Minneapolis drummer Michael Bland got off the airplane in St. Louis on Thursday evening to find this text message: "Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett dead."
"I'm having trouble processing this," said Bland, 40, who had declined an invitation to be in Jackson's touring band in 1996. "I figured he'd be here till he was 80. His death is more significant than John Lennon's. He was a world icon."
Speaking by phone moments after he heard the news, Bland said he was dumbfounded. He had recently been in contact with musicians who were set to back Jackson on a 50-concert run in London starting in mid-July.
"All I heard was that he was in shape, and the tour was going to make a lot of money," Bland said.
To a contemporary, the sudden death was a wakeup call.
"I've had so many musician friends die in the last year," said Jellybean Johnson, drummer for '80s hitmakers the Time. "Michael Jackson dying doesn't seem real. But it is reality. The clock is ticking on us all. Forget the nonsense that goes on in this business. Whatever you're going to do, do it now."
Johnson, 52, of Brooklyn Center, who played guitar on Janet Jackson's 1990 No. 1 hit "Black Cat," met her brother briefly in 1995 in the lobby of Flyte Tyme Studios in Edina. Michael and Janet were there to record their first duet, "Scream," with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
"He had a surgical mask on," Johnson said. "He didn't have a bunch of bodyguards. It was a very short conversation."
Lewis remembered Jackson as "an unassuming, regular guy" until it was time to record. "When he went into the studio to do vocals, he lit up into a different person in a whole other place, a whole other universe. I haven't seen it from anyone since. He was magnificent."
The Jackson 5 played the Twin Cities a few times, but his only solo concerts here were a three-night stand in 1988 at the old Met Center in Bloomington. His dancing was fabulous, his singing heartfelt and his entertainment instincts uncanny. He seemed lost in his own performance, with his eyes mostly closed.
Lewis, Johnson and Bland -- the longtime Prince drummer who now plays with Soul Asylum -- grew up on Jackson's music. Before Bland could read, he could pick out Jackson's records.
For Prince, born the same year as Jackson, Jacko was a friendly rival. Bobby Z, drummer for Prince and the Revolution, remembers watching the 1984 Grammys with his boss when Jackson swept the awards for his album "Thriller."
"We were watching rough cuts of [the movie] 'Purple Rain,' and we knew that's where Prince wanted to be the next year," Z said Thursday.
Jackson showed up backstage at a couple Prince shows in 1984. The two icons, whose "Thriller" and "Purple Rain" defined the 1980s, never did work together. Later that decade, when both were recording at the same Los Angeles studio, Prince invited Jackson to play ping-pong. Michael, a star since age 8 who had lived a sheltered life, didn't know how.
"You want me to slam it?" Prince asked, according to engineer David Z, who was there. "Michael drops his paddle and holds his hands up in front of his face so the ball won't hit him. Michael walks out with his bodyguard, and Prince starts strutting around like a rooster. 'Did you see that? He played like Helen Keller.'"
But Bland insists the two icons got along fine: "They'd shoot hoops at Paisley Park," Prince's studio/home in Chanhassen. "We used to get packages from MJJ Productions [with] footage of Sly Stone performing in Europe. Prince would pop it in the VCR, and we'd watch it."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719