Sometimes a really bad idea can be a beautiful thing. It can even be inspired. Take, for instance, David Bowie doing Little Drummer boy with Bing Crosby in 1977. Or Bob Dylan doing a Christmas album (and a Victoria’s Secret commercial) this past year. Left-field career-killing moves are nothing if not fascinating. Another prime, but little known, example would have to be The Jackson 5 choosing to follow up their hit 1972 single “Lookin’ Through The Windows” with an extremely peppy take on Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes.” Presumably Motown was looking to cash in on the (nominal) success of the Supremes/Four Tops’ version of CSN’s “Love The One You’re With” from the year before? For five short minutes, Detroit and Laurel Canyon must have seemed like a match made in heaven.
In honor of the anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death last week, I thought we’d take a second (or first) look at this historic mis-fire. As we all know, much of The Jackson 5′s early success had to do with Michael’s amazing mini-James Brown schtick. He could dance and sing like an overheated soulman, cat-calling and crooning with the emotion of someone three times his age. So from the very start, the Jacksons were no strangers to contradictions. In fact, his facility and affinity for contradictions would mark the rest of Michael’s career – one might even call it part of his genius: was he 10 or 35? Was he male or female? Straight or gay? Producer or product? Victim or perpetrator? “Black or white”? Law or Gospel(!)? Throughout his career, Michael consistently tried to transcend these categories, or synthesize them, with a surprising amount of success (and often with a doctor’s help!). I suppose you could call him a Hegelian.
He also had that rare ability to commit himself fully to whatever project he was working on. There were never any half-measures with Michael Jackson. When he succeeded, he hit the moon. When he failed, it was miserable.
If “Doctor My Eyes” is a dry-run for those later contradictions, which it’s probably not, it’s a failed one. But fascinatingly so. It’s one thing to have a little kid ape the manners of a Lothario, it’s quite another to have that same kid sell an anthem of spiritual weariness. True, The Smiths made a (brilliant) career out of setting despondent lyrics to upbeat melodies, but they never really flirted with farce the way the Jacksons do here.
Yet the absurdity serves the recording: the concept is so off-the-wall that it just reeks of creativity and courage, from beginning to end, and the arrangement/performance so contradicts the content that both are put in stark relief. Browne’s words are piercing; the doctor being addressed is clearly the Great Physician, and the song a particularly affecting articulation of a man giving up on self-enlightenment. In Michael’s 13 year-old hands, the words may lose much/most of their intended exhaustion, but they gain a dimension of exuberance that transforms the song from a somewhat dejected prayer into a hopeful one. Or rather, from a mid-life-crisis prayer into a melodramatic (though no less authentic) teenage one. It’s a masterpiece of mis-interpretation that catapults the whole enterprise into a considerably more meta sphere, without losing the religious sincerity of the original.
But even without all that, it’s a fun song. Michael’s winsomeness as a kid, always a joy to behold, is on full display and the back-up vocals from the other brothers are pure bubblegum ridiculousness, with Jermaine’s verse providing a characteristically top-notch foil to MJ. It’s also one of the Jacksons’ most rockin’ singles, btw, with an astonishing one-note solo at the end. So at just over three minutes, “Doctor My Eyes” is gem of mis-matched glory, a highpoint of early 70s bad judgment. I’d love to know who green-lit it (so I could shake their hand).