Thursday, June 25, 2009


[Note: This is part of a draft of a post from last year, the 25th anniversary of the release of Thriller. It never got finished, and I never came back to it. Edited somewhat to make it more apropos for today.]

Here is a moment filled with considerable pathos for me, Michael Jackson's performance of "Billie Jean" at Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. Remember this, those of you Of A Certain Age?

It's a risky thing to convey accurately in this space the effect that seeing this performance had on me in the spring of 1983--"risky" because the language I'd have to use would seem either absurdly hyperbolic or downright weird. So I'll settle for something the guitarist Johnny Lang said in an interview: he said that seeing this performance was the most memorable performance he'd ever seen, and that when his father told him, "He's not really singing, you know," Lang replied, "I don't care."

That about sums it up for me, too. Before that moment, I frankly didn't like Michael Jackson very much--he had basically broken up with his brothers to pursue a solo career and so what the hell was wrong with him, wanting to sing one of the "new songs" right after his Jackson 5 medley with his brothers; after he had finished, I was asking what the hell was wrong with me for thinking that. The New York Times said, "There's Michael Jackson, and there's everyone else," and I just nodded, dumbfounded.

There are some memories you don't want tainted by subsequent events: you want them clear and pure and unfiltered and undimmed. For me, the year of Thriller's release is a memory like that. In 1983, I don't know how deep the cave would have had to have been for someone not to have heard or seen something about this album; yet for me, I felt as though I'd been made privy to some great secret.


Nick said...

Funny, I had forgotten how absurdly strange his oversized glove was. I kept thinking: WTF?

There was some dintance between Mike and me; he was a pup still when I went overseas. In the early 80s, when i finally got around to attending college, the difference in perception of him between myself and all the other teens/early 20s students was vast.

Yes, he was the superstar of the 80s, but I didn't care. I was still busy mourning the death of the last incarnation of Fleetwood Mac (much as I had earlier wept at their passing out of blues), like I was sad that The Doobie Brothers had decided to add a falsettos and disco beats to their repertoire. Hell I still hadn't gotten over Lowell George's death and all that it meant.

(The King's death? Meh...that's another story...)

Mike was an interloper - he didn't move me for all that he was technically brilliant. Maybe it was all that back story, about which I had heard far too much.

Still, it is sad: 50 is far too young...

John B. said...

Thanks for commenting, Nick. Those are fair observations--and you list some folks there I greatly admire also. I'd just say that in his genre--R&B-inflected pop--there was no one better in the '80s and '90s. I wouldn't say "Billie Jean" changed my life or anything--just that I'd never before seen anything like that performance on the Motown special. I mean, wow. That said, much as I love Lowell George-era Little Feat, I'd never have gone to a concert of theirs expecting Lowell to bust a move.

Nick said...

"...much as I love Lowell George-era Little Feat, I'd never have gone to a concert of theirs expecting Lowell to bust a move."

you crack me up, John. Lowell George woulda broke several things trying to "bust a move." if he remebered he was supposed to after finishing a blunt, that is...

; ' )

Yeah, Mike was always fun to watch, more so as a kid I think. And, as I mentioned, he ruled the 80s, even more than Madonna. And I'm probably doing him a disservice, but I remember seeing Prince in concert roughly around the same time and thinking 'wow - now THAT's a performance'.

'course, coulda been I was watching his backup singers the whole time.

; ' )

peace, love, dope and hippie beads, dude...