Saturday, July 11, 2009

Thank You, Michael

Recently, my daughter turned seven, and a week later I realized I was late with a very specific gift. It had occurred to me that she was ready for the Jackson Five, and I hurried to buy her the perfect CD of her own. For most of the days since, we as a family found ourselves dancing hard and purposefully to a lot of the classics, but especially "Maybe Tomorrow."

It took me a few times to get it. Then I realized that at a certain point in the song, the melody rises into a late-breaking chorus full of the sweetest soul. "You are the book that I read each day," they sing. "You are the song of my life. Let me sing it to you." There you hear a pure and uncomplicated Michael singing with his big brothers, leading yet surrounded and protected by them. Just as I'd hoped, it became my daughter's and mine, her voice like Michael's, mine like the brothers.

Then suddenly Michael Jackson died. Very quietly, he slipped away forever. I was caught having to explain to my daughter and myself the meaning of a tired soul. It meant revealing the okey doke the world played on the words and deeds that made him a soldier of love. It meant recalling where I was and what I was doing during these last forty years. His work spans at least three musical generations, before and after his own. I am his generation--the Obama generation, actually--and it means reckoning with the seasons of life someone our age has come to know. I decided to start with his voice.

Very few were as beautiful, ranging and mellifluous. His voice is one of those singular talents with its own tonal signature like Aretha's or Marvin's, Frank's or Stevie's. Yet few tried to enjoy so many different percussive ticks, scats and word sounds. It will take us a long time to catalogue how many vocal phrases and expressions Michael Jackson coined for what appeared to be the sheer fun it. (What the heck was "Jamon!" and why didn't he ever feel compelled to explain the word?) Not since James Brown's breaths has a performer owned so many hiccups and hollers, usually in falsetto whoops. And most of them emerged when he peaked, at Thriller.

Thriller is the cut-off because the world of people over 40 or so is probably divided between those who fell in (or made) love to Michael Jackson's voice and those who didn't. The love songs on Off the Wall and Thriller will remain part of the lingua franca of a generation's ripened desire. On songs like "Human Nature" and "Can't Help It," Michael conveyed all the hush and hope, the gush and whisper of a heart in full bloom, maybe for the first time.

For young ladies, "The Lady in My Life" was the song of a thousand plays and wishes; for men, an anthem of how one hoped to bring his rapture. I don't exaggerate. This was the very early 80s, still the 70s really, and it was then perfectly OK to feel with all of oneself. We would learn cynicism and cool contempt shortly. In fact, in each year since about 1985 it has been progressively more difficult for a male vocalist to express deep love, tenderness or commitment. Because Michael--who had already freed our spirits to dance--did it so perfectly, at the height of his own innocence, he had a pass to continue as long as he lived.

And that's why the vocal changes after Thriller are so meaningful. All of a sudden this sweet naïf with the electric flesh and the tremulous voice had grown a pirate's rasp and brogue. Proclaiming he was "bad" and "dangerous" when clearly he was anything but, Michael insisted on interrupting his honey tones with a ripping adult gruffness. This was the man who made the day blue, the sound of sunshine. Why was the 140-pound owner of Neverland pretending such toughness? Like a lot of songs he did in the 90s and on, it just didn't make sense.

Stuff was clearly happening at home. While I was grooving with all the swerve I could muster, while folks on dance floors across the planet were doing their best to dig into his beats (like you knew he did), Michael Jackson stumbled into adulthood. First he got burned up in the Pepsi commercial. Beyond the unfortunate Jheri-curl, there were other injuries. He soon began to transform before our eyes. Imperceptibly at first, then as the years went by, undeniably, Michael was turning whiter, his nose was shrinking, his cheeks were doing something. There was clearly a struggle going on for his racial identity, yet he seemed to be waging it against himself. The dimple in his chin became a bullet hole, his hair a Clairol Girl's, and the Glove came on.

With anyone else the Glove would have gone the way of the fedora. But the Glove was a mime's entre into some of the greatest dancing any of us will ever see. If you were there to watch the Motown 25 Special at which he first performed the moonwalk, the magnificence of the moves shooting through his body was unmistakable. His kicks alone would make Bruce Lee proud. His shoulders as syncopated as a Max Roach fill. But the hand, with that white Glove on it, always seemed to know exactly what it wanted to do with the air. Watching Michael Jackson dance you just didn't breathe so much.

I happened to be much too along with serious life to spend a lot of time with the other signs of sadness that, like the changing of his appearance, began to emerge from his private life. I heard about the failed marriages. The New York Post dubbed him "Jacko," its own abbreviation from "Wacko Jacko," which was apparently OK to keep saying. Because he was not quite as ultra successful, he was being taunted as a joke. He had all the money in the world, but he was spending it like a kid. At the same time, it was hard to know if the music was any good. Bad drum machines and cheesy keyboards dominated. They liked it in Japan, which may not have helped. Sometimes he looked desperate. But in reality, I now believe he was unprotected. Things that should have been solid for him were not. And he was being laughed at.

Meanwhile, chances were that if you happened to buy a Michael Jackson CD or attend a concert from about 1984 onward, a large chunk of the proceeds was going to a charity--usually a charity benefiting children in the most fragile states. It turned out that Michael Jackson was not just spending time with children, he was visiting them in cancer wards, hosting their last days at his amusement park, buying hospital wards or airlifting food to them. He took sick strangers to dinner and watched movies with them. Among his causes were terminal illnesses like cancer and (then) AIDS, child abuse and starvation, burn victims, education for underprivileged students, orphans, wild animals, gang warfare, disease immunization and abject poverty.

He spent time and money in India, Germany, England, Italy, the Philippines, the former Yugoslavia, Taiwan, throughout Africa and all over the United States. His love was global well before we knew globalism. Sure, his public orchestration of the celebrity song "We Are the World" was very nice and a little corny. Yet it paled compared to his private sense of responsibility to vulnerable others, giving an estimated $300 million of his own earnings in his lifetime. He dared not tell us how much the world hates children by its policies. Instead, by his own acts of courageous giving, he tried to show us.

Pause to consider the artistic challenge he imposed on himself at the same time. Social conviction is real hard to express as musical genius, yet listen to "Earth Song." Every great artist deserves one of these. Released just two years ago, it's about global warming. Michael straight rocks the chills up your spine. The melody should go down in history as just fine. Inside it his voice whispers, trembles, screams, then sails. The "whoos" on 3 are perfect accented vocal crash cymbals just showing you he gets it. He understands that it is better to dance to outrage than to merely discuss it with friends. The lyrics are only deep enough to tell you where the feelings are, and you already know the feelings. You just never knew that global warming sounded so good. To join such feeling with a cause--to even try--could not have been easy. It is exactly what we need now in order to keep avoidable issues in our heads. It came from an artist who, despite radical changes in the business of recorded music, maintained the best of soul music traditions--message and innovation--while building new ones--total artistic control and expanding the boundaries of humanitarian "pop."

I did not know all these details at the time. Like a lot of people I watched Michael from the covers of supermarket tabloids and snippets of celebrity "news." His skin color and cosmetic machinations, like his crotch-grabbing antics and marital inconsistencies now appear as a rather intriguing defiance of traditional categories--racial, gendered, parental, even fame. While propelling the lucrative careers of countless journalists, doctors and lawyers (not to mention dancers, singers and composers), Michael Jackson was rarely allowed his difference nor seen for the full range of his gifts to us. This will tire the soul of any human being, but I imagine the pain is compounded for many artists. To have so much of your personality appropriated in a cash flow of casual hatred while attempting--almost always--to contribute ever more of your creative talents to a public good must burn like nothing known.

Because of all the scary difference we did not understand, Michael Jackson risked becoming a commodity no longer fit for mass consumption. I have friends who, like so many public commentators, are sure he was a pedophile, transgender, gay, racially self-loathing, and had no business bearing children whose birth certificates stated the word "none" under mother. They know these things even though the allegations either could not be proved, were not proved or are simply irrelevant. They concern themselves still. I cannot. I cannot know, so I cannot judge. I must trust the acquittal and go on to wonder about what else I don't know. I know very little about transgender lives, or superstardom, or being the victim of child abuse, or vitiligo, or addiction to painkillers. Perhaps it is time I learn, just as we as a nation are learning about why there is a T in the acronym LGBT, the parental rights of gay couples who adopt, conceive children through surrogacy or those who seek marriage. But I do know that Michael Jackson's degree of difference, whatever its make-up, is never tolerated for long in our official culture. And I know that all the questions--every last one of them--would be answered differently by people who know just as little if he had been a woman.

Of course, not just the doubts but the hating, fueled by the parasitic publicity industries, may ultimately define Michael Jackson's legacy. And that's the okey doke. No sooner had we learned that Michael was angry about the childhood he missed at the hands of an abusive and exploitative father than his relationship with children surfaced. I am not an apologist for molestation, but I was never convinced he was a molester. What was clear was that he was a man who deeply loved children and the innocence of their company. He coveted them as a father and a friend. That devotion was not balanced by a trust or closeness with adults, so, like the monkey and the amusement park, it stood out for its difference. Settlements are not admissions of guilt, especially for famous people hoping to preserve some privacy (a fact known to plaintiffs). For me, the better evidence was his naive willingness to go on television and defend his conduct. Ill-advised people do such things, but not child molesters. His reclusiveness never hid his honesty, and his genius was never slick. It seemed he could not believe not being believed. This as much as anything else might explain why such a gentle man wore those odd military outfits. If I'm right then he was a soldier of love in an army of one.

Nothing seemed to take its toll like the criminal trial at which Michael Jackson was finally acquitted. Any litigation is excruciating. It's a good way to kill someone, and by 2003 Michael Jackson had become a target. The now-forgotten facts about his accuser's family, character and motives are truly incredible. The trial may have been the beginning of the final blow to Jackson's soul. Afterwards he seemed ruined, not relieved. His withdrawal was exile to a cloistered fatherhood I think I as a father can understand. I just wish it had been more fulfilling. I wish he hadn't felt compelled to undertake a "This Is It" tour of final exasperation. Like so many black jazz musicians of the 50s and 60s, I wish he had gone overseas and never come back.

The man was done but not yet finished off. The finish will be the okey doke for which our country is famous. All that public hating by powerful "news" organizations may achieve the final irony. Instead of teaching about how a gift can be the vehicle for overcoming pain and finding new and different ways to join with one's world, Michael Jackson goes down a pervert, a drug addict and a freak. A man devoted to rescuing kids from the kind of pains he understood could be forever cast as a destroyer of children. A man fleeing to the ends of the earth for sanctuary, a battered body so fearful of illness that he would have a doctor's care in his house with him, would nevertheless die young and unprotected there. We are thereby relieved of the challenge of his goodness and may go on creating more casualties.

There are many who could care less, I know, but I prefer to join the millions off camera, dancing, leaving flowers and still listening to Michael. I will tell my daughter that here was a brave and special boy who loved very deeply and who for many magnificent years managed to share his gift and fill our lives with unimaginable joys both simple and complicated.

I was lucky to grow up alongside him. As he grew into a man, he covered his generous genius with a mask of madness for reasons he kept private. Most of us could only see the mask, talked about it, mocked it, even while he kept trying to share joy. After a while it got like somebody who has something very special to tell you. He keeps trying and trying to say it, but you keep interrupting him or laughing at him or lying to him. Still he tries because for some reason he keeps on believing that it is important to share this message with each and every one of us.

Michael thought he could serve the whole world. Yes, it was love that made him do it, but it was also always work. And after 50 years of working hard, he had nothing left to try with. That's when his heart and his soul--the very honest and lovely and miraculous soul of soul music--gave out. But no matter how he looked, he was always beautiful and we will always love him back.

Rest in peace, Michael. A million thanks, brother.

David Dante Troutt's most recent books are The Importance of Being Dangerous and After the Storm. He is a professor of law at Rutgers University and can be read at


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