Vault: The King of Pop

As part of the new blog, I'm going to start putting up some old posts that have disappeared from the Internet ... you'll be able to find these in the new "Joe Vault" section. This was written on June 25, 2009, the day after Michael Jackson died.

The thing I understood about Elvis when I was young was that he was famous. Crazy famous. The kind of famous that only a handful of people have ever been — Elvis, Muhammad Ali, Jack Kennedy, Will Rogers, Babe Ruth, the Beatles, that kind of iconic famous. I knew, of course, what Elvis did — King of Rock and Roll and all that — but by the time I knew him he was a cartoon character, a fat sweat-hog who wore capes and sequins and collars you could parasail with, an overgrown leftover from the 1950s who was so buzzed on drugs or jelly doughnuts that he hardly seemed real.

Sure, I heard the songs. You couldn’t escape Elvis songs (or Beatles songs) when my generation was young — Jailhouse Rock, Hound Dog, Love Me Tender, whatever. My mother would play her one Elvis album, the bizarrely titled “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong” album, and I still hear those songs in my head — A Big Hunk of Love, Don’t, Wear My Ring — I heard them again and again. I didn’t dislike his music … some songs I liked quite a bit. But none of it meant anything to me. I was baffled how this silly man’s death could have an impression on seemingly sensible middle aged adults, like my mother.

And it was only later that I understood: I had heard the songs, but I had not heard — I could not hear — how the music SOUNDED. I wasn’t of that time. I was not 17 or 13 or 10 when Elvis was new, when his voice clashed against the sounds of the time, when the sound of an Elvis guitar crashed through in those days when young people dreamed and raged and combed their hair against bathroom mirrors and shook the back seats of cars. These are (more or less) the things that young people of every era do, of course, and I have always believed that many of the world’s biggest Elvis fans, born 10 years later, would have been the world’s biggest Beatles or Stones or The Who fans and, born 10 years later, would have been the world’s biggest Led Zeppelin or Bruce Springsteen fans or Lynyrd Skynyrd fans. It has always seemed to me that the point is not the musical style. The point is the time and finding that music that grabs the moment, clutches today, the music that breaks from the past and tells a whole generation: “All that other music is old. You are young. This is your time.”*

*My two daughters love, love, love, love the ludicrous but harmlessly catchy Hannah Montana song “Hoedown Throwdown.” They might someday be embarrassed by that song — and that someday might be in six months — but for now that goofy little song does for them what songs have done for young people for a long, long time … and someday that goofy little song might make them remember.

There were always people I liked a lot more than Michael Jackson. But that’s not the point … Michael Jackson was the inescapable musical power of my childhood. Springsteen had the Born in the U.S.A. chapter and Madonna had this knack for being everywhere and Van Halen blared and numerous irresistible forces like REM and U2 and Elvis Costello and Depeche Mode and the Smiths played in the dark corners.

But it was Michael Jackson’s time. No one was even close. If you had asked me in 1983 — if you ask me today — if I was a Michael Jackson FAN, I would say no. Not a fan. No way. Never saw him in concert and never would. Never spent much time talking about him and never would.

But then I would have to tell you that, without even thinking about it, I could recite the entire exchange between Paul and Michael on “The Girl Is Mine.” Without … even … thinking …

Paul: Michael, we’re not going to fight about this, OK? Michael: Paul, I think I told you, I’m a lover not a fighter. Paul (sighs): I’ve heard it all before, Michael. She told me that I’m her forever lover, don’t you remember? Michael: Well, after loving me, she said she couldn’t love another. Paul: Is that what she said? Michael: Yes, she said it. You keep dreaming. Paul: I don’t believe it.

Then again, I could — without a moment’s hesitation — sing every single word to the preposterously sappy, “She’s Out Of My Life,” where Michael starts breaking down at the end of the song. I spent a pathetic number of hours trying to learn how to moonwalk — never quite got there — and I know the entire Vincent Price bit from Thriller (Creatures crawl in search of blood/to terrorize y’alls neighborhood). I remember staying home to tune in when there was the world premier of the “Bad” video. I can go through the Thriller album in order (Wanna Be Startin’ Something, Baby Be Mine, The Girl Is Mine, Thriller, Beat It, Billie Jean, Human Nature, P.Y.T., The Lady In My Life), and I could do the same with Off The Wall, and I can tell you that I too am starting with the Man in the Mirror and I can keep going like this for an embarrassingly long time … and, remember, I’m not really a Michael Jackson fan.

This is what I mean by inescapable. Look: I’m not musically intelligent enough to tell you what made Michael Jackson’s music different from the past. I can’t speak to the quality of the music … let the critics argue about that. But I can tell you that whenever I went to the swimming pool in the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, “Human Nature” was playing on the radio. The opening guitar strains on “Beat It” — Eddie Van Halen, of course — still evoke a trip to the lake I took with high school friends. The sounds of “Off The Wall” can be so powerful, I can almost smell a sunny afternoon in 1981, just as my family had moved, just as I was about to enter high school, when I was afraid of just about everything. Michael Jackson for better and worse overwhelmed my shaping years, when I was a young kid just trying to figure out what I could do and where I belonged. I couldn’t say Michael Jackson helped me get anywhere. But, he was always there, always, like the weather.

I found out that Michael Jackson died while on our family vacation, while sitting in a Toronto hotel room that overlooks the baseball field at the Rogers Centre. His death hit me a bit harder than I expected — well, maybe harder is not the right word. In fact, it’s not the right word — his death didn’t hit me hard at all. I didn’t cry and I didn’t go searching for the “Heal the World” video on YouTube … in that way, I really don’t care.

But it hit me differently than I expected. It’s more like, well, let me just say this is been an interesting family vacation. Without intending to, the vacation has been a visit back through childhood. I took my daughters to the amusement park, Cedar Point, where my parents had taken me a hundred times. I took them to Niagara Falls, where my parents had taken me and various relatives every six months or so. I took the family to my old neighborhood, which grows smaller and more desperate every time I come back. I taught the girls how to play Ms. Pac Man. And I took them all to the old ice cream stand where we would go after every Little League victory.* The place was called “Cream-o-Freeze” back then; now it’s the Dairy King, but it’s still the same, and it’s still serving chocolate dipped in chocolate on a waffle cone, which is what the world is all about.

*Coaches wouldn’t take us for ice cream if we lost … there was no political correctness in those days.

The trip has been more nostalgic than I expected or wanted … I don’t want to be the sort of 42-year-old man who looks back and reminisces about stuff that wasn’t all that great in the first place. But, I’ve come to realize that, in a way, that’s part of what being 42 is about. It isn’t that childhood is so great or so lousy. It’s all of that. To me the point is that there’s a certain feeling that goes with being young and full of hope/fear/grief/anger/loneliness. The sunny days of my childhood were bright yellow. It’s cool, I think, to get a whiff of that brightness again.

For the last 20 years or so, Michael Jackson has been a clown. A creep. A freak. He became so bizarre that, at some point, even the jokes about him stopped being funny — no joke could fully reach his weirdness. His musical tastes, which had been flawless going back to his Jackson 5 days, led him astray in later years. He became tone-deaf — he insisted on being introduced as “The King of Pop,” which in addition to being stupid also diminished him: Who wants to be known as the king of Pop? And then, of course, there was all that spooky stuff with the kids.

If you grew up in the last 20 years, you would probably only know Michael Jackson for being famous. You might like the music, you might not, but either way you couldn’t hear it. There were only a few years there in the early-to-mid 1980s when you could have truly heard the music. I happened to grow up in those years. So, yeah, I was sad when I heard the news. He was a part of my life. It’s not like I want to hear Thriller again. But I wouldn’t mind hearing it again for the first time.