“Unplugged,” as I’m sure most of you know, was a very popular MTV show in the 90’s whose premise was to get big name rock stars to simply unplug from their amplifiers, sit on a stool with an acoustic guitar and prove to the world that they could perform just fine without all of the glitz, pomp, and circumstance. The show became immensely popular. The public loved the very intimate, coffeehouse feel of the performances. Of course, grunge rockers like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were a natural for this sort of thing, as were aged blues rockers like Eric Clapton. But Michael Jackson?
Okay, before I go any further, I had better explain where I’m going with this. A few weeks ago, the viewing of a recent performance by Burton Cummings of the Guess Who, sparked a conversation between Shane and I. Burton Cummings is 65 years old, a senior citizen by most standards. Yet he still managed to put on a very entertaining show, if albeit scaled back. Musical talent doesn’t abandon one just because we age. But sometimes, performers do have to make certain accomodations and readjustments. After all, the body simply can’t do certain things that it used to do, and a senior citizen can’t expect the same things from their bodies that they did at 25, or even 35-no matter how great physical shape they are in. Case in point: Madonna’s very sad and tired Superbowl performance. Sure, it got stupendous ratings because, well, it was Madonna. And granted, Madonna is in great shape for a fifty-four-year-old. But watching her do those cheerleader squats and seriously wondering if she would be able to spring up out of them was a painful experience-probably moreso for us, her original generation of fans, than for her. I actually found myself a bit embarrassed for her. Is this the woman I am always trying to convince youngsters could do circles around Lady Gaga and eat her for breakfast?
I have seen some amazing shows from performers who were over fifty. But I have also seen some very pathetic ones. And honestly, the most pathetic ones seem to be from aged performers who simply haven’t learned that they can’t do what they used to do. They haven’t learned how to make their shows “age appropriate” (for themselves, if not for us).
Of course, there are exceptions. A few years ago, after seeing that very ragged and pitiable “reunion” performance of Led Zeppelin, I had pretty much written them off as being ever capable of doing a great live show again. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page slagged through most of the numbers as if they were doing them in their sleep, and even sitting on a stool, Plant just sounded…tired, pathetic, and unable to hit the high notes anymore.
But their recent, astounding Kennedy Center Honors performances showed that it’s never too late to turn things around. Yes, they all looked like those white-haired, aged wizards and sages that used to simply illustrate their album covers. But they owned that stage, proving that you’re never too old to bring down the house. However, they pulled off that performance with the dignity and style of elder statesmen. They didn’t do as I’ve seen a lot of aged hair bands recently trying to do, still coming out in their full 80’s regalia, makeup and hair and looking…well, ridiculous. Like grandpas playing dress-up. It was an age appropriate performance, and that’s why it worked.
All of this brings me to Michael, and the pressure he was facing as a 50-year-old performer with 50 sold out shows facing him. As we saw from This Is It, Michael had no intention of slowing down. His plan was to come out and do everything full steam ahead, just as he had always done, and to basically give the same show he had always given-only with the intensified pressure of proving he could not only still do it, but could do it better, greater, and with more spectacle-more “Wow!”- than anyone else. In Michael’s case, he not only had the pressure he always put on himself from within, as the perfectionst performer he was, but the added pressure of having the whole world watching, expectantly, for any slip up; any hint that he was no longer capable of being, well, “Michael Jackson.” And let’s face it, he was right to be worried. One screw up; one cancelled show; one missed step; one embarrassing moment like the one that haunted Whitney Houston the last year of her life (when she stumbled through the high notes of “I Will Always Love You” ) and the critics would have raked him over the coals. They were only too anxious to do it. We knew it. And you’d better believe, Michael knew it, too. As did AEG. And perhaps with the AEG trial coming up, this is as good a time as any to address this issue.
No matter how we slice it, the truth is that Michael Jackson died due to the intense pressure brought upon him by these shows. He spent sleepless nights creating ideas, yes; but also worrying and stressing over his ability to do 50 shows. He was stressing over his ability to deliver the kind of non-stop, hour and a half spectacle of non-stop dancing, singing, and movement that we had come to expect-and demand-of him since he was five years old. That kind of performing-and work ethic-had been instilled in him from the time he was a small child. “Whatever you do, don’t stop moving!” Joe used to say. From his early days with the Jackson 5 on up to his last rehearsal performances for This Is It, choreography and movement had always been as big a part of Michael’s performances as singing. In fact, one could probably argue as to whether Michael was a dancer first and singer second, or vice versa. He was both, of course. And that’s why the idea of separating the one from the other would probably have seemed as foreign to Michael as to us.
But for great dancers and singers both, age does take a toll on the body. For singers, it becomes more challenging to hit certain notes, and health regimens such as not smoking, and keeping hydrated become even more crucial. For dancers, they must deal with the inevitable problems of weakened joints and more brittle bones. In his last decade, Michael had become increasingly prone to accidents and fractures while rehearsing. While Michael’s autopsy revealed that his organs were remarkably healthy for a man his age, he did suffer from arthritis, which no doubt would have made some of his more demanding dance moves quite painful. He had inflammation of the lungs, so shortness of breath would have been a factor. And even from a very young age, maintaining proper levels of hydration during performances had always been a problem for him. His flexibility and agility-qualities so important for a dancer-would have been adversely affected by age. For sure, Michael had many compensating qualities that would have gotten him through-his sheer energy and drive, and that impalpable magic quality that always touched everything he did. But for how long? And at what cost?
We all know that Michael would have cancelled shows before allowing an audience to see him in less than stellar shape to perform. For him, the only alternative to a great show was…no show. This, too, was part of the work ethic that had been instilled in him from childhood. Be the best, be the greatest; don’t settle for second best. Michael took much heat throughout the years for the increasing number of cancelled shows, but what many failed to recognize (including those disappointed fans) was that this was due to the intense pressure Michael felt to never give a second-rate show. Or even a show that would have been “okay” by anyone else’s standards.
The problem with many performers as they age is that sometimes, well, second best is as good as it’s going to get. But second best doesn’t have to mean second rate. It may mean, as I said before, that certain adjustments have to be made, and expectations lowered-that goes for us as well as them.
I’ve often said that Michael really didn’t have to beat himself up trying to do 50 shows just as he’d always performed his shows. Frankly, Michael could have sat on a stool, belted out “I’ll Be There” or a gospel, acoustic rendition of “Man In The Mirror” and we would have loved him just as much. In fact, some of Michael’s most powerful and memorable performances were those where all of the pomp and circumstance was stripped away, and he simply sang or performed. A good case in point is his Brunei performance of Earth Song, which is one of my favorite performances of this number. By that time, Earth Song had evolved into a huge performance showpiece, replete with rolling tanks onstage, a full back drop of video images, “villagers” in costume, and Michael being lifted onto a cherry picker for dazzling effect. For the Brunei performance, he had none of these tricks to fall back on. The performance is simply Michael, by himself, on a stage-and incidentally, one of the few times he sang this song live, with no backing track. In place of rolling tanks with soldiers popping out, raised bridges, and all of the other theatrics that had become such an intrinsic part of this number, he was forced to simply ad lib much of the instrumental bridge section of the song. Yet this is precisely why this performance has the power that it does. This is Michael, the raw performer, digging deep within himself and connecting to that inner consciousness that he wrote about in “Dancing The Dream.”
When Michael was “on” (or “in his zone,” as some have referred to it) it was the most powerful thing to ever witness on a stage. And the beauty of it was that he needed no fancy tricks, no bells or whistles, to do it. He just needed a stage and a reason to be on it. Heck, he didn’t even need musicians…he could make his own music out of his head!
Or witness again that magical moment in This Is It when he sings I’ll Be There acapella. Or his raw, impromptu rendition of Billie Jean. For that matter, you can pretty much single out most any performance from This Is It as proof that Michael’s magic as a performer wasn’t reliant on the amount of theatrics or fancy dance moves he was able to bring to it. In fact, throughout most of This Is It, his dance moves are far from perfect (remember, this was rehearsal footage, and he was simply walking through a lot of it!). We see him stopping and starting; we see him playing around with silly moves like “The Penguin” (I still LOL at all of those who actually thought this was a brand new MJ dance move he planned to introduce); we see him executing some clumsy, less than smooth steps. Yet the critics were almost universal in their praise of this film, and how in their minds it reestablished Michael Jackson as a true performer. Why is that?
I think I can tell you why. Because it allowed the world to see, for perhaps the first time in many years, that Michael’s true talent as a performer wasn’t reliant on having tanks, fireworks, a full scale orchestra and lines of perfectly choreographed backup dancers. Go back to Motown 25. Some of Michael’s greatest moments onstage were when it was just him and a spotlight. That’s all that was ever needed. But somewhere along the way, he-or perhaps he along with all of us-lost touch with that fact.
So maybe as Michael aged, it might have eventually become just himself, a spotlight, a microphone, and maybe a stool on which to rest those wearied, deserving limbs that had given us so much throughout the years. But I guarantee you, that’s all he would have needed to still blow many performers half his age off the stage. Age, after all, can shrink our bones and take the sping out of our step. But age can’t take away magic.
The big question, however, is: Would Michael have been content with that? And perhaps the even bigger question: Would we have been content with it? Would we have allowed Michael Jackson to age gracefully, with no further demands to moonwalk, or do that crazy en pointe thing just one more time?
From all indications, Michael was ready to retire from live performing. He wanted to move on and pursue other interests. That’s why he called these shows the “This Is It” tour. Of course, whether he would have stuck to that plan is something we’ll never know. Many performers “claim” they are doing their final tour, only to tour again…and again. Until the whole “this is it” thing really becomes a kind of joke. After all, the biggest selling point of every nostalgia act now is that this is “the last time he/she/they will ever tour.” Usually, we know better. Money is often a factor. But sometimes it may just be that…well, it’s hard to say good-bye to doing something you love, especially if that thing you love has been a part of your life for half a century.
Somehow I can’t imagine Michael ever not performing, or not wanting to sing again. And when I stop to think about it, there is really no reason why he should have had to ever give it up, no more than anyone should ever have to give up something they love. The problem is that he needed to get past the idea that his shows and his performances always had to be spectacles-the biggest and the best. And the world needed to let go of that expectation, as well. Deep down inside of Michael Jackson-the greatest live performer and entertainer of our time-was simply a little boy who had loved to sing. He loved it so much that it was he-not his parents, who insisted he was too young-who begged and pleaded to be part of his brothers’ singing group. He loved it so much that it was he, at five years old, who craftily volunteered to do his kindergarten talent show so that he could wow his parents with his ability, and convince them to let him front his brother’s group.
When I was in Gary this past August, we stood outside former Garnett Elementary, which is literally just a stone’s throw away (a few paces down the back alley) from the Jackson house. I thought of that performance, when 5-year-old Michael, with nothing but a piano accompaniment, stood stock still on a stage and brought his family members to tears with his rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”
Fast forward a few years, and we have 14-year-old Michael giving this amazing performance of “Ben” at the 1973 Oscars-again, this is Michael raw, pure and unembellished.
And let’s not forget how Michael managed to give one of his best performances when an ankle fracture forced him to perform Remember The Time sitting down!
There are singers who simply love to sing, and musicians who simply love to jam. There are musicians who will often sit in on sessions, for no pay and no glory, simply for the love of making music with fellow musicians. There is all of that. And then there are PERFORMERS, which is a whole other breed. Michael Jackson was a performer, and had been for his entire life. He loved singing and dancing, but he also thrived on the appreciation of an audience and the warmth of the spotlight. But I don’t doubt for a minute that he was still, deep down, that little boy who simply loved to sing. Many of his closest friends and those who worked for him have written about the sheer joy and privilege of just being able to listen through the walls and hear him singing to himself in the next room, as he went about some daily chore. There are stories of him during the time he was in Ireland, going into the local pubs, partaking in the local drinks, and joining the locals in song, or sitting in with whoever just happened to be playing in the club that night. What a rare and wonderful treat those people were privy to! One could only wish that someone had had the foresight to record some of those impromptu performances, but then, if they had, they probably would have lost much of their magic-for Michael and for those lucky enough to have witnessed them. Once again, what had been something merely fun and spontaneous would have become…well, performing again. For the judging eyes of the world.
Who knows, maybe some of those impromptu performances weren’t even that good. Did it matter? Michael was simply having fun-something that his all too short and work-filled life had allowed precious little time for.
Had Michael continued performing into his 60’s and beyond, for sure some changes would have had to been made, and some expectations lowered. I can imagine he would have started to lean more heavily towards ballads and gospel numbers, and less on huge, theatrical spectacles like Earth Song (though he probably could have come up with inventive ways to perform it more low-key) and hard driving, choreograph-heavy numbers like Beat It and Thriller. Even stand-bys like Billie Jean would have probably become reinvented; perhaps with the tempo slowed down and no longer as reliant on all the dazzling spins and moonwalking. Then again, he may have eventually retired it from his reportoire altogether, preferring to keep that performance ever preserved in our memory as it was in its glory.
Mick Jagger used to say the worst thing he could envision was himself still performing “Satisafaction” at age fifty. Well, he’s now pushing 70 and, guess what? Yep, still performing “Satisfaction.” And, judging by some of the recent Stones performances I’ve seen via clips of the most recent tour, sounding pretty darn good doing it. The Stones are another band that, a year ago, I would have said needed to just retire gracefully while they’re ahead. But a recent performance I heard of “Gimme Shelter” with Mary J. Blige blew me away, and proved once again the folly of underestimating these artists. There is, after all, a good reason why most of the great artists of my generation have endured. Because they were great artists. And as Michael himself said, “Good art never dies.”
No, and nor does it ever grow old. It is ageless. But sometimes, it does have to slow down a little.
Michael died far too young. He died under the intense pressure of trying to prove to the world that he could still put on the same show he had put on at age twenty-five. The saddest part about it is-he didn’t have to. If only he could have lived to see the praise he got over a few hours’ worth of raw rehearsal footage! If only he could have allowed himself to see that his greatest gift to the world was just being himself, and that all he ever had to do for us was sing.
Were we too hard on Michael, or was he simply too hard on himself? And what part did the pressures of AEG play in all of this? These are not easy questions, and they have no easy answers. The upcoming trial may answer a few, but it won’t settle the question of whether, ultimately, Michael’s drive for perfection and the need to always outdo himself played the ultimate hand. And what if he had told AEG, look, I’ll do these shows but I just want to go out onstage, sit on a stool, and sing a few numbers? What do you think the reaction would have been? Not too happy, I would imagine.
For as long as he lived, Michael’s battle would have always been between being the performer he once was vs. the performer he was now capable of being. And I am not talking at age fifty, necessarily, because I believe that he still had it in him, for sure, and could have easily pulled off the “This Is It” shows…for a little while. But eventually, it would have caught up to him. And what then? Would the world have been content to lower its expectations for Michael Jackson? More importantly, would he have ever been content to lower them for himself? As someone who now knows what it is like to inhabit a fifty-year-old body, I can tell you exactly what Michael was going through. There are days when you still feel capable of taking on the whole world…and days when the world lands you flat on your ass, reminding you in the worst and most embarrassing ways possible that you are no longer sixteen, even if you still feel like that 16-year-old in every other way. The mirror reminds us otherwise, as does our bodies. I have only to look around, and see many of the friends I have grown up with who are either already dying out, or suffering the effects of arthritis, fibromyalgia, diabetes, heart and liver ailments, and so many of the other debilitating ailments that come with living in an ageing body.
As Stevie Nicks sang:
Well, I’ve been afraid of changing…
But time makes you bolder
Children get older
I’m getting older too
I’m getting older too
Even Prince (the singer) has had hip replacement surgery!
Michael was of our generation, too. Somehow, we could never envision him as growing old, which would imply the same mortality as the rest of us. We wanted to keep him forever young, forever moonwalking, forever “Bad,” so that a small part of ourselves could live on in perpetual immortality.
It seemed to be what Michael wanted, too. At least to be able to give us that much.
We could say, he gave his life doing just that.
ETA: These are some great MJ acoustic performances suggested by sanemjfan!
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xj9zz0_michael-jackson-be-not-always_music#.UT0BmM4o600 (Be Not Always-beautiful!)
http://vimeo.com/37094601 (She’s Out Of My Life)