Life & Death In The Magical Kingdom

June 30th, 2009

mj2.jpgI left the office at 7:15 last night. The sun was still casting its golden light across the Hudson. After five days of Michael Jackson coverage, it felt like a half day.

I stopped at the grocery store on my way home and, inspired by the sight of fresh limes (on sale, natch), resolved to mix up a fresh-squeezed margarita and some homemade guacamole to enjoy them before the sun dipped below the horizon.

A few hours later, Abbi and I sat together on the patio squinting into the sunset, sipping our cocktails, and debriefing each other on the last five days of my absentee husbandism. I caught her up on all that we’d done at work, and what was yet to come, and we shared our personal remembrances of Michael Jackson. Which is when I remembered…

You, Dear Reader, will recall my telling you more than once before that my rock ‘n roll fantasy — that is, the imaginary, fictionalized life of life on the road surrounded by groupies and guitars that I fomented for years — was born sometime around my parent’s divorce.

The way I remember it, I grabbed my first issue of Rolling Stone Magazine in an airport while being shuttled between my parent’s Indianapolis and Philadelphia homes. The more RS interviews I read about dysfunctional but inspired singers, songwriters and performers, the more I felt at home. Everyone I read about was gifted, but troubled. They seemed like I felt: shy and broken, but wildly craving of attention and praise. Rock ‘ roll (and journalism, for that matter) appeared to offer me a way out of the confusion of the time.

Well, last night, it dawned on me that that first issue had Michael Jackson on the cover. I know; I saved it (and every issue thereafter) for years. And I could picture it in my head: a young, plastic surgery-free Michael stares straight-faced and vulnerable into camera. With an iota of Googling, I found it: Issue #389 published April 17, 1983. The cover story was titled, “Life In The Magical Kingdom.”

“Recently, for a refresher course,” the article reads, “Michael went to see James Brown perform at an L.A. club.”

“He’s the most electrifying,” Jackson says of Brown. “He can take an audience anywhere he wants to. The audience just went bananas. He went wild. He gets so out of himself.”

“Getting out of oneself,” the article concludes, “is a recurrent theme in Michael’s life whether the subject is dancing, singing or acting.”

It took nearly twenty years (and an album called “Out of Your Head”) to finally discover and own that neither sex, drugs nor rock ‘n roll afford much escape. Not for long, anyway, not really. In fact, the evidence — from The King to The King of Pop — seems to suggest quite the contrary.

Black Or White – MP3

June 28th, 2009

blackorwhitevideo.jpgFrom the moment the Michael Jackson story broke Thursday night, just one song has been on my mind.

I appreciate that most would cite “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” or “Thriller” as Michael’s finest pop song, and they may well be right; they’re great songs with great hooks. But it’s Jackson’s 1991 “Dangerous” single, “Black or White,” that’s been lodged in my head all weekend.

And for good reason. Yes, Michael Jackson was a musical (and marketing) genius. But he also knew when to tap top talent. For “Black or White,” he called on co-writer and producer Bill Bottrell and guitarist Slash.

Bottrell was an early conspirator of singer/songwriter David Baerwald. Baerwald released one of my early favorites, “Boomtown,” in 1986. The two went on to form The Tuesday Night Music Club with Sheryl Crow whose second album Bottrell later produced. Slash, of course, provided the tune’s simple but infectious guitar hook.

“Black or White” was released to radio just twenty-four hours prior to the release of “Dangerous.” It was immediately added to 96 percent U.S. top forty radio station playlists. The “Black or White” music video (directed, like “Thriller” before it, by John Landis) premiered on MTV, VH1, BET, and Fox simultaneously.

Now, I don’t know much about the mathematics of music, so I can’t explain what Michael was doing, but I can tell you that — not surprisingly — the progression is pretty simple: it’s mostly a D chord. The melody, though, is something else, full of half-steps and heartbreak. What’s more, the lyrics are filled with great, rhythmic turns of phrase like “Now I believe in miracles, and a miracle has happened tonight” and “Don’t tell me you agree with me, when I saw you kicking dirt in my eye.” I sang, hummed, whistled and replayed the song over and over in my head all weekend until there was just one thing left to do: record it myself.

While I may do the song no justice whatsoever, something interesting happened there in the tiny, silent oven that is my studio: “Black or White” became some sort of folk song. And so, with my apologies and the caveat that, if you really hate my cover, my pal Ron encouraged me to go ahead and post it, well…

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Breaking The News: Michael Jackson

June 28th, 2009

Michael JacksonSadly, breaking news doesn’t surprises me much anymore. It is immediately what it is.

I was in a seventeenth floor corner office overlooking Times Square on a conference call with a blogger from VH1’s Best Week Ever (of all media entities) when I heard the news.

“Michael Jackson had a heart attack.”

Now, I was never a huge fan, but I remember the first time I heard “Thriller.” I was sitting on my cousin Jimmy’s bed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, wearing big, puffy headphones when I first heard Vincent Price’s sinister cackle. A few months later, Jimmy, his sister Susan, Chris and I crowded around Susan’s grainy, 19″ color television to watch John Landis’ epic, 14-minute, $500,000 music video on MTV.

I grew up on the network, of course, and MJ was rarely off its air for long. From “Thriller” to “We Are The World” to “Black or White” to the ill-fated merger of Graceland and Neverland, I followed it all from the periphery. In recent years, my job has required I follow it from a few steps closer: from The People vs. Michael Jackson to his baby-dangling and Middle Eastern self-exile, we covered it all.

The madness and sadness of his later years, of course, obscure the impact of his music and reach of his relationships. Jackson sold more than 750 million records worldwide. He notched eight platinum or multiplatinum albums and 13 #1 singles, and had 47 tracks crack the Billboard Hot 100. He won 13 Grammy Awards, was inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a member of the Jackson 5 and as a solo artist) and received the American Music Awards’ Artist of the Century Award. His 1982 album, “Thriller,” is the biggest-selling original album of all time (neck-and-neck with the Eagles’ “Greatest Hits” for years).

I always appreciated that he tapped rock guitarists to craft his monster hooks: Billie Idol’s Stevie Stevens, Eddie Van Halen, Slash. In fact, Jackson always called on his friends. His “Liberian Girl” video alone features cameos from Iman, Sherman Hemsley, Paula Abdul, Carl Weathers, Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, Amy Irving, Lou Diamond Phillip, John Travola, Olivia Newton John, Corey Feldman, Stephen Spielberg, Deborah Gibson, Jasmine Richards, Rosanne Arquette, LA Law, Rick Shroeder, Weird Al Yankovich, Lou Ferigno, Don King, Soleil Moon Frye, David Copperfield, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Dryfus, Dan Akroyd, Steve Guttenberg, Soleil Moon Frye, and Suzanne Summers.

Twenty-six years later from that first listen, on the twenty-ninth floor of MTV HQ, my colleagues were scrambling: our breaking news bar was deployed online, an alert had been emailed, an article published, a ticker was beginning to air, and PAs were racing up and down the hallways looking for tape.

A few of us huddled around a speaker phone with our boss on the other end, trying to confirm whether Michael had died or not while planning our break into regular programming. For a moment, only TMZ was confirming his death. I heard my boss say, “It’s on AP and Reuters,” and pulled the trigger on our ticker. When I checked AP and Reuters, though, they were citing TMZ (who, I would later come to find, announced his death six minutes prior to the coroner). For a moment there, I paced the halls apoplectic that, in fact, Jackson hadn’t passed but that I’d announced Jackson’s death to MTV viewers. But then the confirmation: CNN, LA Times, NY Times, AP, Reuters…

The channel switched almost immediately to music videos. Before we knew it — after a flurry of conference calls, mass emails and ad hock meetings — we were in the control room breaking into programming. At nine o’clock we went on air with “A Tribute To Michael Jackson,” comprised of great MTV moments, celebrity reactions and phoners, and a live feed from Harlem where revelers were celebrating his life below the Apollo marquee.

On set and behind the scenes, it was a family reunion. Kurt and John joined Sway, while producers from Michael, Madonna and Prince’s heyday poured into the back row. Everyone was pitching in. More than once, the company’s president forwarded me artist’s statements from his Blackberry, which I typed into a script, then delivered to prompter and Chyron. Seconds later, Sway read the statement on air. It was like “Broadcast News,” but without the flop sweat.

With just a few hours to sleep Friday morning, we continued breaking into live programming until Friday night, when we aired another live hour, “A Celebration of Michael Jackson on MTV.” I finally stumbled into my apartment Friday night around midnight.

Some thirty-six hours later on CBS Sunday Morning, VH1 EVP Bill Flanagan presented the most even-keeled, articulate and informed piece I’ve seen or read yet:

Michael Jackson presided over the third and final big band of the rock ‘n roll era.

The first explosion was Elvis. That was about sexual liberation, and racial integration, and lasted about ten years.

The second explosion was The Beatles and everything they issued in. Suddenly pop music was all about long hair and experimental sounds, progressive politics and outlaw rhetoric. Rock was about a counterculture. That blast lasted about twenty years, right through Springsteen, Prince, and U2.

The third explosion was “Thriller,” Michael Jackson’s 1982 album, and the best selling album of all time, the album that invented the pop world we’re still living in twenty-five years later.

Thriller re-merged pop music with mainstream entertainment. After two decades, pop became again what it had been before the Sixties: part of show business. With Thriller, pop wasn’t just about how you sounded, but how you looked, how you dressed, and danced.

Michael didn’tidolize Dylan and Hendrix, he idolized Elizabeth Taylor and Walt Disney. The model has ruled mainstream entertainment for twenty-six years and show no sign of ending. He made the world safe for MTV and Madonna, “Flashdance” and “Footloose,” Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.

A student of PT Barnum, Jackson courted crazy publicity rumors. But at some point that hunger for tabloid headlines turned on him. He fed a beast, and the beast bit him. At some point, Michael forgot about being a musician, and got lost in being a star.

But one crucial fact often gets overlooked in all the statistics, hype, and hoopla: Michael Jackson was amazingly talented.

I’m heading back into the office momentarily to keep up with a story that is becoming sadder by the minute. As police investigators continue to question Jackson’s personal doctor, Dr. Conrad Murray, and stitch the coroner’s report together with a history of prescription drug use, it seems clearer and clearer to me that Michael Jackson really never had a chance.

From a childhood wracked by bullying and abuse from his father, through an adolescence broadcast on network television specials, to an adulthood scrutinized by tabloids, cable news networks and internet sites, Michael Jackson had nowhere to hide from his fans, his tormentors, his pain, or himself.

In the end, then, perhaps there was no other possible cause of death than a broken heart.

In A Sea Black With Ink

June 24th, 2009

me.jpgI tell this story a lot.

Way back in 1996, just a few weeks into my Wenner Media tenure, the then-managing editor of Rolling Stone Magazine led an intern Q&A thusly: “I’m 37-years-old, I don’t live in New York, and I don’t go to rock shows or movies. Any questions?”

I was floored. Flabbergasted. Agog.

Fast forward thirteen years. I’m the 37-year-old on my way home from my difficult (if not soul-crushing then soul-trying) twelve-hour day tonight when Bruce Springsteen sings to me:

You’re smiling now but you’ll find out
They’ll use you up and spit you out now
Your head’s spinnin’ in diamonds and clouds
But pretty soon it turns out

The Theater District is empty; everyone’s in their seats. Pedicabbies line Ninth Avenue, all wolfing down the dinner from an aluminum tin. Jeff Tweedy chimes in:

There is no sunken treasure, rumored to be
Wrapped inside my ribs in a sea black with ink

Now those are lyrics. Which led me to wonder, will I ever write another good lyric? Then it dawns on me that it’s been a year since I released, “The Invention of Everything Else.”

Everything else: Love, marriage, kids, suburbs, lawns, station wagons, soccer camps, pre-school, high school, graduation, weddings…

I don’t miss the rock shows. Or the movie theaters. And I’d trade it all for today.

About the music, though, I wonder: Is that it? A few hundred rock shows, a couple of albums, and then… and then? What about that Greatest Hits idea? The Covers Album? The Remixes? Nothing beats a couple of rock songs between friends. But where have my callouses gone? Where has the time gone?

Which reminds of my favorite passage from PT Anderson’s “Magnolia.”

Let me tell you something, this is not an easy job. I get a call on the radio, dispatch, it’s bad news. And it stinks. But this is my job and I love it. Because I want to do well — in this life and in this world — I want to do well. And I want to help people. And I might get twenty bad calls a day. But one time I can help someone and make a save — correct a wrong or right a situation — then I’m a happy cop. And as we move through this life we should try and do good. Do good… And if we can do that, and not hurt anyone else, well… then…

I’m home now. I just changed into The Weekender (which is what Abbi calls the cargo shorts and worn oxford I wear all the time), poured myself a Harp, and sat down here in the living room.

So… then…

The Hagley Fireworks (Or, In Consideration Of Teflon, Kevlar & The Apollo Space Program)

June 23rd, 2009

fireworks.jpgAll I knew was that Abbi signed us up for “The Fireworks” back home in Wilmington, Delaware, and that the tailgating started early so I had to catch an early train out of the city and wear nice pants.

“The Fireworks,” it ends up, are an annual tradition at The Hagley Museum in Greenville, Delaware, birthplace of the now-behemoth chemical corporation, DuPont.

Growing up in nearby Valley Forge, Pennsylvania (just thirty miles north on Route 202), the Brandywine was a placid, almost mythic place reserved for revolutionary history (Washington fought the British there), lush gardens (Longwood, Winterthur), fabled artists (Andrew Wyeth). As a kid, I’d often pass through the area on my way to Rehoboth Beach, noting the strip malls, banking giants, and significant amount of DuPont signage, but I knew little of the place or its primary industry until, well, Friday night.

See, there are a few important components to The Hagley Fireworks other than the robust, upscale tailgating.

First, there are numerous set pieces and ground effects (in addition to aerial fireworks) referred to colloquially as “frames.” Second, the event is themed, the fireworks themselves run through a historical narrative. And third (and perhaps most-interestingly), DuPont’s first major innovation was gunpowder.

DuPont was founded in 1802 by E.I. du Pont at the Eleutherian Mills, on the Brandywine Creek, near Wilmington, Delaware, two years after he and his family left France to escape the French Revolution. It began as a manufacturer of gunpowder, and grew quickly. By the mid nineteenth century had become the largest supplier of gunpowder to the United States military.

In the twentieth century, DuPont led the polymer revolution by developing many highly successful materials such as neoprene, nylon, Teflon, Mylar, Kevlar, Nomex, Tyvek and Lycra.

DuPont businesses are organized into the following five categories, known as marketing “platforms”: Electronic and Communication Technologies, Performance Materials, Coatings and Color Technologies, Safety and Protection, and Agriculture and Nutrition.

DuPont’s annual R&D budget is $1.3 billion; its latest project is a research center in Hyderabad, A.P., India scheduled to open in mid-2008, that will focus on agriculture and nutrition products.

The Eleutherian Mills site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and is now called The Hagley Museum.

There I was Friday night, then, sitting in a lawn chair stuffed full of hors d’oeuvres and beer, watching this year’s Hagley Fireworks extravaganza entitled, “Innovation on the Brandwine.” The production tracked DuPont’s history from black gunpowder to nylon (a fifteen-foot, sparkling leg!) to Teflon and Kevlar (the latter providing protection from the former, of course), and came complete with a rich, baritone voice over and editorially-salient soundtrack (surely the only fireworks show to ever use Semisonic’s “All About Chemistry”).

And while I was absolutely dazzled by the fireworks themselves, I found the history lesson a bit disquieting. I appreciate that someone has to be the chief supplier of gunpowder to American troops. And that, whatever Benjamin Braddock and I think, there’s something to be said for plastics.

On one hand, you have one of the world’s largest suppliers of gunpowder. Think of all the digits, limbs and corpses tallied on account of those Eleutherian Mills (to say nothing of those Teflon-coated bullets and whatever else has been developed in the $1.3B-a-year R&D operation). On the other hand, you have space travel (DuPont was responsible for 21 of the 22-layered Apollo space suit) and bullet proof vests. Which got me thinking about my own job.

I’ve long wrestled my with my company’s primary product: entertainment. Sure, distraction is appreciated in these dark and troubled times, but it seems to me that there are more important things to spend our valuable free time considering than what Michael Jackson means by that glove, why Puck ate the peanut butter, or whether Lauren’s actually angry at Heidi. Iran? Darfur? Global Warming? The Economy?

But maybe that’s just it. GE makes satellites and jet engines as well as light bulbs and “30 Rock.” News Corps. is responsible for BeliefNet and 20th Century Fox (“Star Wars!”) as well as, well, Fox News. Berkshire Hathaway brings the world Russell Candy and Geico (on second thought…)

So maybe it’s not so simple. Maybe corporations — like the individuals who comprise them — are not simply “good” or “bad,” “saints” or “sinners.” Maybe we need to invent gunpowder to invento Teflon to invent no-stick BandAids. Or something like that.

Anyway, my white pants looked fabulous, my Acela Express was right on time, and the fireworks were awesome.

Hit Hard

June 22nd, 2009

Joey KramerSuch is my rock bio jones that, not only was I the only person in the office to grab a copy (an unproofed gally, natch) of Joey Kramer’s “Hit Hard” out of the mailroom, but surely the only to read the Aerosmith drummer’s tale of drug addiction and recovery in a measly 24 hours.

Listen, anyone with any proximity to Toxic Twins Steven Tyler and Joe Perry has a story worth reading. But Kramer was there from the beginning. What’s more, he had his own crosses to bear.

The oldest of four children born to Eastern European immigrants, Kramer grew up in Bronx (and later Long Island). He rebelled against his father’s rigid pursuit of The American Dream, and his mother’s strict code of social aspiration. Long hair, marijuana cigarettes and rock ‘n roll were not popular choices in the Kramer household. So Kramer split just as soon as he could.

Though he met the slightly-older (and apparently much-cooler) Tyler (then Tellerica) in high school, and later borrowed the even-then flamboyant front man’s drum set for an early gig, it wasn’t until meeting again in Boston years later that the two formed Aerosmith (Kramer’s suggestion meaning, he thought, “Experts at Making You High”).

The band’s impressive and epic forty-year and run of success, sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll, then failure, obscurity, poverty, and recovery followed, though Kramer makes it clear that (as my boss likes to say), “Beyond the mountains there are more mountains.” Even after the band re-ascends, the drummer loses his home to fire, his father to Parkinson’s, his skin to another freak fire (this time in his Ferrari), and his wife to divorce.

Save for the coke, heroine, speed, uppers, downers, LSD, mushrooms, and Run DMC cameo, “Hit Hard” could have been anyone’s story, really.

It’s “The Prince of Tides” with drums instead of a tiger, or “This Boy’s Life” in X, New York, instead of Concrete, Oregon. It’s another tale of an abusive, distant father, a codependent mother, and the sixty years it took everybody to forgive one another. In some ways, it’s the modern American story, an interesting book, come to think of it, to read over Father’s Day Weekend.

Kramer’s not Pat Conroy or Tobias Wolf (nor, for that matter, are his two co-writers, William Patrick nor Keith Garde) and suffers from far more show then tell. Still, “Hit Hard” clips along at a nice pace, shares some bona fide, hard-earned lessons, and is punctuated by photos of Aerosmith in action, and Kramer alone looking wistful, contemplative and thoughtful.

And the truth is, Kramer comes off as thoughtful and sensitive, maybe too much so for the rock star life. Or maybe that’s all part of the equation; Pain + Rebellion + Sensitivity + Desperation = Maximum Rock ‘N Roll.

Or maybe the equation is more complicated, like algebra, geometry or (ha, ha) some kind of algorithm. And maybe all that matters is that, in the end, everyone forgives each other.

Surrender

June 16th, 2009

bbwh2o.jpgBy the time I finally powered up my PC precisely 267 hours after logging off for vacation, I’d accrued 1887 emails, 19 voice mails, and 12 Facebook requests.

Four hours later, I’d whittled down those various missives to a crucial total of thirty-two.

Yesterday morning, less than twelve hours after my eight hour GCM-MIA-LGA commute, I strapped on my Asics to shake off the stiffness (and post-vaca blues) with a quick pre-brunch 10k. From Riverside Park to The Ramble, everywhere I ran, everyone was looking at their hands. Blackberries, iPhones, Razors — New Yorkers don’t care; they want data, and distraction.

I’m no exception. True, I left my Blackberry at home last week and avoided its odd, microboredom-curing gravity until the very last moment today, but sure enough, there I was tonight, waiting in line at D’Agostino’s checking my mail.

Still, it dawned on me as I ran through Columbus Circle, my iPod blaring Green Day’s “Know Your Enemy” (still/again): I am at war with New York City. These devices, these diversions, they’re my defense. Heaven forbid I make eye contact, sustain a second of stillness, or allow my synapses a moment’s reprieve. No, in New York City, it’s all rush, rush, noise, noise.

I’ve spent the better part of the last nine months analyzing data, projecting goals, and managing programming, process, and platform to achieve those goals. More than once I’ve told my colleagues, “Life is an algorithm.” That is, everything can be understood, ordered and affected with reason, logic and data.

Saturday morning, though, I floated above a school of yellow and blue French Grunts (Haemulon flavolineatum) near a stand of staghorn coral on Cemetery Reef. A spiny, razor-sharp, pitch-black sea urchin was tucked into an outcropping, it’s center glowing bright red in the morning sun. A purple sea fan waved lazily in the surf.

Which is when I decided that I was wrong, and began to surrender.

Los Ochos Locos Internacional (Edición Azucar)

June 15th, 2009

Grand CaymanAfter a week there, I can confidently report that Grand Cayman is as the brochure promises: endless miles of white sand beaches, tranquil, turquoise waters, and limitless sun.

It’s a Caribbean playground: swimming, snorkeling, sailing, scuba diving, and jet skiing all fueled by delicious, home-brewed rum.

Abbi and I scuba dove eight times, logging nearly five hours at depths of up to one hundred feet at sites like Princess Penny’s Pinnacle, Sand Chute and Tarpon Alley (more on that later).

We walked and ran Seven Mile Beach, snorkeled on Governor’s and Cemetery Reef, and floated, flipped, swam, waded and paddled in the eighty-five degree ocean.

I read four books: Mick Brown’s “Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector,” James Dodson’s “A Son Of The Game,” and Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball” and “Home Game.”

Mostly, though, we spent countless, Blackberry and Timex-free hours reclining beneath the casuarina pines, sipping various coladas, dozing off to the the soothing hiss of the waves on the sand and the wind through the needles, and waiting on each day’s big event: sunset.

In the rare instance that we were awake, alert and otherwise unoccupied, we continued a tradition established in Honduras, and continued in Bonaire, Jamaica, and Maldives: Los Ochos Locos Internacional (Edición Azucar). That’s right: forget poker, bridge or other more complicated, strategy-laden card games; ours is Crazy Eights. In straight sets, I’m pleased to report that our Tortuga Rum-inspired competition was a draw.

Which means it’s time to start planning our next trip: Los Ochos Locos Internacional (El Triturador del Lazo)!

Grand Cayman (Summer 2009)

June 14th, 2009

One Grand

June 5th, 2009

hotel.jpgLast October, Abbi and I planned to spend our one-year anniversary in Nevis.

Then, within a span twenty-four hours, I was informed that I’d be inheriting leadership of the news department, but not before I had my appendix removed. Suffice to say, we reluctantly canceled the trip.

Fast forward eight months.

It’s been a doozie of a time (as you know, Dear Reader), one punctuated by great challenges, frustrations and rewards at work. Last week’s Movie Awards were the first of two uber-events (the Video Music Awards are in three months), and the team came through in flying colors: ratings were up, productivity was up, web metrics were up, and today, as we all head into the weekend, spirits are up.

At home, Abbi and I have been plugging away at laying the emotional and financial foundation for the rest of our lives, and, frankly, having a great time of it — even if we haven’t snuck away to celebrate our anniversary.

Yet.

Tomorrow morning, Abbi and I board AA#413 bound for Miami, then connect with AA#561 to Grand Cayman. We’re spending a full-week there with no plans but scuba diving, sleeping, and laying by the pool drinking umbrella drinks and reading trashy novels (well, rock bios, anyway).

I’m leaving my Blackberry and laptop at home, so if you need me, well…

Leave a message. I’ll call ya’ when we get back.