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.