[Editor’s note: Liner Notes chronicles how Chelsea Schlievert Yates discovered music through the ’80s and ’90s while growing up in Norfolk, Neb. We hope to post a new installment every other week. Read more here.]
by Chelsea Schlievert Yates
By the time Michael Jackson was 6 years old, he was performing with his brothers in the band that would come to be known as the Jackson Five. When I was 6, I, too, was onto something big: starting the first grade.
First grade was pretty serious business. Gone were the half-days of morning kindergarten; I was now in the classroom from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. I was finally old enough to walk to school with the neighbor kids, and I ate school lunch. Recess was a playground experience now shared with the older, more worldly second- and third-graders, and I was eligible to join the Girl Scout Brownies who met once a month after school. (Brownies were just the entry level of the Girl Scouts, but I didn’t care: I was a Girl Scout nonetheless, and that was a big deal.) First grade also introduced me to a variety of subjects — math, reading, spelling, handwriting, science and social studies — subjects with which I would spend a great deal of time over the next 15 years in some way or another, whether I liked it or not.
I was completely fascinated with Michael Jackson in the first grade. After all, it was 1984. Michael had moonwalked into my heart just as he had done to millions of other fans across the globe. I honestly cannot imagine what Michael’s life must have been like — from child star to the King of Pop to his early death at age 50 — but I bet 1984 was something else. Thriller had been the best-selling album of 1983 (it would go on to become the best-selling album of all time), and Michael had cleaned up at the music awards shows, receiving a whopping eight Grammys and eight American Music Awards. It was also the year of Michael’s ill-fated Pepsi commercial, in which he suffered second-degree burns to his scalp when his hair caught fire during a filming accident, and — on a more positive note — his trip to the White House, where he received recognition for his charitable work from the president.
Even in Norfolk, Nebraska, Michael was all over the place: on T-shirts at Rags to Riches, the shop my parents owned at the mall; on the record player at home; and at my Girl Scout Brownies Christmas gift exchange (while I unwrapped a boring Strawberry Shortcake hairbrush set, some lucky girl went home with a fake sequin glove and matching socks, just like Michael’s). He was even in the Barbie house that my sister Cammie and I shared. My parents had come across a Michael Jackson Barbie-sized doll and gave it to my sister for her birthday. It sported a sparkly red coat, socks and glove just like those Michael had worn to the American Music Awards show, and its right hand had been deliberately formed to grip the plastic microphone that came with the doll.
Cammie and I loved the Thriller album; she had a Michael Jackson toy microphone that Dad hooked up to our home stereo so she could sing along with the record. I liked to listen. Side two was my preference; in all honesty, I was frightened of Vincent Price’s voice and maniacal cackle in “Thriller” and would usually need to leave the room when it came close to his guest solo. I also had a hard time with the video; Michael’s werewolf eyes freaked me out, as did some of the dancing zombies. For a few weeks after seeing it for the first time, I wouldn’t dare enter our basement alone, out of fear that a ghoul would lurk out of the storage room and get me. It wasn’t until I watched the Making of Thriller documentary in which many of the costume and make-up secrets were revealed that I was finally able to lighten up a little.
Like Michael, I had some time on stage in 1984 as well. I debuted with a short one-line speaking part in the school’s Christmas pageant and followed it that spring with what I thought was an illustrious performance as Mother Hen in our first grade’s Easter play. Also like Michael, I was the victim of a physically hindering accident that year: falling off the school’s playground equipment. I broke my upper left arm and was required to wear it in a sling for a good part of the winter. A left-hander, I was forced to write with my right hand, something that didn’t feel natural or look like it on paper. I wished I had a sparkly sequined glove to wear — something to distract from the awful handwriting I was producing and my useless arm cradled in a sling across my chest.
But beyond all of this, first grade marked something else significant for me. It is the first place I remember making friends beyond my neighborhood. Up until the first grade, my social circle consisted primarily of neighbor kids and relatives. But through school, I began to form friendships with the kids I played with on the playground, sat next to in the reading circle, and swapped lunch items with in the cafeteria.
Kelli was one of those kids. I can’t remember how or why, exactly, we started being friends. But I do remember she was a lot of fun. She smiled, giggled and talked a lot (in fact, I think I got in more trouble repeatedly for talking with Kelli in the first grade than I did for anything else over the rest of my time in school). We owned matching neon-green sweatshirts (mine said “Go-Go” across the front; hers said “Crazy”) and would get excited on days that we both happened to wear them. Whenever an activity required us to work in partners, Kelli and I generally paired up. And she, too, loved Michael Jackson. She was probably the first “best friend” I ever had — a phrase introduced to me in, you guessed it, the first grade.
Like me, Kelli spent a lot of time after school at the mall; her family also ran a business there. Theirs was a video game arcade, and though I wasn’t allowed to spend quarters on the games (a waste of money, according to my mom), Kelli and I would spend a lot of time pretend-playing the machines — sitting in the driver’s seat of Pole Position, fake-shooting enemy aliens in Galaga, pretend-chomping on Pac-Man pellets and those irritating little ghosts. The arcade was loud and dark and often full of teenage boys; secretly, it scared me like the “Thriller” video did, and I would only go inside if I was with Kelli. Once we tired of pretend-playing, we’d walk down the mall to the Hallmark shop and ogle the stickers, stationery and Hello Kitty pencils and erasers. Sometimes we’d try to convince one of our parents (whichever one seemed the most willing to give in — usually my dad) to treat us to Dairy Queen ice cream cones, promising that they wouldn’t spoil our appetites for dinner. We would wait in anticipation, staring up at the gum-covered underside of the Dairy Queen counter, as my dad handed down chocolate-dipped cones to each of us.
Occasionally, after school, I’d get to go over to Kelli’s house instead of the mall. Those days were the best. Kelli had older siblings who were involved in after-school activities, so for about an hour or so, we had the house to ourselves. We could play whatever we wanted, wherever we wanted. If we wanted to inspect her older sisters’ rooms, we could; if we wanted to claim dibs on the rec room in the basement before her brother arrived, it was ours for the taking.
That was my favorite. Kelli’s dad had installed a jukebox in their basement — it was the real deal, full of neon lighting and all sorts of early 1980s pop music, just like the one at the local Pizza Hut (a place I would come to know well in elementary school, thanks to the BOOK IT! reading program). But most importantly, it contained all the songs from Off the Wall and Thriller. It even had “Say, Say, Say,” the track that Michael recorded with Paul McCartney. Kelli and I loved their duets and would often sing along, alternating between the Michael and Paul parts.
In addition to the jukebox, Kelli’s parents owned another item deemed luxurious by my first grade standards: a waterbed. As long as we didn’t jump on it or do anything to puncture it, we were allowed to sit on it and watch TV. Thanks to our imaginations, it became a boat. Not just any boat, however; Michael Jackson’s private yacht, and we would take turns pretending we were Brooke Shields, Michael’s love interest at the time. If whichever one of us was Brooke happened to fall off the bed and into the imaginary shark-infested carpet water below, we imagined Michael would dive in and save us.
Kelli’s sisters had some neat Michael Jackson posters on their bedroom doors, and I begged my dad for one — just one! — like them. He came home one day with two posters for my sister and me to hang in the bedroom that we shared. In one of them Michael wore a pale yellow sweater vest and matching bowtie, with white pants and white shirt. In the other, he sported a leather jacket with its collar popped and a guitar-shaped belt buckle. These two posters were the first of many that would adorn my bedroom walls over the years. At some point, Michael was replaced with posters of the New Kids on the Block. They eventually lost their spot to my pre-teen crush Christian Slater, who was deposed for classier, cooler, vintage-inspired posters of James Dean and the Beatles. They were traded in when I decided to devote myself fully to Pearl Jam, U2, and later, the Beastie Boys and Social Distortion.
Just as my poster collection, which had started with Michael, moved on, so, too, did Kelli’s family. Sometime between first and second grade, Kelli relocated to a different neighborhood and started attending a new school. This meant that, except for an occasional run-in at the mall, we rarely saw each other. And, as is often the case with grade school friendships disrupted by cross-town moves, we lost touch.
I ended up making friends with Niki, a girl whose family had bought Kelli’s old house. As we got older, Niki’s parents let her have slumber parties in the downstairs rec room. A big television set assumed the place of the jukebox, the one that had held court over the basement with its collection of Michael Jackson songs. But by that time, I’d begun to grow apart from Michael. Bubbles the chimp weirded me out a bit, I thought Captain EO was dumb, and Bad, though pretty cool, was just no Thriller.
With sleeping bags strewn about Niki’s basement, we devoured pepperoni pizzas and popcorn and watched movies like The Princess Bride and Three Men and a Baby. While the other girls would obsess over Wesley and Buttercup’s true love and the antics of Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg and Ted Danson as they attempted to adjust to life with their new infant roommate, I’d sometimes find myself thinking about Michael and the jukebox instead, wondering if somewhere, perhaps in another basement rec room across town, my old friend was still singing along to “The Girl is Mine.”
Chelsea Schlievert Yates is a Hear Nebraska contributor. She grew up in northeast Nebraska and now lives in Seattle, Washington. Reach her at email@example.com.