Remembering the music of a small town kid who took on the world, and won

Michael Jackson

I can still picture the album, nearly hidden beneath a pile of black and white family photographs, that famous Motown label shinning through the dust and cobwebs like a red, green and gold beacon. There was no cover, just a scratched plastic LP discarded by my aunt, left behind with all the other remnants of her childhood after she married and moved away to the big city.

I must have been around eight at the time and, while I’m sure I’d heard of Michael Jackson before, this was the first time I ever sat down and really listened to the music, in this case a greatest hits album by his family’s band, the Jackson 5.

That music, muted and warped as it was by the years of grime and heat, seemed to my young ears like nothing more or less than pure euphoria; an expression of joy so profoundly rhythmic, so endlessly melodic that it bordered on the manic. Even the ballads made me smile.

I played that record until it was worn down to an un-listenable husk of its former self. For all the joy I found in its muffled grooves, I don’t think it particularly bothered me when I dumped it in the trash.

By this time, 1979, Jackson had completed his first solo album, “Off the Wall,” a statement of purpose and independence miles removed from his work with the Jackson 5. I walked into the kitchen of my grandmother’s house one day and heard the title track insinuating itself into the nooks and crannies of the room thanks to an oversized boom box that belonged to my cousin, who had recently purchased the tape.

When I think of Michael Jackson now, the real Michael Jackson, this is the music I hear: Funky, earthy and glamorous all at once, the album contains songs as strange and avant-garde as any pop music ever produced, a mix of disco, rock, jazz and sheer charisma that in its very inclusiveness seemed to both embrace and blow apart the very meaning of the word “Pop.”

I was nine, Michael was in his early twenties, and for me at least, it was the last time he would still be recognizable as that young kid from Gary, Ind., the one who may have been forced to the front of the stage by his father, but who was still enjoying every second of his time in the spotlight. Watch the video for “Rock with You,” and then tell me this is a young man eaten up with loneliness and regret over a lost childhood. I don’t think so.

All that came later, I suppose.

You can already hear the fear and paranoia creeping in on “Thriller,” the 1982 atomic blast that helped launch not only the video age and the compact disc revolution but also apparently launched Jackson right off the face of the planet and into a bizarre alternate universe, where every ridiculous whim is encouraged, where childhood need never end. It also obliterated what was left of the humanity in Jackson’s public persona and, even more disheartening, his music.

I’ll be willing to bet people will still be listening to “Off the Wall” and “Thriller” 20-years from now. I’d be very surprised indeed if anyone was still discussing “Bad” or “Dangerous.” The crucial element of his music, simple joy, seemed to have evaporated like so much stage fog.

By the time of “Thriller” I was doing my best to tune out the blare of popular music, having pledged my allegiance to the bombast and aggression of heavy metal several years earlier.

Jackson was lightweight, fluffy kid’s stuff, not to be taken seriously by true rock fans. The Eddie Van Halen solo on “Beat it” just wasn’t enough to sway me.

Try as I might, however, there was simply no escaping the man or his music. The word omnipresent doesn’t even begin to describe the saturation level his stardom achieved: Videos, magazines, radio, clothing, dance — no one who didn’t come of age during that era can possibly conceive of the utter pandemonium that followed Jackson’s every leg kick and finger twitch.

It was the moment when popular culture stepped through the looking glass into a new world of mass idolatry and frenzied press speculation the likes of which this country — this planet — had never seen. The attention afforded the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beatles, the three music careers that most closely parallel Jackson’s, seem almost quaint by comparison.

I was saddened by the news of his death this week. Though I haven’t listened to his music in years or kept up with his latest legal troubles, like most Americans I love a good second act, and if any performer deserved a final curtain call, well, who would begrudge a 50-year-old man-child a chance to go out with a little dignity.

But I feel no pity for Jackson. He became what he always dreamed of becoming. Many children before him saw their youth slip away working behind the back end of a mule or stuffing endless rows of cotton into burlap sacks.

Jackson clearly was born to a different destiny, one that brought joy to millions of fans across the world and, however lonely or confused he may have been in his life, those very emotions were at least signs that the enigma behind the mask still retained some vestige of his former self, of that all too human young man who stepped into the spotlight and changed the world for everyone.

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