“bah-du-du-dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah DUH ”
I guess I never really got Michael Jackson, and that’s part of what makes me sad. When he was in his glory period — judging from the parts of his oeuvre that others seem to have been most affected by — I was too young, and then later I was just not really very much into that kind of music. Growing up, I first took my cues from my dad’s Beatles records, which expanded to 60’s guitar rock, then, later, to Bela Fleck and the neo-bluegrass I found through him. These days, I hardly listen to anything that isn’t African, though Glenn Gould’s 1981 Goldberg Variations continues to convince me (like Dante) to put aside my secular apostasy every time it has me in its clutches.
Yesterday, I flew across the country on a Virgin Air flight. It was a long flight, and when I found myself, in the wee hours of the morning, walking the long dark existential road that separates my home and resting place from El Cerrito plaza, I found myself thinking about music. A long flight will do that to you. In fact, just to emphasize that there ain’t no banality like an inflight banality, I saw a thunderstorm from my window. Thoreau spent a lifetime trying to find words for the spectacle of such things, and it’s not my thing; I will only say that watching that play of light and darkness — so alien, so mute, so vast — was the sort of thing they invented the word “sublime” to make a virtue out of failing to capture. I was awed.
Anyway, I had been watching you tube videos of Jackson in the airport, but when I got down to the business of making a playlist to listen to during the flight — Virgin provides in-flight music to listen to through your headphones — I didn’t listen to any of his music. I’m sure they had some, but I couldn’t even tell you for certainty that they did; it didn’t even occur to me to check. Instead, I listened to Bruce Springsteen, Al Green, Frank Zappa, Norah Jones, Dave Matthews, Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Sarah McLaughlin, Beatles covers, Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin. “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations” were a revelation, again, as was the live version they had of “Thunder Road.” I forgot how moving McLaughlin’s “Angel” is; Al Green’s voice makes me want to sing like that and Arcade Fire makes me want to only listen to that song in the dark with headphones, or while watching a thunderstorm. “Bodysnatchers” somehow wasn’t what I remembered it being, though I found Amnesiac more compelling than the last time I heard it. And somehow “Peaches en Regalia” didn’t do it for me last night — I think I was needing faith that evening, and Zappa’s faith is buried in the kind of angry cynicism that only a kazoo can properly capture — but I bet that “Filthy Habits” or “Re-gyptian Strut” from the Lather album would have struck the right tone, had they been available. Whats Going On just plain wrecked me, and may I just say, early Aretha Franklin, goodness. My goodness.
I had a book on the plane, but I didn’t read it much; listening over headphones to that music, that heavenly, heavenly music, transported me. It transformed those songs — some of which I own — into something they hadn’t been before, or rather, it allowed them to transform me. I closed my eyes and I was gone.
When Johnny Cash died, I and my compadres found ourselves at the Friendship Heights orders, where we purchased Folsom Prison Blues and we later drank shots while listening to it. I wonder why we did that. Not that it wasn’t appropriate to do so, but we had to go to Friendship Heights because, between the four of us, we didn’t own any Johnny Cash but the American IV cd. And yet his passing struck us, collectively, in ways his life apparently hadn’t; I can’t really explain, but ever since then, he’s meant something to me that he clearly hadn’t meant before he died. Even the American IV cd gets its real power from the fact of encroaching mortality; songs like “Hurt” or “The Man Comes Around” are the real heart of that album, enjoyable as “Danny Boy” or that “damn your eyes” tune. might be. But it took his death for Johnny Cash to suddenly mean something to me in ways I can’t articulate. But he does.
While I’m moved by Michael Jackon’s passing, it isn’t really as a performer, it isn‘t the spectacle of “Thriller” that I suddenly find myself clutching. I can’t lose that, because I never had it. And part of it has nothing to do with his music at all. Knowing that this human being is dead, this tremendously flawed, damaged, and agonized human being who was held up to a bizarrely warped and warping magnifying glass and standard for the entirety of his life, I find myself moved, less by the performer than by the prison that performer trapped himself in. It’s hard not to wonder, in fact, whether it was simply his time. If it was hard to imagine him being fifty years old, it was hard to imagine him still alive at all; just looking at him, and knowing what he once was, makes me want to look away. I wonder what he saw when he looked at himself. And I hope without hope that he’ll find some comfort, wherever he is.
But that’s a small part of it. Because I never got him, in the way other music gets me, part of it is simply that I feel that loss all the more now that it suddenly seems irrevocable. I can see from watching youtube, for example, that Michael Jackson was something unique as a dancer, and as a performer, and I can respect it, but it doesn’t grab onto me, it can’t — as the very faintness of my praise indicates — however much I’ve always wished it would. I didn’t see MTV until I was in college, so the only Michael Jackson video that brings with it an associational memory is that weird sci-fi video he did with Janet and that memory isn‘t all that good. And maybe it’s simply because the idea of a musician as performer, as a spectacle of sound and movement, is something that I didn’t grow up understanding, and came to so late, and still find interestingly foreign. Listening to music with my eyes closed is how it transports me; I saw a Phish performance on the inflight tv, but I turned the contrast down until the screen was dark so I could simply listen to the music, and I closed my eyes. They looked so white standing there, so awkwardly conscious of their bodies and yet so unwilling or uninterested in emoting through them, in exactly the way you can see Michael Jackson thrived.
I’m a very white person too, you know, and I never learned to dance until college, was never willing to emote through my body until I heard and heard Parliament Funkadelic and that certain moment in R&B that just happened to happen in the late nineties when I was ready for it. But it occurs to me now that one of the songs that burst onto my consciousness then, one of those songs that meant that to me, not because I heard it in headphones but because I only heard it through my body at parties, was the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” And especially that piano riff, that preposterously extended “bah-du-du-dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah DUH ” that somehow demands to be danced to. I remember dancing to it in college, and since, and I will again.