Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Peace, Brother Michael
So U2’s finally on the road again, with their usual state-of-the-art panache. In celebration of last week’s opening gig in Italy, I popped Rattle and Hum into the DVD player. Ah, the velvety lusciousness of film, instead of the hard edges of tape! Great portions of the movie are steeped in Americana, peaking with the band’s pilgrimage to Graceland. Surely the best part of that sequence is hearing more than 5 words out of stoic Larry Mullen, and that’s on the subject of his admiration for Elvis, the musician. To be a young rock star visiting the earthly remains of the original Rock Star, the first one to burn out before he could fade away, must be a humbling pilgrimage indeed. And then the movie makes a poignant connection that in 20 years I never truly felt until now.
Larry lapses into contemplative silence while the camera lingers, and the soundtrack segues into the trembling intro of the band’s 1984 song, Bad.
If you twist and turn away
If you tear yourself in two again…
Bono’s inspiration for his lyrics was the scourge of heroin addiction among Dublin kids, but the band makes it a musical intervention – a desperate, muscular attempt to pull the addict, any addict, out of the blackness of their powerlessness.
If I could through myself
Set your spirit free
I'd lead your heart away
See you break, break away
Into the light
… Through the flame
It is as full an expression of sorrow and love as you will ever hear. In the film Rattle and Hum, it becomes in part a prayer for Elvis, an artist and a brother lost to us for the sorry sake of prescriptions too easily obtained. Or as Springsteen put it in his own farewell song, for “a whole lotta trouble runnin’ through his veins.”
Of course I thought of Michael Jackson.
Like everyone else, I’d been thinking about Michael Jackson all week. The whispers about his own pharmaceutical habits started almost as soon as word of his death got out, and I couldn’t help but compare him, needlessly and inevitably, with Elvis.
I was too young to be a proper Elvis fan, but I sure liked his songs and the day he died is burned into my memory. I never followed Michael Jackson’s career (unless my sisters’ collection of Jackson 5 45’s counts), but surely, it followed me. In the Eighties, MJ was a fixture. And oh, I’ve never ever tired of the complete package that is Beat It. You kids may not believe it, but there was a time when the possibilities of “performance video” were unimagined and untested … and in 1983, Michael Jackson exploded the potential of the video clip. He proved it was possible to electrify a pop audience … with interpretive dance, staged for the camera. Who knew? Impeccable musical sense, visual innovation, visceral sexuality. His creative power was breathtaking.
I remember about 10 years ago, I stumbled across one of those great old black-and-white TV clips of the Jackson 5. I hadn’t heard any of those songs since I was a child myself. And Michael’s voice … was a revelation. The boy is TEN! Even on the chirpy, bubblegum numbers like ABC, you can hear sophistication in his delivery … On a ballad like I’ll Be There? That’s an old soul. That’s experience and compassion. All bundled into a beautiful, unnaturally assured child who could hardly know his own depths. Smokey Robinson himself captured the shock of that voice at the memorial yesterday.
I’m wide awake
I’m not sleeping
Much has been said in the last two weeks about what a cultural force we experienced in Michael Jackson. It’s a balm to hear those affirmations now. The wide-angle perspective of the tributes we’re hearing is a corrective for the distortions of both his private life – we can never know, nor truly judge – and the public’s perceptions. That perspective should be a rebuke to the likes of Republican Peter King, who seems proud to be ignorant of the arts. Maybe he really does think war has more value to the community than the arts do. If so, then his constituents need to set him straight.
And if anyone thinks that Michael Jackson’s very life was not given in the service of his country, then they do not take seriously the gifts and sacrifices inherent in the creative process. Particularly, I would add, in the popular performing arts.
To be genuinely creative – innovative, original, unconventional – and also famous? And then rich? Toxic brew. Creation requires a profound surrender. Sure, some of the biggest egos in the world have also been wildly creative. But it’s no less true that in the moment of creation, in the leap and the risk and the not knowing what the “finished” work might be … that requires a surrender of one’s known limits and all safe appearances. It takes a sturdy psychology – or a disciplined spirit – to balance the mundane requirements of normal life with art’s deep spiritual demands. Many artists simply lack both the psychology and the spiritual ballast to tolerate “normal,” – and they suffer.
But if your art touches the masses, you must learn that the role of the Good Celebrity carries a whole new set of rules and obligations, which can undermine everything inside you that values beauty and newness. Today even more than in the Eighties, and on a wholly different level from back in the Sixties, the public appetite does not want celebrities to be complex or subtle. Yet, the gift of the visionary is to see layers, connections and nuances that the rest of us have never seen before. Or to beautifully embody instincts and compulsions the rest of us are afraid of. Or both.
Michael Jackson did both, even moreso than Elvis. He also lived through fame in the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties, and through the very worst of celebrity in the Nineties, up to today. Well, until June 25. Forty years of his creative life he gave. And his life was not without the same dysfunctions of us regular folks, who get to cope or not in relative privacy.
To let it go
And so to fade away
To let it go
And so fade away
If I could, you know I would
If I could, I would let it go --
Let it go
As is their custom, U2 is creating a space in its concerts for the outside world – in their first few shows, they have paid tribute to Michael’s legacy. Bono has sung from Man in the Mirror, Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, Billie Jean, and dedicated Angel of Harlem to his memory. Perhaps one night Bono will nod to the righteous funk of Jackson’s Bad … or maybe we’ll hear them perform their own song, which might lay bare for us the compassion and sorrow, the passion and triumph and contradictions, of this remarkable artist’s life.
I’m wide awake
I’m wide awake
I’m not sleeping