A few hours after I heard the surprising news, Linda Ray at No Depression asked me for a few sentences about Michael. It's a little darker than I might have written a day or two later:
"Michael Jackson hugged the peak for what constituted, in pop-culture-years, an eon: about 1970 to 1990. For all that time he was on his best game, and for more than a little of it (the Quincy Jones years) he was sprinting out at a safe, superior distance from all competitors. On those terms -- maintenance of superabundant talent and visionary innovation -- he compares to the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Sinatra...and hardly anyone else in popular music, actually.
That child abuse (perpetrated on and by him), self-mutilation, psychotic narcissism, and God knows what other grotesqueries should have so thoroughly interpenetrated this American success story is a dismal reflection on a number of things. Celebrity-besotted America, naturally. The satraps and sleazy ten-percenters who abetted in sealing off any exit doors from the singer's delusional happyland. And -- not to be too grandiose -- even our democratic ideals are tarnished by Mr. Jackson's untimely death: any poor kid in America can grow up to be president, or, if he's abysmally unlucky, multimillionaire superstar.
You can listen to his sweet, sincere, hair-raising treatment of "I'll Be There," or any of four dozen others from the early 1970s, and be moved again and again by the spectacular natural force of his voice. Moved enough to forget, if you like, that a lot of these performances were, whether in a vaguely internalized or a sickeningly specific sense, coerced."
In a more personal vein, I got hooked on the J5's "Third Album" when I was seven. During the summers we took in a "fresh-air" kid from New York City, a black kid called Cliff who quickly became a good friend and an air-guitar-playing, bed-jumping, J5 co-idolator. A debate that then raged among us kids in the early 1970s was: Osmonds or Jacksons? Of all the dumb positions I've taken since, I'm glad to say that I never even regarded this as a serious choice.
In 1999, Peter McDowell at the Chicago Cultural Center had me put together a performance in honor of Michael's birthday. That was the beginning of my long "tribute CD" odyssey, and it got me to thinking a little about him, because I hadn't, much. I hadn't theretofore bought his records, or learned any of his songs to perform, or considered myself a fan beyond the J5. Yet I found that I knew lots of his songs just from constant ambient reiteration, and, when I listened to them more purposefully, found them exquisitely assembled and compelling in some hard-to-define way. In other words, I discovered the basic and obvious qualities that had long ago endeared this music to everyone else around the world. At that time it occurred to me that Michael was my generation's Elvis. He was our common musical denominator, originator of the template, pointer of the path, the central guy that we all grew up with and of whom nobody could live in ignorance. In fact the only reason I wouldn't overplay the comparison is that I think he was better than Elvis artistically. Better dancer, better singer, better song guy; and he stayed better at it all longer (even outliving him, a little). Let the squabbling begin...
As a postscript I'll pass on a couple interesting remarks some friends made. Jenny Scheinman noticed that the Quincy-Michael records were audacious and unusual conceptions, that balanced a dark and rather creepy persona with just the faintest note of levity that made them fascinating and hard to resist. Yet Robbie Gjersoe resisted with little effort. Where I find the Quincy music still to sound like it was recorded just the other day, he thinks it sounds like it was recorded in just the year it was. And he adds that for robot-y donk-donk weirdo dance music, he much prefers Talking Heads. Last, Terry Anderson noted on his blog that Michael's popularity confirms that Songs Matter -- hooks and clarity and phonology and all that -- a good point and a cheering one to stress on this still-dark occasion.
(And one more postscript -- thanks to all who came to my shows this weekend!)