the jukebox project #1: The Jackson Five – “I Want You Back”
I wish I could remember the exact moment, pinpoint the moment between not knowing about rock and roll and suddenly being consumed by it. I remember living in Baltimore at age 4 and playing with my brother’s fire truck in the living room, and then my next memory is living in Michigan, headed for the beach, and having my little black sand-encrusted GE AM radio permanently attached to my wrist.
But I also remember one Saturday afternoon, glued to American Bandstand, the five of them, dressed in rhinestones and satin and velvet, stacked up in order of height, so adorable —
The Jackson Five.
The way I remember it is probably not the way it happened, or is a mélange of different viewings and my imagination. In my mind, the music starts, that hand running down the keyboard, their backs are to the audience, and then one by one, their arms come up in the air as they spin around and begin to dance. All the while, that innocent, infectious riff plays behind it, the riff that says SMILE!, the riff that says, DANCE!
Which is what it made me want to do, for the first time, in a grown-up way, not in a “You’re so cute, put on a show” way. I craved rhythm and longed for the first time for my skinny gangly limbs to cooperate. I wanted to be cool. This was my portal to being a teenager, like my next-door neighbor Ann, who was 15 or 16 and babysat us, who had a boyfriend with a sparkly orange sherbet-colored Camaro, and had gorgeously long and perfectly straight hair just like Cher (while my mother insisted on chopping mine off somewhere right below my ears). Saturday afternoon, when she came home from shopping, she would open her bedroom window to serenade the neighborhood (such as it was) with Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” at an ear-splitting volume. I wanted to be her so badly it hurt.
Forget the Osmonds, the DeFranco Family, Bobby Sherman and the other teen heartthrobs. Forget, even, my first true love, David Cassidy. This was what I wanted all along. My best friend, Linda Fisher and I would practice the Jacksons’ dance steps in the playground at Hollywood Elementary School. We would hide in the little alcove behind the fifth grade classrooms and practice every recess. She could dance and I could not, mostly because she had a brother in high school who kindly would show her the moves. She didn’t care so much about the Jacksons — she was listening to her brother’s singer-songwriter records, which did nothing for me — but she loved to dance. After school, I would practice by myself in my bedroom until the floor bounced and the record skipped and scratched (a lesson learned) and I had to balance a penny on the turntable arm (I was SEVEN, give me a break). My mother would yell at me to take it outside and so I would perform in the backyard for my brother and sister, a captive audience.
I split my radio listening between WLS, across the lake in Chicago, and at night, Detroit radio. The former was still bubblegum pop, and the latter is where I heard the Jacksons and Curtis Mayfield and Al Green and Marvin Gaye. I dutifully wrote down the names of the songs I liked, and then rode my bike to the library to look for the record albums, or would patiently wait until my mother went to the grocery store. Next door was some kind of general merchandise store and they sold 45’s out of their tiny music department for 44 cents. I would dutifully pick up the top 100 list each week, take out my pink spiral notepad and ask for the names of the songs I had heard, written down in purple ink. Don’t worry, I was not that cool. I was still buying Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods and the Sweet (“Little Willy” got banned from my house by my father after a Saturday I played it 10 times in a row) along with “Freddie’s Dead” and “What’s Going On”.
My parents had skipped me a grade, and that always made me slightly on the edge, not the outcast but kids not sure where or how I fit in. But I knew about the Jackson Five and even about bands I didn’t like or care about. My mother, beginning a tradition that continues to this very day, had seen a magazine in the grocery store with the Jackson Five on the cover and bought it for me, and began bringing home copies of Tiger Beat or 16 or the other teen photo glossies. So I knew the names of the brothers and the titles of the songs, I could tell you their favorite colors and what they liked in a girl and their favorite snack food. At lunchtime, I would sit in the cafeteria and recite this information matter-of-factly, by request, while munching on a carrot stick. I didn’t become the cool kid overnight, but I discovered that my possession of this information made my classmates grant me a respectful distance, since I clearly had found a bridge into a world that was still beyond them. It was that first drive to go beyond, to want more than just what I heard on the radio.
And slowly, I could almost pull off the moves, not as well as Linda could, but well enough to perform them together with her in the middle of the playground next to the monkey bars. We weren’t putting on a show so much as we were just confident enough to move our practice area out into the public eye.
It was the first moment when I became “That Girl Who Likes [insert name of band here].” It was the first time I was obsessed with something that no one else around me understood, that I could barely find words to describe. It was the first time I felt that something was mine and mine alone.
My favorite part, still, is at the very very end as it’s fading out, when Michael abandons his sweet falsetto and just SCREAMS: “OH! OH! OH! I want YOU back!” Over and over again, I would move the turntable arm just to hear those last 30 seconds, the 30 seconds of sheer ebullient excitement that captured everything I felt about the song.
Almost 20 years later, I was driving from Seattle to New Jersey and back again, and on the way back west, I route myself up from Indiana into Michigan, and try to drive the roads back to our old house from memory. I parked out front and talked to my father via cell phone about how big the trees were and how small the house seemed. The sidetrack was more out of curiosity and because the place was so out of the way, there would be no reason to be near there accidentally. But the emotions hit me, hard, not because it was my birthplace or because I had lived there all that long (our sojourn in Michigan was only five years), but because (and I am stealing this from something I wrote about that trip) that was the place where the girl I would become was born.
The girl in the backyard, learning to dance to the Jackson Five.
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