The past 72 hours have been rather surreal, I don’t mind telling you.
For me, it started with a text message late Thursday night. I was in bed with a glass of wine, alternating between Question Time and My Name is Earl on telly when I received it.
“Switch on the news,” it shrieked. “MJ is dead according to reports!”
So I did. Sky News had already pronounced him dead by then; other news channels seemed to be trying to have their cake and eat it, saying that the LA Times had reported him dead but they couldn’t confirm it. And that was it. What was meant to have been an early night (by my standards) turned into a news marathon.
Figuring that the most reliable news source would be the one closest to the subject, I turned over to CNN and stayed there until midnight, when it abruptly turned into a gambling channel (yes, I’m one of those cheapskates who has Freeview instead of paying for Virgin or Sky). I then turned over to BBC News and stayed there for another hour or so before deciding that my need for sleep was greater than my need to know every detail of how it had happened.
The craziness continued after I woke up on Friday morning and settled down to do some work. After reading one Facebook status update too many quoting the “what does it profit a man if he lose his soul?” scripture (and even a few which very authoritatively claimed that Michael was now in Hell), I’d had enough. I’m not the rabid sort of MJ fan who thought he could never do any wrong, but the insensitivity was too much. So I fired back, saying, “Allow people some time to mourn before throwing all your ‘sound doctrine’ at us!” That in turn led to some interesting private conversations and a few very touching personal emails.
And then the big one happened. A producer for Radio 4’s Sunday morning programme rang me up and said they were looking for a music journalist who had knowledge of religious issues to talk about whatever faith Michael Jackson may have had, and how that faith was reflected in his music.
The call wasn’t totally unexpected; my friend Bernard who also works for the BBC had pre-warned me that it was coming. I had a few initial apprehensions; what made me qualified enough to talk about such a subject? Yes, I had looked into some of those issues when I wrote the chapter on Michael in the Rough Guide to Rock book – but that was years ago. But when the call finally came, all those fears disappeared.
The producer fired questions at me; I answered. We discussed all sorts of things: Michael’s upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness; how he’d put a disclaimer at the start of the Thriller video when its horror movie theme upset the JW leadership; other religious figures who’d influenced him; the various (and in my opinion, ludicrous) Internet rumours linking him with everything from radical Islam to devil worship… Eventually, the producer made arrangements for me to come in to Radio 4 to be interviewed for the show.
Now I had to do my homework. I’m usually the person doing the interviewing and I’m fine with that. Being interviewed, on the other hand, still makes me nervous. I went for a swim and used the time in the pool to do some more thinking about how Michael “did God” in his music.
There’s no doubt that some of Michael’s work had an element to it that could be considered spiritual, or at the very least ‘positive’ (if he was a reggae singer, I’d say ‘conscious’). The most obvious example would be ‘Man in the Mirror’. So yes, there was a spiritual side to some of MJ’s music.
What Michael didn’t do, though, was anchor the message in his songs to one specific faith. Whereas you’d have Prince sing “Don’t die without knowing the cross” (an obvious reference to Christianity), Michael on the other hand would sing “Keep the faith” but leave it up to you to decide which faith it was you were meant to be keeping. And the “be the change you want to see” message in ‘Man in the Mirror’ is one that is embraced by people of all faiths – and even by a few of us who claim not to have any.
That’s not to say that people with a specific faith didn’t influence Michael’s music. Various Christians in particular made a huge contribution. Seawind, the horn section on the Quincy Jones-produced albums, were a gospel group in their own right. Scan the credits on the albums, and you’ll find several others. The most notable is the legendary gospel singer Andrae Crouch, who did the vocal arrangements on ‘Man in the Mirror’ and on ‘Will You Be There’ and ‘Keep the Faith’ on the Dangerous album (in the last couple of days, Andrae has had to refute rumours now doing the rounds in some Evangelical circles, claiming that he and his twin sister Sandra converted Michael to Christianity a week or two before he died).
In the end, I never got to share any of this on air. A few hours after the first phone call, the producer called again to say they’d found someone in America who had been in the same JW fellowship as Michael, and would be having him on the show instead. A pity; I was really looking forward to having a go at being a Nelson George or even a Stuart Maconie.
Rest easy, Jacko. And thanks for all the tunes (though I’m not so sure I want to thank you for my mid-80s Jehri curl phase)…