In 1985, a Michael Jackson no longer of this planet outbid Paul McCartney for publishing rights to most of the Beatles catalog for $47.5 million. Soon thereafter, Nike paid Jackson for the words and music and Capitol Records for the White Album version of “Revolution” to sell their new Air Revolution shoes. “Unless we do something about it,” George Harrison reacted at the time, “every Beatles song is going to end up advertising bras and pork pies.”
“The history of the Beatles was that we tried to be tasteful with our records and with ourselves,” Harrison told Rolling Stone in 1987. “We could have made millions of extra dollars doing all that in the past, but we thought it would belittle our image or our songs. But as the man [Bob Dylan] said, ‘Money doesn’t talk, it swears.’ Some people seem to do anything for money. They don’t have any moral feelings at all.”
About two years before Jackson outbid McCartney, I walked out on the video production of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” I’d agreed to drive downtown around midnight to portray an inordinately passive ’80s badass inner-city gangster for a fee of $50. At this point Jackson’s surgery was frightening, but not yet ridiculous. He just looked like he’d paid someone to carve him into Diana Ross. The video was shooting through the night at a normally deserted warehouse in downtown L.A., using mostly local gangsters, real gangsters, as background. All that the bona fides and three or four token whiteys were asked to do was stand around and look tough while Diana Ross and the big-money butched-out dancers played Sharks vs. Jets around us.
Parking was tight. Closest space was down a dark, deserted side street a quarter-mile away. I opened and downed a beer in the car and walked slowly, with great artificial confidence and echoing sneakers, to the warehouse.
Most of the crew looked exhausted. Many had been there all day, I was told, and now it was close to midnight, with a solid six hours of the night ahead of us.
The plain white T-shirt and red-and-white-flannel button-down that the wardrobe department gave me didn’t bring to my untrained mind any notion of gangster attire so much as a college-guy-going-to-the-AntiClub-to-watch-the-Minutemen costume, similar to what I was already wearing. I figured it was an error. Plus, I was all buff and everything, and thoroughly insecure, and most of the other $50 gangsters were seminaked about the arms, chest and shoulders. I didn’t want to be in a music video looking like . . . myself. I wanted someday to point to a monitor in a dark bar and, when the video came on, turn to the ladies beside me with “That’s right, baey-bey! Cheggout my fine, buffitudinous muscularity a-throbbin’ all up in that hot, tight cathode tube!”
Plus, I had to use the bathroom. So I waited in line for five minutes to ask the head of the wardrobe department — a terrifically snotty Englishwoman (or an even snottier Americanwoman, if she’d gone to the trouble of assuming an English accent) — if a mistake had been made with my costume.
“I just think . . .” I said.
“No one cares what you think, love,” she snipped. “I’m very busy.”
As she walked away, presumably toward a huge pile of cocaine, I asked the back of her head for directions to the restroom.
“Down that hall and make a left, love,” she called back, grudgeless, elsewhere, almost human, adding, “out of order, though. You’ll have to make do with the street.”
It didn’t seem like a good time to mention that while it was true I’d just downed a beer and not a quart of prune juice, I was in need of a seated situation. Don’t fancy taking a crep outdoors in downtown L.A. in the middle of the night, love. Just don’t want that one on the résumé. Don’t want the memory of the sound as it lands.
“What about Michael’s trailer?” I suggested, catching up. “Is that one working?”
“I don’t have time!” she said, and she truly didn’t, and probably doesn’t, and probably never did or will. Off she stormed, or gusted, or left in some other meteorologically significant way. Leaving me to stand in the corner of the big dank harshly lighted hollow, to decide the fate of nothing very important, quickly.
I really liked the Jackson Five when I was 8 years old, when Michael Jackson was 12 and black. A tape of Goin’ Back to Indiana, songs from a TV concert special (with interstitial narration by Bill Cosby as “Scoop Newsworthy”), accompanied me on the basketball courts all summer long.
(Then I turned 9, and so on.)
“I thought you were going to be in that Michael Jackson video.” Rum Raisin was still up, reading a textbook and listening to the Beatles’ White Album. Of the four of us sharing a two-bedroom apartment, Rum Raisin gave Michael Jackson the most artistic credit. He’d explain how Jackson’s Thriller album was a momentous occasion in the history of popular music. A year or so my senior, Rum Raisin was consistently and coherently insightful and ethical, thoroughly respectable all around. Maybe he was right. To me, though, Jackson’s music sounded like it had been written to be played by cash registers and, as far as I could tell, by cash registers only.
Even so, I already regretted my decision.
“I was,” I said gloomily. “But I walked out.”
“Are you serious? Why?”
“They wanted me to take a dump in the street.”
“The bathroom plumbing was dead, and the snotty Republican wardrobe-woman wouldn’t allow pawns access to the gilded ass-tray in Michael’s trailer.”
“No shit?” said Raisin. “Good for you, man.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. I think most people would’ve opted for the dump in the street. I think you did the right thing.”
“Yeah? Hm.” I rounded quickly the corner, to sit at the helm of our own humble crapper and mull out another way to sell myself to buy more education.