“Thriller: Michael Jackson”

Michael Jackson died on Thursday, June 25th, 2009.

I've been trying to think about what would be a fitting thing to say about his passing. I'm sitting here on my desk while downloading "Thriller" from Amazon (which by itself sounds like a motion picture... "Thriller From The Amazon.") I'm trying to set aside my memories of the early 1980's and the album everyone had to have and the videos on MTV that everyone had to see, from the caricature of himself that he became. How can I remove the ugly rumors, innuendo and allegations made in charges against in those court cases from the musical artist that I enjoyed during some of my formative years?

I don't know. I'm tempted to let this pass and not say anything. Let it go and leave the memories be. Should I just write a review of his most popular album and be done with it?

There's a part of me that wants to pay tribute to my memories of 1983 and when I was in Junior High and when we all saw the ABC Network special "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever" and how everyone was either talking about what we all saw or were trying to duplicate his moves. That was the moment that Michael Jackson  really came to be the iconic figure of the early 1980's. It was that moment when a lot of us realized that his was the beginning of something special that doesn't come along too many times in our lives. And from that moment on, the next year or so Michael Jackson's "Thriller," all the singles, the music videos and everything else he did would dominate the entertainment industry. For better and worse.

I'm also trying to distill and encapsulate in this rant what Michael Jackson's "Thriller" meant to people my age in the early Eighties. There was something about that album, almost every cut from it was a top-ten chart-topper that captured the imagination of the western world and made a lot of us feel good for a short period. There haven't been too many albums that brought people together and so many people could agree with. As I already said, it was a once-in-a-lifetime event..

And while I'm trying to explain what he did and how, I can only relate by talking about my own work. When I create an image or a graphic that just looks right, it "pops." An image will just "pop" off the screen. It will just look right. I can't explain it to you, it just is. And that's the only way I can describe "Thriller." The album that would later define pop music for the decade just worked, it had the perfect rhythms, the perfect lyrics, all the instruments either real or synthetic, all of them just pop out of the speakers. The whole "Thriller" album "popped."

"Thriller" was a quantum leap from "The Motown Sound' and became the template for so many artists. Every album had to be full of great songs, not just a couple of good songs destined to be hits and then the rest were just mediocre. Jackson's success with "Thriller" (and Meatloaf's "Bat Out Of Hell" to some extent) made it harder for other artists to just make do. "Good enough" wasn't good enough any more. For that, the music industry was better for both the challenged artists and the paying customer.

Because Jackson allowed himself to be his best, he was simply the best at what he was did in those early years. He allowed himself, with the help of producer Quincy Jones and songwriters Rod Temperton and John Bettis, to create an album that was essentially everything he wanted to do but couldn't while under the strict management of his father during his childhood and early career. Everything that had been bottled up inside suddenly came out in this album comprised of every song worthy of being a single.

He had enormous success by being allowed to just be himself. That's an important lesson for all of us at the time when conformity was too often celebrated. For those years, he was the strongest advocate of individuality. Before he became "strange" (I'm struggling to be polite here) his life's lesson was that to be your very best, you had to be your own person. He didn't follow trends, he set them. He marched in his own direction, and then people followed. The man who was a non-conformist became conformity with so many others trying to duplicate his success.

And I almost hate to write this, Michael Jackson was 1/3rd the reason why people like myself wore fedoras during the 1980's. Obviously there was "Raiders Of The Lost Ark," many of us wanted to just emulate Indiana Jones. Then there was the home-video phenomenon and people were rediscovering the classics. But then there was Jackson who wore his fedoras in unconventional ways with nontraditional clothes. I honestly thought back then that thanks to these three factors fedoras would return to the mainstream.

Because of Jackson's public behavior and legal accusations in the years that followed, I think he hurt the retrocentric movement and fedora vendors and craftsmen. So, for all these reasons and more - I felt betrayed by Jackson.

Are The Memories Made Pure Again?

Is there anything good to say about him now? I know that there have been so many sycophants who have made statements that you have to separate his achievements and body of work from his personal life, I don't know if I can. Can anyone look at one of the Watercolor paintings made by Adolph Hitler and enjoy them just for what they were, only as works of art? After all I'm writing about the artist who created a wonderful album that sold so many copies, and was also accused so many times of molesting children. I don't think you can be accused again and again by so many other people and NOT be guilty.

Sometimes I can hear one of his songs and my memory will be brought back to those special places and time when I was young. I was listening to "Billy Jean" and I remember one special school dance. I heard "Thriller" and remembered when all of my friends were huddled around the television to see the full-length video. I remember hanging out at "Captain Bullfrogs" - the local record store in my home town and heard the whole album before buying some of the singles.

Now those songs that made him famous had become tainted like the water supply around Chernobyl; Other times I hear a song and I remember the weird behavior, the horrible accusations, and paying hush money to the families. I once walked out of another music store because of promotional display and the same music that was playing that had earlier kept me in and enticed me to make a purchase.

If it's not in bad taste to say this or admit to such a thing, for me there was a good thing to come from Michael Jackson's death. Since Thursday night, I've been back in Memory Lane.

For the first couple of hours after hearing about his death I was revisiting those earlier memories, before the wild eccentric behavior, the obsession with plastic surgery, and behavior that bordered on the insane. Watching and listening the tributes and accolades via the mainstream media then reading the recollections my former classmates were writing on their Facebook and MySpace many of the good memories resurfaced. For a couple of hours after the news of his death, it felt safe to revisit the music, listening to "Thriller" in its entirety for the first time in more the a decade.  Listening to that album it was safe to be 14 years old again and think back to when the world was new and full of both promises and trepidation. I've been taken back to a time when I really believed by being allowed to be yourself, you can be your best. Back before the time when I learned that you can't let success go to your head and you have to edit yourself so that other people don't see you as being too weird.

Yes, I can say something good at the time of his passing. For a couple of days I got those good memories back. I have no idea what will happen to those memories once news about what caused his death is released, and what other skeletons will come out of his closet when others feel free to speak now that he's gone.

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