Jermaine Jackson - You Are Not Alone: Michael, Through a Brother's Eyes (Book Review)

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    Since his excellence is indisputable and numbers don't lie, few will deny the impact Michael Jackson had---and has---in popular music. Perhaps more than any other entertainer, the supernaturally-gifted star combined his musicial abilities and showmanship to enthrall folks from all races, creeds, religions and backgrounds, transcending boundaries and touching listeners with his soul and spirit as he poured both into spell-binding performances. However, because of such a long record of excellence (and eccentricity), many viewed him as a machine instead of a man, which dehumanized him and unneccessarily tainted his legacy. Given the enormity of his iconic status and acchievements, it's hard for some to realize that Michael was not just a spectacular entertainer, but also a beloved son, sibling, father and friend, a fact that older brother Jermaine seeks to emphasize in his touching memoir. Is its timing----just ahead of the wrongful death trial----advantageous? Yes.

    Could it be for profit? Maybe. But what can never be disputed is that his sharing a home and a bloodline with the lengendary performer affords Jermaine a perspective that fans would be remiss to overlook.

    As the fourth-born child and the third son of the Jackson musical dynasty, Jermaine shares vivid memories of the family's hard-knock life in their hometown of Gary, Indiana and how the children of a crane operator and sales clerk became awe-inspiring, multi-platinum legends. Even casual MJ fans know about their rough neighborhood, Joe's temper, Katherine's tenderness and Tito's breaking of the guitar strings, but few were probably aware that neighbors could entice a school-age Michael to sing with a plate of freshly-baked cookies, and that due to his years of watching gang-fights through a window as a child,  the concept of his video "Beat It" hit closer to home than many realized.  
    In the process of unfolding his memories, Mr. Jackson employs a straightforward, if not hard-line approach in his effort to paint a clearer picture of their early years together and how some of their 'dysfunctionality' came into play. Yes, their father was a hard-nosed disciplinarian, but he was also a man scarred by the break-up of his family home and the death of a beloved sister, a man that Michael grew up fearing, but would learn to grudgingly forgive.
    Jermaine's first memories of The King of Pop were "changing his mushy diaper" as a kindergardener, marveling at his "long thin fingers, wide doe eyes" and "boundless energy and curiosity" years before they took the stage together as the Jackson 5. Singing, close quarters and having to watch out for one another was part of life from the very beginning, and as he succinctly stated, "Brotherhood stopped us from feeling disoriented throughout the whole metamorphosis. Whenever we looked at each other----in motels, new homes, recording studios and on the stage---we always felt 'home.' In our minds, we never left the confines of out bedroom in Gary." As expected, their beloved mother Katherine is described lovingly: "She suffered for us, in being pregnant for 81 months of her life. She was beautiful too, from the way she wore her wavy black hair to her pristine gowns, to the perfectly applied scarlet lipstick that left smudges on our cheeks. Mother was the sunshine inside of 2300 Jackson Street." To those born after the Civil Rights Era, Jermaine's matter-of-fact summations of their uber-strict upbringing may sound like rationalization, but it's hard not to relate to words like these:  "At his hands, we might have seen stars as he beat our ***es with a leather belt, but we never saw a knife, a gun, a knuckle-duster, a police cell or a hospital emergency room. I guess Joseph did what he felt was right at the time, in that era, in those circumstances."
    Since he's the seventh of nine siblings, Michael isn't the sole focus of the book and quirks about the other famous siblings come across as well, such as  their mother's insistence that they wear Vaseline from head to toe, how Joseph parlayed his competitive boxing instincts into grooming their musical abilities and even where Janet Jackson's key-in-the-earring trend came from (it had to do with a family pet). His insight about their early years (grilling stars for show tips, sleeping in Diana Ross' house, etc.) is as illuminating as it is endearing: who knew that Lionel Richie, in addition to songwriting prowess, was a tennis player who could've gone toe-to-toe with Authur Ashe? Who would've imagined that Stevie Wonder used a belt to play 'hide-and-seek' between recording sessions, and that Jermaine and his brothers once caught a motherly tongue-lashing from Diana Ross for spilling paint on her shag carpet? And the rumor about Marvin Gaye being jealous of Jermaine after he married Hazel? That was as true as it was dubious.

    You Are Not Alone won't provide much ammo for anyone seeking out chinks in MJ's armor or those cramming to understand the most bizarre aspects of his personal life (like the plastic surgery, which Jermaine confesses he avoided discussing with Michael), but it certainly sheds light on what type of man Michael was when he left the stage or recording studio. He was the super-sweet, thoughtful, Jehovah-devoted sibling who played endless pranks with brother Marlon during the J5 era, eavesdropped on Jermaine's groupie encounters ("she got some real creamy thighs!") and exploited his golden voice to extract favors from a female classmate so that he could pass math. In the way that only a relative could, Jermaine related how his kid brother put a racist in his place as an adult ("You are an ***"), what crucial mistake Michael committed----twice----in signing contracts, how messy sisters-in-law or serial killers inspired some of his biggest hits ("Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "Smooth Criminal") and how deeply affected he was when they left Jermaine alone at Motown to join Epic Records. For every persistent rumor or half-truth, Jermaine offers explanations that the fans will appreciate, even if they probably come across to detractors as rationalizations or wishful thinking: for example, it wasn't fear of rejection that kept him from touring to promote his last studio CD, Invincible; it was Michael's devotion to his "soldiers of love" (fans) and fears for their safety so soon after 9/11 (which his label Sony didn't seem to appeciate). No, he and Madonna didn't ever really date (in fact, Jermaine paints Madonna as a vulgar opportunist), yes,"Word to the Badd" was recorded in a fit of anger after months of miscommunication; and finally, of course, Michael Jackson's children are biologically his. 
    What readers may find to be most revealing, toward the end, is the truth behind Michael's erratic behavior and alleged 'fragile health'  as he was rehearsing for his much-anticipated shows in London. Without giving too much away, Jermaine explains that what MJ called 'the final curtain call' months before his death was a ploy to drive up ticket sales. He had found property for "a new Neverland" and made plans to record and tour nationally again, promising his mother that he and his brothers would take the stage for her one last time. His finances may have troubled and his reputation was compromised, but Michael had every reason to live and no expectation to die. Was he ever 'estranged' from his brothers on purpose or avoiding their attempts to help his issues and addictions? No, but interlopers intent on cashing in on MJ certainly hindered their communication and made it seem that way. 
    So, although touchier subjects are glossed over, mentioned peripherally or outright avoided (the burgeoning attraction to fellow label mate Whitney Houston that endangered his marriage, his half-sister from Jo'Vohnnie from one of Joseph's affairs, "Randy-gate," etc.), Jermaine succeeds in humanizing his brother and demonstrating how the media tried to break, but could only bend, the family bond. "That's the biggest misunderstanding about our family: few grasp that our love for each other was always the most important thing, regardless of perceptions built by headlines. 'Family' was all we knew, our platform for success, and it came before everything else." Anyone can write about their working relationship or their association with Michael, but looking Through a Brother's Eyes broadens the perspective of a compelling and complex individual, publicly celebrating his life and art as a court of law puts together the pieces of his controversial death.  Highly Recommended.

    By Melody Charles
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