Almost everyone has their own Michael Jackson moment. Mine came when I was lucky enough to see what was probably the most important live performance of his career, the night he caused the world to stop and gasp. It was five minutes that broadened his reach from pop star to entertainment icon at a level that nobody had seen before and which hasn’t been matched since.
On March 25, 1983, Motown threw itself a self-congratulatory showcase, a multi-act fundraiser to fight sickle cell disease. Motown was a bit down on its luck -- a lot of big names, including Jackson, Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye, had left the label. Going into the show, there was speculation about who would appear. Mostly, curiosity was riveted on Jackson -- his new album, “Thriller,” was dominating the charts for a rival label, and it wasn’t certain he’d perform and acknowledge his ties to Motown founder Berry Gordy, who launched the Jackson 5.
As often is the case when it comes to an unexpected memorable moment, this one was framed by dullness. The show was at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, a cavernous hall that is not good for concerts. I had somehow gotten a floor seat, but while I was only about 30 rows back, I was way over on the right-hand side of the stage. Because the show was being taped for TV there was a lot of stopping and starting -- the evening dragged on for four hours plus -- and it was a sedate, well-dressed industry crowd, not likely to get very excited.
About halfway through, the original Jackson 5 bounded on stage, joined, yes, by Michael. I remember being surprised at how tall he was. They sang four older songs, the other Jacksons departed and Michael gave a very Elvis-y “thank you, thank you” and said he liked their old songs, but really liked the new ones. There was a pause. An aide ran out and gave him a derby hat and he walked downstage in my direction and struck a pose in silhouette as the drums snapped the now-familiar intro to “Billie Jean.”
The place exploded. I’m pretty blase about crowd response, but this was different. It wasn’t a roar; more the sound of simultaneous shrieks from all over the auditorium, like everyone being scared at once. A couple rows in front of me, two women in my sight line were violently hugging, almost tackling each other, while riveted on the stage, as though they were unconsciously trying to hold onto the moment more than each other.
Oddly enough, 15 seconds into the performance the crowd noise had shut off. Everyone was craning to soak in the performance. I believe we were all mesmerized at this new, adult Jackson, totally in control of his artistry -- the falsetto might still be in place, but otherwise, he was an unfamiliar specter to us.
The key to the performance was his dancing. I had never conceived of Michael Jackson as an adult artist before. His lankiness underscored the razor sharp moves he was throwing off, each held for a millisecond, poses struck for the world to drink him in. That first Moonwalk triggered a resumption of the shrieks -- not surprisingly, later on in the lobby there were people trying and failing to mimic that move.
After the song was done, the moment over and Jackson gone, there was an interval before the next act. I was coming from the bathroom and some slicked up guys were going in, and I heard a conversational fragment. Jackson was like “nobody now.”
Nobody since, either.