On the corner of Ashland and School streets, there are two 12-year-old kids adding a few touches to the huge Michael Jackson posters advertising his new LP, Bad, which hits the stores today, August 29.
The posters, in stark black and white with just a dash of red, are about five feet tall and plastered onto the walls of the Wieboldt's store. Pictured is the scion of the musical Jackson family, without his famous white glove, bedecked instead in head-to-toe black leather, zippers and buckles everywhere. His hair is wet, curly, and shiny, a couple of strands descending perfectly down his forehead. Almost completely erased from his face are any traces of his gender or racial heritage.
Pete, lithe and black, with his hair squared like Grace Jones's, takes a black magic marker and draws an erect penis on Jackson's image. His friend Mikey, a stringy Puerto Rican, giggles. Their box, a silver radio about half the size of Pete, is relatively quiet. From it comes a barely thumping bass.
"You think he's gay?" asks Pete, bursting with laughter.
Mikey can barely answer; he's holding his sides. "I used to think he was just, you know, weird," he finally says, all grins. "'Cause, you know, he was a born-again Christian or something like that."
"That's pretty weird!" cracks Pete in mock shock.
"You know what I mean, man," Mikey says. "He had a giraffe as a pet or something."
"No, man, don't you read 'Inquiring minds want to know'? He had a cow--Elizabeth Taylor!" With this bit of wit, Pete and Mikey double over from laughter.
Across Ashland, at the Rose Records store, assistant manager Roland Jackson, 29, keeps checking the clock. Bad, the much awaited follow-up to Jackson's record-breaking Thriller LP, was due in the store before 10 AM, and here it is, almost an hour later and there are no Bads on the racks.
The album is expected to be so big that Rose Records, which would ordinarily close early today for its semiannual inventory, rearranged its schedule. Roland Jackson and the store crew did the inventory the day before, and right now he's feeling the effects of staying up nearly all night. "No way would we be closed today," he says, stifling a yawn. "No way.
"Have you heard it?" he asks about Bad. "It's contemporary, but safe. There's nothing risky on it at all. It'll be big, though, count on it. But like Thriller, it'll be slow in taking off."
In fact, looking around the store, there's no activity that would indicate Michael Jackson's Bad will be big at all. Except for a black man in his early 30s who looks as though he has just enough money for the LP, no one's asked for the record.
But Roland Jackson isn't worried. A big rush for a record, unlike concert tickets, is quite unusual. The last time Rose Records had a line of customers waiting on an LP was for the Grateful Dead, and before that U2. And lines aren't always what they seem: according to Roland Jackson, Bruce Springsteen's boxed set was a big hit last Christmas, but sales went to hell immediately after the holidays.
"Trust me," he says. "Thriller was a stiff. It was slow until the singles and videos caused it to move. It took almost a year to skyrocket, but once it did, it hit big. Same thing could happen with Bad. Michael has a U.S. tour scheduled for February; that'll really help."
Roland Jackson thinks it's pretty hard to imagine that Bad won't be a hit. "Michael's got a great ear for commercial dance music," he says. "The whole family's pretty talented--Marlon just came out with a good R & B record; god knows Janet's a mega-star now; Reebie, who came out of nowhere--she's the older sister nobody even knew existed--she just had a hit with 'Centipede'; Jermaine, well, he's always at it. About the only one that can't seem to pull it off is La Toya. I think the Jacksons as a group, that's over. All of them except Tito will probably do solo projects or work with others."
At about 11:30 AM, Bad rolls in to Rose Records: about 150 LPs, 150 cassettes, and 50 CDs. Roland Jackson figures he'll reorder in the morning. No promotional materials to speak of accompany Bad and Roland Jackson thinks he's lucky to have a life-size in-store figure of Michael. "The rest of the stuff I have is old," he says. "You know, the old look, the glove. Nobody wants to deal with that anymore."
Bad immediately goes up on the wall under "new releases," next to the unlikely combination of Madonna, Def Leppard, Loverboy, Paul Simon, and Simple Minds. The first customer is the same man who asked earlier for the LP. He pulls the cash out from his dirt-smeared white pants and rushes out of the store, the record under his arm.
Lawyer Steven Schwab, 45, also buys Bad. "I got it for myself, but mostly because I have a kid who likes Michael Jackson," he explains. "I mean, my 11-year-old daughter, Sarah, will love it. I liked Thriller and I've heard a few cuts from Bad. I think it'll be hard to beat Thriller but I still think this will be a very big record."
There's no rush for Bad, even while it blasts through the store speakers, but sales are steady for the first hour or so. About one out of every two people is buying the album.
Among them is Chris Modine, a 35-year-old musician. "I'm doing research," he says with a straight face. "I'm working on recordings of my own and I've been in contact with Bernie Swedien, the engineer on Bad, see, and that's why I had to buy the thing. Normally, I wouldn't rush out and buy Michael Jackson. I didn't buy Thriller. But I have to listen to the lyrics here. I'm very interested in the lyrical content, check out what's unusual about the songs."
Strangely enough, most of the people buying Bad this first hour are adults. The kids are buying R.E.M., the Beatles, and Poison and the like. But while the adults are coming in and making a beeline for the Michael Jackson rack, most are reluctant to admit their fandom.
"I was going to buy the record anyway," explains Greg Addy, 39, a supervisor for Visa, as he pays cash for Bad. Addy has been in the store less than five minutes. "It just so happens I heard it while I was looking around in here and I liked it. I didn't realize this was the first day it was out. It's no big deal, really."
It certainly isn't for Amy LeBlanc, a 12-year-old accompanied by her mother, Donna, who isn't buying Bad. "I don't know," she says, clutching a Rose Records bag containing recordings by the Beatles and Ministry. "He just doesn't sound real anymore."
"Oh, she was absolutely wild about him!" Donna says.
"I was?" Amy asks, with the kind of embarrassed, condescending look only a child can give a parent.
"Don't you remember how upset you were when he burned his hair?"
"I was?" Amy asks again, scrunching up her face.
"Well, you have Thriller," Donna says.
"Yeah but, I mean, it was good. He was kind of a fad at school." Amy is the paragon of her peers' contemporary dress: Her hair is fashionably uneven. She sports an oversize facetious letter sweater, red high-top sneakers with rolled-up pants, a Swatch, and bead wristbands a-go-go. All these accessories serve to make her look like an androgynous wisp, which makes her next comments particularly ironic.
"He doesn't look like he used to," she says of Michael Jackson. "He's wearing so much junk on his face, he looks more like a girl than his sister."
Some people, however, unabashedly like Jackson. "I think he's an outstanding performer," says James Brigham, 36, a CHA engineer. "I heard the songs from Bad on the radio and I liked them. I mean, I've got it in perspective: This won't be as big as Thriller, but that's one of a kind. I've got the Thriller album, the video. I'll probably do the same with Bad. I've been waiting to get this. I tried a couple of days ago, but nobody had it."
"People just got jealous of Michael's success," adds Linda Thorn, 42, a housewife. "He just got so big with Thriller, you know, he couldn't please anybody after that. But Bad'll do all right; there are a lot of people saying all kinds of things about the man--just ready to tear his ass to pieces--and you know what? They dance to his stuff, yes sir."
Thorn's right. A couple of blocks down School Street, coming from the front porch of a house just east of Southport, Bad fills the air. A gaggle of adolescent boys are hanging out, jiving, talking, even dancing a little. There are black kids and white kids and one Latino kid. Already mouthing the words is a supple black boy clapping along.
"Yeah, I'm bad, bad, bad!" he sings. It's Pete. Mikey and some friends are hanging out, laughing.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.