It was indeed a simpler time, one of lazy afternoons and baseball cards, of spelling bees and stable neighborhoods. And it was a different time, of drive-in movies and family sedans, of AM radio and afternoon newspapers. It was the radio that provided our first gateway into the world we would come to inhabit, but it was an afternoon paper that would rock my world forever.
Sometime in the spring of 1970, the late, great Cleveland Press ran a cover story in its Friday entertainment section on the Jackson 5. By then, the family band had already become a phenomenon: this pop-soul band of brothers, fronted by an impossibly gifted and magical ten-year-old supernova named Michael, had released a handful of singles which consigned the old paradigms of ‘60s pop music—from faux-hippie sunshine jingles to affirmations of middle-class black acceptability—into the rear-view mirror once and for all. We had not heard the likes of them before—not their brightness, not their concentrated rush of energy, and certainly not their lead singer. And for black kids like me, who were just a tad too young to feel the full brunt of Beatlemania a few years earlier, the Jackson 5 was the pop act that we could feel truly belonged to us. My older sister had all the Supremes 45s, but years after the climax of the Civil Rights Movement and at the apex of the Black Power era, the Jackson 5 was the Motown act that represented the Sound of our Young America.
So all of us kids in the middle-class Lee-Harvard ‘hood devoured that Press article, as well as everything else J5-related we could grab. And it was a pretty good article, from what I remember, in that it had information in it that we hadn’t seen anywhere else. For example, it listed the brothers’ birthdays. I do not remember the other birthdays, or really much else about the article, except for Michael’s birthday: August 29.
August 29 is my birthday too.
Wow, I thought to myself. Michael Jackson and I have the same birthday (he was born the year before I was). How incredible! For a young kid still watching Speed Racer cartoons after school, that felt like the coolest thing in the world.
Later on that weekend, I went to see my best friend, Stevie Givner. His sister, Ramona, usually tolerated me, in that détente unique to prepubescent boys and girls, but when I boasted of my newfound connection to fame, she turned bitter and mean. She, like an untold legion of young black girls at the time, had a hopeless crush on Michael. For any mere mortal, let along her brother’s best friend, to lay any sort of claim to commonality with the star of her dreams and her bedroom wall, the man-child of her promised land, was beyond heresy. She shunned me, refused to acknowledge my existence. It was as though I had committed the ultimate crime, for having the audacity to emerge from the womb on the same calendar day as had the most magnetic ten-year-old kid in the world.
I managed to get past that, and kept my personal piece of trivia in my back pocket. I didn’t have that strong an urge to identify with Michael or the Jacksons, and soon acquired other musical tastes (Todd Rundgren, Gil Scott-Heron, Pink Floyd—my musical catholicism was emerging even as a teenager). But every now and then, I’d mention my famous birthday sharer, and it would always be good for an “ooh” and an “ahh”.
At some point down the line, I don’t remember when, I decided to turn my link to fame into a one-liner. There was obviously no comparison between my life and Michael’s—I hadn’t toured the world over, sold millions of records, or landed on Ramona Givner’s bedroom wall—but I could concoct a pithy quip that let the listener know that I wasn’t exactly chopped liver.
“You know, Michael Jackson and I have the same birthday,” I would confide. Then, as if there were some sort of finite supply of attributes to be dispensed to those born on a particular date, I would continue, “He got the money, I got the good looks.”
That would always be good for a momentary laugh, and sometimes a retort as to whether my assessment of my appearance was accurate (I almost always used this as an icebreaker with a woman or in a group, never around fellas), and then the conversation would move on. It worked because everyone knew who Michael Jackson was, and we could all relate to him having way more money than all of us combined. It reaffirmed my bona fides with the common man, but let me claim a leg up for sport. I could connect myself to one of the biggest stars in the world, and yet boast of having something he didn’t. (And this took more than a slight leap of faith at first, as Michael hadn’t started remaking his face when I started boasting of my superior looks.)
Beyond that, I seldom gave Michael Jackson a second thought. I remember seeing the August 1979 cover of Jet with Michael about to turn 21, looking like a handsome young Prince of Pop, while I was on a college work-study project at an Atlanta community radio station. I did a momentary mental stock-taking of the difference between his life and mine, and then went on with my day. And when Thriller came out, I felt no compulsion to run out and buy it—Jackson’s music was inescapably in the air anyway, so I saved my pennies for less poppy fare closer to my more adventurous musical tastes (Talking Heads, Sun Ra, early hip-hop). But as Jackson’s fame grew, his eccentricities became public, and his appearance started its full-blown morphing, my little one-liner took on a new life.
No longer was it quite so boastful to talk about my superior looks—now it had turned into straight-up reporting. Michael’s strapping prettiness had begun to give way to a confounding Otherness, as would the rest of his life and, in time, his art. He had always existed on a different plane than the rest of us; by the mid-‘80s we all thought he lived in some other realm unconnected to this or any other known world. Whether we cracked jokes about it or felt sorry for him (or both), we all know that the brother no longer looked much at all like the cherubic wunderkind, or even the sensitive young star on the cover of Thriller. After all his facial surgeries and complexion transitions, I could claim superiority in the looks department almost by default. I even considered updating the quip to “…but I still have all my original parts,” but decided not to go quite there.
And so it was, right up to the day he died. Yet perhaps there had been more of a connection between Jackson and I than I ever suspected. The first thought that shuddered through me upon hearing the news of his death was of my own mortality. He died at 50, I’m about to turn 50. That may seem like a long time—and it is a long time from those days of spelling bees and afternoon newspapers—but from this vantage point, it seems like the blink of an eye, and the road ahead seems vast and uncertain, but not infinite. If 50 is supposed to feel old, I don’t feel old, but here is the biggest star of my generation, dropped dead from a heart attack at 50 (pitchman extraordinaire Billy Mays also died at 50 that weekend, but nothing about his death gave me pause to reflect on my own life). I didn’t instantly feel old, but perhaps just a little bit older.
It became apparent shortly after the news broke that, as in his life, nothing would be simple about his death, and those facts will come out in due course. But when you hear that a superstar who’s been part of your world since childhood died of a heart attack at a relatively young age, it’s bound to make you wonder about your own condition, another momentary stock-taking of the difference between his life and yours. And when you get a call two hours later from your doctor’s office asking you to schedule some follow-up tests, you wonder even more.
And yet the quip lives on, at least for now. I used it the other day, again as a conversation aside, but it has a difference resonance now, and it may no longer be cute or appropriate. But the fact that it was useful for as long as it was says something about how I viewed the distance between Michael Jackson and myself.
After all, he wasn’t the only legendary black American musician born on an August 29. But I never began a self-congratulatory quip with, “Charlie Parker changed the face of modern jazz,” or “Dinah Washington could sing anything they put in front of her.” Nor did it ever occur to me to comment, “John McCain was an amazingly courageous soldier,” or “Ingrid Bergman will be forever remembered for her role in Casablanca,” then boast of my own attributes. Those folks, all born on an August 29 (1920, 1924, 1936, and 1915, respectively), weren’t among that number who changed my world at a very young age, and remained somewhere on the tangents of it ever since.
I’ve come to worship Parker’s bebop, marvel at Washington’s pipes, respect McCain’s form of patriotism, and watch Casablanca numerous times. But Michael Jackson and his brothers opened up and represented the possibilities of a wide, wonderful world for me at a most impressionable moment in my youth. I wanted nothing more for my sixth grade graduation present than the ABC album (Motown, 1970). I was thrilled to see them in concert in 1971, in all their fringe-vested, technicolored glory (in my seventh grade class picture, I’m wearing a red fringe vest). They were my first rock stars.
I haven’t been anything close to a diehard Jacksons fan since those carefree days, but that doesn’t dilute the rush of pleasure and memory that still gets triggered with the opening piano and guitar licks of “I Want You Back”, the effortless, knowing simplicity of Michael’s vocals on “Never Can Say Goodbye”, or any of his soaring, glorious Jackson 5 choruses, full of musical awareness both learned and instinctive, winking sass, and endless, innocent freedom.
This year, my birthday weekend will surely be marked with Michael Jackson tributes all over the place. Once again, he will be inescapably in the air, as I go about kicking out the musical jams of my own catholic choice. But this year, more profoundly than at any other time, I’ll recognize that by making use of that quip for most of my adult life, I manufactured more of a connection between Michael and myself than there ever really was. And it’ll hit me that I did it because back when I was ten years old, having something like a birthday in common with the biggest kid star there had ever been was, indeed, the coolest thing in the world.
I’ll hope that Ramona Givner, wherever she is now, can find it in her heart to forgive me. And I’ll light an extra candle on my cake for Michael, in whichever other realm he’s in by then.