I was driving home listening to the radio on Thursday when I heard that Michael Jackson was dead. I turned it off and thought about my brother. It’s not that I don’t think about him — I suppose I could say that though he’s only sometimes on my mind, he’s always in it. He moves, or I move him, from an impressionistic figure in a background to a man in sharp focus.
He is in trouble and, now that I think about it, has been for the better part of a quarter-century. Over that time we’ve become strangers. We haven’t had a substantive conversation in years — not about my marriage, my children, our father’s death, or why we’ve grown apart. It has, of course, something to do with logistics, geography, the complications of growing up and old, but it’s mostly because we don’t trust each other, and perhaps never have. I know he’s a liar, and he knows I don’t care about him, or what he thinks of me, what he thinks of anything.
I can’t remember in my adult life when I’ve thought of him fairly: He’s in jail now, far away from home, and it’s difficult to imagine that, now that he’s 46, there’s much more in his future than more of the same. And so I have, unfairly — though for me, practically — decided what remains for him so that I may rationalize, sanctimoniously, how I’ll continue to reject him.
I’ve allowed his troubles, though, to affect how I think about our pasts. Because of who I am now, my troubles as a boy, adolescent, young adult and man are things I’ve overcome: that makes me good, strong. Looking back through the lens of my current success ennobles my past — how I failed, or was failed — to the same degree my brother’s failure derides his. And as liberal or dynamic-thinking as I’m supposed to be, my decision to reject him is informed by the inhumane notion of tough love: he had his chances, more than I, and look what he’s done with them.
What does this have to do with Michael Jackson? Grimly, I’ve been waiting for — through the hair relaxer, the surgeries, the blanching, the eccentricities and the fall into madness — that news flash. Just as I’ve been waiting for a phone call telling me my brother is dead, or at least, far beyond any possible care — our gap ever widening, irreconcilable.
The Jackson 5 — not the Jacksons, or any other iteration — were like family. My brother, sister, cousins and I grew up with them. When we were young and together, they were all we’d listen to, and really, in pop-culture terms, all we really knew about. They were a conduit — unlike the dead, white authors we were told to read and emulate, and the dead, black martyrs we were to told to mimic and revere — to a larger world. His death, as I’m sure is the case for many others, makes me scan time backward and forward in order to understand, how he, we, came to be here now. My backward trek — unlike my children’s relationship to their time capsule discovery of “Thriller” and “Beat It,” unlike my white high school friends and their adoration of “Billie Jean” — has little connection to those periods, that person.
My Michael — not M. J., or Jacko — has an Afro, a broad nose and deep brown skin. His voice, rather than clipped and formulaic, is clear, ringing and bright. His vocalizations aren’t clicks and chirps, but screeches and moans. I never believed in anything he sang as an adult. He never seemed to understand, or be convinced himself. But now, listening to him sing as a child, even though I know he was too young to have a clue as to what he was singing about, I feel, just as I felt when I was a boy, that he knew and he felt exactly what he was singing.
Do you remember those Polaroid Instamatics? The ones with the accordion muzzle? With the hot popping one-time flash, the chemical smell of that toxic magic jelly? You had to pull the print from the side of the camera by the tab of the cellophane it was wrapped in, and wait 60 seconds before peeling it open like a Kraft single. I remember counting down, or up, the time, and then adding extra seconds, and still more by shaking the package, or wiping my fingers — “Come on! Come on!” — before looking. There’d been, even in my young life, too many blotchy prints, ghost images, lost moments.
I have a framed photograph in my bedroom. It’s of my brother, David, my sister, Tracey, my two first cousins — Lisa and Russell — and me. It’s at my aunt and uncle’s house. We’re all very young. We’re all dressed in fantastic early-’70s gear. (I’m wearing a bright red long-sleeve jersey with a blue collar, bellbottoms with wide white and blue vertical stripes and moccasins.) We are dancing. I’m doing — although some years before it was named — what can only be called the rock.
Tracey has her arms stretched high and spread wide. Russell, I think, would’ve twirled had he not looked up and seen the camera. Most people who see this photo have the same reaction — a melancholic smile — and then they guess, not the group, because everyone knows, but the song.
I tell them that we were the Cousin 5. Then they state: “You’re Michael.” I tell them no. They scan the 3x5, confused. I point to David, the oldest. He looks, from how the picture was taken, to be on the periphery, but he’s really up front, while we other four are gathered in support. “Who are you, then?”
They snicker. My brother, to most of my friends, has always seemed ridiculous. To me, David’s a combination of all the things I despise in people. I’ve always thought him to be narcissistic, self-serving and grandiose. He took the qualities that made our father charismatic, and made them petty. And although even as a boy I sensed my father was both delusional and a liar, his performances — where we’d go, what we’d do, how we’d make it — were inspirational. My brother sounded like a petty dictator, or a bad con.
After our father left, David — four years older than I — tried to fill that void. He wasn’t good at it. The space was too big and most of what he did for or to me was wrong. I knew I was smarter than him, I knew I’d be bigger than him, and I didn’t understand why I didn’t outrank him. It seemed absurd that he had authority over me in anything.
But I never, fairly, tried to understand — who he was, what he was asked to do — by our parents, by himself. And he was just a boy, how would he even know the question to ask? The accident of his birth threw him into his role — front man — and he assumed it, whether he had the talent or stomach to fit. So I can look at the Polaroid, and snort or rage. I can construct a narrative from that moment onward that conveniently depicts his demise. But I’ve never thought about, for long, why he’s dancing alone.
The photo must have been taken in Waltham, Mass., because there’s a house directly outside the window, and my aunt and uncle’s next place had more space between it and the neighbors. But we’re in that blurred time — ’73 to ’75 — before they left the duplex rental across the street from the railroad tracks, and before my father left home for good.
He never came with us. Sometimes he’d drop us off, or pick us up. When the car worked my mother drove, but usually my uncle made the round trip. Just as I never understood, because my uncle was always very kind to us, that those Saturday trips in and out of Boston — three exits east and west on the turnpike — probably were a pain for him, they were escapes for my mother. Perhaps she spent her time there confiding in her sister, perhaps it was simply that she didn’t want to cook. Whatever the case, we all knew — intellectually or viscerally — that my family was ending. There was no place else for my mother to go.
And so while my father was off chasing who knows what, or who, wherever, we were there, at my aunt and uncle’s, or on our way there. And winding along the Charles River and approaching the left turn onto their street I’d begin to feel the awful convergence of all the reasons we were rolling up onto the crabgrass and gravel of the curb-less sidewalk in front of their house, the walk along the driveway to the side door, and then my aunt holding the screen door, or the storm door open at the top of the four-step porch. My mother’s tired, familiar greeting. My aunt’s mid-sized smile. She was one of the few people who was truly happy to share, unconditionally, what she had.
Tracey and my cousin Lisa were best friends, 19 days apart in age. Russell, 18 months younger than I, and with our affections, secrets and rivalries, was much more like a brother to me than David. Even with this, there was always an awkward moment at the threshold that could stretch through dinner and into the evening. It could’ve been as simple as that they were engaged in something before we came, and most young children are terrible with transition. It could’ve been that we outnumbered them. I see it now when a large family is at our door. My children take pause and wonder how the people on the stoop will fit.
But I also know that we must have seemed like wild children. At home our mother was outnumbered. Our neighborhood was full of kids, and we’d roam the streets, parks and yards, and she couldn’t keep up. At home I could sleep in gym shorts, or long underwear. I could sneak into the bathroom, or hide under the covers with a flashlight and read as late as I wanted. In the morning I could shuffle around barefoot. Sleeping over at my aunt and uncle’s I had to wear pajamas. Lights-out wasn’t debatable. And in the morning my uncle would make me wear a robe and slippers around the house.
And we, as families, were going in different directions. There’d always been a rift between the adults — real-world practicality versus altruistic erudition. My father read books, argued Socratically, haunted jazz bars, and never saved a cent. My uncle worked hard, and kept whatever fanciful notions he might have had to himself, and had reasonable expectations of the future. They were soon to move from a blue-collar town to a wealthy Boston suburb. We would soon lose our house and our private school scholarships, and have to use their address to attend the good public schools. They had stuff, were getting more, but something we thought we had, every day, disappeared.
Finally, though, there was music. I don’t fully remember, but I think our cousins had a portable stereo. Lisa would get it out and the party would start. The Jackson 5 was the only music we’d play. My family had 45’s, but my cousins had albums. I’d stare at them, read the tiny print, feel the wax paper sleeve to see if it was real. All of the album covers, like the days, have combined into one emblematic memory. And I’m not one to dissect the converged body of the past into pre-gestalt moments.
I don’t know if it was the “Greatest Hits,” but one cover was the color of midnight, and one was like a Creamsicle, but they all had bright photographs of the Jackson 5: Afros, bellbottoms, suede boots, tasseled nubuck vests, stripes, stars and peace signs. Then the crackle of the grooves, then my aunt from the next room: “Not too loud.” The music: piano glissando, guitar, bass — bum bum, bum bum, bum bah bump. Michael: “Uh-huh ... let me tell you now...” and we were up — snapping, clapping and rocking. Trying to do twirls and splits barefoot on the thick-pile wall-to-wall. No one would feel those burns until bedtime.
“I Want You Back.” I’d lose track of where I was, whom I was with. Heat, sound and movement, until the song faded. But even then I’d be part lost. I’d construct the pop of tires on gravel, the heavy door slam, footsteps up the porch, the first door whine, the second door jingle, and see my father enter, call for my mother and sing: “I want you back! I want you back!” But my father’s voice, I knew, was coarse-grit baritone, better suited for brooding and regret, rather than epiphany and hope.
“Michael.” David would snap. I’d come back from wherever I was to find everyone staring at me. He’d shrug his shoulders, raise his eyebrows and tap on his temple with his index finger. “We need to do that again.” He’d say at the player, holding the arm, looking at us four, now, flatly. I’d hate him for doing this, for wanting to control those moments, make them his, take them from me. “Ready?” And we’d pick up our imaginary instruments, take our places and wait. He’d drop the needle and rush to the front.
We’d rehearse until we were soaked. We always did the same routines to the same songs, and David would ignore our ideas about new choreography. Start with “ABC,” slow it down with “I’ll Be There,” blow it out with “Going Back to Indiana.”
It never failed: we’d be set to call the adults in to watch our performance, just as they were getting up to go. We’d have to plead with them to let us do it. We worked so hard: just once, maybe twice, O.K., three times. I’ve conveniently forgotten, but in those moments, and the ones to follow, I felt protected — a part. I forgot about my resentment of my brother. Rather than being alone in my individual reveries, I was with my family.
The role of front man — because of who David was, who we were, and what we, at that time, faced — was his. He was a child and I was a younger child, and in some ways he stopped being one so I wouldn’t have to. I’ve never thanked David for that. I know that the time I’ve wasted ridiculing and shunning him, watching him fall, waiting for that call rather than helping to keep it from coming, can’t be regained, or undone in the years to come by re-rationalizing, glorifying or erasing his actions, but it’s a place to start.
People will point to Michael Jackson’s discography, his surgeries, madness, all that he’s been given, earned and squandered. Many will testify about what he’s given, but I, in this moment, can only think of what he’s, we’ve, lost. The price he’s paid for where he’s been is his life. And I think about David in much the same way — the wake behind, and his narrowing future — where he is now, and how it cost him me.
Michael Thomas, the author of the novel Man Gone Down.