Michael Jackson is dead. I can’t believe it.
The whole world is in shock, the 24 hour news channels have interviews with every random person connected to Michael Jackson in any way, they may have only met him once or never at all, and they all say the same thing. What more can you say when someone dies? You talk about the positive legacy they brought to this world and your own life. We will all at some stage of our own lives experience the loss of someone close to us. A parent, a sibling, a loved one, a friend. What makes this different? Of course the answer is that most of us are not related to Michael Jackson and never knew him. We did, however, know his music, his shows, his performances, his moonwalk and his legacy.
Like most of the people who have woken up today into the surreal atmosphere of a world struggling to digest the news that the self styled King of Pop is dead I never met Michael Jackson and I never knew him. The closest I got was when he came to stay in the Luxurious Chancery Court Hotel in London, on High Holborn, and I was working in the office building opposite the hotel. Crowds of Jacko fans congregated outside the hotel entrance and at one stage a small circular, hobbit hole like window on the top floor apparently opened and a white glove could be seen waving to the screaming fans. Who knows if it really was Michael Jackson himself, but that is beside the point, What matters, and what matters to me specifically, is the reaction he invoked in those fans. How can one man, so far removed from reality and all our hum drum lives connect with such a diverse range of people around the world?
The legacy of Michael Jackson is that he was and always will be, in death as much as in life, a symbol of the power of art. Art has the power to inspire us, to excite us, to bring solace to our souls in troubled times. The people close to us, the loved ones we all need and may or may not have during our lifetimes, they cannot always be there for us. Art, however, is always there for us.
At the moments when we need to be lifted up from the spirals of depression or inner conflict, when we are down and need to be picked up, when we are lost and confused and need a force to clear our heads and help us find the inner strength to fight on, art has always been there for us. Art comes in many forms, and the symbols of art are all around us. They are more prevalent than we think. Religion, in and of itself, would be nothing without the symbols of art. The meaning of archaic words on a page need to be conveyed to us in a powerful way, one that that resonates deep within our searching souls. There is good reason why Medieval Europe tried to build cathedrals that were bigger, better, grander and more awe inspiring than all the other cathedrals in the world. The inspiration and awe that showers us at the sight of a mighty, glorious, beautiful cathedral, mosque, temple, museum, statue, pyramid tomb or any other form of architecture is a powerful force. I am not a religious person but the great Cathedrals of Europe have always inspired wonderment in my soul and transcended the petty dogmas, contradictions and vices of organised religion. The same goes for the magnificent Mosques of Lahore, Cairo and Istanbul. The great leaders and warrior kings who built them are long since gone but the power of these buildings and their hold over us, still survive. The symbols within them, the reliefs, the calligraphy, the blue tiled mosaics in geometric patterns, it all empowers the soul taking it to another level, one above the daily struggles that it is all too easy to get lost in. Music, from the choirs of those great cathedrals to the modern day pop beats of the mid 1980s, has the power to connect with a wide array of people and take them to a place within themselves that makes life greater than the list of daily chores and grind we all wake up to.
Bad was the very first album that I owned, my father having made a copy of it on cassette for me. It was the first album that I played on my new Sashio stereo that was my 8th birthday present. In 1992 I walked into the Kingston-upon-Thames Our Price store, and having spent hours flicking through the CDs and cassettes, I left having purchased my first ever album. It was Dangerous. Thriller was the video my mother went to a lot of trouble to rent from Seals Video Rentals on Coombe Road, back in the late 1980s, for the very first Halloween party we were to hold in our house. I remember the music, the dancing, the funky red and black plastic textured suits and how desperate everyone at the party was to see the video. Music, the visual arts, dance, the power chord riffs of Eddie Van Halen as Michael Jackson walked through the mean streets of some Hollywood set with the unforgettable expression on his face telling the world that nothing was going to keep him down. Whenever I feel low, and have been pushed and kicked down to the gutters of life I always run to my copy of Thriller and put on what I think is his best song, Beat It, and the power it gives me, the inspiration and energy that transfers from his words, music and the images from that music video, they pick me up and give me the strength to face the world and fight it head one. Nothing else ever has or ever can give me that power. Simply put, and this sounds odd to anyone who cannot relate to it, music helped me get through life, much more than anything else.
Just as that other great piece of art, the TV Show The Wire, was my guide and trusty friend through the recent rough patches of my life, and just as I connected to the themes in the show and they gave me energy, inspiration and a new perspective on life, it is not an exaggeration to say that Michael Jackson was a major part of the soundtrack to my youth. The first time I heard Eddie Van Halen on guitar was in a Michael Jackson song. The first time I heard rapping was on a Michael Jackson song. He transcended genres and races. From gangster rap to Star Trek soundtracks, from heavy metal to Mussorgsky, no matter how diverse the music got, Michael Jackson was always there in the centre of my musical universe.
For me, Music has always been the most powerful of all the arts. In fact it has been the most powerful guiding force in my life. I am not into sports, religion, and tribalism. I do not feel a part of any one community or culture, and as I wander in that odd place in the world, lost between different cultures and groups of people, I found a connection to the world, that was so alienating most of the time, through music. This is the connection that all the diverse fans of Michael Jackson also felt and still feel, that brings them together, even though they may have nothing else in common with each other. The power his music has to bring people together and fill a void in their life is the same as the power of following a football club and going to a home match where you connect with people you may never have met had it not been for your shared love of football. It is religious.
The different emotions and journeys music invokes in my soul are hard to express in words but, corny as it is to say, I can clearly make out a soundtrack of my life, and the music that has helped me get through the tough times. Music, more than people, more than any other form of art, and certainly more than religion, has always been there for me. When I prayed to God for help and he did not answer my prayers, it was to music that I turned. Music gave me the answer. It gave me the strength that corrupt, greedy mullahs and priests with their dogmatic, contradictory, ancient words could not. As my fatigue related issues got worse over the last few years I found it harder and harder to get myself out of bed and to wake up, even with copious amounts of caffeine. The only thing that manages to get the burnt out neurones in my head to start travelling and pull me out of my zombie like waking slumber is music. I need the radio on my alarm clock to pull me out of the world of my dreams and the radio in the bathroom to keep me alert enough to brush my teeth. If I don’t take my radio with the music blaring out to the kitchen I will most probably end up with my head in a bowl of soya milk and Tesco Malt Wheats. Music keeps me going. Art, from paintings, to films to great buildings or poetry, gives me the stimulation to push on through even the hardest of days. It connects me to the reservoir of hidden energy locked deep inside me. It keeps me going.
My taste in music is broad, and always has been. I grew up listening to movie soundtracks and classical music to begin with. This stemmed from my love of films. Michael Jackson was the first pop star whose music I really got into and connected with. I did not worship him like many adoring fans do and I did not even like every song he produced, but the songs that did connect with me have left an indelible mark on my soul. As I type this blog entry on a warm, muggy, grey, empty summer’s day all that I can hear swirling within my head are a myriad of Michael Jackson songs. There are the tunes that were there for me when I found myself in a dark, empty corner of a room wanting nothing more than to escape the harsh, brutal world that is so unforgiving. There are the songs that got me off my barstool and onto the dance floor in a dark, smoke filled, neon lit night club I was too young to legally be allowed in. I cannot get his songs out of my head. I have no desire to.
The world had its own opinion of Michael Jackson the man, and of his music. What still astounds me, a day after his sudden death, is how his music and artistic contributions to the human story seem to transcend his eccentric, mysterious lifestyle. That is the final proof of the power of art. Whatever he was in real life, as a man separate to his music (if one can separate the 2) it is the power of his art, his showmanship, his imagination, his performances, his dancing, his voice, his use of visual imagery and his songs that are his true legacy. Whenever I need to be picked up, or look back in time to my youth growing up as a confused, lost British Asian boy in Kingston I will always hear Billie Jean, Beat It, Wanna Be Starting something, Give in To me, Smooth Criminal, Speed demon and even Leave Me Alone, as part of the soundtrack to my own life.
Everybody knew Michael Jackson and everyone knew one of his songs. I can remember my father singing Leave Me Alone, albeit in a slightly mocking tone, as a joke to me and my sister when as grumpy teenagers we just needed to lock ourselves away and sulk, as hormonally charged teenagers need to do. Why, of all the albums at the time, would my Dad bring home Bad, copied from a colleague at work? It is Michael Jackson the artist who lives on, at the very least in the depths of some part of my soul, there when I need solace or inspiration.
For the last 10 or more years Michael Jackson the artist was more absent than present. His artistic legacy comes from the decades before this one. Pop music has moved on and although he inspired and influenced a wide range of our modern day music stars he himself struggled to find his place in the present. I would have loved to see him play one last gig at the O2 and it is a crying shame that he did not live to do what I always thought he would do, produce that one, last final album to silence all the critics and naysayers. I really thought he had one last great album left in him. He would surprise us and shock us all by coming out with something new and inventive. We will never get that final album or the comeback that so many were waiting for so eagerly, but the legacy he leaves us is awe inspiring enough. How one man could produce so many visual and musical imprints in History is amazing.
I rarely get touched or that shocked by the death of a celebrity. All death is sad but all death is certain. The finality of death is always something hard for minds attuned to living and survival to understand. Yet Michael Jackson did leave an imprint on my soul and whatever he was as a man, it is not the mystery that concerns me, it is the artistic legacy that helped me get through difficult times, that was the soundtrack to better times and that enriched the moments of my life that make life worth living.
If for nothing else, Michael Jackson will always be remembered fondly by me as it was to a Michael Jackson Song, “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough” that we walked in the Norbiton and Dragon Pub on New Year’s Eve 2004. The image that still sticks in my head and brings a smile to my face is of Sohail breaking into his unique style of funky dancing, attempting to snake his way around the small pseudo dance floor of the Dragon imitating the Moonwalk. No other song, no other dance move, no other artist would have inspired such an uplifting and joyful moment. I had walked into the pub distressed and full of emptiness yet within seconds I was elated and energised. I always remember times like that night fondly and will never forget what they meant to me, and how it was the music that lifted us all up.
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