I was a Thriller kid. You had to be back then. It was the law. If you weren’t in possession of a copy in some format by your birthday in 1983, your family might as well have moved shame-faced into the mountains.
Luckily, I made my deadline. In the right wind you can still hear the phantom relief I felt that autumn when I tore open the wrapping paper on an LP-shaped projectile and saw Michael’s mug staring back. On November 4, 1983, Thriller was mine, officially mine (mine, mine), and I toured that wax so hard and extensively that to this day when I hear “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” I brace myself for the kiss of a skip during the “mama-se mama-sa mama-c00-sa” chant (I kinda miss it now). I’d pace my bedroom, miming Vincent Price‘s cryptkeeper crawl, then segue into Michael’s range with the greatest of ease. And, oh, great God almighty, I’d run out of fingers counting the times my parents caught me mid-ape in some choreographed jolt I’d memorized from days of studying “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” and “Thriller.” Girl, I can thrill you more than any ghoul could ever dare try.
You had to dance. Restraining yourself could actually damage your bone structure. Even adults understood this. Mom bought Thriller on tape for her Wednesday aerobics class. Dad had a copy in his truck. Whenever “Beat It” came on during the morning jaunt to school he’d have to tell me to calm down, but I’d catch him sneak a thumb-tap or 20. He’d pull up to the side door and I’d somehow endure the 12 or so steps through the only Michael-free zone in town. Once I entered Memorial Middle School, I was back in the fray.
It’s hard to articulate to a younger generation how pervasive Thriller was. Everybody owned it — and I mean everybody, even the junior highbrow snoots who swore on blood that they didn’t. Elsewhere someone claimed to have either met him or known his home phone number. The staff once held an assembly just to soothe us with a rented copy of Making Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, even though we’d all individually rented it a dozen or more times ourselves. But still the girls screamed “Michael!” whenever the gangster of glove flashed his winning smile, and I wasn’t the only antsy preadolescent when the zombies got down. Kids moonwalked into classrooms, sported red leather jackets weather be damned, and curled their hair into an approximation of their hero’s.
Speaking of heroes, my dad became one when I discovered among his records ABC by The Jackson 5. Even better was that hits collection — the first one, with the brothers posed inside an ornate frame. It was a treasure trove that went into immediate rotation. “Mama’s Pearl.” “Goin’ Back to Indiana.” “I’ll Be There.” “I Want You Back.” “The Love You Save.” “ABC.” But best of all: “Who’s Loving You,” with tiny Mike flanked by his older brothers (Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, and Marlon), wrenching out a grown man’s blues.
I was young enough that Michael was not only my first real “idol,” he was also my first real lesson in stardom’s fickle nature. The Thriller frenzy enjoyed a breathtaking run, but when it died, it fell hard and fast. By the spring of my sixth-grade year, not even four months after I’d snuffed 11 candles and hugged my grandma for the greatest present ever, Michael Jackson was done. I discovered this one lunchtime when my buddy Chris pointed at the button on my coat and said, “Dude, nobody likes that crap anymore.” We’d evolved as a species past Thriller, the Pepsi Generation and its follicular inferno, and the disastrous Jacksons Victory album and tour, emerging from our ardor with a weary indifference. I sighed and hid the offending flair in my pocket. And I seldom thought of Michael again. In ’87 I shrugged at Bad, though I quietly admired “Man in the Mirror” ’cause I’m a sucker for a good gospel surge (see also: Foreigner, “I Want to Know What Love Is”). Michael was simply a relic of my kiddie past. And the stories! Yeesh. They only got weirder over the years, until the one yesterday that ended Michael’s narrative way too soon.
Even some 24 hours later, I can’t define how I feel. Stunned, but I knew he’d never live to be an old man, yet I didn’t want him to die. Sad, because while I was tired of his disturbed, destructive antics, I still loved him. Guilty, because I’d been a willing participant in that grand American tradition of star-crushing. Michael Jackson had once meant everything to me, then nothing, and now my only solace was that I felt at least something. While I didn’t exactly cry or do anything dramatic like throw Triumph into the changer and let “Can You Feel It” lift me to Heaven (sounds nice, though, doesn’t it?), I did sit and contemplate a good long spell. Then I paid tribute to my favorite Jackson 5 track for Damn Fine Day and prayed for Thursday to end. We’d already lost Farrah Fawcett, Michael, and Sky Saxon, late of carport-pounders The Seeds, before nightfall. (Interestingly, I own more Seeds albums than Jackson albums. How sick-hip is that?)
I was never very good at goodbyes, especially the endings. All you have left are platitudes and cliches, the sputter of a spent explosion. And I didn’t even get to Captain EO or “Leave Me Alone.” But that’s OK: Michael’s got plenty of kind words from around the world to keep his troubled soul warm. I’ve got his music for mine.