Wednesday, June 25, 2014

5 Years Later, Jackson’s Absence Gains Him Acceptance

CLEVELAND - On one of the very worse, sickening, tear-soaked days of my life, the great Michael Jackson was taken from his children, myself and the world. He had spent the last 16 years of his life under heavy public criticism and hatred.

Then, he was gone.

Today is the 5th anniversary of that heart wrenching day. June 25, 2009 is a day that will forever live in infamy for me as well as MJ’s global fanbase numbering into the tens of millions. At the time of his departure, public perception of the iconic entertainer was filled with sheer negativity. Mostly in the U.S., he was seen as a weird, child molesting monster obsessed with plastic surgery and wrought with a near-dormant career that had once flew high above the entire music industry and set new standards of excellence.

But as soon as he died, he became reborn in the minds of fans, music critics and the general public. Tons of tributes poured out dedicated to him and his greatest artistic achievements were put back into the spotlight. Sure, there were still salacious stories that surfaced, more sordid accusations of child molestations dating back more than 20 years, and of course, more jokes from comedians and television commentators everywhere.

In spite of all this, Michael Jackson’s absence has allowed his aura and his legend to thrive and breathe comfortably. The extremely successful MJ Cirque de Solei shows have re-imagined his great stage performances and historic albums and brought them to contemporary audiences. He has a “new” album out that has received praise from critics. Even Jeep has one of Jackson’s songs featured in a recent television commercial.

This has all become possible and “acceptable” because the man himself is no longer around. Because of MJ’s super controversial life and widespread belief that he molested young boys, he had become an outcast in his own country; a sharp contrast to his early 1980’s pinnacle when he had become something of a national obsession because of the staggering success and popularity of his Thriller album and groundbreaking short films that accompanied it. He was even called a “national treasure” at the 1984 American Music Awards.

On this awful anniversary, I am happy that a lot of love has returned for MJ. I am just furious that it took him to die for it to happen.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

25 Years Later: Jordan's Re-Defining Moment

CLEVELAND - In 2009, Michael Jordan, at age 46 stood at a podium on a stage at his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Speaking with a cocksure wit, he revealed the lifelong forces that drove him to become the greatest basketball player in history as well as a beloved cultural icon.

In 1999, a 36-year MJ sat at his 2nd retirement press conference and reflected on not only the championship winning shot that he hit just 7 months prior, but also his amazing 13-year NBA career that re-defined sports and the business of sports thanks to his pioneering presence.

But it was a full decade before that press conference that Jordan went from being known as a super high-flying scoring machine, to a game-changing champion-in-the-making.

The Shot.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the moment that catapulted Jordan to a new level of greatness and re-defined his career. It also put him on an entirely new path, which would ultimately lead to a treasure trove of NBA championships and a lofty status as the gold standard of basketball excellence.

That famous shot took place in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference first round series between Jordan's Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The series was tied 2-2 heading into the fateful deciding game. MJ, at age 26 was in the midst of his 5th NBA season and had led the league in scoring for the 3rd consecutive campaign. Going into the series with the Cavs, the Bulls were heavy underdogs thanks in large part to an 0-6 record against their division rivals during the regular season. Jordan, however was undaunted and continually claimed that Chicago would win the series.

MJ's unpopular prediction seemed like a genius move when the Bulls found themselves up by 20 points in Game 1. Going into Game 4 in Chicago, the Bulls held a 2-1 series lead and the team got a gigantic performance from Michael, as he scored a sizzling 50 points. Ironically, this effort seemed to play right into Cleveland's hands and before they knew it, they had won the game in overtime heading back to their home-court to decide who would move on to Round 2.

Sunday, May 7, 1989 was the date. Richfield Coliseum was the location and Jordan was seething with fury after he missed a couple key free throws in the closing moments of the previous game. He could care less about his 50 points. He felt as though he let his team down.

He couldn't wait for the chance to be in that position again.

The game was as highly competitive as one would expect a deciding playoff game to be. The lead changed hands 9 times in the final three minutes and with every Cavs basket, Jordan answered. He beat Cavs guard Craig Ehlo off the dribble and drilled a 10-foot pull up jumper with 6 seconds left to give the Bulls a 99-98 lead. After a Cleveland timeout, Ehlo inbounded the ball, then took a return pass from forward Larry Nance and scored on a driving layup to the basket with 3 seconds left to put the Cavs up, 100-99. The arena went wild and started celebrating the apparent victory.

But MJ still had 3 seconds to work with.

Bulls forward Brad Sellers went to inbound to Jordan, who was heavily guarded by a Nance-Ehlo double-team. MJ broke free and cut to an open area to receive the pass, then went hard left with a couple dribbles and raised up for the shot inside the foul circle. He was met by Ehlo who got a hand up and would have blocked the shot if it were not for Jordan hanging a split second longer in the air to double clutch the ball before releasing it.

The ball dropped through the hoop just as the horn sounded giving the Bulls a stunning 101-100 victory. Jordan jumped high into the air and fist pumped several times before being mobbed by teammates and coach Doug Collins in an absolutely shell shocked arena. His final tally: 44 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists.

The legacy of Jordan's classic moment is two-fold. It sent both franchises in opposite directions. The Cavs had been contenders for the NBA crown that season and had an outstanding core of young star players in Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Nance and Ron Harper. They also had key players beyond the stars such as John "Hot Rod" Williams and Ehlo. But after just a few games at the start of the '89-'90 season, they surprisingly traded star Harper to the L.A. Clippers for the rights to college star Danny Ferry.

Also, during the next four seasons, the team was hit hard with major injuries, especially to Price. Along with Harper's exit, Daugherty missed half of the '89-'90 season and Price missed 66 games in '90-'91. They were back on a roll for the '91-'92 season, but lost in the Eastern Conference Finals. In '92-'93, they lost in the semifinals. Both times, the Bulls knocked them out while en route to their second and third NBA championships.

MJ's historic shot infused the Bulls with tons of confidence and momentum and they enjoyed a much longer than expected playoff ride in '89. They got past the New York Knicks in Round 2, then took the eventual defending champion Detroit Pistons to 6 games before losing in the East finals.

With new coach Phil Jackson's guidance for the '89-'90 season, the Bulls gained a new dedication to defense and Jordan grew leaps and bounds as a leader. They took defending champion Detroit to Game 7 in the East finals before losing. They bounced back in a huge way in 1991 as Jordan led them to their first ever NBA championship in a 4-1 series victory over Magic Johnson's L.A. Lakers.

Fast forward back to Jordan's 1999 retirement press conference. By then, he had been long revered as the greatest ever and had amassed an unbelievable 10 NBA scoring titles, 6 NBA titles, 6 NBA finals MVPs, 5 NBA MVPs and innumerable heroic moments in several championship series. He capped his Bulls career in 1998 with a dramatic title clinching shot with 5.2 seconds left.

The decade between Jordan's shot over Ehlo and his retirement just after the '98-'99 lockout was a period filled with great success for him and the Bulls, but the Cavs became a perennial laughing stock. After Jordan eliminated them AGAIN with a buzzer jumper in the 1993 semifinals, coach Lenny Wilkens left the organization and nothing was ever the same. Daugherty was forced into an early retirement after a horrible back injury shelved him in 1994. Price was sent away to Orlando in 1995 and Danny Ferry remained a constant and untradeable disappointment with a huge contract year after year.

It wasn't until 2003 that the Cavs finally gained some real hope of turning their long path of bad luck and non-contending teams around. That was when their miserable, 17-65 record earned them the number 1 pick in the draft, which they used to draft LeBron James, who held enormous potential to become one of the all-time great NBA players. Ironically, '03 was also the year that Jordan left the NBA as a player for good. He had returned for the '01-'02 season to play at a very advanced age for Washington, then retired for the 3rd time about a month and a half before James was drafted.

What a coincidence!

In my final estimation, I look back on Michael Jordan's legendary shot, 25 years later with continued awe and humility. For a man as driven and competitive as him, that moment now seems like it was destined to take place. But greatness has a lot of points of despair which is usually needed to propel us beyond what we were originally capable of doing.

That is a big part of Jordan's iconography.

Friday, February 28, 2014

30 Years Later: Revisiting Michael Jackson's Grammy Magic

CLEVELAND - It had only been 32 days since his horrible accident, but Michael Jackson looked like ten million bucks on this special night. Once again accompanied by Brooke Shields and TV's Emmanuel Lewis, the 25-year old musical genius won a record 8 trophies at the 26th annual Grammy Awards.

And he deserved them all.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of that legendary evening, which was a far cry from the scene in the same building just one month before. On January 27, MJ suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns to his scalp while filming a Pepsi ad, which created a frenzied panic from his millions of fans. Now, just four weeks later, he was once again in his element. Jackson's ubiquitous and record setting album Thriller had spent the previous 15 months garnering every type of praise known to mankind. Already the #1 seller in history, the LP's popularity was heavily boosted by his iconic performance on Motown's 25th anniversary show in May 1983 as well as three groundbreaking short films which received heavy airplay on television for months.

Wearing a blue, marching band style jacket with sequins, gold epaulets and sash, along with his trademark single sparkly glove and dark Aviator shades, MJ looked like royalty. He made numerous trips to the podium, accepting award after award the same way he had done just six weeks prior on the American Music Awards.

Quincy Jones, the highly successful composer (who also produced Off the Wall and Thriller) shared the podium with MJ a few times himself. Both men grinned with pride and appreciation for what they had both accomplished. As a special treat, the infamous Pepsi ad that nearly killed Michael made its heavily anticipated debut during the telecast.

MJ's historic night remains one of the truly magical moments in all of entertainment, past or present. There was no wonder that Thriller won Album of the Year that night and the great Michael Jackson was fawned over relentlessly by not only fans and media, but even his own peers in the music industry.

Nobody did it better.

Monday, January 27, 2014

30 Years Ago Today: The Fire That Ignited Michael Jackson's Downfall

CLEVELAND - Michael Jackson, dressed in a sparkling blue and gold military-style jacket, white collared shirt and black cropped pants was all smiles at the end of one incredible night in February 1984.

The 25-year old supernova had just spent the past few hours strolling up to the podium to accept, what turned out to be a record number of Grammy awards for his 14-month old album, Thriller.

It was a truly amazing moment.

In contrast to this historic night by Jackson, the horrific event that took place in this exact building just one month earlier sent shock waves around the world and nearly killed the most popular, acclaimed and iconic entertainer on the planet at the peak of his powers.

That infamous fire.

Indeed, it was 30 years ago today that Jackson suffered second and third degree burns while filming a television ad for Pepsi with his brothers. MJ had already completed filming a different ad a few days prior for the company set on a city street and co-starring Alfonso Ribeiro (who later starred on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"). This commercial was called, "Concert" and was directed by Bob Giraldi, who also shot Jackson's legendary "Beat It" short film in early 1983.

During the shooting, Michael was supposed to descend a flight of steps down to a stage where his brothers were performing in front of 5,000 screaming fans in a simulated concert setting. A calculated special effect was planned to illuminate the area just behind Jackson to give off an electrifying appearance as he ran down the steps to the thumping bassline of a modified version of his hit single "Billie Jean."

On the sixth take, MJ ran down the steps and the pyrotechnic effect malfunctioned and shot a fire spark into his hair just as he ran down the steps. Unbeknownst to the megastar, the back of his head became engulfed in flames, which miraculously went away as he reached the stage and performed one of his trademark quicksilver spin moves. Within seconds, his brothers and stage hands ran to his aide and smothered his scalp, which was now emanating smoke fumes from the flames.

As it turned out, Michael was transported to Cedars-Sinai Hospital, then moved to Brotman Medical Center to treat his serious burns. As the entertainment world held its collective breath, sales of Jackson's Thriller album soared again, a remarkable feat given its already iconic standing as the best selling album in history.

Director Giraldi was later criticized for his decision to instruct Jackson to stay at the top of the staircase a little longer so he would "look majestic" as he came down the stairs against the backdrop of the special effects.

More than anything, that seminal moment in Michael Jackson's life started a downward spiral that last a quarter century and ended in his shocking death in 2009. By then, MJ's public reputation was light years removed from that early '84 era when, in the eyes of the American people, he simply could do no wrong.

As a result of the Pepsi fire, Michael was treated with a series of intense painkillers for his severe injuries to his scalp. People close to the situation have stated numerous times that he suffered major pain from that incident for the rest of his life. That led to a painkiller dependency a decade after the fire which, combined with the colossal level of stress he experienced for the 25 years after the accident, led him to Propofol, the prescription drug that ultimately took him away from us.

I will always remember that famous commercial with great sadness. Jackson continues to be the gold standard in excellence as an entertainer and innovator. It really sucks that his life took such a turn for the worst.

Damn you, Pepsi!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

30 Years Ago Tonight: Michael Jackson's Record Setting Year Pays Off

CLEVELAND - For all of the amazing moments that Michael Jackson experienced during the Thriller era, none was greater than the night when the entire music industry bowed to his knee and saluted him for three hours like a royal king entering a room.

And he was only 25 years old.

That legendary evening took place 30 years ago tonight when MJ, coming off one of the most fairy-tale years in entertainment history, set a record by winning 8 trophies at the 11th annual American Music Awards for his steamrolling album Thriller.

The awards ceremony, broadcast live on ABC played out like one long tribute to Jackson and ended up serving as the very pinnacle of his popularity and success. From the opening minutes, it was clear who the evening belonged to as fans screamed and shouted at the mere sight of Michael as he stepped into the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, CA.

Jackson certainly knew how to set indelible trends with his style and fashion, something that started to become a major element of his visual presentation just the year before. On this night, he showed up dressed in a red drum major-style jacket adorned in sequins, a gold sash and epaulets with black pants cropped at the ankles. He also sported his trademark single glove, but instead of the usual white with rhinestones, it was black with rhinestones. White socks, black loafers and dark Aviator shades completed his unique look. Of course, his much copied Jheri-curled hair was sleek as ever, with "baby hair" and curls hanging down over his forehead.

MJ's companions that night were almost as unusual as the stratospheric success he had been enjoying for past year; Emmanuel Lewis, the diminutive 12-year old star of TV's Webster, and 19-year old Brooke Shields. Even to this day, three decades later, this aspect of that night remains a curious topic of pop culture conversation.

The true specialness of January 16, 1984 was the insane love that Jackson received. Thanks to his larger-than-life 1983, there was heavy anticipation for what type of night he could be in store for. As it turns out, Thriller dominated, and each time MJ was announced the winner in a particular category, his subsequent stroll up to the stage to accept awards were greeted by great applause and chants for the shy megastar.

The Thriller album had been released in November 1982, and after a slow start did not seem likely to eclipse the great success of Michael's 1979 smash hit LP Off The Wall. But once "Billie Jean" was released as the album's second single in February '83, interest in the album began to pick up steam. When the stylistic music video debuted that same month, public fascination flew to another level. Jackson's soaring popularity kept elevating with one brilliant moment after another. The "Beat It" short film premiered in April '83, followed by his iconic solo performance (and unveiling of the moonwalk dance step) on Motown 25 in May.

The summer of '83 was dominated by children and adults all over the world emulating Michael and his signature costumes, dance moves and singing his songs. He kept a low profile as sales of Thriller skyrocketed beyond standard figures. By the final quarter of 1983, the album had become the best-selling in history which shocked many and catapulted him into the realm of the true legends of music history.

When the epic masterpiece short film, "Michael Jackson's Thriller" was released in December '83, all hell broke loose. The album, already on the shelves for more than a year began selling a million copies per week as a result of the groundbreaking nature of the film. Once the year finally ended, Michael Jackson had become, as Liza Minelli stated in a taped statement on the AMAs, "a national treasure."

His historic, record setting 1983 was handsomely rewarded with every platitude imaginable in 1984. He even received the Award of Merit.

I will never forget that awesome night for MJ, who proved as always to be the greatest entertainer in history.

God bless his Highness!

Monday, January 13, 2014

15 Years Later: Remembering Jordan's Final Flight Out of Chicago

CLEVELAND - With a face filled with tears, I watched on television as the greatest basketball player in history walked away from the game that made him an international icon. This same exact event had also taken place nearly five and a half years before (he returned to pro hoops 17 months later) and both times, it was simply too much to bear.

Michael Jordan was retiring.

Today marks the 15th anniversary of Jordan's historic press conference which announced this horrible decision. At the time, the NBA had just resolved a contentious lockout which wiped out the first two months of the 1998-99 season. What resulted was a truncated, laughable 50-game schedule that featured a heavily dismantled Chicago Bulls team, who were the three-time defending champions for the second time in the decade, with MJ leading the way every time.

The lockout was finally lifted on Jan. 7, and tons of rumors had been swirling about the fate of Jordan as a player, since he had repeatedly mentioned the season before that he was strongly considering retirement. Then, on January 13, 1999, MJ showed up in a black suit with his wife to the United Center in Chicago to declare that, just one month from his 36th birthday, he was done with NBA hoops as its pre-eminent star.

This shook me to my core, and it sent the league into a tailspin of unparalleled parity. Almost immediately, the Bulls' two other star players, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman were gone too. This left the team with Toni Kukoc as its best player and they stumbled to a putrid 13-37 record.


After having witnessed Jordan, just 7 months prior dominate the final minute of the 1998 NBA Finals, hit the championship winning jumper with 5.2 seconds left and walk off with his 6th NBA title and 6th NBA Finals MVP award, it was especially difficult seeing him leave all of that greatness on the floor once again -- the same way that he had done in the autumn of 1993, just three and a half months after Chicago's first 3-peat.

Jordan stayed retired for a little over two and a half years, then decided to come out of retirement just 5 months before his 39th birthday to play with the horrible Washington Wizards. He had become VP of basketball operations in January 2000, but by October 2001, he was back on the court as a much older version of himself.

But to many people, Jordan's two-year Wizards "experiment" was a mere footnote to a dazzling career that re-defined sports and marketing and made Michael Jordan a filthy rich cultural icon.

I will never forget that sad day in early 1999. Jordan's words felt even colder than they did in his '93 farewell speech, yet somehow...even though I had long known it was a strong possibility he would leave again, I was still shattered by the reality of it.

Looking back with the huge perspective of 15 years, I can appreciate Michael even more than I did then...and that is saying a whole lot because my appreciation for him was always enormous.

I am just happy that I got to witness the great Michael Jordan during his legendary career!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Loss of Mandela Significant Even if You Don’t Know Why

CLEVELAND - I was in middle school in early 1990 when I first heard of Nelson Mandela. At the time, his release from a South African prison after 27 long years was making international headlines.

I was forced to take notice.

Upon finding out that Mandela died yesterday at age 95, I didn’t cry or reflect on the man. I did, however pause and track down the details online. I never knew exactly what Mandela did for the world, but I do know that it was significant.

Yes, he was controversial. Yes, many people are labeling him a communist, terrorist and a racist in their appraisal of his legacy. But I still marvel at the substantial nature of the man, based on the incredible outpouring of grief in the U.S. for an African politician.

I know that this may sound irrelevant, but Mandela’s friendship with the Great Michael Jackson is another element that made him matter to me. MJ was a huge admirer of his, and was inspired by the enormous strength that he held his entire life.

A life that was full of adversity.

Back in ’90, I began hearing the word “apartheid” as a result of Mandela’s mission against it. As it turns out, he made a quest for racial equality one of the more pre-eminent themes of his life. That will always be something worth respecting.

Mandela was the first Black president of South Africa and was a staunch advocate of human rights. Having been bestowed with numerous high honors (Nobel Peace Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom), it is no wonder that the man is as revered as he is globally. His accomplishments place him on par with MLK as well as President Obama given the exclusivity of the honors he received.

He was a true icon.

For those people who are not fully aware of Mandela’s impact, I will simply say that his life is very much worth celebrating, whether you felt touched by his efforts or not.

We should all aspire to leave a legacy as great as his.

Monday, December 2, 2013

30 Years Later: Jackson’s Thriller Film Mirrored His Reality

CLEVELAND - Sleek, glamorous and full of childish enthusiasm, a young man (played by 25-year old Michael Jackson) runs out of a movie theater in pursuit of his date, (played by 23-year old Ola Ray). The gorgeous young woman had just seen a frightening film while out with the guy and was so spooked that she charged out in fear and frustration just moments after it started. After a little “flirtatious teasing,” Jackson gets back in her good graces by singing to her as they stroll down a dark and desolate street. This represents the calmest time in the entire evening for Ola, because soon after, her smiles would once again turn into screams.

It went that way for many of us watching too.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the seminal short film (though labeled a music video), Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The groundbreaking flick premiered on MTV that night and immediately became a cultural touchstone for both its star and the entertainment industry at large.

In retrospect, it is both fascinating and quite sad that this grand time in Jackson’s life represented the very peak of his enormous powers, popularity and public reputation. Sure, he went on to have a historically successful 1984. But the Thriller film forever remains a transcendent artifact of the man at his most creative, innocent and accomplished mind and overall being.

The bookends of MJ’s charming serenade in the 13-minute masterpiece happened to involve his character turning, first into a ‘werecat’ then into a wild-eyed, dancing zombie. The harrowing nature of both scenes sadly mirror his own real life. Between the release of his 1979 solo smash LP Off the Wall but prior to the dawn of the “Thriller” era in late 1982, the path of his life changed for the worst in an instant. During a live performance, Jackson suffered a broken nose after falling on stage. This led to the first of an obsessive number of nose jobs, and thus the downward spiral of his own self-consciousness took flight.

This seemed to take a back seat to his rapidly ascending popularity in early ’83 when the newly released “Thriller” album began dominating the music charts. But after the Cinderella-type adulation and achievement that MJ enjoyed for two years suddenly ended in 1985, his public profile began taking subtle hits, then massive attacks in the media and the court of public opinion.

And it lasted for the rest of his life.

This reversal of fortune was illustrated time and time again for MJ’s co-star in the film. First Michael was a nice and charming guy, then he suddenly turned into a monster. That turned out to be “only a movie,” but then the “real” him comforted her by singing that he could “thrill [her] more than any ghost would ever dare to try.”

Then, the “real” him became a possessed zombie hell bent on scaring her into oblivion. THIS turned out to be just a dream, but secretly Michael still had “cat eyes” that he was hiding.
I shudder when I think about how his life played out in the same roller coaster fashion as this film’s storyline did. The man changed the course of history and raised the standards of imagination and creativity with this short film. Those facts alone made it grossly unfair that he was ultimately fated to live the remainder of his life being chased by the proverbial demon that would never just let him be.

On such a special anniversary of such a special artistic work, I am grateful for the genius of Michael Joseph Jackson and how he masterfully delivered the Thriller film to the world.

Forever love.

Friday, November 22, 2013

50 Years Later, Kennedy Assassination Still Fascinates Me

I pride myself on my ability to look at the world differently than the average person. But when it comes to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I’m just like everyone else in the United States: fascinated.

Well, almost like everyone else.

Since today marks the 50th anniversary of this seminal moment, I have to insert my two cents, especially given how much I have read, discussed and thought about this historically famous event over many years.

Kennedy was murdered nearly two decades before my birth, but by the time I was in 5th grade, I had become galvanized by the sensationalism of that crime. I never gave a rat’s ass about politics, but JFK represented so much more than that. From his legendary inaugural address in January 1961, to his then-hidden trysts with film star Marilyn Monroe, to the youthful attractiveness of his wife and children, the Kennedy White House was literally must-see TV.
Trust me, I am well aware of the larger significance of that horrific day in Dallas a half-century ago. Not only did it change an entire generation, but it affected everything in our country moving forward.

Some things have even gotten better.

One of the other, indirect elements of the Kennedy assassination that has always held my attention is the nearly 31 years that his wife Jackie lived after that day. She became a heavily photographed and followed celebrity in her post-JFK life. First, there was her move from the White House to a place in New York City with Caroline and John-John. Then, her controversial marriage to billionaire Aristotle Onassis. Hell, in 1975, nude photos of her appeared in the upstart porn magazine Hustler and became an instant best seller.

In 1983, a full 20 years after her husband’s murder, the former Mrs. Kennedy visited the great Michael Jackson on the set of his classic “Thriller” short film to discuss plans for an autobiography on the star who, at the time was at the apex of his career. By then, she had become famously known as Jackie O, a nod to her marriage to Onassis which had floundered in the 1970’s. She was a major figure at Doubleday books and, along with her adult children was always a fixture in the tabloids and news media.

And the Kennedy mystique, birthed during the “Camelot years” was always a part of popular culture. How could I not be captivated by the Kennedy assassination, when I strongly believe that its iconic details has fueled America’s obsession with the family ever since?

A seemingly unlimited amount of tragedies have befallen the Kennedy clan since those three murderous bullets hit the president in ’63. That is another factor in the fascination. EVERYTHING that happens to that family always seems to evoke memories and commentaries on the assassination.

On such a sad anniversary, I hope President Kennedy and his remaining family members have finally found peace.

Same goes for our country.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Eminem Battles Himself and His Demons on Masterful New LP

International fame and millions of dollars have done nothing to change the harsh reality of the once poverty stricken Marshall Mathers. He is 15 years deep into a critically acclaimed career and yet he is still just as emotionally fragile, self-loathing and insecure as he was when he was just an aspiring rapper living in a Detroit-area trailer park.

And he lets it all hang out on his new LP.

Mathers, the now 41-year old hip-hop artist popularly known as Eminem released his first album in three years yesterday; The Marshall Mathers LP 2 to an assortment of conflicting reviews. The album features several thematic elements derived from its classic predecessor, 2000's The Marshall Mathers LP but is quite a departure from his usual work. Even still, it’s easily his best record in 11 years, back when Em's career hit its pinnacle in the summer of 2002 with the release of The Eminem Show.

Eminem does what he has always done best on this LP; expose his inner demons with a shocking combination of hubris and self-deprecation. One minute he is extolling his own brilliance and historic legacy, the next minute he is hurling insults at himself while putting his shortcomings on full display. He even takes his phenomenal skills to another level as he (surprisingly) delivers numerous verses rapid fire with impossible rhyme patterns and pitch perfect dexterity. He is without a doubt a student of vocabulary and line structure as he so intricately explained in an interview on 60 minutes last year.

Jay Z has the more formidable catalog and consistency, Kendrick Lamar is the up-and-coming superstar of the moment. But Eminem is unequivocally the purest lyricist on the planet right now and one of the greatest in history. He is tactical and scientific with the way he constructs rhyme patterns, interlocking several similar words and abstract ideas into mind-bending lyrics. On MMLP2, he does this time and time again.

This album showcases the evolution of his mind as he ventures into new areas with a decidedly rock-styled production, none of his usual rap guest features and even an entire song dedicated to apologizing to his estranged mother. But the more things change, the more they stay the same; Eminem revisits tons of familiar territory on the album as he angrily hurls numerous vitriolic lines at homosexuals, women and celebrities. And oh yeah, he still hates his absentee father with a passion.

As a whole, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is an excellent album and easily outpaces 2004’s Encore, 2009’s Relapse and 2010’s Recovery. It doesn’t eclipse the original, which would be a near impossibility. But it does remind the world of exactly why we fell in love with him in the first place. One of the wonderful things about MMLP2 is the fact that Eminem seems acutely aware that his own phenomenal track record is his only true competition, as he so eloquently states on a track entitled, “Evil Twin.”

Finally, even though the quality of his songs have been heavily criticized for the past decade, this new offering is a tremendous return-to-form for a masterful artist who, despite his insecurities, is still a legend in the game and still delivers the goods.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Michael Jackson: A Beacon of Inspiration and Love

CLEVELAND - Aside from the substantial number of records, awards, and benchmarks set or achieved by Michael Jackson, his overriding message and contribution to the world had nothing to do with the obvious.

It was about unconditional love.

Today marks, what would have been his 55th birthday and predictably, his international fan-base (myself included) numbering into the hundreds of millions have been celebrating the life of a true entertainment giant for days now. But as much as I love Michael's remarkable body of work and the seismic impact of his historic career, I am more impressed with his dedication to "make the world a better place."

Michael Jackson, for decades, donated and pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to a litany of charitable causes and foundations while selflessly investing huge amounts of his time and energy into people all around the world who were less fortunate and underprivileged. He wrote and performed songs that were constructed to serve as uplifting anthems of love, self-progression and hope. Not only was MJ a tireless proponent of helping people, but he also used his global platform to encourage all of us to take better care of animals and the environment. For all of his legendary pop music hits, the altruistic "Earth Song" may be the most passionate masterpiece of pure substance he's ever crafted.

Jackson's "Heal the World" foundation is just one of his crowning achievements of giving back. And when he was burned during filming of a Pepsi ad in January 1984, he opted to donate the settlement money to create the "Michael Jackson Burn Center" to help other victims of fire-based accidents or tragedies. His sprawling, and elaborate performance during halftime of the 1993 Super Bowl is a perfect example of how powerfully he was able to share his positive message of love and healing. Sure, he performed his classic pop hits with great energy and ferocity, but the focal point was his singing of "Heal the World" and the troupe of children he brought to assist him in the breathtaking visual (holding synchronized placards that formed a message of peace).

So, while Michael Jackson will forever reign as a seminal force of unmatched talent and achievement in the world of music and entertainment, his most lasting legacy is in fact his inspirational message and actions of love, peace and hope. Not only was MJ the ultimate humanitarian, but he was also one of the most important people in the history of the world. Love or hate the man, we all benefited from his 50 year presence on Earth.

Happy Birthday, Michael. I will love you forever!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

4 Years Later: Understanding the Magic of Michael Jackson

CLEVELAND - Michael Jackson, dressed sharply in a black leather suit and his trademark dark shades made his way into an Augusta, Ga. church on December 30, 2006 to the sounds of thousands of screaming fans and countless flashbulbs. Flanked by two beefy bodyguards, the entertainment icon waved and soon took a seat in the first row of the church as media cameras focused on his every move and news anchors broadcast his arrival on national television.

But this event was not for Michael Jackson.

Instead, MJ had just arrived at this church to honor the great James Brown, the man who most inspired Jackson as a child to become an entertainer. This event was Brown's funeral service; he died just five days earlier at age 73.

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the shocking death of Jackson, a man so publicly maligned at the time of his departure from Earth that he almost seemed to be an unwanted alien by many. I, for one never saw him that way and was absolutely crushed when I received that horrific news on that dark Thursday. But even as his public reputation nosedived in the final 20 years of his life, he never lost his magical aura, as evidenced by his appearance at Brown's funeral just 18 months after his acquittal of child molestation charges.

In understanding Michael's magic, I believe that it is essential for people to realize how we first came to know about him and care what he did. Beginning at age 11 in 1969, Michael exhibited substantial singing and showmanship qualities that made him seem almost fictional. No child of that age should've been able to sing with the majestic passion that he possessed, or the poised stage presence as evidenced by countless television appearances with his brothers as the Jackson 5. Thus, Michael entered our minds as a true prodigy filled with breathtaking talent and that memory never left anyone that saw him decades later.

When he re-invented himself as an adult solo artist in 1979, his superstar status was complete. He entered the 1980's as a 21-year old star who could sing his heart out and was blessed with killer dance moves. All of this sensationalism reached a fever pitch with the release of his seminal album Thriller.

The Thriller era spanned two years; 1983 and 1984. This is when Michael was at the apex of his power, appeal and universal resonance. His stylistic choices, both in his work as well as his visual appearance took elements of innovation from past artists and expanded on them to create his own unique presentation. So, as his career flew into the stratosphere of excellence, critical acclaim and achievement, his highly inventive and singular appearance became embedded in all of our collective minds. The fact that he created such iconic music, short films and commercials completed the package.

So, when Jackson took to the podium at that church in Augusta, Ga. 22 years after the end of the Thriller era to give a brief statement on the impact that James Brown had on his life, it was easy to understand why the assembled crowd screamed loud at his appearance. They cheered and applauded as if this event were for MJ, which was pretty amazing given the enormous stature in music that Brown himself held.

For decades, anytime Michael Jackson made a rare television appearance at a live event, it was almost like a coronation or a very special treat. He was always dressed in something cutting-edge and original, and his whisper of a voice (which had been internationally famous for many years) always fired up the crowd as he spoke into the microphone to accept an award or make any sort of comment. Simply put, he just ooozed a cultural mythology that no one else could match, even nowadays. I'm not saying that fans would think of all of his great accomplishments right then and there; but subconsciously, we all knew about the incredible art that he gave us over many years, and that always made him seem larger than life.

When he went on trial in early 2005, he showed up to court daily clad in a very elaborately designed suit that was unlike anything anyone else ever wore to a court proceeding. But it always felt like a huge "happening" when he would emerge from his SUV and walked towards the courthouse, flanked by bodyguards and family members. Fans would scream and shout and snap photos of the man, even though his greatest artistic works had been released many years in the past. Scandal and heavy media scrutiny had trashed his once pristine reputation, but in spite of the sordid headlines and accusations, he always carried the magic of being Michael Jackson, the former child megastar who sang the hell out of "Who's Lovin' You?" and "I Want You Back." The adult supernova that crafted three consecutive classic albums in eight years; Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad. He was still the man who mesmerized the world with his performance of "Billie Jean" on Motown 25 and in the process, claimed the moonwalk dance step as his own signature move. This was still the man that dominated awards shows, popularized the single sparkly glove and white socks and loafers and danced at night in a red leather jacket with a host of "zombies."

Michael Jackson was always far more than he seemed in any given moment. He was the sum of his overall greatness and lifetime of unforgettable, standard raising genius. And here we sit, four long years after his demise and we look around at constant replays of his legendary short films, timeless music and inventive style and we realize something pretty amazing.

Even now in death, he still has that magic.

Friday, June 14, 2013

15 Years Ago Today: Jordan's Golden Moment

CLEVELAND - It remains one of the most seminal moments in the history of the NBA Finals; Michael Jordan punctuating another virtuoso performance with a cold blooded jump shot with 5.2 seconds remaining on the game clock to propel his Chicago Bulls to their sixth NBA championship title in eight years.

Call him "the ultimate legend."

Crazy how time flies, but that event took place 15 years ago today as the then-two-time defending NBA champion Bulls played Game 6 of the finals at the Delta Center, the home court of their opponent, the Utah Jazz. Jordan was forced to carry a larger-than-normal load for his team after his superstar teammate Scottie Pippen strained his back in the opening moments of the game. Even though he managed to play 26 minutes, Pippen was greatly reduced in his effectiveness, meaning MJ had to find another gear.

Boy did he ever.

With Jordan being in the twilight of a truly historic, spectacular career at age 35, his athleticism and stamina were far below what they had been in his glorious prime. Even still, he remained a transcendent player capable of anything when the stakes were highest. This is why he was able to score 16 huge points in the fourth quarter of a very tight game and deliver three breathtaking and game-changing plays in the game's final 42 seconds.

After Jazz star John Stockton drilled a three-pointer with 41.9 seconds remaining, Utah led, 86-83. After a Bulls timeout, Jordan, running on fumes during an exhaustive fourth period took the ball and drove hard to the right baseline and scored majestically over Antoine Carr to pull his team to within one with 37.1 seconds left.

Back in possession, the Jazz went to their bread and butter play; their superstar Karl Malone with the ball in the post. Malone began to make his move on Dennis Rodman as Jordan came out of nowhere and stripped the ball from Malone before he could ever get a shot off. The steal happened with around 18 seconds left in the game. Instead of calling a timeout to set up a play, Jordan brought the ball upcourt as he faced Jazz swingman Bryon Russell. Even though Russell and Jordan were now matched up one-on-one, it was actually Jordan matched up one-on-one with history and the legacy of indelible greatness.

He won.

Jordan drove to his right with Russell defending, then (with a very surreptitious nudge) crossed over to his left and rose up for a cocky jumper from 18 feet out with an unobstructed view of the hoop.

All net.

Jordan, as the Jazz called a timeout while the entire building of thousands of fans sat in stunned disbelief, held his follow through pose for a shot worthy of such theatrics.

Moments later, it was all over. Jordan scored 45 points, the Bulls won the game 87-86 along with championship number 6 and MJ's status as the greatest basketball player in history was locked in place.

Just like that great moment.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

30 Years Later: Michael's Magic Moment

CLEVELAND - It was arguably the coming-out party for the world's most electrifying performer. A magical moment so breathtaking and mind-blowing that words still don't do a single bit of justice to describe the insane brilliance of that evening.

Michael Jackson became an entertainment legend.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the NBC broadcast of Jackson's seminal solo performance of his then brand new song, "Billie Jean." The historic moment, filmed seven weeks earlier on March 25th at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium was the crown jewel of the television special, "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever." This was a musical showcase of numerous big stars and groups that brought the venerable Motown Records to enormous success during the 1960's and '70's. MJ himself became an international star when he and his four brothers signed to the label in 1968 as The Jackson 5.

What the world saw the night of May 16, 1983 on television was a clear cut superstar musician morphing fully and stunningly into an international icon of epic proportions. Jackson, less than three and a half months shy of his 25th birthday unleashed, for the first time ever, his soon-to-be signature dance step "the moonwalk" as well as the full scope of, what would become his indelible and unique style.

Michael Jackson took to the stage that evening clad in a black, glittery jacket with a black, rhinestone encrusted shirt underneath. His cropped, black pants and black loafers showcased rhinestone adorned socks. But the accessory that garnered the most attention was the single, white sparkly glove he wore. This entire ensemble, along with his carefully coiffed Jheri-curled hair, became, not only his trademark look for the next two years, but a cultural phenomenon as well.

After a spirited Jackson 5 medley with his brothers (reunited musically for the first time in eight years), Michael paced the stage alone while speaking to the audience. He remarked that he liked the old J5 songs
"a lot," but he especially likes "the new songs."

This is when he grabbed a black fedora, pulled it down over his head and struck a pose while the opening bassline of "Billie Jean" filled the arena. From there, MJ used the next five minutes to exhibit the unbelievable range of his showmanship and artistry. His dancing was both pristine and gravity-defying. His subtle and rhythmic flourishes accented his carefully polished stage presence which was obviously heavily influenced by some of the great figures in the history of show business.

Jackson had been reluctant to perform on this show for Motown. At the time, his public reputation and success was in a constant state of expansion. With his six month old album Thriller steadily steamrolling the music charts and breaking sales records, he was the toast of the music industry and, thanks to MTV, a super popular video star. The last thing he needed was to perform on a show with a bunch of has-beens and fading stars who were completely beneath him. Alas, Motown founder Berry Gordy persuaded MJ, now an artist for Epic Records to join his brothers and perform on the show.

After all, how could they not have the biggest star in the world (who started with Motown) on their show?

Jackson agreed on the condition that he be allowed to have a solo spot to perform his non-Motown song (and the then #1 single in the U.S.) "Billie Jean." He later earned control over the final edit of his performance so that his amazing dance moves would be seen at every proper angle by television viewers to showcase it in the best light possible.

During Michael's show-stopping solo, he lip synched the "Billie Jean" lyrics so that he could perfectly deliver his dancing and the song in a neat package. When the song ended and he closed his eyes and raised his hand to punctuate the conclusion, the entire industry crowd was on its feet in grand applause. MJ took a bow and left the stage, not realizing that he had just crafted the most important moment of his career. To those watching at home, his blinding qualities as a superstar switched to overdrive and he became a global obsession.

In the aftermath, the Thriller album once again experienced a great spike in sales as did sales of Jackson-themed items. From replica jackets and sparkly gloves, to Jheri-curled hair and cropped pants, imitating Michael Jackson was the new #1 cool thing to do throughout the summer of 1983 and beyond. MJ himself received numerous accolades and effusive praise from some of the greats of the industry, many of whom he grew up studying and idolizing.

I will never forget that spectacular moment in '83 when the man known as Michael Joseph Jackson became a supernova of the highest order.

He is simply the best forever.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

40 Years Later, The Legacy of Y&R Endures In My Life

CLEVELAND - For more than 30 years, The Young and the Restless has been a non-negotiable part of my life. I was introduced to the daytime series when I was in pre-school by my grandmother, and my love affair with the show has been present ever since!

True story.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the legendary show, and as I write this ode to this indelible artistic work, I am watching the latest episode.

Just like always.

Y&R has captivated me for decades and it has always been must-see TV for me. In elementary school in the 1980's, I would set my VCR to record the episodes because I couldn't be home to watch them. Then, on summer vacations, I would get a huge thrill because I could watch the episodes daily without the obligation of school hanging over my head. I remember classic storylines with great clarity, including the rock concerts with Danny Romalotti (Michael Damian) in 1985-86 and the "just say no to drugs" storyline. I remember that crazed lunatic Lisa kidnapping Brad Carlton (Doug Diamont) in 1988 and holding him captive in a cage. I remember the Cassandra Rollins storyline with Paul Williams (Doug Davidson) as well as the Leanna Love storyline.

The 1990's were no different. In high school, I used to cut school to come home and watch the show because it was that important to me. It might sound crazy, but anywhere I lived, any new place I moved to...any public place I happened to be at 12:30pm EST weekdays, I would have Y&R on my mind and search for the nearest television so I could watch it.

Through all of the amazing, interesting and strange characters on the show over the years, the one true standout has obviously been the great Victor Newman (masterfully played by Eric Braeden). I have admired him endlessly for decades and actually inspired by him. The Newman character, however, is a prime example of the high-quality, nuanced writing that the show has popularized for a long time. Victor is a billionaire tycoon with a ruthless and often cold disposition to rule everyone in his path. He can be downright immoral in his vengeance, however, he can also be incredibly sweet and compassionate. That takes amazing storytelling and even better acting to bring these stories to life.

In recent years, Y&R has broadcast their episodes online as well as television. This has allowed me more flexibility to do things during the day during that "happy hour" since I know I can catch every episode later on the Internet. Even still, when 12:30pm rolls around, I always get a little uneasiness inside if I am unable to watch the show when it airs because I can "feel" that I'm missing it. That never goes away until i finally go online and watch what I missed.

That is powerful.

In conclusion, I wish to thank all of the super amazing cast, especially the very long tenured ones such as Braeden and Kristoff St. John (Neil Winters), Melody Thomas Scott (Nikki Newman), Peter Bergman (Jack Abbott), Jeanne Cooper (Katherine Chancellor), Michelle Stafford (Phyllis Newman), Christian Jules LeBlanc (Michael Baldwin) Joshua Morrow (Nick Newman) and Sharon Case (Sharon Newman). I also want to salute the late William J. Bell, Sr. for creating this remarkable show that has dominated my lifetime to this point.

I will always feel "young and restless" because of this show, which is far more than a soap opera to me and always has been.

Happy 40th!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

As Michael Jordan Turns 50, I Reflect On What He Has Meant to Me

CLEVELAND - With today marking the 50th birthday of the great Michael Jordan, I could not help but reflect on the stunning excellence of his historic sports career and how watching him for many years forever affected my life. I also marvel at his continuing popularity, enormous, looming presence in today's NBA and the audacity of fans and media members, who seem over-eager to place LeBron James and Kobe Bryant anywhere near MJ's orbit of achievement and impact.


For a decade, I allowed Chicago Bulls basketball games to become a sacred event for me, all because of Jordan. Whenever the Bulls played, I either watched on television or went to extensive lengths to try and pick up WMAQ on my radio. That was the Chicago radio station that aired Bulls games, and the quality of the radio reception was mostly awful, given the fact that it was a local broadcast and I lived some 350 miles from the Windy City. It didn't matter, though. Any faint sound I could hear of the action on the court was heaven for me. Neil Funk, who called the games, was always a delight to listen to as he described Jordan on offense.

"Michael with the dribble...wheels into the lane, dumps off to Scottie...Pip, throws back into Michael. MJ with three on the shot clock...hangs, falls, fires....SCORES!" Oh my! Michael with 40!"

Watching Jordan perform his artistry on television was even more breathtaking. I would always pump my fist whenever he made a basket, whether it be a 20-foot jumper, a post-up fadeaway J, or a spectacular, reverse layup in traffic. Jordan was not only the premier entertainment draw in the game, he was also a vicious assassin with a relentless level of focus, drive and killer instinct. His poetic style of play ran contrary to what the man was actually made of, which actually carried him to the stunning heights that he reached.

I remember vividly just how nervous I was whenever a Bulls game would get close in the final minutes, or if they were far behind their opponent. I would feel sick to my stomach because I always wanted Jordan to succeed and win. Thankfully, I didn't become aware of him until 1990, just a year prior to when he and the Bulls began their championship dominance. When he won his first title in 1991, I cried along with him and even got sick from the high emotional I felt for his most coveted accomplishment.

When he retired (for the first of three times) that awful day in October 1993, I was absolutely miserable. People came up to my locker at school and offered their support because they knew how strongly I felt for him. I avoided phone calls for days from my best friend because the moment was too painful. But when he suddenly returned to the game in March 1995, I was king of happy smiles! Let's be honest, everyone was a Jordan fan, but I was the one that went above and beyond and became obsessive about him.

I figured out a way to make small Air Jordan shoes out of paper and wore them as a necklace!

I will never forget the 1997-98 NBA season; Jordan's final one in Chicago. I was blessed with the opportunity to see him play in person for the first and only time ever. It was November 11, 1997 and the Bulls came to Gund Arena to play the Cleveland Cavs. I was totally blown away when I saw Jordan run onto the court from the locker room with his teammates right before game time. At the time, MJ was 34 years of age and was almost the only thing keeping the Bulls afloat in the early season. Scottie Pippen would be out injured until January '98 and Chicago struggled mightily in his absence.

They wound up losing this game in a rout, 101-80 with Michael getting a pedestrian 19 points in defeat. It was fascinating watching him in real life, real time without the sound of television announcers. On one play, Jordan caught a quick pass from Bulls center Luc Longley, drove down the lane and layed the ball in the basket dramatically. On another play, he went down the lane and dunked, and the entire arena oooh and ahhed.

As MJ neared the end of his reign in Chicago, I began developing a stronger appreciation for the man and what he ultimately stood for. People can say anything they want about him; call him arrogant, an asshole, egotistical, petty, cheap...compulsive. Whatever. All I know is, he is a sterling example of astounding determination and will, and those are the attributes that got him to where he is now. A man without action (and ego) will never fail enough to succeed repeatedly.

Salute Jordan.

I will also never forget how Michael ended his Bulls career, June 14, 1998 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals vs Utah. I was watching the nail biter game with my best friend at a sports bar and when MJ's legendary, final moment began to unfold (Jordan had just stolen the ball from Jazz star Karl Malone with Chicago down by a point), my friend lowered his head and said, "I KNOW [he's going to] make this shot."

Sure enough, MJ knocked in the championship winning basket with 5.2 seconds left and posed for posterity after the ball went through the net to give the Bulls a one point lead that held up. I could not have been more ecstatic than I was at that moment, arguably his crowning achievement on the court.

When Michael retired a second time in 1999, I was once again covered in tears and couldn't contain my constant sobbing. It may seem crazy, but I truly had an emotional connection to this man for a number of years. I was invested in him and his successes, which always made my days better. I was on the fence about him coming back in late 2001 to play for the horrific Washington Wizards. On the one hand, I was overjoyed at getting to see him play again after over 3 years away. On the flip side, I knew he was close to 39 years old and that is an age in pro hoops that may as well be 80 in the regular world. During his frustrating, two season stint as a member of the Wizards, MJ exhibited many moments of marvel, especially for a man inching towards and beyond 40 years of age. Mostly, his tenure in Washington was critically panned as Jordan faltered on things that he used to dominate in. Nonetheless, I knew that Michael showed something amazing in coming to such a lowly team; a willingness to put himself in a possible path of failure because effort is its own reward.

To me, he succeeded even as the Wizards failed.

When he retired for the final time, April 16, 2003, I was more at peace with his exit, though I still cried and cried. It was a depressing moment, but I was so grateful for having witnessed this remarkable man perform his special brand of magic night in and night out.

In the decade since Jordan's last NBA game, an entirely new crop of basketball megastars have evolved and made the league their own. From Bryant and James, to Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, today's stars are awesome in their own right. But none of them will ever measure up to the seismic impact, cultural significance and unbelievable drive that was authored by and defined Michael Jordan.

Happy birthday, MJ, and many more to come. God bless you!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Thriller Album Took Jackson From Superstar To Pioneering Legend

CLEVELAND - For an album to sell more than 100 million copies worldwide, capture record numbers of Grammy awards and American music awards, and catapult a superstar recording artist into the stratosphere of mythical legends, that album would need to have more going for it than just great music.

One brilliant album had far more than that.

It was 30 years ago today that Epic Records released what is now the crown jewel of their catalogue; Michael Jackson's sixth solo LP, Thriller. Its lead single, a syrupy ballad called "The Girl Is Mine" had been released in mid-October and featured legendary ex-Beatle Paul McCartney in a lyrical back-and-forth with the 24-year old Jackson, with both men professing their undying love for a woman that they both feel is their "girl."

Upon its debut, Thriller received fairly pedestrian reviews, even though some critics hailed it as an outstanding effort. However, within six months of its release, the record had attained a stunning and universal status as a seminal masterpiece which elevated MJ's popularity to staggering heights.

How did it all happen?

First off, in order to truly understand why Thriller became the dominant force of nature that it did, careful attention must be paid to what the music industry was like at the time. Also, everything Jackson did to supplement the album ended up becoming a very key element of the Thriller era. Lastly, the force that was driving MJ at the time may have been the single biggest reason for the performance of Thriller.

Jackson had been upset that his classic, 1979 album Off the Wall did not receive the type of critical admiration that he felt it deserved. The album was all but ignored at all of the awards ceremonies which gave the normally shy and soft-spoken star a big chip to carry on his shoulder. He vowed to create the biggest album in history with his next project.

Alas, Thriller spent its first two months of release as anything but an album destined for the record books. Then, in the weeks leading up to spring 1983, Walter Yetnikoff, then-president of CBS records tried to get the 18-month old MTV network to play a brand new music video by Jackson for his just released single, "Billie Jean." MTV refused initially, a decision that was felt to be racist by many involved, especially since MTV barely played videos by black artists at the time. After Yetnikoff threatened to withdraw videos of all CBS artists from the video channel's reach, MTV gave in and allowed "Billie Jean" to go on the air, and soon  put the hugely popular clip into "heavy rotation."

This is when the magic happened.

In the sleek clip, Jackson sings and dances his way through a mostly deserted cityscape at night, dressed head to toe in black leather. Along the way, he is being followed by a P.I.-style paparazzo who seems determined to catch the elusive star in a compromising position, but fails repeatedly. Jackson is full of mystique and magic in the short film; every step he takes illuminates the ground he walks on, the street pole he leans on and the bed he lays in. At one point, Jackson even transforms a dirty vagrant into a man of style clad in a white tuxedo.

With stunning visuals, plus fancy and eye-catching dance moves set to an irresistible beat, the video dominated the airwaves, set MJ's public profile ablaze and sent the Thriller album flying off shelves. A few weeks later, Jackson's brand new "Beat It" video took it all to another level.

"Beat It" was another brilliant step in Michael Jackson's creative evolution. Not only was the song itself historic (it merged rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen with a pop and R&B star), but the gang versus gang storyline and choreographed dance conclusion made the short film another imitable and pioneering work of genius. It was in this clip that MJ unveiled his unique fashion sensibilities to a very noticeable level. He wore a red leather jacket adorned with 27 zippers, sleeves rolled up and a pair of black high-water pants, which showcased pearly white socks and black loafers.

America had become mesmerized with Michael Jackson. Handsome--pretty even, with a slightly modified face from his original appearance, carefully coiffed Jheri-curled hair, feather-soft voice and an endless repertoire of talent, style and innovation had made him the toast of the globe.

Then, he got even bigger.

Seven weeks after performing the super hit song "Billie Jean" in front of a live audience, the full range of Jackson's showmanship and heavily evolved star power became public knowledge and resulted in, arguably the most important moment of his illustrious career. It took seven weeks for NBC to broadcast MJ's solo performance on a television special celebrating the 25th anniversary of Motown Records, the company that gave Jackson and his brothers their first big break as the Jackson 5 in 1969.

All reports had been glowing about his performance, but no amount of words could effectively sum up what 24-year old Michael Joseph Jackson did on that stage at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on the night of March 25, 1983. The world saw it on May 16, and when the dust settled, Thriller began another steamrolling assault on the music charts, then turned its attention to the record books.

Jackson's performance of "Billie Jean" was a blindingly brilliant expression of intense precision, focus, craftsmanship and world class talent. Executing a breathtaking series of dance moves, stylistic flourishes and classic Hollywood theatrics, MJ endeared himself to the greats of the entertainment industry, especially ones whom the budding icon personally admired. He also revealed two new signature elements of his public presentation; the single, sparkly glove and the moonwalk dance step.

From that point, Michaelmania enveloped the U.S. and abroad as scores of children, teens and even adults purchased replicas of his costumes, curled their hair like his, wore his pins on their clothing, hung his posters on their walls and snatched up the tons of magazines that featured his internationally coveted face on the cover.

All of this consumed the summer of '83, a time when MJ kept a fairly low profile. A few more singles were released from Thriller, but there were no music videos to go along with the songs.

Just as it seemed that Michael Jackson had disappeared from the limelight, he re-appeared in a blaze of glory just in time for Christmas 1983. On December 2, the highly anticipated music video for the title track made its world premiere on MTV and completely changed the world of entertainment and music.

Jackson, now 25, had filmed the ambitious 13-minute film "Thriller" during a week in early October. He treated the video as if it were a major motion picture and it even played in a Los Angeles area theater nearly three weeks before its official release date.

The horror-tinged flick, complete with storyline, plot twists and a still iconic synchronized dance number, won Jackson endless critical acclaim, loads of money and universal respect from fans and fellow artists. What was truly amazing is that, at the time of the "Thriller" film's release, the album had already been out for over a year, yet was still selling at an astounding rate of one million copies per week! It was the perfect way for Michael to end 1983, on the highest of notes, which led to a phenomenal first few months of 1984.

On January 16, 1984, the American Music Awards played more like a lengthy tribute to Michael Jackson than an actual awards show. From the opening moments of the telecast, host Lionel Richie made it clear that this show was going to be heavily about Michael. Richie, a major star himself at the time, addressed Jackson (who was seated in the first row with Brooke Shields and Emmanuel Lewis) from the stage and even tried to mimic MJ's signature moonwalk, which he executed with a wild and awkward clumsiness. Thriller captured a record eight awards that evening, and Michael received a special award of merit. Six weeks later, MJ was the center of attention once again as Thriller swept the Grammy awards, sending Jackson home with another eight trophies.

The one chink in the armor for Michael occurred between those two awards shows. On January 27, the legendary entertainer suffered second and third degree burns to his scalp while filming a commercial for Pepsi. Fans around the world held their collective breath, but Jackson recovered in time to dominate the Grammys a month later. Michaelmania continued throughout the rest of 1984, especially with Michael performing a music tour across the U.S. with his brothers, which began that summer.

The Thriller album wound up being the top selling album of 1983 and 1984 and earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. Its legacy endures to this day, three decades later and has inspired an endless array of contemporary musicians. For Jackson, the album's historic success proved to be the greatest of gifts as well as the worst of all curses. He held himself to such lofty standards as a result of this record's achievements that he could not possibly outdo. Even still, all future work from MJ made history in a variety of ways; that is the mark of a once in a lifetime artist.

Long live Thriller.

Friday, August 31, 2012

'Bad' Era Featured New and Improved Michael Jackson

CLEVELAND - It was 25 years ago today that the great Michael Jackson revealed a brand new album, style, music video...and most of all, ambition.

It was the start of a new era.

Jackson's 7th solo album, Bad was the catalyst in his remarkable transformation. As the highly anticipated (and long awaited) follow-up to the Thriller album, the LP, and Jackson himself had an enormous standard to live up to.

First, the 29-year old icon debuted a brand new physical appearance. The last time the world saw him, he was fighting off evil forces in outer space in the made-for-Disney short film "Captain EO." That had been a year in the past when MJ still (mostly) resembled his Thriller-era self, with the exception of slightly lighter skin. Now with the release of Bad, his skin had taken on an even lighter hue, his curled hair was now shoulder length and of course, he now sported a much talked about cleft in his chin. Personally, I was very enthusiastic about Michael's new appearance when I first saw it back then and I now see it as another inventive aspect of his singular style.

The best part of MJ's new look was his hip, street-styled attire. Gone were the sparkly glove and jackets that was his signature style during "Era Thriller," and "in" was multiple belts, buckles and boots. Fitting in with the theme of the new album's title track, Jackson certainly took on a pseudo-"bad" persona.

The lead single from the LP, a syrupy duet with Siedah Garrett called, "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," had been released nearly two months prior to the full release and built on the public's thirst for a new MJ offering. Since it had been almost five full years since his last album, interest was sky high.

Naturally, Michael delivered.

The music videos for this album built on the innovation that Jackson used to groundbreaking success during the Thriller years. He entered into a creative phase in his career that saw him take far more control in the conceptualization and production of his work. Tracks such as "The Way You Make Me Feel" and "Dirty Diana" were dynamic in their style and brilliantly infused pop music with R&B and hard-rock to form a masterpiece of sonic diversity. "Man in the Mirror" ended up becoming Jackson's signature anthem as a significant humanitarian and "Smooth Criminal" re-enforced his cinematic storytelling skills and old Hollywood sensibilities.

Massive support for Bad was achieved with the outrageously successful "Bad World Tour" which began in September '87 and continued all the way until January '89. This is when Michael truly became a global figure of reverence as it was his first tour as a solo artist. Crowds all around the planet were mesmerized by his dancing, singing and overall showmanship and the gigantic press it garnered expanded his popularity to even more unthinkable heights. Pepsi Co., who sponsored the tour and had enjoyed a very successful partnership with Jackson since 1983, even produced a series of television ads complete with special effects, story-line and cliffhangers. This was yet another example of the legendary creativity that was a hallmark of Michael Jackson's special qualities as an entertainer.

Jackson, in addition to the 10-track album (11 tracks on the CD), released 7 highly memorable short films for their respective songs as well as an autobiography in spring 1988 called, "Moonwalk." He later released a VHS anthology film entitled, "Moonwalker" which featured an extended version of the short film for "Smooth Criminal." He was certainly the most ambitious, imaginative entertainer in the world at this time and I gained a new level of admiration for his work.

Of course, the seismic achievements of Bad's predecessor Thriller could never be topped, not even by Jackson himself, at least in terms of sheer numbers. But in terms of scope and substance, nearly everything about the Bad era at least challenged (and in some cases surpassed) the Thriller era. No, the album didn't sell 100 million copies worldwide like Michael had hoped. No, it didn't dominate the awards shows the way Thriller did (and with the enormous surge in public interest in hip-hop at that time, how could it?). What it did do, however, was take the evolution of a classic entertainer to even greater heights of artistic craftsmanship. It also raised the bar in the industry and proved once again that Michael Jackson was a peerless visionary of the highest order.

What a legacy.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Michael Jackson's 54th Birthday Anniversary: A Celebration of Greatness

CLEVELAND - For a man who made such an enormous impact on our planet during his lifetime, Michael Jackson will forever deserve to be honored for the amazing individual that he was.

Especially on the anniversary of his birth.

Today marks what would have been MJ's 54th birthday and his still-rabid global fan-base is celebrating the incredible and highly publicized life of the greatest entertainer in history.

In spite of Michael's very tragic, far too premature death three years ago, his indelible artistry retains a very prominent place in pop culture. This year alone has seen his career and style celebrated in many different forms from an acclaimed Cirque du Soleil stage show to a worldwide Pepsi campaign commemorating the 25th anniversary of Jackson's smash hit album, Bad.

November 30th marks the 30th anniversary of his historic Thriller album, and there are sure to be massive tributes for that landmark LP as well.

What should be remembered and celebrated most about the career of Michael Jackson is the remarkable level of originality that it possessed. His imitable style choices went hand-in-hand with his magical aura of musical proficiency and mesmerizing dance moves. Furthermore, he took elements from old Hollywood and merged them with contemporary street culture, then added his own inventive flourishes. This is what the singers and dancers of today are missing; Michael possessed the total package and was the seminal leader of a music generation that followed him religiously and industry peers who focused on trying to outdo him.

He never surrendered the throne. Though his sparkling reputation took major hits due to his sensationalized personal life, Michael Jackson was always the man who set the standard.

Myself and the multi-millions of his fans around the world will never forget that. Happy birthday, Michael.