Since Michael Jackson’s unexpected and tragic death on June 25, shocked fans have been recalling their favorite Jackson songs and sharing memories online. For many, tunes like “Thriller,” “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Man In The Mirror” have a special place in their collective memories — the background music to an important chapter of our lives. Whether it was a birthday party, school dance, reunion or barbeque, everyone has a special Jackson song . . . and a special Jackson memory.
Mine? Oh, you know — I can easily recall shimmying around to “Billie Jean” at my grandmother’s house, dancing like a nut and laughing with my friend Melanie about the lyrics. At the age of seven, I was convinced Michael was singing, “But then, I am the one . . . but she is not my son.” We giggled maniacally about this, though I’m not really sure how I could have possibly misheard those lyrics. But, you know. I was seven.
No, despite the fun of that memory, I can’t claim it as my favorite MJ recollection. Because of my little sister’s excitement over it, that award has to go that little “Free Willy” ditty, “Will You Be There.”
Hey, if you’re blinking furiously in confusion right now, allow me to grab your hand and drag you back, back in time . . . all the way to summer 1993. For my eighth birthday party — and my sister’s fifth — our family went to see the iconic film chronicling Willy the Orca Whale’s journey from cruel captivity to freedom with a little help from Jesse, the troubled runaway who befriends him. Sure, the movie was cute — and had a nice little story to it. But really got the attention of everyone in the movie theatre was “Will You Be There,” the gospel-inspired tune by Michael Jackson attached to the film.
Let me give you a little background information about my sister: she’s a movie music fiend. Katie is the one still sitting in the sticky seats as all the lights come up, placidly staring at the credits rolling on screen, little tears in her eyes. She has to hear the end of the music playing and get the “whole experience” of it. In fact, when we were little and watching — gasp! — movies on VHS, we’d have to let the tape completely finish and shut itself off or risk Kate’s wrath. You never knew if a song would, like, suddenly come on at the very end of the tape.
So five-year-old Kate saw “Free Willy” and immediately fell in love with Michael Jackson’s sweeping song. My parents bought us the soundtrack cassette (oh, yes — cassettes. Remember those?) and we played it nonstop that summer, and for years beyond. When the movie was released on VHS and featured the actual music video before the film even began playing, you know we were all watching Michael in that white shirt time and time again. Kate wouldn’t have it any other way.
Sixteen years have passed. We’ve grown up; I graduated from high school, then college, and Kate is finishing up her own degree. We’ve traveled, loved and lost, moved on and become obsessed with plenty of new songs, bands, boys and goals. But as we learned of Jackson’s passing that Thursday night with the rest of the world, my sister brought me back to 1993 again — to the magic of watching that film, of hearing that song, of just being a child.
After driving around with all the windows down last Friday night and cranking up some of Jackson’s better-known hits, Katie and I rummaged through the VHS tapes stowed away in a corner of the living room until we found the one we wanted. A few tears appeared in the corners of my eyes as the first few bars of the song began to play, and my hands curled into fists. We watched the entire movie — laughing and constantly shouting out, “Hey, remember that?” It’s funny the things that have such an affect on you, the moments you’re not paying attention to until they’ve passed.
As “Will You Be There” plays again at the end of the credits, we heard something new — spoken words, ringing out clearly in Michael’s delicate timbre. I don’t remember ever hearing them. Just about to stop the tape, Katie and I glanced at each other in confusion. And then a few tears started up again.
In our darkest hour
In my deepest despair
Will you still care
Will you be there
In my trials
And my tribulations
Through our doubts
In my violence
In my turbulence
Through my fear
And my confessions
In my anguish and my pain
Through my joy and my sorrow
In the promise of another tomorrow
I’ll never let you part
For you’re always in my heart
Rest in peace, Michael. Thanks for letting us be a part of the magic.