It’s noon, and somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, the front shades of a row of condos are lowered against a hazy glare. Through the metal gate, the courtyard is silent, except for the distant splat of a fountain against its plastic basin. Then comes the chilling whine of a real-life Valley girl. “Grandmuther. I am not gonna walk a whole block. It’s humid. My hair will be brillo.”
And the soothing counterpoint of maternal encouragement: “Be good pup, Jolie. Make for mama.”
All along the courtyard’s trimmed inner paths, poodles waddle about trailing poodle-cut ladies on pink leashes.
“Not what you expected, huh?” From behind a mask of bony fingers, Michael Jackson giggles. Having settled his visitor on the middle floor of his own three-level condo, Michael explains that the residence is temporary, while his Encino, California, home is razed and rebuilt. He concedes that this is an unlikely spot for a young prince of pop.
It is also surprising to see that Michael has decided to face this interview alone. He says he has not done anything like this for over two years. And even when he did, it was always with a cordon of managers, other Jackson brothers and, in one case, his younger sister Janet parroting a reporter’s questions before Michael would answer them. The small body of existing literature paints him as excruciatingly shy. He ducks, he hides, he talks to his shoe tops. Or he just doesn’t show up. He is known to conduct his private life with almost obsessive caution, “just like a hemophiliac who can’t afford to be scratched in any way.” The analogy is his.
Run this down next to the stats, the successes, and it doesn’t add up. He has been the featured player with the Jackson Five since grade school. In 1980, he stepped out of the Jacksons to record his own LP, Off the Wall, and it became the best-selling album of the year. Thriller, his new album, is Number Five on the charts. And the list of performers now working with him – or wanting to – includes Paul McCartney, Quincy Jones, Steven Spielberg, Diana Ross, Queen and Jane Fonda. On record, onstage, on TV and screen, Michael Jackson has no trouble stepping out. Nothing scares him, he says. But this. . .
“Do you like doing this?” Michael asks. There is a note of incredulity in his voice, as though he were asking the question of a coroner. He is slumped in a dining-room chair, looking down into the lower level of the living room. It is filled with statuary. There are some graceful, Greco-Roman type bronzes, as well as a few pieces from the suburban birdbath school. The figures are frozen around the sofa like some ghostly tea party.
Michael himself is having little success sitting still. He is so nervous that he is eating – plowing through – a bag of potato chips. This is truly odd behavior. None of his brothers can recall seeing anything snacky pass his lips since he became a strict vegetarian and health-food disciple six years ago. In fact, Katherine Jackson, his mother, worries that Michael seems to exist on little more than air. As far as she can tell, her son just has no interest in food. He says that if he didn’t have to eat to stay alive, he wouldn’t.
“I really do hate this,” he says. Having polished off the chips, he has begun to fold and refold a newspaper clipping. “I am much more relaxed onstage than I am right now. But hey, let’s go.” He smiles. Later, he will explain that “let’s go” is what his bodyguard always says when they are about to wade into some public fray. It’s also a phrase Michael has been listening for since he was old enough to tie his own shoes.
LET’S GO, BOYS. With that, Joe Jackson would round up his sons Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael. “Let’s go” has rumbled from the brothers’ preshow huddle for more than three-quarters of Michael’s life, first as the Jackson Five on Motown and now as the Jacksons on Epic. Michael and the Jacksons have sold over a 100 million records. Six of their two dozen Motown singles went platinum; ten others went gold. He was just eleven in 1970 when their first hit, “I Want You Back,” nudged out B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” for Number One.
Michael says he knew at age five, when he sang “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” in school and laid out the house, that something special was going on. Back then, such precocity frightened his mother. But years later it soothed hearts and coffers at Epic when Off the Wall sold over 5 million in the U.S., another 2 million worldwide and one of its hit singles, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” won him a Grammy. The LP yielded four Top Ten hit singles, a record for a solo artist and a feat attained only by Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and by the combined efforts on the Grease and Saturday Night Fever soundtracks.
If a jittery record industry dared wager, the smart money would be on Michael Jackson. Recent months have found him at work on no fewer than three projects: his own recently released Thriller; Paul McCartney’s work-in-progress, which will contain two Jackson-McCartney collaborations, “Say, Say, Say” and “The Man”; and the narration and one song for the storybook E.T. album on MCA for director Steven Spielberg and producer Quincy Jones. In his spare time, he wrote and produced Diana Ross’ single “Muscles.” This is indeed a young man in a hurry. Already he is looking past the album he is scheduled to make with the Jacksons this winter. There is a chance of a spring tour. And then there are the movies. Since his role as the scarecrow in The Wiz his bedroom has been hip-deep in scripts.
At twenty-four, Michael Jackson has one foot planted firmly on either side of the Eighties. His childhood hits are golden oldies, and his boyhood idols have become his peers. Michael was just ten when he moved into Diana Ross’ Hollywood home. Now he produces her. He was five when the Beatles crossed over; now he and McCartney wrangle over the same girl on Michael’s single “The Girl Is Mine.” His showbiz friends span generations as well. He hangs out with the likes of such other kid stars as Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol, and ex-kid star Stevie Wonder. He gossips long distance with Adam Ant and Liza Minnelli, and has heart-to-hearts with octogenarian Fred Astaire. When he visited the set of On Golden Pond, Henry Fonda baited fishhooks for him. Jane Fonda is helping him learn acting. Pen pal Katharine Hepburn broke a lifelong habit of avoiding rock by attending a 1981 Jacksons concert at Madison Square Garden.
Even E.T would be attracted to such a gentle spirit, according to Steven Spielberg, who says he told Michael, “If E.T. didn’t come to Elliott, he would have come to your house.” Spielberg also says he thought of no one else to narrate the saga of his timorous alien. “Michael is one of the last living innocents who is in complete control of his life. I’ve never seen anybody like Michael. He’s an emotional star child.”
CARTOONS ARE FLASHING SILENTLY ACROSS THE GIANT screen that glows in the darkened den. Michael mentions that he loves cartoons. In fact, he loves all things “magic.” This definition is wide enough to include everything from Bambi to James Brown.
“He’s so magic,” Michael says of Brown, admitting that he patterned his own quicksilver choreography on the Godfather’s classic bag of stage moves. “I’d be in the wings when I was like six or seven. I’d sit there and watch him.”
Michael’s kindergarten was the basement of the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He was too shy to actually approach the performers the Jackson Five opened for – everyone from Jackie Wilson to Gladys Knight, the Temptations and Etta James. But he says he had to know everything they did – how James Brown could do a slide, a spin and a split and still make it back before the mike hit the floor. How the mike itself disappeared through the Apollo stage floor. He crept downstairs, along passageways and walls and hid there, peering from behind the dusty flanks of old vaudeville sets while musicians tuned, smoked, played cards and divvied barbecue. Climbing back to the wings, he stood in the protective folds of the musty maroon curtain, watching his favorite acts, committing every double dip and every bump, snap, whip-it-back mike toss to his inventory of night moves. Recently, for a refresher course, Michael went to see James Brown perform at an L.A. club. “He’s the most electrifying. He can take an audience anywhere he wants to. The audience just went bananas. He went wild – and at his age. He gets so out of himself.”
Getting out of oneself is a recurrent theme in Michael’s life, whether the subject is dancing, singing or acting. As a Jehovah’s Witness, Michael believes in an impending holocaust, which will be followed by the second coming of Christ. Religion is a large part of his life, requiring intense Bible study and thrice-weekly meetings at a nearby Kingdom Hall. He has never touched drugs and rarely goes near alcohol. Still, despite the prophesied Armageddon, the spirit is not so dour as to rule out frequent hops on the fantasy shuttle.
“I’m a collector of cartoons,” he says. “All the Disney stuff, Bugs Bunny, the old MGM ones. I’ve only met one person who has a bigger collection than I do, and I was surprised – Paul McCartney. He’s a cartoon fanatic. Whenever I go to his house, we watch cartoons. When we came here to work on my album, we rented all these cartoons from the studio, Dumbo and some other stuff. It’s real escapism. It’s like everything’s all right. It’s like the world is happening now in a faraway city. Everything’s fine.
“The first time I saw E.T., I melted through the whole thing,” he says. “The second time, I cried like crazy. And then, in doing the narration, I felt like I was there with them, like behind a tree or something, watching everything that happened.”
So great was Michael’s emotional involvement that Steven Spielberg found his narrator crying in the darkened studio when he got to the part where E.T. is dying. Finally, Spielberg and producer Quincy Jones decided to run with it and let Michael’s voice break. Fighting those feelings would be counterproductive – something Jones had already learned while producing Off the Wall.
“I had a song I’d been saving for Michael called “She’s Out of My Life,” he remembers. “Michael heard it, and it clicked. But when he sang it, he would cry. Every time we did it, I’d look up at the end and Michael would be crying. I said, ‘We’ll come back in two weeks and do it again, and maybe it won’t tear you up so much.’ Came back and he started to get teary. So we left it in.”
This tug of war between the controlled professional and the vulnerable, private Michael surfaces in the lyrics he has written for himself. In “Bless His Soul,” a song on the Jacksons’ Destiny LP that Michael says is definitely about him, he sings:
Sometimes I cry cause I’m confused
Is this a fact of being used?
There is no life for me at all
Cause I give myself at beck and call.
Two of the Jackson-written cuts on Thriller strengthen that defensive stance. “They eat off you, you’re a vegetable,” he shouts on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” “Beat It,” a tense, tough dance cut, flirts with paranoia: “You have to show them that you’re really not scared/You’re playin’ with your life, this ain’t no truth or dare/They’ll kick you, then they beat you/Then they’ll tell you it’s fair.”
Yes, he says, he feels used, declining specifics, saying only that in his profession, “They demand that, and they want you to do this. They think that they own you, they think they made you. If you don’t have faith, you go crazy. Like not doing interviews. If I talk, I say what’s on my mind, and it can seem strange to other peoples’ ears. I’m the kind of person who will tell it all, even though it’s a secret. And I know that things should be kept private.”
For his own protection, Michael has rigged himself a set of emotional floodgates, created situations where it’s okay to let it all out. “Some circumstances require me to be real quiet,” he says. “But I dance every Sunday.” On that day, he also fasts.
This, his mother confirms, is a weekly ritual that leaves her son laid out, sweating, laughing and crying. It is also a ritual very similar to Michael’s performances. Indeed, the weight of the Jacksons’ stage show rests heavily on his narrow, sequined shoulders. There is nothing tentative about his solo turns. He can tuck his long, thin frame into a figure skater’s spin without benefit of ice or skates. Aided by the burn and flash of silvery body suits, he seems to change molecular structure at will, all robot angles one second and rippling curves the next. So sure is the body that his eyes are often closed, his face turned upward to some unseen muse. The bony chest heaves. He pants, bumps and squeals. He has been known to leap offstage and climb up into the rigging.
At home, in his room, he dances until he falls down. Michael says the Sunday dance sessions are also an effective way to quiet his stage addiction when he is not touring. Sometimes in these off periods, another performer will call him up from the audience. And in the long, long trip from his seat to the stage, the two Michaels duke it out.
“I sit there and say, ‘Please don’t call me up, I am too shy,'” Jackson says. “But once I get up there, I take control of myself. Being onstage is magic. There’s nothing like it. You feel the energy of everybody who’s out there. You feel it all over your body. When the lights hit you, it’s all over, I swear it is.”
He is smiling now, sitting upright, trying to explain weightlessness to the earth-bound.
“When it’s time to go off, I don’t want to. I could stay up there forever. It’s the same thing with making a movie. What’s wonderful about a film is that you can become another person. I love to forget. And lots of times, you totally forget. It’s like automatic pilot. I mean – whew.”
During shooting for The Wiz, he became so attached to his Scarecrow character, the crew literally had to wrench him from the set and out of his costume. He was in Oz, and wasn’t keen on leaving it for another hotel room.
“That’s what I loved about doing E.T. I was actually there. The next day, I missed him a lot. I wanted to go back to that spot I was at yesterday in the forest. I wanted to be there.”
Alas, he is still at the dining-room table in his condo. But despite the visible strain, he’s holding steady. And he brightens at a question about his animals. He says he talks to his menagerie every day.”I have two fawns. Mr. Tibbs looks like a ram; he’s got the horns. I’ve got a beautiful llama. His name is Louie.” He’s also into exotic birds like macaws, cockatoos and a giant rhea.
“Stay right there,” he says, “and I’ll show you something.” He takes the stairs to his bedroom two at a time. Though I know we are the only people in the apartment, I hear him talking.
“Aw, were you asleep? I’m sorry . . . .”
Seconds later, an eight-foot boa constrictor is deposited on the dining-room table. He is moving in my direction at an alarming rate.
“This is Muscles. And I have trained him to eat interviewers.”
Muscles, having made it to the tape recorder and flicked his tongue disdainfully, continues on toward the nearest source of warm blood. Michael thoughtfully picks up the reptile as its snub nose butts my wrist. Really, he insists, Muscles is quite sweet. It’s all nonsense, this stuff about snakes eating people. Besides, Muscles isn’t even hungry; he enjoyed his weekly live rat a couple of days ago. If anything, the stranger’s presence has probably made Muscles a trifle nervous himself. Coiled around his owner’s torso, his tensile strength has made Michael’s forearm a vivid bas-relief of straining blood vessels. To demonstrate the snake’s sense of balance, Michael sets him down on a three-inch wide banister, where he will remain, motionless, for the next hour or so.
“Snakes are very misunderstood,” he says. Snakes, I suggest, may be the oldest victims of bad press. Michael whacks the table and laughs.
“Bad press. Ain’t it so, Muscles?
The snake lifts its head momentarily, then settles back on the banister. All three of us are a bit more relaxed.
“Know what I also love?” Michael volunteers. “Manikins.”
Yes, he means the kind you see wearing mink bikinis in Beverly Hills store windows. When his new house is finished, he says he’ll have a room with no furniture, just a desk and a bunch of store dummies.
“I guess I want to bring them to life. I like to imagine talking to them. You know what I think it is? Yeah, I think I’ll say it. I think I’m accompanying myself with friends I never had. I probably have two friends. And I just got them. Being an entertainer, you just can’t tell who is your friend. And they see you so differently. A star instead of a next-door neighbor.”
He pauses, staring down at the living-room statues.
“That’s what it is. I surround myself with people I want to be my friends. And I can do that with manikins. I’ll talk to them.”
All of this is not to say that Michael is friendless. On the contrary, people are clamoring to be his friend. That’s just the trouble: with such staggering numbers knocking at the gate, it becomes necessary to sort and categorize. Michael never had a school chum. Or a playmate. Or a steady girlfriend. The two mystery friends he mentioned are his first civilians. As for the rest . . . .
“I know people in show business.”
Foremost is Diana Ross, with whom he shares his “deepest, darkest secrets” and problems. But even when they are alone together, their world is circumscribed. And there’s Quincy Jones, “who I think is wonderful. But to get out of the realm of show business, to become like everybody else . . . .”
To forget. To get out of the performing self.
“Me and Liza, say. Now, I would consider her a great friend, but a show-business friend. And we’re sitting there talking about this movie, and she’ll tell me all about Judy Garland. And then she’ll go, ‘Show me that stuff you did at rehearsal.'” He feints a dance move. “And I’ll go, ‘Show me yours.’ We’re totally into each other’s performance.”
This Michael does not find odd, or unacceptable. It’s when celebrity makes every gesture a performance that he runs for cover. Some stars simply make up their minds to get on with things, no matter what. Diana Ross marched bravely into a Manhattan shoe store with her three daughters and had them fitted for running shoes, despite the crowd of 200 that convened on the sidewalk. Michael, who’s been a boy in a bubble since the age of reason, would find that intolerable. He will go to only one L.A. restaurant, a health-food place where the owners know him. As for shopping, Michael avoids it by having a secretary or aide pick out clothes for him. “You don’t get peace in a shop. If they don’t know your name, they know your voice. And you can’t hide.”
He won’t say love stinks. But sometimes it smarts.
“Being mobbed hurts. You feel like you’re spaghetti among thousands of hands. They’re just ripping you and pulling your hair. And you feel that any moment you’re gonna just break.”
Thus, Michael must travel with the veiled secrecy of a pasha’s prized daughter. Any tourism is attempted from behind shades, tinted limo glass and a bodyguard’s somber serge. Even in a hotel room, he hears females squeal and scurry like so many mice in the walls.
“Girls in the lobby, coming up the stairway. You hear guards getting them out of elevators. But you stay in your room and write a song. And when you get tired of that, you talk to yourself. Then let it all out onstage. That’s what it’s like.”
No argument – it ain’t natural. But about those store dummies? Won’t it be just as eerie to wake up in the middle of the night to all those polystyrene grins?
“Oh, I’ll give them names. Like the statues you see down there.” He motions to the living-room crowd. “They’ve got names. I feel as if I know them. I’ll go down there and talk to them.”
A restless rhythm is jiggling his foot, and the newspaper clipping has long been destroyed. Michael is apologetic, explaining that he can sit still for just so long. On an impulse, he decides to drive us to the house under construction. Though his parents forced him to learn two years ago, Michael rarely drives. When he does, he refuses to travel freeways, taking hour-long detours to avoid them. He has learned the way to only a few “safe” zones – his brothers’ homes, the health-food restaurant and the Kingdom Hall.
First, Muscles must be put away. “He’s real sweet,” Michael says as he unwinds the serpent from the banister. “I’d like you to wrap him around you before you go.”
This is not meant as a prank, and Michael will not force the issue. But fear of interviews can be just as deep-rooted as fear of snakes, and in consenting to talk, Michael was told the same thing he’s telling me now: Trust me. It won’t hurt you.
We compromise. Muscles cakewalks across an ankle. His tongue is dry. It just tickles. Block out the primal dread, and it could be a kitten whisker. “You truly believe,” says Michael, “with the power of reason, that this animal won’t harm you now, right? But there’s this fear, built in by the world, by what people say, that makes you shy away like that.”
Having politely made their point, Michael and Muscles disappear upstairs.
A few such girlish messages are scratched into the paint of a somber security sign on the steel driveway gate at his house. There is a fence, dogs and guards, but girls still will loiter outside, in cars and in bushes.
As Michael conducts the tour of the two-story Tudor-style house, it’s clear that the room he will sleep in is almost monkish compared to those he has had designed for his pleasures and the ones reserved for his sisters Janet and LaToya, who pored over every detail of their wallpapered suites. “Girls are fussy,” he explains, stepping over a power saw in his bedroom. “I just don’t care. I wanted room to dance and have my books.”
The rooms Michael inspects most carefully are those marked for recreation. “I’m putting all this stuff in,” he says, “so I will never have to leave and go out there.” The “stuff” includes a screening room with two professional projectors and a giant speaker. And then an exercise room, one for videogames and another with a giant-screen video system. In addition, there is a huge chamber off the backyard patio, which has been designated the Pirate Room. It will be not so much decorated as populated. More dummies. But this set will talk back. Michael has been consulting with a Disney technician, the very man who designed the Audio-Animatronics figures for the Disneyland ride Pirates of the Caribbean. If all goes well, he will install several scowling, scabbard-waving buccaneers, wenches and sea dogs right here. “There won’t be any rides,” Michael says. “But there will be a pirate shootout, cannons and guns. They’ll just scream at one another and I’ll have the lights, sounds, everything.”
Pirates is one of his favorite rides in the Magic Kingdom. And Disneyland is one of the few public spots even he cannot stay away from. Sometimes Michael stops at a magic booth and buys one of those Groucho Masks – fake glasses with nose attached. But it’s better when the staff leads him through back doors and tunnels. It’s murder to cross the Court of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in daylight. “I tried to go just last night, but it was closed,” he says with some disbelief. “So was Knott’s Berry Farm.”
If you live in the funhouse, you usually don’t have to worry about such things. Michael has sung it himself:
Life ain’t so bad at all, if you live it off the wall.
WHEN WE ARRIVE BACK AT THE condo, Michael finds that a test pressing of “The Girl Is Mine” has been delivered. This is business. He must check it before release, he explains, as he heads for a listen on the stereo in the den. Before the record is finished, he is punching at phone buttons. In between calls to accountants and managers, he says that he makes all his own decisions, right down to the last sequin on his stage suits – the only clothes he cares about. He says he can be a merciless interviewer when it comes to choosing management, musicians and concert promoters. He assesses their performances with the rigor of an investigative reporter, questioning his brothers, fellow artists and even reporters for observations. Though he truly believes his talent comes from God, he is acutely aware of its value on the open market. He is never pushy or overbearing, but he does appreciate respect. Do not ask him, for instance, how long he has been with a particular show-business firm. “Ask me,” he corrects, “how long they’ve been with me.”
Those who have worked with him do not doubt his capability. Even those to whom he is a star child. “He’s in full control,” says Spielberg. “Sometimes he appears to other people to be sort of wavering on the fringes of twilight, but there is great conscious forethought behind everything he does. He’s very smart about his career and the choices he makes. I think he is definitely a man of two personalities.”
When Michael was looking for a producer for his solo album, Quincy Jones was happy to hear from him. Jones knew Michael was in a special class. A few things tipped him off, he says. First there was the Academy Awards ceremony at which Jones watched twelve-year-old Michael deliver a trash-flick love song to a fascist rodent (“Ben”) with astounding poise. Years later, while working with him on The Wiz soundtrack, Jones says, “I saw another side. Watching him in the context of being an actor, I saw a lot of things about him as a singer that rang a lot of bells. I saw a depth that was never apparent, and a commitment. I saw that Michael was growing up.”
In the studio, Jones found that his professionalism had matured. In fact, Michael’s nose for things is so by-your-leave funky that Jones started calling him Smelly. Fortunately, when corporate rumblings feared the partnership too unlikely to work, Smelly hung tough and cocked an ear inward to his own special rhythms. Indeed, Off the Wall’s most memorable cuts are the Jackson-penned dance tunes. “Working Day and Night” with all its breathy asides and deft punctuation, could only have been written by a dancer. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” the album’s biggest-selling single, bops along with that same appealing give-and-go between restraint and abandon. The song begins with Michael talking in a low mumble over a taut, single-string bass bomp:
“You know, I was wonderin’ . . . you know the force, it’s got a lot of power, make me feel like a . . . make me feel like . . . .”
Ooooooh. Fraidy cat breaks into disco monster, with onrushing strings and a sexy, cathartic squeal. The introduction is ten seconds of perfect pop tension. Dance boogie is the welcome release. The arrangement – high, gusting strings and vocals over a thudding, in-the-pocket rhythm – is Michael’s signature. Smelly, the funky sprite.
It works. Such a creature as Michael is the perfect pop hybrid for the Eighties. The fanzine set is not scared off by raunchy lyrics and chest hair. But the R-rated uptown dance crowd can bump and slide right along the greasy tracks. Thriller is eclectic enough to include African chants and some ripping macho-rock guitar work by Eddie Van Halen. It is now being called pop-soul by those into marketing categories. Michael says he doesn’t care what anybody wants to call it. Just how it all came about is still a mystery to him – as is the creative process itself.
“I wake up from dreams and go, ‘Wow, put this down on paper,'” he says. “The whole thing is strange. You hear the words, everything is right there in front of your face. And you say to yourself, ‘I’m sorry, I just didn’t write this. It’s there already.’ That’s why I hate to take credit for the songs I’ve written. I feel that somewhere, someplace, it’s been done and I’m just a courier bringing it into the world. I really believe that. I love what I do. I’m happy at what I do. It’s escapism.”
Again, that word. But Michael is right. There is no better definition for good, well-meaning, American pop. Few understand this better than Diana Ross, that Tamla teen turned latter-day pop diva. Her closeness to Michael began when she met the Jacksons.
“No, I didn’t discover them,” she says, countering the myth. Motown head Berry Gordy had already found them; she simply introduced them on her 1971 television special. “There was an identification between Michael and I,” she says. “I was older, he kind of idolized me, and he wanted to sing like me.”
She has been pleased to watch Michael become his own person. Still, she wishes he would step out even more. She says she had to be firm and force him to stay in his role as producer on “Muscles.” He wanted them to do it jointly. She insisted he go it alone.
“He spends a lot of time, too much time, by himself. I try to get him out. I rented a boat and took my children and Michael on a cruise. Michael has a lot of people around him, but he’s very afraid. I don’t know why. I think it came from the early days.”
Michael’s show-business friends, many of them women not thought of as especially motherly, do go to great lengths to push and prod him into the world, and to keep him comfortable. When he’s in Manhattan, Ross urges him to go to the theater and the clubs, and counteroffers with quiet weekends at her Connecticut home. In notes and phone calls, Katharine Hepburn has been encouraging about his acting.
Michael has recorded much of this counsel in notebooks and on tape. Visiting Jane Fonda – whom he’s known since they met at a Hollywood party a few years ago – on the New Hampshire set of On Golden Pond proved to be an intensive crash course. In a mirror version of his scenes with the stepgrandson in the movie, Henry Fonda took his daughter’s rock-star friend out on the lake and showed him how to fish. They sat on a jetty for hours, talking trout and theater. The night Fonda died, Michael spent the evening with Fonda’s widow, Shirlee, and his children, Jane and Peter. He says they sat around, laughing and crying and watching the news reports. The ease with which Michael was welcomed into her family did not surprise Jane Fonda. Michael and her father got on naturally, she says, because they were so much alike.
“Dad was also painfully self-conscious and shy in life,” she says, “and he really only felt comfortable when he was behind the mask of a character. He could liberate himself when he was being someone else. That’s a lot like Michael.
“In some ways,” she continues, “Michael reminds me of the walking wounded. He’s an extremely fragile person. I think that just getting on with life, making contact with people, is hard enough, much less to be worried about whither goest the world.
“I remember driving with him one day, and I said, ‘God, Michael, I wish I could find a movie I could produce for you.’ And suddenly I knew. I said, ‘I know what you’ve got to do. It’s Peter Pan.’ Tears welled up in his eyes and he said, ‘Why did you say that?’ with this ferocity. I said, ‘I realize you’re Peter Pan.’ And he started to cry and said, ‘You know, all over the walls of my room are pictures of Peter Pan. I’ve read everything that [author J.M.] Barrie wrote. I totally identify with Peter Pan, the lost boy of never-never land.'”
Hearing that Francis Coppola may be doing a film version, Fonda sent word to him that he must talk to Michael Jackson. “Oh, I can see him,” she says, “leading lost children into a world of fantasy and magic.”
In the book, that fantasy world lies “second to the right star, then straight on til morning” – no less strange a route, Fonda notes, than Michael’s own journey from Indiana.
“From Gary,” she says,”straight on to Barrie.”
ALL CHILDREN, EXCEPT ONE, GROW UP.
This is the first line of Michael’s favorite book, and if you ask Katherine Jackson if she finds this similar to what happened in her own brood of nine, she will laugh and say, oh yes, her fifth son is the one.
Five children – Maureen, Tito, Jackie, Jermaine and Marlon – are married and have families. LaToya is a very independent young woman. At thirteen, Janet was starring as a self-possessed ghetto twerp on the sitcom Good Times. Now she has a hit single of her own, “Young Love,” and appears in the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes. Youngest brother Randy is already living on his own at twenty. Michael is sure he’d just die if he tried that.
“LaToya once told me she thinks that I overprotected them all,” Mrs. Jackson says. “But under the circumstances, I truly don’t think so.”
Marriage had brought her from east Indiana, just outside Chicago, to the chilly industrial town of Gary. A growing family had forced Joe Jackson to disband the Falcons, and R&B group he had formed with his two brothers. Playing Chuck Berry and Fats Domino covers in local clubs was as far as they got. The guitar went into the closet, and Jackson went to the steel mills as a crane operator. The family budget didn’t have a lot of slack for toys, but there was an old saxophone, a tambourine, some bongos and a homey patchwork of songs from Katherine’s childhood. What she could remember, she taught her children. “It was just plain stuff,” she says, “like ‘Cotton Fields’ and ‘You Are My Sunshine.'”
The breadth of the harmony grew with the family. Jackie, Jermaine and Tito started singing together, with Tito on guitar and Jermaine on bass. Then Marlon climbed aboard. Baby Michael, who liked to flail on the bongos, surprised his mother one day when she heard him imitating Jermaine’s lead vocals in his clear toddler’s falsetto. “I think we have another lead singer,” she told her husband. The brothers agreed.
“He was so energetic that at five years old, he was like a leader,” says Jackie, at thirty-one the oldest brother. “We saw that. So we said, ‘Hey, Michael, you be the lead guy.’ The audience ate it up. He was into those James Brown things at the time, you know. The speed was the thing. He would see somebody do something, and he could do it right away.”
“It was sort of frightening,” his mother says. “He was so young. He didn’t go out and play much. So if you want me to tell you the truth, I don’t know where he got it. He just knew.”
By the age of seven, Michael was a dance monster, working out the choreography for the whole group. Local gigs were giving way to opening slots at larger halls in distant cities. Joe Jackson spent weekends and evenings as chauffeur, road manager, agent and coach. He taught Michael how to work a stage and handle a mike. Michael does not remember his father making it fun; the boys always knew it was work. Rules were strict. Grades had to be kept up, even with five shows a night, or the offender would be yanked off the road. When Motown called, Joe took the boys to Detroit, and Katherine stayed in Gary with the rest of the children. She says she never really worried about her children until she went to a show and heard the screams from the audience. “Every time I’d go to a concert I’d worry, because sometimes the girls would get onstage and I’d have to watch them tearing at Michael. He was so small, and they were so big.”
There have been some serious incidents, too, one so chilling and bizarre it landed a young woman in a mental institution. So Katherine Jackson has made it her business to talk to some of these wild, persistent girls. What is so very crazy, she says, is that they do it in the name of love. “There are so many,” she says. “You have no idea what’s really on their minds. That’s why it’s going to be so hard for my son to get a wife.”
Michael is aware of, if not resigned to, the impossibility of that task. He might like to have children in the future, but says he would probably adopt them. For now, he has only to walk into one of his brothers’ homes and he’s instantly covered with nephews. He says he gets along with children better than adults, anyhow: “They don’t wear masks.”
Kids and animals can nose their way into Michael’s most private reserves. It’s the showbiz spook show that makes his own growing up so public and hard. He has borne, with patience and good humor, the standard rumors of sexchange operations and paternity accusations from women he has never seen. But clearly they have affected him. “Billie Jean,” on Thriller, is a vehement denial of paternity (“the kid is not my son”). In reality there has been no special one. Michael says that he is not in a hurry to jump into any romantic liaison.
“It’s like what I told you about finding friends,” he says. “With that, it’s even harder. With so many girls around, how am I ever gonna know?”
“JUST HERE TO SEE A FRIEND.”
Michael is politely trying to sidestep an inquiring young woman decked out with the latest video equipment. She blocks the corridor leading to the warren of dressing rooms beneath the L.A. Forum.
“Can I tell my viewers that Michael Jackson is a Queen fan?”
“I’m a Freddie Mercury fan,” he says, slipping past her into a long room crowded with Queen band members, wives, roadies and friends. A burly man with the look of a linebacker is putting lead singer Freddie Mercury through a set of stretching exercises that will propel his road-weary muscles through the final show of the group’s recent U.S. tour. The band is merry. Michael is shy, standing quietly at the door until Freddie spots him and leaps up to gather him in a hug.
Freddie invited Michael. He has been calling all week, mainly about the possibility of their working together. They’ve decided to try it on the Jacksons’ upcoming album. Though they are hardly alike – Freddie celebrated a recent birthday by hanging naked from a chandelier – the two have been friendly since Michael listened to the material Queen had recorded for The Game and insisted that the single had to be “Another One Bites the Dust.”
“Now, he listens to me, right Freddie?”
“Righto, little brother.”
The linebacker beckons. Freddie waves his cigarette at the platters of fruit, fowl and candy. “You and your friends make yourselves comfortable.”
Our escort, a sweet-faced, hamfisted bodyguard, is consulting with security about seat locations. There had been girls lurking outside the condo when Michael sprinted to the limousine, girls peering through the tinted glass as the door locks clicked shut. This was all very puzzling to Michael’s guest, who was waiting in the car.
He is a real friend, one of the civilians, so normal as to pass unseen by the jaded eyes of celebrity watchers. He has never been to a rock concert, nor has he ever seen Michael perform. He says he hopes to, but mainly, they just hang out together. Sometimes his younger brother even tags along. Most of the time they just talk “just regular old stuff,” says the friend. For Michael, it is another kind of magic.
At the moment, though, it’s show business as usual. Gossip, to be specific. Michael is questioning a dancer he knows about the recent crises of a fallen superstar. Michael wants to know what the problem is. The dancer mimes his answer, laying a finger alongside his nose. Michael nods, and translates for his friend: “Drugs. Cocaine.”
Michael admits that he seeks out such gossip, and listens again and again as the famous blurt out their need for escape. “Escapism,” he says. “I totally understand.”
But addictions are another thing. “I always want to know what makes good performers fall to pieces,” he says. “I alway try to find out. Because I just can’t believe it’s the same things that get them time and time again.” So far, his own addictions – the stage, dancing, cartoons – have been free of toxins.
Something’s working on Michael now, but it is nothing chemical. He’s buzzing like a bumblebee trapped in a jelly jar. It’s the room we’re in, he explains. So many times, he’s stretched and bounced and whipped up on his vocal chords right here, got crazy in here, pumping up, shivering like some flighty race horse as he wriggled into his sequined suit.
“I can’t stand this,” he fairly yells. “I cannot sit still.”
Just before he must be held down for his own good, Randy Jackson rockets into the room, containing his brother in a bear hug, helping him dissipate some of the energy with a short bout of wrestling. This is not the same creature who tried to hide behind a potato chip.
Now Michael is boxing with the bodyguard, asking every minute for the time until the man mercifully claps a big hand on the shoulder of his charge and says it: “Let’s go.”
Mercury and company have already begun moving down the narrow hall, and before anyone can catch him, Michael is drawn into their wake, riding on the low roar of the crowd outside, leaping up to catch a glimpse of Freddie, who is raising a fist and about to take the stairs to the stage.
“Ooooh, Freddie is pumped,” says Michael. “I envy him now. You don’t know how much.”
The last of the band makes the stairs, and the black stage curtain closes. Michael turns and lets himself be led into the darkness of the arena.
This story is from the February 17th, 1983 issue of Rolling Stone.