In the midst of the bizarre stories and accusations that frequently made the news during my childhood, I never formed a negative opinion of Michael Jackson. Maybe it was because I did not see an adult man, but someone who had reverted back to a childhood that never existed for him the first time around. I saw a troubled soul, lost on the continuum of time and truly unaware of his age or the social norms attached to that. I saw someone trying to reclaim an idyllic fantasy of a carefree childhood. And maybe he acted wrongly in that state of mind. I do not know and would not assume.
I do, however, have one very distinct memory that has stayed with me for years.
At 12 years old, I was a little odd. Instead of talking to the other kids on the school bus, I was normally busy trying to rig a piece of masking tape over the battery enclosure on my portable cassette player. If not attempting to get the walkman to play just one more song before it drained the last juice from two fat double-A batteries (or broke for the umpteenth time), I was singing to myself and dreaming of being just like one of the performers I heard.
“Weird” and “old” were the words most kids my age used to describe my taste in music. Whenever our art teacher rewarded us by letting us listen to music during class, my cassettes were never picked. Instead, the kids teased me mercilessly about even bringing them.
One boy in particular always gave me a hard time. Not just about music, but being slow in gym class, or giving a wrong answer in Spanish class–anything to get my goat. He was kind of a tough guy and was frequently in detention. Not the guy you’d pick to be the sensitive, music-loving type. I couldn’t stand him.
And so I was a little bit shocked to see this boy at auditions for the school talent show. When he told me that he was going to dance, I laughed a little bit. He didn’t really seem like the type of guy to be okay with dancing in front of his fellow12 year old Catholic school boys. But from the moment he got onstage, with his white and black fedora, he embodied Michael Jackson. He must have spent hours in front of the television watching Michael’s music videos, because he knew every move to a T. He was good. Very good.
And for a moment in time, we were friends. When he realized that I thought his talent was cool, the teasing subsided a little. We made a connection through music. My passion for singing came from the same place as his passion for dance, just in a different form. He didn’t tease me about having to sing a song by a man because I didn’t know how to sing “high” like the women I heard on the radio.
Sadly, the rest of our classmates never got to see him dance. I can’t remember whether it was too many detentions or bad grades that got him banned from the show, but one of the two kept him from being allowed to participate. It was more than tragic, in my eyes, that the rest of the school never got to see how truly excellent he was. That maybe he did get in trouble and wasn’t the most devoted student, but he could DANCE and do it brilliantly.
To this day, when I hear “Billie Jean,” I think of that boy and the dance he choreographed. I think of watching him meticulously rehearse each step, each isolation, until it was just right. But mostly, I think of that brief moment in time where we became friends through music and performance. It changed my outlook permanently.
Even now, when I see tough, bulky weightlifters at the gym, or a group of military folks running along the Potomac, I wonder if any of them can do a great Moonwalk…
Thank you, Michael.