Yesterday when I met C at his office so that we could head uptown to the Studio Museum in Harlem to catch Kalup Linzy in conversation and performance, he asked me if I'd heard about Michael Jackson's "heart attack." I hadn't; the only breaking news I'd seen online beyond the ongoing horrors in Iraq and the revelations of about GOP hypocrite #1000+ Governor Mark Sanford was the death of Farrah Fawcett, one of the icons of my childhood years, the blonde "Angel," whose smile and hair and way with charm and firearms on Charlie's Angels, a show that aired when I was in elementary school (beginning in 5th grade, to be exact), engraved the imaginaries of people all over the US and eventually the world. It's hard to believe that she was on the show for only one season; memory extends it to two or three. (None of her replacements every approached her star power, though I must confess that Jaclyn Smith was always my favorite Angel.) As obituaries will recite, she went on to star in TV movies that demonstrated the depth of her acting abilities, while remaining a cynosure of celebrity culture, with the attendant bursts of drama involving her partner, Ryan O'Neal and her son, right up to her death. C and I watched the unspeakably sad documentary about her final fight to cure the cancer that killed her; it was clear that despite her determination, the end was near. It was tough to watch, and as tough to consider that she's passed away.
A little after we arrived at the SMH, the Museum Store's attendant told us that Michael Jackson had died. Neither C nor I could believe it; to recite a commonplace, I still cannot. I could probably spend 20 blog posts on how Michael Jackson and his family have impacted my life, but I'll just touch on a few moments. First, I grew up listening to the Jackson 5 and one of the most vivid memories of childhood was singing their songs and practicing the routines of their dances in the basement of my grandparent's house with my cousins, spinning around to the record player crooning "ABC, as easy as 1-2-3" or "Stop! The love you save may be your own...." I remember not being allowed to see Ben, the movie about rats (which is probably rats don't terrify me today), but singing "Ben" the song and being carried up into a cloud by Michael Jackson's voice. If I think about truly exciting moments in my childhood, one of them would have to be going to see the Jackson Five in performance in St. Louis, when I was about 9 or so. I think I yelled and sang and wept with joy through the whole event. Then there was The Wiz, a critical and box-office failure that I have always secretly imagined was a touchstone for a generation of black gay men; Diana Ross (Stephanie Mills had been in the stage version) and Michael Jackson together, skipping around those immense, funky sets and reprising a story that had been the star vehicle for Judy Garland? In 8th grade, Michael Jackson's Off the Wall came out, and I developed a serious crush on him. I don't think I've ever gotten over what he did to his face and body--and yes, C and I watched the Oprah special where he not only claimed he had suffered from vitiligo, but pounded his chest and said, "I love black people, Oprah!" (Of course he had had his skin chemically peeled, his features altered by surgeons' hands, his hair sewn into place, but really, that wasn't the point anymore.) Those songs from Off the Wall marked his independence from his family, his personal and aesthetic autonomy, and the beginning of his individual superstardom, which would be approached, though never matched, by only one of his siblings, another of my favorites, Janet. Off the Wall was also one of the records I remember dying to buy, with my own saved up money, and I probably listened to the LP so many times that my parents, great music lovers both of them, probably were ready to holler. Thriller was the better album, more jam-packed with hits, but it appeared when I was moving beyond my Michael Jackson-love phase, and more into rock music, punk, and early hiphop, but I bought it and still can listen to the whole album, especially "Wanna Be Starting Something" or "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" or "Billy Jean," and barely stop myself from jumping up and dancing.
From that point onwards, I sort of took Michael Jackson as he came, though less rather than more: the high points were the records and some of the songs and videos, the low points the increasingly bizarre (to me) lives he created for himself, from his marriage to Lisa Marie Presley and public kiss with her (which still makes me cringe whenever I see it) to endless surgeries, to the up-and-down and then fading sales, to the pedophilic scandals, to the circumstances surrounding his three children (Prince Michael I, Paris Michael, and Prince Michael II a/k/a Blanket). I would be lying if I said that I wasn't riveted by some of this stuff; I watched the Martin Bashir documentary in horror, and snarked at Jackson's outrageousness while admitting that despite it all, I still loved his music and all the craziness he whipped up around himself. I was thinking just a few weeks ago that I probably wouldn't ever go see him perform again, as controversies raged around his upcoming tour, but now the question has been settled for me. All the obituaries will mention that he was one of the greatest performers of the modern era, an incomparable showman, a racial pioneer (in many ways), a figure of tremendous international influence, a great philanthropist, and a musician of almost inestimable talent, who knew how to create hits like most people breathe. Almost all contemporary American and international popular music bears his DNA. But he was also someone who shaped the inner lives and dreams of millions, including me, and for that I'll always be grateful.
Here's a brief video I took of the spontaneous celebration last night in front of the Apollo Theater in Harlem: