Friday, 21 September 2012

I can't believe it, but I think I like Michael Jackson

The summer of 1987 was quickly coming to an end, and I was getting ready to head off to Edmonton to university. I used to play basketball at this outdoor court in Coaldale, usually by myself but sometimes with a couple different buddies.

One night, I'd called my best friend Chris Vining, who had been away working at his dad's place up by Cherhill. I was really excited to see him, because we were inseparable. Besides, he was heading to university with me. We were going to be roommates too.

So, he pulls up in his orange Pinto with this stoic look on his face. I hadn't seen him in awhile, and didn't say too much to him on the phone besides setting a time to play ball. So I was a bit uneasy.

He looked me square in the eye. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but…"

Then he paused.

"I think I like Michael Jackson."

I looked at him, nodded, and with my head held in shame replied: "Me too."

Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson's "Bad" album. However, back in 1987 he had released a single with Siedah Garrett called "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" and it was really good. Vining and I kind of comforted ourselves with the fact that it was not just Michael Jackson, but a duet.

But then, "Bad" was released and it sat on the charts for more than a year. "Bad" was the next single, but the one that really struck a chord with me was "Man in the Mirror". Jackson was really making a statement with the song and the images in the video were absolutely amazing. It's a history lesson on the 80s, and race relations in general. Everything from Bishop Desmond Tutu crying to a baby being rescued from a well. And the historical figures – my hero Bob Geldof, organizer of Band Aid and Live Aid; Mother Teresa; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Gandhi; people marching to free Nelson Mandela; the lives and deaths of John and Robert Kennedy; the Chernobyl disaster; the nuclear arms reduction talks between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan; Lech Walesa; and so much more. Plus the Michael Jackson video began to show everything wasn't just about Michael Jackson. He makes no appearance at all in this video. He lets the images tell the story. That video really got to me. Check it out:

Genesis of dislike
The dislike I had for Michael Jackson came from a number of odd sources. I never really like things that are overhyped. I started listening to music in Grade 9, so around the latter part of 1983. Jackson's album "Thriller" had come out and it was always on. "Beat It", "Billie Jean", "Thriller" – those songs got vinyl fatigue from every radio station, video show, and junior high dance.

The girls at my school St. Joe's all really liked Michael Jackson, and raved about him. And swooned. That meant they played his tape, and it was only "Thriller" on their ghetto blasters and Walkmans. It was just too much.

And there was this punk on the school bus who used to bug me about my acne. He was a couple years younger, but had no respect whatsoever. He wore one of those red Michael Jackson jackets with countless zippers. The first time he wore it was at Halloween, complete with accompanying black face. Kind of a cool idea. But he wore that jacket every day after. I guess it was Halloween every day. Well maybe just a horror show.

The bottom line was I really didn't like his music. At the time, I was more familiar with his sister Janet who was a teen actress appearing in episodes of Diffr'ent Strokes and Fame, and his brother Jermaine who appeared in a memorable episode of The Facts of Life. It focused on the danger of teenage obsession with stars. And of course The Jackson 5, but that was more a name and I couldn't name one song of theirs. I really hadn't heard of Michael Jackson at all, and really wondered what the big deal was (actually in 1983 it would have been "the big hairy deal"). 

Bad is good
Then came "Bad". As I got older, some of Michael Jackson's stuff began to grow on me. Really, the benefit of age and distance gave me a new appreciation of his music. I'll never be a fan, but I have come to like those big three hits off "Thriller" and most of "Bad".

"Thriller", the single was known for the epic video. Directed by noted filmmaker John Landis, it was fairly long, but told a great story, had narration by Vincent Price who had starred in many horror movies I watched as a kid, and the makers tried to get it nominated for an Oscar for best short film. It has high production values for its time, and is well worth a look.

"Beat It" was a song I should always have liked, because Eddie Van Halen played guitar on it. I guess I did not really get into Van Halen until a bit later, but I wonder if I had discovered them sooner, if it would have softened my view of Michael Jackson. I doubt it.

"Billie Jean" was a song I did find myself moving to, even back in junior high. It's one of my favourites, along with "Man in the Mirror". CBC Calgary used to have this Sunday morning show called Switchback, hosted by Humble Howard who was a local radio deejay. He used to play old episodes of the Batman TV series (the one starring Adam West and Burt Ward), and play music videos. I usually missed the first part because my Dad took me to church every Sunday morning, but I always caught the tail end before Sunday dinner at noon. The very first video I ever saw on Switchback was "Billie Jean". It's funny the strange things a guy remembers.

Parting thoughts
It's funny how things turn out. Michael Jackson was an icon of the '80s. His music was prolific, and influenced pop culture by the sheer force of his popularity. But every thing, and artist, has their time. His time passed with the '80s. Unfortunately, as the years went on, his life morphed into some sort of bizarre cartoon, ending tragically with his death in 2009. Still, in his prime, there was no one more popular, and 25 years ago when "Bad" was released, there was no more anticipated album.

No comments:

Post a Comment