29 June 2009

I was 9, he was 11. It was love at first sight.

The selection of YouTube videos I've been watching since Thursday night when I learned that Michael Jackson had died, is indeed quite telling. With one exception, "They Don't Really Care About Us," the choices I made tended to be from either the Jackson 5/Jacksons era, or from MJ's solo career up to the Bad album. After Bad, MJ's physical transformation made it difficult for me to connect with his music. Or perhaps I had simply outgrown him. Or perhaps the music just wasn't as compelling for me as it had been.

In any case, this post isn't about why I stopped listening to MJ, but rather about how I started listening to MJ. In order to create some sort of context for what follows, I offer:

Um . . . yeah, that's me in the middle

This photograph was taken either during the summer of 1970 or 1971 at Our Lady of the Hills Catholic Summer Camp in the mountains of North Carolina. My mother sent me to this camp two years in a row, so that I would have proper "exposure" to white people. To give my mother the credit she is due, it important to point out that at this time I was attending a segregated public school, but everyone knew that integration was on the way. My mom wanted to get a jump on things and make sure white folks had been demystified enough so that when I finally ended up in school with them, there would be no problems, in terms of an inferiority complex or something similar.

So yeah, this is how I grew up, with race a critical factor in trying to determine who I was and where I belonged. This isn't necessarily the best way to grow up, but whatever extra stress the issue of skin color meant for me during my childhood, was more than compensated for with the music of the time.

I was a very lucky little girl.

Not only did I grow up during the heyday of Motown and the emergence of rock music, but I grew up in a household where great music was simply a fact of everyday life. Being only twenty years older than I am, and a music lover her whole life, my mother always had good music in the house. In fact, one of my earliest childhood memories is riding with my mom in her blue Rambler station wagon with the windows down and both of us singing along with Mick Jagger at the top of our voices to "I Can't Get no Satisfaction." Like many little girls, the hairbrush was my microphone around the house, but unlike the rest I knew all the words to everything Aretha Franklin ever thought about singing. As we had no classical music, I would come home from ballet class and use the handle of the oven door as the barre and practice my plies to James Brown.


I remember my mom taking me to see Marvin Gaye at Brogden Hall at New Hanover High School when I was little, and traveling with her to the Fort Eustis jazz festival with her and my even littler brothers. I was allowed to go to the daytime shows, which included Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, but was banned from the really cool stuff like Sly and the Family Stone because my mother was sure that I would get high from all the pot smoke wafting through the air at the nighttime shows. Um . . . Mom??

So I had musical idols when I was a little girl, but they were all grownups. Cool, but grownups.

Until the night that I saw the Jackson 5 perform "I Want You Back" on television. Now the conventional wisdom says that the first performance of this song on American TV was on the Ed Sullivan Show, which we watched religiously, but my memory is from the Andy Williams Show. Whatever. The point is that I saw the show, saw them perform, and fell in love. Instantly, madly, crazily in love.

Finally, someone around my age, and my color. Hallelujah!

[Yeah, I know what you're thinking: what about that little black boy on Julia? And the answer is that he NEVER did if for me. I may have been little, but I had a notion of sex appeal and Corey had none.]

Then began the work of being a fan. There were 45s to be purchased, and when there was enough money, albums, too, with their covers drawn on with the standard "Inez and Michael FOREVER" enclosed in a heart drawn around his picture. There were also dance routines to be choreographed, mastered, and performed with my girlfriends for the family. I swear I still remember a couple moves from "The Love You Save" and "Lookin' Through the Windows."

No shit.

Prospective boyfriends were judged on their likeness to MJ or at least his hair, with "He likes you and he looks like Michael Jackson," being the ultimate compliment I could have received back then. Of course, I knew how to bring the drama as well. On April Fool's Day in the fifth grade, one of my classmates told me that MJ had died of a drug overdose. I walked home after school and helped myself to some Flintstone Vitamins with Iron so that I could follow him. Taking four Flintsone Vitamins with Iron won't kill you, but they will make you constipated, so yeah, I suffered for my love.

When I was 12 going on 13 and visiting my cousin for the summer in New Jersey, her husband took me to Madison Square Garden to see the Ohio Players open up for the Jackson 5. It was August 1973 and Stevie Wonder had just released Innervisions, which I had on repeat play. I didn't think it was possible for a musical experience to be cooler than that.

I was wrong.

That night in Madison Square Garden (where I was too prim to move a couple rows closer to some empty seats because I thought people might come back and be angry thereby thoroughly pissing off my cousin's husband) I gave myself completely over to the power of excellent music performed live. I was already a fan of The Ohio Players and the heart-drawing object of my affection here was the drummer, Diamond. The combination of Diamond and MJ in the same evening just about killed me. If I had known anything about sex then, I would have been able to make some sort of comparison. But I didn't, so all I could do was grin and laugh and cry and hang on to my Jackson 5 comemorative magazine like a crazy person when some kid on the subway ride home asked to see it.

As. fucking. if . . .

By then I was already in an integrated school where one of the big lunchtime arguments was based on who was in fact better: the Jackson 5 or the Osmond Brothers. And while I dug the hell out of Down by the Lazy River--a fact that I had to keep to myself--there was just no comparison. Even the Jackson 5's Saturday cartoon was better than the Osmonds' cartoon.


I was lucky enough to see The Jacksons again when I was an undergrad at Carolina. They played in Greensboro and a bunch of us drove over for a night of "sunshine, moonlight, and the boogie." Foxy opened up for them and the show was excellent. I was surrounded by close friends and good music, two factors that continue to define happiness for me. Then later after the show, we all got into a huge fight in some stupid bar over whether the US should boycott the Soviet Union for shooting down Korean Air Lines Flight 007. It was the fight that ended my friendship with Joanna and I still miss her.

In any case, these were the memories that came flooding back on Thursday night when I learned of MJ's death. The tears I shed were not only for a tragic figure whose life in later years seemed to be one continuous WTF, but for my own life, too; the good times, the music, the friends, but most of all the childhood that never seemed as cool to me then as it does right now.

For the role he played in my childhood, I thank Michael Jackson unreservedly. May he finally rest in peace.

The Jackson 5 perform "The Love you Save" on the Diana Ross Show


  1. This is a great post, Inez. Sensible and sensitive....

  2. Hi Marie, thanks very much for stopping by and for leaving such a nice comment.