- "I rock in the tree tops,
all the day long,
rockin' and a robin
and a singing this song..."
"Rockin' Robin" was one of my first records. The IPod equivalent in the seventies was a little square suitcase - mine was covered in orange vinyl - that held a record player and a tinny sounding speaker. You could plug it in on a porch or a stoop and play the latest 45's on it. The Jackson Five was still together, and the records were still plastered with that awkward looking blue Motown label that would make you dizzy if you tried to follow it around the turntable as it spun at 45 rpms.
The black adapter for the 45 sized records was easily lost, which meant all of your records had the little blue, green, orange or yellow inserts snapped into the hole in the middle so you could play them over and over.
The Jackson brothers looked like new money whenever you saw them on TV, their afros freshly barbered, their dance moves crisp, their voices strong and earnest. They were the pretty, camera ready incarnation of James Brown's gritty anthem "Say It Loud (I'm Black And I'm Proud)".
The tone of baby brother Micheal's voice matched your own prepubescent screeches as you tried to sing along.
"Let's dance, let's shout,
shake your body
down to the ground..."
You listened to "Shake Your Body Down To The Ground" on your Sony Walkman, or the K-Mart knockoff from Korea that replaced it after you'd dropped it enough times, but you told everybody it was a Run-DMC remix. The Jackson Five had gone minimalist, jettisoning the Five because the original name belonged to their old boss Berry Gordy.
They left their brother Jermaine behind at Motown too, because he was married to their old bosses daughter. It took a little more makeup to keep those child growing into man faces baby smooth, but the dance steps were as crisp as ever.
You'd moved on too - the record player was now a boom box, and you'd had to learn new skills - namely, how to take a pencil and stick it into one of the spindles in the cassette case to take the slack out of the magnetic tape whenever it was spooled too loosely because you had rewound it back to the beginning of the same song over and over.
- "Come on and groove,
let the magic in the music
get to you,
'cause you're not bad at all..."
It was almost like magic when the radio DJ played "Off The Wall" on your mother's car radio, repeating the last song played at the dance your mother was picking you up from. The otherworldy sound effects heightened your memory of the girls you finally convinced to get on the dance floor with you, magnifying their budding curves and allowing you to read more into their sparkling eyes than they ever intended. Micheal had gone from front man to the man. The era of music videos meant the singer could divorce himself, figuratively and literally, from the band.
You'd had to learn to begin to do the same thing - to begin to emerge from the pack, to begin to decide to do things that were different from what everybody else wanted.
- "People always told me,
be careful what you do,
don't go around
breaking young girls' hearts..."
Maybe it was the influence of rap music, maybe it was the improved sound systems in family sedans - whatever it was, the bass driven "Billie Jean" helped Micheal elbow his skinny self back in amongst the pack for the newly licensed drivers, who had finally earned the right and the privacy during solo drives to play what they wanted. If you were cool, you sported the Member's Only jacket. The hopeless faithful didn't waste any time shucking and jiving with any imitations - they went straight for the jugular, buying exact replicas of the Gloved One's video attire.
In fierce competition with beatboxing and break dancing for our attention, Micheal held his own. But we were growing goatees and mustaches now. And some of us, too many of us, had had to start dealing, waaay waaay too early with the fact that the kid was our son.
His Highness's face was changing too, though, but not like ours. It was still baby smooth, with new cheekbones.
"The way you make me feel,
you really turn me on,
you knock me off of my feet,
My lonely days are gone..."
Moonwalker Number One been gone so long MJ didn't just mean "Micheal Jackson" anymore. But the premiere of his "The Way You Make Me Feel" video was still enough of an event that jaded college students stopped what they were doing to check him out. Still suburban-centric, but newly afro-inspired, we speculated as the wind whipped through his hair on the screen about the how and the why of the new nose, the new skin tone, the lack of hipbone.
Even though we'd gotten better at the love chase, a little help from the music man never hurt.
In that video, it looked like Micheal was in a new place, out in the desert, shorn of all but the most ethereal wisp of a shirt and Peter Pan pants, ready to spread his wings to figuratively fly away.
So were we.
I couldn't have recorded the tidbits I've shared above any better if I kept a diary. No matter how bizarre and twisted things may have gotten for Micheal Jackson in his later years, it's these moments, these slices of time in my life that have been indelibly marked by his music.