Thursday, 13 March 2014

Michael JACKSON plus The JACKSON 5: 18 Greatest Hits





(#286: 20 August 1983, 3 weeks)

Track listing: One Day In Your Life/Lookin’ Through The Windows/Got To Be There/Doctor My Eyes/Ben/ABC/We’re Almost There/Skywriter/Rockin’ Robin/Happy (Love Theme From “Lady Sings The Blues”)/Ain’t No Sunshine/I’ll Be There/I Want You Back/The Love You Save/We’ve Got A Good Thing Going/Mama’s Pearl/Never Can Say Goodbye/Hallelujah Day

The car moved along the highway. It was a reassuringly warm and sunny morning, and the driver was travelling nowhere in particular. He was on an extended break from work, and unquestionably was in need of a break, no matter how pleadingly or threateningly others had urged him not to take one. It was an old habit of his, and he felt hugely relieved whenever he was able to escape.

He particularly liked travelling in this land, not his own and indeed a very long distance from his own, mainly because nobody else bothered him when he was here, even though they must have known who he was. The occasional double-take stare from a driver or passenger travelling in the opposite direction – no, it can’t be, but is it? – was about the most that he got here. He was left to himself, and was perfectly happy with this.

His habit was to travel semi-randomly, stopping only at places which attracted his attention and interest. He would stay there for a few days and then, without ceremony, move on to the next place. As this was a habit, he now tended to recognise some places, and did his best to avoid them – he’d been there already, and there were plenty of other places to see. He had only his minimal luggage – three changes of clothing tops - a road map and a car radio for company, and that suited him just fine. Sometimes he would wistfully wonder whether he could spend the rest of his life like this.

So it was on this not readily identifiable, but definitely reassuring, warm and sunny morning that the driver spotted a town in the distance, just about detectable in the shade of some amiably rolling hills. Hmm…this wasn’t a town he’d visited before, and what was more, it wasn’t listed in his road map or even indicated on any sign leading from the highway. But that was all right. A few days here, a long way away from everybody and everything else – why not? It wasn’t as if it were raining; in this summer, it seemed like the sun might be destined to shine forever.

He took the next turning and headed towards the town. As he approached it he was struck by how perfectly charming it looked. A central square, neither too large nor too small, bounded by reasonably proud-looking buildings with what he guessed were Georgian frontings. The town in fact was slightly busier than he’d thought from looking at it on the highway; there was a robust and healthy population, walking around, doing business in the various market stalls and shops which surrounded or inhabited the square.

He parked his car and got out, making his way through the groups of bustling people. My, he thought, what a lovely morning. Warm, but not unbearably hot. This town, too; obviously prosperous, but not sniffily stuck up about it. He nodded in greeting to the townspeople, who to his slight surprise immediately, and politely, nodded back in acknowledgement. He looked around the market: meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, fruit, cakes, biscuits – everything one could possibly want, or need. He looked around the shops: a supermarket, but also a grocer’s, a baker’s, a butcher’s, a dry cleaner’s. There was a shop for books and another for music, and more besides.

In the middle distance he spotted a cinema, situated on a hill gently sloping upwards, off the main square. To his right, and to the right of the cinema, a row of boutiques and other shops, also sloping gently upwards but in a different direction…but wait! These looked strangely familiar. Had he been here before, and simply forgotten about it?

But he had made up his mind to stay here for maybe two or three days. It seemed a perfectly reasonable and welcoming place. He obtained some provisions from the various shops and found the people in the shops, customers and servers alike, perfectly friendly. Looking a little further, he came across what he assumed was the town’s only hotel, a grand, if slightly out of place, Art Deco building. He went in, spoke to the welcoming and friendly receptionist, booked a room and made his way upstairs, having retrieved his luggage from the parked car.

In his room he remained puzzled. These people – all very nice, but a little behind the times, he thought? They are wearing old-fashioned clothes, hairstyles and make-up. Not grossly old-fashioned, but just a step behind what he considered back home to be “now.” It also seemed significantly warmer in the town than it had done on the highway. Not oppressively so, but enough to make a difference. And the music he heard coming out of the shops, the market stalls, the odd passing car – that really was old-fashioned. A high-pitched Eastern European voice singing about forever and ever against a choir of sirens taking a break from lotus eating. He never heard anything like that back home. Only here.

Something about the place didn’t quite fit.

Then he went into the bathroom, glanced at the mirror and saw the prematurely tired and sagging face of a fifty-year-old man whom he did not recognise.

* * * * * *

Life in this town was peaceful and constant. He knew that. He could feel it. Everybody going about their business for the benefit of everybody else. It was, in its way, comforting. Wandering around the town on his second day, he realised that things probably never changed around here, except in that exceptionally slow, osmotic fashion, probably over several centuries.

And then, the first shock.

Passing down one of the town’s few side streets out of curiosity, he glanced at the end of the street and froze in horror.

A familiar landmark, one so familiar it was terrifying.

He can’t be here. Not here, of all places.

He rushed down to the end of the side street and looked out but the landmark had disappeared.

He scratched his head in bewilderment. Had he imagined it? Was he seeing things? But a couple more trips down that street later on that afternoon revealed nothing.

And then, the second shock.

Standing in front of a shop window, he is looking at and through the window, and listening to what is coming out of the shop, and slowly it dawns on him.

The giant picture on the window of the shop. The music coming out from the shop.

The picture is of him. The music is his.

For a moment he doesn’t quite know what to do. Does everybody here know who I really am, and if so why haven’t they reacted?

But there are other people, standing in front of that shop window, looking at and through the window, and listening to what is coming out of the shop. Some of these people look at him, the man in the giant picture on the window of the shop, the man whose music is coming out from the shop, but there is no recognition on their part.

He couldn’t get it. Don’t these people, he wondered to himself, realise that they are standing next to the very person whose picture is on that shop window?

And why do they appear so slightly behind the times?

One of the people standing next to him looks at the giant picture on the window of the shop and then turns to him. It is a middle-aged woman. She looks at him. But it is not a look of recognition.

Instead, she just says, quietly:

“Ah, it’s a shame about him, isn’t it?”

Now he really was puzzled.

She went on:

“He was a lovely boy. Such a LOVELY voice. What a shame about what happened to him, eh?”

She shook her head in some private ritual of sadness.

“He got famous. Too famous, if you ask me. Too big for his boots. Thought he was the King. And what good did it do him? I don’t know.”

She paused again.

“Such a nice family, too.”

She turned her head downwards and walked away slowly.

“So sad, what happened to him.”

He had no idea what to say or how to react. How could he? Could not that woman recognise him? Didn’t anybody in this town know who he was?

Then it dawned on him.

The giant picture on the window of the shop. The music coming out from the shop.

The picture is of him. But when he was seventeen. The music is his. But it is the music he was making, or being told to make, when he was a boy. What he did instead of growing up.

These people love what he used to be, and don’t recognise him now.

He returned to his hotel room and prepared to pack. Two days were enough. More than enough.

He felt a not-so-distant anger brooding within him. He wanted to tell these people. But how? How could he?

How could he tell them – how could they know? – about how much life and joy he once had, how much life and joy he gave to the music he sang, like a hyper-friendly dog bouncing into the picture and OWNING it? About how much he loved music before others decided that his music was their business?

Could they possibly fathom what it is like for the creative soul to be killed or stilled at so early an age? Great, he can write! He loves to write on his sky-blue Smith-Corona typewriter. Any old stuff. All right, most of it is juvenile sub-sub-Spike Milligan/Monty Python foolery, but it is tremendously advanced stuff for his age. A professor of English Literature at Glasgow University had read what he had written and told the boy’s father, with several gasps, what he thought.

That’s when it all stopped, of course. He loved typing, being creative, but couldn’t abide the baggage. Try to be creative, hunched at the typewriter with your father hissing into your ear, at your shoulder, demanding that you write something that will be published and make the family some money. You freeze up – wouldn’t anybody? – and your father is confused, angry, doesn’t get it and…well, you pay for it. You pay for your creativity by having the life and joy and exuberance in you smacked, beaten out of you, such that you spend the rest of your life being as quiet and unobtrusive as possible, and watching life disintegrate around you or realign itself away from you as a result, because you know what happens when you open your mouth. You never give yourself a chance to speak.

So sing, SING you fucker, make us more and more money, be a dancing you-know-what, don’t fucking tell me you know better you stupid KID *SMACK*/*THUMP* because you have to appeal to the GRANDMOTHERS of KANSAS and be all cute and unthreatening, even when you grow up which it is my bank balance of a soul’s fervent hope that you never do, and we’ll get you to sing all sorts of weird shit, indeed fling any shit at the wall in the hope that some of it sticks, and you will HATE it, I will make it my life’s mission to see that you DO hate it, you ALL-SINGING ALL-DANCING LIMITLESS CASH COW, how DARE you be better than your brothers, have you no fucking RESPECT…

The voices in his head were growing loud again. He got his case, checked out, got back in his car and drove as far away from this town as he could get.

* * * * * *

How could they prefer THIS to what he is NOW, he ceaselessly questioned himself, back on the highway, driving faster than he had done? To be a child forever, to buy a record and listen to this child singing songs of love he was far too young to sing, songs he was never sure that he really understood, and just one song where he sounded like an adult – all right, it was Love Boat tacky theme time, instruments springing up like lilac shopping mall fountains, but it was a path to somewhere, somebody else (we’re ALMOST there). How could that give anybody anything except the creeps? I mean, for pleasure? Whose pleasure?

He could not recall how long he drove for, or where. All he knew was that the sun continued to shine and it continued to be reassuringly warm. When does the sun come down – it seems to have been shining for days? Presently he felt the scent of salt in the air and knew that he was approaching the sea. An old signpost at the top of a hill indicated a left turn, and he took it.

He had only really seen fields until now, but on turning left he was astonished to find himself at the top of a rapidly descending slope, with the sea, never bluer, somehow above him, with a town underneath. Ah, this will be a relief, he thought; a nice, unthreatening, normal seaside resort. Some tourist stuff but otherwise I’ll find peace here. He noted an isolated lighthouse on top of another hill on his extreme right.

He sped downhill and reached the town. As he approached it he was struck by how sinisterly familiar it looked. A central square, neither too large nor too small, bounded by reasonably proud-looking buildings with what he guessed were Georgian frontings. The town in fact was slightly busier than he’d thought from looking at it at the top of the steep hill; there was a robust and healthy population, walking around, doing business in the various market stalls and shops which surrounded or inhabited the square.

He parked the car. He nodded in greeting to the townspeople, who to his somewhat reduced surprise immediately, and politely, nodded back in acknowledgement. He looked around the market: meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, fruit, cakes, biscuits – everything one could possibly want, or need. He looked around the shops: a supermarket, but also a grocer’s, a baker’s, a butcher’s, a dry cleaner’s. There was a shop for books and another for music, and more besides.

In the middle distance he spotted a cinema, situated on a hill gently sloping upwards, off the main square. To his right, and to the right of the cinema, a row of boutiques and other shops, also sloping gently upwards but in a different direction…but wait! These looked horribly familiar. He knew he had been here before, and had not remotely forgotten about it.

He obtained some provisions from the various shops and found the people in the shops, customers and servers alike, perfectly friendly. Looking a little further, he came across what he assumed was the town’s only hotel, a grand, if slightly out of place, Art Deco building. He went in, spoke to the welcoming and friendly receptionist, booked a room and made his way upstairs, having retrieved his luggage from the parked car. One more night; it can’t hurt. Or can it?

In his room he was more puzzled than ever. These people continued to wear old-fashioned clothes, hairstyles and make-up. Not grossly old-fashioned, but just a step behind what he considered back home to be “now.” It also seemed significantly warmer in the town than it had done at the top of the steep hill. Slightly more oppressively so; certainly enough to make a difference.

Something about the place definitely didn’t fit.

Then he went into the bathroom, glanced at the mirror and saw the prematurely tired and sagging face of a fifty-year-old man whom he did not recognise.

He saw no horrifyingly familiar landmarks. He is looking at and through the window of one of the shops, and listening to what is coming out of the shop, and quickly it dawns on him.

The giant picture on the window of the shop. The music coming out from the shop.

The picture is of him. The music is his.

How he used to be.

One more night would have been unbearable. He got his case, checked out, got back in his car and drove as far away from this town as he could get.

* * * * * *

He drove and drove and drove until he wasn’t at all sure where he was any more. At last he saw night, but he kept on driving, and night was succeeded by yet more warm and sunny day. He drove so intensely that he hardly noticed the complete absence of other vehicles on either side of the highway. Nor did he particularly notice that the road signs and place names were now gradually mutating into gibberish. All he knew was that he had to get away. Even back home if he could. But where were the airports? His road map was now as useless as a broken compass. He should have waded into that water and swam home.

* * * * * *

He had been driving for days. He was nearly out of food and drink. He would need to stop somewhere soon.

There, in the distance, squarely ahead of him, a town.

He could see the town. He knew exactly what it would look like.

The central square, neither too large nor too small, bounded by reasonably proud-looking buildings with what he guessed were Georgian frontings. The town busier than he’d thought from looking it in the eye; but no population, walking around, no market stalls and closed shops surrounding or inhabiting the square.

Words came to his mind as he approached, words from the past which had been imposed on him:

“If you ever look behind…and don’t like what you find…”

It struck him that he hadn’t done too much looking behind him, and he felt that now was the time to do it.

He stopped the car in a lay-by, and slowly turning around, looked behind him.

He froze in near-terminal horror.

Suddenly he realised that the landmark had been no hallucination; he knew, with sickening realisation, exactly where he was, where he had been all along. What he saw could not have been more familiar, more frightening in its familiarity. He also saw how all of this, everything that he knew, was now receding away from him, never to be returned to or re-inhabited, as the road he had just been travelling was already vaporising into nothing.

There was nothing more for him to do. He got back in his car, still shaking, and drove slowly towards the town. He knew that this was no randomly recurring town, that this town had been intended for him, had been built for him, only for him. He knew that he could never leave it. He now saw the people coming out, coming down and assembling in the central square, all of whom unquestionably knew exactly who he was; and he realised what had happened to him. He knew that they were coming out to welcome him, to welcome him back home as securely as the outside world to which he had become lost.

In the corner of his right eye he saw a bellboy emerge from the hotel. He couldn’t have been more than a teenager, but he looked happy and contented enough. He recognised the bellboy immediately. He knew the bellboy was happy. He had got what he wanted. He himself knew that his tragedy, as others persisted in seeing it, was in wanting to have a normal childhood, kick a ball in the street, fall stupidly in and out of love, buy new records on a Saturday and dance to them. But he could have it here, the town that had been intended for him, had been built for him, only for him, and where he knew he would never have to worry about growing up. Because that was how they preferred to welcome and know him. He even understood the heat. Anybody could have done.

(Inspired in part by Haruki Murakami’s short story “Town Of Cats,” published in The New Yorker, 5 September 2011)

2 comments:

Champiness said...

Lovely stuff - I was beginning to think we'd never see another installment of this semi-"Prisoner" pop afterlife narrative (and, selfishly, still hope to see more). It also serves as an excellent comedown from that rollercoaster of a "Thriller" entry. :)

George L said...

As far as I am concerned, "We're Almost There" is the best thing MJ ever recorded (& that includes anything on THRILLER!)

"Mama's Pearl" is a dreadful mashup of "I Want You Back-ABC-Love You Save". The lyrics are pretty creepy too. Kind of a playground/grade school "Tonight's the Night" seduction of the poor girl in question. Is this how Rod Stewart got started?

I imagine the Jacksons' "This Place (Heartbreak) Hotel" playing at the end of your piece you wrote!