NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
In a moment we'll talk with Lenny Kravitz about how Michael Jackson changed music in general and his music in particular. Then Bryan Monroe joins us as we try to reconcile different aspects of a complicated man, whose death prompts conflicting images, the supernova child star, the R&B artist, the King of Pop, and the tabloid caricature. The undeniable talent who revolutionized music and the music business, the strange superstar who survived child molestation charges, epic financial difficulties and multiple plastic surgeries and skin treatments.
Which Michael Jackson do you remember today? And what does that say about you and us? Call us 800-989-8255, email us email@example.com. You can also post a comment on our Web site, that's at npr.org click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program retired Colonel Gary Anderson joins us, just back from Baghdad, as part of a provincial reconstruction team. But first, Lenny Kravitz. In his two decades in the music industry, he's become on of the preeminent rock musicians of our time, winner of countless awards including Grammy for best male rock vocal performance four years in a row.
Kravitz recently mourned the loss of Michael Jackson and talked about his experience working with the King of Pop in a tribute for spinner.com. And he joins us now by phone. And Lenny Kravitz, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
Mr. LENNY KRAVITZ (Rock Musician): How are you?
CONAN: I'm well, thanks. In a tribute to Michael Jackson you wrote, he was the first live performer I ever saw. I got to see him in Madison Square Garden when I was eight. If not for him, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. Tell us a little bit more about that if you will?
Mr. KRAVITZ: Well, I grew up in New York City. And, you know, I was born in 1964. So, you know, I grew up in a perfect time to catch the Jackson 5. I mean, I heard those records as they were being released and as they were on the radio. And I had the singles and my father knew how much I loved listening to the Jackson 5. So he surprised me one night, I remember it really well. I mean, I was five years old. He came into my room and he said, we're going somewhere. And I had no idea where we're going. And the next thing I knew we were at Madison Square Garden. I didn't know who we were going to see. And the Jackson 5 came on. Actually, the Commodores opened the show and they weren't even call the Commodores yet.
CONAN: Pretty decent act.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: I wonder, when was the first time you met him?
Mr. KRAVITZ: The first time I met him was probably about 15 years ago. Prince, myself, and Michael got together one afternoon, just to kind of sit and talk. He was at, I think he was at Hit Factory, recording in New York. And Prince and I took a ride over there and we spent the afternoon with him.
Mr. KRAVITZ: And that was the first time I met him.
CONAN: And you've recorded with him as well. I know you worked on a track that has yet to be released. What was he like to work with?
Mr. KRAVITZ: He was amazing to work with. You know, when I'm in the studio, I mean, it's the place that I love the most. And it's magical for me. And we had a very similar work ethic. You know, I write the music, I produce it, I play all the instruments. And, you know, I am very intense about it. And we just worked so well together and, you know, he wanted it to be perfect. And he said, you know, just stop me when it's not right or you don't feel that I'm interpreting it in the way you that you feel, stop me.
And, you know, let's really get into this. And you know, we spent a couple of days on the vocals getting them exactly right. And it was, you know, it has two sides because on one hand I'm sitting there saying, oh, my god, I'm working with Michael Jackson. I'm working with this genius of a musician that influenced me so much. But on the other hand, as you get into working you kind of forget and you just get into the work. And it was just two guys working. And it was a really beautiful experience.
CONAN: Do you have any difficulties reconciling those different images, that kid you saw first at Madison Square Garden, the man you met 15 years ago, the man you were working with just a little while ago?
Mr. KRAVITZ: I mean, you know, they are the obvious physical differences but at the end of the day, I really don't give that too much energy. I mean, those were his choices. We might find them to be choices that we wouldn't make but they were his choices. And for me it's about the music. Again, something that I wrote in the blog when I wrote that was that if Michael Jackson had never done "Off the Wall" or "Thriller" and sold all of those albums that he did in that time he would still be the super genius that he was.
CONAN: You're going to miss him.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Tremendously. I listen to his music all the time. The Jackson 5 music, you know, although people at that time called it bubble gum, it actually - I think the term is misleading because you had Motown Records, you had Berry Gordy. You had the best writers, the best musicians there were. And the writing was phenomenal. It was actually quite intricate and very deep music, you know, it wasn't just some pop sort of thing thrown together.
CONAN: Did he ever talk or did you ever talk with him about his experiences when he was that child star, what it was like to be Michael Jackson back then?
Mr. KRAVITZ: No, we didn't talk much about that at all. We were really just talking about what we were doing and at one point when we were eating together he started talking about just how he felt so sad that - the way people were viewing him. And, you know, he was very hurt by that. And he actually brought it up, which I was surprised about and we began to talk about those types of things, just about society in general and how people are and how hurtful people can be.
CONAN: I wonder, to some degree he, as you said, he made choices we might not have made…
Mr. KRAVITZ: Right.
CONAN: And to some degree he contributed to that.
Mr. KRAVITZ: In what manner?
CONAN: In the sense that so many people could see his behavior as strange.
Mr. KRAVITZ: Ah! Yeah, you know, I mean it's so deep his whole thing because, you know, this guy had been working since he was five years old. He didn't push. He'd been working his whole life. It's hard for us to understand what he went through, what psychologically he went through as he began to change, you know, that constant drive to be on top. And some could argue that if he hadn't have changed his appearance in the era that he did he wouldn't have been accepted by so many people. And that's a whole other conversation that has to do with race and looks, you know.
CONAN: Hmm. Lenny Kravitz thank you for so much time, of your time today and for reminding us what it was like to work with Michael Jackson as an artist.
Mr. KRAVITZ: It's my pleasure, take care.
CONAN: Award winning singer and songwriter Lenny Kravitz with us by phone. Also with us today is Bryan Monroe. He is the former vice president and editorial director of "Ebony" and "Jet" magazine at Johnson Publishing Company and joins us from the studios of Chicago Public Radio. It's nice to have you with us today.
Mr. BRYAN MONROE (Journalist): Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And Bryan Monroe, you did what we understand is the last U.S. interview with Michael Jackson, December 20, 2007, for "Ebony." And we're going to play a little clip of audio from that interview. It's a recording that's a little difficult to understand. So you may want to turn it up. This is Michael Jackson, speaking with Bryan Monroe.
Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Musician): Who wants mortality? I mean, everybody wants immortality. You want what you create to live, be it a sculpture or painting or music, a composition. Like Michelangelo said, you know, I know the creator will go, but his work survives. That is why to escape death, I attempt to bind my soul to my work. That's how I feel, like in my own work. 'Cause I want it to just live and just give it all that I have, you know. It has to be that way.
CONAN: Again in that clip, Michael Jackson echoes Michelangelo. He says: You want what you create to live. As Michelangelo said, I know the creator will go, but his work survives. That's why to escape death, I attempt to bind my soul to my work. And our thanks to "Ebony" and "Jet" for the use of that tape. Bryan Monroe, that must give you chills listening to that today.
Mr. MONROE: It really does. Over the last few days, I've been going back through my notes and in the recordings from that interview, and you know, the power and the intelligence. He was a very serious but also very playful man. We had a good time. It was interesting. That interview, we only thought we'd have maybe 15 or 20 minutes, and it was at the end of - we spent three days with him.
We did a big photo shoot at the Brooklyn Museum, and that went wonderfully. And then the next day, we had the interview. And I walk into the room and actually was greeted - his son was there, Blanket, Prince Michael Jackson II, and his son greeted us and very - you know, I think he was about six years old at the time, and he had a little candy dish with some Lifesavers in it. And he offered me one, and I said no, I'm okay. And then he reached out to shake hands, and he reached with his left hand. And Michael said no, no, Blanket, your right hand. Use your right hand.
And so - and it was a classic, you know, I'm a father. My son's the same age, and it's a classic father-and-son moment, a teachable moment. And that gave us a glimpse of another Michael Jackson that you may not have seen a lot in the tabloid media.
CONAN: We're talking with Bryan Monroe, a journalist, former director, editorial director, of "Ebony" and "Jet" magazines, who had one of the last interviews with Michael Jackson back in 2007.
And we want to ask our callers today, our listeners and emailers, which Michael Jackson do you remember, that child star, the artist who was an R&B star, the strange superstar, the thriller? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can also get in on conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The news broke four days ago of the death of Michael Jackson, an enormous surprise that started a process of trying to sort out the many sides of Michael Jackson. How do you reconcile the many and sometimes conflicting aspects of this man? What does that tell you about yourself? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You post a comment on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest is Bryan Monroe, a journalist, former editorial director of "Ebony" and "Jet", who had one of the last interviews with Michael Jackson in 2007. This email from Karen(ph) in Upper Marlborough, Maryland. Yes, many of us wonder which Michael we mourn, but those of us over 45 remember ourselves as breathless, young, black girls for whom there was only one little boy in the world, Michael Jackson.
Maybe many of us think we lost Michael years ago, but we cannot divorce ourselves from him, from the way we shaped him and he us. He began as ours. We made him, good or bad, and his talent reflects the best of us, of Jackie Wilson and James Brown and hard-working mothers and fathers who just want to give their kids a chance. And let's get another caller on the line. This is Bakar(ph), Bakar with us from Charlottesville in Virginia.
BAKAR (Caller) Hello, Neal, how are you doing?
CONAN: I'm well today, thanks.
BAKAR: You see on the contrary, I don't believe that we shaped Michael Jackson to the person he is today because he's trying to change his personality, he's trying to change his normal thing. I do believe Michael Jackson we know today comparative, we compare Michael Jackson from the earliest days because of his father's doing. We have to realize that Michael did not grow like any normal child. His father was a great critic in his life. He made him who he is today.
His father told him that he has a big nose. He did not get that from his family. And when he fell off the stage, he decided to walk on his nose. His father told him so many things. This guy did not grow up like any normal child. So therefore, what is sure in our (unintelligible), sure was what he believed. It's absent during his childhood. You can see during his shopping spree, he's trying to get little things like toys that any normal kid would long to have. I will take myself off the air.
CONAN: Okay, Bakar, thanks very much for the call. And Bryan Monroe, I don't know. Did you get a chance to talk to Michael at all about growing up, about his father?
Mr. MONROE: Well, we did. In fact, he told me about growing up and his father and the kids, the rest of the brothers. And I asked him if he was, when they were rehearsing and when they were performing, if any of them got jealous about, you know, his attention and what he was achieving. And he said, well, you know, if they did, they didn't show it. But in fact the quote he told me, he said, yeah, they never showed it at the time, but it must have been hard because I would never get spanked during rehearsals or practice. Then he laughed.
But afterwards, when I got in trouble, that's when I got it. It's true. That's when I would get it. My father would rehearse with me, with a belt in his hand. You couldn't mess up. My father was a genius when it comes to the way he taught us staging, how to work with an audience, anticipating what to do next or never let the audience know if you're suffering or something's wrong. He was amazing like that.
So there was a very complex relationship. You know, remember Joseph Jackson was the force that brought the Jacksons out of Gary, Indiana, to the national and then the world stage. And he was so central to the popularity of the Jackson 5 at the time, and Michael Jackson, and he was also a very tough taskmaster. And so there - you know, there was a duality there that, you know, the whole family both loved and struggled with.
CONAN: There's an email from Lana(ph) in Denver. Concerning Michael Jackson, I'll remember a brilliant choreographer and singer, obviously troubled, that for various reasons never got the help he needed. No one is born with psychological problems that Michael exhibited, but many gained from his talent.
And never got the help he needed. A lot of people wondered about that entourage that accompanied him everywhere, Bryan Monroe. And I guess when you're that rich and that famous, you need people around you. Nevertheless, this was a constantly shifting cast of characters who were - did not seem to be there to help Michael Jackson.
Mr. MONROE: Well, it depended on who they were. You know, he would often, on big public events travel with a large contingent, but oddly enough when we were with him, he had very few people with him. We did the whole three days very incognito. We, in fact, we were at the Brooklyn Museum. If you've ever been there, it's right there in the middle of Brooklyn, and very few people knew that inside was Michael Jackson.
And you know, we had a couple of security folks, his team and our team, and then for the interview, it was just the four - about four of us from my group and a couple folks from him sitting in the room with - I'm sitting on the couch, about a foot and a half from him, for - we thought we'd only have about 15 or 20 minutes. We ended up having close to two hours. I couldn't shut him up.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MONROE: He was very, very talkative, and would talk about creativity. The occasion of the interview was the 25th anniversary of "Thriller," and so we talked about creativity, the making of the album, the Motown 25 performance that he did.
You know, and Lenny alluded to this earlier, about the music and the work. And he was, indeed, a perfectionist. He would talk about how the creative process and how, for instance, in "Billie Jean," he did the early, rough version of that with his sister, Janet, and his brother, Randy, doing the background vocals on an early version of it.
They called it a working version. And he said, you know, if you take a song like "Billie Jean," where the bass line is the prominent, dominant piece, the protagonist of the song, the main, driving riff that you hear, getting the character of the riff to be just the way you want it to be, that takes a lot of time.
Listen, you're here - listen - I was playing it as we were talking. He goes listen, you're hearing. You're hearing four basses on there doing four different personalities, and that's what gives it the character, but it takes a lot of work.
CONAN: Let's get John(ph) on the line, John with us from Eagle, Colorado.
JOHN (Caller): Hi there. It's Eagle, Idaho, actually. I'm sorry about that.
CONAN: Oh, I apologize. It's my mistake. I misread the screen.
JOHN: No problem. I was just saying that I think that the way that I - I'm 22 years old and I've grown up listening to Michael Jackson. And I remember my aunt really loved him. And so I think that I had more of an appreciation and maybe an understanding for Michael Jackson than others, but I think that in my generation, you grew up not really seeing the Michael Jackson that had - that was part of the Jackson 5 or the Michael Jackson that changed music in the early '80s or the Michael Jackson that was the first black man on MTV.
We grew up seeing him as the Michael Jackson that was hanging babies out of windows and the Michael Jackson that was looking less and less healthy and more and more surgeries, and the Michael Jackson in the tabloids. And so I think that that - that there's these - all these different Michael Jacksons for my generation to have to reconcile. And so his untimely death has been something that has forced all of us to kind of come to grips with who Michael Jackson was, at least in this generation's eye.
CONAN: And for you, as you say, he's that inhabitant of the tabloids?
JOHN: He was for me for a long time. Like I say, I grew up listening to him. So for a long time, I didn't understand, as a child, the Michael Jackson that I was listening to with my aunt and the Michael Jackson that I was seeing on television, these two very different men, one who looks very much like an artist and a star, and another who looked very troubled and very unhealthy and very ill mentally. And so I was a long time as a child, before I could put those two faces together and recognize that they were the same person.
CONAN: Yeah, and indeed - thanks very much for the call, John. And indeed, Bryan Monroe, they are unrecognizable as almost the same person.
Mr. MONROE: But they existed in the same body. There were many Michael Jacksons. There was Michael Jackson the performer. There was Mike, the friend. There was Smelly. He tells me about the nickname that Quincy Jones and Steven Spielberg gave him, called Smelly. He said that in the early days, he was very cautious and wouldn't curse much. And when he would hear a song, he would say - so I'd say that's a smelly song. That would mean it's so great, that I was so engrossed by it. So he'd call me smelly.
And then - you know, then there was Mr. Jackson, the businessman, and we tend to forget that, you know, he was a brilliant businessman. You know, he competed and bought and owned the Sony ATV catalog, which included The Beatles collection, as well as Elvis Presley, Eminem and many others that were in that catalog that's worth easily more than a billion dollars right now, the MyJack(ph) catalog and others. He was a very shrewd businessman. And you know, he was also caught up in a lot of financial problems later on in his life.
So there were many Michael Jacksons, including Michael Jackson the father and Michael Jackson the brother and the son. And they all existed and sometimes struggled in that same body.
CONAN: Well, to this point from Leah(ph). I loved his music from the very beginning. His music was my favorite to dance to, but where were the people who were closest to him, his family, who was supposed to love him when his meltdown began? Did they just stand by in watch? This is the result, another star gone before our time.
What - relationship of the family? Obviously you talked to us about his father, which was difficult, I guess, and who - were those closest to him able - were they there for him when he needed them?
Mr. MONROE: They were, and they weren't. They were in that on many occasions, you know, they're his family and support and love as colleagues, as working professionals. And sometimes he had pushed them away as he was dealing with his own issues. And so, you know, we - I think we culturally seek to - seek for absolutes. You know, he was absolutely a brilliant performer or absolutely a scoundrel or absolutely this... And, you know, Michael Jackson was much more complex than that, that he was many things in one. And that some of the, you know - and so, you were asking about, you know, what is the Michael Jackson that many of us - will we linger with?
For me, having seen many of those different sides, I come back to the one thing that attracted us all to Michael Jackson, and that was the music. As a performer, as a musician, he was a genius.
I sat this morning, listening, to some old stuff. And, you know, you listen to how he built the songs. And, you know, someone like Quincy Jones, who was instrumental in "Off the Wall" and "Thriller." And, in fact, they - Quincy told me they first met - Quincy said there were only two people that stood out to him, and he met them both at eight years old. One was Stevie Wonder, the other was Michael Jackson.
And, in fact, you know, he was telling me - Michael is telling me about working with Quincy. He said, you know, we would work on the track, and then we'd meet at the house, play with what we worked on. And he would say, (unintelligible), let it talk to you. I'd go, okay. He'd say, if the song needs something, it'll tell you. Let it talk to you. I've learned to do that.
The key in being a wonderful writer is not to write. You just get out of the way, leave room for God to walk in the room. And when I write something that I know is right, I get on my knees and I say thank you. Thank you, Jehovah.
CONAN: Let's get Andrew with us. Andrew calling from Cleveland.
ANDREW (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call. I grew up much in New York, near Chautauqua Lake. And it's a very agricultural, rural area. And for a nine-year-old kid from that area in 1984, Michael Jackson was really my first introduction to hip-hop and my first pop icon. I remember distinctly begging my mother for a red vinyl zipper jacket in (unintelligible), and she finally succumbed. And my wife and I just came across at going to her estate a couple of years back and - and my wife insisted that we not throw it away.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ANDREW: But I guess he was always frozen there at that point for me. And not really worship, or hero worship, but I just knew him as this consummate showman. I mean - and all the other stuff - it always struck me that - all of the other stuff, all the tabloid stuff and the accusations and all that, I always notice how when I watch him dance, when I watch him sing, it just all went away. And there he was, you know, there was…
CONAN: Some of that stuff we can't forget, though, Andrew.
ANDREW: What's that?
CONAN: Some of that stuff that we can't forget.
ANDREW: What can't?
CONAN: The other stuff you're talking about, the allegations about child abuse, the disaster that he made of his life.
ANDREW: Well, personally, I, you know, I think that the worst disaster was really some of the physical alterations. But I mean, even in my own period of watching him, you know, as a pop icon, you know, that was around the time of the Diet Pepsi commercial. And I honestly, I don't think he ever recovered from that.
I think it was one of the situations where he could never see past the injury. And I mean, I don't know that for a fact, but it's just a theory I have because it just seem like everything's like in a rapid succession, the alterations started really happening right after that.
And as far as the other stuff, I guess I reconciled it by leaving it to the hands of the system, right? I felt that, you know, I was not going to put that on this extremely talented man if the courts couldn't - if there was no formal, you know, accusation, I just - I always thought to myself that…
CONAN: No convictions.
ANDREW: …(unintelligible) formal indictment, I always thought to myself that I wasn't going to put on there in opinion. And to me, he will always remain the showman.
CONAN: Andrew, thanks…
Mr. MONROE: You know, it's interesting, the showman piece that you caller talks about in that Diet Pepsi commercial, the image that we remember from is not just a fire, but as they were wheeling him out, what did he have in his hand? He put on the white glove. That's the consummate showman.
CONAN: Andrew - Bryan Monroe is with us. Excuse me. Andrew is with us from Cleveland. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go - see if we can get another call in. This is Rick. Rick with us from Evansville, Indiana.
RICK (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me. I just wanted to make a couple of statements. I'm 35 years old and I'm from a rural area in Indiana. And I grew up as Michael the pop icon. You know, I understand the tabloids are - they are what they are. They make their statements and things like this. And, you know, he made a mistake, he had mistakes in his life, but you can't erase the fact that his work, he's created a generation of people.
And, you know, like you said, you know, he made a disaster of his life. But what he creates for so many other lives, I would think in my mind, it erases that. And you say the smelly, the smelly side, yeah, that makes sense. But to a person who's blind, all they ever hear is the music and the art. And that basically makes him the best than ever it was. So in my mind, you know, that's what I believe.
CONAN: Bryan Monroe, that clip of tape we played earlier, he talked about the kind of immortality that he might achieve. It's the work. Do you think that's a prospect for him?
Mr. MONROE: Oh, I think, without a doubt, people are going to remember. And, you know, if you look at just the reality of the last, what, 72 hours or so, you know, who else could bring the entire Internet to its knees around the world, not just domestically, but around the world?
Half of Amazon sales during that period were Michael Jackson albums, nine of 10 iTunes, top iTunes albums over the last 72 hours from Michael Jackson's. AT&T said that during the peak of the news story, there were 67,000 text messages a second about Michael Jackson.
That - who else could have that kind of global impact? And - but it was about the work. I remember he told me about the - remember the Motown 25 performance where debuted "Billie Jean, he walked me through - I had that on a video on my laptop. And he walked me through shot by shot how he choreographed himself and his brothers, and then even picked the camera angles that he (unintelligible) for Motown every angle and every shot that they were going to do. And then afterwards, he says, you know, I'll never forget, backstage after the performance, there was Marvin Gaye in the wings and The Temptations and Smokey Robinson and my brothers.
They were hugging me and kissing me and holding me. And then Richard Pryor walked over to me and said in a very quiet voice, now that was the greatest performance I've ever seen.
That was my reward. There were people who, when I was a little boy in Indiana, I used to listen to Marvin Gaye, The Temptations. And to have them bestow that kind of appreciation on me, I was just honored.
So the next day, Fred Astaire called and said, I watched it last night. I taped it. I watched it again this morning. You're a hell of a mover. You put their -you put the audience on their blank last night.
Then he took out his left palm and took his two fingers and did a little moonwalk action on his left palm. And he remembers that kind of appreciation. And I think that's the appreciation that many around the country and around the world will call on as they remember the many facets of Michael Jackson.
CONAN: Bryan Monroe, thank you so much for your time today.
Mr. MONROE: Thank you.
CONAN: Bryan Monroe, a journalist, former editorial director of Ebony and Jet magazine, with us from Chicago Public Radio.
Coming up, we'll talk about the scene on the ground in what used to be one of the dangerous neighborhoods in Baghdad.
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