A little over a week has passed since Michael Jackson moonwalked off this mortal coil, and the media frenzy around his death and craziness regarding his will and what will happen to his assets and his children has been just as insane as I expected it would be.
It’s all just sad. All of it.
That cute, soft-spoken, eerily talented guy that so many my age fell in love with when he was just a teenager clearly had a terribly troubled life and self-image, and I suspect he was probably also extraordinarily lonely. The past twenty or so years had not been kind to him as he sank deeper into his bizarre behaviors and became simply freakish looking via the self-mutilation caused by unethical doctors willing to perform too many plastic surgeries. And now he’s dead, and along with a legacy of music and extraordinary performances, he leaves a legacy of utter strangeness that will always be a part of anything ever written or discussed about him. Like I said: sad.
But I have some happy memories that I associate with Mr. Jackson.
"Off the Wall." It came out in 1979. I was 10 years old. I begged my mom to buy me this album, and when she did, I played it and played it and played it some more. I would put it on and dance around the house like a fool, trying my best to sing along. I got thumbtacks and pinned the album cover to my wall (unfolded, it was a head-to-toe photo of Michael. Later, when the album came out on CD, the cover image was of his legs and feet only—surely a nod to the fact that he no longer looked anything like the fresh-faced young man on the cover). The depth of my love for this album and its singer knew no bounds. The following summer, when I was 11, I did a (made up as I went along) dance to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” in the talent show at my summer camp. Those of you unlucky enough to have ever seen me dance know that there was NO talent going on during my portion of the show, however I will say I was probably the most earnest and dedicated performer of the night. My dance—performed on our “stage,” which was set up outside on a flat bed trailer near the swimming pool—was nothing if not a testament to my heart and soul devotion to “Off the Wall.” (I still have this LP, btw.)
Fast forward several years to 1983. I’m now 14, and I’ve got way more important things going on in my life besides Michael Jackson. But the night that the much-hyped music video for the title track of “Thriller” debuted, I was sitting in Lori Williams’ TV room, waiting with her breathlessly to see what the buzz was all about. And we were not disappointed. In fact, we were—no pun intended—thrilled! We were giddy with excitement. It was so cool and groundbreaking and new! MTV replayed it about 100 times in a row, and Lori immediately set out to figure out the choreography in the zombie dance scene. The video seems sweetly old-fashioned when you watch it now, but then? Then, it was the absolute shit.
“Thriller” was on the charts for over 2 years. I never actually bought the album because I didn’t have to: between MTV and the radio, it was everywhere.
A couple of years after the release of “Thriller,” I was on a bus with the rest of the marching band, and we were on our way back to Longview after marching in an invitational competition in Ruston, LA. We stopped at a strip mall that had a couple of different fast food dining options, and the band directors set us all loose to feed ourselves and return to the bus at an appointed time. In this strip mall, there was a K-Mart. A bunch of us went in there and were browsing around to kill the time when, no shit, they announced a Blue Light Special on Michael Jackson “Beat It” t-shirts. They were practically giving them away. By this point, “Thriller” had pretty much run its course and was old news to us, so—as a joke—we all went and bought these cheesy t-shirts and went walking back to the buses wearing our new purchases. Imagine it: Buses full of (primarily white) teenagers, wearing these big, white t-shirts with a full length picture of Michael on the front and big black letters reading “Beat It” running up the vertical length of his picture. We were a sight to behold.
After that, I pretty much gave up on Michael. His music was overproduced and filled with too many grunts, yells and “woo-hoos.” He tried, but was never able to capture the magic of those first two solo albums. His videos got longer and lamer, he married Lisa Marie Presley, and eventually his face became simply painful to look at. And then there were the accusations and trials that firmly planted him deeply in eccentric/creepy/weirdo territory and from whence he was never to return.
But last week, when he died, I made a playlist on my iPod of all my Michael Jackson/Jackson 5/Jacksons songs. I have 17 of them. And I have been singing my ASS off to these songs in my car almost daily for a week now. The Geej has actually been asking for him by name. Sort of. “Mommy, can we listen to Jackson Michael?” (She’s got a kid in her class named Jackson, so she gets confused.) It blows my mind to think that when he hit it big with his brothers in The Jackson 5, he was right around her age. Again: eerily talented. I’ve fallen back in love with “Off the Wall,” and I’ve even added a few songs from “Thriller” into the mix. And when you’re in the middle of belting out the chorus to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and dancing like a fool in your seat while driving in rush hour traffic, all that’s there is the music and the pure joy it creates. All the other bullshit disappears.
Rest in peace, Michael.