Michael Jackson: 1958 - 2009
Okay, when did I first listen to the Thriller album..I was in the 4th grade.. Mrs. Slamkowski was our teacher at St. Mary's Elementary. I remember it was a big deal that year that we now went to class on the second floor of our school building. I scarcely remembered that Mike had a new album out.. I definitely knew about first singles "Billie Jean" and "The Girl is Mine" which were already on local radio. We didn't have cable at the house, so whether MTV or BET was playing any Mike videos was a non-issue, really.One afternoon I came home from school, Mom had apparently bought the "Thriller" LP vinyl for me, from K-Mart.
I was.. Thrilled! I really didn't own much pop music "of my own" at that age, mostly just an assortment of kiddie records/story records, among them the Chipmunk Punk album where they covered "My Sharona" and Billy Joel. My oldest siblings were already high school-aged, and they did the neighborhood DJ thing, so they had a lot of the record catalog already, going back to the Motown Jackson 5 era. So that evening I started listening to the record, and enjoying it, trying to dance; but on side B there was a problem. The record was warped... Mike's voice all of a sudden was getting wobbly and slow and, uh, weird in parts.. I was devastated.. Mom took the record back to exchange it for another LP. She brought it home. I put it on the record player. Only this time-- bad lightning struck twice! I forget what song it was, but THIS record was warped, too! Even back then, my personal trend of bad luck was keeping pace.
So, mom takes the record back for another exchange. At last-- Mom decided to opt for a cassette copy. I played it in a portable tape recorder-- this is the era before everybody had a Walkman, of course. Finally, the album played perfectly. Every song. Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'. Baby Be Mine. The Girl is Mine. Thriller. Beat It. Billie Jean. Human Nature. Pretty Young Thing. The Lady in My Life.
Needless to say, Mike and his family were hometown heroes to everybody in the Gary region. During Thriller's chart run, I still have dim memories of the Michael-dancing contests, the debates on whether he or Prince was bigger, and classmates openly wondering just how did Mike seem to be singing backup vocals on his own songs (overdubs, of course).
I had the 12-inch doll that had the ‘Grammy Awards 1984’ outfit. Mike made me want to get a jheri curl. Mom said hell no. Thank God for small favors.
In 5th grade, when the now-defunct department chain Zayre’s was having a sidewalk clearance sale, Mom bought me this red shirt/jacket with slight shoulder padding and ostentatious gold buttons which looked like the top Mike wore at the American Music Awards in ’84. I wore it to school on maybe the last day of the second semester-- which was a treat, since we normally had to wear conservative uniforms every day. It was so cool to be me that day, for once. On a side note, I remember Mrs. Slamkowski (who was still teaching 4th grade) remarking to me that I looked like "Sergeant Pepper". It took me some years before I understood just what she was referring to.
I held on to this tape for years. Even as time went on and other music acts became more immediate for me- Run DMC, LL Cool J, Living Colour, Public Enemy—I still occasionally went back to the Thriller tape, and I usually would listen to “Lady in My Life” which, for me, has become the most personally enduring song on the album. I think I may have sold it in a mass-purging of most of my cassette tapes about 10 years ago.. Since then, I've copped the remastered deluxe editions that Sony came out with circa 2001.
I wasn't even born when the Jackson 5 were an up-and-coming group out of Gary. I was too young to have been interested in seeing them when they were at their boy-band peak in the early to mid-1970's. I definitely went out of my way to see him perform on television over the years. During the original chart run of the Thriller album, local Chicago-broadcast TV finally got on the music-video bandwagon and started having music-video shows; I would come home after school and watch WPWR TV-50 's programming, always hoping that a Michael clip would be shown. Mike’s music videos helped make the medium into a genuine subgenre of short films for mass appeal, elevating them from perfunctory lip-synching clips for a presumably limited audience.
I also remember the Motown 25 anniversary show where he "surprisingly" performed "Billie Jean", which we now know was clearly staged. Regrettably, his televised performances were as close as I'd get to seeing him perform live. I remember the Victory tour tickets sold out in hours back in 1984 when that tour was first announced-- and I was too young to realize that Gary was, well, just not on any superstar's touring map once they made it big. During my time growing up in Gary I harbored a fantasy that he'd have some kind of "Homecoming" concert and I'd score a ticket for a good seat (looking back, I don't know where the hell it would have been held-- The creaky Genesis Center? Gilroy Stadium? Ehh... Maybe the Holiday Star..)
I also remember when it became favorable to not be into Mike anymore. It wasn't "hot" to still have a poster of him, or to pick up the latest single (especially going into the alternative-rock & hip-hop-heavy 90s). There was the gradual lightening of his skin, and plastic surgery. The private carnival, zoo, and other exorbitant lifestyle eccentricities. The tabloid stories. The backlash to "They Don't Care About Us". The scandalous allegations which finally erupted in a criminal trial (and acquittal) in the 2000's.
I wish he had lived at least 20 more years-- at the very least, he'd have avoided the cliche' of a celebrity who dies relatively early after a meteoric rise to success early in life. I was intrigued by his recently reported recording sessions with the Black Eyed Peas, Kanye West, and other hip-hop personalities. The 'comeback' album was on the way. Maybe even a Jacksons reunion. Still, no one knows when the sand's going to run out of the hourglass.
If Mike's memory is to be uplifted, we can uplift the positive effect his muscal legacy has had on everyone who else who came in his wake. Play one of Mike's records. Whether you have it on vinyl, cassette, CD, or MP3. Play it at home. Play it at work. Play it while driving.
Blessings to Mike and all family & friends!