"You and I must make a pact, we must bring salvation back, where there is love, I'll be there..."
"I'll Be There" was one of the first songs that introduced us to that legendary performing/recording act of five brothers, The Jackson 5, featuring the angelic voice of a small, skinny kid named Michael. Centered mostly around little brother's vocals, these Gary, Indiana, siblings further busted up the pop and r&b charts with such memorable Motown hits as "I Want You Back," "ABC," "The Love You Save," "Mama's Pearl," "Never Can Say Goodbye," "Sugar Daddy," and later, "Dancing Machine," and their music became the soundtrack of the early seventies, it being impossible to have not owned at least one of those infectious singles. A mere year or so later, the pre-teen Michael Jackson (marketed as being two years younger) became a solo artist, with his own run of child's view singles that included his first monster hit and release, "Got To Be There," followed by his cover of Bobby Day's "Rockin' Robin," "I Wanna Be Where You Are," and the theme song to the movie Ben starring Lee Montgomerey.
Some time between the brothers' hits "Enjoy Youself" and "Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)" and right around the time Michael starred in The Wiz alongside the 5's Motown sponsor, Diana Ross, the first serious stories of The Jacksons' childhood surfaced, tales of intense rehearsals, parental abuse and emotional neglect; it was shocking since these boys appeared on every home's entertainment device for years, thus becoming somewhat extended family to many. That was the first controversial tabloid exposé the still rising star had to survive, but sympathies especially went out to Michael, his having been the most popular and familiar face of the act as well as one of his family's youngest children. After signing with Epic Records in 1979, the celebrity made a major "comeback" with what was the beginning of an endless stream of smashes, starting with "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," "Rock With You," "Off The Wall" and "She's Out Of My Life." Under the supervision of Quincy Jones, the producer/architect behind an emerging late seventies/early eighties champagne r&b sound, the album Off The Wall and its associated hits established Jackson as a young African American icon.
The album's follow-up, the international sales phenomenon that was Thriller, gave Jackson seven more hugely successful hits in his duet with Paul McCartney, "The Girl Is Mine," "Billie Jean," "Beat It," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "Human Nature," "P.Y.T.," and his Vincent Price duet, "Thriller" (an eighth, "The Lady Of My Life," was rumored to have been prepped before the government's crackdown on the music industry's promotions practices began). The LP soon displaced Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon, Carole King's Tapestry and Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Waters as the biggest selling album ever, and its relative videos cast Michael Jackson as an actor -- strutting down a boulevard on lit, multi-colored squares, assuming the role of mediator in a gang fight, and dancing with zombies in what became a world event for the debut of the mini-movie Thriller. At the top of his game as well as the world, Michael won eight Grammys for the hit-packed album, and he showcased his famous moonwalk dance moves on Motown's 25th Anniversary special. Virtually, the next day, every kid on the planet was trying to emulate his or her pop hero, and for many years, he really was the King of Pop, all due respect to The King.
It's after this point when things started reeling out, his Bad album having included many hits, though none that touched the heart as what came before. "Bad," "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Dirty Diana," and "Smooth Criminal" all seemed forced, though "Man In The Mirror" with its honest, positive message of changing the world for the best from within each individual was one of his finest offerings. The whole idea of Michael Jackson now being "bad" in any sense of that word was ludicrous, as was the album cover that featured a thuggish, mysteriously lighter-skinned Jackson. His growing immodesty and contrived crotch-grabbing contradicted everything we knew about him, and that emerging, fabricated image probably was the first red flag that something was very wrong. Perhaps those around him did not re-orient him from fear of losing their jobs or offending, and probably, this was the last, best moment in time that some kind of intervention might have been effective.
From then on, though pretty good albums and decent singles were released such as the beautiful "You Are Not Alone" and "Heal The World" (after which he named and created a charitable foundation), Michael Jackson's career and personal life decisions did almost nothing more than provide fodder to the tabloids. The list they were able to choose from was long and disturbing: marrying then immediately divorcing Lisa Marie Presley; converting his home into Neverland; having numerous plastic surgeries that resulted in stranger physical appearances; allegedly acquiring a hyperbaric chamber and, apparently, the bones of the "elephant man," Joseph Merrick; adopting Bubbles the chimp; securing an arranged marriage and pregnancies with Debbie Rowe; naming his son "Prince Michael"; arranging for interviews during which he asserted his heterosexual desires a little too insistently -- something we never really gave much though about until allegations of sexual abuse with children occurred, which brings us to those stories of Macaulay Culkin, Jesus Juice and sleepovers with children that takes us to the endless lawsuits and eventual loss of his millions and collapse of his career.
Today's death of Michael Jackson accompanies the death of a little more of this country's innocence. And it's symbolic that his heart finally just gave out. Ultimately, the adult Michael was responsible for his own actions and will be remembered for them accordingly. But due to his abusive upbringing and unimaginable, disorienting success as an artist, he probably just couldn't handle his life in any practical way. All we know now is that he suffered from something, and his passing is tragic because it happened at the bottom of a downward spiral, his never really being able to redeem himself in the eyes of the public -- something we seem to require before a forgiveness and acceptance back into the flock. Beyond the reams of his documented eccentricities, Michael Jackson was a huge talent who'll be missed, and he was one of our better, kinder kids whose life and story spun out of control, those seeds probably planted in his misplaced childhood. Just a thought -- shouldn't we have been our disturbed brother's keeper when it was obvious he really, really needed one?
Follow Mike Ragogna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ragz2008