I have been doing my retro-research. I have been spending time in places I would rather be—in the past. I shake my head because I want to know how can we be a decade into the new millennium? How can Motown be a relic? How can Soul Train be a walk back into yesteryear, a feature of the past? And how can Michael Jackson no longer be with us? It’s all unthinkable.
I took a nostalgic journey back in time watching the documentary of Soul Train and the 2010 Soul Train awards. And I cried big alligator tears. I was not just the nostalgia, I was weeping for what was gained during those days and more for what has been lost since then. The tears were for the lost times, and days, and vibe. The world feels cynical and sterile to me compared to then. Those days held a pregnant hope and idealistic faith that change was in the wind. The wind that blew strongest was the musical wind. It blew from the likes of legends– Brown, Wonder, Wilson and Jackson. They were incomparable and irreplaceable.
I felt more than a little sorry for those people who never understood the impact of Mr. Brown and his “I’m Black and I’m Proud” or those who will never know the meaning of Haight-Ashbury and that wearing flowers in your hair was a prayer. For those who can’t feel the performers and “Woodstock” when I say it.
And the return to Soul Train—I want Soul Train back! Don Cornelius, Master of Ceremonies, was not just an entrepreneur who saw a niche and filled it, he was an institution. The Jackson Five were but one of the many African American groups and artists who made Soul Train an institution too.
Every home in the hood had Soul Train on. I remember scurrying home to watch American Bandstand for much of my youth, but Soul Train was absolutely my favorite. The audience started out black and as it rose in fame and viewership, became half white. Soul Train integrated the neighborhood! It was the happenin’ place especially if you wanted to learn dance. I could dance pretty well and very black for a white girl. I was initiated at Soul Train. And by watching James Brown’s footwork.
If one loved to dance, one had to go to the dance clubs to show off the moves and to learn new ones. In the clubs in Milwaukee and Chicago, I was sometimes the only white girl in the place. Where else would one go? The white kids didn’t know how to “get down” and they sure didn’t know how to boogie. There was only one choice and it gave me an education in black history and black music. I loved soul music and Motown and the Jackson Five. I saw Aretha, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and so many others live in concert and I shared a taxi once with Sam and Dave. (Soul Man and Hold On I’m Coming.) I also saw the Cream live and was a Jimi Hendrix fan and a big fan of Blues geniuses BB King and Junior Wells.
I was a big Beatles and Rolling Stones fan at one time too. I will always regret never having seen Michael or the Jacksons live. After Michael left the Jacksons, I watched his work in “We Are the World” and the “Off the Wall” album. I loved Michael’s early solo work until I lost track of him. I am revisiting Michael’s aesthetic now and learning who Michael was through the years. I haven’t just listened; I have studied Michael because now I am writing about his work and collaborations. I like Michael’s music and I have studied it in depth but not as a music critic. I have not seen or played the sheet music nor read all the credits. It is the music aesthetic that interests me—the sound, fabric, context, content, history, artwork, color, tone, depth, and the alchemy of all of that with a focus on the message. Michael was a messenger and his life and work was the message. The music was a means of delivery but it’s not the only thing or even the most important thing. There is that perpetual musical wind that blows through the life of one who came to teach and to change the world and spoke in the universal language—music.
So it will always be in that context that I look at the work of Michael Jackson whether Michael himself did it or someone else finished it. Those who worked closely with Michael knew him best. Those who knew and loved him as they worked with him know what he said and they are in a better position than me to know what he might have meant to say now. No matter what, Michael is no longer here with us. He cannot put his aesthetic stamp on work that now comes out of his vault or estate. It will never be 100% Michael ever again. That is the stark and painful reality.
There are those who look at the album and are reminded of the bad guys. There are plenty of bad guys in Michael’s history and his life. There is plenty of blame to go around if you are looking for a place to throw it. That includes everybody who ever betrayed him, took advantage, invaded his privacy, extorted him, tried to get close to him, conscripted his name for profit or revealed his secrets and private thoughts. He was a special man with a special sensitivity and talent and there are those who took advantage, lacked respect and used him for their own gain. While he had a special relationship with his fans and it was a reciprocal kind of love, it is also true that because of his fame and fans, Michael could not go anywhere or have any privacy. He could not go anywhere and be safe without security. Fans made that necessary. The paparazzi were everywhere he was and that began because people were curious and interested in all things Michael. It is important to remember that and to keep things in perspective. Fans can be bad guys.
The people close to Michael regularly rotated in and out of his life and like most close relationships whether personal or business, they all were complicated. Hired and fired, friend become enemy, collaborator become friend, enemy become admirer, observer become indictor, friends become family, family become strangers, strangers become haters, lovers become enemies, admirers become betrayers, lovers become admirers, and haters become advocates. There were those who turned their backs for survival because everything around Michael was so crazy. It wasn’t’ Michael who made it crazy; it was what went on around him and what was projected onto him all set into motion by others. Some turned their backs because it was too painful not to. Some turned their backs because it was self preservation and would have meant career suicide not to .There were those who defended, supported and loved throughout. Some just shook their heads. Like any complex artist, Michael’s life was intensely complicated and populated by many different kinds of people. His death appears just as tangled. Michael was different. He was a visionary far beyond his time and they are never understood in their own era.
To understand Michael one may not leave anything out. It all has to be factored in. To get the whole picture and to know his music one needs a Holodeck like on the Starship Enterprise-Next Generation to stand in the complete experience—the feel and taste and sound and aesthetic, and message and… That also means beyond all the human senses and into the sixth sense and maybe even seventh.
So is the new album what Michael would have envisioned? I don’t know but I’m pretty sure he would not have designed it to be posthumous– at least consciously. It is a posthumous album. Is it Michael? Yes. And no. Is it a commercial enterprise? Of course; that is how this country and business works. Those who knew Michael in a way that the fans don’t have done their best to do him proud and to bring his last work to light. Is that wise? Yes. And no. And the fans who know another Michael struggle to do him justice and to preserve his legacy. Are they right? Yes. And no.
Underneath it all is Michael. Is the final version what Michael envisioned? Yes. And no. He would not have made the music if it weren’t important. It was part of his history, his legacy and his message. Is it now delivered in precisely the way Michael would have done it? Of course not. But those who tried to bring Michael back to us now pay homage to his legacy. Would that legacy be the same without This is It? Michael was not here to sanction that either and those who knew him best said he would not have allowed it. But we know Michael better because of the attempt to give us the real man. Would he be proud of these attempts? Oh, yes. Michael would be proud that we cared enough.
Is all the fighting and yelling and protesting and standing on street corners with signs, and the gnashing of teeth really because it is painful to acknowledge that he is not here? Is it because we will never again hear Michael the way Michael wants to be heard? Is it because the music in the album is one last reminder of the fact that he is no longer with us?
Michael is un-mistakenly on the new album “Michael.” He began that work and he intended to share. That is why it exists albeit not in its final form. That will never again be possible. I have been asked my opinion about it by scores of people. I have been reluctant to say because to say something I have to be in my head more than my heart. I will say I do like parts of the new album more than others. But I am more interested in the message than the music. “Monster” is an important message and particularly haunting given where it comes from. So I will say that “Breaking News” is particularly important because it is Michael speaking from beyond the grave about what put him there.
So I was, and I am, upset with the treatment of that song. It seemed petty given that “Breaking News” struck me from the first time I heard it as an important final message directly from Michael. All the debate seemed to me to diminish its relevance and impact. It is an important last message and teaching. If the album is mostly what Michael planned to do, then it’s relevant. The Casios certainly seem like loyal and sensitive people and they gave Michael something he cherished—a home where he didn’t have to be the Michael Jackson, could feel comfortable, and felt safe enough to sleep. I don’t see them as opportunists.
The lesson in the album may go much deeper than the music. This album says to me: When death visits, there are no second chances. That perhaps the potential regrets should be reviewed before that event and not after. So, it may be really important to put some thought into doing it right and doing it before it’s too late. And to remember that if given another chance, would any of us do things differently? Does that include Sony? Might they have done it differently with Invincible? Would Lisa Marie have done it differently? Would Michael’s family? Would Dr. Murray? Would Michael’s musical colleagues? Would his friends? Would Madonna? Would you? Would Michael?
Me? I’m going back to watch more Soul Train. What needed to happen then was clearer. The path to get there was clearer. The message was clear. The intuition worked then. So did the sixth and seventh senses. The body knew it because the body and the heart felt it. This trying to figure it out with the head alone in a world where heart has been forgotten, is giving me a headache. Maybe that’s the real message in this new Michael album. When Michael says in “Hold My Hand” ‘This life don’t last forever’ I think he is talking to us. If you’re looking for Michael—he’s there. So is his real message. His last message. The one he planned to tell us when he died and gave us that message instead.
There is a Soul Train review of Michael that I particularly like…