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Man in the Music: Joe Vogel’s Masterpiece

Joie:  Earlier this month, something truly wonderful happened. An event that I had been waiting anxiously for, for several months. Author Joe Vogel’s long-awaited book, Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson was being released on November 1st and I had gotten the great pleasure of interviewing Joe for MJFC back in May. But even long before our interview, I was so excited about this book and I really pushed for an interview with him because I knew it was going to be something special.

I had been a casual fan of Joe’s for some time and I had read many of his articles about Michael Jackson on the Huffington Post. What I liked about Joe’s writing was that I always came away from one of his articles with the sense that he was a lot like me – just a student of pop culture who happened to be a Michael Jackson fan. His insights were really fresh and inspired and I found his writing style sort of ‘down-to-earth’ and real, and reading one of his articles was always a treat for me. So, when I first heard about this book, I was crazy excited about it for two reasons:  first, like I said, I was a fan. And second, it had never been done before. This is a book whose time had not only come, but was LONG overdue! And I knew that if anyone could do this book justice, it would be Joe Vogel; so I was extremely excited. In fact, after Joe granted me the interview for MJFC, I think I may have become sort of a mini-stalker, repeatedly asking him if there was anything I or MJFC could do to help promote the book. He may actually be a little bit afraid of me right now; I’m like a Man in the Music groupie.

Willa:  I don’t know, Joie. Joe seems pretty steady to me. I think it might take more than a Man in the Music groupie to rattle him…. But seriously, I know what you mean – I love Joe’s book as well, especially the level of detail he provides about how every song of every album was meticulously created.

But the part I love most was entirely unexpected and, for me, a wonderful reaffirmation of the strength of Michael Jackson’s creative spirit:  it was the very different look it provides of his creative life in his later years, particularly after the 2005 trial. Joe’s book completely contradicts the prevailing view of this period of his life. The narrative that has been repeated over and over depicts a man so hounded and harassed he was unable to stay in one place for more than a few weeks, unable to trust anyone, unable to work – just simply too hassled and distracted to create.

But Joe’s book paints an entirely different portrait of this later period of his life. What we see in Joe’s book is an extremely gifted, creative, and dedicated artist deeply engaged with a network of artists around the world, working collaboratively to produce exceptional work. In fact, Joe suggests that this later period was arguably the most productive of his life, even though very little of this work was released to the public.

Joie, I don’t know if this makes sense or not, but reading that part of Joe’s book made me so happy – it’s like I felt this load of grief lifting off me as I read it that I hadn’t even realized was there. I guess we all deal with grief in different ways, and for some fans, Dr. Murray’s conviction was able to bring about some sort of resolution, but that didn’t help me at all. I think in some ways I started writing M Poetica out of a need to try to deal with it. I think Michael Jackson’s work is so incredible, but nothing I was reading in the mainstream media even remotely corresponded with how I felt about him and his music and his visual art and what they meant to me, and that lack of appreciation added another layer of tragedy to the situation. So I started writing about how I saw things, and it did help me work through the sorrow of it all. But nothing has helped me as much as “The Final Years” section of Joe’s book.

To me, Michael Jackson’s creativity was the guiding principle of his life. People betrayed him over and over again, but that creative spirit never did. It was always there for him, nurturing and sustaining him. He said in numerous interviews that he was most happy when he was creating and performing, and that he was most comfortable in a studio or on stage, expressing that creative energy and letting it flow through him. That’s why all those reports of a person too harassed and distraught to create were so troubling to me. But Joe’s book gave me the reassurance I needed that, even after the 2005 trial and all the other horrors of those later years, that creative spirit was still there for him and stronger than ever.

Joie:  I agree with you, Willa. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that he was still very much engaged in the act of creating beautiful music even then. And you’re right, we do all grieve in different ways so, it makes perfect sense to me that this section of Joe’s book would be sort of cathartic for you. I found it reassuring as well. Joe tells us that, not only was Michael in good spirits during that time but, he was also determined and excited about the work he was producing. I only wish that we could hear some of the music he was working on during that time, especially the classical album!

Willa:  I agree. You know, I had heard rumors that he was trying his hand at composing classical music, but I had no idea he was so involved with that, or had a work so near completion. According to Joe’s book, all the parts for all the different instruments are pretty much worked out – it just needs to be recorded. Composer David Michael Frank, who was collaborating on the project, talked to Joe about it:

“I hope one day his family will decide to record this music as a tribute,” Frank concluded, “and show the world the depth of his artistry…. I told Michael I was going to use one of Leonard Bernstein’s batons I had bought at auction when we did the recording. I knew he would have gotten a big kick out of that.”

I hope they do too. I would love to hear it. And can you imagine if David Michael Frank conducted the orchestra holding one of Leonard Bernstein’s batons with a white sequined glove? What a wonderful metaphor that would be, and a great image as well.

Joie:  I agree. I’m a fan of classical music myself and I think I would give just about anything to hear the classical music Michael composed; I would love that so much!

But getting back to what you were saying about his creative spirit, Michael himself often said that he never stopped working; no matter what was going on in his life, he never stopped creating. And I just love this quote from recording engineer Matt Forger from Man in the Music. He said,

“With Michael, he never stopped creating. He wasn’t an artist who said, ‘Oh I’ve got an album coming up, I better start writing songs.’ The songs were constantly flowing from him, and if it wasn’t a song it was a poem, it was an idea for a story or a short film… It was a constant creative process.”

So it was as if life itself was a constant creative process for him and I find that fascinating!

Willa:  Absolutely, and Joe really emphasizes that in his book, like with this example:

“According to Quincy Jones, Jackson was ‘writing music like a machine’ during this period. He had begun composing songs as soon as Off the Wall was finished. In fact, Thriller‘s first track, ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,’ had been written and recorded during the Off the Wall sessions.”

Joe italicizes “during,” as if he can’t quite believe it. It’s like the songs are coming in such a torrent he’s starting work on Thriller while still recording Off the Wall.

Joie:  I wonder if all great artists exist this way, where the art – whether its music or painting or poetry or whatever – just seems to pour out of them. I’m fascinated by that thought.

But, for me, what makes Joe’s book so special is the fact that it goes into such delicious detail for every single song of each album. Even giving info on many songs that were left off the albums. It’s almost like he’s giving you the chance to go into the studio and sit quietly by, watching as the entire album takes shape, as if you’re right there watching Michael work! That’s the feeling I get every time I open it up and begin to read. There has never been another book out there like it. It’s not merely a critique of Michael’s work; it’s more like a novel, a reference guide, a history text and a critical assessment all rolled into one. There is SO much information here, just a wealth of musical knowledge and insight into the creative mind and character of the greatest entertainer that ever lived. This book is incredible! And I love the fact that it never once strays into that uncomfortable territory of sensationalism and tabloid fodder that most other authors can never seem to resist when talking about Michael Jackson. But Joe never goes there; he remains completely professional and true to the subject – which is examining Michael’s craft.

Willa:  I know what you mean about feeling like you’re peeking inside the studio as he’s working, and discovering what that environment was like. I’ve never been in a recording studio so that was entirely new territory for me, and it was so interesting. For one thing, I never realized just how many people are involved in making an album. It may be one person’s vision – and Joe makes clear that every track of every album was a reflection of Michael Jackson’s own artistic vision  – but it really is a huge collaborative effort. And for me, that explodes another myth, which is that Michael Jackson was isolated and alone for most of his life, disconnected from the world around him. Obviously his fame had a huge impact on his life, but all that seems to drop away in the studio. He had many warm, strong, enduring relationships with people he worked with on song after song for years, even decades.

Joie:  You’re right, it is a real collaborative effort, and what was astonishing for me to learn is how technical it all is. I’ve never been in a recording studio either and I was surprised to learn how involved Michael really was with the whole process. You know, he didn’t just go into the studio and sing the lyrics and then let everyone else do the rest. He was totally hands on throughout the entire process from start to finish, and he really knew exactly what he wanted from each person working with him, and what he wanted the final product to sound like. Here’s another quote from Man in the Music, this time from long-time collaborator, Bill Bottrell. He said,

“He has precise musical instincts. He has an entire record in his head and he tries to make people deliver it to him. Sometimes those people surprise him and augment what he hears, but really his job is to extract from musicians and producers and engineers what he hears when he wakes up in the morning.”

Willa:  And sometimes he takes matters into his own hands. I remember hearing an interview with him one time where he said he worked on the bass line of “Billie Jean” for a solid week. He said that distinctive bass line is so important to the mood of that song – it’s like the foundation everything else is built on – so he worked and worked on it to get it just right.

Joie:  I also think it’s really interesting that Michael always had this great love of sounds. He said many times that he just loved discovering new sounds and taking random sounds and putting them under the microscope and manipulating them and dissecting them. He obviously had a great ear for sound and in Man in the Music, Joe tells us that he even created an entire song out of sounds. Before reading this book I never knew that “She Drives Me Wild” was made up entirely from random street sounds! Joe tells us,

“‘She Drives Me Wild’ further extends this interest [in using everyday sounds to create compelling music]…. In place of traditional instruments, Jackson develops an entire rhythm track from car horns, engines, sirens, slamming doors, and other ‘noises’ from the street. ‘Even the bass is a  car horn,’ says Teddy Riley.”

Willa:  Isn’t that amazing?  I had to go back and listen to “She Drives Me Wild” after reading that. I was really struck by this ongoing focus on found sounds too, especially since Ultravioletrae had posted comments about that very topic recently, especially the use of animal sounds and industrial sounds. As she wrote about “Unbreakable,”

Many MJ songs feature the sound of air, wind, breath as percussion or sound scape or expressive vocalization. At the bridge in “Unbreakable” we hear the artificial sound of gasping for air through an oxygen mask as if on life support. Chilling. And in the very opening intro sound scape, we hear the purr of an engine moving around in sonic space but layered on top is the sound of a cat purr, cat being another common symbol throughout his work…. This happens all throughout the work. What is the sonic message?

I’m really intrigued by this now and think it would be really fun to look at it in more depth sometime – at how he used different found sounds over the years, and the different soundscapes he created with them, and the ideas and emotions he was conveying with those sounds.

And this wasn’t a passing interest for him. On album after album, he says he wants to create “sounds the ear has never heard” before. I think Joe has that idea quoted three different times from three different sources working on three different albums. It was like a career-long mantra for Michael Jackson – to push the envelope and create entirely new sounds and new ways of engaging with music.

Joie:  You know, Willa, I just finished reading another new book that was released recently by Michael’s long-time friend, Frank Cascio, and he actually talks a little about Michael’s obsession with finding new sounds too. Cascio says that when Michael was working on Invincible, he urged producer Rodney Jerkins to “Hit on random rocks or toys. Put a bunch of glass in a bag, add a mic to it, and throw it around.” He goes on to say,

“I had seen Michael play around with this kind of sound creation himself…. Once, we put a mic in a bag with rocks, toys and some small pieces of metal, taped it to the outside of a DAT machine cushioned in bubble wrap, and threw the whole contraption down the stairs. Michael then proceeded to take all the sounds from inside that bag, put them across a keyboard, mix them, and tune them. On Invincible, you can hear those one-of-a-kind sounds on “Invincible,” “Heartbreaker,” “Unbreakable,” and “Threatened.”

This is something that Man in the Music hits on as well, as Joe tells us that the “wildly ricocheting beats and sounds” on the song “Heartbreaker” feels like “a mad scientist” has gotten loose in the studio. Then he goes on to quote Michael, who said,

“A lot of the sounds on the album aren’t sounds from keyboards…. We go out and make our own sounds. We hit on things, we beat on things, so nobody can duplicate what we do. We make them with our own hands, we find things and we create things. And that’s the most important thing, to be a pioneer. To be an innovator.”

So, it was not a passing fancy for him; it was more like a life-long obsession. In fact, I believe that in his own book, Dancing the Dream, Michael talks about how he hears music in everything, in every part of nature. He writes,

“People ask me how I make music. I tell them I just step into it. It’s like stepping into a river and joining the flow. Every moment in the river has its song. So I stay in the moment and listen…. As long as I can listen to the moment, I’ll always have music.”

To me, this says that Michael had the ability to hear music in absolutely everything – a car horn, the crunch of leaves in the fall, the sound of the wind rustling through the trees, even a baby’s cry or his children’s laughter. I bet, if we could ask him right now, he would tell us that this was true.

Willa:  I think you’re right, Joie, and I think he tried hard to share that with us so that we could begin hearing the music of the world around us as well – both the natural world, as Joe describes so well in the “lush production” of “Break of Dawn”  (“It is as natural and beautiful as the birdsong that unobtrusively appears throughout the track”) and the man-made world, as we hear in that pounding opening trilogy of Invincible.

Joe’s book also shows that sometimes he incorporated these found sounds as is, and sometimes he experimented with them in the studio to push the envelope even further. As Michael Jackson himself says,

“I like to take sounds and put them under the microscope and just talk about how we can manipulate the character of it.”

And he didn’t just innovate in the studio. He was also constantly thinking about how to use new technology to share his music and ideas with his audience. In the 1980s, this new technology was MTV and the music video. In the 2000s, it was the Internet and music streaming and, according to Joe, he had a plan worked out for how to harness that technology to promote his next album, especially since he couldn’t count on Sony to promote it for him:

“He also had a unique plan in store for the new music’s release…. [H]is vision was to finish many of the tracks while his concerts were going in London and release them one-by-one as singles, not as a full album. It was a brilliant idea. Jackson, as always, was keenly attuned to the music industry and felt this was the ideal way to disseminate his music in the age of digital downloading. He also realized that with the publicity generated by his ongoing stay at the biggest venue in the world, the anticipation for each new song would be huge. Rather than give critics a chance to immediately dismiss his new album as a flop, he’d outsmart them by having hit single after hit single.”

Joie:  Yeah, I read that and was amazed. What an incredibly brilliant idea that was! Especially since he was sort of a “free agent” at that time, the biggest artist in the world without a record deal.

Willa, this book of Joe’s is really the greatest comprehensive work on Michael Jackson’s solo career that we have ever seen. Honestly, I can’t think of any other book out there that rivals it. The only one that even comes close is Adrian Grant’s Michael Jackson: The Visual Documentary, which many fans refer to as ‘the Bible’ because it’s so all-encompassing. But that book, though incredible, is completely different from Man in the Music because it doesn’t solely focus on Michael’s art or even attempt to look at it in any real or meaningful way; it’s merely a reference guide. There is also Cadman and Halstead’s Michael Jackson: For the Record, which is a wonderful book with lots of great information on chart placings and such for each song – beginning in the early Motown days – but again, it doesn’t really go into the extreme detail that Joe does. It’s also strictly a reference guide, whereas Man in the Music is so much more than that. So, actually, in terms of providing an in-depth look at Michael’s adult solo work – the creation of each song on each album and the possible meanings behind them – Joe’s book really has no equal. It’s just amazing. You know, I am so devoted to this book that I intend to ‘Pay Michael Forward’ for Christmas this year. Everyone on my list is getting a copy!