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BLAIR’S BLOG: Michael Jackson, Batman and Keren Ann

As I write this, the Michael Jackson verdict is less than 24 hours old, yet already I’ve seen literally dozens of articles in newspapers and on-line speculating about what Michael can or should do next. There has been much discussion about the sorry state of his finances, the sorry state of his career and mutterings about MJ’s inability to ever re-capture the public’s love and affection. Wrong! This is a comeback waiting to happen. And here’s how it should be done.

1. Be humble. Lose the strange tailored suits with the arm bands and medals. You don’t have to start wearing blue jeans; not at all. But you’ve got to lose the look that screams “I am different!” We know you’re different. What we want to see is how you are like us—how your feelings and emotions connect with all us regular folks. And that means…

2. No more self-pitying songs. Yes, you have been victimized, probably since your childhood, but no one wants to hear about how you’ve been wronged and persecuted. Look around you (and I don’t mean at Neverland)—there are millions of things and people to write songs about. Your songs are better when they are less self-conscious.

3. Do not attempt a giant comeback tour…yet. This goes against what most pundits are saying right now, but I think it’s the key to the whole comeback. You do not want go out there with a mega-million dollar tour that tries to recapture past glories and ends up falling short of expectations. Would people expect an extravaganza with dancers and lasers and video projections and props and explosions and the whole shebang? Absolutely. But you can’t do that right now. This should be a period of reflection and contrition (however, NO public weeping on Primetime Live or 60 Minutes…yet), so the way to go is…

4. The low-key televised concert a la Elvis ’68. Remember when they said Elvis was washed up and then he came back with that great TV special, where he wore the black leather and had a small band and he played a bunch of his old hits and kind of joked around and reminded everyone of why we loved him? This is something you could do so easily: An intimate venue, a small tasty band (maybe get that cool dawg Randy Jackson to play bass for you), a well-picked selection of your hits, a few more obscure tunes from your extensive catalog, a couple of surprising cover tunes, maybe a pair of new songs, one of which could later be pulled as a single. Maybe there are a couple of surprise guests who drop by to help out on a song or two. You rearrange the songs to fit the small band format; maybe there’s a trio of backup singers to help out, too. You’re relaxed, you’re charming (which we know you can be). You do some slick dance moves here and there, but it’s not a spectacle—it’s an artist and his music. You engage the crowd around you, not be apart from it. Maybe there’s an acoustic segment that really shows off your singing and songwriting. Look what that Unplugged album did for Eric Clapton’s career. Imagine “Billie Jean” slowed down to a sizzling simmer the way Clapton slowed down “Layla.” What if “I Want You Back” was completely re-tooled with a quartet of male gospel singers chiming in on the chorus? In other words, take some chances and have fun doing it. You’ll thrill your public—and yourself!

5. After the special is a smash and the DVD sells like hotcakes, then you can start to think about making an “old-school” MJ record, and hopefully the public will be back on your side and waiting for it. At that point, though, you might well decide that the new, more humble, more engaging Michael is a better fit with the second half of what has already been a most remarkable career.

6. Do not ever, under any circumstances, call yourself the “King of Pop” again. That phony baloney title was created by your own marketing people, who insisted that press types and promoters use it. Elvis was “The King” by popular acclimation; same with “The Boss.” Being Michael Jackson is enough. No need to pump it up with verbal silicone.

7. Cut your entourage back, get rid of the sycophants, try to do some “normal” things out of the public eye, even if you have to go to the Maldive Islands to do them. You don’t have to be MICHAEL JACKSON 24 hours a day. If the paparazzi want to show you shuffling out in your driveway wearing pajamas as you pick up the morning paper, that would be a good thing. Trying to control your “image” every second of every day is a burden nobody should have to shoulder.

So, bottom line: Chill for now. Think small. Don’t get swept up in the media circus. Stay away from Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters. (Go on Charlie Rose instead and talk about music.) A lot of people are rooting for you, Michael. We’ve got your back, man! And remember, necessity is the mother of re-invention.

I went down to my favorite local movie theater—the venerable Grand Lake in Oakland, just a stone’s throw from my house—and caught Batman Begins on opening night. It’s amazing to me how all the advance press for the latest Star Wars film really just about wiped out the hype for all the other summer films. War of the Worlds—Cruise! Spielberg!—has been flying way under the radar, but I’d bet big money it’s going to be a lot better than Revenge of the Sith (which I did enjoy, stilted acting notwithstanding). I wouldn’t say that Batman Begins exactly sneaked into theaters, but the opening was relatively low-key, still in the long shadow cast by Lord Vader.

But what a fine movie Batman Begins is! Who knew that Christopher Nolan, director of the brilliant, twisted psychological thriller Memento a few years back, could make a brilliant and twisted blockbuster popcorn flick? Like the third Harry Potter film (Prisoner of Azkaban), which was directed by a real artist, Alfonso Cuaron, Batman Begins shows what having a director with some real vision can do to a franchise that has been treading water (or, more precisely, drowning) in recent years.

This being MixLine, I’d like to single out the sound crew of Batman Begins for a job very well done. All the whiz-bang stuff is about what you’d expect, but the sound also contributes mightily to the more profound psychological dimensions of the film and the surround mix is wonderfully creative. Much of the crew is British and not well-known in the U.S.—kudos to supervising sound editors David Evans and Stefan Hendrix, sound designer Andy Kennedy and production recordists Peter Lindsay and Christian Joyce, and all the editors up and down the chain. The talented re-recording mixers are Americans: Lora Hirschberg and Gary Rizzo.

Finally, in the May issue of Mix I wrote about the French folk chanteuse Keren Ann, whose recent Blue Note album of songs in French and English, Nolita, is one of my favorites of the year, so far. On June 16, I went to see her at a small club in San Francisco called Café Du Nord and was completely mesmerized by her performance; it really knocked me out. Accompanied only by the New York-based guitarist Jack Petruzzelli (wielding a hollow-body Gretsch), and playing a Gretsch herself, Keren Ann moved easily from one moody, evocative tune to another, going back and forth between French and English, yet always sounding completely European—even when she sang versions of “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “Tennessee Waltz.” It isn’t hard to imagine her busking for Euros outside Notre Dame or some Paris metro station, but her songs are also perfectly suited to a dark club and a rapt, attentive crowd. There’s a simplicity to her songs that is almost disarming—they paint emotions in limited but colorful brushstrokes. It was amazing to hear how much music came out of these two guitars: Keren Ann frequently rode a wah-wah pedal with marvelous results, and Petruzzelli was like a one-man orchestra, using a huge collection of pedals to make his guitars lines sing, scream, cry or sound like a whole string section. This is definitely a guitarist to watch. I’d love to see Blue Note put out a live CD of this duo in action; it was that magical.