By Joel Francis
In the wake of Michael Jackson’s death, I wrote about the Michael I liked best. The young Michael, who fronted the Jackson 5, grew into his own and delivered his greatest statement and one of the best pop/dance albums ever on the cusp of the ’80s.
But that isn’t the Michael Jackson I remember. I recall the Jackson’s Victory tour kicking off at Arrowhead in 1984. Everyone at swim lessons that day was talking about it, but I didn’t really know who Michael was and what the fuss was all about. I have no memories of Michael’s follow-up stops at Kemper Arena four years later.
Later, all I knew about Michael Jackson were the Weird Al parodies, the “sha-mon” self-parodies and – Eddie Van Halen and Slash’s guitar solos aside – a bunch of slick pop that didn’t conform to my burgeoning rockist sensibilities.
Retrospectively, it’s easy to turn the finger on myself and laugh at how ignorant and dismissive I was at the time. In my defense, “Bad” and “Dangerous,” the two Michael Jackson albums that hit when I was coming of musical age, were unsuccessful attempts to replicate “Thriller.” By the time giant Jacko statues were floating in the Thames River to promote “HISstory,” Jackson was so far removed from his glory days and so entrenched in the paparazzi-enabled tabloid journalism that defined his life that I couldn’t take him seriously as an artistic force.
When someone tried to explain to me that the ghost-white, thin-nosed Jacko on the talk shows was the same African-American child who sang those Jackson 5 songs, I balked for two reasons. Firstly, it’s still hard to believe anyone could transform so drastically over such a short period of time. More importantly, however, those songs were great! They may have been created with the same crass marketing motives that plagued post-“Thriller” Jackson, but somehow this stuff more than held up.
One of the guys in my dad’s National Guard unit used to play “ABC” so often that my dad said he never needed to hear the song again. I can see where my dad was coming from; that could be pretty annoying. But I can also understand the impulse to play that song over and over. Great songs create a world we get to live in for a few minutes. Usually that world vanishes into the next track sooner than we’d like, and when it does you have the immediate desire to return. At two minutes, 30 seconds, “ABC” is not long enough.
Fortunately, I can make a playlist shoving “ABC” against “I Want You Back,” “Black and White,” “I’ll Be There,” my all-time favorite Michael jam “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and the rest of his finest moments. It will be in the air for the rest of the weekend, allowing me to live in Michael’s musical world once again.