You Are Not Alone_Michael, Through a Brother’s Eyes (7 page)

BOOK: You Are Not Alone_Michael, Through a Brother’s Eyes
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I think about all the names we considered across the years: song titles, album titles and names for our own children, all in search of the one name that
sounds right
. That is one reason why biographers should always have known that ‘The Ripples and the Waves’ was not a name we would have chosen as a group. To our amusement, the rumour went around, and made it into print, that this was our first name. It started, no doubt, because a song titled ‘Let Me Carry Your Schoolbooks’ was released by the Ripples and the Waves + Michael on the Steeltown Records label – which would become our first label. I suspect the use of the name ‘Michael’ was a deliberate marketing ploy aimed at catching our
coat-tails. But this Michael was a Michael Rogers, and the Ripples and the Waves was another group.

Our first name could actually have been a lot worse. One lady suggested we needed something fancy like the El Dorados. We were in danger of being made to sound like some damn Cadillac. Luckily, that idea was sunk when we discovered there was another band from Chicago of the same name. Joseph wanted ‘Jackson’ in the name, but it had to be catchy. Our parents talked about ‘The Jackson Brothers 5’ and that was the lead contender until Mother had a conversation with a local lady named Evelyn Lahaie, who said, ‘It’s too much of a mouthful. Why don’t you just call them the Jackson 5?’ Mrs Lahaie ran ‘Evelyn’s School of Charm’ for local girls in Gary and seemed to know a thing or two about image, so that was how the Jackson 5 was born. On paper, at least.

 

JOHNNY RAY NELSON, THE KID WHO
lived next door, was always good value for entertainment because his brother Roy would chase him out the front door with a crow-bar, Johnny running and giggling, Roy vowing to get him; playfighting, Gary style. When Johnny had stopped running and peace had returned, he’d overhear us singing through the open windows. He said he was always amazed by how we could harmonise so young.

Once, Michael was out front in the sunshine when Johnny said, ‘Sing us a song and I’ll get you some cookies.’ On cue, Michael stood there and sang. Sure enough, we all caught on to this neighbourhood perk and before anyone knew it, five brothers were lined up at the fence, giving Johnny Ray Nelson a private performance for a plate of his cookies.

 

BETWEEN 1962 AND THE SUMMER OF
1965, Joseph kept honing our performance until he felt we were ready. He fixed us a rehearsal timetable: Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings, starting at 4.30 after school, and running, non-stop, until seven or sometimes nine o’clock.

By the early sixties, the Temptations had broken through to become our newest role models. In Joseph’s eyes, Dave Ruffin’s mellow but raspy vocals, with his stage presence, set the bar for what he wanted us to achieve. But he didn’t expect us to match him, he expected us to
better
him. The Temptations, for all their greatness, represented basement level in our father’s standards. There were groups all over America trying to be the next Temptations, he said. ‘You aren’t going to be the next, you’re going to be better!’

He illustrated his point with one hand in the air to show where we needed to aim. ‘We don’t want you
here
,’ he said, jabbing a flat hand at waist level. ‘We want you
here
’ – top of the head – ‘and when you’re here, we want you here!’ Two feet above his head. ‘Reach higher … always go for more …’ He didn’t want the audience reaction to be ‘Hey, they were good for a bunch of kids.’ He wanted ‘Wow – who
are
they?’ We would achieve this by creating a performance that pulled on the audience’s emotions, he said. ‘When they watch you, you’re controlling them and bringing them into your world. Sell the lyric. Make ’em stand and make ’em scream.’

Five boys, none of us yet teenagers, wondered privately how we would ever make people scream.

When she was doing the dishes, Mama Martha could squeeze every last drop of water out of a wet tea-towel. If it didn’t think it had one more tear left in it, she would prove it wrong. Joseph was the same with us. And as we saw our performance coming together, we understood better – and then we embellished it some more, especially Michael. When he told us to slide a certain way, or fall to our knees, or show a certain expression, we added more. We watched and learned from Dave Ruffin’s anguished performances and James Brown’s pained soul.

When the Jackson 5 went live, many people said the body language and emotion Michael demonstrated belied his years. There was talk – then and now – that he was an old soul tapping into feelings he couldn’t know, let alone understand, as a child. People even suggested that this showed how quickly he had been
forced to grow up. The truth is simpler: it was nothing more than another child imitating adults. Michael was a master of imitation, as coached by Joseph – our drama teacher. Each time a song required heartache or pain, he told us, ‘Show it in your face, let me feel it …’ Michael dropped to his knees, pulled at his heart and looked … pained. ‘No. NO!’ said our harshest critic. ‘It doesn’t look real. I’m not
feeling
it.’

Michael studied human emotions on the faces of others in the same microscopic way he studied song and dance. Ask him then what he was doing and he would have parroted our father: ‘I’m just selling the lyric …’ His practice began to focus more on the required showmanship, so he played James Brown records, this time breaking down the music into steps and dance moves. Or he’d watch a Fred Astaire movie, lying on the living-room carpet in front of the television, chin on hands. He didn’t make notes: he just watched awestruck and soaked it up like a sponge. If ever he was in bed, and Joseph was at work, and James Brown or Fred Astaire came on television, Mother would come into our bedroom. ‘Michael,’ she’d whisper, ‘James Brown is on TV!’

Michael’s world stopped for either James Brown or Fred Astaire. He idolised the very ground they danced on.

We had a black-and-white Zenith TV and its reception depended on a metal coat hanger. We tried to make the picture ‘colour’ by adding one of those transparent plastic sheets that could be fixed to the screen back in the day. It had a blue hue at the top for the sky, a yellow-bronze as the middle layer for people’s skin, and green at the bottom for grass. We even had to use our imaginations when it came to watching television.

It became Michael’s tool for memorising everything. If he saw someone doing a move, he channelled it, as if his brain sent an instant signal to his body. He watched James Brown and became James Brown junior. He moved with a finesse that was fluid from the start. From the very beginning, he was a man dancing in a kid’s body. It was innate. He always knew his part, and never asked where he was supposed to be.

His confidence gave us confidence. Joseph restrung his old guitar and put me on bass. Like Tito, I had never read a sheet of music in my life but I listened, played and picked it up. None of us understood notes or chords, or anything like that. I still wouldn’t know my way around a sheet of music if you put one in front of me. Notes on paper – a written instruction – do not carry feeling. A musical ear comes from the heart. Take Stevie Wonder – his blindness proves that it’s all about playing from the heart.

Michael and I often shared lead vocals by alternating verses, but he was very much the group’s frontman holding the mic. We lined up in the living room as we would line up on stage. Facing the audience, I was on the far left and bass, Michael to my right, then Jackie, Marlon – who was the same height as Michael – and Tito on the far right with his guitar. With Tito’s and my height book-ending us, and Jackie as the tallest in the middle, we stood with the symmetry of five bars on an equaliser.

But we weren’t the only group forming in Gary: dreams were being rehearsed in plenty of other houses because of the soul market sprouting in nearby Chicago. There were several barber-shop quartets going down, and the genre was all about choreographed routines. But we always sensed there was something unique about us, in real terms, not just in Joseph’s mind. Being brothers brought us an instant synchronicity and kinship that other groups didn’t have. This unity was our edge and I doubt anyone across all of America had a coach as fiercely passionate as Joseph. People ask about the pressure and burden we must have felt, but we didn’t. There was no such thing as fear of failure because Joseph made us imagine – and believe in – success: think it, see it, believe it, make it happen. As Michael said in an interview with
Ebony
magazine in 2007: ‘My father was a genius when it comes to the way he taught us: staging, how to work an audience, anticipating what to do next, or never let the audience know if you are suffering, or if something’s going wrong. He was amazing like that.’

One day, Joseph made us stand a few feet away from the wall and stick out our hands. As we stood in this position, our
fingers fell a few inches short of the wall. ‘You can touch it,’ said Joseph.

‘How can we? Our fingers aren’t long enough … it’s impossible,’ we moaned.

‘Get it in your head that you
can
touch that wall!’ he insisted.

Here started yet another Joseph mental lesson: the mind is stronger than the physical. ‘Believe that you can touch the wall,’ he said. ‘When you think you’re at the limit of your reach, then reach more. Visualise reaching it. Picture yourself touching the wall.’ Michael stood on tiptoe and strained to outreach us all. That made us giggle. He was the tiniest boy, yet he always wanted to be fastest and first.

If Joseph had any doubt of his influence on Michael’s career, then that doubt will have gone when Michael put his stamp on Hayvenhurst in 1981. Nailed to an exterior wall of his old studio remains a sign with a pale blue background and big-lettered words: ‘Those Who Reach Touch The Stars’.

 

IF WE COULDN’T WAIT FOR MOTHER
to return home from work, we couldn’t wait for Joseph to
leave
: with him out of the way, we could run around, act the fool, go outside and play. Rebbie, especially, couldn’t wait for him to work a night shift because then she could sleep in a proper bed with Mother, not on the sofa-bed. The common perception of our youth seems to be framed by the use of Joseph’s belt and the timetable for rehearsals, and it’s true that our circumstances developed us more as artists than as boys. But, as much as I hear the voice of discipline and instruction in my memories, I also hear the distinct sound of fun, laughter and play. As brothers, we always had someone to hang around with and those memories have not been allowed to breathe in public. Anyone from a large family will tell you that we each remember things differently.

With Joseph at work, Mother made sure we didn’t slacken off on the routines we were expected to know. ‘Did you learn that song you’re supposed to do? Did you learn those steps?’ she would ask.
She was our father’s eyes and ears, but she balanced that with our need to play. As well as the go-karts, the trains and the merry-go-round, we rode our bikes (again built by Tito out of junkyard frames and wheels) and went roller-skating (with those wheeled brackets that clamped on to sneakers, bought second-hand). We couldn’t wait to get out and tear up and down Jackson Street – ‘But go no further than Mr Pinsen’s house!’ He was our baseball coach and lived 10 doors down.

We enjoyed family camping holidays to the Wisconsin Dells, where we went fishing with Joseph and he taught Jackie, Tito and me how to bait the hook. We always stayed near old Indian towns and walked the trails in homage to our ancestry. We grew up knowing we have Native American blood in our veins, passed down from both the Choctaw and Blackfoot tribes. The inherited physical attributes were our high cheekbones, light skin and hairless chests.

Back home, we watched lots of television and it was always a fight between Jackie wanting sports, Michael and Marlon wanting
Mighty Mouse
or
The Road Runner Show
, and me wanting
Maverick
, starring James Garner. The only programmes we all liked were
The Three Stooges
,
Flash Gordon
and any Western starring Randolph Scott. It’s
The Three Stooges
we must thank for first teaching us the harmonies we took to Mother at the kitchen sink. We loved mimicking their introductory triad-harmony of ‘Hello … Hello … Hello’.

We huddled around Mother on the sofa to watch TV. My abiding memory of this happy scene is of her seated in the middle and Michael lying across her lap, head facing the screen, me sitting on her other side, La Toya on the floor, against her legs, resting her back on the sofa, Marlon on the other side (with Janet when she entered the equation). Tito and Randy would lie on the floor, while Rebbie and Jackie took the armchair or a kitchen chair. In the window – opened during sultry summer evenings – we wedged one of those square fans that blew cold air into the room. Michael would stick his head in front of the fan, on its highest
whirring speed, and hum – fascinated by how the blast of air made his voice waver.

In the winter, there was no shortage of cold air blowing through every crack of our poorly insulated home. The brutal winters of Indiana punched through the paper-thin walls and the walk to school sometimes felt like an expedition across Antarctica. On school mornings, Joseph ensured Mother cooked a pot of boiled potatoes before we set off from base camp into the deep snow. We couldn’t afford gloves – and didn’t wear hats because of our blowout Afros – so we placed a hot potato in each pocket to keep our hands warm. Mother then covered our faces with Vaseline, rubbing it in like sun-lotion, from hairline to chin, ear to ear. In those severe winters, this stopped our skin getting dry but it also served another purpose in Mother’s eyes: ‘It makes you look all shiny, fresh, new and clean,’ she said, making the greasy smears of Vaseline sound almost fashionable. We told her that other kids didn’t have Vaseline faces; she told us that they didn’t look as clean as we did.

 

MOTHER STILL WANTED JOSEPH TO BUILD
an extra room on to the house and for as long as there was a stack of bricks in the backyard, she was not going to relent. We were eight-strong now with the addition of Randy (Janet was still to come), but if one sentence was repeated in our house – apart from ‘Let’s do it again’ – it was ‘This place is falling to pieces’, as expressed by our mother. Her savings, which had been building since Tito’s birth, were now somewhere in the region of $300, but I don’t think anyone dared point out that the money would be better spent on fixing the patched-up water-pipe or buying a new television: this was Mother’s growing nest-egg for another room …

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