The news media and fans will be ginning up for the one year anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death over the coming days. It seems a little macabre, frankly, but, that’s the way the world goes round.
Like the death of Elvis Presley, John Lennon and dare I say, perhaps even the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, most people will probably remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard of Michael Jackson’s death.
On June 25, 2009, I was with my husband at Buffalo Wild Wings, munching on a basket of French fried onion rings and a platter of boneless wings, soaked in Parmesan and honey bar-b-que sauce, washing it down with a cold pint of Bass Ale.
When the ticker ran across the bottom of the jumbo television screen saying that Michael Jackson had died, I gasped and my heart fell into my stomach. I felt sad and more than a little bummed out. Much like I did when Ray Charles died. The world had just lost one of the greatest pop singers in modern music history, a man whose music had been the backdrop in the lives of more than two generations of people. Certainly mine, since I was 11 years old.
Over the next few days the media coverage was rabid. But, it always was when it came to Michael Jackson. The initial reports were that he had died of a heart attack, but that just didn’t seem plausible. Michael Jackson was only 50 years old and about to embark on another world tour. He had always been a remarkably fit man. There had to be another explanation. And there was. Michael Jackson had died from a heart attack, but the heart attack was triggered by a drug cocktail of over seven types of drugs.
The news coverage continued nonstop, 24 hours a day, for days on end and was so saturating that many people became bored with the topic well before he was even buried. I reminisced and pulled up old videos of Michael Jackson on YouTube to show my 10 year old daughter who wanted to know, “what was so great about Michael Jackson, anyway.”
If I were honest I would have to say that I think Michael Jackson’s greatness as an artist arched in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. After his Off the Wall album – “Workin’ Day & Night” was one of the funkiest dance songs ever – Michael began a dark descent into a downward spiral that ultimately led to his death.
The 1982 album Thriller, marked the official transformation of Michael Jackson from a fresh-faced, talented kid from Gary, Indiana, to a peculiar, odd, elephant-man type character, who ultimately became an unrecognizable, paranoid recluse.
It was difficult to watch such a gifted artist morph into a caricature of himself. Especially since I had actually met Michael Jackson many years ago, when we were both just kids – literally – and I saw first hand how normal he really was. Or at least, he was back then.
In 1968, the Jackson Five were just beginning their meteoric rise to fame. A family of five brothers who had caught the groove of the Motown sound and rode the wave of Berry Gordy funk and R & B right into the living rooms of white Middle America.
I remember the first time I saw them on television. I was captivated by “little Michael”, a skinny, pre-pubescent kid who had James Brown dance moves and a soulful grasp of music that was well beyond his years. At 10 years old, he already possessed the charisma that would send teenage girls into screaming fits of hysteria whenever he took to the stage.
In the summer of 1971, the Jackson Five were well established stars. Everybody knew who they were and loved them – especially, Michael. They had come to my home town of Shreveport, Louisiana to perform several concerts. It was electric.
A local DJ and concert promoter, “Shotgun” Ken Shepherd was my best friend’s boyfriend. He had picked us up that weekend and was working especially hard to impress my friend who saw him more as someone to get us out of the house, rather than a serious love interest. He was well connected with the local music and concert scene though and asked us if we wanted to meet the Jackson Five.
She and I looked at each other trying hard to hide our amusement, rolled our eyes and said, “yeah, sure.” Neither of us believed he would actually deliver on his promise, but since we didn’t have anything else to do that day we played along.
For the next few hours we drove from one radio station to the next and waited in the car while he ran in and out and drove on to the next stop. We eventually ended up at KOKA radio station which turned out to be our last stop before ending up in the parking lot of the Howard Johnson hotel, right off of Monkhouse Drive and I-20.
I still remember Ken Shepherd slamming the transmission into park and asking us if we were ready to go inside. Neither of us believed the Jackson Five were in that hotel. The Howard Johnson was not exactly the Chateau Marmont. But then, we’re are talking about Shreveport, Louisiana in 1971.
As we walked up the fire escape type stairs on the side the building, I didn’t see any tell-tale signs that a super group like the Jackson Five were inside. No tour buses, no cordoned off area with screaming fans hanging around, hoping to get a glimpse of Michael Jackson – or maybe Jermaine.
But, when we opened the door into the hallway of the second floor, it was a different story. They had the entire floor and there was a hum of people buzzing back and forth, up and down the hallway, in and out of rooms. It was a flurry of Angela- Davis-Afros, hip-hugger bell bottoms and black, patent leather ankle boots. I never felt more white.
Joe Jackson stopped us in the hallway and wanted to know who we were. Shotgun Ken Shepherd introduced himself and dropped the name of “Gay Poppa.” I had heard the DJ, Gay Poppa, on KOKA radio station for years. But I had no idea how just how powerful his name was. Joe Jackson didn’t say anything to me or my girlfriend, but he led us down the hall, popped open a door, turned around and walked off.
Michael was the first person I saw. He hopped off the bed and bounded toward us with a big smile on his face. I don’t know why, because he didn’t know me and I sure didn’t know him. But, I guess that’s part of the gig when you are a music star and he played it well.
He was cute and polite and his eyes sparkled when he introduced himself. I told him my name before my girlfriend and Shotgun Ken Shepherd disappeared. We stood there awkwardly for what seemed like an hour before he asked me if I wanted to watch cartoons with him. I said “sure” and we plopped down on the end of the bed with our hands in our laps.
I don’t remember which cartoons we watched or too many details anymore. I’m 53 now and I was 13 or 14 back then. It’s been over 40 years. But, I do remember a couple of games of “Go Fish” and “Old Maid.” I remember jumping on the bed and slamming each other with pillows, giggling and laughing, like the two kids we were.
I remember going back the next day and swimming in the swimming pool. And I remember going to the concert (we got free tickets), sitting behind my middle school math teacher, Mr. Green, and watching Michael Jackson, the future King of Pop, render little teenage girls into shrieking, crying, sobbing messes.
It felt surreal. Just a few hours earlier, we were hitting each other with pillows and doing cannonballs off the diving board. Now, he was gliding and sliding across the stage and popping his head in time to the beat like nobody’s business.
No one could have possibly known just how famous and ultimately, how infamous, “little Michael Jackson” would become. The subsequent years brought him international fame and opulent wealth. But they also brought him isolation, shame and public scorn.
The Michael Jackson who died on June 25, 2009 was not the Michael Jackson that I had met in the Howard Johnson hotel in the summer of 1971. Yeah, I know. He was just a kid back then and so was I. 40 years is a long time and we both changed.
The Michael Jackson who died that day had become a freak show. He had become the punch line of degrading jokes. He had become “Wacko Jacko” and some even say he had become a pedophile. But, the Michael Jackson that I had met was just an ordinary little boy who happened to have an extraordinary talent.
I’ve often wondered over the years if Michael Jackson ever thought about me and the weekend that we spent together that summer. Chances are, probably not. But if he ever did, I hope he remembered it the way I do – just two little kids, watching cartoons, doing cannonballs and having some fun.
Ken Shepherd still works and lives in the Shreveport, Louisiana area as a local concert and entertainment promoter. His son is famed, blues guitarist, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, whose career he currently manages.
KOKA was an AM radio station that played mainly black, funk and soul music. The DJ, Sonrose Rutledge, known as “Gay Poppa”, also a concert promoter who had brought in acts like James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner, was the man who had brought the Jackson Five to town.