My unlikely friendship with a former member of a boyband
I have known MJ since he was 19 and I was 14. He was based in Malaysia, and I in Singapore. (Names have been changed.)
We were similar in some ways.
We were both from middle class families and our fathers worked in the civil service. My stepfather served in the police force while his father served in the military. Our fathers had expected us to take on similar roles in the civil service; my stepfather wanted me to be a teacher after my stepmother, and I imagined his father had wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. Perhaps his father never knew that his son would become the centre of the boyband craze sweeping across Southeast Asia in the 1990s, instigated by the phenomenal success of boybands such as The New Kids on the Block and hip-hop outfits such as Boys II Men in the United States.
But sweep across Southeast Asia MJ did.
At the awkward age of 14, I was inducted into the editorial team of a student tabloid that in a pre social media world was a rare passport to the post-concert parties and up close and personal interviews with celebrities usually reserved for the adult journalist ilk. And I relished every chance I received to rub shoulders with these adults, and hopefully, even write like them.
I was assigned to interview MJ and his band at their first of many Sentosa gigs. While at the time I did not quite understand their appeal, being a fan of rock music and having known only a few of their songs, their throngs of screaming hormonal teenage fangirls — many of whom were around my age — quickly made me realise that my opportunity to meet them was precious and should be milked for what it was worth.
The band — all seven members of them — appeared to be riding high on their success. They introduced themselves to me like they had done a thousand times when meeting the media; they were upbeat, all smiles and eager to teach me their not-so-secret signature handshakes plagiarised from hip-hop MTV. The band had just finished filming with Singapore’s Channel 5 when I arrived, and the crew were shooed away to make way for my pre-booked 20 minutes, which made me feel like a VIP, especially with my adult photographer in tow looking like he knew what he was doing.
MJ was quieter and more introverted than the rest of the band, and he was not their best dancer. When I was reminded that he was the main songwriter of the band, it immediately came to my 14-year-old mind the sensitive suffering artist archetype which even at that age, I had an unexplainable, instinctual attraction to. I did not remember asking him for his number, but his number I got, which against the counsel of his managers he scribbled on my synthetically scented autograph book.
I wrote two articles on my encounter with the band — one in Malay and the other in English — and each of them received more column centimentres and attention than I had hoped for.
That was the beginning of our strange long-distance friendship, which was more one-sided than reciprocal until recently.
MJ went on many tours across the region, often spending weeks and months on the road. The band had just signed a soft drink deal for two years and were filming for a sitcom. Sometimes when we talked on the phone, it appeared that we had few things in common and he had more things on his mind than he was letting on. However, he was always the gracious public figure, often ending a telephone call with an invitation to look him up in Kuala Lumpur whenever I visited, which my parents were of course dead against.
My stepfather thought I had developed an infatuation for MJ — which was true — which could turn dangerous — which was untrue — and I was wasting my time and pocket money making trunk calls to reach him. My father was the old-fashioned sort who believed that women must never make the first move as that would “devalue” her (more of that and how that impacted my dating life later). My closest girlfriends either put up with or stoked my infatuation for him — they were in one way or another fans of the band as well — so I never stopped keeping in touch with him.
Most of the time that MJ was on tour he was incommunicado and until he gave me his cell number — which I did not solicit — some of my communication to him was through his mother. His mother Mrs N was a housewife with a honeyed voice who spoke a genteel Malay. Sometimes when her son was not home to pick up my call, she would share with me her family troubles; whether it was out of boredom or the feeling that she could trust me, I could never tell.
Through her, I found that MJ’s older sister had bone cancer and as the second eldest, MJ had been responsible for taking her to chemotherapy sessions at the hospital. Mrs N described how he watched over her, fed her, and carried her from place to place when the wheelchair became more cumbersome than helpful. I called him at home one afternoon not realising that they were preparing their last rites for his sister, and when he picked up my call, he told me to call back later from behind gritted teeth. His mother quickly took my call when she realised that I was on the line and with tears in her voice she told me her daughter was no more.
I made the family a card expressing my condolences with dried flowers and old ribbon which Mrs N called me to thank me for. On that same phone conversation she would tell me that MJ’s father, her husband, had drowned when MJ was still in boarding school preparing for the SPM, or the Malaysian equivalent of the Cambridge GCSE ‘O’ levels.
A month later, I made MJ a card for his birthday which I sent via registered mail. It was returned as no one was home when the card was delivered and he had not bothered to pick it up from the post office.
When I called him again later that week, he shared with me his new cell number and good news that he was eager for me to pitch to my editor. At this time I was actively pitching and sending stories to Teenage magazine and Berita Harian, Singapore’s national Malay newspaper, and at times, my stories got published.
After milking the past seven years of success for what it was worth, the band disbanded and MJ decided to go solo. He got his record company to send his first solo album CD to my home address. I found that he had shoehorned a strange Raggamuffin leitmotif into it that was all lost on me and the songs on it were nothing like the hits he used to write while in his band.
Not long after the release, the album bombed and was panned by pop music critics, but in spite of that he decided to promote it in Singapore. He did come on TV and radio like most visiting acts but his recent shows were less than modest. He had his first show on the grounds of a junior college school fun fair and his second show was a joint showcase of a few B-grade celebrities in what used to be known as the Malay Village a few months later. In the past while in his previous band, his management had hired bouncers and put up tall barricades to prevent frenzied fans from accosting the band and ripping off bits of their jackets and T-shirts that could be sold on Ebay in today’s connected world. There was not even a makeshift backstage area at his more recent shows; people came and went as they pleased and they left him in peace.
MJ had grown his hair long and did not bother to hide his smoking habits which made him look stricken (in the past his managers would ensure that none of the band members lit up when the media or any member of the public was in the same room in keeping with their clean-cut image) and when he asked me what I thought of his show, I could feel the slump of his shoulders when I said, “it was good” because he knew it wasn’t.
Still he invited me to the dinner after the second show. I sat at the same table as the B-grade celebrities who each took an interest in why I was there and what I had to offer. He introduced me as “a friend who writes”. I told them that I was due to start my first semester in the National University of Singapore that year and that must have completely alienated them because there was not much conversation at the table thereafter. Or perhaps news that I was an entertainment writer had spread among them that they realised that gossiping and misbehaving were simply not a good idea.
And when he had to leave for his transport back to Kuala Lumpur we shook hands and blew air kisses as it was our usual custom except that I noticed that his grip had tightened considerably just before we parted. I heard him say “thank you for coming and keeping in touch”. It was for some long seconds that he had my hand in his grip that I had enough time to wonder if that was his appreciation of my remote, non-judgemental checking into his life every now and then through thick or thin. Even if paltry, the long handshake made me feel like we had finally cemented some form of mutual connection, and perhaps that was closure enough for me not to want to linger.
And I did not have time to linger. Life soon took off.
I found a real boyfriend — a local musician who was an engineer by day —who was some years older than MJ, made many friends and learnt many things while in university. My venture into adulthood was no short of dramatic; I moved into my biological family’s home (which was problematic on many levels), resumed freelance writing, established my PR company, married a man I knew for seven years and divorced him. MJ found me on Facebook while I was new to it and looking for old editorial contacts to befriend. He sent me a private message wondering if I was this young writer he knew; I said yes and we exchanged numbers. And this time, he asked me out for coffee and I gladly obliged.
Stay tuned for Part 2.