Who would’ve thought that I’d be sitting up late on the night of June 25, 2009, drinking to the memory of Michael Jackson?
Not me, that’s for goddamned sure. I’d been following the various stories about his upcoming residency at London’s O2 Arena, idly wondering if perhaps the outrageous number of sold-out shows might well inspire Michael to tour the States again. As it happens, my wife was pondering the very same possibility. She and I have our own informal lists of artists we’ve never caught in concert but hope to see someday, and he was a lock for both of us. That’d probably explain why, when I told her the news of Michael’s death earlier today, she burst into tears.
We have seen the Elvis Presley of our generation, and he was Michael Jackson.
You can’t overstate Michael’s importance to people who grew up in the ’80s. Sure, his time with his brothers in the Jackson 5 during the ’70s resulted in some damned fine music, and I’ll gladly trumpet the merits of his 1979 album, Off the Wall, as the second best thing he released in his career, but you know it and I know it: Thriller was the shit. It sold 110 million copies (though your stats may vary), it produced an unprecedented seven Top 10 singles, and it was the soundtrack to my teen years. No matter how “alternative” my tastes in music may have gotten, from the Sex Pistols to the Velvet Underground, Robyn Hitchcock to Social Distortion, I have never hesitated to acknowledge that Thriller is one of my favorite albums of all time. I get how people who didn’t live through the astronomical success of the record can’t conceive how you can know that Michael was accused of pedophilia and yet still declare that he was and, to a certain extent, always will be the King of Pop.
But it’s true. He is.
That’s not to say that his reign hadn’t been without its problems, obviously, and the problem with an album like Thriller is that, after the dust has settled, there’s only one question left to be asked: how the hell do you follow it up? It’s easy to say that Michael never came anywhere near matching that record, but, hey, I just listened to “Dirty Diana” and followed it up with “Smooth Criminal,” so don’t tell me that Bad doesn’t have some kick-ass moments on it, too. I don’t necessarily have the same level of love for Dangerous (although “Remember the Time” has definitely withstood the test of time quite well), but I do think that, had he opted to release the new-material disc of HIStory — known as HIStory Continues — separately rather than couple it with a best-of disc, a lot more people would be praising it today. I still think “Stranger in Moscow” is one of the best songs the guy ever did, and if you’ve ever been sympathetic to the plight of a young boy growing up in the spotlight and never getting a chance to be a kid, then the song and video for “Childhood” just might make you tear up…like it’s doing to me right now.
But I’ve got to be honest: Michael’s last studio album, 2001’s Invincible, didn’t do a whole lot for me (“You Rock My World” and “Butterflies” excepted), and I’ve spent most of the last five years doing nothing but criticizing the guy for not doing everything in his power to mount a comeback.
Back in 2004, Michael released his poorly named Ultimate Collection — a seemingly random selection of singles, album tracks, rarities, demos, and previously unreleased material from the vaults — and I took him to task for it. “With everything he’s gone through in his personal life in recent years,” I said, “what he really needs far more than anything else is to kick-start his musical credibility. The perfect way to do that would’ve been to put together a definitive collection of all of his hits, spread out across as many discs as it takes to do the job properlyâ€¦and I’m talking somebody-shake-the-cobwebs-off-‘Farewell My Summer Love’ definitive.”
But he didn’t.
In 2005, he announced that he was busy producing an all-star charity single called “I Have A Dream” to help raise relief funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
But he never released it.
And when the 25th anniversary of his most iconic album rolled around, he celebrated the event not by taking the opportunity to release a new album but, rather, to drag a bunch of newer artists into the studio to either remix or re-record songs from Thriller.
At the time, I said:
It’s clear that Michael Jackson has brought in these younger and â€“ let’s face it â€“ hipper artists in order to make the statement, “Hey, world, I’m still relevant,” but, as ever, he just doesn’t get it. Nowhere is this more evident than on the DVD that’s included in this package, which provides the album’s three iconic videos (“Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller”), along with the performance of “Billie Jean” from the “Motown 25” television special that serves as the 1980s version of the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He didn’t need to bring in a bunch of young upstarts; all he had to do was take this DVD and the original nine-song CD version of Thriller, hold them aloft, and say, “This is why you should respect me!”
But he didn’t.
What hurts the most about Michael dying now is that, finally, it looked like he was going to get off his arse and do something about reclaiming his legacy as a superstar of pop. He had these sold-out dates in the UK, and for once, despite all of the false starts he’d offered over the course of the last half-decade, it looked like he was actually going to come back.
And, then, he was gone.
I found out about Michael’s death just as I was walking out the door to take my three-year-old daughter along with me to the grocery store. She was already in the car, in fact, so when I went outside and got behind the wheel, I felt obliged to tell her why I’d taken so long.
I said, “Michael Jackson died, sweetie. That’s why I’m a little upset.”
“You liked him?” she asked.
“I did,” I replied. “He was one of Daddy’s favorite singers.” Then I hesitated for a second and clarified, “Well, maybe he wasn’t one of my favorite singers. But he was very, very important to me and Mama. We listened to him all the time when we were growing up. And that’s why we’re sad.”
And, then, my daughter — God bless her — put the whole thing in perspective by asking a single question: “But you can still listen to his music, right?”
Absolutely right. And that’s why, when we sat down to dinner at the Harris household tonight, we did so listening to Thriller.
Goodbye, Michael. Thanks for the memories…and the music.
(In the interest of full disclosure, this piece originally appeared on ESDMusic.com.)