That was the text message I got informing me Michael Jackson passed away. How bizarre that on the very day I wrote a tribute to Prince’s Purple Rain that the extremely troubled former King of Pop should die. The similarities between the two stars are many, the most obvious being their ability to transcend musical (e.g. racial) boundaries and draw people of all stripes to their music.
If the summer of ’84 was to me Prince’s summer, then the summer of ’82 was obviously Michael’s. Thriller dominated the world in a way probably no album has since. That summer I was also a camp counselor (at Beth Elohim, in Park Slope, if you must know), and I can’t say I was plugged into Jackson’s music before Thriller. I mean, I dug it and all — especially "Billie Jean," which is still one of my favorite Jackson songs — but he didn’t do all that much for me until… that moonwalk on the Grammy’s in 1983! Holy crap! I never got the glove thing, or all that sparkly stuff, but that man could perform! The combination of his Tourettes-like yelps and rubber-band-man dancing made him the most kinetic entertainer I’d ever seen. (Even Prince, with all his stagecraft, had to take a back seat to Michael.)
Without absorbing Jackson’s music first, I don’t know if I would have been able to truly appreciate Prince’s. They were both extremely… odd… human beings (and the 80s was known for some pretty outrageous fashion choices) but Jackson’s G-rated persona paved the way for the more "sophisticated" role played by Prince. (Though of course as Wacko Jacko came more and more to the fore starting in the 1990s, who could’ve guessed how R-rated — or maybe I should say NC-17 — he would become?)
Another great memory was during some random free period in high school, back at the old Harlem building of Music & Art. I was sitting in the auditorium reading an X-Men when the "Thriller" music came on somebody’s boombox. I looked up on stage and there were about twenty of my fellow students doing an impromptu yet perfect step-by-step run-through of the "Thriller" video choreography. It was freakin’ awesome!
In the end, you have to agree that no matter your personal musical tastes, there was no way of escaping Jackson’s music or it impacting your life. The closest personal connection I have to this moment is when my mom woke me up on a cold December morning in 1980 to tell me John Lennon had been shot. As with Lennon, this is my generation’s Elvis moment. I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life.
My Michael Jackson Top 5 — probably not too many surprises here:
5) "The Way You Make Me Feel"
4) "State of Shock" (with Mick Jagger)
3) "Ease on Down the Road" (with Diana Ross)
2) "Beat It"
1) "Billie Jean"