Saturday, June 26, 2010

On Michael Jackson & Freddie Mercury Part 2

Part II: On Freddie

Though my enthusiasm for Michael Jackson comes through pretty clearly, those who know me well know of my even greater affinity for the late, great Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen. There are quite a lot of similarities between the two. For starters, both had unsurpassed vocal instruments with incredible ranges, and even outside of that, both had the interpretive skill to put across songs with incredible power and conviction (I keep a running list in my head of what I call ‘Phonebook Singers’, i.e. singers who could sing the phone book and move you to tears, and those two are at the top of the list). Both were larger than life (Freddie was as flamboyant as Michael was eccentric). Both were consummate showmen with uncompromisingly intense stage personas, and though both had rather colorful personal lives, they were both nevertheless private and soft-spoken, even shy off-stage. Both were possessed of an eerie premonition they would die before their time, and unfortunately, both turned out to be right. I’m sure there are lots more similarities, but I’ll leave the ‘same number of letters in their names’ stuff to the celebrobsessives.

Based on things I've read, the two knew each other and had a good deal of mutual respect. In fact, it was apparently only conflicting schedules that prevented Freddie from appearing on a duet with Michael on 'Thriller', a fact Freddie commented on more than once with rueful regret. One of the songs, a track called 'State of Shock' was eventually recorded by Michael with Mick Jagger, and it's a pretty good tune (which can be found on The Jacksons' 'Victory' album). Demo tracks of the Mercury-Jackson version and two or three other tracks they recorded together can be found online, though being demos, the quality isn't particularly good. Perhaps in the years to come, someone on Michael's team will slide them off the shelf and remix them into something remarkable.

My affinity for Freddie Mercury came about in a very different way than that of Michael Jackson. I knew who he was during Queen's heyday in the late seventies and early Eighties, but I didn't own any Queen records, and had little if any interest in doing so. Though Queen's popularity marched on quite strongly all over the world, America pretty much lost interest in them as the Eighties continued. Outside of a burst of popularity after pretty much stealing Live Aid with a showstopping medley of their best-known songs, by 1990, outside of the enduring classic rock radio standards of 'Bohemian Rhapsody', 'We Will Rock You/We are the Champions', 'Another One Bites the Dust', 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love', and a couple of others, the band had largely faded from the scene.

Somewhere around Spring of 1991, however, I clicked my radio to WBAB, and heard Roger Luce saying, "This is the new single from Queen, and it - is - great!". And he was right. The single was 'I Can't Live With You', and while I can't deny the opening line, 'I can't live with you, but I can't live without you' twanged a rather sharp personal chord for me at the time, the fact remained the single was quintessential Queen, with playfully sardonic lyrics, excellent harmonies, Freddie's powerhouse vocals, and Brian May's muscular guitar work. It really got my attention, and the album, 'Innuendo' (which was to be the last Queen record released during Freddie's lifetime) was the first CD I ever purchased. To this day, I consider it among the most well-produced and diverse albums I've ever heard (Perhaps I'll add it to my growing list of recordings to recommend, as I did Eric Hutchinson's 'Sounds Like This').

Anyway, the artistry of Queen was unmistakable. I listened to 'Innuendo' constantly, all the while becoming more and more fascinated and intrigued by the flashy, passionate, and ferociously talented, but strangely enigmatic Mr. Mercury. I started reading about him, and learned certain details of the band's history: How the reel-to-reel recording of Bohemian Rhapsody had been overdubbed so many times, you could actually see through the tape, how their video for the song was one of the first and most influential music videos ever made, how they'd brought the house down at Live Aid, how they'd taken on the challenge of recording soundtracks for 'Flash Gordon' and 'Highlander', how they'd been all but blacklisted for deciding to play a concert for the people of South Africa, which was still overrun by Apartheid. At that time, the internet was still something of a novelty, and the integrity and accessibility of information was sometimes questionable (some things never change). I learned that it had been two years since the band's previous release, 'The Miracle' (also an excellent recording), and I assumed they would hit the streets with some appearances in support of 'Innuendo', make some buzz, maybe even come to the states for a Tonight Show appearance or something. But there was nothing.

Then, in late November of 1991, I understood why: Freddie Mercury had succumbed to complications from the AIDS virus. He had been battling it the previous few years, but had become substantively debilitated over the course of the two years leading up to the release of 'Innuendo'. I later learned the band had relocated to Switzerland to record 'Innuendo', and despite Freddie's spectacular performance on it, he had been so weak, he could often only record a few bars at a time.

I found myself profoundly taken by the courage he exhibited during this final year or so of his life, forcing himself to record not only the 'Innuendo' tracks, but tracks for the posthumous release, 'Made in Heaven' (yet another excellent recording). What must it have been like, singing into a microphone, committing his voice to tape, knowing he would not live to hear the notes reach the light of day?

I began purchasing some of the band's back-catalog, and they didn't disappoint. The music of Queen is well-produced, theatrical, passionate, intelligent, amusing, and inspiring. All four members of the band are excellent musicians and song-writers (they're the only band in which all members wrote a top 10 hit while together, a feat not even the Beatles matched), and though Freddie's bombastic stage persona inevitably put him way out front, the contributions of Brian May, who is one of the greatest guitarists in rock history, Roger Taylor (drums), and John Deacon (bass) cannot be underestimated.

I tend to like the later stuff better than the earlier, more hard rock stuff, but even there, I found plenty of incredible songs. Further, Freddie stepped out on his own with two solo CD's. The first was 'Mr. Bad Guy', which was eventually remixed with other assorted solo tracks into 'The Great Pretender' (containing his scintillating cover of that old standard, one of the best covers of any song I've ever heard). The second was a distinctive and innovative release called 'Barcelona', recorded with world-renowned Spanish opera star Montserrat Caballe, which successfully mixed opera and pop sensibilities into something remarkable, and served as a precursor to artists like Sarah Brightman and Josh Groban, who have made careers out of doing largely the same thing.

Even back then, I was aware of the fascinating similarities between Freddie and Michael, and after Michael's death, as a sort of personal tribute, I mixed a Mercury-Jackson CD, a virtual sing-off with alternating tracks. I tried to focus on representative songs rather than greatest hits type stuff (I only ended up with one Thriller track, and only a couple of Queen tracks that anyone would know), and though when you mix a CD, you have a pretty good sense of what it's going to sound like, there's nothing like hearing the whole thing beginning to end. The result was remarkable. Hearing these two titans spend close on an hour and a half trying to vocally outdo each other over the course of sixteen tracks, and to do so with a sort of thematic arc to the whole thing, turned out to be damn near close to thrilling.

(On a brief digression into my thoughts on creativity, I realize those last two lines could be interpreted that I'm a little full of myself, but I'm really not. In any creative endeavor, even just mixing a CD, the creator can take a certain degree of responsibility for their creation, but I really believe any artist or creator is a sort of channel for something beyond themselves.)

Having listened to the mix several times over the course of the last year, I found it impossible to resist a more direct comparison of the two artists, and though it's a nearly neck and neck call, the simple truth is Freddie Mercury is a better singer than Michael Jackson. He puts across songs with a little more bite and conviction, and I think his instrument is a little more versatile than Michael's.

Though both men took their craft very seriously, I think Freddie took himself a lot less seriously than Michael. He was willing to be silly and self-deprecating, something Michael rarely did, and many of Queen's lyrics often have a level of sophistication and humor that Michael never reached (though granted, with track names like 'Fat-Bottomed Girls' and 'I'm in Love with my Car', Queen proved quite enthusiastic in aiming a little lower at times :) ).

Sitting here at this moment, I realized Freddie was the same age as I am now when he died, and surely had a lot more to do both creatively and personally. In fact, I would go so far as to say he would have been one of the grand statesmen of Rock & Roll, and would have really come into his own as a solo artist as well as continuing to create great music with Queen. I think he had a acute awareness of the power of collaboration, and I think his willingness (as well as that of the other members of Queen) to do some solo stuff and then come back to together to record as a band is to be highly commended; it's an exceedingly rare thing these days. Most artists get too full of themselves and break away because they want more of the spotlight.

Though he was lesser known here in America, and not as overtly influential as Michael Jackson, the fact remains the loss of Freddie Mercury was a huge one to the world of music. His talent, creativity, charm, style, intelligence, humor, and charisma have few equals and no superiors, and though it has been nearly twenty years since he died, he remains sorely missed.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, June 25, 2010

On Michael Jackson & Freddie Mercury Part I

I posted a version of this essay a year ago on Facebook, but I wanted to update/expand on it slightly here as the first anniversary of Michael Jackson's death arrives. Further, though I touched on it in the original essay, I find I have further thoughts, some of them related to Michael, pertaining to another icon of mine: Freddie Mercury, one of the most indomitable showmen in entertainment history.

Part I: On Michael
At the risk of adding a 'Who cares?' footnote to the vast volume of material already written about this fallen star, I've decided to add some thoughts.

I followed Michael Jackson's career for most of my life. Even as a kid, I was fascinated by his talent and charisma, and though it might seem incongruous to a rather reserved-demeanor type like me, who is musically a lot more Michael Buble’ than Michael Jackson, he has remained an indelible creative touchstone for me.

I think it’s unfortunate that for many of his final years, Michael’s music took not just a back seat, but a back bumper to his personal travails. Though there is purported to be a great volume of unreleased music ‘in the vault’, some of it pretty recent, his official, public output was virtually zero since 2001’s ‘Invincible’. There’s a case to be made for the idea that this shift in focus from creative to personal/business matters was as much a product of Michael’s mind as it was the public’s; to some extent, the two sort of feed off one another (don’t get me started on the perils of celebrity). To a very good degree, this shift in his priorities was understandable given the nature of the crimes he was accused of, and the apparent magnitude of his financial and other personal difficulties. I doubt we’ll ever truly know whether he was guilty of those crimes or not, but I for one would like to believe he was innocent.

As a bit of a side note, I can’t help but wonder whether Michael was a little intimidated by his own legacy. When you step up to the plate and not only knock it out of the park, but across the state line, as he did with ‘Thriller’, even a grand slam home run isn’t such a big deal. My feeling is that the success of ‘Thriller’ was not only a matter of talent, but timing. For all we know, had it been released a year later or a year earlier, it would have disappeared with little more than a ripple to mark its passing, despite the brilliance of the recording. Something about that unique point in history enabled Michael Jackson to ride a massive wave of success, and it often seemed in recent years as though he spent more time trying to recapture that lightning in a bottle than just using his remarkable gifts to make excellent music, even if it didn’t change the musical landscape the way ‘Thriller’ did.

Regardless, with his anticipated UK concerts (all 50 of which I believe were sold out; a feat any performer on the planet would kill to accomplish at a single venue) he seemed primed and ready to get back to business and put the public’s attention where it belonged: On the Music. To an extent, there was a  bittersweet poetry in the timing of his death. Like any great showman, Michael left us with one final trick up his sleeve. We can only wonder now, how well, or even if he would have been able to pull it off.

Say what you want about him, but once you got past the third-world country-sized mountain of weirdness that was Michael Jackson, you were left with an electrifying performer, musical innovator, dancer, and songwriter. In the year since his death, it has been gratifying to see that much of the focus has been on the magnificence of his talent and the loss his death has brought to the world of popular music and entertainment.

If you haven't seen the film documentary, 'This Is It', it's very much worth watching. Certainly, the film provides some fascinating insight into Michael's creative process, and it quickly becomes clear he was not a 'show up and do his thing' type of guy. He had been interested and involved in every aspect of production of the O2 concerts. If anything, I would have like to seen a little more about the man than the music, but that's more my thing than an objective criticism of the film. Vocally, he sounded as good as he ever sounded, and the performance sequences are quite excellent.

Even after a year has passed, it seems difficult to accept we now live in a world where Michael Jackson doesn’t. Icons like him come along a scant handful of times in a generation (arguably, only Madonna is of comparable power, though I’m not sure she has the same level of raw, musical talent). I have missed watching that slender form undulate like a python, move in a way no one ever has or will again. I’ve missed that fantastic, irreplaceable voice, equal parts silky seducer, heartbreaking poet, feel-good ambassador, and keening banshee. I’ve missed the fire in those eyes when he was onstage, doing what he loved. Mostly, I’ve missed knowing he was out there in the world, his very existence a promise of wonderful things to come. He has flashed across our cultural horizon like a comet, and we will not see his like again. He has been missed.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Banning the Parents

Over the last three years (grades K-2), at some point during the school year, I've visited my daughter Julianna's class to read a story to her and her classmates. I love doing it. It's a lot of fun, it's an opportunity for Jules to feel special, it's a means of reaching out and making a connection with the other kids in the class, and thereby the community (i.e. their parents), to her teacher, and even to the school staff and faculty.

What's the message I'm conveying? That I care enough to take time out of my day to make an appearance at my daughter's school and do something for her and her class. I see no discernible downside to this activity.

However, it's extremely unlikely I will be visiting my daughter's school for this purpose this year.

Back in December, Nancy and I did get the opportunity to visit during Chanukah to teach the kids about the holiday. It was an excellent visit. The kids had a lot of fun, and so did we.

Further, there have been a couple of occasions over the course of the year in which parents were invited to the classroom to observe the kids reading essays or poetry, but nothing else individual or interactive.

Before I continue on, I feel it prudent to point out that I think Paul Spinella, Julianna's teacher, is an excellent educator. He's great with the kids, seems very creative and open to new ideas, and has the perfect combination of firmness and compassion in dealing with his students. With regard to my topic of the day, I think if it were up to him, there wouldn't be an issue. Further, Nancy and I have been very happy with the school as a whole. They have proven supportive and helpful on many occasions, and I have a good deal of respect for the principal, John Mullins. I just want to be clear that my intent here is not to bash the school, but rather use it to illustrate a profound issue which I believe is symptomatic of many schools across the country.

Okay then. Back to our story. During my visit in December, I mentioned to Mr. Spinella that I wanted to come in, and he seemed sincerely amenable to the idea. However, when I contacted him a few weeks ago to set a date, he indicated that at a recent grade-level meeting, it was determined that class time for the 'middle' grades (3-5) was too valuable, and therefore, parents were not permitted to visit the class for such purposes.

Being of a rather philosophical bent, I have concerns about this that go any personal disappointment at not being able to visit the class. I'm a grown-up (most of the time, anyway), and I'll get over it. So will my daughter, albeit a little more reluctantly. Further, I completely understand that class time is valuable, but value is a rather subjective thing, isn't it? To my way of thinking, the inherent value of cultivating rapport between the class and a parent outweighs the 'lost' time.

Let's do a little Math. The average class size in Julianna's school is about 20 kids, which means a maximum of forty parents. Let's factor in the single parents and the second parents that aren't able to take time off.  We can also filter out a few parents just aren't comfortable being in front of the class or for whatever reason are disinclined to visit. I would guess the school year is around thirty weeks. The average illustrated story book takes 10-15 minutes to get through, so a 30 minute visit seems sound. When we put all the numbers together, what we come up with is that over the course of the school year, all parents would have an opportunity to visit the class at least once. Total loss of time: One half an hour a week. This does not seem to me to be an unduly extensive amount of time to devote to parental visits.

On the list of international education rankings, which encompasses thirty-one countries, US public schools have been coming up somewhere in the middle. There are legitimate contributing factors as to why this is the case, why places like Japan, Korea, and Finland come up near or at the top, and places like Luxembourg, Mexico, and Brazil are near or at the bottom. The rankings don't really address why each country meets whatever criteria they use. It just reports that they do. In addition, it doesn't address fallout factors associated with the rankings. For example, if it turned out that Japanese children have higher statistical rates of stress, depression, or even suicide than the other countries on the list, this would in my mind mitigate the significance of their ranking to some extent.

Though there are indeed many positive aspects of our education system, we're kidding ourselves if we think there aren't likewise profound problems that need to be addressed (we can start by cutting summer vacation in half.). However, given the more esoteric benefits of the parent to students relationship, of community-building in the classroom, I contend that banning the parents is not a viable solution to any those problems.

Thanks for reading.