Pretty Young Things: Michael and Me
In August of 1984 my mom was on tour with the Jackson Victory Tour–a reunion show with Michael Jackson and his five brothers. I flew to Denver Colorado to see her. It was the first time I’d ever met her on tour before. I entered the strange world of hotels and amphitheaters and laminate passes and men in jogging shorts and Reebok sneakers. You’d think that backstage at rock shows in the 1980’s would be all about sparkle and leather. They really resembled a Nike ad with cigarettes. I learned how to order room service. I thought making my hotel bed was “helping” the maids, but when I got back to the room, it was always remade. I was 12 and came and went from the Mile High Stadium like I was part of the crew that worked and sweated over the enormous stage production which included COSTUMES and PROPS and THEATER PRODUCTION. I saw show after show (probably 3 in total) from backstage.
Then one night my mom said, “Let’s not go back to the hotel just yet. I want to go visit somebody.” I was bored and tired, but the minute our shuttle van pulled into the driveway of a hotel that resembled a large gold Cadillac, I knew something was in the air. We got out of the van and my mom said, “You want to meet Michael Jackson?”
Let me paint this picture accurately: I wanted nothing more than Thriller the previous Christmas. All my friends wanted it. I can’t remember how or why, but it suddenly became THE MOST IMPORTANT thing I could ask for. When I did get it on Christmas Eve from my mother–wrapped in a brown paper grocery bag–I was so BESIDE myself I couldn’t stop jumping up and down. When I called my dad’s wife, Jody, who was picking me up later, she calmly said, “Summer, I am going to go now, because you’re obviously a little EXCITED, and well, it’s hard to talk to you when you’re SO HYPER.”
Thriller wasn’t just an album. It was THE album.
So yeah, I wanted to meet Michael Jackson.
The elevator was packed with people. When we got to his floor—MICHAEL JACKSON’S floor–it was CHAOS. There were people everywhere. Backstage it might have looked like a sportswear catalog, but here is what you would have imagined—sparkle, leather, heavy make up, and energy. I looked at the end of the hallway and a kid of about six exited the room in full BEAT IT regalia—sparkly red “members only” jacket, with a silver glove and glasses. He literally checked his sunglasses and STRUTTED past us.
I thought I was going to throw up.
In Michael’s hotel room were yet more people, a buffet of Indian food, uneaten pumpkin pie, and yes, stuffed animals. The only thing NOT in Michael Jackson’s hotel room was Michael Jackson. I talked to a beautiful woman with the longest nails I’d ever seen. “They start to curl if I don’t cut them,” she said. She told my mother I had beautiful hair. Then a door opened and out he came. He wore a black leather jacket and a plaid shirt. He took off his jacket with flourish, literally uttering one of his classic “WOO!” He was wearing sunglasses, so I couldn’t see his eyes. He said “hello” and shook my hand and it was one of the creepiest sensations I had ever physically felt. It was beyond cold fish. It was like shaking hands with someone who didn’t want to be touched. I couldn’t speak and tried to feign this off as charming. I just kept smiling thinking “How do I look? How do I look?” When it was over—and it was over very quickly—I walked out of the hotel totally depressed and disappointed.
I was running errands in Union Square today and decided to pop in to Virgin Records to see if they had the soundtrack to the Diving Bell and the Butterfly (which I just saw for the SECOND time yesterday). Upon entering, I immediately saw a 25th Anniversary Edition of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. TWENTY-FIVE YEARS? I did the math. Oh, how time flies.
I remembered how I used to listen to Thriller at night in my bedroom, skipping the number one hits to hear my favorite song, “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” At a time when I was oh so very young, but oh so NOT pretty, I followed suit when Jackson declared “Pretty young things, repeat after me, say ‘Na na na!‘” In my room alone at night I was a tall, skinny woman like Brooke Shields or Diane Lane–not as I was at any other time of the day, a lumpy 11 year old with so much long, straight hair. I resembled Captain Cave Man’s sister.
After I met Michael Jackson I told people that it was disappointing because he was human, but in fact, it was the other way around. I was disappointed because I hadn’t entered the magic mirror where I became Brooke Shields. I stood there like the mute lumpy girl I was and that was it. But as a kid, it isn’t about metaphors. It isn’t about meaning. For me, at the time, it was how I felt I totally BOMBED a visit with Michael Jackson and how his handshake was as exciting as a glove filled with cold water. Later, I would come to see this as an ongoing lesson in my life: the idea vs. the reality; the star vs. the person; the dream vs. the actual experience and on and on and on. It was, as Kathryn Chetkovich says, “a key I have found again and lost, found and lost.”
I think it’s safe to say that Michael has found and lost a few keys in the last twenty-five years, but let us not talk about the man. Let us talk about the music that, 25 years later, still makes me sing. I never lost that key.