Michael Jackson once made me the most popular sixth grader at Weston Middle School. In 1983, I used a futuristic device known as a VCR to record “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” and brought the tape into school. This TV special included performances by legendary artists such as Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, but will always be remembered for 13 minutes of magic from Michael. I had convinced our music teacher to let us watch the video at the end of class and after a Jackson 5 reunion and song medley, we (teacher included) sat mesmerized as Michael took over the entire auditorium with his performance of “Billie Jean.” None of us had ever seen anything like it, and we all wanted more.
For his part, Michael Jackson the entertainer never let us down. He gave us everything he had every time we saw him — and we saw him a lot. For 45 years every aspect of his life (mistakes included) has been pretty well documented and put out there for public consumption. The fact that he basically lived his entire life in front of the camera means those of us who care to can remember Michael any way we want — from the child star with the adorably oversized afro to the “Invincible” King of Pop. Combine that with the fact that his body of work is so incomparably extensive, and it’s clear he will live forever because Michael Jackson is bigger than life.
I’ve been trying to figure out how I’d like to remember him and I’ve decided it’s as he was between 1978 and 1993 — by far my favorite Michael era.
At the age of 20 he played the Scarecrow in the 1978 movie, “The Wiz,” where his famous vulnerability and the power of his voice on “You Can’t Win, You Can’t Break Even” combined for perfect casting. In 1979 “Off The Wall” began an unprecedented streak of commercial and critical success that saw four straight albums with at least four top 10 singles in 12 years. “Thriller” came in 1982 and his transcendent talent totally transformed pop music through the emerging medium of the music video. As a solo artist, he was on top of the world in 1984 and could have commanded any price for anything he wanted to do. Instead of touring to promote “Thriller,” he let his brothers back in on the act on their “Victory” and donated his $5 million share to charity. Three years later he gave us five more #1 singles on the album “Bad” and set a world record when over a half-a-million people attended seven sold-out shows at Wembley stadium in London. He released “Dangerous” in 1991 and scored himself four more top 10 hits leading up to his mind-blowing performance at the Super Bowl in 1993 — the only time that game has ever seen an increased audience during the halftime show.
His work as an artist and entertainer would be impressive enough on its own, but it would be wrong to talk about Michael’s life without remembering his incredibly generous philanthropic work around the world. At the age of 25 he was invited to the White House by President Reagan and Nancy to receive an award for his support of charities that help people deal with drug and alcohol abuse. The next year he co-wrote the charity single “We Are The World” and, along with three dozen of the biggest names in the music business, helped raise over $60 million to aid people starving in central Africa due to a devastating drought. He also started the Heal the World Foundation to “improve the conditions for children throughout the world” and has provided food, shelter and medicine to kids all over the globe. He truly put his money where his mouth was when he donated the profits from all 67 shows on the “Dangerous” world tour to the foundation.
Michael and his music have been a big part of the soundtrack of my life since the days of 45 rpm. One of my earliest memories is dancing to “I Want You Back” with my partner, the unstoppable Derick Grant, at the Roxbury Center for the Performing Arts annual recital. No middle school dance could end without “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Thriller.” In eighth grade I tried in vain to convince Mychal Feldman that I owned the leather jacket on the “P.Y.T.” cover, but my mom wouldn’t let me wear it to school. I almost broke my ankles and my nose trying to master that crazy anti-gravity lean from “Smooth Criminal,” and when my first real girlfriend broke my heart, it was the bubble-gum goodness of “Remember the Time” that kept me from going insane.
Blasting my newly purchased copy of “The Essential Michael Jackson” in the car yesterday, I started to well up when “Man In The Mirror” hit its crescendo. But instead of feeling sadness because Michael is gone, I was actually relieved because now he can finally be appreciated. Then I skipped to “Another Part of Me” and cranked it up.
Kenny Mack is a writer and comedian living in Santa Monica. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.