Moon Walk, by Michael Jackson ****

1062902Moonwalk was written at the height of Jackson’s fame, in the wake of Thriller and the 25th anniversary Motown TV special. It is a fascinating read, and was the #1 New York Times bestseller at the time. I give it only 4 stars because there is a ghost writer here. It’s understandable; Jackson had his finger in so many pies at the time, and also was somewhat reluctant to breach his own privacy by speaking candidly about his own life. Ultimately, though, the writer-behind-the-writer says that Jackson decided it was time to set the record straight about some things. He still nearly pulled the plug at the dead last minute, after editing and approving the final copy, leaving his ghost writer with an immense amount of time and effort that nearly came to nothing. I’m glad he decided to follow through.

At the time this was written, Jackson had no children. His name is associated with more than one book, and I may see if I can get a copy of a later one.

I am not much of a pop music fan, but the sheer enormity of Jackson’s accomplishments and his role in music history makes his a must-read for a memoir reader like me.

I came out of this convinced that though (through the lack of a normal childhood) Jackson’s social skills were sometimes off a notch and his judgment not always sharp, he was not a pedophile. I believe him when he says that children are the only people he can talk to who don’t seem to have ulterior motives (beyond a particular circle of family members and close friends), and that he enjoys making them happy. I really do think he was naive enough to think that a child would find it fun to sleep in the host’s big bed rather than be all alone in a room he wasn’t familiar with (and assume that the oh-so-grateful parent would remain such). Beyond that, I think that at some level, his involvement with children had to do with his own lack of a childhood that involved the fun and freedom usually associated with that time. My best guess is that he brought kids home, or went to their homes and hospitals, and spoiled them rotten, and enjoyed the experience vicariously.

Jackson’s own upbringing, though he loved the music and turned out to have a genius for it, was grueling. He is diplomatic in the things he says about his father, and gives him credit for finding the resources to bring not only musical instruments but microphones into their 3 room home in Gary, Indiana, so that his talented tribe would understand how to handle them and move with them by the time they were on stage. They began with talent shows that had cash prizes, and worked their way up to auditions. They played in some really raunchy clubs at an age where most first-graders would not even be watching R rated movies. But Jackson took to the life, and grew close to his brothers. Motown signed them, and they were off to California.

Jackson was instantly enthralled by all things Californian. The trees had oranges, he says, and there was the ocean, and Disneyland! Welcomed to the “Motown family” by singing legend Diana Ross and by the vice-president of Motown, who lived just down the street, they were house guests until they were settled and established, and ran freely between the two fabulous homes. Ross was like a second mother to Jackson,and she introduced him to the art world, which would later become not only a love of his, but a source of smart investments also.

In Gary, he and his family had all been practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he mentions this only briefly, to show that some of the corruption and profanity that young performers take on was not going to be part of his own life, because that was not how he was raised. He doesn’t mention the religion again after his move to California. This left me curious. Could a man like Jackson have truly believed that only a certain number of people are allowed to go to heaven?

He writes about his break with Motown,which he and some of his family precipitate when Motown is not receptive to having him write music, and about his lengthy, fond collaboration with Quincy Jones. He is able to get in on the ground floor once MTV breaks loose, and spends his own money in order to create music videos of the highest caliber. (“Bad” used real gang members from South Central LA; the massive security was loosened a bit once they found that since the gang members pretty much just wanted recognition, respect, and lunch and were getting all three, they were courteous and cooperative. I’ll admit I really liked this part, having taught young people with similar issues.)

His hair and skull catch fire due to negligent fireworks use while making a commercial for Pepsi. He knows he could have sued them and won big, but he chose not to.

Without a trace of irony or hubris, he states that he is thankful he never got involved using any sort of drugs, since he had seen what this does to others. (To be fair, he specifically refers to street drugs like marijuana and cocaine; I suspect that some of the drugs that would later plague him were due, in part, to the pain he experiences after accidents on the job such as the Pepsi adventure.)

A star like Jackson could have used his life story as a vehicle for payback, but he goes out of his way to avoid any semblance of that, and when he has to talk about people who did rotten things, such as a management-level person who stole from him, he does not name names. I thought this was really nice. He briefly mentions his father and the belt, but also gives the man credit for the early start he and his brothers had, and the fact that they were the first big family act to enter the pop scene.

Later he simply mentions that his father was no longer representing him at a point in the story. He makes no reference to the marital discord between his parents.

The one place we can almost see the hair rise on the back of his neck is when he speaks about the controversy regarding the changes in his facial structure. He owns that he had a nose job and a chin cleft added, and points out that entertainers all over Hollywood do exactly the same thing, and he asks why this is such a big deal, when after all, he is a musician. The man has a point. On the one hand, those with the most fame get the most scrutiny, but on the other, it also (though he never says it) sure seems as if a black man who makes it big gets more scrutiny than others. He adopts a vegetarian diet, and of course, as we grow older, our faces lengthen anyway, thus the harder planes to his face and loss of baby fat. And in thinking about some of the bizarre things printed in tabloids…who is really going to have the bones in his face broken and reset? Even if vain enough for something of that nature, it would be extremely risky, and involve a huge amount of time away from work.

I believe that Jackson is telling the truth; a nose job, a chin cleft, terrible acne as a teen that started the habit of hiding his face at times, and then later (not in this book), the skin disease. I think this is true, though it doesn’t make as good copy for selling sensationalistic news rags.

The one really unsettling note was that Jackson seemed to think it was a hilarious practical joke to surprise people who were afraid of snakes with Muscles, his boa constrictor, and chase them around the room. I have the same phobia, and once had (honestly) a science teacher who chased me around his 7th grade classroom with a big snake, ordering me to “touch it.” I did not, and I had nightmares for weeks. But it’s too late to tell Jackson that this particular thing is not funny.

Jackson’s songwriting partnership and friendship with Paul McCartney led the latter to recommend that he consider investing some of his money in song rights. This had not occurred to Jackson before, and turned out to be a strong move financially, as most of us now know. And he says that although he knows others in the business discourage their own children from performing, if he ever has children, he will tell them to follow their dreams, and if they want to perform, they should go for it.

The artist, with all his eccentricities and extraordinary talent, can’t talk to us anymore. For those who enjoy memoirs and autobiographies of musicians who have made historical strides in their field, this is highly recommended.

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