The Untouchable Michael Jackson
I once thought of giving Michael Jackson a hug, but celebrity had put him outside of my reach. I believe that’s what killed him in the end.
I met Michael Jackson in 1984. We were both guests of Quincy Jones and Steven Spielberg at Amblin, Spielberg's production company on the Universal film lot. Whoopi Goldberg was preparing to play Celie, the protagonist in the film version of The Color Purple, a book written by my mother, and was giving a private stand-up performance at Spielberg’s request.
Michael and I sat in the front row. He was wearing his by-then trademark red bandleader jacket with epaulets and gold rope loops at the shoulder, trim black slacks, white socks, black shoes, and yes, a glove. Whoopi was hilarious, and at one point singled me out for audience participation. She asked a few questions and pulled me onstage. I gamely played along, enjoying the attention.
Why Michael approached me in a room full of superstars after the show I will never know. Perhaps because I was the youngest in the room, and at 14 didn’t have a big name, a big career or a powerful company. I was a kid, easy, with few expectations. I was not old enough to demand, even silently, that he live up to anything. Perhaps he felt that with me he could be, in a sense, free.
I remember his body language. He moved slowly, like a very cool cat, hesitant, but smooth. And then, in the softest of voices, he asked how I was able to do the impromptu bit of comical business. He could never do something like that on the spot, he said. He’d be too nervous. I remember laughing and chiding him. You’d be great, Michael! I said. He shook his head and out crept a smile so open and vulnerable that I wanted to hug him, and probably would have, if he weren’t Michael Jackson.
But he was, and I had no way to reach across the boundary of celebrity that put us on opposite sides of an invisible fence. Michael was, as he described himself in a song years later, untouchable. I believe that is what killed him. A human being can only live so long without the touch of another and can only breathe manufactured air for so many minutes.
We are left with music, memories and the shame of our own narcissistic voyeurism. As it was for so many of us, Michael’s music was a running soundtrack for my life, a powerful influence that helped shape my identity. As a young girl, I kissed a boy furtively as Michael’s song, “Rock with You,” played on my cassette player. My first real boyfriend stood for hours in front of a full-length mirror in my bedroom practicing his Michael Jackson dance moves. In quieter moments, we lay on my bed listening to “She’s Out of My Life” on the record player, both of us close to tears and full of reverence for Michael’s heartfelt emotion.
Later, when I was old enough to go out dancing with my friends, we’d all scream when we heard the rumblings of his sultry dance groove, “Don’t Stop Till You get Enough” and head to the dance floor for some serious getting down.
After college, I wrote my first memoir about growing up biracial and drew sustenance from the video for his song, “Black or White,” in which Michael portrayed race as fluid; the models in the video morphed from African to Indian to Italian to Swedish to Mongolian and back again. And he told the world that love is what matters, not skin color.