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Friday, June 26, 2009


The Michael Jackson I remember fondly, back when he was still black.

Michael used to tell us he was bad, bad, bad
And all his funky records made us glad, glad, glad

But when I saw his face, yeah, I was sad, sad, sad

With his only friend a chimp you know it's mad, mad, mad

Neverland, Neverland

Even when he's telling you that black is white

Just some fancy dancing you can stop a fight
Grooving in the forest makes it all alright
What a man, give him a hand

Neverland, Neverland
The cola king could sit and count the cost, cost, cost

Thinking 'bout the childhood that he lost, lost, lost

You know he couldn't even give a toss, toss, toss

At least he marginally better than the Boss, Boss, Boss

Neverland, Neverland

Even when he's telling you that black is white

Just some fancy dancing you can stop a fight
Grooving in the forest makes it all alright
What a man, give him a hand

Did you love the Kingship's daughter?

Did you cherish her and take her by the hand?

The papers say that it was all a put up show
But I don't know, I don't know
Neverland, Neverland

Even when he's telling you that black is white

Just some fancy dancing you can stop a fight

Grooving in the forest makes it all alright

What a man, give him a hand

Neverland, Neverland

-"Neverland" (2001)
by the Damned

The King is dead! Long live the King?

Few things in my pop culture experience have been anywhere near as weird as the incredibly public and lengthy transformation/meltdown of Michael Jackson. I’m not even gonna try and be reverent: Michael was one seriously fucked-up son of a bitch and his disturbing aspects were all the more disquieting for those of us who witnessed his arrival as the sprightly, fresh-faced and cherubic lead singer for the Jackson Five. Michael’s initial appeal sprang from his sweet charm, commanding stage presence that was incredible to witness in one so young, and undeniable gift for ultra-funkified song and dance, and during his solo career he bridged the perceived gap between “black” and “white” pop music to become the ultimate pop culture juggernaut.

The Jackson Five, circa 1970.

I remember seeing Michael and his brothers performing on TV from the time when I was four and I knew most of their hits up to the point when my family ended up in Connecticut (the summer of 1972), so when I was given a copy of their classic ABC album I relished it as a rare nugget of blackness in my new lily-white and more-than-a-little blue-blooded hometown. That album is badassed from start to finish, but for me the powerhouse tracks on it were “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Bet Ya,” a track that I later discovered was a cover of Funkadelic tune. Think about that for a second: one of the country’s top wholesome pop acts covering a piece by a pack of the most LSD and weed-fueled Negroes this side of Jamaica. Sure, the Jackson Five were black themselves, but image-wise and musically they were the polar opposite of George Clinton and pals. How cool is that?

As their popularity grew, the Jackson Five were everywhere. Name a variety show from that era and the Jackson Five were on it. Amazingly, even in the affluent Caucasian Paradise Island that was 1972 Westport, the Jackson Five were beloved enough for it to be okay for Muffy and Princess to have posters of five strapping young black dudes tacked to their bedroom walls while the only other people of color allowed into their universe of privilege were the family’s “help.” The parents of those girls were down with Michael, Marlon, Jermaine, Tito, and Jackie because they were perceived as harmless and wholesome, but I can tell you for a fact that several of those now-adult girls harbored other-than-chaste fantasies about the boys from Indiana and it blew my mind to discover that anyone found Michael and his brothers the object of first sexual feelings and desires.

For me the ultimate sign of the Jackson Five’s crossover acceptance was the existence of the Rankin-Bass animated cartoon series featuring them as the protagonists. While the pre-LSD Beatles were the first pop group to have a cartoon show — albeit a majorly lousy one — the Jackson Five cartoon — entitled JACKSON 5IVE — proved to be quite entertaining for what it was, despite the irritating addition of two mice (Ray and Charles) and a pink rattlesnake (Rosie) to the crew. With their animated versions designed by legendary MAD magazine artist Jack Davis, the show ran on network TV and in syndication for years and is fondly remembered to this day.

Jack Davis promo art for the JACKSON 5IVE cartoon show (1971-1973).

What cracked me up about this at the time was the virtually simultaneous release of an Osmonds cartoon, the Osmonds being pretty much the melanin-free analog of the Jacksons by way of Utah. While the Jacksons series featured cheapjack animation, the Osmonds show was embarrassingly poor, even from an under-ten’s perspective, and this intended “whitey” competition swiftly faded from view, its demise aided by tunes that simply stood no chance against the Jacksons’ booty-shakin’ onslaught. Consequently the Osmonds cartoon show remains in near total obscurity, as far as I know unseen in this country since perhaps as far back as 1973.

As the brothers grew older, Michael became a handsome young star, mostly leaving his brothers in the dust of pop culture consciousness and fully deserving his place on the cover of the unintentionally hilarious “one-finger banjo” stroke mag TIGER BEAT. Standing out from the legion of Bobbys, Jimmys, Donnys, and other such cover boys by virtue of pigment and a Death Star-sized Afro, Michael was the first fully-accepted black pinup idol who was kinda/sorta “of age,” if ya get my drift, but he was just as safe and cutesy as his contemporaries. In fact Michael was even moreso, thanks to a rather fey and verging-on-girly demeanor. Even Donny Osmond could (somehow) be seen as masculine, but Michael exuded what my gay pals refer to as “fierceness” and never anything resembling a grownup or even adolescent masculinity. That unfortunate aspect was cemented by his Oscar-winning and uber-wussy theme song from the WILLARD sequel BEN, a sweet ditty that speaks of how two lonely souls have found each other in a bond of friendship, but if you hadn’t seen the movie you would never have known it was a love song to a vicious and utterly homicidal rat. No, seriously. That's what the song is actually about.

The alternate cover for Jackson's "Ben." I swear to god this isn't a Photoshop collage.

A few more years with his brothers followed while Michael continued to release largely treacly solo albums (four in total) and the unfortunate career choice of appearing as the Scarecrow in the virtually unwatchable film of THE WIZ, but his career trajectory and image were forever changed by the release of the excellent OFF THE WALL album.

1979's OFF THE WALL: concrete proof that disco didn't have to suck.

A genuinely good standout amidst the vast desert of sound-alike and soulless disco swill, that album gave us such deathless classics as its title track, the weepy “She’s Out of My Life,” “Rock with You,” and my flat-out favorite of the lot, the totally awesome “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough.” A massive hit, OFF THE WALL was the first album in which the public began to notice Michael looking kind of…odd, but most chalked that up to him having grown up.

1982's THRILLER, an album that no one bought and is now completely forgotten.

Three years later, the epochal THRILLER was released to unprecedented success and the album remains the best-selling album of all time, right up to this day. Containing about a million singles that have since become ingrained in the DNA of world culture, THRILLER won every award short of the Nobel Peace Prize and the Pulitzer and was played ad infinitum during the whole of the Eighties, thus making it one of the handful of albums I could happily go to my grave without ever hearing again.

With the unbelievable success of THRILLER the freakshow that Michael became began in earnest, and as that has been endlessly covered in the subsequent years, much to our international morbid fascination, I don’t think it’s necessary at all to go over all of in minute detail once more.

MIchael Jackson in 1987: the full-blown madness now made publicly manifest. In the deathless words of my uncle Clady, "Nigger, please."

If you knew of Michael Jackson at all from 1982 onward you are familiar with the Neverland Ranch, Bubbles the chimpanzee, that stupid fucking sequined glove, his ludicrous post-Sgt. Pepper fashion sense, his odd and shrill ululations accompanied by crotch-grabbing, his creepy E.T. fixation (see below),

the admittedly impressive “Moonwalk” (which he cribbed from mime Marcel Marceau, but made it cool), the 3-D vapidity of CAPTAIN EO, his douche-chill-inducing Peter Pan boy/man persona, the revelations about his purportedly abusive childhood, his ludicrous marriage to Lisa-Marie Presley, "Blanket," and last but definitely not least: the frequently-denied surgeries/skin-bleaching and the allegations of pedophilia. Any one of those would have provided tabloid-fodder for weeks, but all of them and more have steadily escalated for three decades, an avalanche of weirdo dysfunction brought to a halt only by a cardiac arrest at the age of fifty.

Michael during his tragic "Zira from PLANET OF THE APES" phase.

To be honest, the thing that shocks me most about Jackson's untimely death is how utterly mundane it was. After decades of bearing witness to his descent into self-mutilating madness, I expected him to have committed suicide or have been murdered by the understandably-enraged parents of an under-tween who'd spent a weekend at Neverland, but death by a mere cardiac arrest never once crossed my mind. And while I am saddened by his passing, I kind of think that death is the only way in which Michael can find the peace of mind and stability so clearly missing from his life. As far as I'm concerned, the Michael Jackson I knew, loved and respected died for all intents and purposes following the release of OFF THE WALL, but in summation it must be noted that Michael was the living, breathing Ground Zero for the knocking down of racial barriers when it came to the integration of pop music, both in terms of the crossover audience and within the monolithic American music industry. Black music is nowadays enjoyed across ethnic lines like never before, as evidenced by the legions of "ghetto"-acting white kids (which frankly makes me laugh my ass off), and I dare say such a meeting of the inter-cultural minds would never have happened if not for a fey little nuclear reactor of a brutha from Gary, Indiana.

Rest well, Michael Joseph Jackson. The dance has finally ended.

Jackson in the landmark video for THRILLER (1983). Makeup effects by Rick (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON) Baker.


Frank said...

He had his failings like we all do, but there will never be another. Could never be another. I think that the proverbial walk of a mile in his patent leather loafers would have been a very sad and lonely one.

Xtina said...

I have such vivid memories of the Jackons 5, Off the Wall, and Thriller. Thriller was overplayed, but it did not suck that bad. MJ had talent, that's for sure. He was pop. And he was incredibley strange - butchering his looks, marrying Lisa Marie, Neveralnd Ranch, admittingly sharing the same bed with kids (and god knows what else), dangling his son off a balcony, etc. That part of him was literally another person from the boy of Jackson 5. I love that kid and I have to segragate the good from the bad right now and mourn that sweet and super talented boy and young man. I don't know if it was his abusive father, his child-star upbringing, his lonely, global fame, or what but somewhere along the line the man became abnormal. His face alone is a horror. How could he do that to himself? And the way he covered his kids faces? MJ's death saddens me a lot today because he was part of our youth culture, you just could not ignore the guy even if you wanted to. Thriller played ubiquitously on Mtv when Mtv actually played music videos. Michael Jackson dead just does not compute yet. Michael Jackson?????

CREX said...


Bill Scurry said...

Well, that's pretty much all that need be said. If my Jehovah's Witness dad beat the sour mash out of me with a belt so I'd sing "Rockin' Robin" on key, I too might have been both the catalyst of a race revolution in music as well as possessor of a chimp.

Anonymous said...

One of your best, Bunche. Well done. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Well, you kicked the shit out of the NYT, that's for sure. I totally forgot all of the most important stuff--like how Jackson and his brothers were the first to break the color barrier and have their images hung in the bedrooms of white girls in CT. Or how their animated show squished the Osmonds'. Or why it all mattered.

Shari Lynn said...

"douche-chill-inducing". Ha!

Seriously, it's a great piece. Not that I'm particularly surprised. I've been studiously avoiding the media because I don't want to hear what they all have to say about this - but I was hoping you'd write something. Yours is the only take I cared to read. Thanks for it!

Anonymous said...

“one-finger banjo”

This made me laugh and say out loud, "I love you, Bunche!"

No, I never heard that phrase before!

-Glenn the Jew

Hellbilly said...

That is a kick-ass obit. Puts the avalanche of milquetoast media Jackson "tributes" to shame.

Ken Pierce said...

Excellent piece Mr. Bunche, but I expected an interesting and insightful commentary about Michael Jackson from you. All being said, he was a great entertainer and barring the weirdness and allegations, we shall never see his kind again. At least for a long, long time, especially considering how corporately cut the music industry is these days. His loss affects all genres no matter what people say based on his innovations, pushing the envelope farther than the norm and just by leaving an audience breathless.

Rest In Peace Michael Jackson. Your influence shall forever resonate.

Anonymous said...

Bunche, I just read your blog. You said, "And while I am saddened by his passing, I kind of think that death is the only way in which Michael can find the peace of mind and stability so clearly missing from his life. As far as I'm concerned, the Michael Jackson I knew, loved and respected died for all intents and purposes following the release of OFF THE WALL, ..."
OMG, you have said exactly what I had said about a hundred times yesterday to people who wondered why I wasn't crying. I mourned Michael's death years ago. Now I just kinda feel at peace that he's now at peace.


Anonymous said...

Very nice encomiums for Michael and Farrah-- though I have to suggest the Jackson was not much of a "crossover" representative -- by himself. How many of us can span the races and financial statements as he has. Undoubtedly talented but obviously affected by his fame. (I always say, give me a chance to show the world how to be filthy rich and famous...) I think it was the people around him who "shotgunned" him into new levels-- which I am not so sure could be characterized as "whiteness." Or even a blackness that appeals to whiteness. His producers were utterly amazing-- yes; he could keep up, but he was in fast fast company.

As for Farrah-- well, I think it was her nipple that explained that poster's popularity. It was the only "mega-star" nipple that was currently out there. True, all Lynda Carter had to do was stand there in carpet remnants to get me going; still, she never really showed off (exploited) her assets. And Charlie's Angels truly and deeply sucked-- I watched exactly one episode-- and this because I personally knew David Doyle! -- but even that could not get me to see another.

That porcelain Jackson with Bubbles -- gee-- words fail me.

-Professor Brown

Satyrblade said...

Michael Jackson was a brilliant and obviously disturbed artist. I've felt sorry for him for over a decade, and am glad he's finally at something resembling peace (we hope...).

Firefly said...

Wonderful review Bunchie! "Thriller" was the first album I ever bought, and I remember the cartoon as well as seeing Michael on "Free to be You and Me," "Soul Train," and a million other places.

I have only one disagreement - I loved "The Wiz." But then again, I was only six.

It's freaky to see the change in his photos - the way you've chronicled it is great. His descent into disturbed madness was truly sad. But I too am glad it ended rather mildly in terms of the way he died... because it doesn't ruin the memory of an amazing force.