I was a late convert to rock music. I can remember when my parents were taking my older sister to see the movie “Help,” and I refused to go; I didn’t want to hear any of that rock and roll stuff. And in junior high, at first, at least, I was probably the only kid who didn’t listen to WLS a.m. out of Chicago, the top 40 radio station of choice for the young, with Larry Lujack and Bob Sirott and John “Records” Landecker. I preferred WGN, which had more of a talk format.
My conversion was largely facilitated by the record collection of my sister two years older than I was (the one who had gone to see “Help” for her birthday), but way ahead of me culturally. She had a record box filled with 45s. For the kids reading this, 45s had a single song on one side and another single song on the other, with a hole in the middle the size of a 50 cent piece. You would put it on something called a “turntable” and set it to 45 rpm (long playing albums rotated at 33-1/3 rpm). Then you would position a stylus to the outer edge of the record, and the sound would come out of the speaker.
Anyway, over time I became sort of fascinated by the records in that box. There were some Beatles songs and Simon and Garfunkel and even a Bobby Sherman one (he was a teen idol of the time). But probably the ones that won me over the quickest were a bunch of Jackson 5 records. “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” and others. I would listen to those records, and pretty soon I was listening to WLS, just like all the other junior high kids.
I was a teenager in the 70s. I was tall and skinny and wore an afro. And I loved to dance, and in all modesty I was pretty good at it. And you can imagine who one of my major influences was. I seem to recall that around my mission sometime Dancing Machine came out, and then of course in the 80s Michael achieved his greatest success. While in law school we lived in married student housing, which came with free cable. And as fate would have it, MTV was just getting started. At first their format was sort of album oriented rock, and so consequently you never saw black artists on the channel. But Michael changed that; who can forget Billie Jean, or Beat It, or Thriller? Sure, he increasingly descended into weirdness, but I’ve always chosen to remember the Dancing Machine Michael.
Michael is now dead. He was three days older than me.
In 1980 my wife and I married in the Provo temple and drove home to Illinois for a reception. One of my best friends got married at about the same time, and they let us stay in their trailer since they were then gone (on their honeymoon, I think). So we’re sleeping in the trailer, and late into the night the phone rings. I don’t know what time it was; I want to say maybe 1 or 2 a.m. To my surprise, it was for me. Hardly anyone even knew we were staying there. And it was a woman I knew. I had worked at the hospital before my mission sterilizing surgical instruments, and this woman was one of the head nurses at the hospital. She didn’t explain how she knew I was there, and she refused to tell me what was wrong; she just told me I needed to come to the hospital.
The trailer park was close to the hospital, and so we were there within minutes. I walked into the emergency room, and they ushered me into a little side room, and there was my mother, with several other family and friends, and I immediately knew. My father had died of a heart attack that evening. He had been out on the road with a couple of colleagues from the university when it happened.
I was so impressed by my mother that night. She was somber, but not shaken, and her first concern was for others. As people came to comfort her, she ended up comforting them. Each of my parents had rock solid faith, and I knew she had no doubt this would be but a temporary separation.
At some point we went back to the trailer, and I spent the rest of the night crying in my new wife’s arms.
The next day was my wedding reception. Someone, I don’t know who, had come up with a very thoughtful poster to place at the entrance, explaining that my father would have wanted the reception to go on. It was a very weird reception, however, with lots of attempts at feigned joy, but mostly somber awkwardness.
My father was 51 when he died. I will be that same age in about two months from now.