Midnight Album Spotlight: Michael Jackson – Off The Wall

I’m writing about this album because I had a DJ nightmare. No matter what job I’ve had in the past, there are always these corresponding dreams: a waitress who can’t find the ketchup, a student who didn’t know the test was today, a singer who doesn’t know the words to a song. But DJ Nightmares are my current nemesis. They happen about once every 6 months. Recurring themes are: the music is in another building and I am supposed to go on the air in 5 minutes, or there is no music except the song playing and I have to go on the mic now but there is NO MUSIC. The worst DJ nightmare is that KEXP has changed into a commercial station complete with full scripts, volume-maxed commercials (with insanely catchy jingles) and a playlist dictated by some suit from New Jersey.

Anyway, in this particular DJ nightmare I was spinning at a party but couldn’t find any of my records or CDs. I was just making do with some garage-sale albums that someone else had left behind. After hours of this, a guy comes into the party with a copy of Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall. He puts it on and everybody starts dancing and is like “Hey, THIS guy’s a GREAT DJ!” Upon waking from this nightmare, I went to my favorite indie record store immediately to buy the record.

San Francisco, 1980. I was 12 years old and spending the summer with my dad. We were at a party in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. This was a pretty wild party hosted by my dad’s friends Jim and Janet. The couple themselves were pretty wild, but the adult quotient was increased when a gang of bikers (all clad in leather and spikes) and a gaggle of men in drag (decked out in heels, wigs and tiny skirts) showed up and started drinking.

It was so cool how the two groups interacted. The drag queens (who I must say looked fantastic) sat on the biker’s laps, flirting and joking. The bikers tried on wigs and admired outfits. The “girls” drank the bikers under the table.

I was fascinated especially by these men dressed as women! In Pennsylvania (where I lived most of the year), I felt like women were treated like second class citizens by some of the men, but here were men who thought women were so great that they wanted to BE them. I still love any kind of gender-bender persona. I think it takes a lot of bravery to express yourself and be different.

None of this fazed me. I was used to my dad’s friends. What freaked me out was that the hostess, Janet, was making crawdads. She and her friend were messing around with two of the live crabs (they are crabs, right?) and having a race. I thought the race in the sun was pretty cruel from the crustacean’s point of view. That was bad enough. But then Janet suddenly picked up her crawdad and bit off its tail and swallowed it. IT WAS STILL ALIVE!!!

I was terribly upset by this. It wasn’t until 1990 that I would become a vegetarian. And I still don’t have a problem with people eating meat if they want to. What I had (and have) a problem with is unnecessary cruelty to living things. Besides, it was NASTY. Yuck.

Anyhow, so I hid in the house and poked around in Jim’s records. He had a pretty impressive collection. I was not going back out to the crawdad killers. And this geeky older guy came into the room and said “You gotta check this out”. He slid the vinyl for Michael Jackson’s Off The Wallout of the cover. I had loved Michael as the lead in the Jackson 5 (he was magical). But his solo stuff had never got to me. Here’s Michael as a kid. If there is ever proof that some people are just “born with it” — it’s here:

Off The Wall is still the only solo album of Michael Jackson’s that I like. Maybe because it has the feel of the early Motown Jackson 5 stuff. It also was done before Michael started morphing his face (through plastic surgery) into Diana Ross.

Both the music and the person were more raw and real than his later albums. He will always be an incredible person, in my humble opinion, but my hope is that someday he will return to the unmistakable joy he showed as a kid and on this album. Good luck, Michael.

Michele Myers hosts Nite Life Fridays at 9pm on KEXP. She does this Midnight Album Spotlight every Friday night at the witching hour. The rest of her time at KEXP she makes KEXP Documentaries — short radio features on KEXP-type musical subjects. Recent series include: Punk Evolution, Masters of Turntablism, The Heart of Soul, and Music Revolutionaries.

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