The Night I Saw Michael Jackson Perform


21 October 2010

(This is not fiction; I saw Michael Jackson perform in St. Louis, in 1971, when he was 12 years old)

Lots of specialized tour companies in the USA take groups of teenagers on summer bus journeys around the Far West to visit National Parks like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. When I was 15, in 1971, it was my dream to go on one of these “teen tours.” But I had an elder brother – then 25 years old – who was out of work and who volunteered to take me instead. My parents gave their permission. So one morning at the beginning of July, he and I packed our supplies into my father’s gigantic, gas-guzzling Chrysler and set out from our New York home for California, armed with Dad’s credit card and $1,000 in traveller’s checks. After staying at a state park in the mountains of Pennsylvania and then Cincinnati, we stopped in St. Louis to see the Arch and the Mississippi River. On the afternoon of our arrival, we read in the newspaper that the Jackson Five were in town and performing that night! I’d loved the Jackson Five ever since I’d heard ABC, one of their first hits, about a year earlier, and I owned one of their albums. At school, my friends and I used to do imitations of Michael – then 12 years old – singing and dancing Stop! the Love you Save, my favorite song of his (I still know most of the lyrics, though my falsetto isn’t what it once was). My brother gave in to my pleading and we managed to get tickets. What we discovered on reaching the concert hall was that in St. Louis, the Jackson Five were an exclusively black phenomenon. In the audience were 9,998 black people and my brother and I. What struck me as odd was that there was no clear race divide like that in New York – a lot of the kids who went to my high school, which was 99% white – thought the Jackson Five made great hit records and danced fantastically well, just as we thought Stevie Wonder, the Supremes and Sly and the Family Stone made great music. Motown was our music, too! It was a strange sensation to be in such a minority for the first time in my life. It was frightening at first, too. Still, although some people stared pretty hard at us, no one gave us a hard time. When the Jackson Five came out on stage – in Afros, wearing bell-bottom trousers – the crowd went crazy, of course. And what they loved even more than Michael’s singing was his dancing. The kid could slide, prance and jump around like nobody else. And he could twist and spin without ever going off key. The other brothers – though they danced in perfect synchronization and played their instruments well – were already just co-stars. My brother and I were sitting pretty high up in the stands, and around us it was as if we’d come to a gospel concert in a black church, with everybody – well-dressed black ladies, teenagers, little kids, calling out: “Get down, Michael!” – “Show us what you got!” – “Go, Michael, go!”

I remember him singing all the group’s hits plus a new song, Going Back to Indiana,” which he told the audience had been written for a television special that they’d just made about going back to their hometown, Gary, Indiana. The song was catchy, and I wanted to see the TV program, but I guess it was aired while I was travelling around that summer and I missed it. And I never saw Michael perform live again. Within a couple of years, his voice changed, and his first musical efforts as a young adult seemed pathetic, particularly Ben. Then Thriller came out in 1982, when Michael was 24, and it was obvious he’d found himself again. And dancing better than ever before. I was happy for him – he seemed to have done the near-impossible and put his life as a child star behind him. He was obviously moving on to greater artistic endeavors.

Then came the long decline – the cosmetic surgeries, legal battles, creepy dedication to children and phony friendships with Hollywood stars. I lost all interest in him and his music. So it was a surprise to find myself so saddened by his death. What a crazy life he had, and how lost and inauthentic he often seemed. Over the last few days, whenever I see a clip of him on TV as he was in recent years, it’s hard to believe that he was the same person as the sweet-faced, dynamic and uniquely talented kid I saw in St. Louis one July night in 1971. But he was. And that kid had been beautiful.

Richard Zimler

Michael Fieni