According to RPM magazine, in 1983, when my family first stepped foot on Canadian soil, the best performing singles topping radio charts included four songs by Michael Jackson: “Billie Jean”, “Beat It”, “Wanna be Startin’ Somethin’,” and “Say Say Say,” which he performed with Beatles legend, Paul McCartney.
I was eight months old that year, but MJ’s melodies very likely soothed me to sleep on long drives or during crib time while mom busied herself with household chores. It’s no surprise then that I was totally obsessed with the King of Pop during my childhood and well into adolescence. My parent’s certainly didn’t discourage this when they bought me a VHS of “Michael Jackson Moonwalker”, which they let me watch ad nauseam.
MJ’s music videos forced my childhood mind to explore many uncharted areas within myself. “The Way You Make Me Feel” tantalized my latent sexuality. “Beat It” and “Bad” provoked feelings of resistance and disobedience. “Man in the Mirror” inspired self-reflection and benevolence. Every video was a sermon imprinting images and ideas onto my fledgling soul that likely still influence me today.
“Thriller” was probably my first encounter with grotesque horror. Memories of this video are seared into my brain like a childhood trauma. We would be visiting my cousins in Sackville, Nova Scotia. They were all well into their teens. As often was the case, MuchMusic television – which happens to be just a year younger than me – would be playing from the wood-encased cathode-ray tube display in the living room.
Since the year of my birth (1983) and well into the early 90s, “Thriller” was a cornerstone of music television. That infamous creek of a haunted door slowly opening the album version of the song and the footsteps that followed compel listeners to attention. Back in those days, the opening door-creak of “Thriller” forced you to put down your action figures and to turn up the volume. Even if you hadn’t memorized “the zombie dance”, you were bound to get down.
The music video was a full cinematic experience that ran 13 minutes and 38 seconds – the first of its kind. It began with a disclaimer foreshadowing the offence that was to follow:
Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.Michael Jackson
If that wasn’t enough to deter the kids, Michael’s terrifying transformation into the school-jock cat-eyed werewolf should have definitely sent them running. My response was something in between. I loved Michael Jackson and I knew that he would never hurt me. I could also tell from watching my cousins that I was in no real danger (though my body’s fight/flight response suggested otherwise). So I’d hide behind the couch, peaking between my fingers like an ashamed voyeur. At first, I spent most of my time in the dark, but over time I learned to distinguish between entertainment and reality until, one day, I could finally enjoy all 13:38 minutes unperturbed.
I still couldn’t watch Freddy Krueger though. Unlike Michael Jackson, who I trusted, the Springwood Slasher was still a potential threat to my life.
I think it’s safe to say that Michael Jackson’s influence on developing minds was ubiquitous during that period. However, I also had other musical influences during my childhood that were not as common, at least not in my part of the world.
Of course, I was (and still am) a huge fan of Raffi. It was impossible to escape the reach of this children’s music troubadour. His sing-along songs are as canonical as Church hymns in English-speaking pre-schools far and wide. Yet, while most children in my region had to listen to Raffi’s “Baby Beluga” album on repeat, I had the option of switching to Red Grammar.
Red Grammar was essentially Raffi for kids who grew up in Baha’i households. You might not be familiar with Red, but you’re certainly familiar with his son, Andy Grammar. Of course, Andy has taken the family friendly, feel good, sing-along genre to the international mainstream, but his father’s music was mostly known to a small faith community that I was lucky to be a part of.
Hits like “I Think You’re Wonderful” and “Listen” were iconic to me, and still trigger a flood of nostalgia. Those of us who were fortunate enough to grow up with Red Grammar regard him as family – a fact affirmed every time we hear his son on the radio and say, “Hey, Andy’s playing!”
Another obscure (at least, for 80s Bedford, Nova Scotia) musical influence during my childhood was the ancestral genre of Persian classical folk. It was a short-lived magic that would occasionally waken the spirit of our peoples during late evening gatherings where piping hot teas filled hourglass shaped estekans; ripe fruit, salted nuts and seeds, lime roasted almonds, and delicate sweets were heaped immoderately on a centre table; and women and men lounged casually around an aged but rich Tabrizi carpet decorated with flora, paisley’s, and traditional patterns.
And they would sing. Their voices rang together as they chanted verses penned by the great Persian poets of the distant past or songs of rebellion forged in the hellfire furnace of recent history. Songs like “Nava’i” – penned by 18th century poet Tabib Isfahani and purportedly put to music by Nazar-Mohammad Soleymani in the 1900s – would beckon the heart to return home, while “Gol-e Sangam”, written by Bijan Samandar and composed by Anoushiravan Rohani recounts unrequited love. One of my personal favourites, “Gol-e Yakh” by the 70s psychedelic singer-songwriter, Kourosh Yaghmaei, just devastates the heart.
What should I sing?
My youth is gone and so is my voice,
Ice flower has sprouted in my heart.Kourosh Yaghmaei
I never quite learned these songs nor appreciated them until recently, but I do recall feeling a deep calm in the presence of family and friends during those late evenings. I didn’t understand the words and meanings, but I could tell from observing my elders that these were sacred melodies that demanded reverence and respect. A bridge for our hearts to journey back to a home that left us.
If nothing else, hearing my mother and father intone these songs is like opening a window into paradise, though it’s been many years since I last heard them sing.