Thursday, February 08, 2007

"The Love You Save" / The Jackson Five


What in God’s name happened to Michael Jackson? I never hear any of his new music – I guess it’s only released overseas, where his “true” fans live. I dug Off the Wall and Thriller like everyone else, but that was 25 years ago, and to be honest, I’m not sure I would have liked them so much if it hadn’t been for those sensational videos, back when MTV actually mattered. Soon after that he jumped the shark, making every track Bigger!Badder!Better! without charting any new musical territory. Like most everybody, I’m horrified by the bizarre spectacle he has turned into – it’s like Thriller come to life, his face morphing into a creepy mask worthy of Lon Chaney.

But being in a Motown groove this week, I’m listening to those early Jackson Five songs and it breaks my heart. Yes, they were highly produced commercial funk-pop. Yes, Michael’s image was managed to the nth degree, I’m guessing because “Little” Stevie Wonder had left the fold and Berry Gordy needed another cute kid phenom to take his place. Whatever. The fact is, those Jackson Five hits were tight and spunky, with hooks that stay with you like a rhinovirus.

Michael sounded so sweet and earnest on ultra-smooth ballads like “I’ll Be There” and “Never Can Say Goodbye” – though, come to think of it, at Michael’s age most boys wouldn’t be caught dead in a room alone with a girl. (And they grew up to be sexually normal.) Still, there was a cunning genius at work behind hits like “ABC” that riffed on the idea that a kid was singing them. I defy you to sing this chorus just once: “Simple as do-re-mi / A B C/ One, two three / Baby you and me,” even if you mix up the order, like I do. Or even if somehow you segue right into “ABC” in the chorus of “I Want You Back.” It’s all the same song, really.

As soon as I hear “The Love You Save,” I think of those street safety filmstrips we had to watch in elementary school: “Stop the love you save may be your own / Darling look both ways before you cross me / You’re heading for a danger zone.” This song wipes the Supremes “Stop In the Name Of Love” off the map for me, it’s so much more lively, with funky staccato rhythms and a melody that bounces all over the place. Naturally it starts out with a childhood setting, as Michael innocently explains: “When we played tag in grade school / You wanted to be it / But chasing boys was just a fad / You crossed your heart you’d quit.” But now they're adults – “When we grew up you traded / Your promise for my ring” -- and she’s still chasing boys around the playground, and Michael’s getting worked up into a real tantrum.

Jermaine and Michael swap lines in the bridge, egging each other into a frenzy: Michael, “They’ll ruin your reputation! / They’ll label you a flirt!”; then Jermaine, “The way they talk about you / They’ll turn your name to dirt!” The second verse is even cleverer, as Michael names the boys she’s fooling around with, and after the second bridge they fall back on that time-honored middle-section spelling shtick ("ABC" all over again): “S is for save it / T is for take it slow / O is for oh, no! / P is for please, please, don’t go!”

The songwriter was having F-U-N here, and so did the studio band (I assume this was the Funk Brothers, with Joe Hunter throwing out those snazzy glissandos on the keyboards), and so did the other four Jacksons, doing vocal bass lines and percussion. I’m sure I saw them perform this on TV and they had a slick dance routine worked out as well. By the time it was over they weren’t the only ones who had to catch their breath.

So that's why I still care, in a sad little corner of my heart, about what's become of Michael Jackson. If you never saw the Jacksons in their prime, you might think he's just a freak show, a tabloid curiosity. But for those of us who did . . .

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