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Michael Jackson Remembered: John Singleton on Challenging His Hero

July 9, 2009 1:12 PM ET

John Singleton

When I first met him I didn't feel nervous because I kind of felt all my life was leading up to that moment. As a fan, he was always in my life. I was 15 years when I went to the Grammy Awards and saw him win all his Grammys at the Shrine. He asked me, "What songs do you like?" and if I wanted to do a video. And I said, "OK, well, can we put black people in the video?" [Laughs] I was challenging him. And he said, "Whatever you want." He was cool with me because I was straightforward with him, and I felt that everybody was always goose-stepping around him and never telling him the real deal. And this was from the perspective of a young black kid growing up admiring Michael Jackson, being inspired by the vision that he had not only in music but in his life. To be able to hang out with him and call him a friend was an honor for me.

On the set [of the "Remember the Time" video] he was mischievous. My choreographer in that video was Fatima Robinson, and the three of us got together and she did the routine with him. It was really a great vibe. Just seeing how he would get every little move, bit by bit by bit, the whole routine, like we were putting on a Broadway show. He said, "Whatever you want to make this as cool as possible, let's do it. Let's get Eddie Murphy. Let's get Magic Johnson." Magic Johnson was going through his thing where he'd just revealed he had HIV. Michael said, "We have to put Magic in this video." I'll always remember that.

He was a very visual guy. They weren't videos to him. They were short films — visualizing the funkiness of what he was trying to accomplish in the music. He was always trying to set the bar higher.

I was hoping he was going to finish his album. He's got umpteen tracks that he's done over the six or seven years. He was so meticulous about what he did. He had hit songs on reserve that he would never even let out, and he'd work with all these different producers. If you were somebody of any repute in the music business, Michael Jackson would call and ask to work with you. People would come. But he would never release any of the stuff.

I've eaten the Jackson 5 cereal, I've played the 45 records, I watched the cartoon when I was a little kid, I went to the concerts, I was at the Victory concert. I had a glitter tie, which I hate to admit. [Laughs] I will love him forever.

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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