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

Part I. 2009

I WAS TAKING MY SEAT AT A PANEL DISCUSSION AT Brooklyn’s Long Island University to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Spike Lee’s landmark film Do the Right Thing when I received a text from “Fab Five” Freddy Braithwaite, a friend and former host of Yo! MTV Raps. TMZ.com was reporting that Michael Jackson was dead. As the news filtered through the crowded lecture hall, folks were commenting on the irony of talking about an iconic 1980s film on the day that decade’s most important pop star died.

But the connection among Spike, Michael, and me was more intimate than most folks at the event knew. In January 1984, on the night that Jackson was honored by the Guinness Book of World Records at the American Museum of Natural History, Dell published my first book, The Michael Jackson Story, a pocket-sized quickie biography of the singer. It would go on to sell more than 1 million copies and reach number three on the New York Times paperback best-seller list. I was twenty-six years old, and because of that book, for the first time in my young life I had something that could be described as disposable income.

With the money I made from the Michael Jackson book, I was able to afford my first apartment without a roommate. It was in a beautiful but then-unfashionable, brownstone-filled section of downtown Brooklyn called Fort Greene. There I befriended a young filmmaker named Spike Lee and saw an early cut of his film She’s Gotta Have It. Over the course of 1985 I would invest $3,500 in Spike’s film, a cinematic event that not only began his historic career, but also heralded a black film movement that still has impact today.

If I hadn’t written that book, I would have never moved to Fort Greene or invested in Spike’s work. My life, and to some small degree, black pop culture would have been different without my book and, far more significantly, without Michael’s ascension to megastardom.

After the panel, I turned on my Blackberry® and found it filled with messages from friends and a slew of interview requests from publications, television shows, and radio broadcasts. LIU is a short walk from my apartment, so I went home, warmed up some leftovers, and sat quietly most of that evening, not returning messages or following the news.

At that moment, I didn’t want to mourn in public. Nor did I want to speak to any aspects of Michael’s life I didn’t know anything about. I hate that cable news has become a place of empty speculation where supposed experts—many only with expertise in their own opinions—clutter the twenty-four-hour news cycle with hot air. My feelings were complicated by the fact that I had just signed a deal to write a book (this book) about the enduring influence of Thriller as a recording and cultural artifact. In anticipation of this work, I’d already looked into buying tickets for one of Michael’s fifty shows at London’s O2 arena. In the immediate aftermath of his passing, I wrote a eulogy and posted it on my web site and did a few interviews, focusing on music and trying not to engage in the tabloid narrative of his death.

That night I thought about the great American cinema masterpiece Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’s epic vision of the rich, brilliant, and ultimately doomed Charles Foster Kane, who died disgraced, alone, and unloved in his California mansion, far removed from the glory years of his media empire. The parallel to Jackson’s life wasn’t seamless, of course. Whereas Kane left this world at Xanadu, his own personal fantasyland of secret rooms, art, and creatures collected from around the globe, Michael’s home, Neverland, had been taken from him by debtors. Instead, he died in a rented house under the care of a sketchy doctor who has been charged with manslaughter. In some ways, the better parallel was the director/actor Orson Welles himself, who was hailed as a genius in his twenties, declared a has-been in his thirties, and resurrected as a figure of camp appeal in the last decades of his life. With Citizen Kane, the young Welles created a masterpiece that haunted him for the rest of his life. Thriller played a similar role in Michael’s life, attaining a level of international success he’d spend the last twenty-five years of his life trying to duplicate.

I’m a year older than Michael Jackson. I’m from a black working-class family and share with him the same astrological sign, none of which, rationally speaking, means a whole lot. What these parallels do suggest is that I was born at the right time to be swept up in the original burst of Jackson-mania and that, for much of my life, I could identify with him.

When I was a young writer, Michael was one of my primary subjects. Writing about him, I was able to get my first book deal. Not only did this help me financially, but it also inspired a couple of my best pieces of music criticism. His titanic success set many ships on fruitful journeys, and mine was just one of them. Now, as a middle-aged African American man, I marvel at his long, historic, singular career.

In 1999 ESPN asked me to contribute an essay on Michael Jordan to the book Sports Century, a look back at the greatest athletic achievements of the twentieth century. It was to be the book’s last major essay, because it looked at the 1990s with Jordan as the decade’s most significant player. I began that essay this way:

To write about Michael Jordan is to stand upon a mountain of press clips and pretend they don’t exist. At the end of a century that made sports a global, 24 hour, over analyzed, zealously professional, obsessively marketed, and extravagantly played commodity, Jordan’s career is the culmination of a long journey. Which means his every eye lash flutter has been photographed, catalogued, annotated, foot-noted, and e-mailed by somebody at some time. So I will not be so foolish as to attempt to topple or even torch that mountain. It’s too large for me to push and I lack the fuel to incinerate it completely.

I ended by observing that my essay would be laid “atop the mountain as it awaits some yet unseen 21st century bonfire.”

By substituting Michael Jackson for Michael Jordan and substituting “entertainment business” for “sport,” I could write the same paragraph. However hard it was for me to find something fresh to say about the basketball great, trying to do that with Jackson is even more challenging. The work I was commissioned to write was one of those “making of” a great LP volumes that have become popular in the postvinyl era.

With Michael’s death, I felt a need to widen the scope of this book and be more comprehensive than I had originally intended. But I wouldn’t change my focus. This is a book in which the music is central. It is the reason Michael Jackson matters. It is the reason he’s a celebrity. It is why his personal life and tragic death are a matter of public record. So my perspective on Michael Jackson is in large part shaped by our respective life journeys from the 1950s into the twenty-first century.

But there is another view of Jackson that I want to honor as well. In the fall of 2009, I was talking with choreographer Fatima Robinson on the set of VH1’s Hip Hop Honors, an annual broadcast we’d both worked on for six years. Even in the middle of all the hip-hop acts we were working with, Michael Jackson’s name came up. Fatima, one of the most creative and loved choreographers in pop music, had fond memories of working with Michael on his Remember the Time music video, and she shared a few with me.

But what I remember most about our conversation is that her nine-year-old son, Zuri, wanted a jheri curl, a hairstyle I thought had died back in the dark days of the twentieth century. Why would a lovely little black boy want one now? It turns out that since the entertainer’s death, Zuri had become obsessed with Jackson, particularly the wet look of the Thriller era. The desire to emulate Jackson was cute, but Zuri also made an acute observation to go along with it, which was that he thought that there must have been two Michael Jacksons, one black, one white, and Zuri, himself dark brown, loved them both.

Growing up in Brownsville, I knew Michael only as a black child and later was disturbed by his transformations. For Zuri, and many children his age, Michael’s racial identity is fluid, shifting from photo to photo, from old Ed Sullivan Show clips to the music video for “Liberian Girl.” Zuri’s easy acceptance of Jackson’s multiple faces, unburdened by America’s nasty racial history, is worth keeping in mind when we consider the music and life of this cultural icon.

Context changes meaning, sometimes elevating certain elements of a tale and, just as often, rendering others moot. My Michael Jackson and Zuri’s Michael Jackson are the same person, as his talent and DNA testify, but what “Michael Jackson” means can be as fluid as the dance moves he made famous. Despite the legal claims of his estate, the fanatical devotion of his most fervent fans, and those who think race doesn’t matter (and others who know it does), the “meaning” of Michael Jackson isn’t owned by anyone.

Michael Jackson’s life raises so many questions—about Michael and about us. How do we collectively balance his musical/performing brilliance with his inappropriate relations with a litany of young boys? What do we make of his relationship to the black culture that nurtured him? Are there any lessons left from the success of Thriller that can be applied to the profoundly altered pop culture universe of the twenty-first century?

Here’s what I know going in. Thriller was a product of the old record business model. It is a testament to the primacy of image over sound. It transcends racial lines by deliberately blurring those lines. It is about a determined pursuit of greatness and the difficulties that follow once greatness has been achieved. This is not a biography. It’s a blend of musical criticism, memoir, and cultural history. My goal is to honor Michael Jackson’s talent, while not overlooking his faults.

I hope this book will be of some use to Zuri one day, when he’s older and looking for a text (that he will probably read on some kind of mobile device) that neither trivializes nor sensationalizes an artist he loved.

GOING BACK TO GARY

IF YOU DROVE DOWN FROM CHICAGO TO GARY, Indiana, at night back in the early 1960s, when the city’s industrial engine was still roaring at full steam, you’d have seen flames rising up from steelmaking factories, a fiery symbol of economic vitality, ample employment opportunities, and unimpeded pollution. Gary was, in that respect, just one of the many tough Midwestern towns whose Rust Belt industries provided stability for residents and sturdy homegrown products for the nation.

For black America, Gary was a center of great racial pride, a place where our people were enjoying some of the fruits of postsegregation America. Richard Hatcher was elected mayor in 1967, making him one of the first African Americans to run a large city, a harbinger of a wave of black power grabs in cities around the nation. A few years after Hatcher’s election, a national black political convention was held in Gary that briefly brought together all the disparate people and groups fighting for black empowerment.

But Hatcher’s triumph was something of a Pyrrhic victory, made possible in part by the white flight that sent the ethnic working class to Indiana suburbs, in the process robbing Gary of essential tax dollars and encouraging state policy-makers to turn their backs on the city. In a state with a history of massive Ku Klux Klan activity, not to mention actual Klan political power, dating back to the 1920s, Gary became Indiana’s symbol of black folks gone wild. In response, the state cut back funding to the city and fearmongers got to work, both activities undermining Hatcher’s authority.

In that respect Gary, Indiana, was no different from Newark, New Jersey, or Cleveland, Ohio, or Detroit, Michigan, newly chocolate cities that were systematically stripped of resources by state governments and banks’ redlining. The urban riots of the 1960s, along with the spread of heroin throughout urban America, would eventually transform places like Gary from working-class ghettos into barely functional slums. But in the 1960s, the hopelessness that characterizes the twenty-first-century ’hood was not a given. People still believed that by legally pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, they could, if not clean up the ghetto, at least drag themselves free of its downward tug.

It is in this context that Joseph Jackson and Katherine Corse, married in 1949, birthed, raised, and developed one of the most successful families of entertainers in U.S. history. He was twenty-one and she was eighteen when they settled on the appropriately named Jackson Street. The young couple had nine kids, a brood that would have been perfect for a family of southern sharecroppers, but in a big city were a lot of mouths to feed. In two very crowded rooms Maureen (aka Reebee), Sigmond Esco (aka Jackie), Toriano Adoyl (aka Tito), LaToya, Marlon, Jermaine, Michael Joe, Steven Randell (aka Randy), and Janet lived under the guidance of Katherine and Joe.

Katherine did some part-time work at a Sears and at other local retailers, but she spent the majority of her time (and patience) providing a calming, constant, and spiritual presence for her family. She’d been struck by polio as a child, so she walked with a slight limp. Early on in the marriage, Katherine came under the influence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and was a regular at the local Kingdom Hall, along with her girls and young Michael, who of all her children would be the most interested in the Witnesses. Neither Joe nor the other sons seemed to have given the Witnesses more than token attention. Aside from going door to door hawking The Watchtower and Awake magazines around Gary in religious service, Katherine and her kids read the Witnesses’ New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, the belief’s central text.

The Witnesses prophesize that humans are living in the last days of the present world order and that after Armageddon Christ will return to rule an earthly paradise populated by living Witnesses and 144,000 resurrected individuals. The idea of heavenly reward isn’t as central to the Witnesses’ doctrine as the idea of an earth repopulated by the righteous. Over the years some of this ideology would appear in Michael’s lyrics and videos, refracted through his prism of pop culture.

JOE WAS REARED IN TENNESSEE by a stern, religious father, and as soon as he was old enough, Joe escaped to a big city in search of better-paying work and a more exciting life. Being a crane operator at U.S. Steel in the 1960s was a good job for any man with a high school education, much less a black man with ten mouths to feed. But Joe was filled with musical ambition and the restlessness that nearby opportunity creates. Why did he have to settle for a nine to five routine when a life of well-made suits, nightlife, and celebrity was just a well-played guitar solo away? In 1960s black America, there were many like Joe, black men of great ambition who knew that doors of opportunity were opening but were not quite sure where to find their personal keys. Like Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s classic 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, which is set just up the road from Gary on Chicago’s South Side, Joe burned to be somebody.

Initially, Joe sought success through his own musical talent, playing guitar with a bluesy local bar band called the Falcons along with his brother Luther. (The Falcons were just one of numerous R&B groups named after birds. A more famous version of the Falcons would feature a young soul shouter named Wilson Pickett.) No recordings of Joe’s band exist, but it’s easy to imagine Joe pulling off his work clothes, washing up, putting on his flashiest suit, and then, guitar in hand, hitting a Gary nightspot named the Spot Lit or the Dew Drop Inn or one of those other puny Negro nightspots that dotted our big cities. It was an escape from the steel mill, the money worries, and the responsibilities of family life. Having kids—a joy. Feeding kids—a struggle. Making music—a pleasure.

But neither the Falcons as a group nor Joe as a musician proved very distinguished. The guitar sat in the Jackson house when Joe was out, not to be touched, but in a house full of kids it was as tempting as neglected birthday cake. That guitar was the centerpiece of sing-a-longs where the kids harmonized with Mom and Dad, singing spirituals and country and western tunes. It was the beginning of the Jackson family’s musical journey and a traditional American family activity that was later mostly lost, first to TV and then to the Internet and text messaging.

When Joe was at work, the oldest boys soon began messing around with Joe’s guitar, singing along to the R&B songs on Gary’s soul station. The oft-told tale is that Tito, the steady, solid Jackson son who looks the most like his father, was caught with the instrument—the embodiment of the old man’s unfulfilled dreams—and was challenged by Joe to show what he could do with it.

Impressed with Tito’s musicianship, as well as that of Jermaine and Jackie, and with the support of Katherine, Joe’s personal dream was replaced by a family quest. At the time, Joe didn’t have to look far for a creative inspiration for an all-family R&B group. Just up North from Gary, in Chicago, was the Five Stairsteps.

Labeled “the first family of soul” well before the Jacksons, the Stairsteps were initially five of the six kids of Betty and Clarence Burke. When Joe was just starting to rehearse his sons in Gary, the Burkes were already playing on the amateur night circuit. Clarence, a detective with the Chicago Police Department, played bass and wrote songs, getting more involved on a creative level with his family act than Joe apparently ever did. The Five Stairsteps received their first recording contract after winning the amateur night contest at the South Side’s Regal Theater one evening in 1965. Lead singer Clarence Junior, James, Dennis, thirteen-year-old Kenneth (known as Keni), and sister Alohe would initially record under the stewardship of Chicago soul star Curtis Mayfield. A couple of years later, to heighten the cuteness factor, three-year-old Cubie was added to the group.

But it wasn’t until spring 1970, when the Jackson 5 was in the middle of a streak of number one hits, that the Five Stairsteps released its defining single. “O-o-h Child,” a yearning ballad about two lovers trying to keep faith in each other and their future, was an instant classic, one still a staple on black oldies radio and used quite effectively in 1991’s Boyz n the Hood to communicate a sense of innocence lost.

In the aftermath of Michael’s death, Joe has been treated as the villain of the story, the Ike Turner of parenting: an overbearing mid-twentieth-century black man of little means who used and abused a gifted young artist, imposing psychological damage while making millions from his son’s talent. If I challenge none of these assumptions and accept them unequivocally, not invoking the complexities of the individuals involved, I still see Joe Jackson as an undeniable, yet unlikeable hero. It was Joe who organized the musical interest of his sons into a polished act. It was Joe who drove the boys on long car rides to Chicago’s Regal and New York’s Apollo, who drilled dance routines with them in the backyard, who taught them to play instruments, and who gave them their first harmony lessons. And it was Joe who instilled in Michael the work ethic noticed by everyone who came in contact with him at Motown and in his adult career.

During the crucial adolescent and teenage years of the Jackson sons, when temptation and distraction, particularly drugs and alcohol, were everywhere, all of them stayed on the path. Not one of Joe’s show biz kids became a tragedy like Frankie Lymon, at thirteen a singing/songwriting sensation from Spanish Harlem who, with his pals/backup group, the Teenagers, recorded the classic “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” in 1956, displaying a crystal clear soprano voice and oodles of stage presence. By eighteen Lymon was a washed-up heroin addict, and by twenty-six he was dead, a victim of drugs, poor parental supervision, and a slew of bad marriages. The tale of Lymon, a briefly shining star now lost to obscurity, is way more typical in the history of black music than is the success story of the Jacksons.

Joe operated from enlightened self-interest, that sweet spot where what was good for him was equally good for everyone else. He drove, cajoled, and punched his children toward a goal that was, in 1968 Gary, Indiana, as unlikely as the idea of a black president. That two of his nine children became international superstars is nearly unprecedented in the history of pop.

Here is a hypothetical scenario. What if Joe heard Tito on guitar that day on Jackson Street and then listened to Tito, Jackie, and Jermaine sing and decided that they sounded “okay,” but that he didn’t have the inclination to support their musical ambitions? He had a full-time job already. He didn’t need to be wrangling these kids in his free time. Without his tireless (or, in the minds of critics, demonic) rehearsals, the three oldest Jackson boys would have probably played some local talent shows and maybe some midwestern bars. Based on what we know of their talent, they might have scored a small record deal, but they might not have.

If Joe hadn’t gotten behind making music as a way for his family to get out of Gary, the kids’ work prospects would not have been great. To get his six boys to manhood in that town without any of them having a serious run-in with the law, or falling victim to the drugs rampant on those streets, would have been an amazing accomplishment in itself. Outside of the fading steel industry, there was little meaningful employment in the Gary of the 1970s and 1980s, so the older boys, their musical dreams behind them (but perhaps still dancing in their heads), would probably have headed to Chicago or out West in search of work and a fresh start. That unified Jackson family my African American peers and I so envied would have been fragmented by economic necessity.

MICHAEL, WHOSE PRECOCIOUS TALENT was evident to Katherine long before Joe paid attention, wouldn’t have had the platform he needed without Joe’s stewardship of his older brothers. Bright kid that he was, Michael would have read more books, watched more movies, and taken vocal lessons throughout his adolescence in Gary. Under any normal scenario, Michael would have watched his brothers’ failures, would have studied the record business from a distance, and at some point between eighteen and twenty-two might have gone to a local college, maybe with a scholarship in literature or even dance. Or with the desire to perform burning in him, Michael could have headed to New York or Los Angeles in pursuit of a singing career.

By then, in the mid- to late 1970s, when the corporate takeover of black music had taken hold, his best chance at stardom would have been to bring his demo to one of the big boys (CBS, Warner Bros., RCA, Mercury) or one of the smaller, black-oriented labels they distributed. Because of Michael’s great voice and charisma, he certainly would have attracted some attention, but would he have gotten a record deal? Let’s say he did; he got a good deal at a big label committed to artist development and not a twelve-inch single deal for a disco record.

Without the early start his father’s support provided, which led to him seeing the stars of 1960s soul up close and personal and to Motown signing the Jackson 5 to a record deal, Michael in the 1970s would have been a gifted but green young singer from the sticks. Maybe he would have had a career, but would he have become a global brand loved on every continent? I don’t think so.

I write this not to absolve Joe of any real sins but to put his parenting skills in context. For me, Joe’s attributes and faults were not untypical of many black fathers of his generation. Although Barack Obama and Bill Cosby are contemporary reigning symbols of black, white-collar fatherhood, working-class dads were the norm in black America for most of the twentieth century. They were men like my uncles and cousins who worked in the shipyards of Newport News, Virginia, and the fathers of the girls I dated in New York who drove city buses, emptied garbage cans, or worked construction to buy homes in Hollis, Queens, or Hempstead, Long Island. A lot of the fathers I encountered were inflexible authoritarians and ran their households as dictatorships, where their word was law, their wives were often silent partners, and any sign of insurrection was put down with force.

The racial history that nurtured this attitude is obvious to me, but still necessary to stress: Born pre-civil rights movement and raised in a dangerously segregated America, often toiling in a castrating environment at work, these Negro men viewed their homes as more than castles. They were places where the fathers’ suppressed anger and resentment at white racism were understood and could be expressed. In their houses they were the boss. Within those walls they craved a respect that often no amount of wifely devotion or children’s love could truly satisfy.

Stern, remote, definitely abusive, Joe has been portrayed as a cardboard villain in various books and even in the Motown-sanctioned TV movie of the band’s rise. But Joe and his actions make no sense without this black working-class context.

During my nine years as a music trade reporter, I had many encounters with Joe, both on the phone and at his Los Angeles office (which was located in the same Sunset Boulevard building as Motown). To say Joe was a pleasant, warmhearted man would be a lie. He was anxious, rather prickly, and, when he focused his lionlike features my way, definitely intimidating. His infamous appearance outside the BET Awards with CNN just after his son’s death did him no favors.

“My father was real strict with us—real strict,” Michael wrote in Moon Walk, his clearly ghostwritten but still useful 1988 biography edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. “I’d get beaten for things that happened mostly outside rehearsal. Dad would make me so mad and hurt that I’d try to get back at him and get beaten all the more. I’d take a shoe and throw it at him or I’d just fight back, swinging my fists. . . . I would fight back and my father would kill me, just tear me up. . . .We had a turbulent relationship.”

Joe Jackson was Michael’s biological father and the first of several artistic mentors. It was Joe who gave his son his first showcase and structure, molding and scarring him in equal measure.