On my way to work today I heard the 1971 recording of the Jackson Five singing “Never Can Say Goodbye” on the radio. A million feelings surfaced inside me and I had to think for a while to figure out what I felt so affected by the treacle of a song from my youth.
I remember hearing it my last year in college when I was in a corner store and wondering how a young boy—Michael Jackson at 12—could capture such adult emotion in his voice. I felt slight perverse finding it so appealing since I was so old—21!
A couple of years later, when I moved to NYC, I was a production assistant and at a TV audition there was Clifton Davis, who’s theatre work I knew, singing the song. His rendition and expression were just as sweet at Michael’s, but his voice was more mature. When he told the director he’d written the song we were all thrilled to meet him because the song had become part of our emotional lexicon.
One of the reasons I love writing is that my words can enter the consciousness of readers in ways I can never predict. Whether I meet someone who quotes me to me or find my work referenced in someone else’s ("Insurrection: Holding History" a play by Robert O’Hara is one happy incidence). Songs, Wilde and Shakespeare have that experience more frequently than most writers but we always hold out the hope of Googling quotations and finding our words there or hearing ourselves quoted at a party by someone who’s not a close relative.
Forty years after marveling at Michael and his brothers and the words to Clifton Davis’ song I now know of the abuse Michael suffered. Despite that he went on to create some words and music that will live on for generations still singing in that sweet, childlike voice. His death, untimely and bizarre, won’t stop that. Unfortunately Clifton Davis seems to have gone on to be a preacher with some comments I’d interpret as homophobic…not sweet at all.
So I’ll just stick with the earlier words that will always be there and bring a smile to my face as I drive to work. Never can say goodbye.