I’m a child of the 70’s. Which doesn’t mean, necessarily, that I was a mere babe when the 70’s were in flower. It just means that I can remember with some clarity being a child when that remarkable decade was going on. A lanky and confused child in a really confused decade, no doubt.
If you zoomed back to March of 1972, a full 33 years ago, you’d find me sitting in the ping pong room of my school waiting for my turn at the paddle with a full dozen of my mates, buying Pepsi’s from the machine and gassing about 13 year old girls and listening to the radio. Within a 30 minute period in 1972 it’s completely possible that we would have listened to the Jackson 5 at some point, and there would have been hooting and wretching sounds and some wag would have called for the changing of the station.
You didn’t, as a 13 year old male in 1972, admit to even listening to Michael Jackson. You didn’t listen to Donny Osmond, not like you‘d listen to Zeppelin or Hendrix (or, heh, Steely Dan by God), whether you understood them or not. You didn’t look at girls much, not like you’d look at motorcycles, anyway. You played ping pong, you bought Pepsi, you hated teachers and school and the whole ridiculous concept that 13 year olds couldn’t buy beer or drive motor vehicles. That was the job of a 13 year old, after all. It probably still is. It’s a narrow but safe sort of world, one where you venture not among the land of things adult, and expensive, and long term.
But 30 minutes after school let out, and alone in the sanctuary of a bedroom, that same 13 year old might be caught wailing “Got to be There” into a broomstick microphone as sweetly as Michael could, deftly going falsetto at a time when the basso profundo was itching to get out. And you might guffaw nastily at the Jackson’s as a Saturday morning cartoon but whistling along to “I’ll Be There” was considered to be a necessary skillset in 1972. So long as you were completely alone at the time. Does it make sense? You had to distance yourself from them in public, but it was understood that not knowing everything there was to know about the Jackson 5 was equally uncool. Not knowing meant, well . . you were even more out of the loop than if you came right out and said you liked them, for godsake. Girls were exempt from these rules of course. As in most things that matter, girls could set their own rules and enforce them with a look and a flip of hair.
By the time Ally and I got married and Michael Jackson was still active and releasing “Off the Wall” I’d lost a lot of the childhood ambiguities that made me deny liking what he did. Off the Wall was a sweet album, I believe that I even bought the damn thing, because maybe by that point buying an adults album meant that the adult buyer could take the heat for it. And I still wailed into a broomstick at times, although now it was in an apartment of my own, and I was taking a break from doing laundry instead of just killing time in my bedroom until supper was ready.
I tried to remember all that today, as I sat there watching some wretched version of a man crawl out of a Suburban with an umbrella over his head, late for court and the object of a thousand cameras and derisions.
It’s a sadness, it is. I don’t follow someone else’s sorrow with any great pleasure, but sitting in the Watering Hole and listening to the hoots of a dozen mates and watching the husk of what used to be Michael Jackson limp around, I couldn’t help but think how little times had changed in 33 years. We’d swapped ping pong for 8-ball and Pepsi for Coors Lite but publicly we were still in full blown 13-year-old mode. Mocking the Jackson’s is probably gonna haunt me to my grave.
Although I don’t think I’ll be singing into a broomstick any time soon.
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