Kerri was the prettiest girl in the third grade. She had curly blonde hair and said she’d seen ‘Dirty Dancing’ 37 times. At church we were told to pray for “our famiy and loved ones”. After working my way through my relatives I thought of Kerri.
It was annoying to have to leave her 8th birthday party early. My grandparents were staying and we were going away for the weekend. As mum hurried me out Kerri pointed at a basket full of cassettes by the door.
“Party bags are lame”, she explained. “You’re lucky, you get first pick; choose a tape”. I was suddenly aware that Kerri was much cooler than me. I had no idea which one to choose. My only tape was about Ernie and Bert, their rubber ducky and a bath with a ring round it called Rosie. I hadn’t really trusted the car’s stereo since finding out that there weren’t small people living in the cassette machine waiting to sing every time I pressed play.
I looked blankly at the collection of tapes and was drawn to the one with a picture of a man with strange eyes staring straight at me. I had no idea who he was but Kerri said, “Good choice, I like him too”. I smiled and floated to the car where I demanded that we listened to my new tape immediately: ‘Man in the Mirror’ by Michael Jackson, the coolest man in the world.
Ernie and Bert’s days in the tape deck were numbered. Granny Biz, a musical Scottish lady in her late 60s pronounced it “very good". My little sister aged 5 said he was her favourite pop star. I got ‘Bad’, which had just come out, watched his videos and tried and failed to sing and dance like him.
Twenty years later and I’m working the late shift in a wine bar at Glastonbury. It’s Thursday night, the bands don’t start till Friday and business is brisk. I’m serving Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon - and they say music festivals have become middle class - playing music to get people dancing, trying to stay awake. I’m depressed that I can no longer party as hard as I used to.
“Have you heard Michael Jackson’s dead?”
This is my 6th Glastonbury. Every year outlandish rumours spread like swine flu, incubated and spread by the Chinese whispers of 180,000 people off their heads with no access to the internet and poor mobile phone coverage. But something about the question's tone is convincing: a mixture of worry, sadness and realisation that what was surprising was not that he’d died but that dying was something we’d not thought about happening to him before, unlike other more druggy stars.
“Someone’s just told me and I don’t know whether to believe them”.
There are a couple of people waiting, about 10 dancing to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and as Freddie Mercury’s voice fades I cut to “Billie Jean”. The dancers roar and 10 soon becomes 20, then 30. As the song ends I put on “Don’t Stop (till you get enough)”.
A girl comes up to the bar and asks, “Are you playing Michael Jackson songs because he’s dead?” I shrug. “Play some more. Have you got ‘Smooth Criminal’?”
For the next hour I rotate my i-pod’s limited selection of Michael Jackson and Jackson 5 songs. The crowd swells to 60-70 people. More people ask if he’s dead. As a provider of both alcohol and loud music I’m the closest this part of Glastonbury’s got to an oracle. A couple of people show me text messages received from “outside”, confirming news that feels weird, like the death of a close friend who no one knew and meant something different to each person who wanted to but didn’t know him. There are people crying. Someone shouts, “Jacko Lives!” A cabaret band starts up on the corner playing “He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s really, really dead” to the tune of ‘Bad’.
No one except Michael Jackson could get black, white and Asian people aged between 15 and 50 singing and dancing with this much enthusiasm. As the crowd get drunker people start coming up and telling me about why they love Michael Jackson. Different age groups talk about different stages of his career. The child abuse stuff is joked about or ignored; perhaps it’s inappropriate on the night he’s died or maybe because it’s awkward to love someone who is such a freak and has a consistently young fan base. Of all those dancing it’s the teenagers who are the most enthusiastic. None of them were born the last time he wrote a good song, few were able to walk when he last toured and in their lifetimes he’s only been in the news for being a suspected paedophile. So why do they like him? It’s the music. The rhythms are accessible. His incredible energy speaks to children and young people, as well as to those of other cultures, because he’s entirely sincere in what he sings and how he performed. His music makes people feel good about themselves. At least it did to this young fan who never got invited round for sleepovers. Celebrating his genius isn’t condoning his lifestyle. Both are facets of the same character.
As the dance area becomes increasingly slippery in the mud 2 boys start moonwalking. This turns into a dance off with the crowd in a circle clapping in time with the music as the guys take it in turns to impress with their moves, some copied from Michael’s videos, some not.
Over the next 4 hours the crowd stays about the same size as people walk past, dance for a bit and then move on. Those who stay become increasingly frustrated with the my i-pod, “HOW CAN YOU NOT HAVE THRILLER?!” a girl screams at me as I put on Billie Jean for the 20th time.
“I didn’t realise he was going to die”, I reply.
She returns with an i-phone. “This belongs to that guy over there, he’s got HIStory. Play Thriller NOW”. With the i-phone the crowd now has the full greatest hits to dance to. Top requests are: Billie Jean, Beat It, Thriller, Don’t Stop (till you get enough), Bad, Smooth Criminal, Want to Be Startin' Something and Man in the Mirror.
At first playing the same songs repeatedly gets me down. I feel old, tired, annoyed (my camera’s been nicked from behind the bar while I was DJing) and depressed by MJ’s grotesque physical mutation and messed up life. Was it the media's fault? His dad's? His fans'? Was it inevitable that someone so good so young ends up a screwball? Why?
After a while I get into a rhythm of mixing his songs together, which ones lead naturally into others, dropping the volume for choruses to get the crowd to sing along. Earth Song and Black or White are hugely popular despite being astoundingly cheesy. The enthusiasm of the crowd for the music is infectious. The skill in the crafting of his songs becomes more obvious the more I play them: major key changes for choruses create a sense of euphoria, the catchy hooks combine brilliantly with the irrepressible joy of the vocals.
The bar’s coated in a slippery film of spilt wine and I spin, howl and grab my crotch while singing my heart out. I’m 8 years old again and it’s great. I still can’t moonwalk but I can slide backwards a bit. It’s closing time and the crowd demand more Michael. I tell them we’ve got to close but they can have one last song.
“Gonna Make a Change for once in my life
It’s gonna feel real good, gonna make a difference, gonna make it right.
I’m talking to the Man in the Mirror.
I’m asking him to change his ways.
And no message could have been any clearer:
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and make a change”.
On paper his lyrics look mawkish but they're not after a few bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon with 50 people singing arm in arm in a circle at Glastonbury. We shut up the bar and tell everyone to go home. I remember the giant inflatable wine bottle on the roof. I put on ‘You are not alone’, climb the ladder and look across Glastonbury – Europe’s biggest festival in the middle of the most beautiful countryside in England. In the distance is the medieval Tor, around me is a temporary town sprawled over green fields, which except for these 4 days is home to 47 cows.
Below me the crowd is still there, singing along to Michael Jackson as they walk back to their tents in the dawn’s drizzle. I slowly let the air out of the giant wine bottle and wonder what Kerri is doing. Rest in Peace Michael.