June 25, 2009
The Day I Sang for Michael Jackson
“Sing me your favorite melody, David”, Michael Jackson said to me.
I was sitting alone with Michael in one of the many living rooms at his Neverland ranch in the summer of 2000, and we were talking about melodies.
I had come up to see him because we were planning to discuss him writing an article for our “Parents” issue of OLAM magazine. I spent a lot of time that summer hanging out with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (going with him to the Sydney Olympics, among other things) who everyone knew was close to Michael.
Shmuley, the great schmoozer that he is, told me that Michael “really loved” OLAM magazine, and that he might be interested in writing an original piece for the “Parents” issue.
So off we went to Neverland, with, of course, my two young daughters, Tova and Shanni.
On the way up, I played some old Michael videos (“Thriller”) to give my daughters a little education on someone who a decade earlier had been the most famous person on the planet. When we got to the ranch, we had to sign special papers at the main gate, and agree to take no pictures.
That’s too bad, because I could have taken some great shots at the moment Michael met my daughters. Shanni’s first question for him—before even how are you? or nice to meet you—was: “Is it true that you have rollercoasters?”
One of Michael’s handlers took my daughters to see the rides and the elephants, while the grown-ups sat down to talk. Shimon Peres’s granddaughter, Mika Walden, who would soon be working at my ad agency, came along for support. We talked about OLAM magazine and the special issue on “Parents”, as well as other projects that Rabbi Shmuley was working on with Michael.
The issue for me was, how candid would Michael be if he wrote an OLAM article about his childhood? The last thing I wanted (OK, not the last thing) was a puff piece with just a famous name attached.
Thanks in large part to Shmuley’s help, Michael came through with an honest piece. He fessed up to the lack of love he felt growing up, especially from his hard-driving father. But in the sweet, enchanted tone that he was known for, he also wrote lovingly of the little moments—his father putting him up on a little pony or getting him his favorite glazed donuts—that marked him growing up.
The day the issue broke, we started getting calls from People magazine and TV news shows who wanted to know how we got Michael to write for OLAM. We had our fifteen minutes of fame, but we didn’t divulge anything that was not in the magazine. That was our deal with Michael.
Beyond the article he wrote, what I will remember most is the moment we spent alone in his living room. By then Shmuley had gone to another part of the house for a meeting with Michael’s manager, and there I was, completely alone with the King of Pop.
I decided that I wouldn’t waste this moment with mindless chatter. So I thought of something he might be interested in that I felt passionate about, and I dove right in.
“I have always been madly in love with melodies”, I told him. “The whole idea of a beautiful melody blows me away. How can a certain arrangement of notes have so much power over me?”
“There are certain melodies that I cannot imagine living without”, I continued.
“They’re like a part of me. I surrender to them.”
By now I was kvelling and I couldn’t control myself—but I meant every word. At that moment, Michael, in his sweet, hummingbird voice, looked at me and said, “Sing me your favorite melody, David.”
And I did. It was an ancient Sephardic melody that Moroccan Jews sing only on Yom Kippur. It is my all-time favorite melody. Growing up, I would often cry when I would hear it. It’s the melody that has done the most to keep my emotional connection to my faith and my people. Today, I “cheat” and sing it before doing the Hamotzeh on Shabbat.
He had caught me off-guard. It was the only thing I could thing of singing. In the song, the lyrics describe Abraham’s apparent sacrifice of his son Isaac. At one point, the son asks innocently where his father is taking him, oblivious to the biblical drama that is about to unfold.
I sang for no more than a minute.
I don’t remember what Michael said after I finished. All I remember is that while I was singing, his eyes were closed and he was smiling.
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