You Can’t Take My Blues Away
Joie: So, Willa, I’ve been wondering if you ever go through phases where you don’t listen to a certain song for a long time, and then suddenly, you can’t seem to get it out of your head. Like, for example, there are times when I won’t listen to certain things – like Michael’s early, Motown work – for several months. And then all of a sudden one day, no matter what I do I just can’t seem to get “Dancing Machine” or “Looking through the Windows” out of my head. Do you ever do that?
Willa: I do! And sometimes it isn’t even a song I like.
Joie: Oh, I do that too! I hate it when that happens!
Willa: I know. It’s not so bad if it’s a song you love, but sometimes it isn’t. Though if I think about it, sometimes I realize that song is telling me something I need to hear right then.
Joie: Hmm. Now that’s an interesting way of looking at it. Next time that happens I’ll have to think about what the song is trying to tell me.
Willa: It can be fun trying to figure that out – kind of like trying to interpret dreams and see what your subconscious mind is puzzling over, even though you may not realize it. Though I have to say, I’m not very good at it – generally it remains a mystery. Sometimes I can make sense of it, but most times it just seems completely random.
Joie: It certainly does feel random usually. Well, I’m asking because there is a song that I have been singing to myself for about a week or so now, and it’s one that I have not listened to for probably a year, at least. It’s “Blues Away” by the Jacksons.
The song is on their 1976 album titled simply The Jacksons, the first one under their new name and their new label, and it was actually one of the very first songs that Michael wrote himself that was released.
Willa: That’s true. In fact, I think it was the first. He also helped write “Style of Life” on the same album, but that one he wrote with Tito – in fact, Tito is listed first, meaning he’s the principal author. But “Blues Away” credits “Michael Jackson” alone, and it seems to be the first released song he wrote entirely on his own.
Joie: It’s a simple little song, just over three minutes in length, and it’s sort of sweet, but also sort of sad in a way. The chorus of the song says “You can’t take my blues away, no matter what you say.” And I have always been sort of intrigued by this, and I’ve spent considerable time wondering about it. So, I thought maybe we could talk about it and I could get your take on it.
Willa: Sure, that sounds fun. You’re right, it is a fairly simple song – it doesn’t have the depth or complexity of a lot of his later work. Just think about “Billie Jean,” which was released only three years later. “Billie Jean” has so much going on, musically and thematically – though it handles it all so effortlessly it’s easy to overlook just how complicated it is. But even a relatively simple song like “Blues Away” can be a challenge to interpret. Like a lot of his songs, its meaning is subtle and ambiguous. It slips around.
For example, if someone told me this was a courtship song – a song a guy was singing to a girl he wants to go out with – and if they told me the title was “Blues Away,” I would guess that he’s telling the girl he has the blues without her, and if she goes out with him it’ll send his “blues away.” That would be a more typical approach – kind of like “Ain’t No Sunshine.” But that isn’t what he’s saying.
Joie: No, it’s not what he’s saying at all, and actually, I’m not entirely sure that this is meant to be a courtship-type song. Although it does feel that way at times. The first verse opens this way:
I’d like to be yours
So I’m giving you some time to
Think it over today
But, you can’t take my blues away
No matter what you say, babe
So, at times, it does feel like a courtship song. He’s telling her that he’d like to go out with her and maybe be her boyfriend, but he’s not sure how she feels so he’s giving her some time to think it over. But then in the next breath he tells her that no matter what she decides, it’s not going to take away his blues. He’s still going to be a little bit depressed, even if she says yes.
Willa: Exactly, which isn’t at all what you’d expect, so I can see why you aren’t sure if this is really a courtship song or not. I’m not sure about that either.
I’m going to go way out on a limb here, but I don’t think Michael Jackson was a romantic – at least not in the conventional sense of the word. What I mean is, a lot of romantic songs seem to suggest that if two people really love each other, then that’s all they need to be happy. The rest of the world just sort of fades away into the background, and doesn’t really matter anymore. All they need is each other.
But I don’t think Michael Jackson saw things that way. I don’t think he ever could forget the rest of the world, or even his own troubled feelings about things. It reminds me of something he wrote in Moonwalk in 1988:
My dating and relationships with girls have not had the happy ending I’ve been looking for. Something always seems to get in the way. The things I share with millions of people aren’t the sort of things you share with one. Many girls want to know what makes me tick – why I live the way I live or do the things I do – trying to get inside my head. They want to rescue me from loneliness, but they do it in such a way that they give me the impression they want to share my loneliness, which I wouldn’t wish on anybody, because I believe I’m one of the loneliest people in the world.
That’s such a different way of seeing things. He expresses a profound loneliness – as he says, “I believe I’m one of the loneliest people in the world” – and just looking at his life story, I can believe it.
Joie: I agree.
Willa: He really was in a unique and terribly isolating position, wasn’t he? And generally, we think the cure for loneliness is to find someone who loves you and understands you, but he doesn’t seem to feel that way. Instead, he seems to suggest he has a loneliness so deep and absolute that sharing it can’t make it go away. It would just spread his loneliness to another person, and he “wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”
Joie: Willa, that is not only very interesting, but also amazing. I think you may have just put into words what he couldn’t fully express. We, as a society, do tend to believe that the cure for loneliness is to find someone who loves and understands you. Or at the very least, someone who simply accepts you as you are.
Willa: Oh, that’s a good point, Joie – someone who accepts you unconditionally, even if they don’t understand you.
Joie: But Michael didn’t feel that way. He didn’t share that belief with the rest of us. He seemed to be coming from a place much darker and more isolated than most of us could even fathom, I think. A place where his loneliness ran so deep that it permeated his soul. And he lived his life in a way that seems to suggest he feared his loneliness would only corrupt others if he let them get too close.
Willa: It feels that way to me too. But you know, the really odd thing is that, listening to his voice – which always seems to have a touch of sorrow in it, even when he was very young – helps our loneliness go away. That seems cruelly ironic, that his sadness helps us feel better, but it seems to … at least it does for me. He’s helped me through some really difficult times, and I’ve heard others say that too. He’s almost like an empath, taking on our troubles and helping us feel better, and I don’t think it would work the same way if he didn’t have that sorrow in his voice.
Joie: I think you are absolutely right! His voice does always seem to carry a measure of sorrow in it, and it did feel at times that he could feel our pain. That he already knew all about it because he had seen it or gone through it before himself. And you’re right, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of fans out there who will tell you that listening to his voice helped them through the toughest of trials in their lives. I’m one of those people too, Willa. And I love what you said about him being an empath.
You know, I’m a huge Star Trek fan, and my favorite Star Trek series is The Next Generation with Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. In that series, one of the main characters is a female Starfleet officer named Deanna Troi, and she comes from the planet Betazed, which is a race of telepaths who can hear your thoughts as though you’re speaking out loud. That’s how they communicate among themselves. They only lower themselves to speak when they’re dealing with “off worlders.” Well, Deanna wasn’t a true telepath because her father had been a human Starfleet officer, so while she could easily communicate telepathically with other telepaths, she couldn’t hear your thoughts. But she could feel your every emotion because she was an empath. And her empathic abilities gave her a very unique perspective on the people around her.
Willa: That’s a great description, Joie, and it reminds me of one of the original Star Trek shows. They meet an empath who not only feels the emotional suffering of others, but can also take on their physical suffering and heal it. One of the crew members – Captain Kirk, I think – is fatally wounded somehow, and even though she knows what it means, she takes on his wounds and his suffering, so he’s cured and she dies instead.
That’s an extreme example, but in some hard-to-define way Michael Jackson seems to have had an empathetic connection with people also – at least it feels that way to me – and in his own way was able to take on our suffering and help us feel better.
Joie: At times, it does seem like Michael Jackson must have had some kind of empathic ability somehow. I don’t think there’s ever been another person who just appeared to be so in tune with what others were feeling. And he seemed to have such a burden for the sick and the weak, almost as if he truly could feel their suffering.
Willa: I agree. And even those of us who never met him could listen to his voice and feel an emotional connection that just made you feel better somehow. He also inspires us to help others, as Sylvia Martin explores in an article we recently added to the Reading Room.
You know, thinking about all this in terms of “Blues Away” reminds me of a story from Randy Taraborrelli’s biography. When Michael Jackson was 13 or 14, his brother Tito decided to get married but Michael discouraged him, and his reasons are really interesting. Here’s what Taraborrelli says:
Michael felt strongly that Tito was letting their fans down by marrying, and attempted to convince him to change his mind. “Think about all the girls out there who love us,” he said, trying to reason with his brother one day in the Motown offices.
“They don’t even know us, Mike,” Tito said. “We can’t live our lives for perfect strangers.”
“But they do know us,” Michael argued, according to a witness, “and we owe them, Tito. We owe them.”
To be honest, this puzzled me for a long time. What difference does it make if Tito – or even Michael Jackson himself – gets married or not? It’s not like it would affect his voice, or his skill as a dancer. It shouldn’t affect his performance in any way. So why does he feel he “owes” it to his audience not to get married?
I think it’s because of how we relate to him, and how we project our feelings onto him and feel them reflected back at us. And I also think it’s because of the empathetic connection he felt with his audience. It required total dedication on his part – a willingness to open himself emotionally and commit himself fully and completely to his audience and his art. And he did that. He gave everything, body and soul. And I think he understood that from a young age – understood what was required of him to be who and what he was, to fill the cultural role he filled, and to be what we needed him to be.
Joie: I’ve never thought about it like that before, Willa. That’s really deep, isn’t it? And still so very sad. It’s almost like he willingly gave up his happiness so that he could make us happy instead. Sort of like someone laying down their own life for the life of his friend.
Willa: Oh, it’s terribly sad. You know, I think about his life sometimes, and all the things he went through, and it’s almost unbearable. I wish he could have found that “happy ending I’ve been looking for” that he talks about in Moonwalk. I wish his life could have turned out differently. I wish the 1993 allegations had never happened, or if they did happen that he was cleared somehow, and he could have found contentment and peace. I want it so badly it hurts – it’s like a physical ache – and I think a lot of fans feel that way.
Joie: I think they do too.
Willa: And maybe if he’d been more like Tito and made the same decisions Tito made, his life would have turned out differently. After all, Tito’s a very talented blues guitarist and performer and producer in his own right, as well as a father and grandfather. It is possible to be a musician and still have a happy home life.
But of course, Michael Jackson was so much more than a musician. He was an artist of a very rare caliber, and a transformative cultural figure who radically changed how we see ourselves and each other. And to be honest, knowing how dedicated he was to his art, I can’t really picture him making a decision different than the one he made. He lived his life with courage and passion and a total dedication to his art, and I’m filled with admiration because of that – as well as sadness for the things he gave up.
Joie: And he did give up so much when you think about it. You know, Willa, thinking about what you just said about the fans wanting so badly for circumstances in his life to have turned out differently … I truly agree with that statement. I think probably most of us who call ourselves fans would agree with that. But I have a confession to make. I sometimes think about Michael’s life, and about how dedicated he was to his art and how much he sacrificed to make us happy, and I feel extremely guilty about how things turned out for him. Does that make sense? And I’ve always wondered if others feel guilty or if it’s just me.
But getting back to the song, “Blues Away,” you know, that song was written back in the mid ’70s and I find it interesting to think that he knew even back then that his was going to be a life of sorrow. I mean, that’s basically what that song is saying, I think – that no matter what answer she gives him, no matter what happiness comes, there will always be that undercurrent of sorrow for him.
Willa: I think you’re right, Joie. As he tells her in that line you quoted earlier, “You can’t take my blues away, no matter what you say.”