Friday, 26 June 2009

"...and though you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver..."

It is always dangerous to judge anybody on the basis of who they were, what they did and how they behaved in their youth. That is, judge them for the rest of their lives because of the way they started, or were made to start. Especially if from the start they are told in the firmest of tones, and with the harshest of menaces, that they are different from and superior to everybody else.

Nobody told the young Elvis that he was going to be God, and so he was able to maintain that position of Everyman to his people, equal to everybody else and superior to none, the oldest story that his country tells. But Michael was made swiftly aware – and I do not mean to underplay the violence implicit in that word “swiftly” – that he was special and was bound, as in irons, to remain special. No matter that every speckle of special shortened his life by another crucial minute, or hour, or year, as if he had to use up all his donated and inherent energy to maintain the façade of specialness. All to allow his father to experience fame and greatness at second hand, whatever the cost to either.

Damn the misdiagnosed prodigies. For every Shirley Temple Black there has been a Judy Garland, for every Bonnie Langford a Lena Zavaroni, for every Mozart a Mozart. Dying young and inglorious, their lesser energies used up and exhausting the red dye on their balance sheets since all their greater energies had been devoted to making their youth special at the cost of potential adulthood.

I know that of which I speak, since I myself was supposed to be a suspiciously prodigious child, and newspaper clippings of this alleged genius continue to survive. I began talking in a coherent tongue at an absurdly early age, got the hang of elementary reading and writing not long afterwards, and somehow this contrived to make me “special” and “gifted.” The fact that I did not start to walk until the age of 18 months should have set off early alarms, but in the sixties such alarms were not yet being manufactured. As it is, I don’t really recognise the four-year-old me staring intently at a letter from the National Association for Gifted Children – was I really reading it? And if so, what did I learn? – in the pages of the Scottish Daily Mail. Or the ten-year-old me busily pretending to type on a Smith-Corona typewriter on our kitchen dining table on the cover of the Hamilton Advertiser, the one who was already noted as keeping scrupulous and comprehensive records of the pop charts and was expected to be a published author by the age of thirteen. As it is, my first book is scheduled for publication in September 2010, by which time I shall be forty-six. A defiant late starter compensating for the absence of any meaningful early starts?

How was I supposed to know? The first recognised case of Asperger’s syndrome was not diagnosed until 1981, too late for my school or my father and nearly too late for me. So I fumbled my way through grown-up life for twenty years, and then that life was snatched away from me, and so I had to resort to writing since the person to whom I was accustomed to telling my tales was no longer around and I had to tell somebody. And so I got my life back, painfully and messily but it was all there, and the prospect of living longer than my dad is suddenly a graspable reality.

Michael Jackson, as he was, didn’t live much longer than my dad, who also died not long after his fiftieth birthday of heart failure which I knew from eight painful years of first hand experience to have been the product of a protracted suicide bid. The first automatic thing I uttered after hearing the news this morning was a mock-resigned “Just like Elvis,” but despite Lisa Marie, Michael was never just like Elvis, in any sense of the word “just.” True, he hung on for eight more years than Elvis managed, and if it matters (as it does) my dad’s demise owes much more, circumstantially, to Elvis’ than Michael’s. But did he hang on? He had not issued a significant musical statement in more than eight years. Instead he was lumbered with the wreckage of legend; trials for child abuse which faltered when instincts realised that gifted children will always be children and will always act like children and see the world and other human beings through the eyes of a child, crass crawls to service, or flee from, unimaginable debts. The stupid need to earn a living cemented his approaching passing; were those fifty O2 concerts always going to be as uncatchable a mirage as Welles’ The Other Side Of The Wind? Don’t we now visualise our imaginations of those concerts as infinitely superior to what any reality would have revealed itself?

But I saw him, at Wembley in 1988, wearing socks made of angel, faster, hipper, bolder, lighter than any other entertainer I had ever seen, and I never thought to look for any strings; the concert was less theatrical – less shiny – than Prince’s Sign “O” The Times show which I’d caught in Paris a year earlier. But there was never any doubt, either there or on his demolition of Motown 25, that he was not equal to the rest of us.

And yet when he emerged from the embryo of the sixties he wanted to be everybody’s friend; listen to that uncomplicated complex simplification of James Brown and “Cloud Nine” that swishes across “I Want You Back” or “ABC” and hear the glow of one who should never need to worry. How he and his brothers allowed the groove to settle, ferment a little, in their Philly years before graduating to “Blame It On The Boogie” and “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground),” stoking up the fuel and the remembrances, until he finally caught his own chains in 1979 with Off The Wall, a pop-up encylopaedia containing everything everyone should reasonably or unreasonably need to know about pop and how to walk it and breathe it; experience his contagious confidence on “Don’t Stop” (with young Janet joining in on the percussion, as eventually did the rest of the planet) and feel the ooze of someone who knows that this is his moment.

Off The Wall, aesthetically, was his moment, and there was nowhere for him to go from there except upwards. If the video for “Can You Feel It?” unambiguously pictured him as (a) God, then Thriller slowly and subtly confirmed it; sneaking out at the end of 1982, when all thought that New Pop had finished, and completely misread for the first few months of its existence (but then “The Girl Is Mine” was perhaps not the best trailer the record could have had), it revealed its hands patiently; “Billie Jean” was already grasping lessons from Martin Fry and Trevor Horn – or Quincy was there to grasp and advance them – and “Thriller” the song steps up the Temperton Britfunk template and turns it into a soulboy Escalator Over The Hill.

Every Michael Jackson album has a deceptively long shelf life, and so Bad wasn’t as bad as most instantaneously assumed (since Michael and Quincy had listened to Propaganda and they hadn’t), and Dangerous drew lines between swingbeat and the Cocteau Twins, and…but more of that when I get to those albums in TPL. The point is that, as Jackson’s stature and godhood grew, his inquisitiveness did not shrink; even in the seemingly unpromising plains (to those whose walking boots felt insufficiently secure) of History there is ravenous rancour (“Scream” where Jam and Lewis finally get, via Janet, into him) and unexpected static beauty (“Stranger In Moscow,” as profound a 1995 melancholy as “He Thought Of Cars”).

And he was expecting to be the new King, and kind of expecting his bigness to be interpreted as holiness – but, as I will never tire of saying, this is the fundamental point and purpose of art; to exceed oneself, to make claims towards God. What was the more egocentric – his Brit Awards performance of “Earth Song” or Cocker’s interruption of it? “Earth Song” plaintively, and then with increasing ferocity, asks questions of the 1967 which spawned it; why haven’t we got this golden paradise now? Why, in fact, are we killing everything off, including ourselves? What about Marvin indeed? Cocker’s bum, in contrast, was reductionist, petty, as sarky a tongue stuck out to his better as those which the striking Sheffield miners used to aim at the 21-year-old Cocker attempting to read Penguin Classics in the café.

Not that it seemed to bother or stir Michael much, except that after 1995 there wasn’t much else; a wan remix album, the still (by me) undecided epilogue (as it turned out) Invincible. He was gradually compelled to deal with the world, the humbling, humiliating world, the world which baffled him as to why it couldn’t simply respect and admire what he could do. If only he could do it again. Maybe those O2 gigs would have formed an astonishing knockout comeback, not to mention the album he had begun to record with of the Black Eyed Peas in the producer’s chair. But essentially that half century of gigs were being performed for the money – or maybe they weren’t. Maybe he still felt he had something to prove to his dad – a father who, like mine, was not averse to violence as a tool for hammering in the assumption of greatness. Perhaps, like my dad, he had been rehearsing this moment for years, ducking away or bowing out at the last second like the most evanescent of magician’s doves.

And of course none of this will, in anyone’s end, least of all Michael’s, matter. What will matter are his shrieks, gulps and cries of joy (and, occasionally but starkly, sorrow) throughout Off The Wall, and especially on its lovely side streets of tracks like Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” where he grabs the song and simply swims with it into the sea of swing. The way his socks turned tungsten into pearl. The way he made all of us feel, however feebly we wish to admit it. Particularly when he had to be grown up, and therefore act human, like the rest of us. We must be careful not to start treating his memory like a child.


mike said...

Ah, I was hoping you'd write something. Superb and moving stuff.

I can well understand the MJ sales spike, as a time like this calls for re-familiarisation and re-evaluation on the part of the listener (as well as the filling in of gaps in one's knowledge of his catalogue.) Curiously, a case is being made in some quarters for revisiting the bleakly goth-rocking first half of Blood On The Dancefloor, i.e. before the remixes take over - and perhaps it's also time that I sat down with Invincible.

Your words on the burdens of Early Promise (and the attendant vicarious demands of ill-tempered fathers with fatally unhealthy lifestyles) also strike certain chords of recognition. Enough said on that...

Jeremy said...


nuno said...

beautiful and sad.
will your book be the "church of me" compendium?


Marcello Carlin said...

Actually it will be the book of this blog (of all blogs!) - coming out on 0-Books (as in "Zero") next autumn.

david said...

Congrats on the book, Marcello. I'll look forward to seeing it. Only just catching up with blogs after being at Glastonbury when I heard about MJ's death. If it hadn't been my partner texting me, I'd have assumed it was one of those silly Glasto rumours. Very good piece. This is the only other one that's really stayed with me: by Sean at saidthegramophone