Chapter 25 - LWMJ - Day 3
I have never allowed someone to interview me for days or months on end.
Never have I ever allowed someone to be in such close proximity of my family and me.
But I guess that’s why they say “never say never.”
Last night told me all I needed to know about how this whole thing will go.
Martin was respectful. Critical in some ways, yes. But otherwise, he was respectful and understanding of my life and my choices thus far.
He understood that the media has made an absolute mockery of me over the years, and he seeks to be different from everyone else. And for that, I greatly appreciate him.
I’ve never thought of doing anything like this for myself or anyone else. But this has undoubtedly come right on time.
The first day, I wore a black two-piece suit. Yesterday, I wore a silk green dress shirt tailored just for me. Today, I decided to be casual and wear a red silk shirt with black pants. As far as I’m concerned, today didn’t call for the theatrics like yesterday and the day before.
I sat on a stool in my studio as Bashir’s cameramen and my own made sure all the lights, microphones, and everything else was in place.
Paintings I’ve had made in the past sat behind my equipment, making for a beautiful backdrop for the material we’d be capturing today.
Telling my story is all I really care about. Because I need people to know that it took a lot for me to get to where I am today. And I wouldn’t be here had it not been for God and my family.
“Okay, Michael, I will ask you questions about your career today if you don’t mind,” Bashir began. The accent in his question made me giggle. “Why are you laughing?” He started to giggle as well.
“Okay, come on,” I laughed as I adjusted my socks.
“Why? What have I done?” We were both in a laughing fit. He because he had no idea what I was laughing about. And me because I find his accent amusing.
“Come on. Tell me. What have I done?” He smiled.
“No, I like your accent.”
“You like my accent…”
“I like how you said, ‘I’m gonna ask you something,’ and you said, ‘I’m gonna ahsk you.’” He laughed at my impression of his English accent. “I like it.”
“Can you do an English accent?”
I mustered up my best impression of an English accent. “Lil bit.” He continued to laugh at my full-blown impression this time. “Noice to meet you.”
“It’s noice to meet you to meet you as well.”
“Noice bew-ih-ful interview,” he finally fell into a laughing fit. “But no, that’s fine. I don’t mind talking about my career.”
“Your career… How you make music… The whole shebang. Is that alright with you?”
“It’s perfectly fine,” I nodded.
“Well, how do you write a song?”
“‘How do I write a song…’” I repeated the question as I pondered it. This question has been asked of me many times before. And every time, I have the same answer. “Well, if I sat down at this piano… If I sat here and played some chords or whatever and say, ‘I’m gonna write the best song ever written,’ nothing happens. Something in the heavens has to say, ‘look, this is the time that this is gonna be laid on you, and this is when I want you to have it.’ Now, I remember when I wrote ‘Billie Jean,’ I was riding in my, uh, car, down Ventura Boulevard. All I said to myself beforehand, ‘I wanna write a song with a great bass hook,’ you know and um, then I just let it go really and then several days later, you know…” I began to beatbox the introduction to “Billie Jean.”
“Where did that come from?” Bashir asked.
I looked up at the ceiling and raised my hand above my head, “from above.”
“So…” He seemed unsure.
“It really did.”
“Okay, so, you were singing the bass lines. Sing that again, and then what happened? How did you get the other instrumentation and the composition? How did it work?”
“It… It… It… See, the thing is, in, um… Artists seem to get in the way of the music. Get out of the way of the music! You know? Don’t write the music! Let the music write itself. That’s all artists do nowadays. They say they’re gonna make the greatest song ever, and it doesn’t happen. It may chart for a week or two, but after that, it’s over. No one just lets God in the room anymore. They don’t let him make the music that he created.”
“So, you’ve let God into the studio?”
I nodded, “yes. That’s all I do. Whenever it’s time to record, I tell everyone to relax and let God come in the room. He’s gonna show us. He’s gonna tell us what to do and how to do it.”
“The dance as well?”
“Yeah. Same thing.”
“How do you do it? Can you show me how you do it?”
I blushed with embarrassment, “oh boy!”
“Come on. Just get up and show me!” He pressed.
“Oh, come on. Just show me! When your children ask you to dance for them, do you tell them you’re shy?”
I laughed, “no, because they’re my kids. You’re someone who’s interviewing me. There’s a difference.”
“Just show me. Just show me. Show me what you can do. Teach me!”
“Okay, uh… Oh boy…” I looked around for space to moonwalk or do a kick and spin or something. “You’re putting me on the spot now.”
“Come on!” He pressed again.
“See, now people are discovering something about me. I’m really shy. I’m embarrassed.”
“Okay, you’re shy,” he shrugged. “Just get up and show me,” he pressed again. I get where he’s going with this, but this is the last thing I expected to do today. I went over to the stereo and looked through a couple of songs I could possibly dance to. “Billie Jean” is a classic, so I went ahead and played that.
Without thinking, I let the music take me into dance. Shuffling my feet to do a side moonwalk. Imagining myself on the stage whenever I’d perform the “Billie Jean” segment in front of a crowd of fans. A kick. A spin. And then the final moonwalk. I stopped for a moment, peering over at Bashir to see what he thought. The look in his eye told me he wanted more. So, I did just that. Another spin. Another kick. Another shuffling of the feet for a side moonwalk. And a little robot into doing the backward sliding moonwalk.
“I want you to try,” I motioned over to Bashir. “Can you try with me?”
“Show me!” He insisted. I motioned for him to come over to where I was standing. “You want me to do it?”
You wanted me to teach you, right? I nodded, “yeah.”
He laughed, “how am I going to do it? What do you want me to do?”
“Like, stand here,” I told him as I showed him the illusion of doing the moonwalk. “Mainly, one foot down and really using the other foot… Push. It’s like really pushing. Just push, you know? Using your heel. Use your heel to slide back. Slide back on your heel… Heel,” I watched as he tried and failed miserably.
“That’s very, very difficult… That is not easy! That is not easy,” he said as I demonstrated again.
“No, that is not easy!”
“You know what? It’s very hard to explain too. How to do it, I mean,” I watched as he positioned himself to try one more time. “Just do it one more time. Do it one more time. Just use that heel,” I pointed down at his feet, directing him. “Don’t slide back on your toes. Slide back on your heel, okay?”
“Okay, so I slide back…”
“You’ll wanna go on your toes. But don’t go on your toes. Go on the heel. Not on the toe when you go back. Always on the heel. Heel. Heel. Heel,” I demonstrated for him.
“That’s pretty unnatural,” he watched as I demonstrated. “Because normally, you lift your foot as you walk.”
“I know. That’s part of the illusion.”
“Right. So, I slide back…” He tried again. It wasn’t too bad this time. He has the right idea.
“That’s very good, though. That’s the idea.”
He laughed, self-mockingly, “you’re a very kind man.”
“Thank you,” I nodded.
It’s always tricky showing someone how to moonwalk. It comes so naturally because I’ve had years of practice.
“Did you ever teach your ex-wife how to moonwalk?”
I laughed at the many memories I have of Shayla’s sad attempts. “I’ve tried many times.”
“Did she ever get it? Judging by your laughter, I assume not.”
“She did one time,” I held up one finger. “I should have gotten it on camera, but I didn’t,” I shrugged. “But after that one time, she never attempted again because she had finally gotten it.”
“So, you have success stories of teaching people how to do it?”
“Yeah, of course,” I shrugged as I sat back down on my stool.
“Will you teach your children someday?”
“If they want to learn.”
“Do you see star quality in your children? Do you see them doing what you do?”
I sighed, “well, I don’t really want them to do what I do… I want them to find their own niche, ya know? But my daughter? She’s so blown away by the music of today. When I did my thirtieth-anniversary show last year, she was just in awe at Beyoncé. I could see it in her eyes.”
“What do you think about today’s stars? Do you think they put in as much hard work as you did?”
“I think today’s stars are doing well. I like what Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Destiny’s Child do. Usher! He’s doing a really great job. I had him at my show last year. He was a child star, and I think he’s on the right track.”
“Do you see yourself making any music with these newer artists?”
“Maybe someday. Right now, I’m taking a break. But definitely in the future.”
“Do you remember when you first discovered you had a special musical talent?”
I sighed and searched for the right words, “my mother… caught me…making my bed one day, and I was singing. And she said to my father that I could sing and he didn’t want to hear of it. You know, he said, um, that ‘Jermaine’s the lead singer, not Michael,’ and Mother said,’ Joe, you really should hear him sing, he can sing.’ And he goes, ‘no! Jermaine’s the lead singer of the group, and that’s it,” I laughed. It’s so interesting how things work out. I admire my brother’s musical ability. I always will. “She forced him to listen to me, and once he listened to me, and from that moment on, I was the lead singer of the group. Here’s one of the first songs we had out,” I turned to play our first single, “Big Boy.” I was eight years old at the time. I remember the excitement I felt at recording our first song. Although my childhood wasn’t much, singing with my brothers will always be something that I’ll cherish.
I looked at the CD jacket for the single. Many people don’t realize that my brothers and I played along the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” Opening for other acts. Putting in the work required to be big stars. We were just so young when it happened. While I admire my father, and I will always consider him a genius, I could never see myself putting my own children through the same things that I went through. I want them to enjoy their childhood. I don’t want them to work as hard as I had to.
The pros and cons of working as hard as I did as a child is that I’m an adult forever. I’ll never be a child forever. So, I get to live out what I didn’t get to have as a child in my adulthood.
“My entire childhood, I remember people saying to me, ‘he’s a forty-two-year-old midget. ‘That’s how hard I worked. That’s how much work I put into my craft… At first, I didn’t understand. But what they meant was the way I, you know, moved on stage and the way I sang… like you say, the inflections or whatever. “
“Did somebody teach you to do that?”
“No,” I shook my head. “You can’t teach that. You can’t teach it. It has to come from inside. It’s a gift, you know? I remember precisely going to Motown studios to record. And right across the street from the studio was a park. And I could hear the roar of the, you know, the Little League team. And they were playing soccer and football and volleyball. And they were playing baseball. And I remember a lot of the times looking back and really hiding my face, crying… I wanted to play sometimes and I couldn’t, you know? I had to go… I had-”
“Why- Why couldn’t you?”
“I had to go to the studio… And don’t get me wrong. My father is a genius. Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today, but I’d never want my children to go through what I went through.”
“When you would be practicing, you were very heavily disciplined by your father,” Bashir began. “What was that like?”
“Uh,” I looked off to the side nervously. “Well, I… I didn’t... have it that hard. He used me as the example. It was like, ‘do it like Michael!’ You know? He practiced us with a belt in his hand, and if you missed a step… Expect to be, uh…” I made a whipping motion with my hand to show that I’d get a whooping.
He looked taken aback, “just let me go back. You just said that you would practice the dance steps, and your father would be holding a belt in his hand. Is that what you just said?”
I nodded, “yeah. Yes. Yes, he would tear you up if you missed and so, we not only were we practicing, we were nervous rehearsing because he sat in the chair and he had this belt in his hand, and if you didn’t do it the right way, he would tear you up… Really get you. I… I got it a lot of times, but I think my brother, Marlon, got it the most because he had a hard time at first, and he tried so hard, and uh, it was always, ‘do it like Michael! Do it like Michael!’ You know, but the others were very nervous, and I was nervous too, you know, because uh, he was tough.”
“How often would he beat you?”
“Hmm… Too much,” I winced at the memories.
“Would he only use a belt?”
I closed my eyes, covering my face with one hand, “why do you do this to me? Why do you guys ask me this? You don’t ever ask The Osmond’s, The Silvers, or The Debarge family these questions.”
“Well, I’m not interviewing them… I’m interviewing you.”
“Yeah, but let’s put it on the record that no one has ever asked any other family these questions. It’s always been mine. Yes, my father did some interesting things, but other families might have had similar tactics. Let it be known that my father is a genius. Yes, he disciplined us, but where would we be without his guidance?”
“But you were a baby… You were only a child, and you’re defending him?”
“I’m defending the man that got his family out of one of the toughest cities in the United States. Yes, it hurt. Yes, I remember hearing my mother scream, ‘Joe, you’re gonna kill him, you’re gonna kill him.’ You know, but at the end of the day, I wouldn’t be where I am today had it not been for that man. You know, they say, ‘the abused, abuse,’ but I don’t agree with that. It’s not true at all. I don’t lay a finger on my children. I don’t want them to ever feel that way about me. Ever! And he didn’t allow us to call him, ‘Daddy.’ I wanted to call him ‘Daddy’ so bad, but he said, ‘I’m not, ’Daddy,’ I’m Joseph to you.’ You know? And I totally forgive him for all of it. You know. You have to. But, uh, I don’t allow my children to call me, ‘Michael.’ I say, ‘I’m daddy.’”
What my father did was wrong, and I wouldn’t do the same thing to my children that he did to my brothers and me, but over the years, he’s changed. And I’m not letting anyone tell me how I’m supposed to feel about my father. My siblings and I have forgiven him. He acknowledges what he did was completely wrong. But one thing is for sure: my siblings and I would not be where we are today without our father's guidance and structure. My parents would not have been able to fulfill their lifelong dreams. They got their dreams at the expense of us. I got my dreams of always wanting to be an entertainer. And I want my children to live out their own dreams, but I don’t ever want to force them to go through the same things I had to.