I remember being on the phone with my pal David Miller as we mourned the loss of John Lennon one night in early December of 1980. The legendary singer/songwriter had been assassinated outside the Dakota, and it went against the unnatural order of society to my way of thinking. Musicians were meant to pass too soon thanks to bad trips or hedonistic entanglements with pills, but not this. Assassinations were the kind of thing that happened to world leaders and mob bosses.
“The music died, man . . the music is dead,” His voice trailed off as we were left to imagine a world where this kind of shit was possible. How could music, that thing we held onto for dear lives as we tried figuring out the world around us, survive?
Sure it had happened before. There was that story about a group of Hell’s Angels who had plotted to murder Mick Jagger. And Bob Marley did get shot before taking part in a benefit concert four years earler. But the former had been a business dealing gone wrong and the latter was political in nature. John Lennon’s politics consisted of making love over war and staying naked for days on end, but that’s what rock stars did. No, John Lennon was shot simply because he was John fucking Lennon, which was akin to adding kerosene to ambrosia.
I grew up in Howard Beach, New York, where guns and assassinations went with the territory. I thought the place was the center of the universe for good reason. John Gotti and his associates were the soldiers of our Roman Empire in suburbia. Where else could you run into a guy like that while waiting in line at a bakery? Or find tennis great Vitas Gerulitis working on his game at Charles Park? The boxer Vito Antuefermo was born and raised there. Joey Ramone lived there, as did Woody and Arlo Guthrie and music producer DJ Skribble and New York Giants linebacker George Martin.
David Miller was from Forest Hills, which felt like the other side of the moon to a boy like me. Lennon and the Beatles were one of the few things we agreed on. We argued politics and history, food and drugs and art and girls and of course, music. Perhaps nothing pissed him off more than my contention that Michael Jackson was changing the face of music as we knew it.
His professional opinion was to say “No fucking way, not a chance . .”. And I took this provocative rebuttal in stride, seeing as how this was the same guy who shaved his eyebrows after going to see Pink Floyd the movie. My musical fixes ran the gamut and so I wasn’t looking for agreement. From Deep Purple, Rush, Queen, Black Sabbath and Bowie to the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and N.W.A., I just wanted to plug into something that moved me.
Michael Jackson was different in that he was a Billboard pop star who deviated from my norm, and it didn’t matter because the sound worked. Holy shit how it worked. He was an odd misfit and he was outrageously talented and all I knew was that the stuff he was doing then . . it was going to stick around long after I was done cruising Cross Bay Boulevard.
Calling Michael Jackson a singer was like saying Jackie Robinson was a second baseman. It was much too simplistic a term for a mercurial talent that redefined history. He was polarizing, secretive and with time he became a modern day horror story we couldn’t look away from, as much as we wanted to. But to cancel out what he did inside arguably the greatest decade in the history of music (my humble opinion) is kind of like saying that Michelangelo never existed. You can’t do it.
From his iconic moonwalk to his transformation of the video music standard to his funky get ups to his mythical reputation for the absurd, Jackson was equal parts entertainer and phenomenon. His appeal was transcendent, his reach undeniable. People who loved him couldn’t stop talking about him and people who couldn’t stand the guy, they couldn’t stop talking about him either.
By the mid eighties, Lennon’s death hadn’t signaled the end of the music, but rather, a brash new beginning whose might is still felt today. And deep inside that complicated time of nuclear fears and a new economy and music that colored outside of every imaginable line there came to us a sound unlike anything we’d heard before, or since.
All dressed up with somewhere to go.
(I don’t expect you to watch a fourteen minute music video, but I think it speaks to how Jackson turned the industry on its head. Who tells music executives, “I’m going to make a short movie when everyone else is putting out three minute videos. And you’ll fit the bill,”. He did.
I do expect you to visit Dale over at A Dalectable Life, whose dishing up her first choice for Rushmore.)