Download: "How Much I Can" 9/28/76, Stutgart, Germany
Download: "What'd I Say" 9/28/76, Stutgart, Germany