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Giles Slade Headshot

The King of Pop (and Heartbreak)

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Back in the '80s, I went out with a girl who was in love with pop. I met her at a party and felt a distinct stirring in my loins, but I was a melancholic writer and she was a fashionista -- very trendy.

As superficial as a disco mirror-ball.

She made friends with local djs, had an expensive musical education, did whatever it took to get backstage, and had once built a harpsicord from a kit. All interesting, I thought. Still, I was aware that it didn't take much either to interest me or to stir my loins in those days. Moreover, she was a friend of my ex-wife's, and she lived with a bunch of rich people in a nice house. Her family were upper class folks don't you know? My dad was an angry, alcoholic army sergeant. I had few social skills and little money.

Maybe, I thought wisely, it wasn't meant to be...

As I walked home alone from the party alone, the night turned into Jacko's 'Thriller.' Outside of my door were streetwalkers scarier than zombies. Someone played saxophone badly on a rooftop a block away, and was still playing as my electric typewriter smacked the manuscript paper keeping broken time with the aphasic saxman. I was churning out potboilers: the Executioner, Able Team. I don't remember what it was that night, but I was busy.

More importantly, I was then making the first of an exhaustive set of investigations into the nature and effects of alcoholism on hack writers. I started drinking red wine when I got up in the morning and kept a liter of Aquavit and another of Vodka in my freezer in case I ran out during the day. Sometimes I ran out. I was turning 30, and had not yet found my wife or my life. Inside, in my deepest and most honest place, I knew I was in no shape (and also didn't really have time) for a dame.

Still, a week after the party she called pretending I'd forgotten our dinner date. Friends had given me a heads up in the meantime, so I played along. I played along too when she listened to Michael Jackson even though my tastes tended towards Keith Jarrett's lonely intensity. There were no iPods in those stodgy old days. I had a walkman with only one cassette (the Koln Concert). She gave me a mix-tape of Jacko. I was transformed.

Whenever I was with this girl I listened to Jacko's catchy tunes and learned how to moonwalk. Sometimes I fancied I could hear elements of Sam Cooke under the ormulu of Jacko's elaborate orchestrations:

'B-but the kid is not my son...'

It lasted about 8 weeks. She left me for a three-man punk band who were trying to break into Hollywood. They had died blonde, red and black hair, and they didn't laugh when I suggested they call themselves 'The Brunettes.' Now they are a lucrative lounge act in Toronto. They play old punk favorites at happy hour while you nosh on chicken wings. Good wings. I bought the CD.

At the time, however, I was heartbroken.

What made it more maddening was I could no longer get away from Michael Jackson. He was everywhere. For decades, every time I heard Jacko, I thought of the girl who'd dumped me for those three guys. It happened again today when I read the headline that he was dead at 50. First thing that came into my mind was that girl -- a single mom now -- who'd been MJ's Number One Fan back in the day. I thought... imagine all those guys denying paternity.

But, of course, the bigger issue is 'will the world miss Jacko?'

Well, it should I guess, because -- God Almighty -- he was unusual. Little Richard, I always thought, was a terrific entertainer, but a very mixed up fellow. Jacko took the public image of Little Richard and squared it. He was a strange and tormented soul.

I won't pass judgment on Michael's addictions having lived under John Barleycorn's boot myself. But ordinarily, I have very little sympathy for child molesters. Yuck.

And then -- even musically -- I think that Michael takes a distant back seat to Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole or Chuck Berry. But still...

Something about this abused little boy -- this Peter Pan who never grew up -- stirred the deepest sympathies of my own abused alcoholic heart. He was a moon-walking essay in how an abusive parent leaves you desperately seeking the world's attention and approval forever after.

It would be lost on my pop-girl, but by making me pay attention to Jacko, she taught me that through MTV he gave us the opera of our age. It was born out of a deep, unsatisfied need for approval that comes to stay when a parent abusively violates your trust. With this heartbreak at the bedrock of his soul, Michael needed us. He was prepared to pay handsomely for our attention and even our most negative attention was better than none.

Been there. Done that.

Never, never, never did Jacko find sufficient love or mend the tender young boy's heart that broke when Joseph Walter Jackson beat him with a belt. Let this be a lesson to those of us who survived gritty romances to become parents. Don't turn your kids into victims, too. As the twig is bent, y'know?

If I had Junot Diaz' talent, I'd write a novel that weaves Jacko, Neverland, Peter Pan, and my 80s bimbo together into a story as uplifting as the Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Jacko deserves this portrait. He was tormented and remarkable which is the source of our fascination for him.

Let him go now. Off to join Elvis and Marilyn in our culture's strange panoply of needy gods. Beat it, Michael. Thank you, but now --

"... beat it. No one wants to be defeated."