Oh God, He’s Taking Demerol: The Michael Jackson You’ve Never Heard

Having done our best to do justice to the psychological and theological dimensions of Michael […]

David Zahl / 7.1.09

Having done our best to do justice to the psychological and theological dimensions of Michael Jackson’s life, it’s time to focus on his music. And since Thriller and Off the Wall have been absurdly well-covered in the media, I thought we’d take the strength-in-weakness route (relatively speaking) and look at a handful of songs from his less fashionable, post-Thriller period. The idea here being that even when Michael’s personal, um, detours were at their most bizarre, the man’s talent couldn’t not make it on to tape. And there’s something deeply comforting, and dare I say Gracious, about a gift so outsized it can’t be sabotaged by its recipient. Here we go, in chronological order:

1. “Eaten Alive“. As far as I know, the only song Michael ever wrote with the Bee Gees. This one was recorded in 1985 by Diana Ross, with Michael on back-up vocals, as a follow-up to that other infamous MJ/Diana single, “Muscles” (which may well be the worst/most embarrassing song he ever wrote – which is really saying something, if you consider 1984’s “Centipede”). But “Eaten Alive” is a great single with great 80s production, full of his signature innocence-tracked-by-evil magic, not to mention a eerily close-to-home title.

2. “Streetwalker”. An outtake of tragically good proportions from the Bad sessions. Why on earth this was left off the final tracklist in favor of “Just Good Friends” or “Speed Demon” is beyond me. The chorus ranks up there with his all-time most joyful. The bass line isn’t too shabby either.

3. “Monkey Business“. A leftover from Dangerous, and again, better than at least a third of the stuff that made the final cut (“Keep The Faith”, “Can’t Let Her Get Away”… ugh). Much funkier than most of the New Jack Swing he was recording at the time – think late-period Jackson 5 – it would’ve given the record a much-needed moment of light-heartedness. Plus, no one does a better “Lawd have mercy” than MJ.

4.”Tabloid Junkie“. The best of the non-single tracks from HIStory Vol.2, the song not only boasts about fifteen great hooks, it contains that record’s sole trace self-deprecating humor. Which goes a long way on such a sturm und drang disc. Best line has to be, “With your pen you torture men, you crucify the Lord”.

5. “Morphine”. The crown jewel of this list, the wild, prophetic “Morphine” is unlike anything Michael (or anyone else) ever recorded. In fact, it’s one of the high points of his career, period. Jackson often pushed the envelope, but rarely was he as artistically courageous as he was here, coming up with what was essentially a six and a half minute treatise on addiction and helplessness. Too bad he buried it on Blood on the Dance Floor! The real surprise comes just before the 3-minute mark, when the caustic, industrial riffing gives way to a delicate bridge (one of the prettiest he ever penned) in which Michael sings, “Demerol, Demerol, oh God, he’s taking Demerol.” Which, of course, is the drug that killed him. In Guns N’ Roses parlance, this is Michael’s “Rocket Queen” (and indeed, Slash is responsible for the guitar on both). The peace is only fleeting, though, as the claustrophobic power chords soon crash back in – perhaps Michael understood himself better than anyone thought.

6. “Whatever Happens“. After “You Rock My World”, this is my favorite off the otherwise iffy Invincible. Carlos Santana of all people helps out on this track, turning up the menace factor to 11. If danger had a voice, it would be MJ’s.

7. “We’ve Had Enough“. As silly as it may sound, I consider this big-production number from the 2003 Ultimate Collection boxed set to be the best anti-Iraq War song out there. Essentially a re-write of “Earth Song” (not a bad thing in my book), it ends with Michael pleading–over an enormous Gospel choir–“Just let God decide!” Priceless.

Bonus pre-Thriller tracks: 1. “Got the Hots”. How could Thriller have been any better? The answer is this song, which was recorded during those sessions. 2. “Night Time Lover” (duet with Latoya). One of his last disco outings was also one of his best. Not even Latoya could sully it.