Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George (2010)

Part III. COVERING THRILLER

THE BAD YEARS

IN THE SUMMER OF 1987, STREET CULTURE, IN ITS most brutal and creative forms, was beginning its long reign as the cutting edge of pop culture. Crack, the fast food of addictive drugs, was transforming parents into dope fiends and urban street corners into combat zones. Forty-six percent of black children were living below the poverty line in 1987, the highest number since the mid-1960s. They were living in the chaos, and they were writing about it.

This year hip-hop, which had been making inroads into the national consciousness for several years, yielded several of its greatest street poets: KRS-One, Ice T, Big Daddy Kane, Chuck D, and Rakim brought new levels of complexity, politics, and narrative to the burgeoning genre. The leadership in black music was shifting from LA glitz to New York grit, and Michael, though already planning to buy the isolated Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara, California, was very aware that he’d have to address this change in his f ollow-up to Thriller.

Strangely, Michael’s desire to stay current and my journalistic career would end up intersecting again. Two years before the release of Bad, I covered a tragic story for the Village Voice. Edmund Perry, a bright, charismatic boy from West 114th Street, a hard, blighted block in crack-infested Harlem, was fatally wounded by police officer Lee Van Houten in Morningside Park on the night of June 12, 1985. Perry had been attending Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire as part of ABC (A Better Chance), a program that since 1964 had been sending inner-city boys and girls to prep schools on full scholarship. He and his brother, Jonah, who was attending Westminster School in Connecticut, had been given golden tickets out of the ’hood. But on this hot summer night, Van Houten, a cop just two years on the force, accused the teenagers of having tried to mug him in the park and claimed he’d shot Edmund in self-defense.

Stepping out of the music world, I investigated the shooting by talking to cops, family members, and classmates and by walking through the park where Edmund had died. Many people, including colleagues at the Voice, took as a given that the Perry brothers had attempted to mug the plainclothes cop. But my reporting suggested there was much more than a reasonable doubt involved in this use of deadly force and that NYPD had lied about several key details of the shooting and the aftermath. In “Why Did Edmund Perry Die?” I wrote:

Central to the official version is not just Van Houten’s testimony but the assumption that Edmund’s background meant nothing—that when Edmund saw the chance to mug a white person he took it. Really, what other motivation would a young nigger need? Motivation is precisely what’s missing from the police account, and they seem to be aware of this. . . . Since Edmund’s death eight young people, all residents of 114th Street, have been picked up by the police and questioned not about the shooting, but about Edmund’s character.

In the view of Edmund Perry’s family, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and he was the victim of either a mistake or a cold-blooded murder and cover up. The questions they and (attorney) Vernon Mason have raised don’t establish Edmund’s innocence, but they cast doubt on the police account.

After the article ran, the New York Times weighed in with a story heavily slanted to make Edmund look like a budding young drug dealer up at a white prep school. Yet Jonah was not indicted for assault. Moreover, I learned much later that the city had reached an out-of-court settlement with the family. Jonah went on to attend Cornell, where an older sister was a student. While the family made peace with this horrible shooting, the story of a black Harlemite at a New England prep school who died under violent circumstances took on a life of its own, generating a book and a made-for-TV movie and helping to inspire the video for “Bad.”

MARTIN SCORSESE, a master filmmaker and New York homeboy, got celebrated crime writer Richard Price to build the frame of the story from Edmund’s life. The black-and-white establishing story has Michael as a teenager at a prep school on the last day of school. A white classmate tells Michael he’s proud of him; coming at the end of the semester, this remark is a sign of Michael’s slow acceptance by his peers. In a great bit of visual storytelling, Scorsese contrasts a ride on the New Haven train line filled with boisterous white high schoolers with Michael headed to the second part of his journey, a ride uptown in a crowded subway car populated by expressionless people.

Back on his Harlem block, Michael runs into three homies in front of his apartment building. One of the trio, the gang’s chief instigator, is played by Wesley Snipes, a fine young actor just four years away from becoming a major movie star in New Jack City and Jungle Fever. After a wordless confrontation with a local drug dealer, Wesley goads Michael into joining his mugging crew. Just as the four boys are about to rob an old man, Michael changes his mind. In the ensuing confrontation, the footage shifts from black and white to color and the dance part of the Bad video begins.

Under the guidance of Scorsese, and definitely pushed by Snipes’s acting chops, Michael gives a very credible performance as the Edmund Perry-like character. Michael’s naturally soft voice and otherworldly persona make for a convincing fish out of water, both at prep school and in a Harlem stairwell. Though by 1987 he was considerably paler than during the Thriller era, there’s still a lot of expressive-ness in his face. Prodded by Snipes, who’d go on to create the iconic gangsta Nino Brown and who possessed a dark, expressive face and insinuating delivery, Michael suggested that he could have had a career in motion pictures if he’d been able to work with directors of Scorsese’s caliber (not that there are many like the director of Raging Bull).

The dance sequence, which was shot just one subway stop away from my home station in Brooklyn, is fun but does convey a mixed message. On one hand, the framing story is a pretty raw dose of hard-bitten New York noir. Even the way the supporting dancers are dressed reflects the impact of hip-hop on clothing. On the other hand, Michael’s black ensemble, lined with zippers and buckles, is more Melrose Avenue than downtown Brooklyn.

Apparently, “Bad” was originally intended as a duet between Michael and Prince, but the Minneapolis star ignored the offer. The song seems more like a speeded-up, R&B cover of LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad” than an original track. But the video’s coda, where Michael does a lengthy call-and-response improv with the dancers, playing on the “bad” title as a challenge to Snipes’s character, is beautifully soulful and is as close to a gospel sermon as Michael ever delivered on camera.

THE SUPPORTING BAD TOUR, Michael’s first solo tour, was far superior to the Victory tour on several levels. The band, composed solely of top “road dawgs” (professional touring musicians), was much tighter and more versatile, and they played a lot of the fine songs on Bad. Of the three Quincy Jones-produced solo albums, Bad is usually overshadowed by Off the Wall and Thriller. Yet song for song, it is probably the deepest of the Jackson/Jones trilogy.

Brimming with confidence in his ability, Michael’s songwriting dominates the album. No Rod Temperton songs made the album. Nor is there any song as genre busting as “Beat It” or as intense as “Billie Jean.” What is on Badare songs with magnificent melodies (“I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Liberian Girl”), cinematic in conception (“Smooth Criminal”), and smartly funky (“The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Another Part of Me”). The secret hero of Bad is singer-songwriter Siedah Garrett, who sang the female part on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” and co-wrote the song that would become an anthem for Michael, both before and after his death.

Garrett is a tremendously talented artist who has never quite become a star, yet has had a remarkable career nonetheless. In 1984 she sang a duet with ex-Temptations lead singer Dennis Edwards on a song titled “Don’t Look Any Further.” Edwards, who sang on a number of classic Temptations hits after replacing David Ruffin as lead singer of that vocal group, had floundered as a solo act. But this song became a massive R&B hit and a staple to this day on any classic soul format on broadcast or the Internet.

The song went down as a hit for Dennis Edwards, while Siedah grew a reputation as a background singer and songwriter. Like so many talented performers in Los Angeles during that period, Siedah came to the attention of Quincy Jones. At the time of the recording of Bad, Quincy was preparing her solo album for his Qwest label. On her way to the studio to record her vocals for “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” she paused at a traffic light and glanced at herself in the mirror. She could have titled the song “Woman in the Mirror,” but knowing she was heading to a session for Michael Jackson, Siedah thought the male pronoun made more sense.

Collaborating with Los Angeles producer-writer Glen Ballard (who’d become famous in a few years for producing Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill), Siedah wrote a lyric that is part self-help philosophy, part plea for brotherhood, and full of instantly memorable imagery. Supported by a powerhouse choir arrangement by gospel great Andraé Crouch, “Man in the Mirror” soars and inspires like many pop songs aspire to but few achieve. In the days after Michael’s death, “Man in the Mirror” was his second most downloaded song (after “Thriller”). More than 165,000 people bought it between June 25 and 28, more than “Billie Jean” and all the other big hits. It was the song played as his body was taken out of the Staples Center at the end of his memorial service. Though Michael didn’t write “Man in the Mirror,” the song is as connected to his life as any he ever recorded.

In March 1988 at Madison Square Garden, “Man in the Mirror” was the eighteenth and final song of the show I attended. I was with my eight-year-old niece, Eboni, who, like every child I’ve ever known, was a huge Michael Jackson fan. Unlike the arrangement in the Victory tour, Michael’s videos were folded seamlessly into the show, so that costume changes and lighting cues incorporated the red jacket, the glittering glove and socks, the tuxedo, and the treasure trove of iconography from ten years of his videos. To this day, only Madonna can challenge Michael Jackson as a creator of a visual vocabulary as rich in association.

One of my most vivid memories of the Bad concert at Madison Square Garden was making sure my niece wasn’t freaked out by Thriller. Back in 1984, Eboni was one of the thousands of kids for whom Michael’s transformation into a werewolf and a zombie was overwhelming. “Michael Jackson is not a monster!” she cried when I first showed her my early copy of the video.

“Michael Jackson is not a monster!” echoed in my head for years afterward. The Michael Jackson who had dueted on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” with then-unknown background singer Sheryl Crow at the Garden some twenty-one years ago seemed lighter on this night than he had even in the Bad video.

In his early videos, Michael’s touch, his very presence, could transform reality and bring order to chaos. Now his body itself would be transformed. Though after his death the African American community closed ranks around his memory, back in the late 1980s Michael’s skin tone changes made him a lightning rod for criticism from pulpits to barbershops. Michael would claim later these changes came as he tried to compensate for an extreme case of the skin disease vitiligo. But the re-creation of his face, which encompassed a radical reshaping of his nose, was beyond what the disease could have caused.

In a surprisingly frank interview right after Michael’s death, Quincy talked with Details magazine’s Jeff Gordinier about the singer’s evolution. “Oh, we talked about it all the time,” Quincy said. “But he’d come up with ‘Man, I promise you I have this disease’ and so forth, and ‘I have a blister on my lungs,’ and all that kind of b.s. It’s hard, because Michael’s a Virgo, man—he’s very set in his ways. You can’t talk him out of it. Chemical peels and all that stuff.” Quincy even suggested, in a very sad way, that Michael had issues about his blackness.

“Leave Me Alone,” the last song on the Bad album, is Michael’s side of the story. Using a hook (“Stop doggin’ me around”) that paid homage to one of Jackie Wilson’s signature hits, “Leave Me Alone” had the paranoia of “Billie Jean” and the anger of “Beat It” without the grace of either. The song suggested how hostile Michael, despite his massive success, felt toward a world that judged him by standards that he rejected as beneath him.

My friends in the entertainment business at the time used to joke about people in the industry suffering from “kingitis,” meaning they had been so seduced by their own success that they saw everyone around them—coworkers, lovers, family—like servants. At age thirty, Michael was king of his own domain, which didn’t isolate him from criticism but did keep anyone who didn’t do what he said at arm’s length. Or just outside the gates of Neverland.