What do I have to add to the Michael Jackson discussions? Nothing, God knows. Well, maybe just one little thing: last Friday evening I was sitting at the kitchen table in the cool half-darkness after finishing the dishes. A beautiful blue light, like the blue of blue glass, was filtering into the kitchen from living room windows which look out onto state game land. (This was at our little “country house” in Pennsylvania, where we’d gone to spend the holiday weekend.) That particular quality of light always brings on the same memory: when I was a kid in the ‘70’s I used to dream of being in a clean, cool blue room, in a house that was — to use a phrase of my dad’s — “way out in the country.” He’d use that phrase when describing the suburbs where his more successful brothers had homes, suburbs that were not really “suburbs” yet, but more like semi-rural areas bordered by prairies. To drive out to visit those relatives was a long haul because my dad didn’t like to drive on expressways: “You gotta have a t’ousand eyes,” he’d say. So, we took local streets, usually Archer Avenue until, after an hour or so, it ceased to be Archer Avenue and became (what looked to me like) a dirt road cutting through forests and farms, like in fairy tales, or in the photos that went with the life stories of famous movie and TV stars who came from humble beginnings. All the way out I’d sit in the back seat behind my dad, staring at the “evening in the country” landscape and listening to a transistor radio pressed to my ear. My sister, who always sat behind our mother, had a radio, too, and it was pressed to her ear because we listened to different stations. She listened to one station, WVON, the soul station, but I switched around constantly from ‘VON to WLS to WCFL.
I was ten when “Never Can Say Goodbye” was a hit by the Jackson 5 in the spring of 1971, and spring was when these long drives out to “the country” would usually begin, bringing with them the promise of summer and longed-for summer vacation. There’s a particular quality of longing — for summer vacation, for friends, for a boyfriend — that one feels at the age of ten. And that song had that particular quality of longing to it: a light 3-note harpsichord riff repeated four times drifts into a sigh, which then floats down into a dreamy, twinkly-sounding cloud of young male harmonizing on a rhythmic “oo-oo.” Then a hypnotic, snake-charming flute brings in the voice of 12-year old Michael Jackson singing the title, and his brothers in the background sighing, “Giiiirl …” “Even though the pain and heartache seem to follow me wherever I go,” sings Michael, “though I try and try to hide my feelings, they always seem to show . . .” I don’t think I ever reflected that this was a 12-year old singing. What he was singing, and how he sang it, rang so true, even to a ten-year old. There was something about that song that matched the deep blue quality of the “country” light – we walked into my aunt and uncle’s house, into their air-conditioned, plush-carpeted living room — in our place, you entered through the rickety, cigarette-stinking kitchen — and all their lights were turned off (ours were always on, and hideously bright) except for the color TV and the lava lamp, which was, of course, blue. And I probably had a crush on Eddie Jozefiak and he was probably ignoring me, and I wanted to be beautiful and wasn’t, and I hated myself and the way I looked and wanted more than anything to be like my cousin, who lived in that clean, cool, blue world. Even more than that, I wanted to be adored, to be a singer on a TV show with a whole studio audience applauding for me, and a big clean, air conditioned house way out in the country to go home to, where maybe I would be interviewed, and fans could come and visit me. That’d show everybody who ever made fun of me, who thought I’d amount to nothing, or thought I was too ugly to love.
And now I do occupy a clean, cool, blue house — at least on the weekends. I know I’m not ugly, but it took a long time to come around to that. But that ugly girl’s still there, feeling sad about something and listening to Michael Jackson. Who was, we now know, feeling sad about something, too.