When Michael was looking for a producer for his solo album, Quincy Jones was happy to hear from him. Jones knew Michael was in a special class. A few things tipped him off, he says. First there was the Academy Awards ceremony at which Jones watched twelve-year-old Michael deliver a trash-flick love song to a fascist rodent ("Ben") with astounding poise. Years later, while working with him on The Wiz soundtrack, Jones says, "I saw another side. Watching him in the context of being an actor, I saw a lot of things about him as a singer that rang a lot of bells. I saw a depth that was never apparent, and a commitment. I saw that Michael was growing up."
In the studio, Jones found that his professionalism had matured. In fact, Michael's nose for things is so by-your-leave funky that Jones started calling him Smelly. Fortunately, when corporate rumblings feared the partnership too unlikely to work, Smelly hung tough and cocked an ear inward to his own special rhythms. Indeed, Off the Wall's most memorable cuts are the Jackson-penned dance tunes. "Working Day and Night" with all its breathy asides and deft punctuation, could only have been written by a dancer. "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," the album's biggest-selling single, bops along with that same appealing give-and-go between restraint and abandon. The song begins with Michael talking in a low mumble over a taut, single-string bass bomp:
"You know, I was wonderin' . . . you know the force, it's got a lot of power, make me feel like a . . . make me feel like . . . ."
Ooooooh. Fraidy cat breaks into disco monster, with onrushing strings and a sexy, cathartic squeal. The introduction is ten seconds of perfect pop tension. Dance boogie is the welcome release. The arrangement – high, gusting strings and vocals over a thudding, in-the-pocket rhythm – is Michael's signature. Smelly, the funky sprite.
It works. Such a creature as Michael is the perfect pop hybrid for the Eighties. The fanzine set is not scared off by raunchy lyrics and chest hair. But the R-rated uptown dance crowd can bump and slide right along the greasy tracks. Thriller is eclectic enough to include African chants and some ripping macho-rock guitar work by Eddie Van Halen. It is now being called pop-soul by those into marketing categories. Michael says he doesn't care what anybody wants to call it. Just how it all came about is still a mystery to him – as is the creative process itself.
"I wake up from dreams and go, 'Wow, put this down on paper,'" he says. "The whole thing is strange. You hear the words, everything is right there in front of your face. And you say to yourself, 'I'm sorry, I just didn't write this. It's there already.' That's why I hate to take credit for the songs I've written. I feel that somewhere, someplace, it's been done and I'm just a courier bringing it into the world. I really believe that. I love what I do. I'm happy at what I do. It's escapism."
Again, that word. But Michael is right. There is no better definition for good, well-meaning, American pop. Few understand this better than Diana Ross, that Tamla teen turned latter-day pop diva. Her closeness to Michael began when she met the Jacksons.
"No, I didn't discover them," she says, countering the myth. Motown head Berry Gordy had already found them; she simply introduced them on her 1971 television special. "There was an identification between Michael and I," she says. "I was older, he kind of idolized me, and he wanted to sing like me."
She has been pleased to watch Michael become his own person. Still, she wishes he would step out even more. She says she had to be firm and force him to stay in his role as producer on "Muscles." He wanted them to do it jointly. She insisted he go it alone.
"He spends a lot of time, too much time, by himself. I try to get him out. I rented a boat and took my children and Michael on a cruise. Michael has a lot of people around him, but he's very afraid. I don't know why. I think it came from the early days."
Michael's show-business friends, many of them women not thought of as especially motherly, do go to great lengths to push and prod him into the world, and to keep him comfortable. When he's in Manhattan, Ross urges him to go to the theater and the clubs, and counteroffers with quiet weekends at her Connecticut home. In notes and phone calls, Katharine Hepburn has been encouraging about his acting.
Michael has recorded much of this counsel in notebooks and on tape. Visiting Jane Fonda – whom he's known since they met at a Hollywood party a few years ago – on the New Hampshire set of On Golden Pond proved to be an intensive crash course. In a mirror version of his scenes with the stepgrandson in the movie, Henry Fonda took his daughter's rock-star friend out on the lake and showed him how to fish. They sat on a jetty for hours, talking trout and theater. The night Fonda died, Michael spent the evening with Fonda's widow, Shirlee, and his children, Jane and Peter. He says they sat around, laughing and crying and watching the news reports. The ease with which Michael was welcomed into her family did not surprise Jane Fonda. Michael and her father got on naturally, she says, because they were so much alike.
"Dad was also painfully self-conscious and shy in life," she says, "and he really only felt comfortable when he was behind the mask of a character. He could liberate himself when he was being someone else. That's a lot like Michael.
"In some ways," she continues, "Michael reminds me of the walking wounded. He's an extremely fragile person. I think that just getting on with life, making contact with people, is hard enough, much less to be worried about whither goest the world.
"I remember driving with him one day, and I said, 'God, Michael, I wish I could find a movie I could produce for you.' And suddenly I knew. I said, 'I know what you've got to do. It's Peter Pan.' Tears welled up in his eyes and he said, 'Why did you say that?' with this ferocity. I said, 'I realize you're Peter Pan.' And he started to cry and said, 'You know, all over the walls of my room are pictures of Peter Pan. I've read everything that [author J.M.] Barrie wrote. I totally identify with Peter Pan, the lost boy of never-never land.'"
Hearing that Francis Coppola may be doing a film version, Fonda sent word to him that he must talk to Michael Jackson. "Oh, I can see him," she says, "leading lost children into a world of fantasy and magic."
In the book, that fantasy world lies "second to the right star, then straight on til morning" – no less strange a route, Fonda notes, than Michael's own journey from Indiana.
"From Gary," she says,"straight on to Barrie."
ALL CHILDREN, EXCEPT ONE, GROW UP.
This is the first line of Michael's favorite book, and if you ask Katherine Jackson if she finds this similar to what happened in her own brood of nine, she will laugh and say, oh yes, her fifth son is the one.
Five children – Maureen, Tito, Jackie, Jermaine and Marlon – are married and have families. LaToya is a very independent young woman. At thirteen, Janet was starring as a self-possessed ghetto twerp on the sitcom Good Times. Now she has a hit single of her own, "Young Love," and appears in the sitcom Diff'rent Strokes. Youngest brother Randy is already living on his own at twenty. Michael is sure he'd just die if he tried that.
"LaToya once told me she thinks that I overprotected them all," Mrs. Jackson says. "But under the circumstances, I truly don't think so."
Marriage had brought her from east Indiana, just outside Chicago, to the chilly industrial town of Gary. A growing family had forced Joe Jackson to disband the Falcons, and R&B group he had formed with his two brothers. Playing Chuck Berry and Fats Domino covers in local clubs was as far as they got. The guitar went into the closet, and Jackson went to the steel mills as a crane operator. The family budget didn't have a lot of slack for toys, but there was an old saxophone, a tambourine, some bongos and a homey patchwork of songs from Katherine's childhood. What she could remember, she taught her children. "It was just plain stuff," she says, "like 'Cotton Fields' and 'You Are My Sunshine.'"
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