Monday, June 29, 2009


Seventeen years ago, I'm in a rehearsal studio with the choreographer Twyla Tharp. Just the two of us. I'm the rehearsal assistant--I set up audio and video, play music for rehearsals, videotape them, show up with two 2-liter bottles of Evian for Twyla, sweep and mop the studio, go to her CPW penthouse apartment after, to set up the video so that she can watch the day's work.

So she's auditioning hand-picked men from the best ballet companies--Boston Ballet, NYCB, American Ballet Theatre. These guys are nervous. Like career-day nervous. Like Holy-Shit-I'm-Auditioning-for-Twyla-Tharp nervous. What music does she play as she tests the limits of the most interesting American ballet dancers you've never heard of? "Jam" by MJ, the opening tune from the Dangerous CD.

Michael's music is both prescient, timeless, and of the future, and Twyla instinctively knew that. Thriller, for example, remains the best selling album of all time--it's the Holy Grail of pop, serving up the Divine Right necessary to coronate a King.

In 1982, that music hit the 7th-grade sensibility like a value-weight sledgehammer dipped in honey. On one hand, we echewed the weirdo with the high voice and the single sequinned glove. On the other hand we were enthralled, clearly in witness of unique talent and dance mastery. It was like nothing we knew or had heard.

Is it hyperbole for my generation to say that Michael was our Beatle? Or just plain strange, seeing as Michael later bought an ownership stake in the Lennon/McCartney songbook....Back in the day, the truly brave among us wore Michael-inspired clothing (Stu Shaw, Jeff Leiboff). Hell, if you look real close at the class-trip photo to Washington, DC, I only have one leather glove sequins, though. But that leather lambskin jacket from 1991.....? Victory Tour all the way, baby.

Don't think there was any other artist from the 80s who presented such a dichotomy -- the guy was clearly well versed in estrogen, and yet.... you'd have to crank the heavy metal oeuvre to find any kind of comparable power emanating from one singer, and even then, who.... Dee Snyder from Twisted Sister? Please. Michael was a wellspring, whereas everyone else was a trickle. If you wanted "heavy," Eddie Van Halen legitimized "Beat It" with his iconic 1/128th note guitar solo. We played it, airband style, at summer camp, in the cabin --- mop=bass guitar, tennis racket=lead guitar.

Out in the woods, my family didn't have cable, and so what little I saw of MTV, I picked up at Jonathan's house before we walked to school together three times a week. (Just the year prior, the early-morning TV fare had been "Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space" and now this....!) but the faithful sat by their televisions and counted down until the Thriller videos hit the airwaves. My girl sources tell me that entire pajama parties were organized around the release of the "Thriller" video, which in recent years has taken on viral life, with homage performances as varied as wedding parties and Filipino prisoners... who then recreated an homage after his death in a truly bizzarre meta-tribute, which still isn't as fun as getting down with a regular old water mammal.

Somewhere along the line, the tortured MJ soul decided it would be a really good idea to bleach the crap out of his skin, and get Diana Ross look-a-like surgery. Sad. And yet somehow inspiring. He was a pop Angel, not of this earth, ascended from flesh to fantasy, from Ebony to to Ivory, from boy child to man child. We need someone to go the other way now. Perhaps Lady Ga-Ga can add corresponding pigment in solidarity. It'd be only right. Or maybe Madonna. It'd get her closer to her African compound of children....
O Michael. You were a total friggin' freak, but you were OUR friggin' freak, with a childlike hope for the future, so just back off, lawyers, haters, and pappa-ratzos.

Michael Jackson, dead at 50. A pisser and a real shame.

The Top Ten Jacko/Jackson 5 tunes that make a former rural DJ really happy:

Ebony & Ivory
Say, Say, Say
I Want You Back
Man in the Mirror
Beat It
Black or White

**There is no better song to listen to whilst on the exercise bike. Just try. He'll put you right at 100 RPM.

Thank you Michael for keeping the beat, and the faith, as long as your freaked-out body could take it. You made millions happy, including this one boy from rural Pa.


  1. An eloquent retro-reflection as usual. I have come to expect no less.

    Yes, I too was a MJ fanatic through the 80s. But I was a closet-Mike. One of the skeletons in my high-school closet includes a summer spent on Long Island with my dad. Step-mom at the time was a hair stylist. Knowing my affinity for MJ, she spent an entire day in the salon with me converting my rural semi-mullet into a MJ do-over. Complete with black hair-coloring and a tactically placed amount of curls. I want to say summer of '84, but I can't really recall. To my salvation I was wise enough to convert back to a style known to be better received in rural PA prior to returning back to my alma mater. The glove collection and Beat-It version jacket kept in moderate seclusion. And very little photographic evidence kept through out the years.

    For years I feared that photos would resurface. Not so much a fear of ridicule, but simply friendly embarrassment. Now with MJ gone, I wish I did have pics and other personal MJ memorabilia in hand.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Brother Scott -- you remain, the man.

    I forgot to mention in 1994, I was in London, again with Twyla, and one of the stagehands at the Riverside Studios, in Hammersmith, was a chap named Wayne.

    Late into the night, we stagehands shot billiards and drank ale. At a certain hour, Wayne, with no small amount of encouragement, and who had to be in his mid-30s at the time, broke into a stunning MJ impression--the choreography of "Billie Jean," re-enacted for our pleasure, in someone's flat, in the dead of night. Good times....

  4. I missed the frenzy around MJ, not to mention MTV. I was living in the boonies w/o cable, trying to limit boob tube watching while raising two boys, and generally done with my "music as inspiration" years. Much of my understanding of MJ is of the superficial headline/sound bite variety. Accordingly, I am astounded by the media reaction to his death.

    Other artists understand his impact. A friend, a dancer/choreographer, nearly broke down in tears at my office the day MJ died. I was speechless. I'd only experienced the freakish side of MJ. Thanks Andrew, for elucidating the unique artist, the innovator, and the legacy of his wonderful discography.


  5. I was late in coming to appreciate MJ, as I have been with most pop-culture-centric phenomena, but watching MJ (I forget the event) perform a song, dancing alone on stage, with hardly any (was there?) musical accompanyment and captivating an entire house, I had to recognize here was someone whose talent transcended mere pop-culture. Turns out it transcended musical genres, racial barriers, etc. And like the best music, his is of his time and beyond it. I never became a huge fan, but I'm still a little stunned.