INCLUDING THE INSIDE STORY OF HOW MJ'S GROUND-DownWithTyranny!: Michael Jackson (1958-2009): Thoughts About Peter Pan
BREAKING THRILLER FOUND ITS WAY ONTO MTV
“An actress is not a machine, but they treat you like a machine, a money machine.”-- Marilyn Monroe
Every life has its times of misery and its times of joy. With some of us, these peaks and valleys can be more extreme than others. In the case of Michael Jackson, I doubt that we’ll ever know just how much misery he had and what specific demons prodded him along on his path. I do suspect, and I could be wrong, of course, that his highest moments of joy came when he was performing. He seemed driven, if not born, to perform and entertain.
Right now we are being saturated with articles and commentary about Michael Jackson and his tragic death. It’s unavoidable. His life was an important one to so many. I’m only adding to this pile of commentary because, if you choose to read further, I can offer the perspective both of someone who both spends a lot of time shaking his head at what spews forth from the media and of someone who was there at a key moment in Michael Jackson’s career and pop culture in general.
First, though, some comments about the media circus:
(1) In its effort to be “all MJ all the time," the corporate media have set a new low in just throwing stories out there for the sake of boosting sales of papers and magazines and bringing more eyeballs to the tube.
First the cause of death was a daily Demerol shot. Two days later, there was no Demerol. Next we heard that one of the kids saw him die and thought he was just “clowning.” It’s a horrible thought, but now we hear it isn’t, shall we say, based in fact. Then there’s a will. Then there’s two wills. Then there’s no will at all. Now, as I write this, guess what: There's a will!
The media is just intent on filling space. Facts be damned! It goes on and on. It changes daily. What are we supposed to believe? I tell ya what I believe. I believe the media have sunk to a new low in tabloid journalism. What ever happened to fact-checking before you run with a story? It’s a failing that just gets worse and worse, as if everyone in the media looks at the money that sleazy carny hucksters like Rush and Beck and Hannity are raking in from their daily fiction and follows their lead. The same bozos that consistently told us Bush won for eight years now just switch their fantasies daily. Remember when the media was consistent in their lies, for years at a time?
(2) There have also been some really genius quotes in the MJ coverage. My favorites:
* “The concert promoters can’t sue the estate. Once he dies, he doesn’t have any obligation to perform.” That's Bob Rasmussen, dean of the Gould School of Law, USC. Oh well, the football team there is pretty damn good.
* How about this one, from Old Suspenders himself, Larry King: “It was hard to love him, but hard not to.” Yogi Berra he ain’t. But hey, Larry King adores the Bushes, all of them, so let’s not go expecting pearls of wisdom from what’s left of his mind.
* But it’s no surprise that the worst quotes of all in the “all MJ all the time” coverage come from MJ’s own father. “We just lost the biggest star in the world.” True enough, at least, but if I had a son that died, I might first say that I lost my son and what he personally meant to me, etc. Later, at a tribute to his son, Dad struck again, using the occasion not for a eulogy but to announce the formation of his brand-new business enterprise! Smooth! Gee, I wonder why, despite such staggering talent, Michael was so dysfunctional?
(3) What I haven’t heard is anything about the baby-dangling, serving the Jesus Juice to little boys, or even attempting to buy the Elephant Man’s bones.There has been some brief mention of his legal trials, but, he was, after all, acquitted, so it would be awkward for the media to spend much time dredging up the muck -- not that I wouldn’t put it past them. A modicum of decorum, and respect for the old adage that one is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law from the media? Now, that would be news!
I have also been waiting for someone to tell us, what was the source of such physical pain that he needed to take so many painkillers in the first place? What sent him down that road? I seem to remember that there was a stage accident, back in 1984, which resulted in head trauma and serious scalp burns from an effects explosion during a shoot for a Pepsi commercial. Perhaps no one wants to offend Pepsi. In any event, we get nada on this. In hindsight, things were not the same with Michael after that incident., but instead we get sordid stories of stomach-pumping of multiple-pill combos. To me, the oddest mixture is not what was in his stomach but what is and isn’t reported in a media that has gone tabloid across the board. This man, or more aptly man-child, was in tremendous physical and psychic pain, pain so extreme that it directly led to his death.
(4) Then there’s the search for a handle on the meaning of this great pop icon’s life, contribution to the world, and status in some mythical Hall of Pop Culture Icons.
Is Michael Jackson up there with Elvis, James Brown (oddly ignored in the coverage I've seen), The Beatles, and Muhammad Ali (also ignored)? Certainly he is to the '80s generation. So many bought Thrillerthat it became what I call a coffee-table item. It was a "must have" to certain people who bought it, took it home, and, as evidenced by the number of sealed copies of original pressings being offered on eBay, never even opened it. Hell, they probably didn’t even have a record player.
I’m old enough to remember when the Jackson Five first came on my radar screen, with the hit with ABC. I had stopped following Motown at the time, but I thought that song was great and whoever was singing it had broken some barrier of youthful exuberance. I still remember a little kid with his mother dancing joyfully to the song in a park in Boston, where I lived at the time, as it played on their radio. Five years later there was “Who’s Lovin’ You?,” sung by an 11-year-old Michael. At first that gave me pause, but then I put it in the context of a sixth-grader with a crush on a classmate, experiencing the pangs of youthful jealousy. Been there.
I also remember working in a record store and watching kids walk up to the Jackson Five section doing “The Robot.” They tried, often unsuccessfully, to imitate Michael’s every move. They had music made for them by one of their own. The point is that a hell of a lot of people grew up with Michael Jackson, grew up right along with him, and loved him even when he stopped growing up. Like Ali, Michael’s name is known the world over. Everywhere!************
“I have feelings too. I am still human. All I want is to be loved, for myself and for my talent.”-- Marilyn Monroe
Walter Yetnikoff, head of CBS Records from the late '70s through the '80s, was publicly ridiculed when he signed the Jacksons for what was then thought to be “too much moola” -- right around the same time another bombastic CEO, George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees, signed another Jackson, Reggie, for what was also then thought to be a ridiculous amount of money. Both wild and crazy guys apparently made the right move.
Not only did the musical Jacksons, thought by many to be old news, do fine, but in 1979 one of the group, Michael, had a huge, multi-platinum seller of a solo album called Off the Wall. It was a record that could get play on several styles of radio stations, reaching a multitude of demographics. Michael Jackson was about to knock through barriers of age, gender, nationality, and race to an extent that few if any artists could have ever imagined or hoped for.
The next album was Thriller. There was a problem though. By the time it came out, the game of how you reach the most people was changing. The game changer was called MTV. I was a marketing executive at CBS Records at the time. I worked for the Columbia label; Michael was on our sister label, Epic. Yetnikoff ran both. We all knew that Michael could reach across racial barriers if given the chance, but MTV wasn’t about to give him that chance. Some artists just didn’t “fit the format” in the narrow minds of those running MTV in its early days. There was an unspoken barrier, a restricted entry, just like a golf club that doesn’t let in “the Jews.” Today, as exemplified by the current media coverage, Michael Jackson is credited with being the first artist to break down those barriers on such a large scale. But it almost never happened, and Thriller, the album that changed so much for so many, almost never became what it did.
The man that made it happen was Walter Yetnikoff [seen here in his later years, hawking his 2004 tell-all memoir, Howling at the Moon]. I know because I was there. I was in the office of the head of marketing when Yetnikoff conference-called a few of the powers-that-were at CBS Records about the fact that MTV would not play Michael’s videos, no matter how many records he sold. I was allowed to listen in as Yetnikoff announced his simple remedy for this disgusting situation. He pointed out that MTV’s survival at such an early stage of its growth was not assured. He also pointed out that two record companies, CBS and Warners, provided the lion's share of the video clips that MTV relied upon for programming at the time. (Keep in mind that at that point in time all MTV did was play music videos. The ever-popular insipid “reality” shows and the like would come later.) If one of those two record companies were to pull all of their videos from MTV, MTV would die. Yetnikoff then got the lords of MTV on the line and persuaded them to change their minds.
Pop culture changed that day.************
I am reasonably certain at this point that the out-of-control coverage of the death of an out-of-control artist named Michael Jackson has been so confusing and reckless that it will lead to decades of conspiratorial speculation as to what really happened, not unlike the mysterious barbiturate death of Marilyn Monroe. Whatever the specific cause of death (and we may never get the truth), Michael Jackson had a hugely dysfunctional life and a hugely successful artistic career, both creatively and financially.
There have been painters and writers and musicians before who met the definition of severely dysfunctional. Vincent van Gogh went around stalking fellow painter Paul Gauguin with a razor and ended up cutting off one of his own earlobes. It is theorized that he used the color yellow as much as he did because of his overdosing on absinthe, which contains a neurotoxin that causes one to see objects in yellow. He painted some awfully nice sunflowers! In fact, people pay millions for them today, but during his highly unstable and probably bipolar life, he never sold a painting.
The extremes of Michael Jackson’s life might not be equaled for a while.
One last thing I have noticed is that I have been hearing much better music coming out of car radios as I walk around NYC since MJ died. So why not just stop the madness and just let the music speak for itself, and for MJ? That is the legacy that will last the longest.
“A career is wonderful, but you can’t curl up with it on a cold night.”-- Marilyn Monroe
THE LEGACY LIVES ON . . .