The Man in the Mirror

A Tribute, Part Two

By - Jun 26th, 2009 05:18 pm
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020507-2015-anodetomicr1In March, in a tiny house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, I found myself face-to-face with a bespangled white glove and a black fedora.

Michael Jackson means a lot to Detroit. Motown Records gave the Jackson 5 their name and four consecutive top-of-the-chart hits; the Jackson 5 gave Michael Jackson global adoration and the opportunity to pursue the solo career that would eventually make him one of the biggest cultural icons the world has ever seen.

At the bar last night, drinking long islands and putting quarter after quarter in the jukebox to play “I Want You Back,” I thought about Berry Gordy, how he must feel about the death of a man he mentored, the career that was possibly the best one Motown ever made possible. It’s hard not to think of other high-profile Motown deaths: Marvin Gaye, Florence Ballard, Tammi Terrell. And Motown is 50 years old this year; Berry Gordy is almost 80. For some veterans of Motown Records, it’s simply time to check out. I sobbed last summer when I heard on the radio that Levi Stubbs, lead singer of The Four Tops, had died. I called my dad; he was inconsolable. Motown is one of Detroit’s proudest legacies. It’s also history. Berry Gordy lives in Los Angeles. Detroit may be the world’s most destroyed city that’s never seen a war.

Hitsville U.S.A. – the Motown Museum – was once the Gordy family home and world headquarters of Motown Records, and it has been steadfastly preserved to rigorous detail. The upstairs apartment, roped off to visitors, displays original furnishings, including glassware on a tiny kitchen table, toys in the baby’s playpen and an orange davenport where Marvin Gaye would sleep after long nights in the studio. Downstairs, the Motown reception room still has a rotary phone and original office machines. Diana Ross worked as a receptionist for Motown Records before she started singing with The Supremes. Marvin Gaye was a janitor. Stepping into Studio A, where almost all of Motown’s greatest hits in the 50s and 60s were recorded, my breath caught in my throat. This is where it happened. Stevie Wonder played that piano. So did Marvin Gaye. So many voices, guitar hooks, stomps down the piano; so many songs so important to American music, all eked out of this little room. Standing with my hand on the piano to steady myself, I felt a charge, like all of that sound passed through me all at once. Like a ghost walked through me.

The walls at Hitsville U.S.A. are lined with gold and platinum records, including “I Want You Back,” which is probably my favorite song of all time. I think it’s one of the best songs ever written (by Berry Gordy and Motown’s “Corporation” of songwriters). And it came from Detroit.

When I heard yesterday that Michael Jackson had collapsed in Los Angeles, the first thing I did was listen to “I Want You Back.” (A great video from Goin’ Back to Indiana features an intro by Bill Cosby as a black Groucho Marx as Scoop Newsworthy, snubbed Jackson 5 beat reporter.) Yes, I love Thriller Michael Jackson. I love Bad. My sister wore out her cassette tape of “Black or White” when we were kids, and in college, every ridiculous theme party (the “anything but clothes” party, the “literal band name” party) anyone ever threw inevitably turned into a Michael Jackson Dance Party by night’s end.

But it’s “I Want You Back” and The Jackson 5 I always go back to, and I have to admit to myself that it might be because I’m from Detroit.

Detroit gave Michael Jackson to the world. And in return, Michael Jackson gave Detroit the rhinestone glove and signature fedora he wore the night he sang Billie Jean at Motown 25 and, for the first time ever, did the moonwalk.

I’m not normally the kind of person that feels especially moved by celebrity, but when I saw that glove, I felt something like awe.

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