I always felt a connection with MJ. As a kid, I found the fact that he had the same name as me confusing, but vaguely positive. Whenever my parents played "Beat It," I would start dancing furiously in a move that came to be known as the "Boot-head Shuffle." Even now, when I hear those first few strains of the song -- those guitar chords pulsing relentlessly, the drum kicking in -- I still feel the ghostly echoes of whatever that old feeling was. Whatever the feeling is that makes a three year old plaster on a scowl and then dance like his ass is on fire for the next four minutes. When I heard "Beat It," I didn't even know the force that was driving me, but lord knows that same thing still pushes me forward every day. I must have heard "Billie Jean" and "Thriller" around that time -- I remember thinking how cool it was that Michael Jackson had a tiger on his album cover -- but nothing shook me up like "Beat It."
Only later did I go backwards to his earlier work -- the disco perfection of "Rock With You," "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough." (Hell, only a couple months ago did I hear "P.Y.T." and think to myself, wow, this song is great.) The kid who did those songs, the kid dancing with his big smile in a '70s spacesuit amid the green laser lights, is the one we've all been mourning. He seems so fresh and talented and new, even now, even knowing everything we do. As an obnoxious seventh grader I wrote a paper about MJ and how weird he was, and why that might be. His decline was such a horrible spectacle. Our shameless pleasure in watching him destroy himself was only tempered by the knowledge that real kids actually seemed to be getting hurt. Had he died tragically in, say, 1992, can you imagine the sterling legacy he would have left? Nothing worse than a few weird habits, a chimp, strange but harmless.
But then again, if he departed in 1992 we might not have had "Remember the Time," and that was my song. Also his later stuff -- "Break of Dawn" and "Butterflies" breathed some life into his music on the contemporary R&B charts.
He was a tragic figure, but there was a time, a time of "Off the Wall" and "Thriller" and the Boot-head Shuffle, when he seemed to capture everything that was great about music and let everybody else experience it, too. He was the genesis. At hip hop on Wednesday night we did "Thriller" as a tribute, and coming up this week is "Remember the Time," but our teacher took a few minutes to talk about her own experience of MJ -- the fact that she had auditioned for his last volley of shows in London, that the energy in the audition room was palpable and unlike anything she had seen before, that the people dancing there were giving everything they had, sweating through their shoes, even though Michael wasn't even in the room until the final round, when he was merely a soft presence in the back row of an auditorium. She said she was telling us about that experience because it didn't solely belong to her, but it belonged to all of us, to everyone, and that we should share it too, because it carries on. And so it does.