In 2009, during the week that followed the death of Michael Jackson, I found myself frantically attending to an update of the Omnibus Press book Michael Jackson: The Visual Documentary which had run to several editions but which was last published in 2005, just before the much publicised child molestation trial from which he was acquitted. The book was written by Adrian Grant, who had met Michael many times and once ran his UK fan club, and because of this Michael had endorsed the book, even going as far as to mention it in the credits in the booklet accompanying one of his compilation CDs.
In the years between the publication of the 2005 edition and his death I hadn’t paid much attention to whatever might have been happening in the world of Michael Jackson but I now realised that in the intervening years he didn’t appear to have done very much at all in terms of real work; no albums of new material, no concert tours, not many public appearances apart from the odd awards ceremony or shopping expedition. There was no real evidence of any new recordings, only vague statements about ‘writing new material’, though there were obviously recordings in the can as posthumous releases now indicate. What he did seem to have done, though, was travel a lot, often with an entourage of 25 or more, including his three children and attendant nursing staff, personal doctors, bodyguards and other ‘staff’, from America to Bahrain, where he was based for a while though he and most everyone else on his payroll took trips to Dubai, Paris, London, Hamburg and Tokyo, and to Ireland where he rented a castle for a while, and back to Bahrain again, and finally to America where, having fallen out with his hosts in Bahrain, he settled for a while in Las Vegas before finally returning to Los Angeles. The enormous expense of this nomadic lifestyle, the private planes, limousines and whole floors in five star hotels or the rented luxury homes with ten or more bedrooms, clearly explains why he was in financial difficulties. No one apart from Bill Gates and a few oil sheiks can afford to live like this, constantly on the run with huge entourages, yet he seems not to have cared one iota. Somehow the cost was paid from his mounting overdraft.
In the meantime he was the focus of all manner of expensive legal actions, from former managers and lawyers claiming unpaid fees, from financial institutions with million dollar claims for ‘restructuring debt’ or ‘asset management’, from employees at Neverland claiming unpaid wages, from the mother of his two elder children claiming maintenance, legal fees and changes in visitation rights, from people selling Jackson memorabilia which may or may not have been stolen from his various homes, and from assorted bandwagon jumpers with spurious claims about being sexually assaulted, all of which were thrown out of court, but all this must have been costing Jackson big money too. Indeed, a whole Jackson-led legal industry seemed to have developed to feed off him like a pack of vultures.
There also appears to have been an attempt by a racially motivated political organisation to recruit Michael to their cause by claiming that CBS/Sony had somehow fraudulently underpaid him in royalties, with the implication that this wouldn’t have happened had he been a white performer. Michael went along with this but the underlying perception is that the ‘black power’ set-up wanted the Jackson name for the publicity it ensured, while the claim against CBS/Sony was, at best, spurious and, at worst, complete fiction. Either way, the issue wasn’t resolved and the only parties to gain from it would have been lawyers and accountants charged with investigating the claims whose fees were no doubt debited to Michael’s account.
Crucially, his family, his mother, brothers and sisters, are largely absent from the diary-style day-to-day reportage I was editing. Also, he didn’t seem to have had one key advisor on whom he could depend and who was loyal unto him in the manner of say, Paul McGuiness to U2 or Jon Landau to Bruce Springsteen, to name but two premier league music acts with whom he might be compared. Managers came and went, and when they went they sued.
In amongst the entries were odd announcements about this or that project, a Hurricane Katrina benefit record, a ‘new album’ that he was ‘writing himself’, a business venture with some wealthy individual, a newly created label, but nothing seemed to have come of these plans beyond a press release dripping in optimistic hyperbole. Then there were appearances at awards ceremonies where, reading between the lines, the impression is given that a new award had been created especially for Michael – the ‘Legend Award’, the ‘Diamond Award’, the ‘Millennium Award’ – purely in the hope that he would attend the event to collect it in person and thus attract sponsors or boost publicity, both of which might or might not have benefited some charity or commercial interest somewhere along the line, but you somehow know that although someone somewhere would benefit financially from his appearance, it wasn’t Michael. Also, invariably, there were controversies over these appearances. Something would go wrong, a crowd security problem, a ticketing issue, or a misunderstanding over whether or not he was expected to actually perform, and through no fault of his own other than that he seemed to have appointed advisors who could not discriminate between what was good for him and what was not, between integrity and schlock, Michael ended up with egg on his face and the tabloids lapped it up.
The dreadful rootlessness of this lifestyle, the quagmire of endless trouble, the appalling uncertainly of everything surrounding him, not least the forthcoming O2 concerts that in the end never happened, seemed to me to be what drove him to escape reality with the prescription drugs that finally killed him. Somehow, when I’d finished editing this book, I couldn’t help but think he was better off out of it all.
There are two postscripts to this melancholy story.
The first is that although Michael had endorsed this book, said endorsement – which involved no financial transaction whatsoever – was withdrawn after Michael’s death. This was communicated to us by threatening letters from lawyers representing Michael’s estate after we failed to delete our tagline on the cover of the book stating that it was ‘Endorsed by the King of Pop’. A nasty court battle was avoided when we argued that it wouldn’t look good in the press if it became known that the estate appeared to be going against Michael’s wishes when he was alive, but we did remove the tagline on subsequent print runs.
The second is that in November 1972, believe it or not, I met Michael. A preamble: he was in London with the Jackson 5 to perform four concerts in the UK, and at a press lunch for the J5 at the Talk of the Town in Leicester Square (which became The Hippodrome and is now a casino), I happened to be sitting opposite John Peel, with whom I was on nodding terms at the time. Before the J5 performed we were served roast chicken, delivered to us on plates by waiters. Peel sniffed at his and frowned. “Waiter,” he said in his inimitable Liverpool drawl, “kindly remove this dead animal.” During the J5’s performance there was an absolutely magic moment when Michael, then aged 14, did a spin during the song ‘I’ll Be There’ just at the point where he screams, ‘Girl, just look over your shoulder’, which is exactly what he did. I gasped, and so did JP, and in that instant we caught each other’s glance, silently acknowledging our shared awareness that we had witnessed a moment of true pop wonder, and knowing without need to comment that we had felt exactly the same rush of excitement at exactly the same moment.
The following day I, along with several other writers, went to meet the J5 at their hotel, the Churchill in Portman Square, now a Hyatt Regency. The square was chock full of fans, almost all of whom hissed at me as I showed my invitation and was allowed through the police lines that held them back. MJ and his brothers were at tables in a reception room and we were shuffled amongst them. When it came for my turn to sit at Michael’s table, I stared into the eyes of the boy who would one day become pop’s biggest star and marry Elvis’ daughter. He told me he ‘loved being here in London’, he ‘loved his fans’, he ‘loved being in the J5’; indeed he loved just about everything and everyone and had clearly been pre-programmed what to say to the press to the point of extreme blandness, but then again what else could I expect? He’d just turned 14, but he seemed much younger to me, still a little boy, and a rather shy and timid one at that. In the following week’s MM I wrote: “Michael Jackson is poised to become the biggest coloured show business sensation the world had ever known. Put his name in neon lights, splash him across the front page, write it in the sky, tell everyone you know… Michael will be a brighter star than anything the milky way can serve up.”
I got that right, didn’t I? But at what cost?