by Jordan Green


Wanna be startin’ somethin’ in third grade

Two weeks after his passing, Michael Jackson is still news, not so much for the circumstances of his death or the freakish behavior of his later years, but because he was the penultimate pop star, the likes of which we will never see again. My first memory of Michael is like so many others of my generation: In my third-grade year at Montessori Children’s House in Frankfort, Ky., a classmate named Adrian played the Thriller cassette on his boom box during recess under the stone portico. I don t remember whether I was moved to dance or I was satisfied to observe the spectacle, but the music was infectious. I got my first taste of urban style — music, dance and fashion wrapped up in a thrilling package.

Innocence retrieved

In 2005, I sat in on a rehearsal by Sam Frazier and his band at the Sound Lab Recording Studio in Greensboro as Sam was preparing for a comeback concert at the Blind Tiger following the release of a new solo album and a precarious personal journey back from drug addiction and a couple major health crises. Sam played a song I didn’t recognize right away, but the delicate and buoyant touch of his guitar playing reminded me of Jerry Garcia covering Motown. Somewhat hesitantly, I said, “That sounds like Michael Jackson.” “It is,” he replied with an impish grin. “It’s the Jackson 5.” It was “I Want You Back.”

Everyone loves Thriller

Even my baby-boomer aunt, who displayed a framed cutup collage of James Joyce’s dirty prose on her wall and wrote for Bloodhorse magazine in Kentucky, had a copy of Thriller in her vinyl collection.

The last true pop star

Michael Jackson was the first African-American crossover artist to dominate the charts, and the last to truly bring us together. After noting that Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” is a rip-off of Cameroonian pop star Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa,” New Yorker writer Kelefa Sanneh describes the night in New York City after Jackson’s death: “Car windows were open all over the city, and just about every station on the radio had switched to an all-Michael Jackson format; for the first (and, for all we know, the last) time, it felt as if absolutely everyone was listening to the same songs.”

Studying Michael

Joanne Spencer of Minnesota writes in a personal essay picked up by “The Story with Dick Gordon” (produced at the studios of WUNC FM in Durham) that Thriller inspired her to pursue a career in dance. “MTV became my new obsession and with our newly purchased $500 VCR that was practically larger than our TV, I spent hours recording, rewinding, pausing, freeze framing every move that exotic, funky guy made,” she writes. “Yesterday, as I was standing on that T-ball field, holding my 1- year-old daughter while shagging flies, I remembered that I learned the dance from ‘Beat It,’ step for step exactly, and willingly, used to show anyone who would watch.”

Living through the Jackson 5

For novelist Michael Thomas, Michael Jackson was a symbol of his self-destructive brother — and the pop star’s death brought back vivid memories of how the two brothers and their cousins would mimic the Jackson 5 in the early ’70s. Here’s an excerpt of Thomas’ essay in the June 27 issue of The New York Times: “Then the crackle of the grooves, then my aunt from the next room: ‘Not too loud.’ The music: piano glissando, guitar, bass — bum bum, bum bum, bum bah bump. Michael: ‘Uh-huh… let me tell you now…’ and we were up — snapping, clapping and rocking. Trying to do the twirls and splits barefoot on the thick-pile wallto-wall. No one would feel those burns until bedtime.”

Tragic foreshadowing

Alright, dipping our toes in the controversy just a little bit. Jackson lawyer Bob Sanger tells the LA Weekly that during his 2005 child sexual abuse trial, the star turned to him and reacted to a statement by the judge that the jury system goes back more than 200 years. “We stand up and the judge leaves, and Michael turns to me and says, ‘Bob, the jury system is much older than 200 years, isn’t it?’” Sanger recalled. “I said, ‘Well, yeah, it goes back to the Greeks.’ He says, ‘Oh, yeah, Socrates had a jury trial, didn’t he?’ I said, ‘Yeah, well, you know how it turned our for him.’ Michael says, ‘Yeah, he had to drink the hemlock.’”

Invincible Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson’s music entered the public consciousness in the TV age, and slowly but surely he thoroughly dominated the medium. “The second 45 I owned was ‘ABC’ by the Jackson 5,” Steven Douglas Price commented on my Facebook page. “And then there was ‘Ben’ — a song sung to a rat? I remember ‘Dancing Machine’ on ‘Soul Train.’ Of course, I remember watching the moonwalk, but by far ‘Thriller’ on MTV was for me the moment when you knew he could take on anything.”

Michael the messenger

Some commentators see something beyond the infectious song and dance, crossover appeal and platitudes of unity in Michael Jackson’s life. Yes, there are those who see Jackson as a champion of social justice, nothing short of a liberation fighter. Count Vernon C. Mitchell Jr., author of the Negro Intellectual blog, among them. “Michael understood the struggle of African Americans in a diasporic sense,” Mitchell writes in his essay, “The Man in the Mirror: The Double Consciousness of Michael Jackson.” “In 1996, he released the single ‘They Don’t Really Care About Us’ that was a social anthem centered on political dispossession and used the issues of hate and intolerance. Ironically enough the song created more controversy for being intolerant because some of the lyrics were seen as anti-Semitic. Outside of that criticism the song was a powerful statement against oppression and used the direction of Spike Lee to send an even deeper message.”

Spontaneous public tribute

Officers of the GPD Center City Resource Team forced a spontaneous concert to disband from the sidewalk outside Mack and Mack on South Elm Street in Greensboro on the eve of Independence Day. The performers, who had just met each other, moved down the street to Center City Park. They were soon playing for a large and diverse crowd that included African Americans, Hispanics and a couple Muslim women dressed in hijabs. As the newly acquainted performers searched for shared ground, someone in the crowd shouted, “Michael Jackson” — an obvious common denominator. Vocalist DC Carter took his best shot at “Black or White” and then unleashed a string of dance moves in tribute to the Greatest Entertainer of All Time. The performance was greeted with uproarious laughter came from the audience, but the appreciation was real.