Behind every great family are usually a few things you’d probably be better off not knowing. Take the Kennedys, for instance. They’re fondly remembered for bringing a Camelot atmosphere to the White House. But father Joe made his bones as a ruthless businessman, Jack had a few women on the side, Teddy liked to hoist a few, the late John John couldn’t pass the New York bar, and Patrick Kennedy isn’t a good driver. And don’t get me started on William Kennedy Smith.
The Jacksons are the First Family of popular music, with apologies to other such clans that run the gamut from the Osmonds to the Osbornes. They’re responsible for the Jackson Five, one of the coolest combos to ever grace the recording industry. The Jacksons can also be proud of Janet, who has had a monster career in her own right, and they can acknowledge that LaToya is also genetically connected and that eventually her talent will show itself.
But over the years, during which Michael Jackson has gone from front kid to front man to wanted man, some tarnish has accumulated on the family legacy. It’s like scratching the paint off a simple Norman Rockwell to find that underneath is a bizarre Salvador Dali. Few assemblages have gone from wonderful to weird in less time than the Jacksons.
The news broke recently that the Jackson Five is planning a reunion. That came during a BBC radio interview with Jermaine, who was in England to appear on the British version of “Celebrity Big Brother.” Jermaine Jackson said that concert dates have been discussed, the tour could happen next year and that the reason they’ve delayed such a reunion for so long is because Michael was mired in legal woes.
Indeed, just as Michael has enjoyed the most success of all the Jackson siblings, he has also attracted the most trouble. His unflattering headlines are too numerous to name, but suffice to say most come under the headings of “Cosmetic Surgery,” “Ill-Fated Marriages” and “Child Care.”
Praying for a miracle
Despite all the negativity associated with the Jacksons, I’m not reacting to this proposed Jackson Five reunion with the cynicism it probably deserves. Instead, I’m praying for a miracle. I’m hoping they can make some good music together and remind the world what all the fuss was about in the first place.
This undoubtedly is their last chance.
The Jackson Five might have been a cute collection of kids in the late ‘60s, but they were a dynamic force in the industry and a worthy addition to the Motown legacy. They performed well-crafted pop tunes with a soul and rhythm-and-blues flavor, and they had the dance moves to dazzle.
The Jackson Five had several hits that have stood up through the years, most notably “The Love You Save,” “ABC,” “I Want You Back,” “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Dancing Machine.” Technically, they lasted from 1966 until 1990, but their heyday extended from their Motown signing in 1968 until around 1985, in the aftermath of the successful “Victory” album and tour in ’84.
Since then, they’ve segued from artists to oddities. Most of the Jacksons have gone off on career and personal tangents. Jermaine converted to Islam and lives most of the time in the Middle East. Marlon became a real estate agent and entrepreneur. Jackie runs a record company. Tito has three sons who formed the group 3T. Randy — who replaced Jermaine in 1975 — managed Michael’s business affairs for a time.
Previous ‘reunions’ have spawned skepticism
The Jackson Five have staged reunions since the old days, the results of which spawns skepticism about this latest venture. They got together for a Motown special in ’83, and made another appearance at Madison Square Garden in 2001. But those incidents didn’t leave a lingering satisfaction. The first was thoroughly enjoyable, but it came around the time when Michael was cooking in the wake of “Thriller” and it was more about him. The second seemed more out of desperation, as if to remind the world that there was a time when the Jackson Five mattered.
Certainly this alleged 2008 reunion tour could also be condemned as less than genuine. After Michael’s trial on sexual molestation charges, his cash reserves have probably evaporated. And the other brothers no doubt could use an influx of revenue, judging by their less-than-spectacular solo careers.
It’s important for them to know, however, that any more dirt thrown on the family name at this point will only prove counterproductive at the box office and even more detrimental to their musical heritage. The Jacksons over the years have become more like the Kennedys. The ugly truths have overwhelmed the romantic memories. The tell-alls have supplanted the wistful anecdotes.
The music, unfortunately, has been dangled off a hotel balcony, to the great horror of onlookers.
If the Jackson Five can get into the studio with some of the best soul and R&B songwriters working today and cut a handful of new songs that might stand proudly against their old hits, and then embark on a world tour with the kind of passion and buoyancy that they once had, it might just erase some of the sour notes.
And at this point in their often tumultuous history, some is a lot better than none at all.
Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.