When Michael Jackson died in June 2009, it was inevitable that a ton of books would arrive eulogizing, mythologizing, celebrating or denigrating him. As a huge MJ fan, I’ve bought more than my share of these books. Some were solid (a hastily revised version of J. Randy Taraborelli’s “The Magic & the Madness”), some were disappointing (Nelson George’s “Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson”), and others were downright awful (Ian Halperin’s “Michael Jackson Umnasked”, which read largely as a work of fiction). It makes sense that with the passage of time and the gaining of perspective, the quality of MJ books would improve, and two recently released works are among the best to cover Michael since his passing.
One of the two books, somewhat surprisingly, was written by his older brother Jermaine. “You Are Not Alone: Michael, Through His Brother’s Eyes”, is a solidly (and lovingly) written memoir from a guy who’s pretty much been a running joke for the past two decades. Jermaine wisely takes the focus off of himself (although I would have liked to have seen him try to justify having children with his own brother Randy’s ex-wife) and delivers (what seem like) honest accounts of the times he spent with his brother as a child and as an adult. Jermaine freely admits that the two were distanceed for some time (and that Michael was estranged from much of his family during this period), but vivid descriptions of the Jacksons’ early years make up a great deal for the missing chunks of Michael’s adult life. With unexpected clarity and honesty, Jermaine discusses everything from The Jacksons’ departure from Motown (which left Jermaine back at the label and out of the group) to the Victory tour to the “Word to the Badd!” controversy. He reveals that he suffers from a mild version of vitiligo (the same disease Michael suffered from) and contemplates whether Michael suffered from body dysmorphic disorder. Again, it’s a surprisingly lucid read, even if the Jackson family trait of wagging a finger at the media and/or blaming the media for their bad decisions continues. The last portion of the book, in which Jermaine speculates about industry forces conspiring to ruin Michael in order to gain control of his publishing assets (a story that rings true to me) is worth the price of the book by itself.
Focusing less on Michael the person and more on Michael the songwriter/musician/vocalist, you have Joe Vogel’s “Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson”. In the two decades prior to his death, Michael was such a tabloid figure that lots of people forgot that the guy was a very proficient musician and songwriter and an excellent vocalist. Vogel’s book takes the reader through each song on all of Michael’s adult solo albums (“Off the Wall” through “Invincible”) with painstaking detail. Pulling quotes from Jackson himself, as well as musicians, producers, engineers and music critics (full disclosure: this writer is quoted in the book), “Man in the Music” is written so persuasively that even the most jaded critic of MJ’s music would be forced to stop and rethink his position.
The book doesn’t totally ignore Michael’s personal travails (what objective book about MJ could possibly do such a thing?), but the issues are placed within the context of his work, which is sort of a relief. Of course, it comes from a fan’s standpoint, which some critics might not take in the best way. Barely a cross word is said about any of Michael’s songs, and even as big fan of MJ’s work as I am, even I will admit that he made a handful of out-and-out terrible songs (“D.S.”, “Money”, “The Lost Children”, “Heal The World”). Nevertheless, determining the quality of a song is largely a matter of personal opinion, and…well, it ain’t my book. So despite differences in opinion, I still thoroughly enjoyed “Man in the Music”.
One thing I particularly enjoyed about the book is that it even goes into detail about some of the unreleased material Michael left behind. Passages at the end of each album’s chapter give insight into songs that were either recorded and not completed or finished but left off of the final work. A fairly length chapter even looks into the music Michael made in between 2001’s “Invincible” and his death, music that will probably keep his estate and record company rolling in dough for years to come (whether they’ll be tinkered with to the point that they piss Michael’s fans off is another story…)
While many of the other Michael Jackson books currently in circulation are either too technical, too tabloid-y or just plain bad (and not the kind of bad MJ was referring to back in ’87, either), these two hit the mark more often than not. I’d certainly recommend either of them ahead of any other books that have been published since the world lost the King of Pop.