It all began because Pierce Turner’s bowtie broke. Well, I suppose it really started when our band, Major Thinkers, got signed to Epic Records, the label responsible for the success of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
We were instantly catapulted from being a Lower East Side New Wave band to the potential next big thing. Within days people who wouldn’t have spared us a subway token were flying us first class around the country.
Part of the deal with Epic was that we were required to “make the scene.” Consequently, we received two embossed tickets for the social event of the 80’s – a celebration for Michael Jackson at the Museum of Natural History.
We were also sent formal evening attire, from dress suits to black shoes (how did they know our sizes, you might ask? Hey babe, Epic’s stylists already had all our measurements!)
And then Turner’s bowtie snapped. We tried everything from needle and thread to crazy glue to fix the bloody thing; suffice it to say our tardiness led to our limo driver speeding off when some of our enterprising neighbors attempted to mount his vehicle on milk crates. In the end, we were forced to settle for an oil-spewing checker cab driven by a pot-smoking anarchist.
By the time we rattled up to the Museum even the fashionably late had long since arrived; thus, a rumor spread among the paparazzi that the gloved one was upping the ante by arriving in a cab rather than the usual poseur’s limo.
The camera flashes exploded like sheet lightning as the anarchist, with a great flourish, opened the back door and out stepped two yobs from Wexford - to be greeted by a chorus of groans from onlookers and paparazzi alike.
Everyone who was anybody in those hype-fueled days was at that party and the gloved one democratically kept us all waiting. Still, there was champagne, caviar and cocaine in abundance. I vaguely remember chatting up Yoko Ono in a Liverpool accent. She was not impressed.
After three hours most of the real celebrities were ensconced in various bathrooms, leaving Turner and me within spitting distance of the King of Pop when he suddenly made his appearance.
It was brief and to the point, to say the least. He merely raised his gloved hand, whispered “hi,” then beat it as hundreds of A-Listers streamed out of stalls and closets sneezing and wiping their noses. But I’ll never forget the sheer panic in this pathologically shy young man’s eyes; nor did I have any doubt but that he was a prisoner of his own fame and psychosis.
In the next year I would learn a lot about the celebrity music business – the managers, agents, handlers and PR firms who take so much off the top that the artist is left with an unworkable percentage along with sacks full of unpaid bills. I learned even more about the corrosive costs of celebrity, and how egotism and various dependences are not only tolerated but encouraged, thereby making the talent easier to control.
Major Thinkers are not even a footnote now; we were eventually “dropped” and returned to East Village anonymity. Michael, however, suffered a worse fate for he could have been the greatest Rhythm & Blues singer.
He’ll always be king of Rhythm – play Billy Jean at your next party and watch the floor fill within the first sixteen bars. But his longing for a lost childhood coupled with his various dependencies - many of them enabled by an ubiquitous retinue of flunkies - ensured that he never learned to touch his own soul in the manner of Otis Redding or Sam Cooke.
What does Jackson’s life say about us? Well, as a society we’re addicted to vapid sensationalism. Celebrity, after all, sells ads for toilet paper; the ongoing imbroglios in Iraq and Afghanistan are too complicated and tedious for such an all-important task.
And what about his death? Michael’s dependence on so many prescription drugs may seem staggering but take a look in your own bathroom closet. We have a pill for everything nowadays in our efforts to eradicate pain and grief. Unfortunately, both are part of the human condition. Michael, for all his talent and money, never came to terms with either. Perhaps it’s time our doctors did.