On August 16, 1977 I arrived home, nine years old and newly moved to the working class town of Methuen, Massachusetts. My father and mother sat at the table, my father in his signature T and my mother, after calling in sick to her waitress job, tears in her eyes unable to speak. "The King is dead," he said when he finally could. "Elvis died today." "Really?" I spoke. "How?" "A heart attack," he said. Later to be thought induced by prescription drug use. He was older, fat, way past his time, but still an icon. Still, I couldn't believe my parents would cry over him? What for? What did he ever do? He sang songs, so what? Well, June 25, 2009 I now know how they feel.
I turned on the television and there it was: "Michael Jackson, dead." The coverage that will never stop usurping the headlines of the brainless and obviously penis envy Republican party. Still, I was mesmerized for a while, Michael Jackson dead. If you are a nine year old today, I think you might have the same feeling. Weirdo. Jack-O. He got weirder and weirder as the days moved on. Skin color changes, molestation charges, marrying the King's daughter. The King marrying the King I guess. Many might say, what is all the fuss about?
One of my favorite songs as a young boy was "I'll Be There" one of the only "black" records in my house, outside of Nat King Cole. I loved watching the Jackson Five cartoon as well, one of the only cartoons I enjoyed. My mother is probably most responsible for my love of Michael. She adored Michael Jackson at every stage. This was not really common where we grew up. Up until the late 1970's in my hometown the Jackson's were a novelty act. They were still Motown and considered "black music." Michael was the bonified star, but it wasn't rock 'n roll. As I grew up we listened to more and more "hair metal." Ratt, Motley Crue, Twisted Sister and the like. This was what was popular and I listened, not always enjoying it often incredulous at the ridiculousness of this "LA composition."
Michael Jackson was still pleasing the R&B charts with "Off the Wall." I loved "Rock With You," a beautiful song. He won several "black" awards for R&B music at the American Music Awards. I listened with no one else, but my mother. My mother continued to adore Michael Jackson, "his talent is supreme" she would say and I remember specifically when "Thriller" came out she said: "This is your Elvis." It was released in 1982 with much fan fare and his elusive moonwalk at the Motown awards. I listened to "Billie Jean" over and over as a 45 single, not the entire album, and finally MTV relented and allowed "Billie Jean" to be played on MTV, changing the musical landscape forever. This allowed "black music" to be played paving the way for Prince and other black artists like Whitney Houston to be allowed in to the mainstream charts. I still can't believe for the first three years of MTV we were watching segregationist television. By the shear force of Michael's music he changed that.
Still, my friends were not impressed in the mill town I grew up in, Michael Jackson was black. His music was still black and I was an oddball amongst them, listening to his music incessantly at home under cover with mom. Then, the next single released off the album was "Beat it" hyped (especially in my hometown) by the fact that Eddie Van Halen played the guitar piece. My older brother's best friend at the time Gary Lacroix drove to our house, didn't knock and ran into the house calling "Rich, Rich, John!" I came running. "What?" "You gotta hear this." "What, Gary?! Michael Jackson's latest single, "Beat it." He put it on and we were awestruck. Listening to it over and over. Gary had the cassette tape of Thriller and not long we were listening to the entire album. And then the videos of all his songs began playing on MTV of which he became the master - telling stories, some arguing killing radio. "Beat It" in my mind still stands out for its cool choreography and beautiful rhythms and yes, the guitar of Eddie Van Halen. I didn't always understand what was happening and at times it felt foreign, but I knew this thing that we were watching was magical and the future.
At school, soon everyone was talking about Michael Jackson, some dressing like him, girls going absolutely crazy for him, like the old videos of the crowds going nuts for Elvis. Thereafter I was hooked and followed his career, usually alone in my adoration in my "crew." But, knowing I was far from alone, I loved everything he did from "The Way You Make Me Feel" to "Dirty Diana" to "Black or White" to the beautiful song from Free Willy, "Will You Be There." Disappointed in many of the accusations over the past 15 years, cringing at the changes, mostly feeling for someone who suffered a cruel existence under a cruel father. Growing up in front of all of us could not have been easy and I choose to remember his music and his genius.
I have shut off the television and turned on the music.