Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Michael Jackson - Thriller

A couple of Sundays ago at church I was among a group of people who emerged like corpses and walked in weird frankenstein-like motionon to the stage where we came to life and re-enacted the famous dance sequence to Michael Jackson's Thriller. It coincided with Pastor Torozian's series, "The Zombie Apocalypse." Zombies and vampires are in vogue right now and Torozian stresses how Christians need to "engage the culture," while not necessarily becoming part of the culture. Something like being in the world without being of the world, which I've always had a bit of trouble understanding.

People close to me say I can become like the walking dead, myself, all weighed down by the anxieties of this life. But the chance to get on stage, perform and be a little goofy

Michael Jackson Thriller HD

Five a.m . Darkness, save for scanty shapes of moonlight on the leaves outside my window and the screaming glass screen perched before me like a life.

Thoreau wrote that most men live lives of quiet desperation and I’m sure my preacher friend Torosian had this in mind when wrote a series of sermons he called “The Zombie Apocalypse.” Zombies and vampires are in vogue right now and Torosian says Christians need to – not necessarily imitate the culture – but engage the culture. Something like being in the world without being part of the world. He asked Martha, a dance teacher in the congregation, if she would choreograph a group of dancers re-enacting Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Sometimes I find myself enervated by a noonday demon. It’s like I’m among the walking dead. A 21-year-old J. Guy, himself, no stranger to depression, was nevertheless a bolt of frantic vivacity, lustful for a stage, experience, about nine different lives. I channeled that person when I volunteered to be one of the dancing zombies. It was pretty groovy, rehearsing the steps alongside corpulent ex-high school football players, a mom or two and teenagers from the church drama group.

We performed our Thriller routine for both Sunday services. The darkened sanctuary became strangely sepulchural while a narrow overhead light beamed from the projection booth to the stage. Silence was interrupted by the sound of a creaking door, a noise like something out of that Vincent Price movie we saw in Mrs. H’s English class in junior high, House of Usher. Edgar Allen Poe, you know. At the third wolf howl, we arose slowly like corpses from a tomb and hobbled Frankenstein-like to the stage where we transmorgrified like Lazarus into living people.

Our dance moves were comically herky-jerky in contrast to the fluid motion of the mutant beings in Jackson’s iconic video. Bu it was cool, good for a laugh. Having practiced those steps, I can say my respect for Jackson as an artist has risen significantly. No doubt, he was agile and fit. He was a dazzling performer and when I was in junior high, Michael Jackson was the most popular person on the planet.

The first Jackson song I remember hearing, other than I Wanna Rock With You, was Billie Jean. Heard it on Casey Casem’s American Top 40. It had just slipped from the charts that summer in 1983 when Jackson’s next hit supplanted it in popularity. During the summer, I would go to weight lifting at the high school at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday. Then I would stay for an hour of aerobics, in which spandex wearing woman leading us played Beat It on a jam box. I was surprised to hear the rock guitar (which I later learned was from Eddie Van Halen) in a black disco star’s music.

On Christmas Eve at my Grandma Mac’s house I opened a present from my cousin Dean. It was Jackson’s Thriller album. I was more into stuff like AC/DC and Ozzy Ozbourne. AC/DC songs like Hell’s Bells and Ozzy Ozbourne’s possessed looking eyes glaring from album covers featuring lightning bolts and upside down crosses. Now that was Halloween, the dark side. Not Jackson’s pop horror.

Open-minded guy that I was, though, I gave Jackson’s Thriller a chance. I liked some songs from it, didn’t like others. Still I recognized that the album as a whole was polished and professional. Jackson also revolutionized the video industry. Music videos had previously been crude and primitive, but Jackson and the production team working with him elevated them to an art form.

Approaching Los Angeles gang members and teaching them the sophisticated choreography for the Beat It video – that was brave and innovative. Thriller was hands down Jackson’s best video, the music video equivalent of an epic motion picture. While I may have written off the video’s scare factor, watching it today as a parent, I can see how Thriller, with its growling werewolf and demonic looking dancers, could be disturbing to small children.

All I understood at the time was that Michaelmania had taken over the world. Everything he touched was a media event. Michael Jackson made a Pepsi commercial. MTV produced a documentary about it. Michael and his brothers went on a world tour and you could buy their signatures on a Pepsi can. Michael Jackson moonwalked through a door Little Richard, Jackie Wilson and James Brown had opened and kicked it out of the solar system.

My mom took my siblings and I to Worlds of Fun in Kansas City the next summer and every kid there was wearing a Michael Jackson T-shirt. Sure he was over-exposed, but the media tentacles of the time didn’t stretch over a million brands of smart phones with a bunch of slobbering babies, homeless karaoke singers and obese Americans farting the alphabet and going viral every 15 seconds. Jackson's media presence was still massive and gluttonous.

I rummaged ravenously through my grandma Guy’s collection of National Enquirers, Stars and Globes where there was always hot stories about the day’s celebrities – Liz Taylor, Dolly Parton, Frank Sinatra (was he hosing Nancy Reagan or what?) and of course Michael Jackson. Long before the tabloids made him a fixture with lurid tales of sexual perversion, excess and mental breakdown, the gossip was innocuous. Was he sleeping with Brooke Shields? Jackson was a Jehovah’s Witness and there were all these accounts of the sect’s elders riding his back about his worldliness. That summer in 1984, reading those tabloids, I concluded that the JW leaders were a bunch of stuffy old men.

Earlier that year, I’d felt more magnanimous toward the sect. I had recently read Peter Brown’s sensationalized biography of the Beatles, The Love You Make. Read how they went to India and studied meditation from a guru. One day in math class I said to my friend, Drake, who wore a red jacket, sleeves pushed to the elbows and sported perm-gelled hair like Jackson “Hey, wouldn’t it be neat if Michael Jackson’s religion becomes popular just like the Beatles’ did?” I was na├»ve as hell then.

Years later I would look out my window, spot these sharp dressed people with their book bags and Watchtowers, approaching my house and I’d answer the door in my underwear, holding a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

I don’t know, maybe they were going to talk to me about the approaching end of the world. A lot of religions have jumped on that crazy train, mixing Armagaddon theology with extremist right wing politics. Torosian isn’t emphasizing the end times with his Zombie Apocalypse sermons. I’d say he’s more concerned with the personal apocalypse that haunts people – depression, schizophrenia, meth addiction, broken dreams, failed relationships, job loss. Stuff like that. Torosian cares about broken people and telling them about Christ’s grace.

Back in junior high, I didn’t realize how temporary the world is. Didn’t know my particular youth culture was not the apex of Western civilization. Didn’t realize how scary fame can be. Michael Jackson’s final years were tragic. Even worse than Elvis's.

It’s mentally conflicting, contemplating broken lives. Forced to rehearse, record and perform throughout his childhood, Jackson missed out on playing outdoors and doing the normal things kids do – something he lamented for the rest of his life. Yet Jackson loved performing with a passion. Most likely he wouldn’t have been the performer he was, had he not slaved away as a child. Great things can spring from sorrowful origins. And that's hell to accept.

I’m trying to get through life. My wife, Maria, tells me to go out and have fun. Discuss classic books. Go bowling. Be in some skit at church. Trick or treat with the kids. My friend Jackson (no relation to Michael) – if I text him that I’m bored, he’ll reply, “So write.” When I do, it’s like I’m channeling something good, kind of spiritual.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

George McGovern: Liberal American hero

It was a little after 7 a.m. this morning. Small flakes of light were signaling day into the overarching darkness I would soon leave behind. I was driving straight up a rural highway on my way to church. I turned on the radio to listen to NPR. It was the voice of George McGovern, conceding the election to Richard Nixon.

“They’re comparing the 1972 election to the 2012 election,” I thought to myself. Next, I heard Gary Hart reminisce about working for the McGovern campaign and talking about the character of the liberal senator from South Dakota.

Then I knew.

The reporter’s words issued like a coarse sticking in my throat. “George McGovern died at age 90.”

As a rule, I’m not a fan of politicians. But George McGovern was a super cool guy. (He went to Hunter S. Thompson’s memorial service.) He stood for great things: advancing civil liberties; improving the lives of the poor, elderly and minorities; universal health care; providing a living wage; women’s rights; the environment; labor rights; gay rights; and most importantly in 1972, ending the Vietnam War.

I guess all that looks too much like freedom and equality for some people. McGovern lost by a landslide.

I’ve read on-line comments today from people who feel justifiably proud to have voted for McGovern. Wish I could’ve been part of that history. Would’ve been a blast, but I was just a little boy of 3 at that time. Twenty years later I was working on my campus newspaper, taking in all the excitement of covering the 1992 election between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. My newsroom friend Cheryl told me how when she was in eighth grade in 1972, her social studies class was divided into teams – one supporting Nixon and hers, supporting McGovern. My interest in McGovern was piqued.

A couple of years later, Republicans took over Congress. I read articles quoting that pugnacious loud-mouth Newt Gingrich, making war on the 1960s and deriding all liberals as “McGoverniks.” A few months later I read a guest newspaper column by McGovern, saying that it was an honor to have his name turned into a metaphor for liberalism, but he didn’t deserve it. He talked about heroes in America’s liberal tradition, who he felt were more worthy.

That same year, 1994, Nixon died and there were all the tributes on TV. I watched bemused as an African-American teen-ager said we should focus on the good things the man did. I was like, “Learn your history kid. Tricky Dick Nixon was no friend of the black man.” (Photo ops with Sammy Davis, Jr. notwithstanding.) I had read All the President’s Men the previous summer and remembered a passage in which one of Nixon’s self-named “ratfuckers” called prospective voters and played on their racism by saying McGovern wanted to do a lot “for the black man.”

Doesn’t that sound like the kind of crap right wingers pull today? Except present-day ratfuckers smear political opponents by saying they support “the homosexual agenda.”

That’s the American way, our enduring legacy. Nixonian politics has become a template for the presidency. Nixon-like paranoia and McCarthy-esque demagoguery is still a weapon wielded against anyone who doesn’t resemble a “real American.” By the way, Nixon was also a rabid anti-communist. Launched his career slandering others.

It didn’t have to be this way. America missed an opportunity – in 1972 – to elect a man of integrity to the presidency. We had an opportunity to continue advancing the socially progressive policies that were enacted in the ‘60s. But no, America didn’t want that. Come on, we gave them their Civil Rights. What do they want? This country bought into Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968 and we’ve been there ever since. Even though Nixon would go down in disgrace and several of his minions would go to prison, conservatives use McGovern’s name like it’s a cuss word.

For his anti-war stance, conservatives denounced McGovern as weak and disloyal to the United States, just as they do today to anyone who’s not hawkish enough. It didn’t matter that McGovern flew 35 bombing missions over Nazi targets in Europe during World War II and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for successfully landing a plane that was falling apart and saving the lives of every man in his crew.

Oh, but McGovern was a liberal wimp. Just like Jimmy Carter, who by the way, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

I know a lot of good Christians in my state are going to vote for Mitt Romney, not because he has the best policies, but because, well, you know God is Republican. Democrats, liberals are all about immorality. Just forget about those Sunday School classes Carter has been teaching in Plains, Ga. for the past 30 years. McGovern, the son of a South Dakota Methodist minister, attended seminary school and worked as a minister himself for awhile, but decided his calling was in public life. He simply took the Christian principles of love and social justice into his career as a public servant.

Wimps? Carter has spent the past 30 years building houses for the poor and promoting peace and democracy around the world. After his political career ended, McGovern promoted world peace and worked to eradicate hunger throughout the globe. I would be proud to be aligned with these humanitarians called wimps.

America, what does it say about us? That we cheer on bellicosity, prejudice and paranoia, while disparaging leaders who are mild in tone, peace oriented and open-minded?

McGovern never apologized for his liberal views. Why would he? I’m going to stand by my convictions as well. Come election day, I will be proud to be one of the few in my backwater of a state to vote for Obama. Just as I was proud a few years back to vote against that horrible anti-gay state Constitutional amendment.

I hope somehow the ideals practiced by America’s true heroes will live on, and although McGovern would disagree, he’s one of those heroes.