More MJ

The best Michael Jackson obits I’ve read:

Marcello Carlin (he hears Martin Fry and Trevor Horn in “Beat It”; about Off The Wall: “a pop-up encylopedia containing everything everyone should reasonably or unreasonably need to know about pop and how to walk it and breathe it”).

Rick Juzwiak: “I’d never give the public that much credit if I hadn’t observed countless examples of the unmitigated joy that results en masse when anything from Thriller is played at a party, no matter the attendees, no matter the occasion and still to this day.”

Chris Molanphy dissects the probably-unsurpassable chart facts of Jackson’s career. I reminded friends yesterday that Bad scored an astonishing five Number One singles (most of which I think are meh, but that’s another story).

Rob Sheffield rushes home from a high school dance to watch Michael. I’m not sure I believe it, but it’s touching and emblematic.

Hua Hsu drinks and stumbles his way through an evening of Jackson (“ifferent versions of Michael Jackson had already died years ago. Sometimes he had reinvented himself and found his way back toward his fan’s good graces, sometimes he had only grown more illusive and erratic-seeming”).

Bravo, Frank Rich:

No president possesses that magic wand, but Obama’s inaction on gay civil rights is striking. So is his utterly uncharacteristic inarticulateness. The Justice Department brief defending DOMA has spoken louder for this president than any of his own words on the subject. Chrisler noted that he has given major speeches on race, on abortion and to the Muslim world. “People are waiting for that passionate speech from him on equal rights,” she said, “and the time is now.”

As the President and the House crow about a cap and trade bill so diluted that business leaders get to smack their lips over its “sweeteners” (by the way, isn’t there something…weird about the notion of trading “energy credits”?), the White signals its intentions to draft an executive order that would keep some detainees jailed indefinitely.

The next four years will amount to win-some-lose-some with this guy. As I’ve written before, Obama, so clearly interested in presidential greatness, would be a fool not to use the nifty new expanded-executive powers that the Bush White House left him. Thursday’s episode of “The Daily Show” highlights the absurdities.

You are not alone, so leave me alone

The Michael Jackson Phenomenon was such that I could tolerate him on my parents’ turntable and sheer radio ubiquity between 1983 and 1984 (and again in 1987-1988) without being much of a fan. He was something pleasant you didn’t think much about, like making a Christmas list. During school Halloween costume contests in those years, teachers handed out vinyl copies of Off The Wall and Thriller as prizes. By the time Captain EO premiered in fall ’86, he was a joke — we all knew about the Grammy menage a trois with Bo Derek and Webster, Bubbles the Python, the sudden lightening of his pigment. The movie was a sensation, and a laughing stock; the audience snickered through MJ’s strutting and snarling (which presaged the “Bad” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” videos by a year). No longer was his preening tolerable. Maybe it never was, and we believed the fiction for too many years. Like the Beatles in India, who wore bad clothes, stuck daisies in their hair, and endured an intolerable bore and fraud like the Maharishi, his peccadilloes made him the best kind of superstar: he acted like an errant cousin whom you love anyway.

Michael Jackson taught me how to listen to music: the indivisibility of rhythm and vocals, the sublimation of horrible childhood memories and grotesque fantasies into disco. He was also my first exposure to the phenomenon of loving a performer who went through periods of being very uncool and eventually batshit and possibly a pedophile. No more serendipitous event in modern pop music exists than the moment when a Seattle band released an album called Nevermind knocked Dangerous off the top of the Billboard album chart in early ’92. I know it’s an obvious paradigmatic moment beloved by Anthony De Curtis types, but it’s true: in my senior year of high school, the mass popularity of Nirvana confirmed what we’d suspected since Bad. It didn’t matter that he was releasing singles like “Jam” and “In The Closet,” which subsume the hard-diamond beats of New Jack Swing to Jackson’s weird, one-of-a-kind rhythmic savvy and melodic finesse into the slammingest music of his career; his moment had passed, although he would continue to find chart success, like Clint Eastwood movies, as a freak show good for a laugh, with the added benefit of an MTV world premiere.

As the pundits pundit and the obit writers exploit the King of Pop and Jacko nomenclature, they’re going to overlook what an amazing songwriter and producer Jackson became. With a tip of the hat and a deep bow to Quincy Jones, Teddy Riley, Rod Temperton, and other collaborators, it’s quite obvious that even a facile acquaintance with Jackson’s songs proves that no one else could have sung or written them. I don’t know whether he played any instruments, but listening to the demos included on the Thriller re-release a few years ago, especially “Billie Jean,” I was struck by how closely his melodies hewed to his sense of rhythm; it’s like he wrote songs to his dancing, sung them to the syncopation of his feet (his inimitable hiccups and quick draws of breath almost scanned like verses). Better writers have studied Thriller, which is why I’m focusing on Dangerous. Jackson always performed as if he had something to prove; maybe he imagined his father, the horrible svengali Joe Jackson, watching him from the audience. But Dangerous sounds like the work of a man (yes) who felt the walls tumbling down. Unlike Prince during this period, his music evinces no insecurities about hip-hop or a shift in popular taste. He’s challenged, not threatened. Something nibbles away at him, though — he expands the paranoia in “Billie Jean” and “Leave Me Alone” to their exponential limits in “Can’t Let Her Get Away,” “In The Closet” (with its creepy, knowing chorus), and “Jam.” It’s perfect sense that the apologia/credo “Black or White” (which has aged better than you remember) features Slash playing power chords and pistonbeats that Bell Biv Devoe would sell their misogyny for; instead of an “Ebony and Ivory”-esque plaint for brotherhood, he’s selling racial transcendence to his mass audience as if he thought the limpid grace of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” demanded an answer commensurate with the times and the awful will of an artist who changed his face and color for — what exactly?

The beats only got sparer and stranger as the line between the pop star attempt’s to embrace his mass audience for self-actualization and moneyed isolation vanished like his blackness: in Jackson’s soul “You Are Not Alone” fought “Leave Me Alone” for control. “They Don’t Really Care About Us” has a go-on-I-dare-you taunting quality that reminds me a little of the “reverse racism” self-pity in which certain segments of talk radio still traffic. And Blood on the Dance Floor‘s “Morphine” — well, this is the pop/R&B world equivalent of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey.” I wish Eric Weisbard’s original SPIN review was posted somewhere; it nails the lunacy of a track whose splintered, staccato drum programs cut into the filthiest, most confessional lyrics of Jackson’s career, with singing to match. There’s even a bizarre, virtually a cappella section in which the singer moans about his lover getting hooked on Demerol. His audience never abandoned him; he just assumed, with a megalomaniac’s hubris, that they’d accept his music’s weirdness on his terms. When they didn’t, he resorted to videos with faded pop culture icons like Marlon Brando for support. I never bought Invincible, but the craft of “Butterflies” suggested that a comeback was his for the asking if he didn’t try so damn hard.

So, rest in peace, Michael. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but for a life as tormented as yours, death is peace enough.

As if the Academy of Motion Picture Farts and Biases needed another reason to promote a longer show: it expands the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten. Academy President Sid Ganis cites 1939 as the annus mirabilis; yet, glancing at the list, Dark Victory, All This, and Heaven Too, Our Town, and Kitty Foyle are trash that would still get “green-lit” (and nominated) today. Ratings motivated the decision.

I’ve said it many times: the Richard Nixon White House tapes are the gift that keeps on giving. Charlie Savage’s story offers more goodies:

“There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white,” he told an aide, before adding: “Or a rape.”

This exchange between the President and Republican National Committee Chairman George Herbert Walker Bush belongs in a novel:

“I noticed a couple of very attractive women, both of them Republicans, in the legislature,” Nixon tells Bush. “I want you to be sure to emphasize to our people, God, let’s look for some… Understand, I don’t do it because I’m for women, but I’m doing it because I think maybe a woman might win someplace where a man might not… So have you got that in mind?”

“I’ll certainly keep it in mind,” Bush replies.

“Boy, they were good lookin’ and bright,” Nixon continues. And he had been informed, further, that “they’re two of the best members of the House.”

“Well, that’s terrific,” Bush says

I consider, for the hundredth time, the humiliations that Poppy Bush endured for the sake of careerism.

Peggy Noonan is a fool, but as a draftsman and apologizer for power she understands how to create Special Moments. What’s happening in Iran now, she insists, is not one of them. For an American president to tempt another international crisis by openly supporting the protesters in Iran this week (emphasis mine: who knows what will happen tomorrow or next week) is to lapse into the kind of messianism and democracy-building that we thought neoconservatives and their allies got out of our systems after the Iraq debacle:

To insist the American president, in the first days of the rebellion, insert the American government into the drama was shortsighted and mischievous. The ayatollahs were only too eager to demonize the demonstrators as mindless lackeys of the Great Satan Cowboy Uncle Sam, or whatever they call us this week. John McCain and others went quite crazy insisting President Obama declare whose side America was on, as if the world doesn’t know whose side America is on. “In the cause of freedom, America cannot be neutral,” said Rep. Mike Pence. Who says it’s neutral?

This was Aggressive Political Solipsism at work: Always exploit events to show you love freedom more than the other guy, always make someone else’s delicate drama your excuse for a thumping curtain speech.

Get up, get out, into something new: The Rolling Stones’ Mall Rat Years

“The Mall-Rat Years” is Rob Sheffield’s apt description of Ye Olde Rolling Stones between 1978’s Some Girls and 1983’s Undercover — the period when the death of disco as a commercial force signaled a return to AOR verities (I would have included Mick Jagger’s 1985 solo album She’s The Boss; I didn’t have MTV but I did hear “Just Another Night” a lot on the radio). The Stones were uniquely qualified to exploit conservatism regnant, as their sales proved. Checking the figures, I was shocked to learn that Some Girls is their best-selling album, period (six million), with Tattoo You not far behind (four million). Then again, “Start Me Up” was a monster hit (Number Two for several weeks); Sheffield rightly points out that teens in that period didn’t give a damn about history and context — the kids “shook mullet when `She’s So Cold’ or `Little T&A’ hit the radio in between Journey and Foreigner.” The kids knew the Stones as just another damn fine rock band. This was pretty much my take when I jumped on the bandwagon in 1989 after hearing “Mixed Emotions,” which I still rather like.

Despite the welcome news that the 33 1/3 series has commissioned a book on Some Girls, this remains a comparatively unexplored period in the band’s history. Credit engineer Chris Kimsey, the engineer who got a thin, hard sound out of the band’s guitars (Jagger now joined Keef and Woody, a move which did much to change their sound) and a new suppleness out of Wyman’s bass. The first album is an acknowledged classic, part of the oft-used bit of rockcrit taxonomy which includes Scary Monsters and Blood on the Tracks, among others (as in “Bridges to Babylon is their best album since Some Girls…”).

The rest:

Emotional Rescue remains underrated, despite “She’s So Cold” and the terrible title track; Jagger and Richards were writing so many good songs in this period, together and separately, that any album comprised of Some Girls leftovers will hold up better than Black and Blue (I rep for “Summer Romance” and “Let Me Go”). Hell, on a good day it might even top Some Girls. The great thing about being cynical veterans who’ve scored a comeback coup is that you have little to prove on your next outing except justifying that advance. Spend more time with “Dance (Part One),” a crunchy punk-disco tune with a great call-and-response Mick and Keith vocal movement that Franz Ferdinand should spend more time studying.

Tattoo You represents their professional peak. It doesn’t matter that “Start Me Up” is my least favorite major Stones single; the second and third ones (“Waiting on a Friend” and “Hang Fire”) are vulnerable and political, respectively. If you can smell the calculation behind them, well, si si ils est rock stars; their craft helps them simulate vulnerability and political conviction. “Neighbors” is a thrashy number about how Keith won’t let Mick sleep. “Little T & A” lets Keith try his best Pepe Le Pew accent (“She’s my little rock and roll, haw haw HAW!”). My favorite track, though, is on the second, “slow” side: “Heaven,” featuring Jagger whimpering love man jive while playing a heavily phased guitar over minimal accompaniment from Watts and Wyman. It completes a transformation some of us have waited years to see: Jagger into sound effect, voice so distorted and flanged that you wonder if Eno or Lindsey Buckingham snuck in behind the boards (the most moving part occurs when he sings “nyahnyahnyahnyahnyahnyah“).

Notorious Stones booster Bob Christgau comes down notoriously hard on Undercover (“what do people hear in this murky, overblown, incoherent piece of shit?”). It’s a better album than, say, Steel Wheels, but liking this album depends largely on your tolerance for Mick bellowing lines like “feel the hot cum, drippin‘ on your thighs.” Keef and Woody play their asses off, as if they still think they’re recording Some Girls. I think you won’t miss it if you forget to buy it. The videos at this point are more entertaining than the songs. Keepers: “She Was Hot,” in which Woody’s guitar melts in the presence of hotness; and “Too Much Blood,” in which Keef runs after a mugging Mick with a fuckin‘ chainsaw as Sly and Robbie churn a helluva groove (Arthur Baker’s twelve-inch mix is pretty phenomenal).

Dirty Work (1986) doesn’t fall within the parameters of this discussion. Here’s hoping the band realizes the worth of the greatest sleeper of their career.

Since I loved Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped more than the rest of their catalogue going back to Daydream Nation, I was ready to embrace The Eternal (in anticipation I relistened to Murray Street for the first time in four years and realized I’d underrated it). They’d entered their most artistically febrile period, with enough craft to sleepwalk through another half dozen albums on which whispered stories about domesticity on the road collide with third-rate Beat poetry. The Eternal proves I’d underestimated how even the familiar elements can grate. Like Dylan’s Together Through Life, it’s often very far from uninteresting; but the music is blurry, the lyrics unfocused. The most difficult part about assessing modern SY is distinguishing between tracks that serve as rest-stops before anarchy and tracks constructed as proper songs. Some critics never got over the band hiring a drummer that believed in forward momentum and crunch; listening to the middling experiments with three-minute noise bombs collected on Dirty, I’m ready to believe them – before reminding them as they leave the room to check out A Thousand Leaves, on which the textures signify as songs. 

The Eternal sounds like an even less focused Dirty. All the rhythm strumming I hear doesn’t produce songs that aren’t mere homages to tunefulness or their own recent past (but there is a Gregory Corso dedication, how ’bout that). “Malibu Gas Station” uninterestingly rewrites Rather Ripped‘s “Incinerate”; “Antenna” actually has power chords, as it should, since it’s a song about radios and girls. The album has no scary-Kim moments; it could use some (one song uses “rapacious” in the same sentence as “vagina”). Prediction: in 2014 the band’s walk through the tempo shifts of  “Massage The History” will feel less rote. Which is okay. If SY albums feel like quick tours through public libraries whose books remain in the same place for years, there’s always the chance another visit will bring my attention to a oft-scanned spine.