Friday 26 June 2009

Pop goes the King

14st 13lb, 5.6 units. Clearly I will never forget where I was at six o’clock this morning. Woken by the baby a maddening three minutes before I intended to get up anyway, I turned on the wireless in time for the pips and the devastating news that the King of Pop is dead. Blimey. He had only been a little bit poorly when they mentioned him on last night’s news at ten.

It brought back memories of watching Top of the Pops with my parents, and my mother making the immortal comment that “There must be a lot more darkies in the country than they let on about.” When I asked what had brought this on, she gestured at the screen, where Michel Jackson was performing his number one smash of the moment, ironically enough in black and white. (My father was a “late adopter” of colour TV on the grounds that “There’s more to go wrong”. The same principle which led him to urge me to have a bike with no gears, and which no doubt lay behind his assertion that “A radio spoils a car.”)

“How else,” Mum asked, “Did he get to the top of the hit parade?”

I remember suggesting that it was just possible that some white people also bought Michael Jackson records, at which both my parents laughed uproariously at my naivete. The very idea! Buying a record by a black man? Unthinkable. They did have a well-worn copy of Al Jolson’s “Sonny Boy” in their collection of 78s, and were among the biggest fans of the Black and White Minstrel Show, but in both cases they could clearly see through the disguise. No doubt they would have been profoundly shocked by the revelation that, in its latter years, some of the artistes behind the slap in the George Mitchell troupe genuinely were black. Though, on the other hand, they would at least have been pleasantly surprised by Jackson’s subsequent transformation into a white person.

It is strange to think that in those days, in my family’s terms, I was something of a liberal. I certainly did not share my father’s apparently genuine conviction that black people were closely related to monkeys, lived up trees and subsisted on bananas. (Though, curiously, the only other person I have ever heard use the phrase “Straight down from the trees” without comic intent was a plummy-accented, English-public-school-educated Nigerian chief who would no doubt have been the first to describe himself as “black as the ace of spades”.)

The next time that Jackson made an impact on me was in about 1978 in Cambridge, when I found myself sharing a flat with the veterinary student who, 31 years later, became my best man. Perhaps because of its animal associations, he was curiously addicted to Jackson’s song “Ben”, which he told me (though I never really believed him) was a love song about a rat. Odd. Still, I suppose everyone’s inappropriate crushes have to start somewhere.

A few years later, in London, I remember expressing surprise that my flatmate’s record collection included the album “Thriller”. When she asked my why I reacted in that way, I mumbled something about Jackson not being my cup of tea, but could not help wondering whether I had unconsciously absorbed some of the prejudices of the previous generation. If that process of transmission does occur, I fear that the baby may be in for a very fraught life, including some long stretches in re-education camps.

Since the days of “Thriller”, I don’t think that Michael Jackson has made any impact on me except as a fertile source of grossly inappropriate City humour about paedophilia. The first thing I saw when I turned on Facebook this morning was a friend’s comment “He "wanna be startin something" like maybe the defibrillator”. Already the flood of City jokes has started clogging my inbox, and perhaps the most repeatable of them is this: “The coroner is unsure what to put as the cause of Michael 
Jackson's death. He doesn't know whether to blame it on the
sunshine, the moonlight, the good times, or the boogie.”

Perhaps they will play “Ben” during the inevitable tribute shows this evening, which will take me right back to days that are best, on the whole, completely forgotten. But at least there will be the Tom Gutteridge column to look forward to in next Monday’s Newcastle Journal. What other subject could he choose than “The Michael Jackson I knew”? I say: bring it on!

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