Friday, June 26, 2009

No one wants to be defeated

I did some tech work for the Jacksons prior to their '81 tour. While billed as a sort-of reunion tour for the album "Triumph", it also funtioned as Michael's "Off The Wall" tour, if I recall correctly.

Most of my work involved the bassist and the guitarist in the band, as well as guitar-playing brother Tito. I was at several days of full lights-and-sound rehearsals at a movie sound stage complex in Hollywood, so I got to see a lot of the Jacksons.

I never actually talked with Michael, but nodded hello to him, and he did back to me as well. He was clearly shy, and stayed in one corner of the big stage, not hidden, but still clearly off by himself. The other brothers would wander over when the neede to talk, as did stage managers, etc. But no idle chit chat with Mike was clearly the unspoken rule.

Bass-playing brother Jermaine wasn't on this tour. He had started his solo career, and I guess that was incompatible with the Jacksons as a group. Thus the need for a bass player in the band (Hey, McKinney! You still owe me $250!) Youngest brother Randy joined the group for the first time, and was a big hit. We talked quite a bit, and he was both an R'n'B/Soul guy, but also a true rocker. He talked about liking Queen as well as other white rock bands. Nice guy.

Here's the true story. When MJ wasn't on stage, he was a shy, skinny guy who was totally non-descript, might have been an assistant or gofer. Nothing about his demeanor or appearance told you he was important.

When rehearsals started however, and he took his mark on stage with the brothers, a remarkable Jekyll/Hyde transformation took place: he grew taller, he raised his head and looked out at the (non-existant) audience, and became a "star" while the air around him glowed. While before no one paid him any attention, once on stage, no one could take their eyes off him.

His contribution to pop music can be debated but can't be ignored. Not only was he a captivating performer, but he was also a real musician. Dean Parks, veteran L.A. session guitarist, told me about the "Beat It" sessions (Dean played the main rock riff, while Steve Lukather played the 12th fret 'funk' riff). Dean said Michael showed up at the studio with a PortaStudio (4-track cassette format) demo with virtually all the basic parts fleshed out, including the guitar parts.

In my opinion, "Beat It" was the best song on Thriller. Here's MJ performing "Beat It" live:

(Jennifer Batten handles the VanHalen solo nicely)

So long Mike, and thanks for all the music.

Update: Vocals only for Beat It; incredible: