The swirling mid day wind is moving the tall coconut trees and making the leaves shake to the beat patterns of it. Mango trees dance to the wind letting the ripe mangoes fall to the ground in rhythm. The cooling summer day breeze carrying around the sweet whiff of fruit mangoes. When I look at the huge mango tree standing tall before me offering its fruits unfailingly, I am reminded of Michael Jackson’s ‘giving tree’ that he regularly kept referring to. “Trees are the great inspiration of my music. When I climb and sit on my ‘giving tree’ music and poems spring from me on their own. I created many of my songs like ‘Heal the world’, ‘Will you be there?’, ‘Black or White?’ and ‘Childhood’ sitting on that tree. I look at trees with great love. Their kindness moves me to tears. I would always like to sit on them like an eternal child.”
When Michael Jackson passed away, I did not write much beyond a small note in Tamil in the Ananda Vikatan weekly. This made many of my readers conclude that I did not like Michael Jackson and his music. I have heard many remarks from them while talking of Michael Jackson, “You don’t like Michael Jackson, do you?” It was indeed a truth that in 1980s when Michael Jackson was at the height of his world-wide fame, I had not liked him! People like me were irritated at his grunts, growls and shouts while singing and the manner in which he merged music and dance into one single art. We truly hated him then for being the chief of all the people who made music for ‘watching’ rather than for listening.
We were in those days western music puritans! Rock was our ideal form of world music. Pop was alright. But that pop had to be within the confines of conventions decided by us. Those were the days when most western music bands in India tried singing his songs even when they were very difficult to render effectively on stage. We never sang a Michael Jackson song in our band. Our preoccupation was with a satirical singing on how it will look if Michael Jackson were to sing our favourite songs of 50s, 60s and 70s. We mimicked the songs of Rolling Stones, Queen, Phil Collins, Lionel Ritchie, Police, Marvin Gaye et all at the top of our voice with Michael Jackson’s typical grunts and growls like ‘ah’, ‘aai’, ‘ooi’ ‘oh’!
Above all, we found it inconvenient to digest his overwhelming world-wide fame and the fact that everybody knew of Michael Jackson. The very basis of our ‘purity of music’ fundamentalism was that music that is hugely popular cannot be quality music! The fact was that this kind of pre-judgment and prejudice against the music of Michael Jackson prevented us from making the effort to listen to his songs with discernment. But a video tape on the making of the song ‘We are the world, we are the children’ made in 1985, which came to me many years later changed all my imagined opinions of Michael Jackson and his music.
Many of my famous favourites like Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel sang the important parts of ‘We are the world’. Even the singers who sang in the background were very famous singers! Later, I was simply stunned when I saw Michael Jackson in the video, sing his parts of the song without any background music and then with background music in the recording studio. His singing proved to me that he was a better singer than my aforementioned favourites. I had goose pimples listening to his deeply expressive rendering style with immaculate pitch fidelity and his slight but very becoming vibrato. I was assailed by a feeling of guilt that I had not bothered to listen to such a rare singer with the discernment that he always deserved.
Thus it was that Michael Jackson had taught me that there is no place for pre-conceived notions in appreciation of music and that one should not form any opinion whether it be a singer or composer before listening to at least a few of their songs closely. From the day of that realization I have avidly looked for his music and music videos and listened to and seen them. Whenever I bought an audio or video player it was Michael Jackson’s music that was first played on them. I have collected CDs of most of his songs, his music videos, videos of his stage shows, Blue Ray discs, books written by him and on him and even his rare and difficult to get vinyl records.
Still the question remains, why did I not write on him when he died? This is an age where, when a big personality passes away, it becomes a major source of feed for most of the media for days together. Writers and journalists who knew nothing of him or his work jumped with their hands and feet as experts on Michael Jackson, armed with tidbits of information from Internet and massive downloads of anything and everything that was written on him. Today anyone can become an expert on anything, courtesy of Google. All you need is the Key words and names to type in. Most of the obituary write-ups on Michael Jackson were of this genre.
I cared enough for Michael Jackson to shy away from being considered one out of a score of such writers. Even when written with a deep understanding of his music and factors that moved him to create his music, you will still be counted along with that superfluous writer crowd. So I kept away from writing on Michael Jackson who changed my perspectives of popular music and my understanding of the world music industry. But every time I listened to his music and every time I thought of him an undefined sense of pain used to course through my mind. Many see and understand Michael Jackson’s life and music with the same kind of wrong perspectives as I had seen his music during his earlier days.
Michael Jackson is celebrated as by far the best singer of popular music by experts who evaluate the quality of singing. There is nothing to equal the heights he reached in music industry as a singer, lyricist, composer, dancer, choreographer and music producer. He has 23 Guinness records in his name like most copies of music albums sold in the world, world’s most successful music tours, music events where most people participated, world’s most watched music videos, model who received maximum money for acting in an advertisement film, person who made highest money from music business etc. But what is really important among all these is the fact that he also holds the Guinness Record for the most amounts donated to most number of organisations involved in humanitarian causes and environmental issues!
Michael Jackson who always laid emphasis on lyrics of rare simplicity, a composing style that included everything from classical music to countless other forms of music, endless effort to offer only the latest in instrumental sounds and the endless search for improvement in sound quality, never had the benefit of proper music training! He did not receive any kind of training in dancing either. A formal education, too, eluded him. He could never read or write musical notes. He created all his wondrous songs by singing the scores to his fellow musicians whenever a music part played in his mind! Just imagine how miraculous is the happening that Michael Jackson reached all the heights of the creative art with his music and dance that came from the instructions of no master! As I have said repeatedly, music is not to be learnt but to be felt.
Michael Jackson’s voice, which you will never forget once you hear it, had more feminine traits than masculine traits. He had a soft but high pitched voice. His voice could travel up and down the four octaves with ease. His voice had the strength and quality to hold the notes for any length of time without slightest of pitching problem. It was remarkable that his voice sounded like that of the musical instruments. He had no peer in the industry in mimicking the sounds of music instruments like drums and bass guitars. Expressing the emotions of lyrics through deep rendering is the strength of Michael’s singing style. And in dancing every cell of his body was beating to a rhythm. He himself used to say,’ I am a slave of rhythm’. Through his dance he gave some shape and visibility to the abstract art form named music!
For him dance and song were never two things apart. When he started singing at the age of five, he started dancing to his very first song. He could sing with ease in a flawless pitch dancing at the same time without ever getting breathless. James Brown the singer, who called the ‘Godfather of Soul Music’, was Michael Jackson’s ideal in this respect. After performing the impossibly difficult steps that he himself had innovated James Brown could sing emotionally without any stay! The affects of James Brown on Michael Jackson’s rendering styles and dance movements were very direct. After watching James Brown on stage for the first time as a child, Michael Jackson only wanted to be an entertainer like him. He learnt the James Brown style just by watching him constantly from distance!
When Michael Jackson climbed the stage in 2003 to give away the BET Award for Lifetime Achievement to James Brown, he got tearfully emotional saying “There is none other than this man in my life who taught me and inspired me.” In 2006 when James Brown passed away, it was the same Michael Jackson who delivered the final condolatory speech amidst inconsolable tears. The world phenomenon that we call Michael Jackson evolved by keenly watching such great singer- actors and dancers as Fred Astaire and Jean Kelly, great singers and entertainers like Sammy Davis Junior and Jackie Wilson, singers like Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight and Smokey Robinson and learning with a deep commitment from them.
Joe Jackson, Michael Jackson’s father, worked as a daily wager in an iron factory. He was a failed stage singer as well. He had, with his younger brother and friends formed a music band called Falcons. They sang the songs of Chuck Berry and others. Joe had nine children. Michael Jackson was his seventh child. It was Joe Jackson’s stubborn efforts born of a burning desire to achieve the success that eluded him through his children that created first the hugely successful music troupe called Jackson 5 and then Michael Jackson, the super star of world pop music.
Joe readied his talented children for great successes by compelling, forcing and at times lashing. Michael Jackson, the most talented among them received even more of that treatment. When his son called out ‘Dad’ in pain, Joe would admonish him, “I am not your dad. I am your trainer and manager, that is all.” It appears that Joe Jackson behaved more like an animal trainer in a circus towards Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson never knew, unlike other children of his age, what it was to play and be playful. Even normal schooling was denied to him. The countless small wishes and their fulfillment in part or full that make up the childhood were totally absent from Michael’s lost childhood.
Michael Jackson’s mother Katherine was a deep believer in the Church of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian sub sect. Even today she participates in one of the most important rituals of the church, which is to go from house to house to spread their faith. Michael Jackson was brought up from childhood to believe in and practice the archaic prescriptions of the church. Michael Jackson has written in some detail in his autobiography ‘Moon Walk’ about his regular visits to the ‘Kingdome Hall’ or the church hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses and his sincere following of the faith and its practices. Pre-marital and extra-marital sex relations, divorce, homosexuality and marriage of the homosexuals, preventing or curbing of pregnancy, abortion, gambling and use of tobacco or intoxicating and hallucinatory drugs were all ‘crimes’ deserving sentence of death, according to Jehovah’s witnesses. Coming as he did from a community that even regarded differing with father or husband as a big sin, Michael Jackson’s life was spent amidst the realities of life and the deeds proscribed by his faith!
In the early days, Joe Jackson arranged music events for the band of his children in the night clubs where women stripped and danced naked! Michael Jackson, not quite 10 years old yet, sang love songs standing behind the girls as they stripped and danced. Michael Jackson has written on how he was subjected to mental strains watching grownups crying out obscenely as they caught the inner garments thrown by the stripping dance girls and held them to their noses to catch the body odour of those girls. Michael Jackson has recorded the trauma of a child as his older brothers, on their music tours, brought girls to the rooms where brothers stayed together and how they made love to them on the other half of the bed in which Michael Jackson was lying, trying to catch up on his sleep. The sex plays that he had to watch from his childhood and a religious faith that declared them to be absolutely sinful had between them left Michael Jackson greatly confused and disturbed. This confusion had continued through his life and left him destabilized.
The thought that he was ugly and his facial features were repulsive had deeply rooted in his mind from Michael’s childhood itself. Michael had said that his father had regularly abused him saying, “Where did you get your thick nose and ugly features from? None in my family had born like this.” Because of this he hated watching himself in the mirror like other teenagers when pimples made them to examine their faces in the mirror. This chip on his shoulder had made him take recourse to plastic surgery later in his life to ‘improve’ his features. But, contrary to what many people believe, Michael Jackson did not make his skin white because of his inferiority complex as a black man. As he suffered from a skin problem called vitiligo he started having white patches on his skin. Little by little, parts of his chest and hands became totally white. It was at this stage that he underwent a series of difficult to carry out surgical procedures to totally change his skin to white. This was even believed as the reason for him to create his ‘Black or White?’ song!
Jackson 5 was the first music band in the world to achieve the rare distinction of all their first four songs hitting No.1 of the charts. This record remains unsurpassed to this day! In the same manner, Michael Jackson who became the international star with his very first album ‘Off the Wall’ never came down from that pedestal. Thriller, BAD, Dangerous, History, Blood on the Dance floor and Invincible were the rest of the seven albums recorded by him. These seven albums along with many singles were Michael Jackson’s contribution to the world of popular music. He has sung and recorded about 150 songs. Many songs like Billie Jean, Stranger in Moscow, Wanna Be Startin’ Something, Man in the Mirror, Earth Song, They Don’t Care About Us, Human Nature, Who Is It?, Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, Beat It, Black or White?, Gone Too Soon, Smooth Criminal and Heal The World are all his eternal songs.
In 1984, while acting in an advertisement film for Pepsi he had a very bad accident. He was dissatisfied with the five takes of a scene and was going for a sixth take when the burning debris of a pyrotechnic arranged for the take fell on his head. His face, hair and scalp suffered bad burn injuries. It took a few years for Michael Jackson to recover through many types of plastic surgeries. The many different types of pain-killers he had taken during this period gradually made him addicted to them. Along with these he also started taking different kinds of drug stimulants to cope with training for dance shows and long hours of stage shows. He became addicted to them as well. Soon he had regular drug regimen for insomnia and lack of appetite. To the last day of his life this cocktail of drugs with dangerous side-effects made his life possibly the most miserable existence. His body at the time of his death was a compendium of all terrible afflictions that modern medicine could cause. When a wash of his stomach was taken for post mortem, it contained only a variety of prescribed drugs! The coroner’s verdict was that his death occurred from an overdose of liquid drug Propofol that is generally administered to bring about complete anesthesia before a surgical operation.
Beatles still remain the number one in the world of popular music, whether it is sales value or the entertainment value. Elvis Presley comes very close next in the list. Michael Jackson believed for many years that he could not surpass the handsome whites Beatles and Elvis Presley because he was ugly and black. But the world over Michael Jackson is the personality that most people recognize, much more so than either of Beatles or Elvis Presley! Even in India Michael Jackson is recognized from line drawing of his form, hat, hand gloves and shoes! Michael Jackson brought to India in 1996 by Shiv Sena, an organisation that is touted to uphold the culture of Indians especially the Marathi culture! This exemplifies the artistic potency of Michael Jackson to transcend all cultural barriers.
Media had the habit of first creating a debate over whatever Michael Jackson did in his personal life and then making a commercial profit out of it. When he brought home a male monkey and a python as pets, they made out that he sexually lusted after animals! When he married the only daughter of Elvis Presley, they dubbed it as a clever move to take over all the musical rights of Elvis legacy! And when the marriage failed within the year, they tom-tommed from roof tops that it came about as homosexually-inclined Michael could not satisfy the beautiful Lisa Mary Presley! When he had two children from his former house maid, they pronounced that they were not his children. When he made efforts to shield his children from the crowd and nasty press photographers using masks and veils, they cried hoarse that it was violative of children’s rights!
When he came forward to provide the small pleasures of childhood to indigent children, the media diagnosed that he suffered from a mental condition that craved for sex with children. Soon enough, a number of cases were filed against him on this score. He suffered the humiliation of climbing the court steps to vindicate himself against much vilification and orchestrated demonstrations. The environment of distrust that media created against Michael Jackson was such as to make even the ardent fans of his music believed that he was mentally warped and had problems related to sex. But none of the countless charges against him were ever proved. He never went to a jail.
Michael Jackson had a long history of being betrayed by the people he deeply trusted. A person born in Pakistan but living in England named Martin Bashir, a television reporter, cleverly ingratiated himself into Michael Jackson’s life as his friend. He made a film on the personal life of Michael Jackson, titled ‘Living with Michael Jackson’. Such was his dominance of the thought process of Michael Jackson that he almost succeeded in putting all the words he wanted into Michael’s mouth. Then he showed this cleverly got up film to the world with his pronouncements and pontifications. Michael Jackson had taken in a boy suffering from cancer and abandoned by doctors. He got him treated and cured and made him feel at home. But paparazzi Martin Bashir, falsely pronounced to the world without any evidence, that Michael Jackson had sexual relations with the boy.
In 2003 when Michael Jackson had some financial difficulties, Abdulla bin Hamad of Bahrain, one of the world’s richest men approached him as his fan. He provided the finance needed to overcome the emergency, promising to do whatever he needed. Michael Jackson, in 2005, after the release from all his cases, stayed in Bahrain, unknown to anybody, as the guest of Hamad. During this time, he spent his time in different Gulf countries with his children. He was able to roam about freely there, wearing a burkah like a Muslim woman covering the face entirely. In those days, it was Hamad who bore all his expenses. But he later went to court saying, “I spent all that money in return for an album of Islamic songs and the right to Michael Jackson’s autobiography.” But Michael Jackson contended that he had given no undertaking and considered the money spent by Hamad for his holiday to be a gift from him.
Michael Jackson had composed, sung and recorded two Islamic devotional songs during his Bahrain days, ‘Islam is in My Veins’ and ‘Give Thanks To Allah’ written by Hamad. But on no occasion had he said in public that he had converted to Islam. His legal advisers had totally refuted all such news. But it appears that Michael Jackson had believed that a conversion to Islam will bring a stability to his life which was flowing away uncontrollably in a flood of prescribed drugs and mental instabilities.
Coming out of his holidays in 2009, Michael Jackson decided to hold stage shows again. He made bold to attempt what no other music superstar had ever attempted as the last music tour of his life. He agreed to hold a music show every weekend and every holiday at London’s O2 Arena, contracting in all for 50 shows at the same venue. The event was to start in July 2009 and end in March 2010, a nine months tour in effect. All the shows over nine months were sold out in advance! The rehearsals for this mega event were made into a music documentary film titled ‘This is it’ and was a huge commercial success when released later. In the history of music films this was the most viewed one ever!
With only a few days to go for the event, thirty years to the date he started as a solo singer Michael Jackson was found dead. Michael Jackson’s contributions to the world music and culture came to be properly evaluated only after his death! A childhood lost in pain and a life lived in consistent misguidance led Michael Jackson the man to many strange passes. But the magical light of his art, something that no other entertainer in the world ever had, brightened the whole world. Michael Jackson, the giving tree of soulful music and great kindness has been felled forever. Will a wonder tree like him ever grow again in this world?