Friday, June 26, 2009

Time travel: it already happens!

Like many of a certain age, I was stunned to hear of Michael Jackson's death yesterday. His recent emotional and legal problems aside, he was undoubtedly one of the most talented performers of our time, and he certainly had one of the longest careers. Anyone born before, say, 1970 remembers not just the Michael Jackson of Off the Wall and Thriller fame (and later personal infamy), but the adorable and prodigiously gifted child Michael Jackson of the Jackson 5.

When I heard the news I went over to YouTube to look for old Jackson 5 videos, and posted this one on my Facebook page.

I was astounded by the responses it got from various friends, and moreover by the specificity of their memories. Here are a few examples:

Lisa: "During our grad school years John and I used to go to a bar in Kansas City where we could watch Michael Jackson videos on this big screen. 'Beat It' and 'Billy Jean' when they first came out. Wow. We couldn't get enough.

Martine: " Quintessential 70's memories: Dancing with my girlfriends in my basement to ABC. Rockin' Robin. Swooning over 'I'll Be There.' Man. And Off the Wall and Thriller? Whew. Yup, you're right--no matter what he became, there were those songs."

Anita: "I've never shared this with anyone --in 6th grade 4 of my classmates and I performed 'ABC' and 'Rockin' Robin' in full Jackson Five costuming as a surprise for our teacher Ms. Landrin. I was assigned the role of 'Tito.' I too was one of the girls in the basement swooning to 'I'll Be There.'"

I'm always amazed by the power of a song to transport us back to a very specific place and time...and in a way that isn't just passive recollection, but which almost recreates the scene in the present. It truly is a form of time travel.

After reading these stories from other folks, I thought about a few Michael-Jackson specific time-travel moments of my own--memories of roller-skating to "Off the Wall" at the United Skates of America rink, and dancing to "PYT" in a huge circle with a bunch of girlfriends in college...back when we were actually the age to be "PYT"s.

But my clearest MJ-related memory is connected to the song "Human Nature" (from Thriller). Whenever I hear it, I'm transported right back to the huge, Palladian-window filled room in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I attended an open dance for all local students during my freshman year of college.

There I met the improbably named Wylie Schneider, a Harvard grad student from Saskatchewan (I swear I am not making this up). We chatted and danced to some of the faster songs. We even talked about Michael Jackson that night—this was the fall of 1983, Thriller was huge, and Wylie noted that he and Michael Jackson were the same age, 25.

And then "Human Nature" started to play. Wylie asked me to slow dance. I anticipated the typical high-school slow dance, where you gracelessly throw both arms around your partner’s waist or neck and shuffle from one foot to the other for three minutes.

Instead, upon entering the dance floor, Wylie caught my right hand in his left, clasped it, and folded both our hands to his chest. It was the single most charming and romantic gesture I’d ever experienced in my young life--and, with all due respect to my dear husband, perhaps even now, in my middle-aged life. Mostly because it seemed so genteel and affectionate and graceful. That was not what I expected from the men I encountered at that stage of my life.

He had taken ballroom dance, he told me; his sister was a ballerina. I was an untrained clod. So, the usual side-to-side foot shuffling was still about as fancy as my footwork got. But like a true gentleman, he moved easily, knew how to lead the unleadable. I think I fell in love with him a little bit that night. That dance (and one additional date) constituted more or less the whole of our acquaintance. But still, whenever I hear “Human Nature,” I am right back in that room, and in his arms, and feeling like nothing more romantic could be possible.

Funny how music can pin a moment and a memory and a person down in a way other sensations can’t. Once when I was in grad school I took my car into a local shop to get the oil changed, and the manager was a guy I’d dated briefly about five years earlier. I had totally forgotten about him—I couldn’t remember his name, and it really stunned me how thoroughly I’d forgotten him. And as I later remembered, he'd been someone I’d really liked and been interested in at the time. I had far more of a “relationship” with him (and no, I still don't remember his name) than I ever had with Wylie Schneider.

Here's the difference: the oil-change guy didn’t have a song. Wylie did. And still does, even though Michael’s dead, Wylie’s probably not, but is, nevertheless, 50. And when I hear that song, I’m 18 all over again.


Michael said...

Love your post, and the label you put on the feeling I've always gotten from the best and most loved (and sometimes not so loved) music of my life, time travel. I'm gonna have to borrow that phrase when I get around to my own blog entry on this subject.

The music of Thriller was part of the soundtrack to a painful time in my life, the beginning of the end of my first live-in relationship with another guy, but as I've noticed over the years, the bad things tend to fade or get glossed over, so those songs are still fairly joyous for me, because joyous is how MJ sounded, like the making of Thriller was great fun for him.

Jane said...

Wow, I loved reading this.
(And just an hour ago I said I was sick of the Michael Jackson story.)

Ah, but this is the Rosemary Hathaway story, with a Michael Jackson soundtrack.

Nancy said...

This is wonderful post, Rosemary. What is also interesting to me is how MJ's death has become this world wide communal mourning via the internet. With Facebook, we can see which of our friends were similarly moved by MJ, we share our memories of his music as this soundtrack to parts of our lives, we lament together the untimely passing of someone we admired. To me, it seems deeply humanizing to be able to share our feelings in such an immediate and broad-scale way that would not be possible without the internet. This is our way to mourn someone who has touched our lives but whom we did not know personally enough to be invited to his funeral nor is there another adequate public space in which to share our sorrow. Now who says that the internet de-humanizes us? I am glad to have the internet as a forum to share my thoughts and connect with like-minded people.

Rosemary said...

Thanks, everyone. It's been interesting to note over the last few days the ways that people have been "reclaiming" Michael Jackson in this personal way.

Regardless of what he may or may not have been guilty of, that can't undo the ways his music remains, as Jane put it, the soundtrack to so many people's memories.

It's been good to see people acknowledging those connections without needing to put an "asterisk" by them. (Though I, too, am sick of the media blitz.)