Sunday, August 29, 2010
As published in POPULAR 1 Magazine (Spain) Oct. 2009
Photo of Jim at home listening to "I'll Be There" UK 45
As I write this, it’s unbelievably been over 20 years since my first encounter with Michael Jackson. I’m not claiming to have been friends with Michael and I never really hung out with him, but he knew my name and he knew me by sight. After I found out that Queen Latifah, John Mayer and others who were on stage at Michael’s memorial had never even met him and also Usher and Mariah Carey only had “minimal contact,” I figured I had a right to speak up and tell my dumb little story. I’ve actually wanted to write down the details for years but I guess there was a part of me that never wanted to believe that the story was finished and I was always hoping for another chapter. I feel fortunate and lucky to have spent any amount of time with Michael Jackson because I have been a huge fan literally my whole life, and I truly believe he was one of the greatest singers and entertainers of all-time.
I was just a little kid when cutting out the Jackson 5’s cardboard records on the back of Alpha Bits cereal boxes and playing them meant more to me than the breakfast itself. And some of the first 45s my Mom bought for me (before I could even read) were “Mama’s Pearl,” “Sugar Daddy,” “Rockin’ Robin,” “Ben” and others. They were my introduction to Motown and soul music. As time went on, I loved Michael’s voice on mid-70s hits like “Dancing Machine” and “Enjoy Yourself” and I can remember straining to hear “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)” for the first time on my parent’s car radio over the family noise on an evening drive to the grocery store and knowing even then (as a mature musicologist at 10) that Michael was a force and just kept getting better. In my teens I bought “The Girl Is Mine” 45 featuring another one of my favorite singers, Paul McCartney before “Thriller” was released and I wore it out while still trying to keep it in good condition for the future. When the very first compact discs were being released, some of the early titles I remember buying were “Destiny,” “Triumph,” and “Victory.” In 1987, just before I moved to Los Angeles I bought “Bad” on vinyl. By the time I got to L.A. the “Bad” tour was big news but I spent all my money driving a van cross country to get to Hollywood and there was no way I could afford concert tickets. I had to find a job!
In the summer of 1988 I filled out an application for employment at Tower Records at 8801 Sunset Boulevard (the store is no longer there) and was told to go to the info booth in the middle of the store and ask for a manager. As I waited there, a customer approached and I turned my head to see Elton John standing next to me. “Hello,” I said in a way that told him I had obviously just moved here from Delaware and he said hello back. He had just finished one of his many shopping excursions picking up EVERY new release. Elton was one of many music industry and record company insiders who had an open account with the store and they could come in and grab anything they want at anytime and pay the bill monthly. I ran outside to the front of the store to use the payphone (still there at the time of this writing!) to call my parents to say I might have a job and I just met Elton John!! Hollywood was looking up!
Now keep in mind this is pre-internet days and the Compact Disc was a brand new format. When I started working at Tower, vinyl was being phased out and we still had a “tape department” (which is where I started). Tower Records was known for having the best selection of all music genres, period. People would shop at Tower to discover music and to find titles they couldn’t find anywhere else. The store was known for their expert buyers and deep catalog stock as well as having all the latest Top 40 chart hits. I had been to Tower Records on the east coast (South Street in Philadelphia) a few times but the Sunset store was the undisputed king. Celebrities could be seen any time of the day (the hours were from 9 A.M. to Midnight, 365 days of the year) and within a matter of weeks I had shaken hands with W. Axl Rose, Tony Bennett, Whitney Houston and Eddie Murphy. When Sylvester Stallone came in, he asked me if I would keep an eye on his car in the parking lot while he shopped (and I did until my manager came out and asked me “what the hell are you doing?” but hey, let’s see YOU say no to Stallone) and Bill Murray treated me like an old friend. I met some personal heroes like Ron Mael, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Bruce Springsteen. I even danced down the aisle with Mike Tyson after I helped him find “Rick James Greatest Hits” on cassette but that’s a whole other story. The employees were trained to assist the customers and ask them if they needed any help, so we always had a reason to talk to people and a good opening line (“Let me know if you need any help”) without freaking any famous people out. It was great. On any given afternoon you could see Paul Stanley or the legendary Gladys Knight walk into the store and while they shopped you could think of anything you ever wanted to ask them and actually have a one on one conversation (albeit sometimes very brief) with your idols daily. If you talk to anyone who worked at the Sunset store and they’ll have celebrity stories for you. For the first few months I kept a list on my refrigerator writing down the names of “stars” that I “met” and the date written next to their name.
Tower Sunset was known for their in-store sound system (Stevie Wonder even debuted his “Songs In The Key Of Life” album there by playing a vinyl test-pressing for a lucky group of shoppers in 1976) and by the time I got there, music videos were big sellers. Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalker” was a new release that was shown on the multi TV screens all the time. In the center of the store there was the “Information Booth,” where one or two employees always sat readily available for customers’ questions armed with telephones, catalogs of available products and a turntable. I felt important whenever I would get to do a shift at the info booth. I was good with music trivia and the customers appreciated my knowledge. Each employee would get to choose one or two new release album sides to hear during your 8 hour workday. Most had good taste but we also had to suffer through bad Dokken (who were popular enough at the time to have just released a double live album!), Wee Papa Girl Rappers and even Glen Meadmore. My two main choices to play were a bit more Top 40 oriented-“Hysteria” by Def Leppard and “Bad” by Michael Jackson, both of which contained multiple hit singles that kept topping the charts for over a year. Boy, did I take a lot of heat from all the “cool” record store workers for playing those albums! I remember this glam rocker that worked there named Dennis who complained out loud about how Michael Jackson “sucked” every time either side of the “Bad” LP was played and also a girl who commented every time Joe Elliott used the word “woman.” But hey, I knew the feeling-each time I heard the opening bass notes of the “Nothing’s Shocking” album, I thought I was gonna lose my minimum wage mind.
Another memory I have of the store is a large wall display with a big photo of Michael singing with arm outstretched promoting the “Bad” concert tour which had been going strong worldwide for over a year and Michael sold out the L.A. Sports Arena (18,000) on November 13, 1988.
I remember it was a quiet Sunday night (exactly two weeks after that concert) and I was standing at the register when I saw a man and a young boy walk in the tape room and start shopping for cassettes. My immediate thought was how strange the man looked with a big afro covered by a baseball hat, glasses, fake nose, buck teeth and cheap “Goodwill” clothes and even a few band-aids on his face and hands. I’m not sure what it was that made me put two and two together (but surely the fact that this weird adult guy was with a little white boy helped me realize it quicker) but all of a sudden I got nervous and shaky with the idea that this was the superstar himself in disguise. In order to stand closer to the stranger and the boy, I grabbed a box of stray cassettes and filed some tapes on the shelves just in time to hear the man tell the boy that he can pick out as many tapes as he wanted.
That voice!! I knew it!!
I walked back to the register bursting with excitement. Now, how can I tell anybody without looking like an idiot? One of my favorite characters and friends from those days was a cool cat named Larry J. who loved music and was an R&B encyclopedia that I was constantly questioning and hounding for trivia and knowledge. And he is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Larry was working the late shift with me that night and I called him on the intercom and asked him to come over to the tape room. I collected my composure and told him, “I think that guy down the aisle there is Michael Jackson.” He looked at the oddly-dressed customer and then back at me like I was insane and said “get out of here, man!” I told him about my voice test and pointed out the boy shopping with him. “Ah, man you’re crazy,” he said as he walked away through the security gate onto the main floor but then he turned back around toward me and looked me in the eye and whispered “it IS him.”
It turns out Larry knew it all along. Michael had approached Larry when he first walked in the store to say who he was just in case he did get recognized. But the costume made him look creepy and semi-homeless so most people would not even look twice at him. But hey, I figured it out!
A few minutes later, Michael and the boy were standing near the register and I told him to let me know if he needed any help. He showed me a few of the tapes and said he wouldn’t mind getting them on CD. I walked him through the CD aisle and effortlessly found what he was looking for. Michael liked all kinds of music and I remember him buying EVERYTHING from Steely Dan to Frank Sinatra, Boston to Ella Fitzgerald and Earth, Wind & Fire to Rolling Stones CDs. As a fan of Michael’s music, I already knew he loved Queen and the Bee Gees and I’ve even read about him being a Yes fan and apparently he was even obsessed with Nine Inch Nails in the ‘90s! Anyway, it was nice to see his tastes first hand and witness his enthusiasm about music history. I would give ANYTHING to see those itemized Tower receipts again! It was the era when everyone was getting rid of their vinyl and replacing them with CDs and Michael really got into building a definitive CD collection.
I don’t recall if I actually let on that I knew who he was right away, but he quickly trusted me as an employee and also someone who knew a bit about music. He filled up a shopping basket and I took all his CDs and cassettes and told him he didn’t have to wait in line and we could ring it all up in the “employees only” back room. He then handed me his American Express Platinum card (which read “MJJ Productions”) and followed me to the back of the store.
The celebrities liked it when you gave them a little special treatment and Michael was no different. In the safety of the back room Michael took out his teeth and removed the fake nose to talk to Larry and I. Michael saw the security guards coming in and out of a small second floor room with a “one way” security mirror they used to watch for shoplifters. Michael became fascinated with the idea and asked if he and the boy could go up to the security room and people watch for a few minutes. “I never get to watch people,” Michael said. He was so excited to just sit there, look at shoppers being normal without worrying about being seen or recognized.
With all the CDs and tapes accounted for, I ran Michael’s credit card and he signed the slip. I asked nicely, “would it be OK if we got you to sign a few things for the employees?” “Sure, but no pictures,” he said embarrassed by his outfit and also not wanting photos to get out revealing his disguise. I recall he was nervous and his hands were shaking at first which made me feel a little better about my own nervousness.
I grabbed a copy of his then current hit single “Smooth Criminal” on 7” vinyl and he signed the picture sleeve “To Jim.” Standing behind me was a line of employees with Michael items in their hands all wanting a signature making me wonder who was running the store on the main floor. And right there in the front, practically salivating, was glam rock Dennis holding a copy of the “Bad” LP to get autographed. Hypocrites!
Michael thanked me for my help and I shook his hand (and remember telling everyone afterwards that his hand was whiter than mine!) and we carried his boxes out to his car. I was shocked that he was driving his own car! I remember getting home that night after midnight and finding a good parking spot on Gower by my apartment, breathing in the cool nighttime air and feeling an incredible high that I was actually living in L.A. and I had just met the King Of Pop (although he wouldn’t be called that for a few more years!).
In the next eight months Michael came in to shop seven more times while I was on the clock. And always with the same goofy disguise. He started looking for me as soon as he walked in and I would see those big eyes coming towards me and he would enthusiastically say “Hi! How are you?” I would always feel like I was in the presence of extreme importance, equivalent to meeting Charlie Chaplin or Elvis. He was extremely polite and you could tell he really was a good guy. He valued my knowledge of music trivia and I’d always end up following him around answering his artist/song questions and carrying his stacks of CDs for him while he flipped through the sections of every artist he was interested in. He always had at least one young boy with him and sometimes two. He would always spoil them and let them pick out whatever they wanted and when he was finished shopping, they’d plop down an extra dozen cassettes on the top of Michael’s CD stacks. Man, I wish someone would do that for me!
Larry often teased me saying “Mike likes you!” and other employees would joke about my “friend” Michael Jackson. To this day, my friends remember that I was the chosen one that he decided to trust in while shopping for his music. We would browse through the whole Rock & Soul CD section together from A-Z and then go through all of the jazz, oldies and soundtrack sections too. Sometimes he’d say something like “I need to get a Little Richard CD” and I’d help him choose the best available title. It blows me away to think that many of the CDs he bought for his personal collection were recommended by me!
Another cool memory is when Michael stopped in on a really busy Saturday afternoon and the store was super busy. We were standing together browsing through the “I” section of CDs and two teenage girls were browsing to the right of us in the “J” section. One of them shrieked, “Michael Jackson!!” and we stopped dead in our tracks until we realized she was just excited by the “Bad” CD she was holding and she had no idea she was standing right next to the man himself. After a lengthy shopping spree, I helped him carry his purchases to his car again that day and oddly, the back seat was crammed full of just purchased stuffed animals that we pushed to the side to make room for all of the CDs. Once again, Michael was his own driver and as he pulled out onto Sunset Boulevard he gave me a wave goodbye as he drove away.
Each time he left the store I wondered if I would ever see him again but he kept coming back. By the fifth time I had acquired Michael’s signature on the CD trilogy of “Off The Wall,” “Thriller,” and “Bad” that I treasure to this day. I obtained them on three separate occasions (he signed them “Love to Jim-Michael Jackson”) and after that, I made a vow to myself not to ask him for any more autographs.
On the subject of Michael’s young companions, I only have one weird story and I’ll just state the facts. We were in the back room once and Michael asked if his young friend could use our bathroom (which also was for employees only) and I said yes because we did make exceptions. Now the kid was between 8-11 years old and Michael followed him right into the bathroom and they locked the door. They were only in there a minute or so but yes, I thought it was strange. But I really don’t know the full story or if the kid needed special help or whatever the reasoning was so I’ll leave it at that.
There was also a downside about working at the Tower store on Sunset-everyone wanted to work there and all of the good management positions were filled by long-time staffers and that left new employees to run the midnight shift and man the cash registers. Within a year of working there, I was offered a management position at another Tower Records on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks (oh no, not The Valley!). I knew it wouldn’t be as exciting as working at the Sunset store but I took it anyway. I continued to meet celebrities there but they were a notch below the ones in Hollywood like Shaun Cassidy, Steve Perry and members of Slaughter.
I was busy working one day when a girl from Tower Sunset named Lori called to tell me that Michael had just been there and had asked for me! She told him that I had switched to another store. Damn! I tried to tell the employees of the valley store about my run-ins with Michael but most just laughed because it didn’t seem believable.
During a hot afternoon in Sherman Oaks, a Tower employee named Charles came running into the store and said that Michael Jackson was shopping at the toy store right down the street on Ventura Boulevard and he was surrounded by bodyguards. (Note: there’s also a toy store on Hollywood Boulevard that Michael frequented and also I know of a hole-in-the-wall Chinese food restaurant on Highland called “Le Oriental Bistro” that I’ve been told he thought had the best Chinese food. He was also spotted numerous times at the rundown “Cosmopolitan” bookstore on Melrose.)
I took a quick break and went walking down Ventura towards the toy store to see for myself (stalker!) when all of a sudden Michael and the bodyguards were headed right towards me. That day he wasn’t wearing a disguise and it was the only time that I ever saw him actually look like Michael Jackson.
“Hey Michael,” I said and waved to him.
He stopped and walked towards me and the bodyguards loosened up.
“Oh hi, where’ve you been?”
“I’m working at the Tower across the street now. It’s a cool store, you should come in and check it out.”
“I will,” Michael said excitedly, “I’ll come and see you.”
“OK, see you later!”
Two days later I was upstairs in the manager’s office when someone burst in to tell me “Michael Jackson’s downstairs and he’s asking for you.” Amazing! He really did come to see me! I walked out onto the floor and there was that afro and those crazy teeth.
“There you are!” Michael exclaimed when he saw me and he immediately started asking me questions and advice about the different CDs he was already holding. We went through the whole store that day filling in the gaps for his five star CD collection. Oh yeah, that day he also brought along a few boys (I think there might have been three of them) who were getting the full shopping spree treatment.
Just like at the Sunset store Michael happily went in the back room, took out his teeth and signed autographs for the Tower Valley workers who were all blown away by his presence. After he left I was the hero for the rest of the day (week, year) and there was some other folklore to talk about in that store other than the day George got stabbed chasing a shoplifter.
In the next few years I left Tower and started my own band. I sometimes wondered if I would ever run into Michael Jackson again. I would hear stories of him recording new music at Record One on Ventura Boulevard, Ocean Way in Hollywood and even Marvin Gaye’s old studio on Sunset Boulevard and Schrader.
In my personal life, I became a vegetarian and dropped some weight when eating healthy and jogging became an obsession. In 1991 I was invited by a friend to go to the Record Plant West off of Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood for a listening party of the new Michael Jackson album “Dangerous.” The music blew my mind. I couldn’t wait for it to be released. I found out that ‘The Wherehouse,’ a now defunct music store on Sunset and La Brea was going to open at midnight to sell the first copies of “Dangerous” that was officially being released that day. The release of “Dangerous” in Hollywood was a total event. I was 5th or 6th in line and right behind me with a copy in his hands was “Weird” Al Yankovic. Classic!
I thought “Dangerous” was an incredible piece of work, half of it was heavy and intense and the other half was radio friendly pop standards. Once again Michael proved that he was a master of songwriting and Teddy Riley took the production to another level while still maintaining the R&B tradition. “Dangerous” was truly ahead of the times and filled with hit singles that were instant classics. Michael’s vocal work was simply amazing.
One Sunday evening, a friend and I were walking on Hollywood Boulevard after dinner. I noticed a family walking ahead of us who had just crossed the street. There was a mother with two children and walking just ahead of them was a young boy and a woman in a full-body burka with just her eyes exposed. Wait a minute, I know those eyes!!
“I think that’s Michael Jackson up there,” I said cutting my friend off in mid-sentence.
“What? What are you talking about?” he replied as anyone else would, with disbelief.
“He always wears a disguise and he’s walking with that family,” I said as my adrenaline made my heart beat faster. I didn’t want to bother him but I didn’t want to regret not saying hello.
“Look at those eyes,” I said to my friend, “that’s totally him!”
The family slowed down to look at a shop window and I walked up next to Michael.
He immediately squinted his eyes as hard as he could and looked at me cautiously.
“It’s Jim from Tower, I just wanted to say hello.”
He recognized me and leaned in close to whisper in my ear. “Promise not to tell a soul,” he said and I assured him I wouldn’t let anyone in on the secret. He looked over at the courtyard of the Guinness World of Records Museum and said to me “Come on, let’s go over here” and I followed him. Away from the crowds on the boulevard, I watched his eyes look at me up and down.
“You look great!” he exclaimed to me as he let his guard down to take a few minutes to catch up with me.
“Thanks,” I told him, “I’m totally inspired by you, trying to be my best. And I love your new album!”
“Oh, thank you,” he said humbly.
We talked a little more about the album and also how I was now in a band and doing gigs around town and he wished me luck. I introduced him to my friend who was standing behind us with his mouth open. We shook hands and said goodbye and I purposely walked away in the opposite direction so we weren’t following him. As I turned the corner going south on Highland, I released my excitement of running into my hero for the ELEVENTH time by yelling at the top of my lungs, “YEAH!”
A few months later I went to the filming of Michael’s “Will You Be There” performance for MTV’s 10th Anniversary show at an airport hangar with just a few hundred other fans in Santa Monica. Michael and all the dancers did the song 3 or 4 times for the cameras and each time Michael gave it 110%. It was the only time I got to see him perform live. Also, when “HIStory” was released I was invited to another album listening party with an advance screening of the “Scream” video at a Sony Records movie theatre but there was no sign of Michael that day.
Through the years I always wondered if and when I would run into him somewhere again. He was the best and truly one of a kind. Hollywood isn’t the same without Michael Jackson around.
MJ MEGA VINYL MIX