Remembering when Michael Jackson really was bad

Michael Jackson celebrated his 50th birthday at Planet Hollywood in Caesars Palace on Aug. 29, 2008.
Denise Truscello

When I was in high school, I had a friend named Kenny who worked at a music store called Village Records at the North Valley Plaza mall in my hometown of Chico, Calif. This guy was great to have in the fold. Whenever new albums were released, Kenny would get the first shipment and cut into it with an X-Acto knife as if he were busting open a box of ammunition. First we’d study the album’s artwork, which was an important facet of any music-buying decision. Then he’d slip the fresh vinyl onto the store’s Technics turntable and play the record at high volume while a bunch of us hung around the store and listened, deciding whether to purchase a particular record.

This was conduct typical of a bunch of kids growing up in the Northern California suburbs in the early ’80s, and it is also how I first heard all sorts of albums for the first time. I’d not purchased any Black Sabbath or Van Halen albums, no Rush or AC/DC, until first test-driving them at Village Records.

One chilly afternoon, a couple of us rode our bikes over to Village Records to hear the new album by Michael Jackson titled “Thriller.” The first thing Kenny said was, “You’ve got to hear this song, ‘Beat It.’ Eddie Van Halen’s on it!’ ”

Whalin’ Eddie Van Halen and Michael Jackson. In the winter of 1982, there were few cooler than Van Halen and Michael Jackson. This album was played relentlessly the entire time we were in high school. The videos pulled us in to MTV. We had a party at my house for the debut of the “Thriller” video. We had a party at Kenny’s for the documentary “Making of Thriller.” And over at our friend Doug’s one night, we watched the “Motown 25” special, because we’d heard that not only would Adam Ant be appearing, but the Jacksons would reunite and Michael was going to perform the song of the moment, “Billie Jean.”

During that song, Michael Jackson moonwalked for the first time any of us had seen. Whoooooooaaah! It’s such a commonplace move now, but at that point Jackson might as well have walked on his ear. I recall it was winter, we were playing a lot of basketball, and the next day in the gym, a bunch of us took off our sneakers and taught ourselves how to moonwalk on the slick hardwood floor. I remember people who saw The Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” saying that the next day they started combing their hair forward. This was our Beatles moment. Everyone learned how to moonwalk, and by the summer, we were moonwalking to the pencil sharpener, down the halls, even on the baseball diamond. Doug actually moonwalked to the batter’s box during a game and almost got thrown out by the plate ump.

That era was the last time Michael Jackson was bad. He ceased to be that by the time the album of that name came out. By then, Kenny had long left the record store, but he remained the crew’s music expert. I asked him what he thought of “Bad” when it came out, and he said, “They should’ve called it ‘Stupid.’ ”

Jackson never made that big, Elvis-sized comeback that would have made for an entertainment story for the ages. Of course, now the notion of him performing those shows at London's O2 Arena seems totally preposterous even as he was supposed to be rehearsing elements of the production at the Staples Center this week in L.A. A regular run of shows at The Colosseum? Please. This man could barely walk into a courtroom unaided. But he could sell tickets as fast as anyone, even today, borrowing from his “Thriller” nostalgia. It’s remarkable, when you think of it. More than a quarter century has passed since he really was the King of Pop, a sweet-talking young guy who was a lights-out performer.

Maybe later I’ll buy "Thriller" on iTunes, but I’m not moonwalking. Those days are gone, sad to say. Long gone.

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