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Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson And Me

Michael Jackson's passing yesterday brings reminiscing by the rich and famous who had contact with him over his life. While I was by no means a friend or even an acquaintance, I have my stories as well (although neither rich nor famous).

When I first moved to LA in 1980 I took a job as a salesman at the audio gear supplier Everything Audio to put food on the table until a reasonable touring or studio job popped up. The company was based in Encino, California, the same town where the Jackson family had their compound. As a result, all the Jackson brothers used to come to the office (we were located high up in an office building with only a small showroom) at various times to purchase gear. On 3 or 4 occasions, Michael Jackson dropped buy to place an order.

At the time, Michael Jackson was famous, but he wasn't "Michael Jackson the superstar." He was a nice enough guy who'd slip into and out of the office quietly. We'd say hello, and I'd pass him off to his personal salesman. He was quiet, unassuming and taller than I'd thought he'd be. he never said much but always had a smile on his face.

Eventually I became the sales guy to brothers Marlon and Randy, and was invited up to the Jackson compound a few times. I remember that the thing that impressed me the most at the time was one of their guest houses that was decked out completely for video gaming, having every video game kiosk of the time that you can think of (they were a bit ahead of their time on this - it was 1981). By this time, Michael had moved off compound to his own estate a block away.

The next time I saw Michael was in 1982 before Thriller had come out. He was a much bigger star now, and had to go out incognito. I remember coming out of the now defunct Wally Heider studio on Sunset Blvd. at about 8PM one night, and as I stood on a corner waiting for my ride, an old beat-up 60's Chevy Camaro with primer, no paint and lots of bondo passed me by. Something made me take a good look at the driver (the window was open) and sure enough, it was Michael. The car passed quickly and although I thought I saw him, I couldn't be sure. But then it passed again, and again, and yes, it was Michael circling the block for some reason. My ride showed up by this time, so I packed my gear in the trunk and left. Who knows how many times he passed by, but it was Michael Jackson, driving himself around in a beat up car.

My next encounter with MJ from a distance was almost life changing. I was writing songs with Michael "Shrimp" Chambers, a famous break dancer at the time and the guy that taught Michael Jackson how to moon walk. We wrote what we thought was a great ballad, and Shrimp said, "I've just got to get this to Michael. I know he'll love it." This was after Thriller and Michael J. was a full-fledged superstar and had now moved to Neverland. Sure enough, Shrimp was invited to the ranch to play the song for Michael and much to our shock and excitement, he did indeed love the song, proclaiming it "a hit." "Here we go," I thought, "the step into the really big time. If Michael cuts this on his next album, it could be worth major $$$$!!!" A few days later Michael called back and said, "Shrimp, I really think this song is a hit, but you should cut it instead of me. I want you to be successful." Now Michael could have offered to produce it, or introduced us to any number of people that could've helped us, but he didn't. And Shrimp didn't have a record deal so keeping the song for himself was moot. MJ might've been distracted with life or he might've been letting us down easy, I never found out the back story. The song got cut by a Motown artist no one has ever heard of before or since, and we made zero $$$. What a swing of fortune!

But it doesn't stop there in terms of my being a degree separated from the man. In the early 90's I took Jennifer Battan's place as guitar player in a version of the cult band Doc Tari. Jennifer left to become MJ's touring lead guitar player.

Then in the late 90's, I met and became friends with Bruce Swedien, the engineer that crafted all of Michael's big selling records and an absolute superstar in his own right in the recording community. In fact, he was kind enough to sit for an interview for my first book, The Mixing Engineer's Handbook. Then in 2004, I produced a video interview with producer Quincy Jones at his magnificent house in Bel Air. Since I was such a fan of their work and interested in the recording background of Michael's albums, both of these larger than life people were kind enough to relate all sorts of great MJ studio stories, not one disparaging Michael in any way (though I did hear lots of "unusual" stories from other people).

I'm one of those that doesn't really believe that you die as much as transition into something different. As your journey ends in this world, universe, dimension or whatever else you want to call it, another begins. Happy journey, Michael Jackson.

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