He was the black Elvis. As glorious and tragic as that.
As mesmerising and as monumental. As adorable and pitiful.
As epic, unforgettable and beautiful.
Michael Jackson, dead at 50, had talent to burn, the kind of talent that comes along once in a generation. Yet his private life too often obscured those great gifts.
Like Elvis, he craved fame and was destroyed by it.
Like Elvis, Michael had a genius for touching the human heart – he could make you sing, dance, weep and gasp with wonder – and yet he never seemed happy inside his own skin.
Like Elvis, he broke down the apartheid barriers that existed in American music.
Carefully segregated radio stations meant little in the face of instant classics such as I Want You Back, Billie Jean and dozens more.
Armed with nothing more than his ability to sing and dance, Michael Jackson touched the world, and yet could not be saved from himself.
Despite the skin lightening – perhaps a sad, misguided attempt to finally escape the shadow of his domineering father – and the way his music crossed all racial barriers, he was born, lived and died a black man.
His family were black. His musical roots were black. And the boy from Gary, Indiana, was Motown to his bones.
Watch the clip on YouTube of the Jackson brothers auditioning in 1968 for Tamla Motown as 10-year-old Michael goes through his moves. He’s the funkiest little guy in the world. He dances like James Brown’s grandson and he sings like an angel. The glossy sheen of the Jackson 5 is missing and what you get is pure, undiluted soul. In the best of his music, that soul was always there.
There was always something of the old-school showbiz star about Michael. He was, above all, an entertainer. A song and dance man in the great tradition.
It was not difficult to understand how he could become great friends with Elizabeth Taylor.
What we miss today, and who we mourn today, is all based upon how that dazzling young entertainer made us feel.
Debate will always rage about his private life – the surgeon’s scalpel, the Peter Pan fantasies, the bizarre relationships with children.
He was acquitted of child abuse but those allegations never truly left him in life, and they will not let him go in death. Already there are those saying: “Michael could never harm a child.”
You will also certainly hear the opposite said. And grief should not kid us into thinking Michael was just misunderstood.
Nobody who dangles his baby over the edge of a hotel balcony can be considered entirely sane. But what overwhelms all the controversy and rumour and scandal is the memory of that magical entertainer burning up stage and screen with his brothers or alone – a song and dance man sent by heaven.
The biggest star of all time? Maybe. In his short, weird, wonderful life he was certainly up there with the greatest – Sinatra, The Beatles and Elvis.
But in terms of record sales, none of them – not the giants of American song, nor The Beatles – could match the
100 million sales of Thriller, a figure that will be out of date by the time you get to the end of this sentence.
For Michael Jackson is about to get even bigger, unimaginably bigger, as a new generation discovers him and those of us who grew up with him remember what we loved in the first place.
The surgery, the scandal, the whole Wacko Jacko phenomenon buried Michael Jackson’s music. The weirdness buried the memory of those dance moves. All that will change now.
Already – as I hear the records, look at the footage on YouTube and marvel once more at the fleet-footed Thriller video and the moonwalking of Billie Jean – I am dazzled to see how great he was.
The music and the moves burst with vitality. And with Jackson, as much as Gene Kelly doing Singin’ In The Rain, the song and the dance are inseparable.
Which is bitterly ironic, because he had not made much music in recent years. Few people under the age of 20 know Michael Jackson. But they will soon.
They call his life a soap opera. But it starred a millionaire who likes hanging out with children, undergoing cosmetic surgery that is closer to self-mutilation, and with a pet chimp called Bubbles as his best friend. It’s hardly Emmerdale, is it? No, Michael Jackson’s life was not a soap opera. It was a Shakespearean tragedy.
Someone once said that there is no second act in American lives.
But Michael Jackson’s story breaks down into three very distinct acts. The beginning is the lavishly talented child bursting on to the world stage with his carefully choreographed brothers.
The middle is the solo superstar of the late 70s and early 80s, the iconic dazzler of 1979’s Off The Wall and 1982’s Thriller.
The end is the bizarre figure of the past 20 years, the facemasks, sexual abuse claims and surgery so cruel and ill-judged it literally carved away the face we loved.
He was a beautiful boy. He was a handsome young man. And everyone knew it but him.
Behind me, I can hear someone on the rolling news describing Michael as “a frail 50-year-old man” and those words make me catch my breath.
Because for someone of my generation who watched the story unfold from the first page, the most potent memory of Michael Jackson was that first sight.
The cliché is that Michael was a big kid. The truth is he was never allowed to be a child. Unlike the other giants of modern music – Lennon, Presley, Sinatra, Madonna and all the rest – Michael Jackson was a star before he had even reached puberty.
The Jackson 5 appeared in a country torn apart by racial tension, where the Black Panthers were fighting endemic racism, where ghettos such as Watts and Harlem were in flames in the summer, where the two heroes of black America – the militant Malcolm X and the pacifist Martin Luther King – were both cut down by an assassin’s gun.
Then came the Jackson 5, a different generation from other Motown acts such as The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder and The Supremes. And yet, under those afros and mock-hippy psychedelic clothes, equally wonderful and reassuring.
At a time when America was tearing itself apart, the Jackson 5 appeared to soothe troubled waters. They made happy pop music with just enough funk in there to make their great rivals, the Osmond brothers, look woefully anaemic.
Yet they would have been nothing much without that incredible little kid up front. He was always a solo act. Even surrounded by his elder brothers Tito, Jackie, Marlon and Jermaine, the star was always Michael. Michael in his superfly gear grinning with Richard Nixon.
Michael striking up a precocious friendship with Diana Ross (he rarely seemed happier than in the company of an older female star such as Ross or Liz Taylor). Michael making the rockers of Rolling Stone magazine gawp at the mountain of talent in his tiny little frame.
The Jackson 5 would never have passed that Motown audition without him. But that talent came at a price.
BORN in Gary on August 29, 1958, Michael was singing professionally at 11. But before that there was a long, hard apprenticeship under the gruesome tutelage of his dad Joe Jackson.
Michael Jackson’s father was a svengali and a sadist. He drilled his sons in the smiley art of showbusiness while subjecting them to horrific abuse. Michael Jackson was both formed and destroyed in these childhood years.
Decades later, in 2001, he told the Oxford Union: “My father was a management genius. But what I really wanted was a dad.”
Joe Jackson was a demonic presence who turned the family home into something between a stage school and a concentration camp. He quite literally whipped his sons into shape.
Yet the cruelty was more than a desire for entertainment excellence.
When rehearsals were over, he had other ways to torment his sons, especially Michael, the little star and yet the most despised. One night while Michael was sleeping, Joseph climbed in through his bedroom window wearing a Halloween mask and scared his son witless. Michael never got over the fear that he might be kidnapped.
In those early years in the bleak Mid West city of Gary, Joseph Jackson’s pranks were laced with malice and spite, and the rehearsals were not complete without physical abuse.
As the little frontman, and the carrier of all the family’s greatest hopes, it was the singer who took the brunt of the violence.
Big brother Marlon remembered one occasion when their father held Michael upside down with one hand, and with the other “pummelled him over and over again, hitting him on his back and buttocks”.
If fame was a nightmare for Michael Jackson, then the years before fame were a living hell. He later recalled, weeping on Oprah Winfrey’s sofa in 1993, rehearsals where his father kept time with a belt that could also be used for whipping. For years Michael Jackson could not look at his father without literally being sick.
He told Oprah: “He was very strict, very hard, very stern. Just a look would scare you. There have been times when he’d come to see me and I’d get sick, start to throw up.”
Part of the Jackson attraction was that these smiling clean-cut brothers seemed to embody all the family values that were being challenged in 60s America. And yet the young Michael often appears as solitary as an only child. Loneliness – just not having someone to talk to – troubled him as much as the abuse he received at the hands of his ambitious father.
In that confessional interview with Oprah, he said: “I remember going to the recording studio and there was a park across the street and I’d see all the children playing and I would cry because it would make me sad that I would have to work instead.
“I was most comfortable on stage. Once I got off stage, I was very sad. Lonely and sad. There were times when I had great times with my brothers, but I used to cry from loneliness. You don’t get to do things that other children get to do.
“It was always work, work, work. One concert to the next. The recording studio. Television shows. Photo sessions. Always something to do. I didn’t have friends.”
For all their squeaky-clean image, the Jackson 5 paid their dues. Before Berry Gordy of Motown found them, they played strip clubs and black dance halls. Like The Beatles cutting their chops in the brothels of Hamburg, the Jackson 5 were already hardened veterans of live shows with difficult, drunken audiences long before they entered the public spotlight.
Michael was always dusted with magic. Even when he was still performing with the Jackson 5, he was being groomed by Motown to take his place among the giants of the label such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross (another singer who would eventually cast off her backing band).
He insisted his brothers were never envious of his solo stardom, saying: “They were always happy for me, that I could do certain things. I’ve never felt jealousy.” He recorded four solo albums when he was still with the Jackson 5.
With the gorgeous Got To Be There in 1972 he revealed an ability to sing about the heart with the ringing beauty of Sinatra.
The Jackson 5 left Motown in 1975 and reinvented themselves as The Jacksons. They were ready to ride the tidal wave of 70s disco, a genre Michael would define even more than John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.
Like Diana Ross, the star whose career path he followed most closely, he had a shot at movies, playing the scarecrow in The Wiz.
While making the film he met producer and arranger Quincy Jones who would turn the former prince of Motown into the King of Pop.
Off The Wall sold 20 million copies – a figure that will surely double now – but it was the next collaboration with Quincy Jones, 1982’s Thriller, that defined pop music in the late 20th century and turned Michael Jackson into the biggest-selling star of all time.
He was the first modern star, a son of MTV and the music video. It is impossible to hear Billie Jean and not see Michael moonwalking across a city street where the pavement looks like it comes from super-disco Studio 54.
It is impossible to hear Thriller and not see Michael getting down with the undead. He made pop music filmic, as glossy and dazzling as an MGM musical from the 50s. In many ways it was an old-fashioned attitude to showbusiness – the idea that an entertainer should be able to do anything, and do it brilliantly.
But Thriller was always ferociously modern because it harnessed new technology and turned pop’s marketplace into one big moonwalking global village.
This was wonderful music that sounds as good today as on the day it was made. Full of funky fever, as the song says. But already the black clouds were gathering.
Practising one of his complex dance routines, he broke his nose and needed surgery. He had rhinoplasty surgery but complained of breathing problems. Then he had another procedure done on his nose. By now he was discovering he had a taste for the surgeon’s knife.
He was also increasingly taken with the idea of escaping into a fantasy world. In a revealing Smash Hits interview in January 1983, he said: “I love ET because it reminds me of me. Someone from another world coming down and you becoming friends with them and this person is, like, 800 years old and he’s filling you with all kinds of wisdom and he can teach you to fly.
“That whole fantasy thing which I think is great. I mean, who don’t wanna fly?”
Michael’s eccentricities were indulged because of his stardom. He was infinitely more famous than Ronald Reagan, so when he bowled up at the White House on May 14, 1984, the arch-conservative President had no choice but to smile politely at Michael’s one white glove, toy-town military uniform and trousers that stopped halfway down his shins.
Michael was at the White House to accept an award for his support of charities helping the victims of drug and alcohol addiction. Even as his behaviour became more eccentric, he was a tireless worker for good causes and a generous supporter of charities.
His warped childhood years had given him a hunger to help others. Sometimes this manifested itself in corny moments, like when he emoted about “the children” and the dying planet in a rock video.
But more often he cut to the heart. Famine in Africa produced Band Aid and Do They Know It’s Christmas? in the UK. In the US, Michael co-wrote We Are The World with Lionel Richie. Only Michael Jackson could sing, “We are the world, we are the children” and make you reach for your credit card rather than a sickbag.
By 1986, the madness was starting to overwhelm the music. Michael Jackson the singer, dancer and performer was being talked about less than Wacko Jacko. It wasn’t superstardom as we knew it. There were no rumours of sexual affairs with young women or debauched nights on a mountain of cocaine.
But a story appeared about Michael sleeping in an oxygen chamber to slow the ageing process.
It turned out to be untrue. Although many people still believe it, because they will always be prepared to believe anything about Michael Jackson.
But what was true was the good-looking black man of his early 20s was starting to disappear inside the bleached, remodelled features of this stranger, this alien creature, this Wacko Jacko. Medical professionals suggested Michael suffered from body dysmorphic disorder, a psychological condition where sufferers have little perception how they are viewed by the wider world.
Michael didn’t think it was strange to have a manly Kirk Douglas-style cleft inserted into his increasingly pale chin. He thought it made him look more macho, more like the kind of son his father would have loved possibly.
But the experts couldn’t explain the demons that drove Michael again and again to the operating room, even when the face in the mirror was unrecognisable as the fresh-faced kid he had been. Maybe that was the idea.
He would never again reach the commercial and artistic heights he achieved with Thriller. But then neither would anyone else.
BAD, in 1987, was his first album in five years and sold only half as well as Thriller. But it produced seven hit singles including the gorgeous I Just Can’t Stop Loving You, The Way You Make Me Feel, The Man In The Mirror and Dirty Diana. Only Michael Jackson could sell 30 million copes of an album and consider it a failure. He later said: “I’m never pleased with anything. I’m a perfectionist. It’s part of who I am.”
It felt like he had been around for ever, yet he was not even 30 years old.
In 1989, he got an Artist of the Decade Award from Elizabeth Taylor, who called him “the true king of pop, rock and soul”. The title was shortened to the King of Pop.
But it was then that the music became less important than the stardom, and the stardom less so than the strangeness.
Michael Jackson continued to be the biggest name on the planet. In 1991, he renewed his Sony contract for $65million, received a Living Legend award at the Grammies and wrote his autobiography, Moonwalk. In Africa, he drew crowds of 100,000 people in the Gabon and sat on a golden throne in the Ivory Coast.
There was a lot of love for Michael Jackson. He inspired real affection. If only he could have learned to love himself.
The 90s were a squalid and unhappy time. Neverland – the mansion he wanted to be a place of magic and wonder for children – was raided by Los Angeles police and FBI agents searching for evidence of paedophilia.
In an emotional speech at Neverland in 1993, Michael Jackson begged the world: “I ask all of you to wait and hear the truth before you condemn me. Don’t treat me like a criminal.’’
He was accused of child sex abuse by 13-year-old Jordan Chandler and his father. Jordan’s mother was steadfast in her support of Michael, insisting there had been no wrongdoing.
The charges were eventually dropped after he paid Chandler a reported £16million but the effect was devastating. He began taking painkillers and tranquilisers to deal with his stress and shame.
His taste for chemical crutches such as Valium, Xanax and Ativan had soon morphed into full-blown addiction. He never got over either the drugs or the allegations.
He told the Mirror in a 1999 interview: “I’d slit my wrists rather than hurt a child. I could never do that. No one will ever know how much these wicked rumours have hurt me.”
IN 1995, he tried to recover his former glory by releasing HIStory, an unhappy mix of greatest hits and new material. But the truth is he had never been more unpopular.
When he appeared at the 1996 Brit Awards surrounded by children, it was too much for Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, who invaded the stage, waved his bottom at him and mimed flatulence. No star had ever been so publicly mocked. To many people, Jarvis Cocker was a hero.
Michael retreated from these dog days into a curious version of family life.
In 1994, the year after Jordan Chandler’s claims of sexual abuse, he married Elvis’s daughter – the beautiful Lisa Marie Presley – but they divorced after just 19 months. Yet he longed to be a husband and a father.
In 1996, he married for the second time, to the not-quite-so-lovely nurse Deborah Jeanne Rowe. They had a son and daughter, Paris and Prince, who were frequently seen sporting Elephant Man sacks over their heads. In 2002, his third child Prince Michael II, nicknamed Blanket, was born. The most famous shot of young Blanket was when Michael maniacally dangled him from a hotel balcony in Berlin.
Michael always insisted his kids’ lives were normal. “I am letting them enjoy their childhood as much as possible,” he told Good Morning America last year. “I let them go to the arcade and to the movies. I want them to do things I didn’t get to do. I get emotional when I see them having a wonderful time.”
By all accounts he was a loving, doting father to his children. Paris and Prince look like regular all-American kids now – although you can’t help noticing they appear to be completely white.
PERHAPS in fatherhood Michael found what he had been looking for all his life – the simple things, the eternal things. Someone to talk to, someone to trust. Children to love and hang out with – without the FBI kicking down the door and the world turning away in disgust.
Michael Jackson is often referred to as a Peter Pan figure. But he reminds me more of one of Judy Garland’s companions in The Wizard of Oz.
In crotch-grabbing songs such as Dangerous, he resembles the Cowardly Lion who wishes he was brave.
In his heartbreaking addiction to changing his appearance, he seems like the Scarecrow who wishes he had a brain. And in his ham-fisted attempts to create a happy family life, he is the Tin Man, who wishes he had a heart and somewhere to keep it.
Michael Jackson was unknowable. Some things he would never concede. He always denied lightening his skin and claimed he had a rare condition that caused his skin to blanche with age.
When he told interviewer Martin Bashir in 2003 that sharing a bed with a young boy is “a beautiful thing”, it only muddied the waters even further.
The world could simply not believe Michael Jackson was as innocent as he said he was. As late as 2005, he was acquitted of sexually molesting 12-year-old Gavin Arvizo.
Even the facts of his death – of a heart attack on June 25, 2009, in LA – will become shrouded in mystery and rumour, if only because of the drugs he was taking and had been for so long.
For all the millions he earned, stories of money troubles dogged him in recent years. It seems inconceivable. In 1985, at the peak of his fame, he paid $47million for the publishing rights to the Beatles songs. But like a distressed aristocrat flogging the family silver, the rights to the Lennon-McCartney magic had been sold off years ago.
He made millions but spent millions too, and gave millions away, and the tours and the records had been few and far between over the past 10 years.
IN death, Michael Jackson may find the peace that eluded him in his short, sad, glorious lifetime. And yet it was ultimately a wonderful life – because with his life-affirming music and his awesome moves, Michael Jackson reminded us why we are alive.
He was on the verge of another comeback, another bid to win back the world’s love.
It was not to be, but now that he is gone the grotesque aspects of his life seem to fade away.
Too often over the past 20 years, Michael Jackson has resembled the Dr Frankenstein’s monster of the American Dream.
But now we look at those dance moves and hear that angelic voice, we see him when he was young and beautiful and moved like summer lightning, and we think – oh, yes.
That is why we loved him.
Michael Jackson dead at 50. All you need to know about the King of Pop.