Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George (2010)
Part III. COVERING THRILLER
IN HIS ENTERTAINING MEMOIR OF RECORD BUSINESS success and self-destruction, Howling at the Moon, ex- Sony Music president Walter Yetnikoff wrote vividly of his relationship with Michael Jackson and the sales of Thriller. “No single record changed the business—and my life—as powerfully as Michael Jackson’s Thriller,” Yetnikoff recalled. “At one point the damn thing was selling a million copies a week. I’d never seen such figures. Michael had once again reinvented himself, only this time as the third prong of pop’s Holy Trilogy—now it was Elvis, the Beatles and Michael Jackson.”
During the height of Thriller, Yetnikoff said:
Michael’s passion for world conquest was singular. . . . Michael’s drive bordered on the psychopathic. He lived, breathed, slept, dreamt and spoke of nothing but number 1 successes. He was possessed. He’d call me night and day for the latest figures. . . . In the long period of its unprecedented success, however, when it occasionally fell to second place for a week or two, Michael panicked. Hysterical, he’d berate me for failing to up the promotion.
After reading Yetnikoff’s memories of that time, I knew I needed to go back to the era myself.
In trying to recapture the journey of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and his effect on the record industry during the period 1982-1985, I did something I hadn’t in years: I read Billboard magazine. Not the current slick, graphic-heavy, twenty-first-century incarnation, but the Billboard of the 1980s that I had worked on, which was published on newsprint and aspired to break news. I remember the day computers were first brought into the Billboard newsroom to replace typewriters and my difficulty adjusting to the screen and the keyboard. That’s how long ago in the world’s technological cycle Thriller came out.
Looking through my Michael Jackson coverage at Billboard, and that of my colleagues in New York and Los Angeles, I could clearly see the direct impact and the subsequent ripple effect of Thriller. The pieces also brought back memories of what I had been doing and feeling while the Thriller wave rolled on. In addition, I looked through pieces I and others had written about Thriller during this remarkable time.
Initially, I traveled up to Manhattan’s West Side to the Lincoln Center library, a place any New Yorker interested in researching American culture visits often, because of its vast collection of tapes, records, and microfilm. I peered at screens of Billboard starting in 1982. On the subway home, I remembered that years ago I’d filed away copies of my Billboard articles, but I had no idea where. Recently, I’d donated the research materials from several of my music books to the black music archive at Indiana University. I’d carried these boxes around with me through four apartments before finally sending all that work to a library in Bloomington, Indiana.
When I got home, I started digging through some of my remaining file cabinets, looking through magazines and pictures I hadn’t touched in decades. There definitely was a part of me that wanted to file away my days as a dedicated vinyl junkie forever, and yet the presence of all those dented metal file cabinets brought me back to a part of my life I’d thought I’d outgrown. But here I was again, back in the world of the music critic, looking at an invitation to the listening party for Keith Sweat’s Make It Last Forever, a promotional postcard for Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and a couple of Michael Jackson baseball cards.
At the bottom of a plastic packing crate filled with old Polaroids and datebooks was a wrinkled brown paper bag on which I’d scribbled “Billboard 1982 to 1989.” Turns out I hadn’t jettisoned all of my journalistic history. Moreover, as I began to read, I found that so many of the clippings stuffed into the brown paper bag documented the Thriller era.
As I read through them, several themes emerged: the impact on the business of Thriller as record and visual document; how some of the technical issues of the early 1980s in the record business echo today’s downloading debate; Prince and hip-hop in relation to Jackson; the amount of controversy that surrounded the Victory tour; and larger economic issues. At the time, in the early years of the Reagan administration, the United States was in the middle of a recession that was hitting black folks especially hard. Upwardly mobile blacks with money tended, in postsegregation America, to shop in the same areas as whites of the same economic class. During the years of Thriller’s peak sales, this change had a lasting effect on the selling and making of black pop.
I’d joined Billboard in the spring of 1982, coming from Record World, a rival trade publication that had just gone out of business and where I’d been black music editor in 1981. My connection to Billboard went back to my college years. I’d interned there from 1977 to 1979, writing pieces for the disco section and talent reviews before, in 1979, being banned from the publication by the LA-based editor in chief for using “black English.”
But by 1982 Adam White had taken over Billboard’s reins. Adam, a British soul music fanatic, had been one of my mentors on the staff when I was an intern and had watched me develop during my time at Record World. When I became available, Adam let go the writer heading the soul music coverage and brought me in as an editor and a writer of a weekly column I dubbed “The Rhythm and the Blues.” It was from this comfortable perch that I watched Thriller change the game.
My column for May 22, 1982, titled “Jones Wrapping Summer; See Tie to Spielberg,” was based on a long interview that I had done with Quincy for Musician magazine, a sister publication of Billboard. Most of the column focused on the Donna Summer album he was finishing.
Summer was one of the rare acts to emerge from disco who’d become a mainstream star, making the journey from the heavy-breathing vocals of “Love to Love You Baby” to mainstream pop such as “She Works Hard for the Money.” As a black crossover star at the time, Summer was perceived as being on a par with Michael. Summer’s core buyers were more likely to be white, and maybe gay, than black. So even though disco had become a dirty word by 1982, the legacy of that dance movement was everywhere, living a closeted life in plain sight. Quincy’s Steven Spielberg connection would bear fruit in 1985 when, with Quincy serving as producer and composer, Spielberg directed his first full-on drama, an adaptation of Alice Walker’s controversial black period novel The Color Purple.
IN THAT SAME MAY 22 ISSUE, I wrote a long piece, “Technology Impacts Black ‘Sound’: Producers Differ on Effect on Creativity, Spontaneity,” that addressed the aesthetic changes technology was forcing on the sound of black pop. Whereas Stevie Wonder’s experiments with the Moog synthesizer during the early 1970s had altered the balance between machine and live musicians, new toys where pushing the music toward another tipping point.
“The synthesizer is becoming more and more important in black music,” said Kashif, who was then one of New York’s hottest young producers, making hits for Evelyn King, Howard Johnson, and Melba Moore (he also produced his own work). “It’s becoming a battle to see who can come up with the new sound or combination of sounds that will attract an audience. You’re constantly experimenting with different rhythmic patterns, searching for something fresh.” His model for the direction of black music was Off the Wall. He told me: “There has been such a concern on finding the right groove that you can hear where the melody and lyrics have been neglected. Look at Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall LP. The entire package was a great merger of rhythm, lyric and melody. That’s the reason it was so successful.”
Cameo had once been a flashy, funky R&B band with as many as eleven members. But by 1984 the band was stripping down to a core trio, using the new emphasis on computer technology. “Now you have a wider range of colors,” Larry Blackmon, Cameo’s leader, producer, and frontman, told me. “We have all these new toys, yet you basically still record as you did years ago. The technology does make certain things easier to do. You still must have a vision. If you have no picture in mind, what difference does all the equipment make?” Thriller was created amid this revolution, and this classic album came down squarely on the analog side in terms of how it was engineered, though synthesizer, drum machines, and other tech toys were employed throughout.
In the June 5 issue, Cary Darling, a reporter based out of Billboard’s LA bureau, wrote a piece that really painted the landscape for music videos by black artists in the year before the MTV breakthrough by “Billie Jean.” “Not long ago the terms ‘black music’ and ‘video’ seemed mutually exclusive,” Darling wrote. “Rock acts were getting most of the video attention from record companies while the outlets for black music videos could be counted on one hand.”
Of the new outlets for black videos mentioned in the piece, only one would have any staying power: “The Black Entertainment Television network is extending its programming service this summer with a major portion of time devoted to music,” Darling wrote. In the twenty-first century, BET is the primary broadcast outlet for R&B/hip-hop acts, but in 1982 it was just about to assume that role.
Though most of the folks interviewed were optimistic about their ventures and about the expansion of the market for videos that MTV’s presence represented, the anger so many in the world of black music felt about MTV’s resistance to black artists bubbled up. “Can you seriously say that Stevie Wonder is just R&B?” asked Nancy Leiviska-Wild, video department head of Motown Records. “I’m offended by that. There are more outlets for black videos but I want to be where the hits are, not just the R&B videos.”
The gift and the curse of black upward mobility and white corporate investment on black music were captured in a November 14 front article I wrote titled “Mom and Pop Stores Closing, but Music Holding Its Own.” “While there are no hard figures available on the number of recently shuttered black-oriented retailers, conversations with surviving mom & pop operators suggest that those who fail are not being replaced,” I reported. Bruce Webb, a feisty, outspoken record store owner in Philadelphia, observed: “It used to be that for every eight stores that went out of business, maybe five might come on in. People these days don’t want to take that chance anymore.”
Looking at the marketplace, I noted:
Albums by only three black acts have gone platinum [in 1982]; Quincy Jones’ “The Dude,” Diana Ross’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” and Al Jarreau’s “Breakin’ Away.” That makes up only 7% of this year’s total to date, compared to 18% in all of 1981. However the relative stability of black sales is suggested by the fact that 18% of the 92 albums certified gold this year were by black acts, with two months to go. The proportion was 22% for all of 1981 and 23% in 1980.
An important factor in both the demise of many small black-oriented retailers and the consistent sales of black acts is the greater involvement of general market retail chains in selling this type of music.
As Hank Caldwell, a marketing vice president for the Warner Bros. Records group, said: “I’ve found awareness among chain stores that black music is growing. They are more willing to get involved in promotions with black acts and to do in stores.”
This evolution in the willingness of white retail chains to support black artists would be reflected in the sales of Thriller in 1983 and subsequently in the massive album sales of Whitney Houston, Lionel Richie, and Prince, all of whom would make their own multiplatinum breakthroughs during a golden age of black pop acts selling vinyl and cassettes across the board. In the early 1970s, soul music had shifted from a singles-oriented business to an album-driven business. The difference between the two decades, however, was that the audience for these 1970s acts purchased through predominantly black-owned retailers, whereas Michael and others presaged a new order where the Tower Records of the world showcased black stars and middle-class black consumers shopped.
In my November 14 article, Richard Allen, a vice president for R&B promotion at Arista Records, commented that the growth of independent black music labels “has helped and will continue to aid small retailers and the sale of black music, since they have more time for person-to-person contact with them and, as small businesses themselves, can understand their problems better than a conglomerate.” This opening in the marketplace for the mom and pop stores that survived this era would be filled primarily by two types of music: gospel and hip-hop (in the northeast Caribbean, reggae-socca would be a factor). These two styles of African American expression—one of religious fervor, one of materialist desire—would be life preservers for scores of black-owned businesses. These stores, which were of scant interest to the major labels, would support hip-hop until, a decade later, it, too, fulfilled its crossover dreams.
ANOTHER MENTION OF THRILLER came in Billboard’s October 2 issue in a column titled “Quincy Jones Get Extra-Terrestrial.” The main focus here was a children’s recording of an adaptation of Spielberg’s science fiction megahit E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, with Quincy producing and Michael Jackson narrating. “Sources close to the trio say this album is a prelude to a cinematic collaboration between Jones, Jackson and Spielberg in the near future,” I wrote. At the time the big rumor was that Michael would play Peter Pan in a film adaptation of that children’s classic. (Spielberg would eventually do a Peter Pan film called Hook in 1991, but without either of his E.T. musical partners.)
Thriller was mentioned in the story’s last paragraph: “Meanwhile, back on earth, Jackson’s new Jones produced album Thriller is due out in mid-November. The album isn’t finished yet, despite reports to the contrary, and even the Jackson-Paul McCartney single ‘The Girl is Mine’ is still having strings and other sweetening added.”
My December 18 column, “Prince Agrees to Talk—a Little,” focused on a Los Angeles Times interview with the usually closed mouth singer-songwriter. While dispelling some rumors (yes, his name was Prince Rogers Nelson; no, he wasn’t gay), the Minneapolis native couldn’t help but perpetuate his mystique: “I’m not Jamie Starr,” he said, which was the supposed name of a Twin Cities producer who worked with Prince and his acolytes. But, in fact, Prince was Jamie Starr. It was one of several playful pseudonyms (such as Alexander Nevermind) that Prince employed to toy with nosy reporters and titillate his fans.
Prince’s bold closing quote threw a gauntlet down before his competition. “The most important thing is to be true to yourself, but I also like the danger. That’s what’s missing from pop music today. There’s no excitement and mystery; people sneaking out and going to see Elvis Presley or Jimi Hendrix,” he told Robert Hilburn. “I’m not saying I’m better than anyone else but I don’t feel like there are a lot of people out there telling the truth in their music.”
At the very end of my column, almost as an afterthought, was a minireview of Thriller. (I must have gotten an advance cassette just before I had to file my column.) That I squeezed a review in instead of waiting a week meant I was anxious to get in my two cents early. And knowing about the brewing Prince-Michael Jackson rivalry, I’m sure I thought it delicious to put the review at the end of a Prince column, where I was certain both men would notice it.
I wrote then: “Michael Jackson’s Thriller may not be as strong as Off the Wall, but it is still one of 1982’s best albums with several exceptional cuts. ‘Human Nature,’ ‘Beat It,’ and ‘Billie Jean’ are real standouts. The latter is, at least to these ears, an instant classic with its potent melody, arrangement and lyric.” That I didn’t think Thriller was as good as Off the Wall reflects conventional music connoisseur wisdom these days, but it was very much my initial impression.
THROUGHOUT THE SPRING OF 1983, my Billboard colleagues and I covered the early sales success of Thriller, but it was far from the only thing going on in the record business. Following up Off the Wall and the Paul McCartney duet, the album was expected to perform. Then on May 16, 1983, the Motown 25 special aired on NBC and Michael moonwalked into pop cultural history. A few weeks after that appearance, I received a phone call from an editor at Dell Publishing. Did I want to write a book about Michael Jackson? Apparently Geri Hirshey, the Rolling Stone reporter who’d done a well-observed cover story on Michael that spring, had turned down the deal. Quickie rock bios were in vogue at the time, after Dave Marsh’s Born to Run, about Bruce Springsteen, and Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman’s book on Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive, had both made the New York Timesbest-seller list.
I was the second choice (I believe) for the book, and I signed on quickly. My dream at the time was to write a book about Motown Records, so this seemed a great practice for the real deal. Moreover, Dell was paying $7,000 in 1984 dollars, which I hoped would help me get my first solo apartment. Throughout the summer of 1983, as I was performing my regular Billboard duties, I was interviewing people about Michael Jackson. It was a strange journey. There were lots of people who wanted to talk about Michael—success has many fathers—but the most interesting stuff was always off the record.
Several people remarked on the young man’s dichotomy. On one hand, the singer was an amazing case of arrested development. His demeanor, his childlike love of cartoons, what made him laugh, and what he talked about suggested that he was fourteen, not coming up on twenty-five. On the other hand, he had an intense, very adult quality that manifested itself in his work ethic, career strategies, and understanding of songwriting. I’d hear stories of Michael wandering around Encino on foot at night (unusual in California) for reasons unknown, and then people would speak in awe of his focus in the studio. It sometimes felt as if he were two men. The closest comparison is the depiction of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the film Amadeus (released in September 1984), in which the classical composer is both a coarse child and a musical genius.
However, almost none of that complexity made it into the completed book. The manuscript I turned in that fall was probably twice as long as the final book. The editor excised anything too thoughtful, vaguely controversial, or musically observant. But I couldn’t complain that much. It was my first book, and I needed the money.
IT WAS NOVEMBER 1983, after I’d delivered my manuscript to Dell and was going through final copyedits, when a press conference was held in Central Park’s Tavern on the Green to announce details of a tour that would feature Michael and his brothers. Tavern on the Green was a big, garish tourist trap of a restaurant located on Central Park West and West 67th Street. Its main feature was a high- windowed, atrium-styled dining area, which was filled with media from around the globe. Various Jackson family members were in attendance, including Katherine, Joe, and Jermaine’s gorgeous wife, Margaret Maldonado.
Michael and his brothers emerged from behind curtains and sitting on a riser and then took seats at a long conference table. They all wore aviator-styled shades and various multicolored outfits that suggested their style hadn’t changed much since their days in the Jackson 5. Though obviously the main attraction, Michael sat at the far right of the dais. It was the first time I recall seeing him in one of the drum major/ military dictator uniforms that would eventually replace the red jacket as his trademark look. That outfit was actually Michael’s most dramatic statement of the press conference; otherwise, he said little and often looked either uncomfortable or uninterested, perhaps both.
Chuck Sullivan, a Boston-based businessman whose family owned the National Football League’s New England Patriots, had originally been the promoter of what was likely the most anticipated concert tour of the decade. But Sullivan was inexperienced in the world of music and concert promotion, leaving an opening for others to seize.
The “other” in this case was loquacious, nefarious boxing promoter Don King. By appealing to Joe and Katherine with pleas of black pride and his expertise in running massive events, King emerged as the tour’s spokesperson and chief promoter. It was King, with his two-paragraph sentences and grandiose persona, who dominated the press conference, giving credence to the idea that he was using this Victory tour to move into the realm of concert promotion. Pepsi, which was already getting into business with Michael via commercials, would come on board as a sponsor.
But, overall, details were sketchy and would remain so through the spring of 1984. Among King, Sullivan, local promoters, and various other players (record mogul/talent manager Irving Azoff would grab control of the lucrative merchandising rights), the run-up to the tour would be a mess of rumors, backstage infighting, and bad vibes. After all the careful thought and preparation that had gone into the making of Thriller, the Victory tour would have a half-assed quality about it.
The high ticket prices, with many seats more than $100, which was unprecedented at the time, rankled the parents of many of Michael’s fans and created a backlash against the tour organizers’ perceived greed. By bowing to pressure from his parents and brothers, Michael would embark on a tour that earned millions and, unfortunately, put an enduring taint on his name. After the Tavern on the Green press conference, Michael slipped out of a side entrance and left in a limo alone.
THE FIRE, THE TOUR
MICHAEL AND THRILLER WERE ALREADY MAKING history at the start of the year novelist George Orwell predicted would find the world controlled by thought police and an omnipresent figure called Big Brother, the leader of an oppressive government known as “the Party.” In Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother’s image is projected on huge screens, a figure no one can escape. Michael’s image wasn’t quite that ubiquitous in the real 1984, but his visibility rivaled even that of President Ronald Reagan. In these fateful twelve months, Michael’s life, musical and otherwise, dominated the cultural conversation.
My slender quickie biography, The Michael Jackson Story, reached bookstores within days of January 27, when Michael’s hair caught on fire while he was taping a Pepsi commercial at LA’s Shrine Auditorium. Before the footage leaked on YouTube right after his death, it was very closely guarded. But anyone can now see the biggest pop star on the planet dance for several anxious seconds before realizing his jheri curl was ablaze.
It was a horrific moment, made even worse because this accident was a turning point in Michael’s life. In every account of Michael’s life after this accident, friends and business associates confirm that this is when Michael first started taking painkillers, which would lead to a long-term addiction to prescription drugs that would incapacitate and, ultimately, kill him.
Apart from this long-term consequence of the Pepsi fire, a more immediate short-term issue was Michael’s skin and hair. Since Michael was a child, various family members had made fun of his large nose, perhaps to keep the young star’s ego in check and maintain the pecking order of the family. Whatever the motivation, this teasing still nagged at him as a young adult. He also complained about his acne and the self-consciousness that produced.
Sometime between Off the Wall and Thriller, Michael had a nose job. A simple comparison of the two album covers confirms that he did. His skin tone also seemed redder than just a few years before. But after the Pepsi fire, the changes to his skin tone and facial structure intensified. Once he altered his face and lost contact with his original features, there was no turning back.
There’s a strong argument to be made that without these cosmetic changes, Michael would not have been the global star he became, that the consistent lightening of his face throughout the 1980s was a huge part of what made him most palatable to non-Americans. Although Americans, white as well as black, were obsessed with the radical changes in his appearance, the international audiences that passionately supported him, and continue to do so to this day, were never as concerned about how he used to look. They accepted Michael’s white face in a way that Americans never have. Many African Americans saw his changing color as a sign of betrayal, of self-hate. White American detractors viewed him as a freak (e.g., “Wacko Jacko”) whose skin lightening was another example of his weirdness. The rest of the world was both less judgmental and more open-minded. In the summer after his death, I traveled around Europe, visiting cities in Spain and Italy, and saw many visual memorials to Michael, all of them featuring him as he appeared with lighter skin. In tributes to Michael in China, India, eastern Europe, and South America, that same vision of Michael abounded. Unaffected by America’s tortured racial history, global ticket buyers would come to view the post-Thriller Michael as the one who truly mattered.
GLOBAL DOMINATION WAS the focus of an event I attended, along with 1,500 others, in New York City just eleven days after the accident in Los Angeles. On February 7 at the Museum of Natural History, CBS Records organized an extravagant party to celebrate Michael’s inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records for the still-soaring sales of Thriller. Despite the accident just a few days before, Michael looked good, with perhaps a bit too much rouge on his cheeks.
For me, going to an event at which Brooke Shields walked alongside Michael, holding his gloved hand, was quite exciting. Like so many of the public events Michael would attend during this period, he said little (certainly nothing very revealing or surprising), but just the fact he was in the building gave the event an air of importance.
My association with Thriller changed my life. The book was excerpted in major newspapers around the country. I was fielding tons of interview requests about Michael’s career. At the same time, many West Coast, Motown, or Michael-associated record business folks seemed to put me on their enemies list, even though the book was benign and quite celebratory in tone.
Right after my quickie bio, the publishing floodgates opened and Michael Jackson books of every description were not just published, but also joined mine on the New York Times best-seller list. The appetite for information about Michael was insatiable and global. My book ended up being published in the United Kingdom, Japan, and Spain. Unable to reach Michael through official channels, many fans sent me letters that they either wanted me to pass on to Michael or that they addressed to the artist himself. It was a dizzying time for me and is still a blur twenty-five years later.
On February 28, on the same stage where he’d been burned almost a month before, Michael dominated the Grammys, winning eight awards, including producer of the year (shared with Quincy), record of the year for “Billie Jean,” and album of the year for Thriller. He and Quincy even won one for the ET children’s album. This night was the peak of Michael’s career and, perhaps, of his life. The sales were incredible, and with that came artistic credibility and the respect of his peers.
It’s worth taking a step back to look at the pop culture landscape Michael now ruled. Today we accept as given that black performers can easily become global pop figures. But Michael was the harbinger. On January 4, 1984, Oprah Winfrey made her debut as co-host of AM Chicago, her first appearance in a city she would come to define. In February, Whoopi Goldberg made her New York City stage debut in The Spook Show. The same month Run-D.M.C.’s self-titled debut hit record stores, and in June the “Fresh Fest” tour, the first national showcase for New York rappers and breakers, went on a twenty-seven-city tour. On June 19, the Chicago Bulls made Michael Jordan its number one choice in the NBA draft. On September 20, The Cosby Show debuted on NBC. On December 5, Eddie Murphy, already a star, became a superstar when Beverly Hills Cop opened around the nation.
A wave of African American talent, coming from very different places and points of view, had massive mainstream appeal by 1984. All of these artists became so accepted collectively that they would reshape the African American image and render no dream too big. Did Michael, Oprah, and Eddie eventually set the stage for the first black president? That’s a big leap to make (George Bush’s inadequacies had an awful lot to do with the 2008 election). But did this exciting landscape inspire a young Barack Obama to say, “Yes, I can”?
The Shrine Auditorium, which was partially designed by black Los Angeles architect Paul Williams, located just across the street from the University of Southern California in traditionally black South Central, was where the past and future of Michael Jackson came together in January and February 1984. The Pepsi fire made him even more famous and would, in a tragic way, alter his life, whereas the Grammy Awards was the summation of his training, hard work, and vision.
From the mountaintop, there is no place else to go but down. Michael was twenty-five the night of the Grammys. It had taken him twenty or so years of performing to reach that moment. It was rare air he breathed, but it would never be quite that sweet again.
IN AN ACKNOWLEDGMENT of Michael’s star power, Ronald and Nancy Reagan feted Michael in the Rose Garden on May 17, 1984, to thank him for donating the use of “Beat It” in an anti-drunk driving public service announcement. But it was really just an elaborate photo opportunity featuring one great entertainer sucking up to another. Michael wore a glittery military outfit with shades and glove on his right hand as the first lady grinned for the cameras.
Considering Reagan’s antipoor policies and cutbacks in social programs, as well as the plague of crack already permeating black neighborhoods nationwide, Michael didn’t have or need to make this appearance. He’d never shown any serious interest in politics before, and it would have been a real shock if he’d started in the Rose Garden. Nevertheless, in the year that Reverend Jesse Jackson (a man who’d given the Jackson 5 an early showcase at an Operation Push fund-raiser in Chicago) was mounting his electrifying first campaign for president, Michael didn’t have to give the GOP’s leader the tacit approval the visit suggested. But for Michael the White House seal of approval was more important than any other consideration.
IN THE MONTHS LEADING UP to the Victory tour, conflicting reports about when it would start and where it would go and complaints about ticket distribution filled the media. A national mail order system was used for a time, making it difficult for someone to just walk up to a ticket window and purchase a ticket. In fact, initially you were required to buy four tickets if you were using mail order.
“My girls were among the millions who grew up loving the Jackson Five,” Vertamae Grosvenor spoke for many in a National Public Radio commentary. “They tore pictures out of Jet and Right On! magazine. [But] I will not go to a concert: can’t afford it—thirty dollars a ticket.” Grosvenor, a black woman writer and author, added: “I am disturbed by the cosmetic change. . . . Now, like a growing number of black performers, Michael has had his nose fixed. He’s exotic, non-threatening. Seems to be the way to go to crossover. It’s the kind of sexuality America likes in her black stars, especially the men.”
That spring I had a rather strange interview with Jermaine Jackson. Jermaine had left Motown for Arista Records, had reunited with his brothers, and was beginning to emerge as the most prominent spokesperson for all the Jacksons. We had a mutual friend in John McClain, the Jacksons’ childhood friend, but the publication of my book had put a strain on that relationship. Because of the book, I wasn’t sure if Jermaine would sit with me, but, after all, he did have a record of his own to promote.
We met out at a studio in the Valley. Jermaine was cordial but a little tense, and he made a big deal of bringing out his own tape recorder to show that he was recording our conversation, too. Most of the article I subsequently wrote about the interview focused on his new album, an as-yet-untitled Arista debut. Reading it now, I see that a duet with “recent Arista signee Whitney Houston” merited only a passing mention.
The last third of the article focused on the Victory tour and the controversy about Don King:
There is no one else in the business right now who could take this tour out other than Don King. No one. He may bring on other promoters to help him, but they’ll be no other promoters, because he has the contracts on us. That’s the bottom line.
The reason we went with Don King was that he was talking about bringing the family together. He included my mother and father as part of this team, and now he’s in partnership with them. That’s what we loved about him.
I asked Jermaine about a recent Rolling Stone piece attacking King and the Jacksons’ organization of the tour. He replied, “I don’t think anything in that article spoke the truth about my family.”
One morning not long after that interview with Jermaine, I received a phone call at home from Katherine and Joe Jackson. I was shocked. It was about 9 a.m. New York time, so the call came very early from the West Coast. The call wasn’t about the book, but about the tour. They wanted me to make a statement on their behalf regarding what was going on with the tour, and because I was the black reporter at Billboard, they came to me. What I remember most was the tone of the talk.
Both Joe and Katherine felt very embattled and resentful of the sort of coverage they’d received. They presented themselves as simply concerned parents trying to look out for their children, nothing more or less, though they were not innocents in the situation. They’d been pursuing the show business dream for some twenty years at that time. They had to know that bringing in Don King to work on the tour, no matter what he promised them, would introduce an element of controversy, something that followed the flamboyant promoter wherever he went.
The July 21 issue of Billboard, published the week the Victory tour kicked off in Kansas City, contained an insert tribute to Michael titled “The Saga of Michael Jackson” and written by Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn. The cover was a full-color picture of Michael, and the inside of the cover contained a gatefold Pepsi ad. The tribute insert was forty pages long and was filled with full-page ads from old friends (Diana Ross, Lionel Richie, Smokey Robinson) and current business partners (Paul and Linda McCartney, CBS, Vestron Home Video, Don King).
Paul Grein, Billboard’s talent editor, wrote the front-page story on the business aspect of the tour, headlined “Jacksons’ Tour Starts Smoothly,” with the subhead “No Violence in Kansas City.” Grein reported:
Widespread concern that the concerts might be marred by violence proved unfounded, though security was nearly as tight as it might be for the visit of a President or a Pope. Tour promoter Chuck Sullivan says he spent five times as much money for security as he would for an average football game. And the backlash that seemed to be developing against the tour in the weeks leading up to the first date appeared to have stopped with the July 5 announcement that the national mail order system for obtaining tickets was being scrapped.
Much of the piece went into great detail about the hows and whys of ticket sales and indicated that local promoters, including several African Americans, were being added in cities such as New York and Dallas. Interestingly, Grein didn’t mention Don King; Chuck Sullivan was apparently the point man with the trade media. In a sidebar, Grein complained about the show’s 105-minute running time, which crystallized the beef of many: “Once the Jacksons lengthen the show, at least past the two hour mark, they should consider splitting it into two sets. If they’re not willing to do that, they should at least add a name act (the Pointer Sisters for example) to open the show. If you’re asking the audience to spend $30 for a ticket, you should at least give them a full evening’s entertainment, complete with an intermission.”
Perhaps the most memorable thing about that July 21 issue had everything and nothing to do with Michael Jackson. The issue’s back cover featured purple raindrops falling against a royal blue ski. The ad inside read: “Warner Bros. Records Takes Great Pride in the Success of ‘Purple Rain.’ Platinum Upon Release, the Album contains ‘When Doves Cry,’ the fastest selling single in the History of Warner Bros. Records. The Film ‘Purple Rain’ Premieres this month at Select Theaters Nationwide. The Rain Has Just Begun.”
The magazine then opened up to display a poster-sized ad for Purple Rain, the album and movie, featuring an iconic shot of Prince sitting on a motorcycle at the backstage door of the First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis, with Apollonia looking sultry in the doorway. As a bit of strategic one- upmanship, the ad was a beautiful thing and let the industry know that Warner Bros. was going to pull out all the stops to make the album an event.
I SAW THE VICTORY TOUR three times in 1984, each a very different experience. The tour opened at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium on July 6. The atmosphere around the tour’s official hotel, where I picked up my tickets, felt like a carnival, with vendors of Michael memorabilia, obsessed fans in red jackets and glittering gloves, and lots of folks scalping tickets to willing buyers. Rumors where rife: Michael was too sick to perform; Michael hated his brothers so much he wouldn’t go onstage; counterfeit tickets had flooded the market.
In a large ballroom, a brief, weird press conference was held with Don King, again, rambling on about the magnificence of the show. Michael came on stage, waved his hand to the crowd, and then disappeared. The Arrowhead Stadium parking lot, an extension of the area around the hotel, was filled with hard-core Jackson fanatics mixed in with families there just because the kids wanted to come.
I wrote about my experience at the concert in the Village Voice:
As [the Kansas City] concert testified, Michael is the first black star of his generation to follow Bill Cosby and Mr. T into the kindergartens and bridge tournaments of our vast country. For those Americans, Victory is like going to the Ice Capades. No dangerous adolescent list or unbridled urban anger rippled through the crowd that beautiful still evening in the heartland. Instead we had kids spending much of the time looking at a huge TV screen to ascertain whether the doll-like stick figure wiggling in the distance was indeed Michael. Parents like the ones sitting behind me getting loudly drunk and spilling beer on my shoes enjoyed the spectacle of it, though the only non-“Thriller” material they seemed to know came during the Jackson Five medley. They were looking for family entertainment; a little sentiment, a little fantasy, a little dancing, a little nostalgia, a lot of glitter.
As the first show of a large tour, the Kansas City, Missouri, date felt like “a glorified rehearsal,” with the tempos on several songs (“Off the Wall” and “Human Nature,” for example) too fast. Most disappointing was that the staging of the songs from the Jacksons’ albums and Off the Wall was pretty much performed as it had been on the Triumph tour. The Jacksons performed none of the new material from the Victory album, though the avowed purpose of the tour was to showcase the talents of the “other” brothers. At none of the three shows I attended was Marlon, Tito, or the gifted Randy showcased. (Jackie, injured and on crutches, had a good excuse.) The truth, of course, was that this was a Michael Jackson solo tour, nothing more or less.
After the show, I rushed back to my hotel to catch Night-line, because I’d been interviewed for a package in the tour. I don’t remember what I said or much else about that half-hour show, other than I felt part of some huge national event unlike anything in pop music before.
The second concert I attended was at Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands, and it was a remarkable show. The crowd, which was much more integrated than the KC gig had been, was treated to a supertight rhythm section, a better laser show, and some fresh bits of choreography. But the real difference was Michael, who seemed more engaged than at that opening show. “Michael was as aggressive, fiery and macho as any ’60s soul man,” I wrote in the Village Voice.
With a sneering intense scowl on his face, Michael shook his pelvis, moonwalked and sang with heart and a whole lot of deep-fried soul. The contrast with Kansas City was stark. There he seemed a fairy prince off in the distance, far removed and detached from his subjects and even the show itself. In Jersey he walked the waterfront with a chip on his shoulder, moving and singing with real blood in his eye.
This was particularly true of the show’s first half, when even during “She’s Out of My Life” he threw in some break dance movements, signifying that on this night all sweetness must be cut with funk. It might have been that Jersey swampland air, but more likely it was that Michael, like his band, was now in mid-tour form and fully ready to justify to the skeptical just how much he was worth. I wondered, looking at the family of four in front of me, whether Mom and Pop were quite ready for this Michael, a cat who would just as soon have kicked the ass of those gang leaders in “Beat It” as started a chorus line. Springsteen may be the boss and Prince the royal contender, but guess who still wears the crown.
The last show of the tour I saw was at Madison Square Garden in late August, and, quite honestly, it felt tired. Unlike the 1981 show at that same venue, which had been bursting with energy, this performance felt like a group of men punching a clock. Michael, in particular, seemed tired and remote. This was my third, and final, time seeing Michael with his brothers at Madison Square Garden, and it left no memory other than one of exhaustion. I’d spent too much of the year as a resident Michael Jackson expert and had written about him for the Village Voice and Musician as well as doing my regular duties at Billboard. Though some embraced this role, I had no interest in writing solely about Michael Jackson for the rest of my career.
Besides, as 1984 unfolded, Prince and hip-hop and The Cosby Show were shifting the focus of media folks like myself. There was so much going on, so many doors opening. I had finally started in earnest to work on the Motown book I had long dreamed of. I knew it was time to get off the Michael Jackson bandwagon and find out who I was as a writer.