|1972: When Michael
was the super-hero for super shortie cats like MAN.
Can You Remember?
By Mark Anthony Neal
SeeingBlack.com Music Critic
did he or didn't he? Talk about Michael Jackson here.
"Can you remember when we were babies?"
—Michael Jackson (Age 11)
"Can You Remember?" is an obscure little track penned
by Thom Bell and William Hart (of the Delphonics) that was recorded
by the Jackson Five on their first album Diana Ross Presents
the Jackson Five. The song was easily overshadowed by "I
Want You Back," the breakout single from the album that introduced
The Jackson Five and their wonder-boy lead singer Michael Jackson
to the world. For weeks I have tried to ignore the current unfolding
drama of yet another charge of child molestation against Michael
Jackson, but it was after reading Farai Chideya's touching piece
"A Open Letter to Michael Jackson" (Alternet.org) that
I remembered the song and began to ask, as Chideya did and so many
others have privately, "Can You Remember?"—when
a still not teen-age Michael Jackson was one of the most important
figures of our lives.
appeal to little girls was obvious, but for little nappy-headed,
brown-skinned boys like myself, Michael Jackson was giving
us a template for our still emerging sexualities, alternately
virile, sensitive, vulnerable and predatory…”
I was literally little more than a baby—all of three years
old, enjoying my first year in head start—when The Jackson
Five's "I Want You Back" was released in October of 1969.
I still have the well-worn 45 of the song, somewhere in my record
collection. From the time that I first heard Michael Jackson sing
those opening lines "When I had you to myself, I didn't want
you around…" until I discovered the beauty of brown skinned
girls and the game of baseball (somewhere around 1973), Michael
Jackson was, in my mind, the most important person in my life.
The very first record that I purchased with my own money was the
Jackson Five's Third Album (1970)—the joint with "I'll
Be There," "Mama's Pearl" and "Darling Dear,"
which remains one of my favorite Jackson records of all time. (Even
when I was no longer diggin' Michael per se, I transcribed the lyrics
to the song in a love note to my first girlfriend). The music from
their second album ABC was indelibly looped in my head from the
number of times my mother rocked her 8-track version of the album
as I imagined myself—afro-pic mic in hand—as Michael
singing "ABC," "The Love You Save" and my favorite
from that album, Michael's stirring version of The Delphonics' "La
La (Means I Love You)." (Years later I would realize that Jermaine
was also bringing the funk on that album and it was his "I
Found that Girl" that I danced to with my wife on our wedding
day). I was up in the rafters of Madison Square Garden in 1970,
when the Jackson Five finally hit NYC on their first national tour.
Berry Gordy had brilliantly kept the group from a national tour
until they had logged those four straight number one singles—"I
Want You Back", "ABC", "The Love You Save"
and "I'll Be There"—and thus there was an unrequited
frenzy that was associated with that first tour, matched only by
the frenzy witnessed when Michael was at the peak of his solo career
in the early 1980s. All you have to do is go back to the photos
and listen to those early Jackson Five albums to see what all the
frenzy was about.
Most Americans at some point have seen the stock black and white
footage of the Jackson Five's initial audition for Motown brass—Michael
yelping "Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby" from JB's
"I Got the Feeling"—and it is literally at that
point that Berry Gordy decided that Michel would the focal point
of the group. Even in that early footage, Michael exuded a confidence,
poise, and sensuality that only grown folk should have known about—and
a few of them were taking notes from Michael. The apple-jack hat
tilted slightly on his Black power era afro (like the cover of his
first solo album Got to Be There); Leaning against the lamp
pole, jacket flipped over his shoulders, singing "It Was a
Very Good Year" on the Diana Ross Special in 1969—it
was easy to understand why so many people adored this little Black
boy, who was often described, ironically, as the "prettiest
Black child" in America. His appeal to little girls was obvious,
but for little nappy-headed, brown-skinned boys like myself, Michael
Jackson was giving us a template for our still emerging sexualities,
alternately virile, sensitive, vulnerable and predatory.
Go back to that first Jackson Five single for Motown, not "I
Want You Back", but the b-side, the J5's version of Smokey
Robinson's "Who's Lovin' You?" and what you hear is this
little cat, who already knew how to "beg" the blues (tell
me Keith Sweat wasn't listening). I can imagine that Smokey sat
up at Motown the first time he heard Michael sing his song and decided
that he too needed to be schooled. Or listen to "ABC",
as bubble-gum pop as any thing the Wrigley company could confect,
and hear this playa, playa-man-child kick it to shortie during the
breakdown: "sit down girl, I think I love ya. Nah, get up girl,
show me what you can do…Shake it, shake it, baby. Shake it,
shake it, baby," no doubt inspiring Mystical, who quipped nearly
three decade later, "shake you're a--, watch your self, shake
you're a--, show me what you're working with." Or listen to
Michael on "Sugar Daddy" telling sis that he's gonna be
her sugar daddy and then it hits you that he's like 12 years old
and shouldn't even know what a sugar daddy is, let alone claim that
he's gonna be one. Or listen to the sullenness of his solo classic
"Ben" and you can hear an early inking of the loneliness,
paranoia, and isolation that both fueled his most compelling music
as an adult and informed his personal demons.
And even when Michael wasn't mackin', he tapped into the political
energy of the era on a song like "Young Folks," which
powerfully articulated the sense that America "better make
a way for the young folks." You felt that Michael was serious
as he sang "we're marching with signs, we're standing in lines,
yeah, yeah… Protesting your rights to turn out the lights
in our lives." For those shorties whose parents weren't making
them listen to Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted and Black,"
The J5's "Young Folks" was indeed the anthem for generation
next. In short, during those first two years or so of the Jackson
Five, Michael Jackson was the closet thing to a black super hero
for super shortie cats like myself and others (can we even imagine
Ralph Carter's "Michael" from Good Times without
that funky sass that that MJ brought to the game?). Damn, the bruh
even had his own cartoon.
For the last decade or so, Michael Jackson, the pop star who literally
changed the game, has existed in public consciousness as
little more than a tabloid freak. Last year, the 20th anniversary
of the release of his seminal commercial achievement, the recording
Thriller, passed with little if any commentary as the public
fixated on Jackson dangling his infant son over the side of a hotel
balcony. Even when Jackson was at his commercial peak, there was
always an element of freakishness that obscured why he was a star
in the first place. That little 11-year-old boy has long been gone,
even as Jackson himself seems hell bent on returning to the normal
childhood that was once denied him. The truth is I can't imagine
my childhood without the presence of Michael Jackson and it seems
as though those memories are gonna have to remain with that once
glorious childhood if I am to recall the humanity of the adult Michael
Jackson who stands before public and legal scrutiny today.
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of three books including the
recently published Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and
-- December 19, 2003
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