Pop Heroism, Two Songs at a Time
"Heartbreak Hotel" - The Jacksons
Written by Michael Jackson
from Triumph (CBS/Epic, 1980)
"Bless His Soul" - The Jacksons
Written by Tito Jackson, Jackie Jackson, Marlon Jackson, Michael Jackson, and Randy Jackson
from Destiny (CBS/Epic, 1979)
This entry was originally written in the spring of '09. It has been slightly edited since Michael Jackson's untimely passing.
The first arena concert I ever attended was the Jacksons' concert in support of their 1980 album, Triumph. The concert began with a film/music video for their hit "Can You Feel It?" which showed the brothers, in superhuman/angelic form, spreading goodwill and brotherhood through the power of song and light. Especially to the eyes and ears of a young musician, it was a stunning opening to an unforgettable experience.
"Heartbreak Hotel" was a highlight of the Triumph tour, and like many of Michael Jackson's songs which explore the terror of high anxiety, it is kind of like an aural horror film, with fear, paranoia, and emotional claustrophobia replacing blood and gore as the central affrighting components. The song opens with a lonely string section which ably sets the foreboding tone, then, with an eerie scream, it kicks into an archetypal Jackson groove, with wicked rhythm guitar and funky-bump marauding bass. The lyrics describe a hotel occupied by evil, vengeful women who murmur imprecations and hurl accusations at the men who visit.The second half of the first verse delves into the devilish details of the nightmarish scene Jackson wishes to show us: "As we walked into the room / There were faces staring, glaring, tearing through me / Someone said welcome to your doom / Then they smiled with eyes that looked as if they knew me / This is scaring me!"
"Heartbreak Hotel" is peppered with classic Jackson yelps, squawks, and screams, a countermelody voiced on a theremin-like instrument, and a myriad of strange and scary sound effects, all of which add to the "scary-movie" vibe. The bridge is literally out of this world, with a chugging electro-beat, an insistent high-pitched tone taking the place of the snare hit, and weird multilayered vocals. Of course, MJ being the future "King of Pop", the chorus breaks wide open into a sky-high catchy hook after all that weirdness.
Here in 2009, it's easy to trace "Heartbreak Hotel" to later Jackson fear-manifestos like "Billie Jean", "Dirty Diana", and "Leave Me Alone". And from what we know of Jackson's unusual life, it's little wonder that some of his most cathartic writing is about being trapped, targeted, held hostage, used, and unjustly accused. No matter how you feel about Michael Jackson's legal problems, public statements, and general behavior, it's impossible not to locate the connection between a childhood in the demanding public eye and an adult life informed by dysfunctional relationships, soul-sucking hangers-on, insecurity, and distrust.
The flip side of Jackson's songs in this vein are the pieces he wrote which examine these types of issues head-on and offer a positive way of dealing with them. Probably the first hint of this type of writing in Jackson's work can be found on the sublime "Bless His Soul", a song from Destiny, the 1979 Jacksons album, wherein Jackson muses: "Sometimes I cry 'cause I'm confused / Is this a fact of being used? / There is no life for me at all / 'Cause I keep myself at beck and call". Though the lyrics express doubt and tension, the overall mood imparted from"Bless His Soul" is serene, reflective, and calm, and the music is easygoing, driven by soulful electric piano, strings, and horns, and a top-shelf vocal from Jackson. MJ was always a marvel of a vocalist, powerfully emotive and vulnerable on the one hand, and deliciously funky and hiccupy on the other. The outro to "Bless His Soul" features one of the loveliest vocal figures of Jackson's career, which three years after Destiny and two years after Triumph, exploded into heights untouched by any other music artist before or after. Both "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Bless His Soul" serve as instructive precursors to Jackson's later songs which mine similar territory, with increasing amounts of desperation, paranoia, and frustration.
Michael Jackson's untimely passing forced music fans everywhere to consider their relationship to pop music's most famous superstar, and the result has been a kind of collective revision of how we all view Jackson and his legacy. It's telling that a lot of the memorial images on T-shirts and Facebook profiles are of the young Michael, which is the way many of us, especially Gen-X'ers, first encountered and related to him. We now choose to remember more about the way he made us feel -- the way his distinctive internal rhythms became the blueprint for songs that captured our imaginations, the way his fluid movements on stage inspired us to shake our bodies down to the ground -- and less about the tawdry tabloid stories and outrageous hearsay. In my case, it means remembering and paying tribute to the hyperkinetic magician of a performer I saw at my first concert back in 1980.
The brilliant writer Greg Tate put it best in his Village Voice eulogy for Michael Jackson: "The unfortunate blessing of (Michael Jackson's) departure is that we can now all go back to loving him as we first found him, without shame, despair, or complication."
Amen to that. And bless his soul.
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"Heartbreak Hotel" is now called "This Place Hotel" because of issues with the publishers of the Elvis Presley hit of the same name, which Jackson reportedly had not meant to reference (beyond the title, The Jacksons' "Heartbreak Hotel" bears no resemblance to the Presley tune).