Soundtrack of my Life: 1983

This is the seventh entry in a “soundtrack of my life” project — one song that is representative of each year of my life since about 1977, when I was five years old and was approximately the time when I have specific memories of music.

1983: “Beat It,” Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album is likely among the seminal music releases of many people of my generation. Having been raised on country music, as you’ve likely noticed if you’ve been following this series of posts since the beginning, I didn’t have much knowledge of The Jackson 5, and don’t remember knowing about “Off the Wall” until after “Thriller,” either. This was my introduction to Michael Jackson.

I was a big fan of Jackson for a long, long time, especially through the era when he dominated MTV after “Bad” came out. I had a red sweatshirt with nylon panels on the shoulders when I was in maybe sixth or seventh grade, and I wanted it in no small part because it was reminiscent of Jackson’s Thriller jacket. There was an identical blue one, but I wanted no part of it. I seem to recall there being a great deal of difficulty getting my parents to part with whatever sum of money that sweatshirt cost. I seem to remember it was $22, which at that time was pretty absurd. I think we got lucky and scored one on clearance.

From the Thriller gateway drug, I got into all the other Jacksons as well. I still love it when Jermaine’s “Dynamite” comes through my iTunes playlist at work, and I listened to the Jacksons “Victory” tape so many times I’m lucky I didn’t break it. And everybody had Janet Jackson’s stuff later in the decade. But that same everybody just though LaToya was weird. I even had a tour t-shirt from the Victory tour that I found at a yard sale in the late 1980s that became a staple in my late-high school wardrobe rotation.

I drew pictures of Michael Jackson. I did a video for his cover of “Come Together” for a project when I was a senior in high school. I had grand ideas of doing publicity for him after I flamed out as a mechanical engineer in college and switched my major to public relations.

I don’t really remember at what point I quit caring about his music. The Neverland Ranch weirdness was definitely the start of his slide with me, as it was with most people. Then after Megan was born it just seemed not quite right to have kids and still do things that would put money into his pocket, even if it was only a dollar. He just became a sad caricature of his former self, and what he was doing in the present became somehow wholly detached from what he had been. It was almost as if there were two Michael Jacksons — the bizarre creature demolished by the pressure of global fame, and the guy from “Thriller” who ruled the world with a single white glove.

After a point, the current incarnation just ceased to matter. I never gave the slightest thought to buying “Blood on the Dance Floor.” The last time I spent money on Michael Jackson was to buy the HIStory two-CD set. That’ll likely remain the last time I spend money on Michael Jackson. But I will still never turn off a song from “Thriller.”

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2,000 Words or Less: “The Girl With the Red Book”

Neat and assembled, but not manufactured, not sterile and meaningless in perfection. Cutely matched socks to blouse, young but not juvenile, with that unknowable something instantly recognizable in those who possess it and yet never missed from those who don’t. She just was – quiet but noticed, tucked away in a corner and yet unmistakeably at the center.

She sat silently with her book, a red book, a red that matched socks and blouse. Headphones on, streaming distractions from her erroneously purple iPod Nano. Interrupted only by the occasional chirping of a cell phone, demanding seconds to stab out a reply into the text-message ether.

The children arrived with their mother in a three, the first small and quiet, confined to his stroller, the others larger, louder, seeking mastery of their still-developing voices and mobility. Loud calls of “mama,” tugs on the robe of a dark-skinned woman with a head scarf, followed by chatter in an indeterminate tongue conjured up half a world away.

The girl with the red book took a moment to examine them, and in a fluid movement withdrew something from under her chair, stood and headed toward the family. By the time she reached them, it was as if she’d known them forever: a lifetime of friendship developed in the three seconds it took her to traverse the row of chairs.

With a smile, she reached into the box she’d almost unconsciously produced from the backpack beneath her chair. To each of the two oldest children, she presented a package of unopened Granola bars.

“These late flights are hard,” she said to the mother, who wasn’t quite sure what to make of what was happening. “It’s not easy to find something for the little ones to eat at this time of night.”

The random and unexpected display of kindness from the girl with the red book, socks and blouse at first caught the family off guard. The children shyly accepted the gifts and their mother said “thank you” with a smile. The girl with the red book, smiling as well, was back in her seat and quickly and as fluidly as she had left it; barely 30 seconds had passed.

Then, as if simply to prove this episode not an anomalous and accidental show of compassion for the tiny strangers, just minutes later she again looked up from her book and said “Bless.” The young guy, early 20s, who invoked the reaction with a thunderous sneeze was some dozen yards away, was off to her right on the opposite side of the waiting room. He was distant enough from the pleasantry that it took him a few seconds to even realize it was meant for him.

She smiled and returned to her book, pausing only to stab brief replies into the cell phone that continued its occasional demands for attention.

Her seat was right next to mine on the plane. We chatted briefly; I recapped my journey, and she spoke of her return from some unspecified activity in Dallas. She closed her eyes to rest; I made another fruitless attempt to sleep. The plane landed in Minneapolis and as she made her way down the aisle with her luggage, she briefly peeked back over her shoulder and said “It’s so late; bless whomever is picking me up tonight. And I hope you can get some good rest.”

With that she was gone, off to bless whomever was waiting for her on a rainy curb beyond baggage claim.

2,000 words or less: “Skimming the Clouds”

Though not the worst of the several contenders for the title, Tuesday easily ranks as one of the more tiresome travel days I’ve had in my life. I was about three-quarters of the way through my second of three flights for the day, a triple-header that was bookended by a four-hour drive on the front side and, eventually, a two-hour drive as a final knockout nightcap, and was making an effort to fight off that drunken oxygen depravity brought on by stale recycled plane air with the pages of William Gibson’s “Pattern Recognition.” That plan was marginally successful; I was making progress with the book, but after a time the poor air, bumpy ride and general over-exhaustion that already had set in. I looked up from Cayce Pollard’s globetrotting to refocus my vision.

The flight had been mostly through overcast skies, but as I looked up from the book I saw that we had cleared the haze and were briefly above the clouds. Above, perfectly clear blue was fading away into dusk, with a splash of orange and yellow on the horizon showing the sky’s final attempts to extend the sun’s efforts for the day. Below, snow-covered landscape, roads and squared-off plots of land, borders dimmed and hazed by the frozen cover.

The plane was beginning its approach to Chicago. For a few moments, it seemed to skim just over the tops of the clouds, as if the pilot was intentionally trying to ride their crests. Fog billowed up from below the wings, most just grazing the bottom of the engines. Some managed to spill over onto the tops of the wings, and some reached high enough to temporarily block the view from my window.

As we descended, the clouds eventually overtook the windows and damped out the sky, leaving only the winking of a white light at the tip of the wing visible in the fog.

A few dark minutes later, we were on the ground.