First, a confession: I’m one of those. You know, the ones who discovered you after you died.
Once, you walked right past me on a hotel patio in Bermuda. I could have touched you. I noticed you of course. “Oh my God, it’s Michael Jackson!” I said to my husband, but it was early in our marriage, we were besotted still and went back to our rum swizzles.
You and I, we were the same age, but at the time—and even before that, really all the time, since I first heard you back in fifth grade—you were always distant, not part of any world I lived in. You were singing, performing, writing, declaiming the music, the energy, the questions, and demands of my generation—I understand that now as I did not then—but I hardly heard a word, barely noticed a note.
Oh, I knew the music, your music, was there, that you were there, but it all seemed to have nothing to do with me. I sang along, deciphered words, but I was white, a virtual only child, sheltered, and had a rich father; you were black, edgy, rich with siblings, and cool. You, talented and smooth; me, klutzy and nearly tone deaf.
Even later, I was too busy all along to consider what you, or any artist for that matter, really meant. I was involved with my own life, my problems, joys, trials—horses, college, career, loneliness, love, babies, dark days, creativity expressed, and mostly stifled.
Then, last June, I realized that you and the music had everything to do with me.
You died and I heard it, finally. The music, the words, the percussive background beat of my entire life, came back in an insistent throbbing. I remembered, but then I didn’t, and that made me sad for all I had missed. As I heard song after song of yours in those late June days, it all came rushing back to me, how they’d always been there and each one brought me straight back, helped me remember the time, a time I lived and yet in many ways didn’t recall at all.
The music had always been there, and like the furniture, always overlooked.
It was there when I was a picked-on, bookish, pimply girl in Catholic elementary school who was secretly proud she could write out the lyrics to popular songs not only because I wanted to be cool, but because I desperately needed a friend. Ben. I’ll Be There. Got to Be There.
The music was there when I was a different kind of high school student—a white, middle-class, suburban Italian-American girl—who herself didn’t even understand why she only wanted to date the black guys she met at discos she should not have snuck into, and on vacations to tiny islands, and, especially, the too-old-for-her black guy who drove the van with her over-priced show horse inside. Dancing Machine. Enjoy Yourself. Shake Your Body.
And it was there when she and that van driver flirted, finally dated and shared some sort of special and truncated love. The music after the screaming at the dinner table in my house there behind the loud silent looks of strangers in restaurants and discos, and when that made me feel important and phony and frustrated. Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough. Will You Be There? Bad. Dangerous.
It was there all through college, when I slammed unexpectedly into a casually surprisingly segregated northeastern campus, and there when I was on my own working eighty hours a week because that was the way to get ahead, and all the while I was too busy with myself and my lofty ideas to date much anyway, though I did dream. Human Nature. Billie Jean. Working Day and Night. Another Part of Me.
The music was there when I was dating the man who would become my fiancé, who is now still my husband; there with us on the dance floors, the car radio, on MTV flashing in the background while we made love, on the stereo as we painted the walls of our first place, when it seemed anything, everything was possible. I Just Can’t Stop Loving You. The Way You Make Me Feel. Thriller. We Are The World. Give In To Me.
It was there when new motherhood dropped a dark veil over my world—there on the radio while I nursed (and I cried), in the car while I drove so that my screaming infant would sleep (and I cried), there while I recuperated on the couch, staring at award shows and MTV and taking my pills like a good girl and hoping I wouldn’t become addicted and watching the world grow cold and wondering if people mattered anymore anyway. Cry. Leave Me Alone. Fly Away. Someone Put Your Hand Out.
And then, besides the music, there was you, changing hue, and all the while my husband was also losing his color to the same disease and we wished you’d talk about it more, but there was your smile and polite answers to talking heads who saw only black and white. The music changed and we all changed and I was thinking that my life, all life was awful, but also that maybe it was worth it, if only help were around. And you seemed to go off the rails a little, but then wasn’t the whole world thinking a little too much of itself too? Heal the World. Scream. You Are Not Alone. Black and White. History. Keep the Faith.
The music was there, again, after that awful September Tuesday when I worried there wouldn’t be a world for my kids to grow up in, when I was better and healed but the world and so many families seemed to be falling apart, falling away, and sometimes it seemed all there was only music in the world. 2000 Watts, Earth Song. The Lost Children. Speechless. Unbreakable. Stranger in Moscow.
Then the music almost got strangled by vultures, blood on their claws, and for a long time it was difficult, but if anyone had listened closely enough, we could have still heard it, heard a human beat, humanity, L.O.V.E., the sounds of so much and so many. Childhood. Who is it? You Are My Life.
The music was there. You were there. Sometimes it was just the idea of you, but still, you, or an idea of a someone, like you, unlike you, me everyone.
And then it was all gone, and I finally heard it, heard you.
For weeks, no months after you died, I turned to my husband, to myself, to the mirror, and to my younger self, my better self, and in amazement, sometimes in regret, always in discovery: “Wow. I forgot that was a Michael Jackson song.” I listened and I got it. I remembered. It wasn’t too late, for me, maybe even for the world.
I imagine maybe you’d say, about music, about all of it,
A slightly shorter version of this essay appears in the book Letters to Michael: A Collective Goodbye (editor: Alana M Thomas, May 2010)