Let Us Now Praise Sensitive Men: Bob Baldwin, Never Can Say Goodbye: A Tribute to Michael Jackson

By Daniel Garrett

Bob Baldwin, Never Can Say Goodbye: A Tribute to Michael Jackson
Produced and arranged by Bob Baldwin
Executive Producers: Eldwin Boyd and Bob Baldwin
Trippin’ ‘N’ Rhythm Records, 2010

Michael Jackson, The Essential Michael Jackson
Project Director: Joy Gilbert Monfried
Mastered by Joseph M. Palmaccio
MJJ Productions/Epic-Sony, 2005

“I know more about what happened to my brother than you can ever know. I watched it happen—from the beginning. I was there. He shouldn’t have ended up the way he did. That’s what’s been so hard for me to accept. He was a very beautiful boy. Most people aren’t beautiful. I knew that right away. I watched them, and I knew.”

—Ida to Vivaldo, in James Baldwin’s Another Country

The great entertainer Michael Jackson was a boy wonder, a dancing and singing, laughing and smiling boy, a beautiful, charming boy, a boy who was welcomed but whom the world may not have been entirely ready for: boys do not remain boys; and men often sacrifice what makes them different to survive in the world. In “Here Be Dragons,” an essay in the book The Price of the Ticket in which James Baldwin talks about androgyny and human complexity, the writer Baldwin advised the very famous and record-shattering singer Michael Jackson to remember that some of the cacophony that surrounded him had nothing to do with him. The noise was more than applause or complaint; it was also a reflection of clashing personal and public confusions that had yet to be exorcised. Decades before, in Baldwin’s death-haunted fiction Another Country, full of intimations of passing time and inevitable decay, Baldwin presented a novel portrait of some of those confusions, rooted in assumptions and prejudices regarding age, class, ethnicity, gender, morality, and purpose: the loneliness, pride, and rage of his characters are as recognizable as the faces in our own mirrors, and as quickly denied or forgotten as the lines and wrinkles on those faces. Michael Jackson became more alluring, masterful, and strange as he became older, as everyone is aware; and it could be difficult to determine if his mystique meant he was blessed or damned. I do not know if Michael Jackson read any of the words of James Baldwin. Did anyone give the driven entertainer one of Baldwin’s books? It is one of the odd facts of our perception of the lives of rich and famous artists that we assume they have everything and, consequently, we ask much of them and do not give them anything more. Could there be something fundamental, something both priceless and personal, that they yearn for? Love and respect? Truth? The artists live—and die—and then we remember that to be an artist often is to have a gift and a wound, and then we put flowers on their graves, sing their praises, and say the true things we might have said years before. In tribute to a man lost much too soon, the jazz pianist Bob Baldwin has produced an album that executes with delicacy the established and known rhythm patterns of Michael Jackson’s songs, and, sometimes, even adds intensity, but, for the most part, Bob Baldwin does not extend the songs into new territory, new invention.

I recall seeing the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane dance company many years ago, and hearing the cheers when one of the dancers did a couple of Michael Jackson moves. The great entertainer was acclaimed by other artists, with aspects of his gestures, style, and works appropriated, transformed, and displayed. I hope that Bob Baldwin’s album of twelve songs, Never Can Say Goodbye: A Tribute to Michael Jackson, might be the beginning of a deeper embrace, yet it does not create or even seek the greatest expanse possible in African-American improvisational music—in jazz. What do these songs mean without voice or lyrics? Sometimes the music is closer to light funk with jazz piano, and the arrangements maintain a sense of drama but do not surprise. However, Bob Baldwin is a good pianist and he uses a few collaborators whose flute or trumpet adds texture: the flute has more force than one anticipates and takes flight; and the trumpet, maybe inevitably, brings to mind Miles Davis, who did record Jackson’s “Human Nature.” The songs on Never Can Say Goodbye are songs of optimism and lament; and the charm of some of the originals is captured. The modulations of tempo and suddenly long melodic lines that mark some of Stevie Wonder’s compositions, in which energy becomes a sign of passion, are heard—and one reads the liner notes and sees that this is a song (“I Can’t Help It”) by Wonder that Jackson performed. Jackson also recorded popular tunes by Berry Gordy, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Leon Ware and Arthur Ross, Steve Porcaro and John Bettis, Rod Temperton, Tom Bahler, and Clifton Davis. Baldwin’s presentation of “I’ll Be There” is pretty enough to be an engagement party serenade. The guitars in “She’s Out of My Life” have a Latin flavor. The wordless humming of Bob Baldwin in “Don’t Say Goodbye” sounds like a call to prayer.

“Do you love me?” I do not know that the writer James Baldwin and the pianist Bob Baldwin share anything more than a last name and a strong impression of Michael Jackson, whose talent was as perceptible as his desire for approval. In Another Country, James Baldwin describes a saxophonist whose playing had been way out and whose solo screamed “Do you love me?” It was a question, Baldwin says, terrible and real; and it is impossible for me to go further without considering what Michael Jackson asked—one of his songs was “Will You Be There?”—and answered in his music.

The anthology The Essential Michael Jackson is a great, great delight, full of colorful, fine, rare gems, no less rare for being popular. Michael Jackson is proof that sometimes the best really are the most successful. The songs he performed as a little boy with his brothers as part of the Jackson 5—such as “I Want You Back” and “The Love You Save”—were simultaneously cheery, poignant, and sexy; and the ballads Jackson sang then—“Got to Be There” and “Ben”—were more moving for containing a surprising and identifiable tenderness. Yet, polarities were present in his music then: an innocent boy singing of experience; and earthy, funky tunes in an African-American idiom and sentimental ballads in a mainstream American style. Michael Jackson’s voice was grittier and more sensual by the time he sang “Blame it on the Boogie” with the Jacksons; and with “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” and “Off the Wall” from his solo album Off the Wall, Jackson could convey the abandon to be found in music or sex. He no longer seemed an excellent student in art or life, but a fully-alive, conscious, maturing personality; and, yes, there were perceptible polarities: the roguish energy of “Don’t Stop” and “Off the Wall” is different from the sad passivity of “She’s Out of My Life.” Of course, we all contain contradictions, but being iconic usually means becoming simpler, not more complex. Michael Jackson—who still seemed shy but accessible and sweet to those who met him—was on his way to becoming an icon.

Iconicity would come with his Thriller album. Michael Jackson was beautiful then, in many ways, but I am sure that he knew that. What was great about Thriller’s song “Billie Jean” was not only its unique rhythm, but the personal and social awareness in the song—its scenario of a woman’s calculated seduction, possible transgression, and false accusation of paternity on one side, and family morality and public responsibility on the other. Jackson jammed all that together and it created a genuine psychological reality (he created a drama; and hearing it we understood his sensibility, and the tug between desire and fear). “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” did offer complexity, a fragile complexity, where we did not expect to find it: a scampering, skittish rhythm provides the score for fragmented lyrics noting unstable circumstances, personal vulnerability, gossip, conflict and isolation (“you’re a vegetable”), and advice about irresponsible parenting. A country music shout (“yee ha”) and African chorus embellish the song—the African chorus crown’s Jackson’s self-affirmation (“I believe in me, so you believe in you”). Also on Thriller, the song “Human Nature” is an ambiguous ballad, and the ambiguity—a vision of perception and speculation within the possibilities of city life—could involve race or sexuality (or both); and the song—although not written by Jackson—was heard as a declaration of individuality. However, the invocation of conventional masculinity on his next, long-awaited album, in the song “Bad,” may have marked a moment of musical and personal crisis. Why should any male artist be required to affirm a masculinity—common and crude—that his freedom as an artist allows him to ignore, reject, or transform? From then on it would be possible to read many of Jackson’s songs not only as personal expression, but also as acts of negotiation with (or capitulation to) the larger society; and sometimes he admitted how alone he was (in a song not here, “Stranger in Moscow,” he howls, “I’m living lonely baby”). Michael Jackson would make a demonstration of erotic desire or charitable generosity. He floated messages, tried on roles. Did he know what was act and what was fact? Was there a difference?

Yet, Michael Jackson songs such as “Man in the Mirror” and “Will You Be There?” are not only gospel-rooted, well-constructed compositions, they are genuinely moving: one thinks through them and feels with them. It does help that Jackson sounds as if he has torn his own heart out of his chest and shoved it into the music. The sexual terror—the fear of the feminine—in songs such as “Dirty Diana” and “Dangerous” are not his alone (western literature, and the rock songs of the Rolling Stones and others, possess it); but Jackson may not have known that. The indifference to racial distinction in the lyrics for “Black or White” is a statement Jackson might not have felt compelled to make—America, and the world, loved him—had it not been for his own actions, his own disfigurations. “You Are Not Alone” is sung with more pain than love, not a strange thing among his later songs.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House and ABC No Rio, is a writer whose work has appeared in print and online, in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Identity Theory, Illuminations, Option, Pop Matters, Rain Taxi, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics, as well as The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett edited poetry for the male feminist Changing Men magazine, wrote about the African-American artists Henry Tanner, Edward Bannister, and Reginald Madison for Art & Antiques, reported on environmental issues and organized the first interdepartmental meeting on environmental justice for National Audubon (The Audubon Activist), reviewed books for World Literature Today, and essayed international film for Offscreen. He has been working on a novel, A Stranger on Earth, focused on a struggling woman artist, and her associates, family, and friends.