Saturday, June 27, 2009

Don't Stop Till You Get Enough

Playing right now: Talibam! - Ordination of the Globetrotting Conscripts (Whacked out improv featuring Kevin Shea. I hope to write about their new album in this spot during the coming week.)

Everybody's sounding off about Michael Jackson's death, so I feel like I'm entitled to add my two cents to the forum. For starters, it shocked and bummed me out a lot more than I expected. It probably had something to do with the fact that I get weird feelings about any musician that I like or liked passing away. (See posts on Andrew Hill and Bud Shank.) Having a kid can do that to you too, changing your perspective on the whole life and death thing.

And Michael did have a profound impact on my life when I was about 5 or 6. Before I discovered the Beatles, the Jackson 5 were it. (There was another group of family singers I liked at that time too, but we don't need to do the full disclosure thing here.) "I Want You Back" and "ABC" were little pieces of magic to me. Literally little pieces in my case: I got those songs on records that came on boxes of Alpha-Bits cereal. And when I first heard "Never Can Say Goodbye" on their Greatest Hits album, it was the first time I ever got knocked over by a real bonafide hook. I'm referring to the chorus, where the music does a descending riff while Michael sings the title line and the group ends up with those "no no no"s. Damn. I made my friend Eric play that over and over and over.

Years later I'd discover that the tight arrangements at Motown had a lot to do with what made the songs so memorable, but Michael's voice was part of that, standing front and center. At the time, Tito was my favorite member of the group because he was the guitar player and that was what I wanted to play. But I knew Michael's voice was leading the group. Somehow Eric and I convinced ourselves that everyone in the band also played an instrument and sang, and we thought Michael was the drummer.

In some ways, Michael is probably responsible for paving the way for the current spate of glitzy performances where singers have five dancers with them onstage, where the spectacle has become more important than the song their singing. But for Michael, it was all about the song and making come across the best you can. Those early Jackson 5 records planted the seed in his head and - if a press release I read this morning had any truth to it - when the Jacksons worked with Gamble & Huff in the late '70s, Michael picked up a lot from them about the nuts and bolts needed to make a song good. Of course, he worked with Quincy Jones too, who knew all about arrangements from his big band days. Their collaborations weren't about jumping on the latest trend to make a cheap buck. They were setting standards, coming up with songs that would withstand the test of time. That's why "Billie Jean" might be a corny song, yes, but I'll be doggone if that bassline isn't catchy. Or, ask Michael would say, "It's smelly."

So maybe it's the old mindframe about having respect for the dead, but rather than focus on all the freaky things from the last 15 years of his life, I think it's much healthier to remember the early things that prove that he was at one time a consumate performer.

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