Friday, June 26, 2009

The King and I

“IF Elvis is King, then James Brown is God,” Amiri Baraka waxed poetically at a Boston reading years ago. What would he say about the other King, I wonder. Michael Jackson (1958-2009) provided the soundtrack for my formative years into young adulthood. I don’t remember a life that was not Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, Dangerous.

The most affecting memory of The King is his appearance on the Motown 25th anniversary TV special, “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.” And to date, the best live concert I have witnessed was The Jacksons (Victory Tour). At the Motown anniversary, The King has just finished performing a medley of Jackson 5 hits with his brothers (including Randy). Now he has the stage to himself. Anticipation is high. He says something like, “That was the old, now for the new.” Then those famous beats from “Billie Jean” kick in. In the auditorium there is riotous applause. This is also the debut of both the white sequinned glove and the moonwalk. After he lands on point after that first moonwalk, I gasp. EVERYBODY is on his feet. I’d never seen such a feat outside the context of ballet. That was special. THAT, folks, was AMAZING. I cried into my pillow.

My friends and I, mere wisps of girls, thought we’d seen the zenith with “Off the Wall” because “Off the Wall” was Off. The. Charts. Nobody. NOBODY saw “Thriller”coming. It’s still the best-selling album of all time. And it’s a record that will hold because of the revolution in music delivery and sales. Who's gonna sell 100-plus million albums in this environment? The hits were relentless and endless: “Thriller,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, “The Girl Is Mine,” “Human Nature,” “P.Y.T. “Pretty Young Thing,” “Billie Jean.”

This music consoled me through puberty, pimples, periods, crushes, angst and awkwardness. It was made more palpable and relevant because I could listen and watch. Yes, videos. “Billie Jean.” That video MADE MTV. The same MTV that didn’t want to air the videos of black artists because some suits didn’t feel they were rock enough. (The phenomenal success of "Billie Jean" was instrumental in opening up MTV to other nonwhite artists.) Weren’t rock enough? Clearly, these bozos didn't know the roots of rock.

The King elevated videos to an art form and revolutionized morphing. I’m reminded of the “Black or White” video from “Dangerous” when he morphs from a panther into himself. I’ve yet to see a video that employs morphing better. “Black or White,” like most of his videos, were really short films. No other artists were doing this at the time, not even Prince or The Rolling Stones. There was a narrative. Dance routines. Special effects. And famous guest stars.

The 14-minute long “Thriller” was an EVENT when it debuted. My friends and I congregated in my bedroom and watched on my old hand-me-down-from-the-living-room RCA color television. We had popcorn and Pepsi, and you could hear a pin drop under the drone of the beat, so rapt was our attention. A by-now repentant MTV aired “Thriller” twice an hour to meet demand. I watched every chance I got because I could not get enough. The “Thriller” video was the talk of the school, of the town – at the beautician, barbershop, corner store, even in church. All these years later, if I catch it while channel-surfing I pay my respects.

Of course, every king has his peccadillos and this one is no different: chimps, midgets, a Calvin Klein jeans spokesmodel, daughter of another king, excessive surgeries, boy toys and court cases, but none of this diminishes his majesty – at least not for moi.

As with that aforementioned other King, the Johns Kennedy and Lennon, Martin and Malcolm, most will remember where they were when they learned the fate of this most beloved and imitated royal one. I was at the benefit party of the Edeyo Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of Haitian children (more on that in another post) in the Meatpacking District when someone informed me. I had to sit down or else I was going to collaspse into a heap where I stood. It took me half an hour to compose myself enough to get up and leave. I think I would have been less shocked if someone had told me I’d won $500 million in the lottery.

“It always happens in threes,” said my informant. “Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett and now Michael Jackson.”

Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon, who hosted the Edeyo party, said her husband called her in her hotel room to tell her the news, “and my son texted me. I was shocked,” said the actress who cited old-school J5 “ABC” and “Ben” as some of her favorite songs.

For Ibrahim, the owner of a falafel cart at 14th Street and 8th Avenue, "every Michael Jackson song" was a favorite when he was coming of age in Egypt.

“I was watching NBC news when they showed a breaking newsflash,” said Joe Barnes, an attendee at the Edeyo event. In what will no doubt become a subject of grostesque speculation, he said he believed The King died from over exertion in preparation for his world concert tour.

Regardless of the cause of his death, in The King the world has lost a monumental figure whose influence and reach are still being tabulated and calculated. Me? I have lost an important piece of myself.

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