Philly remembers Jackson

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Philadelphia found itself stuck in the '80s yesterday - and that's not just a reference to the rising summer temperatures.

Even as shock waves over Thursday's news of the sudden death of pop culture icon Michael Jackson still reverberated around the globe, many Philadelphians grew more reflective about the passage of time and the fading of youth - the singer's, and their own.

For many like Benita Bell, 48, of Norristown, Jackson's death in Los Angeles brought back memories of a faraway time and place.

"I was 19 and living in Texas. It was during the Reagan era. The oil crisis was going on. The country was in turmoil. I had lost my job. I was destitute and depressed," Bell recalled. "I went out dancing with my friends and a guy asked me to dance. The song 'Lady of My Life' came on. I was just sucked into that song. It just pulled me up. It made me feel like a lady. Every time I hear that song, I go back to that one night in Texas."

City residents could be forgiven yesterday for thinking they were living in a "Back the Future" sequel, as the King of Pop peered out in sequined glory from newsstands and honor boxes while "Billie Jean" or "I Want You Back," the 1969 breakout song of the Jackson 5, blasted from rolled-down car windows.

The sweeping 40-year arc of Jackson's journey from child star to King of Pop to tragic eccentric only occasionally blew through Philly as it wound from the smokestacks of Gary, Ind., to a lonely mansion near Sunset Boulevard. But Jackson still managed to touch many Philadelphians' lives.

Steven Anderson, 45, of Southwest Philly, remembered seeing Jackson and his brothers roll through town in a black Cadillac Fleetwood Limousine with bucket seats at the height of the singer's popularity in the '80s. Fans lined Washington Avenue to get a glimpse. Anderson said he was 5 years old and star-struck.

"I wore the red leather jacket with the zippers, you know, the Thriller jacket," Anderson said. "I wore the glove," he added. "I'd put on the jacket now if I still had it. I would. I would. I would wear it for him."

City Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr., whose father was mayor from 1984 to 1991, was one of a few locals who got to meet the King of Pop in person.

"I met Michael Jackson once, along with my family, backstage before the Victory Tour," he said. "It was an amazing experience to shake the glove of a living legend at that time. As I watched the many images of his life broadcast after his death, I was reminded of the pride that I had in his confidence as a young performer."

Goode wasn't the only Philadelphia VIP with Jackson on the brain yesterday. Mayor Nutter downloaded three Jackson songs to his MP3 player - "Billie Jean," "Man in the Mirror," and "Got To Be There."

"I go back literally to the Jackson 5," Nutter said. "My sister and I used to listen to all that music."

Nutter said he also enjoyed Jackson's music during his "Mixmaster Mike" DJ days at a club when he was a college student. "When I was in the nightclub, you had 'Thriller' and 'Don't Stop Til You Get Enough,' " Nutter said. "Those were incredible dance hits."

On Philadelphia radio station WURD, Dr. Emeka Nwadiora, who hosted his call-in "Pan Africa Show" yesterday, talked about growing up in a village in Nigeria with posters of Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 in his bedroom 30 and 40 years ago.

"He had an impact on me in my identity and pride in the essence of African-American pride," said Nwadiora, 55.

Still, not everyone was on the Michael Jackson bandwagon.

Many of the callers to Nwadiora's talk show yesterday were ambivalent about their feelings about Jackson, and many condemned him as a "traitor" to African-Americans for "chopping off his nose" and "trying to be white." Elsewhere, others said the allegations of child abuse that dogged him later in life outweighed whatever good came from his music.

Others pondered the similarities between the King of Pop and the King, Elvis Presley, who was just 42 when he died in 1977 after years of prescription-drug abuse.

"I bet he'll start turning up like Elvis. Maybe he's not really dead," said Mitch Jacobson, 35, of University City, pointing out similarities between the two such as drug problems, their numerous impersonators. He called them both "cultural icons of their time."

But for most Philadelphians of a certain age, Jackson's death was an excuse to turn a mirror on their own youthful memories.

"I remember cutting a Jackson 5 record off the back of a cereal box and playing it on my record player," said Derrick Ford, 50, the city mental health worker who brought organized youth baseball back to Strawberry Mansion.

Brian Foster, 33, of Oxford Circle, wasn't a bit embarrassed to confess that he collected Michael Jackson dolls as a kid.

"He was like the thing growing up . . . and then he just faded," Foster said.

"His death reminds me how fast things go by." *