Michael Jackson died today. I think the last time I listened to an entire song by Jackson was the day I said goodbye to my Bible College roommate. It was his tape, his stereo. He hadn't even begun to pack for home, and I was done. I shook his hand. Then we hugged.
“Sorry it was so difficult.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
The first day of Bible College, he handed me the cassette I was going to learn to loathe and said, “If you ever want to see blubber move, just slap this puppy in the deck.”
He was a very, very big boy. Managing his body odor was a constant challenge, which he never mastered in my year with him. He snored terribly. And even his “cool” music, what little there was of it, set my teeth on edge.
The blunders happened early, and they happened often. Just one example: my tape of Moving Pictures by Rush (which I valued as deeply as he did Thriller) had a five second segment in the middle of “Tom Sawyer” where my roommate could be heard talking to someone else, because he had accidentally hit “Record” instead of “Eject.”
He knew I was anything but "thrilled" about any of it. Not a week went by when I didn't lobby to get bunked with someone else. My efforts were futile. I finally managed to book a few minutes with the Dean of Students. When I plaintively explained my situation, he templed his fingers and regarded me for a moment, then said, “Did you ever think this might be the will of God?”
In one sense, it was indeed a fortuitous time. I was too young, too naïve, too pious and too insecure to take matters into my own hands. In another year or two, had someone posed the same theological quandary, I'd have smiled, stood up, and asked for my money back: God doesn't work in such mysterious ways when you start speaking the language of finance. But I was just a pup, desperate to stay in Toronto, and not quite desperate enough to escape our tiny, foul-smelling room.
Thriller was bad, but he also listened to The Haven Of Rest Quartet, who made Jackson sound like Led Zeppelin in comparison. He played flute. He sang tenor. He hung out with the cattiest girls in the school — who were, coincidentally, also the most attractive, but seemed to have nothing but an amused contempt for yours truly. He loved to laugh, and they brought it out in him. Even when he was with them, however, I never heard him say anything snarky in return.
I absorbed all this, yet never, ever figured him for gay until I read his obituary this April.
He insisted there be no funeral: he asked instead for some “celebration” of his life, which, so far as I could see, consisted of singing beautifully, performing in various choirs and orchestras, playing beach volleyball (believe it) and canoeing. And being nice to absolutely everyone.
When did he come out? What was the process that took him from the guy who stenciled Bible verses on enormous sheets of poster-board, to the guy who finally joined the gay men's volleyball team? The on-line eulogies don't say. “He was never mean.” “He sang like an angel.” “He never said a bad word about anybody.” His inner-life remained, like his beloved performer's, incredibly private.
I don't know what he saw in Michael Jackson, or heard in his music. But this is my old roommate's Pride Weekend, and I have resolved not to kvetch when "Billy Jean" is played, yet again. Because nothing got blubber moving like that song.