Sources: RockCellar Magazine – By Steve Rosen | Edited By – All Things Michael
Michael’s personal menagerie of exotic and wild animals was still a zoo in the sky and Bubbles only a distant thought. Neverland hadn’t broken ground and extravagant shopping sprees hadn’t been indulged in.
No, in 1981 Michael was still as normal as you could be if you were a 23-year old musician with an arsenal of astonishing talent and poised on the edge of a career about to turn you into the biggest artist on the planet. The artist was still happy, good-natured, and addicted to nothing more than making the most passionate and perfectly constructed pop music anyone would ever hear.
He was just two years down the road from making Off the Wall, his first collaboration with producer Quincy Jones and the album that was the first step in a trajectory that would launch him from artist to icon. It was a remarkable record that showcased the young singer’s unbelievable range and versatility on songs like Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Rock With You and She’s Out Of My Life.
Additionally, he was still performing with his brothers Tito, Jackie, Marlon and Randy as the Jacksons and had released Triumph about a year earlier.
When given the opportunity to speak with Michael, I jumped at the chance. Who wouldn’t? Even this early in his career, he rarely did interviews and I knew meeting and talking to the young performer would be something special. The interview was held at the Columbia Records offices in Century City, CA.
Century City was not so much a city as it was a community of high-rise business offices, expensive apartments, and high-end boutique stores.
Columbia Records was a stunningly modern building molded from glass and chrome and on this particular day was the location where a whole assortment of Jacksons were convened. I went to the Epic Records suite—Epic was a Columbia subsidiary and the Jacksons’ label— where the publicists had gathered a group of music journalists. They ushered us downstairs into a massive conference room and seated us at various tables arranged around the floor.
There were hard shell trap cases strewn about the wooden floor suggesting that the Jacksons had been rehearsing here.
After sitting by myself at a table for several minutes, the conference doors flew open and in marched Michael, Jermaine, Jackie, Randy, Tito and Janet. You have to understand that in 1981 Janet Jackson was only 15 years old. She had appeared in a sitcom called Good Times but her debut was still a year away when she would release her debut self-titled album. When she walked through that door with her older brothers, she looked more like some fan tagging along than she did a blood relative.
As the group walked in, various members were directed to certain tables where other music writers were waiting. To be honest, I wasn’t sure which Jackson was which. I couldn’t have told you the difference between Jermaine or Jackie but I knew what Michael Jackson looked like and I was silently hoping he’d be directed to my table. Sure enough, he was. I rose and shook his hand.
What struck me was his height. Michael was taller than I thought. Or not exactly tall but tallish. He was thin in the muscled and sinewy way dancers were. There was a genuinely sincere smile revealing bright, white teeth. His hair was short and not stylized in the way it would later become.
He wore a brownish, uniform-looking shirt with epaulet-styled patches on both shoulders, which bore three stripes and a crescent moon-looking design. Michael was rocking jeans, a simple belt and the black loafers he always wore.
Michael sat down at my table along with another brother . I said hello to Tito after he was introduced to me—thankfully I hadn’t addressed him as one of the other brothers—and was going to introduce myself to the young girl seated next to Michael but she simply sat down and ignored me. She hadn’t said a word. I tried to get her to look in my direction but she was fixated on Michael.
Remember, I had no idea who this person was and simply thought she was a friend of the band who was hanging out. To my surprise, chagrin and even horror, I’d soon realize otherwise.
My cassette player had been set up and was ready to go. I pushed the cheap, plastic microphone across the table so it was perched in front of Michael. Admittedly, my heart was beating overtime. There was more than a small case of nerves. This was Michael Jackson, the king of pop. I didn’t want to embarrass myself. Fighting through the terror, I presented my first question.
“Destiny was a little bit different than Triumph for the band in terms of producing and writing it by yourselves?” I asked.
As I’m talking, my eyes were focused on Michael. Establishing eye contact with an interviewee was important in conducting in-person interviews. You wanted to make sure your eyeballs were locked on the person sitting across the table from you. The simple ritual created a sense of intimacy and connected you on an emotional level. There was a non-verbal communication and a world of information could be expressed without uttering a word.
So imagine my horror when I found myself staring at the side of Michael’s head because he was looking directly at this young girl perched at his side. It was as if he hadn’t heard my question or if he had, it simply wasn’t registering. It threw me for a moment but I kept my poise.
What happened next was so bizarre, alien, uncomfortable and unreal that it’s hard to find the exact—or enough—words to describe the moment. While Michael was still turned and looking directly at this young teenage girl with black hair, she began speaking to him.
“Was Destiny a little bit different for you guys because you produced the album and wrote the songs?”
For a second, I wasn’t sure what I’d heard. Had she just paraphrased my question? Had I stumbled over my words so badly that he didn’t understand what I was saying? Three seconds later, Michael started talking but he wasn’t looking at me. He was still turned sideways.
“Well, we did also on Destiny,” he said. “I think the difference is in progress and learning. I think each album you get better. But we wrote all the songs on Destiny except for one song, Blame it on the Boogie. With Triumph, I think we accomplished a lot of different things we’ve learned since Destiny. Destiny was the beginning and Triumph is like what we’ve accomplished since then. We have more freedom and we’re doing more arrangement. Trying different creative things, different sounds, all kinds of things like that now.”
My brain was still processing what had just happened. While delivering his response to the question, Michael never looked at me. His eyes remained fixed on this girl and the effect was so unsettling as to leave me sitting there with my mouth agape. I did not exist. It was one of those moments where you say to yourself, “I cannot believe what I just saw. That didn’t just happen.” You don’t want to admit that what just occurred was real so you keep trying to deny it. It’s a defense mechanism to keep you from losing it or at least going temporarily insane. You find excuses for it.
Was he talking through her? Was she channeling the voice of Michael? Was this a game? A joke? A Jackson family tradition nobody was telling me about? Were Michael and Janet really one person?
Flustered, flummoxed and battling to retain control, I soldiered on. “You feel you’ve progressed a long way from Gamble-Huff?” I asked. “Was that a period for the Jacksons that you’ve since, uh, thought you just went beyond that and wanted to produce yourselves? Did you feel they did a good job with the Jacksons?”
I could feel my tongue cleaving to the roof of my mouth and my brain sticking to the top of my skull. I was stuttering over my words and my thoughts wouldn’t pour out any faster than thick molasses from a jug. I managed this second question and was hoping for the best but that wasn’t happening. Once again this tiny voice issued from the girl. “Did you feel that Gamble and Huff did a good job with the Jacksons?”
Now I was totally freaked out. What I initially thought may have been just some lighthearted interplay between interviewer and interviewee became a truly strange and surreal exchange. I kept looking at both of them to see if they might break into smiles and tell me I was on Candid Camera or something. But there was no camera, no aha moment and no answer.
Michael never looked at me and to this day I wonder if that’s what really happened. Was I manifesting this scenario because it would later make for a great story? It would but I wasn’t. I only had to play the recorded interview and hear in all its unguarded glory my comments being echoed by this adolescent girl—later learning it was Janet Jackson—and Michael’s disembodied voice responding to somebody that wasn’t me.
I always felt like Robert DeNiro in the classic scene from Taxi Driver where he stared into the mirror and asked, “You talking to me?” Certainly Michael hadn’t been.
In all honesty though, he was a very sweet and charming person. His comments were forthright and thoughtful albeit massively quirky and crazy in the way they were delivered. I didn’t think he was trying to belittle or embarrass me. Possibly it was just some ritual meant to make him feel more at ease amongst strangers.
Following the interview, he ventured off into a corner of the big room and began dancing. It was a marvel to watch him from such a close distance. Truly he walked on air and floated three inches above the floor. When I asked him for a picture, he graciously consented. Putting his arm around my shoulder, he beamed at the camera with a huge grin. It was hard to believe if he had been trying to make me feel small or mock me in any way that he would have agreed to taking his picture with me.
Looking at that photo today, I’d like to think his smile meant, “You were OK, Steve. I can’t explain to you why that happened but it did. I wasn’t trying to hurt you. I know what being hurt feels like. It’s who I am. I am a Jackson.”
Excerpt taken from here.