It was in 1984. I was sitting in front of the TV when the pre-Grammy awards program came on. In pre-MTV days, state-controlled Doordarshan had almost no Western pop/rock programming except some horrible Europop that acted as fillers.
So I had absolutely no idea as to what I was going to see. I did not even know what the Grammies were. Good Bengali boys were supposed to listen to Rabindrasangeet and not even think about the devil’s music.
And then I saw him.
I did not know his name. I neither understood the lyrics. Even if I did, I doubt whether as a seven year old I would have understood a song about an illegitimate child.
But I was blown away. By the man in the video. The tip-toe stand, the twirl, the way he moved his jacket. The walk. The beat. And the pavement glowing as he put his foot on it.
Who was this mystery man?
My maternal uncle (mama) had just come back from the US. He had a wondrous cassette player and a few cassettes. One of them was “Thriller”. It was then, over endless loops of that album, that I fell in love with what we then called “Western fast” music (as opposed to the slow Beethoven).
And I also fell in love with the man whose album it was. A man whose name I, and my generation,will never forget.
There is a lot to say about MJ and it will be said much better by more serious students of music. They will explain to you why it is unlikely that Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, the largest selling album in the history of the world, will ever outsold. Historians will tell you that before Oprah and Obama, he was the first mega icon who transcended color in America. Pop culture experts will swear in a single voice that his music, his dance steps (the lock, the pop, the crotch-grab, the trouser pull, the shoulder pat, and of course the ” moonwalk”) , his videos (revolutionary in their style and execution), his styling (the red jacket, the white socks, the gloves, the hat), his persona, the iconic freeze-frames (the wind blowing up below him, arms outstretched and looking up), his concert performances have strongly influenced all public performers, no matter where they be in the world. Finally any Indian will tell you if there is one “foreign” music artist they know it is “Michael Jackson”.
So instead of all that, I shall just talk about the way Michael Jackson and his music has touched my life. In high school, my study time began at 6:30, rigorously enforced by mother. But from 5 to 6:30 was my own time. On rainy days when it was not possible to go out onto the streets to play cricket, my Sanio cassette player would blare out “Bad” and “Smooth Criminal” and “Who Is It” and “Dirty Diana” and of course “Thriller”, “Beat It” and “Billy Jean” while I, in my baniyan and shorts, would do my desperate imitation of MJ’s iconic steps with my feeble attempts to do the moonwalk exerting such pressure on the straps of the hawai chappal that they would, damn them, snap. In college, after a bad attack of hepatitis that required hospitalization, I announced my return to health with a frenetic sweaty pelvic rendition of the pulsating “I am Bad I am Bad” which alarmed my mother, considering how weak I was. But I did it and no other artist could have made me get up from bed. And even today whenever there is a dance party and the DJ stops playing bhangra and gives me a real dance number in the form of a Michael Jackson song, I invariably break out my embarassing Michael Jackson steps and when I do, you are advised to clear the dance floor. Else there will be, as the song goes, blood on it.
I am sure I am not alone in these personal remembrances. I am sure everyone has their Michael Jackson stories. Everyone. In every corner of the world. This is where MJ transcends his identity as a superstar and as a musical genius. Michael Jackson was a part of us. A part of our childhood memories. A strong influence in our choice of music. No make it a strong influence in our definition of music. And also of entertainment.
With his passing, something about us is also gone.
Or is it?
The thing that defines the true greats (and great is an overused word) is that their creations outlive and outlast their life-spans, giving these men a kind of immortality that us mere mortals merely strive for. From that perspective I suppose there is nothing to be sad about. However one cannot forget Michael Jackson’s isolation, his bankruptcy and the sadness that engulfed him in his last days and one wishes that his end could have been under happier personal circumstances, even more so as he seemed on the verge of a breakthrough with his final concert tour scheduled to start in July.
For now however the best tribute we can pay him is to watch and listen to him as he was, when he walked the earth at the height of his powers. And applaud Michael Jackson, who was without exaggeration the greatest performer of our generation.
Wherever you are, old friend, keep twirling those toes in the way only you can.