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Requiem for a One-Gloved Wonder

“So tonight, we’re gonna leave that 9-to-5 up on shelf
And just enjoy yourself.
Groove. Let the madness and the music get to you
Life ain’t so bad at all, when you’re living off the wall.”
-Michael Jackson, “Off the Wall”

I must confess. I have been enthralled with the magical Michael Jackson from the time I was old enough to say “moonwalk.”

It goes without saying that for seventies and eighties black babies Michael was our Elvis. Sure his concerts didn’t feature spaceships, like say, Parliament-Funkadelic, or fireworks like the elements, Earth, Wind and Fiyah. But that was his charm. Michael, save his sparkly socks, ever-fresh Jheri curl and glove, came sans props. He didn’t need them. He had electric legs, a killer voice and the ability to get a crowd that spanned generations on its feet. He didn’t have to have 40 rowdy dudes yelling into mikes on the stage with him, pressuring the audience to participate. People responded because he was real. Musically, he was all parts included. No assembly needed. And for me, he was magic.

Growing up in the 80s, every summer we would travel to Detroit to visit our extended family. On one trip, we gathered at my grandmother’s house. My Uncle Phil, my mom’s oldest brother, rallied everyone to the den. There was this show and we had to watch it. He had brought over his newfangled “VHS system” to hook up to the TV so we could. Now my uncle was a really low-key, unassuming type of gent who specialized in computer repair. He rarely got amped about anything, save his weakness for jazz and for Strawberry Milkshakes. This, thought my five-year-old self, must be some video.

Uncle Phil had brought with him a tape of the Motown 25 Reunion special. We sat, watched and sang along as the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Supremes and various other Motown groups reunited on stage to celebrate the musical legacy founded by Berry Gordy in Detroit. Of course we liked them enough. But what we really, really wanted to see was the Jacksons appearance on stage. Fresh off their Victory tour, at that moment, they were bigger than red Kool-aid and roller skates in the summer. So, when the brothers – Jackie, Marlon, Jermaine, Tito, Randy and Michael – emerged, my cousins and I got up and danced and sang along to the classics. And then, at some point the music slowed. The brothers exited. And Michael said to the crowd, I really liked the old stuff. But I love the new. And then a base line started like a funky heartbeat, “Boom, ba-boom-boom. Boom ba-boom-boom.” And he started to sing: “She was more like a beauty queen/ From a movie scene . . .” And from the little T.V. screen we watched I could feel the crowd pulsating like someone ran through the audience with a cattle prod. Buzzzzzz.

And then, as if that wasn't enough, it happened. During the bridge, Michael started to dance as if he had some invisible electric source attached to his ankles: He paused. Kicked out. Spun around. Pushed back. And then, he slid.

Oh. My. Goodness.

To this day, I have never seen a performer so electric, so captivating, so – alive. In some respects, Michael was superhuman. He sang. He wrote. He danced. He and Lionel Richie, along with the maestro Quincy Jones, were the driving force behind “We Are the World,” Grammy-winning the anthem of the eighties that benefited hunger programs in Africa. (Youtube the video. It’s still a classic.) In my book, anyone who can co-write a song where Stevie Wonder, Kenny Rogers and Steve Perry take turns singing solos and all of them sound fantastic is a genius. Today, we can still recite Michael’s solo hits, like we did our third grade multiplication-tables. “Rock With You”, “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Human Nature, and the quintessential “Thriller.” And he had so many others with his brothers. As the Jacksons, “Can You Feel It?” and “This Place Hotel” were tracks that rocked the house. And, as the Jackson 5, we all sang along at some point to “I Want You Back,” “A-B-C” and the perpetual tearjerker “Never Can Say Goodbye.” We can't, can we?

Tonight, on the evening of MJ’s passing, hip-hop impresario Sean “P. Diddy” Combs called into CNN’s Larry King Live and summed up what Michael meant for so many in my generation. “He made me believe in magic.” I normally think Diddy, the awesome entrepreneur, comes across more comically than poignantly, due to his antics on MTV’s “Making the Band.” But tonight, I nodded my head in somber agreement. That’s it. That’s exactly it. I thought about my own childhood in New Jersey. If Michael wasn’t magic, why else would I have begged for a red jacket and a jheri curl? And why else did all the kids I knew from my neighborhood all claim to be one person removed from Michael Jackson? (Mmm hmm. Yeah, well, girl, my momma’s cousin’s brother is Michael Jackson’s cousin.) And why did I and every girl I knew gaze at his Thriller album cover imagine marrying him one day? Those dreamy sparkly socks. That smile.

Sigh. If only.

“Could it be I stayed away too long?
Did I leave your mind when I was gone?
Well, it’s not that I’m trying to get back.
But this time let me tell you where I’m at.”
- Jackson 5 “I Wanna Be Where You Are”

After news broke of Michael’s passing, my friends and I exchanged a flurry of texts, calls and memories. One friend in Houston had gotten to see the Jacksons’ Victory tour and years later still seemed awestruck. Another friend in Brooklyn volunteered that if you played “Enjoy Yourself” at any place or time, she would gladly stop her course of business and get down like the rent depended on it. Calling home in New Jersey, I kidded my brother, who had once performed impassioned renditions of “Thriller” around the house. (He was three, so he thought the words were “It’s a go-ri-llla, go-ri-llla night”. We laughed at the memory.) In LA, my cousin purposed to watch some old Jackson 5 clips on Youtube, if they didn’t make her too sad.

As the mainstream TV news media reminded us today, to be sure MJ had some problems. We all do. So while the coverage of his passing today was at times kind (“He made Thriller,” people still said in amazement). At other times, it was not so much. (One network showed clips of previously televised interviews with boys who had spent nights at his Neverland compound.) In response to the latter, I simply shook my head at the speculation and lack of respect. The man is dead. I pondered that it’s often the gifted who give and give of themselves, only to be torn down. It made me ache for his family.

If I could “Give a Message to Michael” (to borrow from Dionne Warwick) it would be thanks from that little Jersey girl. She is now a woman who, if the DJ spins “Pretty Young Thing” at the right time, will still make an awkward “black girl who dances like she went to private school” attempt at Moonwalking. If it’s true that we never really appreciate what we have until it’s gone, perhaps the blessing in today is that we can finally, really appreciate that in Michael Jackson we had a rare, supernatural gift. It’s a gift one only sees with the likes of people like Picasso. Michaelangelo. Ray Charles. These are people who take our earthy tactile objects -- a paintbrush, a slab of marble, a piano – and then they breathe life into these objects as only they can. As Willie Wonka told us, “They are the magic makers. They are the dreamers of dreams.” Today, they are also Michael Jackson.

And, the magic maker will be missed.
-M. Elle


At July 06, 2009 6:03 PM , Blogger Josee Valcourt said...

A well written piece, sistah! *About to play "Enjoy Yourself" for old times sake*

At July 11, 2009 5:11 PM , Blogger ~Meik said...

very well written!


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