In those days you had the three main TV channels, ABC, NBC, CBS very much in that order, plus the CBC for news and hockey, PBS for Cosmos or the Boston Pops if you were a geek like me, maybe TVO if Elwy Yost had a good movie. The culture didn’t have many routes into your skull, and what happened to all of us on that Monday night in 1983 had a chance of happening that it wouldn’t have today. It was just a different time is all.
I was 16 and spending every minute I could in Mr. Milligan’s band room at Sarnia Northern Collegiate. My friends and I didn’t make plans to watch Motown 25 or anything. We were an hour’s drive from Detroit but probably most of us wouldn’t have been able to tell you Motown was a Detroit record company. WRIF was the Detroit station we listened to. They played Bob Seger, not Smokey Robinson. But what are your choices on a Monday night? We all saw Michael Jackson dance to ‘Billy Jean.’ By Tuesday morning it was all anyone could talk about.
Perhaps the only way to express it is to say that sometimes the culture hits you like a baseball bat, and maybe more often and more forcefully in those days, when the culture didn’t have many routes into your skull, than today. Thriller had been out for five months by this point, but the first single was ‘The Girl Is Mine,’ the insipid duet with Paul McCartney, and in retrospect now it seems like the setup to a sucker punch. The way Michael danced that night on the Motown show, the swagger and urgency he brought to every move, the roar in his voice, that moon walk thing — well, it made everything else seem old, all at once. At the beginning of 2008 I caught sight of Jackson doing that Motown 25 dance on a hanging video screen at a record store in Paris, and once again I couldn’t get back to my day until Michael was done dancing.
Of course he was silly even when he was riveting. We never did figure out what the single glove was about, the floods, the white socks, the choice of penny loafers, such an anachronistic footwear option. Nobody would admit to a particular fondness for Jackson’s music. The favourites in my gang were Genesis, Joe Jackson, Men At Work. But none of them was as pervasive as Michael Jackson became. I can’t tell you what footwear Phil Collins favoured, but soon enough I had penny loafers too. Michelle, the quiet girl who played trumpet a few seats to my right, was the first one to learn the entire dance routine from the ‘Thriller’ video. It made everyone give her another look. It was ridiculous that she’d go to the trouble, but impressive that she could do it.
In hindsight there were antecedents for what happened that night on Motown 25. Off The Wall was only a couple of years earlier, and you could go all the way back to the Jackson 5 TV cartoon and songs like ‘I Want You Back,’ such a perfect pop confection it’s almost possible to overlook the 10-year-old lead vocalist’s astonishing assurance. And there would be echoes, reminders of the elegant grace of his peak, long after he had sunk into cruel self-parody. Bad was a hell of an album too, overproduced though it was and already heavy with the weight of its protagonist’s eccentricity. The gasps and hiccups that dot his performance of ‘The Man In The Mirror’ (“I’m gonna make a change — kuh — for once in my life — eyuh”) make no sense, except that they add to the ferocious rhythmic urgency he brought to every lyric he ever sang. I’m listening to it now, the synth bass, the 15-foot-wide snare beat on 2 and 4, the gospel choir on the out chorus: this is really good stuff.
Quincy Jones had a hell of a lot to do with it. As a young trumpeter Jones went out with Lionel Hampton’s orchestra when he was barely out of high school, and there was no finer academy of hell-for-leather dance orchestration and individual interpretation of the fundamentals of blues and swing to be found. I mean, who didn’t go through that sax section? Illinois Jacquet, Dexter Gordon, Arnett Cobb, Benny Golson — 50 times a night, 200 nights a year, one dashing young man after another would stand and testify through his horn for the greater delectation of dancing teenagers, while serried ranks of brass and winds wound through exercises in four-part counterpoint that put the heaviest aesthetic bets on rhythm instead of melody or harmony. Jones’s success lay in translating those virtues into the vocabulary of a later generation. When I first really checked out Lionel Hampton’s hits from the 1940s in 2005, one of the really strong thoughts that came to mind was, so this is where Thriller comes from.
Later Jackson lost much of the dignity and fire that made him such a singular presence for nearly 20 years, and he pretty obviously lost his sanity too, if he ever really had sanity to claim. It’s harder now than it ever was to advocate for Michael Jackson as an artist. But he could sing and move like no other. Tonight I really miss him.