Friday, June 26, 2009

Farewell to a talented and troubled native son

It’s like the death of Elvis all over again.

When Elvis died, it was rather significant to Hoosiers due to the fact that he performed his last concert in Indiana – in Market Square Arena, in downtown Indianapolis, June 26, 1977. Sadly, Market Square Arena no longer exists. The site where it stood is now a parking lot, though it contains a small memorial to Elvis in one corner.

Michael Jackson’s death is significant to Hoosiers because he was from Indiana, along with all of his brothers and sisters. Indiana has a long history of turning out popular singers, musicians, and songwriters, some controversial, ALL influential: The Hoosier Hot Shots; Hoagy Carmichael; Cole Porter; Crystal Gale; John Mellencamp; Ken “Babyface” Edmonds; David Lee Roth; Axyl Rose; John Hiatt; and, most recently, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band -- just to name a few. However, NO singer from Indiana has been more influential, or controversial, than Michael Jackson. Of all the other singer/musicians from Indiana, only his sister Janet comes close to approaching the impact he had, for good or ill, on popular culture.

Growing up in Indiana, I could never escape the Jacksons, or so it seemed. They always seemed to be everywhere in the local media. If they weren’t having a concert at the Pepsi Coliseum or Market Square Arena, they were on TV – variety shows, talk shows, even their own Saturday morning cartoon show. OR, they were on the radio. ALWAYS. They even had a hit song about Indiana –- “Going Back to Indiana.” I heard that song all the time while I was growing up.

I was never a fan of Michael Jackson. I liked him fine, but I was always more of a rock (and blues) listener than a pop listener. I also had a preference for bands as opposed to individual performers. During the 1980s, when Michael Jackson’s popularity was at its peak, I did my best to ignore the whole phenomenon and bury myself in the blues. Even so, I couldn’t quite escape Mr. Jackson. He was EVERYWHERE. For a brief time, there was even a rumor that the governor of Indiana was trying to get permission to produce state license plates with Jackson’s image on them.

Related to all this, there have, admittedly, been quite a few celebrity encounters during my life. I’ve had to work with a few famous people to shepherd their books through my companies’ publishing processes. For the most part, they don’t impress me, and I just try to maintain bland working relationships with them. To me, they’re only people who just happen to have jobs that put them in the public light. I also tend to have a very odd reaction when meeting famous people, one that I just can’t explain –- instinctively, I want to get as far away from them as humanly possible. Beats me why I have that reaction.

Before I worked in publishing, I met a few celebrities while working as an advertiser/promoter in Bloomington, Indiana, while I was in college at Indiana University. One of the most memorable encounters was with the late, great Vincent Price, in 1985. He was on a college tour at the time, giving lectures on the impact of villains in film. I was given the job of going over his itinerary with him while he was preparing for his lecture in Bloomington. Price was enjoying a surge in popularity at the time, thanks to his work on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album. I remember Price as a very polite and classy elderly gentleman, who was more than a little amused over all the attention he was receiving due to his association with Michael Jackson. Yes, even meeting legendary actor Vincent Price, I couldn’t get away from Michael Jackson.

Then there was my close encounter with Jackson himself. It was in 1987, in the middle of winter. Myself and a few buddies decided to spend a weekend in Chicago to get away from the college rut for a while. While there, we hit some shops around Water Tower Place, walking stubbornly through cold, howling winds and peeking in shop windows.

Suddenly, outside one shop, a bunch of minivans screeched into a nearby alleyway, and LARGE men wearing three-piece suits, sunglasses, and tennis shoes started piling out. We had no idea what was going on. For all we knew, it was the Chicago mob or something. We ducked into the shop to get away from them –- a shop that turned out to be a store devoted to very expensive and useless items, like gold-plated golf clubs and electronic toe massagers. There was no escaping the “mobsters,” however. They piled into the store after us, after which the store manager hurried to the front door and locked us all in.

Then, I turned around and found myself face-to-face with Michael Jackson, vintage 1987. He was wearing completely nondescript clothing topped with an ugly green parka. There I was, standing a mere foot away from the then-biggest superstar on the planet, and the only thing I could think was, “Damn, he’s SHORT.”

He also had a little blond boy with him. Read into that what you will.

My instinct to get away from the celebrity in question kicked in, and I nodded politely to Jackson and retreated to the back of the store, where my buddies were all standing and gaping at Jackson and his entourage. The shop window was filling with faces of people staring inside and pointing at Jackson. It was probably a good thing that the manager locked the front door, but how the heck were WE supposed to get out?

While Jackson looked around the store, I sidled up to the manager and asked if he could PLEASE let us out. He obliged us by shooing us out the back door, to a dirty alleyway. I felt greatly relieved to be out of there, but my friends were all shell shocked.

“We should have asked for his autograph,” said one. “No one will believe we ran into him.”

“Are you KIDDING?” said another, “or didn’t you notice all those THUGS with him?!”

Admittedly, for a while after that incident, I did kind of regret not asking Jackson for his autograph -– at least a little. That feeling of regret went away VERY quickly, though, as Jackson’s personal life -– along with its eccentricities and controversies -– started to overshadow his music. In addition to the controversies of his personal life, I remember feeling VERY angry at him, for various reasons, for acquiring the Beatles' song catalog.

Now Michael Jackson is gone, and just like when Elvis died, more controversies and more ugly rumors are erupting throughout the news. I can only hope that Jackson’s death also doesn’t spark the types of conspiracy theories that followed in the wake of Elvis’s death.

Perhaps now the Beatles' estates will be able to secure ownership of the Beatles song catalog. Who knows.

So far, here in Indiana, Hoosiers seem determined to remember Jackson a very specific way. Local radio stations are playing his music, but interestingly enough, it’s NOT his music from the 1980s but the music from his childhood, when he was a member of the Jackson 5 and electrifying crowds in performances at local arenas and county fairs. I heard the song “ABC” at least three times on my way to work this morning.

It remains to be seen how history will ultimately depict Michael Jackson. For now, in his home state, Hoosiers are conjuring the spirit of a very talented boy, one who influenced countless artists and musicians before being overwhelmed by the excesses and tragedies of celebrity adulthood. If history is kind to him, maybe in a few decades, the image of the talented little boy from Indiana is how Jackson will be remembered.


SallyP said...

Oddly enough, I am quite impressed that you met Vincent Price.

RAB said...

I agree with pretty much everything you say.

I was also pretty irked at the circumstances of his buying the Lennon-McCartney songbook and its consequences for the Beatles songs. I've been trying to find information about this. In 1995, Jackson got $95 million from Sony to form Sony/ATV Music Publishing -- so from that point he became co-owner along with Sony -- and then in 2001, he used his half as collateral on a $200 million loan from Bank of America. Considering Jackson died $400 million in debt, he may not have paid off that loan before he died...and considering the state of BoA, the whole question of who now owns his half of the Lennon-McCartney catalog may end up back in court! More info here.

Sea-of-Green said...

Thanks for the info, Rab! I knew Jackson didn't have the ENTIRE catalog, but still ...!

Sally, I was actually a big fan of Vincent Price. I wanted SO BADLY to ask him about working on the Edgar Allan Poe films, in particular. But when I met the man, I became strictly all-business: "Yes, Mr. Price -- No, Mr. Price." He seemed to appreciate it, actually.