Thursday, June 25, 2009


i was seven years old when i met michael jackson. it was 1984. at that age, i did not own my own music. my parents had bought me some disney records and a few bill gaither children's tapes; however, i always turned to chuck berry and elvis presley and buddy holly and alabama and linda ronstadt. even as a toddler, propped up on the arm rest between the front seats of my mother's 1977 thunderbird without a seatbelt, i preferred my parents' music. at the age of five, i stole my dad's SURVIVOR tape so i could listen to "eye of the tiger" on repeat. and i did. over and over, shadow boxing myself in the ring of my lamp-lit bedroom door rocky balboa style. prior to that, at age four, i climbed the countertops to blast eddie rabbit's "i love a rainy night," and i'd stand in the kitchen with my hips sprung out snapping my fingers like i'd seen elvis do on television. the pelvis-elvis was my default dance move from age four to seven. any time the groove caught me, i jutted out my tiny hip bones and stirred my left knee like a silver spoon in sweetened black coffee. and i meant every jagged swirl of it.

however, all that changed when stephanie white, my neighbor from two doors down, gave me two 45 vinyl records as a gift: "beat it" and "billie jean." why a nine year old girl would give a seven year old boy vinyl 45s on a whim is still a mystery to me. call it Divine Intervention. call it predestination. call it childhood puppy love (we did punch each other a lot). all i know is that those 45s burned out the motor in my fisher price record player, and i took the grooves in those vinyls down to a glossy photo finish before my eighth birthday. day and night, night and day, those 45s spun in my bedroom, while all my pelvising elvising flew out the window. in an all too brief time, my mother lost her sweet memphis baby for a motown strut machine. and i never looked back.

bryan stevenson was my best friend at the time. he spent the night at my house once a month. on one of his stays, we practiced moonwalking in my kitchen all night long. the linoleum floor tiles in my house offered too much grip, but we persevered, and we practiced, and we kept MTV burning in the living room in hopes that we could study michael once more before finally getting the moves down pristine. finally, our mutual desire to master breakdancing led bryan to buy posters with step-by-step breakdancing instructions. we watched BREAKIN' and BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO a dozen times; we even bought both film soundtracks with our allowances. nevertheless, on our sleepovers, when the still home became quiet, we conjured up "beat it" and practiced dancing on our toes.

the court cases and sexual allegations and molester jokes flared up nationwide towards the end of my chemotherapy treatments, right at the beginning of my recovery. cancer had led me on a downward spiral of baptist doctrine and prideful christianity. baldheaded and stuck to an IV pole, i made jokes about michael jackson and little boys, about michael jackson and plastic surgery, about michael jackson and the numerous urban legends that followed his fame and fortune. i claimed to still love the music, but i could not support the man. he was evil. he was perverse. he was sinful. i made jokes at the children's hospital in little rock, lauding about my big cross necklaces and christian t-shirts. the nurses grimaced and shook their heads. one nurse asked me what i thought about the way michael jackson cared for the sick, the way he built rooms in his movie theater for kids on chemotherapy, the way he invited the poor and disenfranchised to his ranch to ride roller coasters and pet exotic animals, the way he gave and gave and gave while i stood back and pointed fingers. i did not have much to say. i had never been taught what to say when my curses were challenged.

in college i read about vincent van gogh. he was a loon. he was crazy. he cut off his ear and killed himself in a field. he wore the ridicule of his community, not because of his art, but because of his eccentricities. he loved Jesus and desired to give Jesus' love to as many people as possible. van gogh wanted to love people, but any approach he made to people scared them, offended them, pushed them too hard and too far. once, vincent joined on with a batch of miners and walked beneath the earth in an effort to love them, to show them their worth, to communicate that Christ went further beneath the surfaces for their souls than even vincent could go. he was in the mines for only a brief time before he freaked the miners out and they turned him away. van gogh - the man who redefined the way we see the night sky and fields of blackbirds and sunflowers and dirty old boots, the man who anthropomorphized colors - was dangerous in human skin. as don maclean said in his song about van gogh, "this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you."

years have passed since my wayward baptist days, since that time when i was all too willing to parse-out ridicule and send the fanatic running from the mines. years have passed, and i have often been the one who merged towards aggressive affection and veered into relational awkwardness. loving people is a filthy fucking job, especially when love looked like so many desperate fucking things in your life. and i say all this to come to one point: i do not know michael jackson's dirty secrets, nor do i want to. what i do know is that michael jackson was a genius. singlehandedly, michael jackson redefined music, dance, fashion, the entire decade of the '80s. he was an icon, a hero, a god - and a man can only reach heights so high before he implodes. the king of pop? only because he did.

but that man was broken to a degree no one can understand. still, he loved people. he loved children. he loved life and himself and some unseen order of magic that no one could commune with except michael. and somewhere in all of that, michael jackson became the vincent van gogh who walked beneath the surfaces to love people. that much art and beauty and redefinition can only expand so far inside a man before it claims ownership of his other faculties. in the case of vincent and michael, it demanded their souls. and, for entertainment, we watched them dissolve with laughter on our lips.

i was at work tonight when i received the message from jesse robertson. it only seems fair. we were leaving our kansas city apartment together on the morning of september 13, 2003 when the news about johnny cash came over the radio. at the edge of the driveway, i stopped my car in front of jesse, climbed out, walked back to his window, and told him that cash was home. six years later and tonight, jesse told me about michael jackson. i think that makes us about even.

i am not sure why the lives of strangers affect me so deeply. i've never met michael jackson. i'm not sure how he would carry a conversation or approach my wife or speak to my mother. i'm not sure how he handles his children or how he takes his coffee or what name for god he uses when he means it. but tonight i feel a loss. i felt loss when kurt cobain, layne stanley, waylon jennings, johnny cash, and hunter s. thompson left us. their lives - and deaths - stirred something i did not know needed to be stirred, and i welcomed the oddly flavorless grief they brought to me.

michael jackson is no exception.

tonight i feel a loss. a darkness. an awkward void for something i never actually possessed. after all, the only gift michael jackson ever gave me was hour upon frustrating hour in my kitchen on unforgiving 1970s linoleum flooring, practicing a single mode of moving backwards. and he gave me two small 45 records that spun and spun and spun and spun and, eventually, spun me away from my parents' music into my own preferences. and he gave me speechless wonder at the sight of his dancing. he gave me songs. he gave me curiosity. he gave me a boundless sense of wonder. however, even though i cannot hold any of these things before anyone else, i do not feel that i need to.

i, also, am no exception.


Sariah said...

Yes. This is exactly what I wanted to say, but as usual, I was unable to find the words. Thank you for this beautiful tribute.

Stacey Lawlis said...

Bless you, Kev. This was beautiful. Good words, as usual.

Nahallac said...

Very nice words Kevin.

Kimberly said...

Remember our discussion of my deaf brother?

When we were kids, the deaf school here in Little Rock use to do these big musical reviews. One year, one of the productions was a reenactment of the Thriller video, and my big brother was Michael Jackson. He had no hearing, but he had all the rhythm and moves. I thought he was awesome - Michael, and my big brother.

Amber@theRunaMuck said...


keshiasouth said...


zenner's said...

I agree with all of this. Except:

1. Vincent it turns out did not take his own ear. It was lost in a fight. At least, that's the shocking revelation a whispering guy on NPR gave me a few months back.

2. The King of Pop's death is real sad. But in my mind, he's been dying for near two decades, if not longer.

The Baker said...

it is sad.

"vincent" is a good song.

it's far too easy to cut people down that we don't know. It's hard to support someone that everyone thinks is evil.

travis said...

Thank you, Kevin. You said what I would express if I were as brilliant a writer as you.

Esue said...

Fantastic. I think Michael Jackson is a perfect picture of what the American machine at it's worst can create. We eat this kid's childhood alive by just demanding and consuming him, and then we mock him for becoming the very thing that we created. His is the most simultaneously triumphant and tragic story.

the hamster said...

e sue -

you nailed it. absolutely perfect synopsis of the whole michael jackson saga. i'm jealous of your brevity and the weight of these few well-chosen words. bravo, my friend. thanks for sharing.

- hamster

Ryan said...

I was excited that Michael was going to tour again and hoping for another glimpse of him doing the moonwalk or basically any of his other moves in a live setting.

Maybe now you can satisfy?

I used to go to a friends house whose name I don't even remember now and listen to Thriller the album in his room unbeknownst by my parents. I practiced many of michaels moves and the only one I could perfect was flinging my hat off.

zenner's said...

inm triburwte imn weaerijng oinew glocve todasy.

the hamster said...

zenner -

even if van gogh lost it in a fight with gauguin, i bet it hurt. and Jesus weren't nearby enough to stick it back on. i'm not editing the piece for NPR hearsay of some art historian. losing your ear would be worse than losing your tail anyday of the week.

i agree with your timeframe of MJ's death.

- hamster

zenner's said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
zenner's said...

Track eight.

Anonymous said...

genius, kevin. do you remember the billie jean dance at camp barnabas? that was my tribute to MJ. (not quite as eloquent as yours.) hee hee. -sarah w

Pepe Guzman said...

the news of his passing didn't register on my richter scale. i felt about his passing roughly the same way i felt about the aged blonde bomb-shell who passed the same day. one danced well-- one smiled well. one had great/feathered hair, the other hair that once caught fire on a pepsi commercial shoot. as zen said, i think they'd both been dying for years. good words, kevin. it made my tracking needle jump. now: 2.3 richter reading.

i do confess the following: yesterday a very emotional woman said on NPR "MJ was the most important musician in the history of music, ever. if you don't know that, you don't know anything."

i don't know anything.

the hamster said...

peepee -

thanks. i also don't know anything. perhaps she went a little overboard on that. however, if i were shipwrecked and beerless for any significant stretch of time and then the rescue boat served only keystone light or shiner bock, i might be tempted to say, "this is the best beer in the history of man's ability to swallow. and if you don't know that, then you are deceiving snake in a holy garden." you never know what folks may be tempted to say.

- hamster

myleswerntz said...

I've had mixed emotions about the passing of MJ. I was in Fredericksburg waiting for the wife in the car, and saw a big sign plastered on the newsbox: MICHAEL JACKSON DEAD.

Though I don't listen to him, I immediately ran to the box and paid to read the story. I've always felt sad for him, a lonely, bizarre, tormented individual who was poked and prodded until he died. Thanks for this.

the hamster said...

"I was in Fredericksburg waiting for the wife"

myles - i like hearing you say this, probably not nearly as much as you liked writing it, but, still.

ICN said...

Really great words. I was a couple of years young to experience some of his great works as they happened. But MJ was so beyond my comprehension even as a young punk. He had all that great mythology that has become a necessity for rock/pop icons. Its hard for me to imagine that he is gone and in a lot of ways I have the same sense of loss I did when the trade towers fell. I had trouble believing they weren't still there until I saw the gaping hole from the window of a plane and walked up to the blockades covered in missing person fliers.
It seems a little over done to say he was the most important musician ever, but to 100 million people he really was. Such a sad life, but he sang and danced some of the greatest music ever.