In 1972 my mom took me to the Orphium Theatre, on Broadway, in downtown Los Angeles. In those days the Orphium played first-run movies with Spanish subtitles, this allowed mom and me to enjoy the same movie.
On this particular outing to the Orphium, the movie was Ben; the story of a young boy, named David, who befriends Ben, a dark colored rat. Ben leads a horde of pissed off rats – pissed because the last human they trusted tried to incinerate their furry butts. Somehow Ben finds it in his rat heart to make nice with this goofy kid, the unpopular kid, the kid that gets picked on (I think he might have even been in a wheelchair). Fast forward - spoiler alert – at the end Ben gets hurt (or dies) in a fiery blazed courtesy of the fire department, police department, or maybe the National Guard. It’s been over thirty years, so some of the details of this cinematic gem get lost. Three things I’m certain about – one, Ben was a sequel to an equally ridiculous 1971 film, Willard. Two, I was about ten years old and I cried my eyes out at the end of Ben. Lastly, the title song, in Ben, was sung by Michael Jackson. Michael’s voice begins to sing the sad ballad of Ben, as David comforts the hurt/dying rat and the credits begin to roll.
Not long after seeing Ben, I convinced my mom to buy me the movie soundtrack. This was one of my first LP’s. I listened to Michael Jackson sing and relived the end of Ben probably more than I want to admit. In the years since my Ben affliction, any time I hear the name “Michael Jackson” I think back to those innocent and simpler days. I never picture Michael in the leather outfits and the sequin glove instead I see the picture of a young black man, with an afro, on the album cover to the soundtrack of a movie best forgotten. The picture on album cover exudes wholesomeness. For me it records a point in time when Michael and normal where within close proximity and today for some unexplainable reason I am comforted by this thought.
I write this not in denial of the freakish sideshow Michael Jackson’s life became. Over the next several weeks a media tsunami will wrench every aspect of this man’s life, and undoubtedly the most bizarre bits will float to the top. These “bits” may influence how those of us who grew up listening to Michael’s music reconcile his musical talent to his life. Can you like the music, but not the man who creates it? I do not know for I am not keen to judge. Nonetheless, how absurd that a song about a rat may be what softens my opinion of Michael Jackson.