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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Dear Michael

Dear Michael,

Your death has helped me remember so much of what I had tried so hard to forget.

From the time I became aware of you in 1974 ("Dancing Machine"), I - like so many other people in this world - identified with and felt connected to you through your music and your life.

Everyone always told me how shy I was, but I never understood what that looked like (because I cannot see me). When I saw you in "Right On!" magazine swinging in the tree, and you said you were shy, the fearful look in your eyes helped me to understand what other people saw in me.

You were my big brother, role model, and the friend I always wanted to be - but for so long was never quite brave enough to branch out and become because I feared rejection. Your strength and complete command on stage and wax have now become my strength and command in words and deeds. People thought we were both strange, but as long as you were doing your thing, I knew (as Al Sharpton said so boldly to your children in his eulogy today) that we were not strange ... that what we had to deal with was strange.

My sister got The Jacksons' album "Triumph" for Christmas in 1980. Those songs played and played on our huge console stereo on Christmas Eve as our parents argued throughout the night. The dark chords of "This Place Hotel" still resonate with me today, as does LaToya's blood-curdling scream. So what if the title did not make sense? You did not know Elvis had recorded "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1956, and neither of us cared or remembered after we were told.

I remember the mild obsession I had in the 70's with sports (especially baseball) and statistics, and how that spilled over into tracking the progress of the singles from "Off The Wall" on the Billboard Pop charts. The Elloree, SC, library did not get Billboard magazine, so I had to wait for Casey Kasem's weekly syndicated TV show "America's Top 10" to see if you could outduel Billy Joel and Paul McCartney (whose music I love now, but I hated them when your respective albums and singles competed for chart positions).

"Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and "Rock With You" went straight to #1, but "Off The Wall" and "She's Out Of My Life" peaked at #10. "Girlfriend" (which was ironically written for you by Paul McCartney) was released as a single in the UK only, but did not chart.

I loved "She's Out of My Life" so much I wanted to sing it in a school talent show. Because I was rather overweight, I was steered away from that performance to a corny lip-synching, air-guitar duet with my cousin to The Beatles' "Day Tripper". That gave me another axe to grind with Paul McCartney.

Then came "Thriller" - the game changer - during my 8th-grade year. We had no cable or MTV, so I tried to stay up until midnight to watch the debuts of "Billie Jean" and "Thriller" on NBC's "Friday Night Videos". I could not hang back then (still cannot now), and fell asleep on both debuts. I did not have a VCR yet, but I was loyal to you, so I kept tuning in until I saw them both. When the sidewalk lit under your feet in "Billie Jean", I was simply stunned.

"Motown 25" was another game changer in 1983. I do not scream, but if I could I would have. We were all trying to moonwalk back then - as a matter of fact, the dance move had been around for a few years already before you "debuted" it and made it yours.

"Bad" was released in 1987, my freshman year at Clemson. I wrote positive reviews of the album's songs for my Honors' freshman composition classes. Your songs (and my writing) were skewered by one professor (whose name and shame escape me), but were praised by Dr. Mark Charney in a way that made me a polished and confident writer. For that gift to my gift, I will never forget him or you.

"Dangerous" came along in 1991 - my senior year at Clemson. You and I were starting to grow apart by this time. I was fully focused on becoming the world's greatest engineer (a dream I have long since abandoned in favor of something more purposeful and grounded), and you seemed to be drifting in search of self. As it turned out, though, you and I were very much on the same journey.

I remembered feeling disconnected from 1995's "HIStory" because of the allegations against you, and because of the turmoil in my own life from those times. I tried to connect with the album on a Greyhound bus ride to Tallahassee, FL during that Summer, but it just was not happening.

Reading the police affidavit in 2001 regarding the new abuse allegations at that time is one of the most painful memories of my often painful life. By that time, though, I had matured in much of my gifting, and could discern spiritual causes and natural effects.

I could see how lonely you were, because when I saw your countenance, I encountered mine. God grants us the gift of insight to others only to the degree that we accept His chastening insights to us about us. I did not think that I would ever meet you, but knew that if I ever did, we would have had a lot to talk about. I would have told you about my own struggles with loneliness and the times I had fallen. I would have told you that this unresolved search for self-identity could pervert even the purest gift.

Alas, I never got to tell you anything, but I at least got to listen to and learn from my own experiences. I know I will be better for having done so, just as I know that the world will be better for having had you grace it. Be well, my friend, and rest in peace.


Love,

Derrick

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