Going away on a strange day

The first time I consciously heard Michael Jackson and knew who he was and knew his name, I was snowbound in upstate New York, listening to my radio at night somewhere around Christmas, in late 1982.

I had already heard him by then, of course, I had to have. Most of what passed for pop radio in the seventies, or at least the late seventies, had settled into my brain in some way. I didn’t have my own radio then but my mom had the one in the kitchen that I always heard songs on — this would have been a couple of years earlier to that, in the Bay Area — and years later I would reencounter songs and realize where I had first heard them. Donna Summer’s “On the Radio,” Gary Numan’s “Cars,” things like that. But anything Michael Jackson did around then I seemed to only get back to in a kind of osmosis, a sense of “Hmm…I must have heard “Off the Wall” or “Rock With You” at that time, surely.” But that was years later.

So upstate New York, my first real winter, the first of my three. The first real winter is the best, especially around Christmas, because then everything seems right, you get the white Christmas you keep hearing about, all the carols make a little more sense somehow. I’m very certain I would have been in my room on the second floor, looking over the side lawn over to the neighbors’ house next door, maybe out a bit into the street. It’s a vague impression but still a strong one, I’m very conscious I first heard it at night, not in the morning. Memory could play tricks on me but I’m not sure that’s the case here.

Paul McCartney I already knew about, of course, he was that Beatles guy and he had sung that song with Stevie Wonder. That’s all I needed to know and all I cared about, really, but I’d liked “Ebony and Ivory” a lot and I’d liked the Beatles songs I’d heard — I remembered when Lennon was killed and was surprised a bit but I was only nine so I wasn’t really crushed, I don’t recall my family being upset. Anyway McCartney was doing this song with Michael Jackson and it was all kinds of pleasant.

I liked “The Girl is Mine,” it was immediate, fun, catchy, all that. Goofy, of course, way goofy, all those spoken word trade-offs, the politest trash talking ever, but it sounded lovely enough, one of those things to enjoy on the radio at the end of a year where I’d enjoyed a hell of a lot of stuff on the radio. I grew to look forward to it when I heard it again, must have been vaguely aware that Jackson was famous for other things somewhere along the line, didn’t think much more of it at the time. “The Girl Is Mine” was a top ten hit and treated with all due care and attention such songs would get, a general nodding recognition.

A couple of months later another song from his new album was released.

I never owned a Michael Jackson album. I didn’t need to.

Did anyone, really? And yet it sold and sold and sold, Thriller. But I never got around to it, and after a certain point, I didn’t need it. I’d heard…well, almost all of it. Two songs from Thriller were never released as singles. The rest were and all went top ten. They were everywhere. They were EVERYWHERE.

Omnipresence is a contextual thing, depending on mood and inclination. They weren’t really everywhere and yet they were. I was a couple of years into the phase of my life where I could and did define everything by the music around me, and 1983 into 1984 was Michael Jackson’s time, and every hour, every time I wanted to, a song would be playing, somewhere. I had a couple of favorite stations, sure, but if I was impatient I could flip around, and something would be playing from Thriller. All I had to do was wait a bit.

I didn’t have MTV at the time, our family didn’t until a couple of years later, though I caught some of the videos here and there on other stations. “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” I remember clearly, the others less so. But I didn’t need the videos, I had the songs, they were always there. I loved them all.

And so it went on, the later songs, the abortive Jacksons reunion and tour, another McCartney collaboration, Bad, Captain Eo (saw it twice), Dangerous, The Simpsons, this, that, the other. At the request of a friend overseas I sent a huge Michael Jackson poster to her in full Bad cover mode for her sister, around 1988 or so. I heard about the chimpanzee at some point. I read the Bloom County strips where he featured, sometimes as distant unintentional role model, sometimes as Opus’s interview subject:

MJ: “E.T!”

OPUS: “No no, don’t pick me up!”

And onward.

I had just left an annual library staff reception, reviewing the year and looking forward, the handing out of awards and a chance to chat and catch up with others. I walked back to the library and doubtless thought a bit about what a full day it had been already in terms of stuff and news. The passing of Steven Wells, the passing of Sky Saxon, the passing of Farrah Fawcett. Mark Sanford’s public collapse still playing out in the political world. Vile stupidity in Iran courtesy of vile fools. All sorts of things happening in Congress. The state budget crunch.

I got back to the library and I forget which friend at the desk said it first but it was something like “Michael Jackson’s dead.”


The last time I had heard a truly famous musician had died when I was on campus was when a student of mine told me after a writing class that Kurt Cobain was dead. Didn’t believe it when he told me. Didn’t believe this now.

Scrounged up some sites, noted that so far he was only reported as being in a coma.

That changed.

I tried just now to dig up what I had thought was a trenchant commentary about Michael Jackson back in 1993 in an old Melody Maker issue I had. I found the issue but the unsigned commentary was kinda secondary, aside from this, referring to his troubles with the law that broke wide open that year:

Much has been made of the fact that Michael Jackson was himself mistreated by his father (following the classic vicitim-becomes-abuser pattern). If guilty, this is no reason for more lenient treatment than any less famous abuser. If innocent, one still can’t pity anyone with such immense personal wealth to insulate them from painful reality.

I’m not sure what I thought of this at the time. Now, I’m even less sure. It apparently seems to go to the heart of it but doesn’t seem to really address anything beyond overlapping platitudes, like it frames a person and a life and something horrific but can’t approach it.

On one of the major ILx threads about this, a friend said, “The inside of his head was a snakepit, so it’s hard to be really sad.” True, but pity and horror aren’t excluded from this judgment, a sense of catharsis. When Momus started a thread many years back on ILE called “The Tragedie of Michael Jackson, King of Pop”, he had a point.

I laughed at him at times. I shook my head at others. I loved some of his stuff. Hated other things but not with a fierce hate, more of a ‘well dude, that could have been a better song.’ Mostly I ignored him in recent years, vague senses of ‘oh he’s doing that now’ or ‘lord what is this weird crap they’re auctioning off’ or ‘farewell performances, I’m sure’ aside.

I’d always defend those songs I loved and knew and internalized, of course, the ones I grew up, the ones I discovered after the fact, the older stuff, the Jackson 5 era, the initial solo stabs. Never did give the newer stuff much of a chance, my mind was elsewhere, I don’t apologize for it. I knew him as I knew any celebrity, through the public gaze, he owed me nothing, I owed him nothing in return, the handiest of anonymous exchanges.

I’m not crying over this. Others I know are or mention people they know that are. One person texted me just now to ask if I could take his TV because he didn’t want it anymore because it would be full of nothing but retrospectives. The jokes are flying, so is the backlash to them. (My own joke was a status update — namely that Sanford and his advisers must have been kicking themselves that they didn’t wait a day.)

But if I’m not crying, that’s not to say I’m not moved. If his head was a snakepit then he had no control over the initial placement of the demons in it. Would you have done any better? Would I? We’d like to hope so, but would we know? And yet this doesn’t excuse him and can’t, and only wretchedness remains, a wretchedness of irresolution, of someone whose construction of a brighter and innocent world grew out of a need and a context that none of us would want to experience from either side. If we could completely and totally divorce him from whatever internal hells he experienced, whatever damage he took and then inflicted, then we could rest easily, but we cannot.

And if I pretended I never thought a song like “Wanna Be Starting Something” just absolutely, totally, perfectly KILLS note for note, then I’d be a liar. And that was just one of ’em.

Just look over your shoulders, honey:

Be at peace.