Why you should care
Because no one comes out of the chute bad.
“Gene … get up!” My mother was shaking me awake. “You have to see this!”
She dragged me down the hall to our black-and-white TV. There were five Black kids on The Ed Sullivan Show. They were called the Jackson 5, and on Dec. 14, 1969, when I was 7 years old, I watched them spin, sing and dance their asses off. That was followed by me buying as many of their records as I could afford, which was followed by me attempting to also spin, sing and dance my ass off.
There’s no understating what it was like to be there when stars went mega, and that’s exactly what happened, globally, to the Jackson 5 with Michael Jackson as their Rudolph the Reindeer–esque kid brother-leader. There were cartoons, lunchboxes, fan clubs, movie soundtracks (the song “Ben” came from the sequel to the classic horror film about rats, Willard) and all of the other starburst shit when people go supernova.
Could I get my Michael imitation together in time to publicly impress with an unscheduled, and uncalled for, “audition”?
When you went deeper — I was a fan club member and there were fan club tchotchkes, from magazines to photo cards — it all pointed to the inspirational and aspirational Jackson myth, which was justified by extreme talent and an otherworldly otherness. All at a remove from me even if my little dollops of it came monthly with my fan club membership until …
“I got a surprise for you.”
My stepfather was a reporter for the pre–Rupert Murdoch New York Post. “We’re going to see the Jackson 5,” he announced. More than that, we were going to the after-party. Which, I was told, meant we’d get to hang out with the kids from Gary, Indiana. So Feb. 8, 1975, loomed large for 12-year-old me. The Jackson 5 were kicking off five nights of shows at Radio City Music Hall, and we’d be there for the first one.
So what to wear? And beyond that, what to say and whom to say it to? And could I get my Michael imitation together in time to publicly impress with an unscheduled, and very possibly uncalled for, “audition”? The sky was the limit. After I had told everyone, up to and including the guys at the corner store, I had gathered a thousand points of celebrity engagement.
The show itself? As electric as you’ve seen and been told it was. Michael, 17 at the time, pre-surgeries, chimps and predatory behavior, was poised to move beyond the confines of family structures and strictures like any teenager and he tore up the stage that night.
After the show, we hustled to the invite-only reception spot, a spot garlanded with white lace and chintz, 1970s-style. I was suited and booted. My mother pointed me toward journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who nodded at me. But I only had eyes for the Jacksons, specifically Michael, and down the totem pole from him, Randy, who, for some strange reason, I felt a kind of familial kinship with. Maybe because despite the obvious absence of Michael’s gifts, he was lucky enough to be along for the ride, a ride he appeared to be massively enjoying, just like I imagined I would.
My stepfather mingled with other media types, and I sat at our table with my mother surveying singers, politicians and celebrities whom she dutifully named for me. And then they appeared.
The crowd parted a bit, and finally there I was, standing in front of Michael.
Dressed in tuxedos — the only sister in attendance was Janet, still a kid then — the Jacksons piled in. It was like successfully staying up and catching a glimpse of Santa. They were moving toward us, and my mother, always a genius for seizing the moment, said, “Go on! Go say hello!”
So I stood and walked over. They were, while not being mobbed (everyone there was a little too cool for that), engaged in half a dozen different conversations, but I was on a mission, and as I got closer to Michael I saw a promo photo sitting on a table. I grabbed it and a pen with the intention of getting an autograph.
The crowd parted a bit, and finally there I was, standing in front of Michael. “Hi,” I said. He looked down at me and reached for the photo and pen. “I really liked the show.”
“Thanks,” he said, passing back the signed photo. And then there was a moment. A clear moment. A clearly weird moment, because I had somehow already, as a kid, been where I had felt what I was feeling then: a palpable unhappiness and a desire to not be there. All playing out in a pair of dead eyes. Years later, as a musician myself, I’d understand that after the show is over, all you want to do is to relax, but at the time, it struck me as strange.
Even stranger was the Stepford quality of all the other Jacksons I got autographs from, meaning they were both there and not there. Michael’s birthday was the day after mine, but the affinity I had felt bursting out of the TV and via the Jacksons’ music ended at the after-party. What does it profit a global celebrity if he gains the world but loses his soul?
I didn’t think that then, of course. I just felt sad for Michael and didn’t really know why. In the intervening years, there have been a lot of answers as to the why, including the allegations that he was a serial sexual predator with a laserlike focus on preteen boys. While I stopped buying Jackson 5 records after that meeting, I still have the autographed photo. I tried to sell it once on eBay. It had become creepily totemic, and I needed to get it out of the house.
I didn’t get any offers, though, so I packed the photo away. Then Jackson died, and now it just feels wrong to sell it. So it sits in my home, and when the Jackson 5 come on the house iPod via the shuffle setting, I cross the room to change it. See, I had come to understand their secret: They had probably never been OK.
Not in the photos of them in pools, on go-karts, hanging around and playing with each other and practicing. It was a job. A permanent job, one they were unlikely to ever be able to leave behind in any coherent way. Unless they died. Which Michael did. And if you believe his victims, which I do, this was probably for the better. Even if I think the real truth was that he had been dead for years.