I don't take a lot of vacation. When I do, seminal figures tend to drop dead. Last year it was Jesse Helms. Tragic? Not so much. This year while I was slathering on sunscreen down by the shore, Ed McMahon coughed up his last guffaw, Farrah Fawcett truly became an angel and Michael Freakin' Jackson moonwalked off to another realm. I was sitting in a seaside bistro with my family, about to rip into a half pound burger I did not need, when my cell phone began to vibrate. 'In case you haven't heard,' the text read, 'Michael Jackson is dead.' HUH? A check with the chatty waitress confirmed it: the self-annointed King of Pop had indeed kicked it. What followed was a delicate dissertation on the Michael Jackson canon; one in which I danced around the Jesus Juice, the nose-melting surgery binges, the molestation charges, the cryogenic sleep chamber, the fact that he named one of his kids 'Blanket'... What I tried to convey to my two daughters was that that once upon a time the crazy white woman the Brits call 'Wacko-Jacko' was a young black man who just happened to be the most exciting entertainer on the planet.
I was 15 when 'Thriller' came out. While not a typical Motown fan I was a follower of The Isley Brothers (thanks to my older bro's vinyl collection) and deeply enamored with MTV. Back then, Music Television was just that - a 24 hour cable channel that played incredibly new inventions called 'viddy-oze'. I was hooked. And while I couldn't identify with 'Billie Jean' and 'Beat It' quite like I could, say, 'Jack and Diane', even a rhythm-free bookworm like myself could not deny the infectious lure of the dude with the one white glove. Hell, for awhile he made high-waters cool! And while I may never have rocked a red sequined jacket, I damn sure bought 'Thriller' on cassette and danced to it in my room when I was sure no one was looking. If any other survivor of the 1980's tells you different, they're lying.
But it didn't end there. Jackson released more hits, influenced just about everyone, then got deeply weird. I don't know much about that period. The last song/video of his I dug was 'Smooth Criminal' (and if you didn't like it, you ain't got a pulse). I do however know a thing or three about Elvis Presley. Like Michael, he was handed the globe on a silver platter at a very young age and - quite rightly - went out of his gourd. The day he died, I was ten. I still remember picking butter beans out behind my parent's trailer when my grandmother burst out of her home, housecoat a-flutter, yelling "Elvis Died!". 'That fat dude in the jumpsuits?' I asked. Over the next few hours, my elders educated me on the cultural signifigance of the hillbilly with the million dollar sneer. Slowly but surely, I became a fan. I couldn't help but think of that day as I explained to my kids how Michael Jackson broadened his appeal by tapping Eddie Van Halen to shred on 'Beat It'. I'm not sure they got it, but I have great faith they eventually will.
Funny how the world works...