Saturday, June 27, 2009

Remember the time

Michael Jackson’s explosion on our consciousness paralleled my years in college. ‘Thriller’ coincides with my second year in Architecture. Television was still the venerable and much lamented Bombay Doordarshan, and one evening they did a segment on the Grammy hopefuls. These were a long string of music videos- a relatively new phenomenon to us at the time. ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean’ were accompanied by David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’, Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’, Lionel Richie’s ‘All Night Long’, Culture Club’s ‘Karma Chameleon’, even Sheena Easton’s ‘Telephone’. How do I remember all this? Because I had taped the show on an old fashioned mono cassette recorder using an external mike propped up next to the single speaker on the neighbor’s television set. I must have had this tape and heard and reheard it all through college, that’s why this stays with me. Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Live Aid all came in later years, but that year (1983) was seminal. Incidentally they never showed the Grammys, to the best of my recollection, and the memories of watching Jackson cradling his eight Gramophone replicas were from newspapers, I guess.

You knew Michael Jackson was someone else. Apart from being blown away by his dancing, it was his voice and the musical arrangements of Quincy Jones that would remain, and do even today. Just a couple of months ago ‘Thriller’ was reissued as a 25th Anniversary edition, bringing into sharp focus how we had grown, more than anything else. But the music is still fresh and continues to be part of my collection of MP3’s on my computer. Of course, after that that everyone was trying out the shaky-breaky dance movements with variable success. Mithun Chakrarvorty and Salma Agha rehashing the zombies of ‘Thriller’ in some long forgotten film still give me the heebie-jeebies just to think about it.

No one, however, could emulate the voice. In the midst of our continuing education into the Ages of Rock (Django Reinhardt onwards, by way of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, Floyd, Dire Straits and beyond) Michael Jackson was our concession to POP, and he did Rock our Joint.

I remember going to the American Center Library to watch a special screening of ‘Thriller’ and ‘The Making of Thriller’ by John Landis. Why American Center? God alone knows, but even they probably acknowledged that the cultural scene was no longer the same without Jackson. The ‘Making of’ was the first for a music video, and the first behind the scenes look at filmmaking that I can remember. This was fun to watch. Jackson played his overgrown child persona and Landis indulged him (Middle to Close up shot, Landis to camera: “This is Michael Jackson. This is Michael Jackson’s toe.’ Followed by lots of tickling and giggling). Landis, of course, had just made ‘An American Werewolf in London’. ‘Thriller’ was just a reprise of that, but the prosthetic special effects were quite novel for the time (Long strand of hair growing out of face, canines sliding out of jaws like stilettos,et al). Life Magazine (defunct and lamented too) had done a many page photo feature on the great efforts it took to apply all this on the actor, and the film showed similar atrocities being heaped upon Jackson, before he could give his shots.
But the ‘Making of’ was remarkable for another memorable performance. It showed in its entirety Jackson performing ‘Billie Jean’ live at the Motown celebrations- sequined glove, white socked, with a fedora, Jackson unveiled the Moonwalk and forever embedded himself in the cultural space of popular music. I must check if the ‘Making of’ is on You Tube, it must be. The silken backward shuffle, defying gravity still gives a thrill, watching it after all these years. Plus, there is this quiet satisfaction in the knowledge that despite one’s forty five years and weighing twice that, one can still do a perfectly passable Moonwalk.

Hope you’re OK now, Annie.

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