25 June 2009


It was a hot August afternoon, typical of a Tucson summer, and I had the old gigantic stereo's radio turned on. This was a piece of furniture in its own right, about five feet long and solid wood with a lid that lifted to reveal a turntable and an AM/FM tuner, fancy golden brown cloth covering the speakers. It had vacuum tubes and gave off a smell that was part ozone, part cigarette smoke and part old musty fabric.

I was twirling the tuner knob back and forth between the city's two Top 40 stations, KTKT and KIKX, changing stations in response to a song I didn't like or a commercial break. My mother would emerge from the kitchen periodically to glare at me if I sang too loudly or changed stations too frequently.

Finally, I lighted on one or the other and listened for a bit. Suddenly, uncharacteristically, the DJ came on after a song, and his voice was shaking.

"Elvis Presley has died," he said, and his voice broke.

The news made me feel peculiar in a way that I really couldn't identify. Of course, Elvis Presley was an icon of my mother's era, and while I was familiar with some of his music, I didn't really like it that much. Although she'd told us about how handsome he was when he was younger, and how he'd shaken the industry by shaking his hips, it was a little hard to believe. The guy we were familiar with was the old bloated guy in the white jumpsuit. And as the days passed and more details of Elvis' death emerged, he drifted further from iconic and more toward caricature.

I was barely a teen when Elvis died, and I don't remember how my mother reacted. I do remember how much the DJ's audible tears on the radio that afternoon shook me. And I remember that peculiar sense that something terrible had happened, though it was something I couldn't quite grasp. Though I was in no way grief-stricken, I felt somehow bereft. In later years, I saw bits and pieces of the movies that Elvis was in, and was better able to understand something of his allure even in the wake of the later, more unsavory bits of his life, and I was able to appreciate his enormous contribution to the history of rock music.

So, this afternoon, when I stopped at my computer, pulled up Firefox and saw the headline "Michael Jackson Dead" on latimes.com, I felt peculiar in a way I couldn't quite identify. I think that first I smiled and thought "They have to be joking" while almost simultaneously realizing it was no joke.

Michael Jackson was an icon of my era, the ultimate showman of the 1980s--almost beyond iconic, really. Although I was never a huge fan, never saw him perform live, I'll also never forget sitting in the living room of our sorority house, watching the videos for "Billie Jean" and "Thriller" and "Beat It," while I studied and wrote term papers. Those videos were a delight to watch, with real production values and amazing choreography, mini-Broadway musicals. MM, who lived across the hall from me, played the Thriller album constantly, providing counterpoint to the music coming off MTV downstairs.

Although I believe it's the young man we remember, I can't help but think of the talented child Michael Jackson was, singing with the Jackson Five. Again, while I wasn't a big fan, my brother had one of the Jackson Five's albums, and while the music was catchy, it was so easy to identify with the boy singer who was only a few years older than I was. I can't speak for others, but as a kid I always took a proprietary interest in the talented children near my own age.

Somewhere along the way, though, Michael Jackson changed. He became physically unrecognizable as the boy and even the young man who we loved to watch sing and dance. Whatever demons he battled diminished him, and I for one had to turn away from the sideshow, could not look at the physical wreck, the tragedy he had become. His talent was undeniable, his contribution to the music world tremendous, which made his downward spiral all the more impossible to watch.

I've talked to a few people today who, like me, can't quite equate what they're feeling about the news of Michael Jackson's death. Though we can't say we're grieving, we are bereft. And I wonder if it's because we finally have permission to mourn the loss of that tremendous talent, the beautiful young man who sang and danced his way into our hearts and then vanished from our lives so long ago.

Go listen to some good music: "Thriller" from the album Thriller by Michael Jackson.

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