May 23rd 1988. As a merciless sun blazed down on Rome’s Spanish Steps, I took a stroll towards the Trevi Fountain to find an ice cream, toss a couple of coins in, and gather my thoughts ahead of Michael Jackson’s gig that night. As usual, with him, it was a lot to take in: the sensational ‘BAD’ tour, which had enthralled the Japanese in Yokahama the previous September, mind-boggled Australia and thundered halfway across America, was set to raise the sky above Rome’s Flaminio Stadium, the first of two remarkable shows. They were billing it as the greatest rock spectacle the Eternal City had ever seen, on a tour which would, by the time it ended back in Los Angeles the following January, have notched up 123 concerts, played to 4.4 million people and grossed over £76 million – more than any other entertainer on a single tour. In the UK alone, Jackson was to shatter a world record that July, with 504,000 fans attending 7 sold-out Wembley Stadium shows - more than any other artist in history.
Michael Jackson was the biggest artist on the planet. No surprise, then, that the world’s media had descended on Rome for the European kick-off. The city was packed, my walk frustratingly slow. Hot, anxious, and running out of time, I was unprepared for what I found down by the fountain: a familiar face peeping out through the falsely cascading curls of a nylon wig, fake moustache and the raised collar of a raincoat, shoulders hunched and turned against the milling throng. He was dropping dimes into the gush, and mumbling something about the Coliseum.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked Michael,‘Aren’t you supposed to be over at the stadium now?’
‘Not for a few more hours’, he murmured.
‘How did you get here?’
‘Walked. Ran out of the hotel, then I walked.’
‘On your own?’
‘I did. I did it. For once in my life. I wanted to find the Vatican and see the Pope and I wanted to see the lions at the Coliseum. I have been everywhere. I’ve seen nowhere. I just wanted to see something for myself, on my own, just one time.’
‘Security will be going nuts,’ I told him.
‘Didn’t even see me. But I’m lost now. Do you know where this is?’
‘All roads lead to Rome’, I winked..
‘What's that mean?’
‘Maybe it means you’re where you need to be right now’.
A stupid, meaningless comment which makes me cringe whenever I think of it - though it did make him laugh. We lingered for 20 minutes or so, shooting the breeze or would have, had there been one. I bought him an ice cream at a nearby gelato parlour (wild Sardinian strawberry honey flavour, in a tub). I actually bought Michael Jackson an ice cream. How freaky that sounds now. We mugged for a few photos at the fountain, taken by Daily Express reporter Roger Tavener, before hailing a cab and dropping Michael back at the luxurious Lord Byron Hotel near the Villa Borghese. Tavener's Canon Sureshot sat forgotten in the back of the cab. He never got it back.
Our encounter in Rome wasn’t the first time I’d met Michael. Having long been a vague friend of his pop wannabe sister and Playboy centrefold La Toya, whom I’d originally met in Atlantic City and with whom I’d briefly shared a midtown Manhattan apartment, I was one of the few journalists who could vouch for the fact that Michael and La Toya were not the same person (that rumour had been doing the rounds for years). I has also got to know Jermaine, their libidinous brother, and cute sister Janet, then forging her own pop career. Globally famous since the late Sixties, when he had been the classic child star and darling of his family’s group The Jackson Five, Michael had not yet adopted the reclusive stance which defined him at the very height of his fame, and which served to offset fascination with the less comfortable aspects of his personality.
In those days, Michael would talk openly about his bleak, largely fun-starved childhood. Born in Gary, Indiana, into a humble working class family, he identified his primary role models as his Jehovah’s Witness mother Katherine and hisstrange steel worker father, Joe. The seventh of nine children – five brothers, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Randy, and three sisters, Maureen (‘Rebbie’), La Toya and Janet – Michael admitted he’d been forced against his will to perform in the group which their frustrated musician father was determined would make the family’s fortune. Thus, Michael was singing and dancing for money before he’d even started school. He never got off that treadmill. What chance of a normal life did he ever have?
‘There were sad moments in my childhood’, he admitted.
‘It’s true for any child star. Elizabeth Taylor told me she felt the same way. When you’re young and you’re working, the world can seem awfully unfair. There were times when I hated my father. Times when I wanted him to die, when he beat me like a dog.’
But he always spoke fondly of his ‘adorable’ mother, recalling a meek materfamilias who deferred almost incessantly to her strict brute of a husband, even turning a blind eye to his relentless beltings and beatings of her much-cherished kids.
Softly-spoken like his polio victim mother, whom I met only once, Michael smiled a lot, talked less. He liked to listen, and would soak up information and general knowledge like a sponge. He wasn’t stupid, but lamentably under-educated. It was always obvious from the level of conversation, both with Michael and his siblings, that formal learning had never been a priority. Their collective intellect had barely moved beyond first grade. What Michael had, however, was a gut instinct when it came to music, both the writing and the expression of it, which came so naturally to him that he seemed to take it for granted. He would joke about his impressions of Stevie Wonder, James Brown and Ray Charles, whom he had started impersonating at the age of 5. His talent was natural. When the original Jackson Brothers first stepped out on the mid-east American black club circuit during the late 1960s, they often found themselves the support act for strippers and other explicit entertainers. It proved a rude awakening for Michael, one which he never forgot. Having been exposed at point-blank range to adult sexuality at such a tragically young age, without anyone ever explaining it to him, sex became his obsession. It was also, he told me, the one dimension of normal adult relationships that he most feared.
Those who would later describe the King of Pop as ‘undeniably sexy but absolutely safe’ missed the point. How the public ever fell for his mono-gloved brand of sexless sensuality, even while he polished his crotch in public, is a mystery. With so many of his song lyrics and breathtaking dance routines revealing a fully mature male, how could he possibly be oblivious to it himself? And what drove him to insist that it was all an act?
Few of us who were there in the Eighties will ever forget Frank DiLeo: the redoubtable, rotund, Pennsylvania-born record industry executive and sometime movie actor with a mobster’s deflectional gaze. Ten years Michael’s senior, the star turned to Frank for personal management in 1984, following the terrifying success of ‘Thriller’, the biggest-selling album of all time - the impact of which had all but drowned its creator. DiLeo’s apparent genius was in interpreting the value of the things that Michael wasn’t, as well as maximising interest in what he was. Capitalising on contradictions had long been artful DiLeo’s game. Thus, Michael’s inherent shyness was hyped to Howard Hughes levels of reclusion. His light, breathy speaking voice was deployed as proof of boyish innocence. His plaintive, cracked ballad vocals betrayed an irrevocably broken heart. But who broke it? - and so on. Nor did DiLeo ever deny rumours of Michael’s extensive cosmetic surgery, despite MJ's eventual insistence that he’d only ever had two nose jobs. The fact that we could all see otherwise, simply by looking at him, was irrelevant. By preventing the media from getting anywhere near him, by dismissing all requests for personal interviews and never allowing him to be photographed – in the Eighties, Michael spent most of his time in the open air with a blanket over his head (which affected him so profoundly that he chose ‘Blanket’ as the nickname for his own third child) – DiLeo created a Wizard-of-Oz-like aura of mystery around his charge which, as in the fairy tale, was out of all proportion to reality.
It was odd to sit there listening to DiLeo giving Michael’s press conference in Rome in 1988 – when I knew, having spent a day with him earlier that year at Barry White’s barbecue at the latter’s home near Santa Ynez, that Michael could have given it himself, perfectly well. He should have been allowed to. The comprehensive gagging of Michael by DiLeo was a move which privately outraged La Toya and Jermaine. They were beginning to feel, despite having hired DiLeo to manage the family’s acclaimed Victory Tour, that the manager was selling their brother short. Worse, that he was turning him into a laughing stock. It certainly seemed that way when, contrary to Michael’s protests that his skin was lightening due to treatment for the skin pigmentation deficiency Vitiligo, DiLeo suggested to the world that he was actually having it bleached. That it contradicted the line in Michael’s celebrated hit that it doesn’t really matter if you’re black or white, appeared to escape him. Then there was Bubbles, the pet chimpanzee, who accompanied Michael on every leg of the tour and shared his hotel room; rumours that he slept in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, to preserve his vocal chords; his landmark endorsement deal for Pepsi, during the filming of a commercial for which a pyrotechnic display set his hair alight, leading to tales of new hair-weave treatments hitherto unheard-of on planet Earth.
Meanwhile, back in Encino, California, in the grounds of the mock-Tudor mansion he had purchased, Peter Pan began building his personal Disneyland. Neverland was at once a fortress and an amusement park complete with a zoo, movie theatre, animated model museum, ice cream parlour and toy store – filled with models of the ‘friends’ he wasn’t allowed to cultivate as a child, and with whom he had never-ending fantasy conversations. It was weird. When I visited Neverland, I was upset by it. The grounds were filled with topiary cut in animal shapes; snakes slithered around the house; and Michael had such a collection of hard-core pornography, it had to be seen to be believed. Here was the guy who'd won 8 Grammy awards for Thriller: the consummate professional living the lifestyle of an obsessive. Of the actual human beings he deigned to hang with, every one seemed damaged, compromised or challenged in some way - just like him. Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Diana Ross, Marlon Brando – all significantly older than Michael himself. Perhaps only Paul McCartney, whom he’d met through music industry executive Judd Lander, with whom he later recorded and whose Beatles publishing rights Michael purchased in 1985, was a genuinely sane and balanced friend. The one friendship he could have done with was not to last.
When he wasn’t duncing around with eccentric pals, Michael was filling his Neverland ranch with hoards of innocent children. Many of them were cancer victims, some were terminally ill, others deprived and poverty-stricken. It was, he insisted, about giving them a chance at the childhood he’d never had himself. That Michael’s heart was loving was never in doubt. Having watched him inter-act with my then five year-old daughter Mia, whom he invited with a little gang of others to sing with him on stage during his Wembley Stadium concert in July 1992 – he had a dressing room on the stage itself, his legendary hat dangling from the bulb-popping mirror - there was no doubt that he identified better with children than adults; that he was clinging to the childhood he never had. It was the reason he was desperate to have children of his own, despite the fact that he was incapable of maintaining relationships with their mothers. After his childless 1994 marriage to Elvis’s daughter Lisa Marie Presley ended in divorce after only two years, he had 2 children - Prince Michael I and Paris Katherine - in his brief, chilly marriage to nurse Debbie Rowe. A third child, Prince Michael II - who made headlines when his father dangled him as a baby over a hotel balcony – was born to an un-named woman.
Where it went wrong for him, I reckon, is that the edges became blurred. It was only a matter of time before his fantasy dream world imploded. Michael would learn to his everlasting cost that some children are more innocent than others – often in direct proportion to the influence of their parents. No smoke without fire, huh? No clean-break comeback from accusations of the corruption of minors, however deluded those accusations may have been. His 2005 trial was one of the largest and most documented legal battles in history. The debate rages to this day as to whether, despite conclusive verdicts, Michael was actually guilty of child abuse. His consistent argument – that innocent kids were the only people who made him feel secure – would turn Neverland into Dangerland, a sinister territory where adult desires and urges invaded the innocent realm of childhood.
As for the money: a millionaire from the age of 14, and having banked fortunes in the ensuing years, big-spender shopping addict Michael became monstrously broke. On the brink of bankruptcy, and owing millions in tax as well as to a variety of individuals for defaulting on deals - including one with Prince Abdullah of Bahrain for two unmade albums for which he allegedly advanced the singer £3.3 million - he was forced to flog Neverland and agree to his hugely ambitious 50-date O2 comeback. With mastermind DiLeo long-gone, the debts had continued to rise. As his half-century loomed, he stepped out from behind his Oz-style smokescreen, looked in on 21st Century reality, and vowed to reinvent himself as an adult in charge of his destiny for the sake of his kids. The trouble was, he wasn’t strong enough for a mad bad world. He wouldn’t even allow his children to go to school; couldn't bring himself to let them experience the normal childhood he never had. His loyal family rallied, ranting endlessly about the O2 commitment, warning that Michael, who by this time was dangerously addicted to painkillers after allegedly having broken a vertebra, was far too frail to do such a mammoth run of shows. Their warnings went unheeded. Cocky promoters AEG, who were under-insured, got to pay the price.
A few of us had been saying for months that the 02 concerts would never go ahead.
I believe Michael knew that, too. He probably had an inkling that his days were numbered, that his fragile heart would never sustain the pace. Was his announcement of the comeback, the frantic scramble for tickets, the tidal-wave revival in global Jackomania, his way of checking out - not with a whimper, which would have been an pitiful let-down, but with the loudest, baddest, Jacko-worthy bang - ? We’ll never know. What we get to keep, let’s not forget, is the music.
Michael and I shared a few cherished personal friends. One of the best, Jonathan Morrish, who orchestrated Michael’s publicity for years at CBS Records,who was later a senior executive at Sony Music, and who truly loved Michael, said this:
‘Michael leaves behind one of the greatest musical legacies of all time. He didn’t just change music, he changed the whole music industry. I still miss him as a friend and also share in the world’s sense of loss of an extraordinary entertainer. People always ask me what he was like – to which I say that he was kind and sensitive, humorous and exciting. He was a great guy. Listen to his music … and you will discover what he was like. You don’t make music as great without knowing a thing or two about the human soul. It is music that will reach out to generations down the ages. My heart goes out to his family, and always will.’