Saving Young Michael Jackson

I recall walking into my high school one morning in 1991 hoping no one had been listening to the radio the night before – the night I called in to a central Illinois radio station and won a copy of Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous.” It wasn’t cool to like Michael anymore. I remember one of the “cooler” kids telling me how he liked the song “Black or White,” thinking he was about to call me out. He wasn’t. To be honest, I was done with Michael’s music by then. I wouldn’t have bought the album, but the chance to get a copy by being caller No. 10 I couldn’t pass up because of what his music had meant to me in the past.

I recall the first cassette tape I recall owning: “Thriller,” a gift I received on Christmas Day 1982. I don’t recall another gift that year. Michael Jackson was probably the only pop star I ever truly embraced. It seemed to be either Michael or Prince in the early and mid-‘80s, and though I loved the song “Delirious” and later “Let’s Go Crazy,” I never owned a Prince record back then, not until the “Batman” soundtrack, which I owned more because of the movie than because of the Purple One (though I’ve since learned to appreciate his incredible Artistry and have obtained a copy of everything he released up to “Sign O’ the Times”).

I recall a conversation about Michael and Paul from just a couple of weeks back. I was the only one who could correctly recall that the Jackson-McCartney duet “Say Say Say” was a McCartney song while “The Girl Is Mine” was the duet that appeared on Thriller.

I recall moving from Allentown, Pa., where Michael was King, to the suburbs of Chicago in the second grade, where I was shocked to find the other kids mocking Michael. Except Brad Webster. THE most popular kid in school. He who always lip-synched Michael’s songs in music class and at talent shows. (Making the rest of the prepubescent student body’s rejection of Jacko all the more puzzling and also bonding Brad and I, which aided my new kid in town transition.)

I recall “Bad.” The first album I ever bought on the day of its release.

Four years passed, and I pretty much had grown out of popular music, turning to hair metal, then classic rock, then punk, with some Run DMC and Schooly Dee and Spoony G in the mix. But I couldn’t deny the impact Michael Jackson had once made on me. I won “Dangerous” – one of my first CDs – and listened to it frequently, even trying to mimic his dance moves when my bedroom door was locked shut. But I knew then that I only really liked half the album at best and soon put it down for good.

Soon after, someone put “I Want You Back” on a mixtape for me, which set me on my Jackson 5 path. I knew so many of their songs but had never really listened to the material. Though usually upbeat and always tween poppy, the music was as soulful as you’d expect from Motown, and young Michael’s voice was terrific even then, like young Dion or young Stevie or young Frankie Lymon. That led me back to “Ben,” a song I knew from the rat movie and continue to sing to this day whenever one of my lady friends dates a guy named Ben – somehow, thankfully, it seems to be a whole lot of lady friends. Right on through 1978’s disco-funk classic “Destiny,” the brothers had musical merit, and that album opened the door for “Off the Wall.”

I have to agree with Donnie Simpson that it is Michael’s best work. I still listen to “Off the Wall” frequently. It’s the one Michael Jackson record that made it into my CD collection – not counting “Dangerous” because “Dangerous” no longer is in my possession, lost, I believe, on loan to my younger brother several years after my triumphant call to a rural radio station. “Girlfriend” may be my favorite Jacko song of all time – though “Thriller’s” “PYT” is a most pleasant guilty pleasure. A lesser-known “Off the Wall” track, it is maybe the sweetest teenage crush song I’ve ever heard – mischievous, playful and full of upbeat and sincere romantic energy.

Years later, I recall the debut of the “Scream” video. I couldn’t believe the money that had been spent on such a boring, stupid video. But even though I was over the King’s music, I remember nodding at the chorus. It wasn’t my bag anymore, but dang that was a catchy hook.

Last year, a bizarre, bluesy and psychedelic folk-hip-hopper from Michael’s home state of Indiana called Grampall Jookabox put out an album – “Ropechain”  – so completely bananas I couldn’t stop listening to it and telling people about it. The most intriguing cut, for me, was “I Will Save Young Michael,” on which GJ eloquently captures my own feelings for Jacko and takes them further. It laments the changes Michael went through in the past two decades but remembers fondly the child star, trying to pretend what could have been if he hadn’t gone off the wall.

It’s not easy, amid such incessant – and yes, sometimes deliberate – music snobbery to admit to liking, even loving, Michael Jackson. Sure he turned into a freakshow, but by the time his oddball antics became really exaggerated, I was already done with his music. The allegations of child sex abuse? Well, clearly his childhood and behavior the past few years make it easy to believe he’s guilty, working in my cynical field, it’s just as easy to believe that some parents just went looking for a payday. Regardless, I prefer to remember the Michael I loved in my youth.

And I still love Woody Allen, too.

While I’m confessing, I also own Journey’s box set, though my cringe when “Don’t Stop Believing” is played in a bar is sincere. Why doesn’t anyone play “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’”?

Contact Us