Can You Remember when we were babies?
—Michael Jackson (Age 11)
“Can You Remember?” is a obscure little track penned by Thom Bell and William Hart (of the Delphonics) that was recorded by the Jackson Five on their first album Diana Ross Presents the Jackson Five. The song was easily overshadowed by “I Want You Back”, the breakout single from the album that introduced The Jackson Five and their wonder-boy lead singer Michael Jackson to the world. For weeks I have tried to ignore the current unfolding drama of yet another charge of child molestation against Michael Jackson, but it was after reading Farai Chideya’s touching piece “A Open Letter to Michael Jackson” (Alternet.org) that I remembered the song and began to ask, as Chideya did and so many others have privately, “Can You Remember?” when a still not teen-age Michael Jackson was one of the most important figures of our lives.
I was literally little more than a baby—all of three years-old, enjoying my first year in Head Start—when The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” was released in October of 1969. I still have the well-worn 45 of the song, somewhere in my record collection. From the time that I first heard Michael Jackson sing those opening lines “When I had you to myself, I didn’t want you around. . .” until I discovered the beauty of little-brown skinned girls and the game of baseball (somewhere around 1973), Michael Jackson was, in my mind, the most important person in my life.
The very first record that I purchased with my own money was the Jackson Five’s Third Album (1970)—the joint with “I’ll Be There”, “Mama’s Pearl” and “Darling Dear”. It remains one of my favorite Jackson records of all time—even when I was no longer diggin’ Michael per se, I transcribed the lyrics to the song in a love note to my first girlfriend. The music from their second album ABC was indelibly looped in my head from the number of times my mother rocked her eight-track version of the album as I imagined myself—afro-pic mic in hand—as Michael singing “ABC”, “The Love You Save” and my favorite from that album, Michael’s stirring version of The Delphonics’ “La La (Means I Love You)”.
Years later I would realize that Jermaine was also bringing the funk on that album and it was his “I Found that Girl” that I danced to with my wife on our wedding day. I was up in the rafters of Madison Square Garden in 1970, when the Jackson Five finally hit NYC on their first national tour. Berry Gordy had brilliantly kept the group from a national tour until they had logged those four straight number one singles—“I Want You Back”, “ABC”, “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There”—and thus there was an unrequited frenzy that was associated with that first tour, matched only by the frenzy witnessed when Michael was at the peak of his solo career in the early 1980s. All you have to do is go back to the photos and listen to those early Jackson Five albums to see what all the frenzy was about.
Most Americans at some point have seen the stock black and white footage of the Jackson Five’s initial audition for Motown brass—Michael yelping “Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby” from JB’s “I Got the Feeling”—and it is literally at that point that Berry Gordy decided that Michel would the focal point of the group. Even in that early footage, Michael exuded a confidence, poise, and sensuality that only grown folk should have known about—and a few of them were taking notes from Michael. The apple-jack hat tilted slightly on his Black Power era Afro (like the cover of first solo album Got to Be There). Leaning against the lamp pole, jacket flipped over his shoulders, singing “It Was a Very Good Year” on the 1969 Diana Ross Special, it was easy to understand why so many people adored this little black boy, who was often described, ironically, as the “prettiest black child” in America. His appeal to little girls was obvious, but for little nappy-headed brown-skinned boys like myself, Michael Jackson was giving us a template for our still emerging sexualities, alternately virile, sensitive, vulnerable and predatory.
Go back to that first Jackson Five single for Motown, not “I Want You Back”, but the b-side, the J5’s version of Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You?”, and what you hear is this little cat, who already knew how to “beg” the blues (tell me Keith Sweat wasn’t listening). I can imagine that Smokey sat up at Motown the first time he heard Michael sing his song and decided that he too needed to be schooled. Or listen to “ABC”, as bubble-gum pop as any thing the Wrigley company could confect, and hear this playa, playa-man-child kick it to shortie during the breakdown: “sit down girl, I think I love ya. Nah, get up girl, show what you can do Shake it, shake it, baby. Shake it, shake it, baby”, no doubt inspiring Mystical, who quipped nearly three decade later, “shake your ass, watch your self, shake your ass, show me what you worth.” Or listen to Michael on “Sugar Daddy” telling sis that he’s gonna be her sugar daddy and then it hits you that he’s like 12 years old and shouldn’t even know what a sugar daddy is let’s alone claiming that he’s gonna be one. Or listen to the sullenness of his solo classic “Ben” and you can hear an early inking of the loneliness, paranoia, and isolation that both fueled his most compelling music as an adult and informed his personal demons.
And even when Michael wasn’t mackin’, he tapped into the political energy of the era on a song like “Young Folks” which powerfully articulated the sense that America “better make a way for the young folks”. You felt that Michael was serious as he sang “we’re marching with signs, we’re standing in lines, yeah, yeah. Protesting your rights to turn out the lights in our lives.” For those shorties whose parents, weren’t making them listen to Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black”, The J5’s “Young Folks” was indeed the anthem for generation next. In short, during those first two years or so of the Jackson Five, Michael Jackson was the closet thing to a black super hero for super shortie cats like myself and others (can we even imagine Ralph Carter’s “Michael” from Good Times without that funky sass that that MJ brought to the game?). Damn, the bruh even had his own cartoon.
For the last decade or so, Michael Jackson, the pop star who literally changed the game, has existed in public consciousness as little more than a tabloid freak. Last year, the 20th anniversary of the release of his seminal commercial achievement, the recording Thriller, passed with little if any commentary as the public fixated on Jackson dangling his infant son over the side of a hotel balcony. Even when Jackson was at his commercial peak, there was always an element of freakishness that obscured why he was a star in the first place. That little 11-year-old boy has long been gone, even as Jackson himself seems hell bent on returning to the normal childhood that was once denied him. The truth is I can’t imagine my childhood without the presence of Michael Jackson and it seems as though those memories are gonna have to remain with that once glorious childhood if I am to recall the humanity of the adult Michael Jackson who stands before public and legal scrutiny today.
// Notes from the Road
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