What's it like to be a Jackson?
That, said singer Marlon Jackson of the noted Jackson clan, is a question he's asked all the time, and he repeated his stock reply.
"It's like being a Smith or a Jones or any other average person. . . . We're just like anybody else. But when I say this, people don't believe me. "
You can't blame them. It's like saying the Reagans are just plain folks.
"I don't feel any different from anybody else," Jackson insisted during a recent interview. "I've lived my life that way, sort of on the fringe of this whole thing."
That's true to an extent. Though Jackson, 30, has been a star since the Jackson 5 surfaced 17 years ago, he hasn't had much acclaim. Brothers Michael and Jermaine have gotten most of it. Now sister Janet is swimming in it. But maybe it's Marlon's turn.
His new solo album, "Baby Tonight," is one of many Jackson family solo albums. Now, only Randy and Tito haven't recorded solo albums.
Marlon's album may push him to the forefront and pull him out of his shell. "Yes, I have been living in sort of a shell," he admitted. "I'm the mystery man. Nobody knows that much about me. I've been married for 12 years and have three kids. But not many people know that. I'm the background Jackson."
But why does he all of a sudden want to be in the foreground? "It's not the fame," he replied. "I don't need that. I get recognized sometimes, but I can come in a restaurant like this and not get mobbed. I prefer it that way. The point of all this is that I have talent as a singer and a songwriter. I just want an outlet for it."
Though the trim, smallish singer claimed he's usually happy and upbeat, he was very serious that afternoon. He was businesslike, hardly smiling. Often his voice was so soft you had to strain to hear him.
"I'm very quiet," he admitted. "It runs in the family. Everybody in my family is quiet. I like to listen to people rather than talk a lot."
As he talked about the pressure of being a Jackson, he seemed extraordinarily serene and detached:
"I do feel the pressure. I want to do well. I want this album to do well. If it doesn't people will say, 'I knew he couldn't do it.' The pressure is from pride in myself and my family. I feel pressure to make it because I don't want those people to be right--those people who think I can't do it, those people who'll say I'm not as good as the other Jacksons.
"This is not a normal situation. People expect a lot from you. The standards are high. The family standards are high. It's not like being a regular solo artist making a first album. Everybody's watching what you do. I'm in a fishbowl."
Since the Jacksons' circus-like "Victory" tour in 1984, Marlon has been in relative obscurity. Probably most people don't know that he hasn't been a member of the Jacksons since the end of 1985. "They didn't want me to leave, but I had to," he explained. "They were all surprised. They tried to stop me. But it was time for me to do something different."
Executives of Epic Records, the Jacksons' label, didn't want him to quit the Jacksons either. "At first they said I couldn't leave," he recalled. "But I called Michael and talked to him about it. He helped me get out of it. They listened to him. Epic finally let me go."
Jackson might have stayed on Epic if the company had let him record a solo album. But there was no interest. "That didn't hurt me," he said. "They said they wanted a group album, not a solo album from me. The Jacksons are recording an album now--without me. I knew if I was ever going to do a solo album I had to get away from the Jacksons and Epic to do it. I didn't want to wait."
So Jackson spent all of last year writing and co-producing an album in his home studio. "Baby Tonight" (on Capitol) consists mostly of dance music--some of it quite scintillating. But the music, not his vocals, carry the tracks. Critics will probably have a field day rapping his voice, which is neither powerful, distinctive nor expressive.
"The Body," a track on the 1984 "Victory" album, marked the first time he'd ever sung lead. As a producer and songwriter he's had no major credits, though he did produce and co-write songs for an obscure 1981 Betty Wright album, and wrote two songs on one of sister Janet's early albums. Even the Jacksons weren't impressed by his songwriting.
"I would write songs for the albums, but they weren't used," he said. "I felt my songs were strong but they didn't think so."
His album, by the way, features no other Jacksons. "They wanted to be on it, but I didn't want them," he explained. "There's no animosity. I just wanted to do this myself. I wanted to sink or swim alone. You have to be part of a big family like this to really understand what that means."
LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale today for U2's Nov. 17 concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. . . . On sale Sunday are tickets for the Pointer Sisters' Dec. 17-20 engagement at the Universal Amphitheatre, and the Grateful Dead's Nov. 13-15 stand at the Long Beach Arena. . . . Warren Zevon will be at the Wiltern on Nov. 20. Tickets on sale Monday. . . . Tickets are on sale now for Paul Kelly & the Messengers' Roxy show on Oct. 19. . . . DeBarge will perform two concerts Sunday afternoon at Raging Waters in San Dimas. Tickets will be available at the box office.