A lonely life in reverse
Michael Jackson lived his childhood as an adult. When he grew up, he retreated into infantilism and a dangerous fascination with children, writes Will Pavia
THE most ordinary years in the life of Michael Jackson were his first half dozen in the rough industrial town of Gary, Indiana. Then, like Tibetan monks lighting on a young Dalai Lama, the future King was recognised by the agents of pop music and groomed for a life apart.
Watching the 10-year-old Jackson reorganise the publicity shoot for the Jackson 5's first single, placing himself in front of his brothers and on one knee, a record executive was sure that they had found one who belonged at the top of the industry.
"How did he know that, how to take a publicity photo," said Ben Brown, then a high-ranking executive at Steeltown Records, albeit speaking with a great deal of hindsight. "He was an old soul, as if he had been a superstar in another life."
Born on August 29, 1958, the seventh of nine children, his mother, Katherine, was a shy woman from rural Alabama who walked with a limp because of her polio.
His father, Joseph, was a crane operator for a steel firm who earned $65 a week and aspired to work in the music industry. His own band never amounted to much, but when he heard his second son, Tito, playing his own discarded guitar, another avenue into that world opened before him.
"I envisioned these kids making audiences happy by sharing their talent," he said later. "Talent they'd maybe inherited from me."
At the age of three, Michael began singing and at the age of four it became apparent that he ought to be the lead. He was quick on his feet too -- Tito recalls him dodging blows whenever his father "took a swing at him", the first signs of the fleet-footedness that was a hallmark of his career came as he avoided violence.
His father was a strict disciplinarian with some odd ideas of how to enforce order. Later Jackson would recall the thrashings his father considered necessary to keep the young band in line, a cycle of violence that intensified as he, alone among the brothers, began to stand up to him. The only threat that worked on his father was the threat to stop singing.
His mother's parents had divorced and she was determined to hold her own family together, even though she and her husband were now moving in radically different directions.
She had become a devout Jehovah's Witness, he was busy booking the brothers to play strip clubs. Aged nine, Jackson was quite used to watching striptease. As part of one of their early numbers, he was encouraged to leave the stage and crawl beneath the tables, looking up ladies' skirts, flashing lewd smiles.
"I may be young," he said while introducing a song by Smokey Robinson, "but I do know what the blues are all about". Robinson himself would say that the child had an "old soul".
Commentators have since noted the paradox at the heart of Jackson's strange life -- a childhood spent being an adult, followed by an adulthood spent as a child.
The Jackson 5 graduated from strip clubs and talent contests to the top of the charts via a record deal with the Motown label in 1969. They were brought to Los Angeles, and by November 1969 the single 'I Want You Back' had topped the charts. In the next seven years the brothers were worked for all they were worth, releasing 13 albums and touring venues and television studios with 'Baby Michael' at the centre of the whirlwind.
"I was most comfortable on stage but once I got off I was . . . very sad," he said later.
Adolescence brought pimples; fans who saw him up close were shocked; his father told him he was ugly. He was certain this was true: he felt his skin was too dark and his nose too wide.
His first love, he said, was Diana Ross, who at other times had served as his surrogate mother in show business. He claimed the teen actress Tatum O'Neal as his first real girlfriend. She held his hand at a party in 1977. "It was serious stuff," he said. "She touched me."
For her part, Ms O'Neal, like Diana Ross and, later, Brook Shields, insisted that any relationship was strictly platonic. The brothers had left Motown in 1976. In 1977, Jackson made a break for freedom, following Ross to New York to appear alongside her in a film of 'The Wizard Of Oz', playing the scarecrow.
His first massively successful solo album, 'Off The Wall', was born out of his friendship with the film's musical director Quincy Jones. 'Off the Wall' was released in 1979. Jackson the songwriter was emerging from the chrysalis of Jackson the child star: he wrote a hit single, 'Don't Stop ('til You Get Enough)' and then, after more work with his brothers, started on what would become 'Thriller', the most successful album of all time.
Children all over the world gawped at the album cover and the $10m video of Jackson shaking and popping before a support act of zombies. A global brand was established: the moonwalk, the single sequined glove, the unlaced sneakers.
Sales of 'Thriller' jumped by 150,000 week on week. It was at the height of his success that Jackson began to retreat from the world that was so fascinated by him. He bought a ranch in California and called it Neverland. He built his own amusement park, stocked it with a menagerie of animals, including a chimpanzee called Bubbles, and spent afternoons alone riding his own Ferris wheel.
The stories multiplied: it was said that he slept in an oxygen tent and was determined to purchase the remains of the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick. The blaze of rumours was stoked further by the singer's own changing appearance. Some trace an addiction to plastic surgery back to the late 1970s. Jackson denied that he had undergone any operations but for work on his nose to help with his singing, and said the cause of his whitening skin was a dermatological condition called vitiligo.
His global commercial success continued with the album 'Bad' -- the video was directed by Martin Scorsese. The concerts incorporated lasers and the sight of Jackson flying like his hero Peter Pan on a wire. Concurrent with this sellout tour, his autobiography was published. Jackson declared himself "one of the loneliest people in the world".
Critics felt he was losing his touch, however. The music that always hauled him above the mire of stories about his sexuality, his appearance and his close friendships with child actors, like a giant crane at a stage show, was losing some of its power.
Rumours of child molestation hardened into accusations that threatened to land the singer in court. The police raided his home in 1993 after an allegation by the family of 11-year-old Jordy Chandler. He later arrived at an out-of-court settlement with the family for around $20m. Marriage, to Lisa Marie Presley, was widely regarded as an attempt to restore his reputation. The marriage failed, as did a second, to Debbie Rowe, his former nurse.
The albums of the 1990s were poorly received and his ability to raise his own children was questioned after he dangled the 11-month-old Prince Michael II from the window of a German hotel in 2001. Astonishingly for a man who had sold so many records, his finances were also said to be in a state of perpetual crisis, brought on by unrestrained spending.
His next appearance on the world stage followed a controversial television interview with the British journalist Martin Bashir, in which he admitted sharing a bed with a boy.
Police subsequently issued a warrant for his arrest, and he surrendered in a blaze of publicity, to stand trial on charges of molesting a 13-year-old boy. Though he was acquitted after his defence team highlighted the extraordinary past life of his accuser, the boy's mother, it was a rather partial victory. Two jurors said they thought him almost certainly guilty of child molestation and hoped that he would stop sleeping with young boys.
For all his troubles, his poor health and the chaos of his life, his music still seemed to offer a means of salvation. A new tour, announced in March, sold out in days. He insisted he could still moonwalk.
All that the tour might have been, is now left, like most of the rest of his barely believable life, as a subject for speculation.
"Why not just tell people I'm an alien from Mars," he told a biographer, J Randy Taraborelli, in 1995. "Tell them I eat live chickens and do a voodoo dance at midnight. They'll believe anything you say." (©The Times, London)