Source: Vanity Fair – By Lisa Robinson / Photographs by Annie Leibovitz
With her interviews and notes from the early chapters of the pop king’s career, the author resurrects the innocent, ebullient, exploring youth as he confided his struggle to move beyond his family and take control of his art. Photographs by Annie Leibovitz, from her 1989 V.F. shoot with a then 31-year-old Jackson.
Michael Jackson, photographed in October 1989, in Los Angeles. Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.
The Westin Crown Center Hotel, Kansas City, Missouri, February 23, 1988: Michael Jackson had just finished the opening night of his Bad tour and his manager, Frank DiLeo, arranged for me to visit the star in his hotel suite. No handlers, no bodyguards, no hangers-on, no family members—unusual for a Jackson visitation—but we’d had a friendly journalist-to-artist relationship for the past 16 years, and Michael asked to see me. For Kansas City, the suite was lavish, the size of a small apartment, but as I entered, let in by a security guard, Michael was nowhere to be seen. “Michael?,” I called as I walked around. After a few minutes, I heard giggling from behind a door. The 29-year-old Michael Jackson was literally playing hide-and-seek. Eventually he appeared, wearing black trousers and a bright-red shirt, his semi-straightened hair in a loose ponytail with a few strands falling over his face. He hugged me. He was taller than I’d remembered, taller than he appeared in photos, and while his giggling continued, I thought that the hug was a hug from a man—not a boy—and while there was nothing sexual, it just was strong. Then he pulled back, looked at me, and said, in the lower and more “normal” of the two voices he could produce at will, “What’s that smell? What’s that perfume? I know that smell.” I laughed. “Oh, Michael, you don’t know this perfume. It’s an old drag-queen perfume from the 1950s.” At the words “drag queen” he started giggling and repeated: “Drag queen … hahahahahaha!!! No, I know it. It’s Jungle Gardenia, right?” I was more than slightly surprised. “How do you know that? The only people who’ve ever recognized this perfume are Bryan Ferry and Nick Rhodes. Well, I guess you’re not as la-la as they say you are.” The phrase “la-la” cracked him up and he repeated it: “La-la … hahahahahaha!!!”
A few days later I sent a case of Jungle Gardenia to his hotel suite at New York City’s Helmsley Palace. The following night, on March 2, I stood in the wings at Radio City Music Hall as Michael waited with gospel singers the Winans, about to perform “Man in the Mirror” for the Grammy Awards live telecast. Looking at me he whispered, “Thanks for the smells.…I’m wearing it now.”
Michael Jackson was one of the most talented, adorable, enthusiastic, sweet, ebullient performers I’d ever interviewed. From 1972 to 1989, I spent time with Michael at his family’s home in Encino, California, in New York City, backstage at his concerts, at parties, at Studio 54, and on the phone. And in 1972, when Michael was 14 but I thought he was 12 (he was 10 when he got to Motown but was told to say he was 8 because he’d seem cuter), we did the first of many interviews.
From 1972 to 1989, I spent time with Michael at his family’s home in Encino, California, in New York City, backstage at his concerts, at parties, at Studio 54, and on the phone.
The Jackson Five (from left, Michael, Marlon, Tito, Jermaine, and Jackie) and their parents, Joseph and Katherine Jackson, surrounded by the group’s awards and accolades at home in Encino, 1971. By John Olson/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.
Havenhurst, Encino, California, October 8, 1972: A sign on the gate to the Jackson family’s house says, beware of guard dog, with the phone number of the place that trained the dog. (“Promotion,” Michael tells me later.) According to Michael, Liberace used to live across the street, and the Jacksons would visit him and look at his diamonds. The family has a German shepherd named Heavy and a Doberman named Hitler (the group’s drummer named him Hitler), but when they talk about that dog in interviews they call him Duke. The bottom of the swimming pool is decorated with two blue-tile dolphins. Lemons and tangerines grow on the trees around the pool. Michael shows me around the house: the pool, the animals, his room—with two beds, a clock with time zones from various cities around the world, the TV, a phone (there is also a pay phone in the house). He climbs a tree, he does dance steps, he is outgoing, inquisitive, fun. I call a friend and say, “This kid is going to be the greatest entertainer ever, seriously, like Frank Sinatra.”
In 1972 … we did the first of many interviews.
Lisa Robinson with Jackson, then 14, during her first interview with the star. By Andrew Kent.
Lisa Robinson: The group is going to perform in London soon?
Michael Jackson: Yes … and I want to go shopping when I go over there, get a lot of souvenirs, and antiques … Ever hear of Napoleon?
L.R. Yes …
M.J. I want to see him too.
L.R. You mean the monuments? His tomb? In Paris?
M.J. You’ve seen that? What airline did you take?
L.R. Well, several. I’ve taken Pan Am, TWA, Air France …
M.J. What kind of tape recorder are you using?
L.R. Sony. [A discussion ensues about the size of the tape recorder, how, if they get any smaller, people will be able to sneak them into concerts, tape, and make bootlegs.] They’re really excited you’re going to be performing in England.
M.J. I know, we got a lot of letters, so we decided to go. But we want this time to be the biggest … for the Queen.
L.R. Ah … you’re performing for the Queen. Her palace is huge …
M.J. You’ve seen it?
L.R. Well, only from the outside. Have any of the other groups told you what it’s like performing in England?
M.J. Well, the Supremes and the Temptations told us some stuff. You ever hear of Marty Feldman? [I say yes.] When the Supremes went there, Ringo Starr went shopping with them. But I don’t know what [the audiences] will be like, whether they’ll be quiet or loud.
L.R. So, what do you like to do in your spare time?
M.J. Swim … play pool … We don’t go much out of the gate because we have [everything] here. When we lived in the other house, we would go to the park to play basketball, but now we have it here.
(Michael asks me more questions than I ask him; there are discussions about my maroon nail polish, buying antiques on Portobello Road, the Apollo Theater, Madison Square Garden.)
L.R. Do you ever get scared onstage?
M.J. No. If you know what you’re doing, you’re not scared onstage.
Interview with Michael, circa 1974:
L.R. Do people tell you what to do?
M.J. Well, I never like to stop learning—even Stevie [Wonder] says that. If you stop learning, then you’re dead. People used to tell us what to do and we listened, but we filled in our own stuff, too … We still have people work with us, but no way are we puppets [laughs], no way.
L.R. What sort of thing are you going to do on the TV show?
M.J. I’m used to being highlighted on the show, but I also do different things—like dancing. It’s a very showbizzy kind of thing, we get funky in the front, and in the closing we get real spankin’—that’s what the fans like.
L.R. Any plans for acting? Movies?
M.J. I was supposed to do Roots, but it was done during our own TV show, and I couldn’t do it—I had an offer for that.That’s the kind of thing I’d like to be my first film—a big TV event, because then the most people can see it.
L.R. What other plans do you have for the future?
M.J. I’d like to write my own things, because an artist knows what fits him best. Every artist can’t write his own material, but if you feel like you can do it—like Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder—you should do it. At first, people didn’t think that Stevie could record himself—they thought he was taking a risk. Then he did those albums and they were dynamite.
To me, ballads are special, because you can have a pop song that’ll be known for three weeks and then you’ll hear nothing else about it. Nobody else will record it and it’ll just be gone. But if you do a good ballad, it’ll be [in] the world forever. Like [Stevie Wonder’s] “Living for the City”—that’s a great song, and it opens up the minds of a lotof people, but it won’t be around as long as “My Cherie Amour” or “For Once in My Life” or “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”—Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson doing what he did best for the camera. Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.
The Warwick Hotel, New York City, February 5, 1975: The entire Jackson family is in town for the Jackson Five’s concert at Radio City Music Hall. Michael is alternately fun and his usual outgoing self and more quiet, thoughtful. His skin has broken out; he confides to me that his brothers have been teasing him.
L.R. What was different for you on this latest album [Dancing Machine]?
M.J. I got to sing free. For the first time I got to do my own thing.
L.R. What do you mean “free”?
M.J. Well, when you’re being told, it’s not you.
L.R. What were you being told?
M.J. Told to sing this word this way, this line this way, go up and down, and this and that. It’s not being “you.” And you’re trying to get the “you” out. Like Gladys Knight—she sings freely and look how great she is and that’s the best way.
L.R. And how was it working with Stevie Wonder?
M.J. It was really fun because he lets you sing freely. Only a singer and a producer-singer knows what he’s doing, because he sings also.
L.R. Have you been going out lately?
M.J. No … I like staying home, just under the fireplace, reading …
L.R. What sort of things are you reading?
M.J. All kinds of things … the dictionary, adventure books. I had four weeks off and I just stayed home. I don’t really like going to parties … Well, I like parties where you can talk—a fireplace and a piano, and when there’s entertainers [there] it’s even better. You go to a lot of concerts, don’t you? You get in for free? What was the last concert you went to?
L.R. Led Zeppelin.
M.J. Good concert?
L.R. Yes. Loud. Rock. You don’t get a chance to go to many? You don’t want to?
M.J. I want to, but whenever I go out, there’s always problems. But that’s how you could tell what [else is] happening.
The Plaza Hotel, New York City, February 1977: For a photo session, Michael wears a blue sweater, blue pants, a white shirt, and, for some reason, an E.L.O. (Electric Light Orchestra) pin. His bodyguard and a friend/publicist are with him, and when it comes time for photos, the publicist calls him into another room to tell him to take off his undershirt; when he comes back, Michael says that he could have been told that in front of us. He’d arrived late the night before and is staying an extra day so he can go see The Wiz starring Stephanie Mills (there were rumored publicity attempts to drum up a fake romance with her to calm down Michael’s black female fans who were upset he was never seen with a black girl). “I’ve seen [The Wiz] three times already,” Michael says. There is a discussion about birds—Michael had spent the morning at the Bronx Zoo visiting the birdhouse; he says he likes the exotic birds and used to have some, but they made a lot of noise, especially during the mating season, and usually at night, and the neighbors complained, so he had to give them away. It was his first trip to the Bronx Zoo. He asks if Coney Island is still any good, or if they have taken all the good stuff out. He talks about Disneyland—which he’d been to lots of times—and Disney World: “Disney World is better,” he says. “It’s more of a world, like they say. It’s a resort; they have everything—golf, tennis, hotels—it’s all fantasy time.”
From a generic questionnaire filled out by the 18-year-old Michael Jackson in 1977:
What do you do in your spare time?
Read, think, write songs
What is your favorite sport?
Would you like to get married?
Later in life
What kind of girl/boy would you like to marry?
How many children would you like to have?
20. Adopted. All races
Briefly describe your dream girl/boy
Beautiful in every way
What type of person do you usually dislike?
What would you do if someone gave you a million dollars?
What was the biggest thrill of your life?
Finding what I was searching for
Who has helped you the most with your career?
My father, experience
Out of all the performers you’ve worked with,who do you admire the most?
Fred Astair [sic], Stevie Wonder
What do you like best about your work?
What do you dislike about your work?
What is your most prized possession?
A child, words of wisdom
Do you have a pet fear, superstition?
No, that [sic] man made
Who is your favorite actor?
Heston, Brando, Bruce Dern
Who is your favorite actress?
Garland, Bette Davis
Do you have a nickname, how did you get it?
Nose [and then, crossed out, is the word “niger” (sic)]
What do you daydream about?
Interview with Michael by phone from his home in Encino, California, February 1977:
L.R.You’ve been doing this for more than 10 years now; do you ever wonder, if you could have had a different life, what you’d be doing?
Jackson: “Well, I never like to stop learning—even Stevie [Wonder] says that.” Jackson and Wonder, 1978. © Globe Photos, Inc.
M.J. I don’t know … It’s a lot of fun, you learn a lot of things, and you get into a lot of things. Right now, I write a lot of songs. I’ve been writing a lot of songs for a long time. I’m looking forward to recording them.
L.R. What about the celebrity stuff, like when you come to New York and go, for example, with Andy Warhol to Regine’s like you recently did?
M.J. [Laughs.] It’s part of being an entertainer. You know, people talk to you, and they want to know about you. And a lot of entertainers don’t know this, but interviewers help entertainers 100 percent. I don’t mean promotion-wise; I mean like when they ask you questions, it helps you to look at your future yourself, like when they ask you what you think you’ll be doing in 10 years. Interviewers put [entertainers] in a position to think about their life—where they’re going or what they should be doing or what shouldn’t they be doing. So it’s important, it really is.
L.R. Do you think your brothers are relieved that they don’t have the same burdens you do being the lead singer or do you think they’re jealous of the attention you get?
M.J. No, never. Everybody knows we have certain jobs that we do onstage, and my thing that I do is sing up front, and I dance and lead most of the songs. They know that’s my thing and they do theirs.
L.R. Did you ever have doubts, or worry that you wouldn’t be able to do it?
M.J. No, because it’s something that I like to do. I never thought I couldn’t do it—it’s just a feeling inside of you.
L.R. You never get fed up or exhausted or bored?
M.J. I get bored sometimes … yeah. You have to wait in your hotel room, and all these fans are knocking on your door or waiting outside around the hotel, and all you can do is stay in your room. You can’t go anyplace. So that’s when I would say I get bored. But you have an obligation to your fans—they made you what you are. They’re the ones who bought the records, so performers who don’t sign autographs and stuff are wrong. Someone who does that can’t say he’s right, because he’s wrong … because if he did a concert and nobody showed up, he wouldn’t do the concert. So he owes it to them.
L.R. Do you go out with girls? Any dates?
M.J. No, I don’t date, no. I’m not really interested right now. I like girls and everything, but [laughs] … Oh, you think I’m one of those? No! I’m just not that interested right now.
L.R. Most 18-year-olds don’t have to get up every day and rehearse or tour or work 12 hours a day: they have girlfriends, they do sports, they have homework—they have a different life and they’ve had a different life for years. Does it bog you down?
M.J. No, because it’s something I like doing. If it was work, I don’t think I could have lasted this long. I’d probably go crazy.
L.R. Do you feel you have a special gift?
M.J. Well, there’s such a thing as talent. And, yeah, I would say that’s true … For instance, with an artist, he can draw anything you look at—he can draw it. And then you take [someone else], who can’t even draw a stick person. So look at the difference.
L.R. What about vacations?
M.J. I like to be at home because we travel all the time, so if we had some time off, we wouldn’t go on vacation. We do enough [traveling] when we’re working.
L.R. Who lives at your family home now?
M.J. Me, Janet, Randy, and La Toya.
L.R. None of the other brothers?
M.J. Uh-uh. The rest live out and are married.
M.J. He’s married and he’s got a baby.
L.R. I didn’t know that. What is his wife’s name?
M.J. Carol … but don’t print that.
L.R. You’re not supposed to say they’re married? Not Jackie either?
M.J. Right, none of them. Don’t mention that.
L.R. What? That’s kind of silly …
M.J. I know.
L.R. O.K., change the subject. You’re on Epic [Records] now—do you miss Motown at all?
M.J. I miss the old days at Motown, the old days. When we first came there we used to live with Diane [Diana Ross] and we’d play at the Gordys’. We’d go to Disneyland and go bike riding and all those things.
L.R. Have you seen Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues or Mahogany? Do you want to act?
M.J. Lady Sings the Blues was much grander than Mahogany because she could get into it much more. It was about this singer, and drugs … A real actor can do any part, but I want to do something pertaining to show business. Like in Mahogany, Diana is great, but she’s not a real actress [as much as in Lady Sings the Blues] … She inspired a lot of people, though.
Interview with Michael by phone from Encino, California, June 9, 1977:
M.J. We just came back from Europe and we performed for the Queen of England in Scotland. We’d done it five years ago for her mother, but this time it was for her and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. They asked us and we were honored to do it. Afterwards she came backstage and she said, “Did you just come here to perform for [me]?” And we said, “Yes.” She said, “Where do you go next?” We said, “London.” She said, “Are you all brothers?” And we said, “Yes.” And she said our show was very enjoyable. Her husband was very interested—he must have spent five minutes asking us if our parents were musically inclined: what did they play, what did my mother play? My mother played the clarinet in a band, and my father was in a singing group called the Falcons—they were a local group. The Queen had her crown on and a pink dress with all these pearls and rubies and diamonds all over it. She wears a lot of jewelry. The producers and the people from the [Silver] Jubilee told us that [the Queen] did something at our show that they never saw her do—she actually clapped to the music and kept time and nodded her head in keeping the time. We were really happy to hear that; that’s really different and I was glad.
Jackson: “We just came back from Europe and we performed for the Queen of England … We didn’t see any changing of the guard this time, but we were with the guards and took some pictures.” The Jacksons pose with a bobby outside Buckingham Palace, London, 1977. From left, Randy, Jackie, Michael, Marlon, and Tito. By Tom Sheehan/Sony Music Archive/Getty Images.
L.R. Did you have any time to sightsee?
M.J. Well, we’re usually in these cities so quick and out the next night—we do the concert and split. But I made time in London to see Big Ben, which I’ve seen before. I’ve seen the London Bridge and Whitechapel, where Jack the Ripper was cutting people up … it’s scary. In Scotland, I saw Loch Lomond—it’s very close to Loch Ness … We saw old castles. We didn’t see any changing of the guard this time, but we were with the guards and took some pictures. But the show in London was much wilder—I didn’t think we’d get out of that place. All through the show there were girls running up, one after another, onto the stage—poor children were being crushed and smashed. Two policemen got stabbed. The last time was even rougher, because there’s just something about the excitement in Europe … the teenyboppers and the excitement of Beatlemania. They called it “Jacksonmania.”
Interview with Michael by phone from California, August 3, 1978:
L.R. So after filming The Wiz here, you told me you wanted to come back to New York and spend more time.
M.J. I love it—it’s the perfect spot for me, for the things I’m interested in in life. When I’m in New York, I get up early and I’m ready to start the day. You have a whole schedule: I’m going to see this play at this time, and I’m going to have lunch, I’m going to see a movie—that’s what I like about it, so much … energy. Whenever I come back home, I look forward to going back to New York. I love the big stores—I love everything.
L.R. You’ve been seen out with Janelle Penny Commissiong, the former Miss Universe. Is it a romance?
M.J. [Laughter, giggling.] That’s a hard question to answer. Like most of the people you may see me out with, like Tatum [O’Neal] and Janelle, they’re kind of on and off, they’re friends, and [hysterical laughter] … I talk to them. I don’t know how to describe it, really [more laughter]. I don’t know what to say.
L.R. O.K., change the subject. What was it like to work with Diana on The Wiz?
M.J. It was incredible, wonderful. I learned so much from her. We’re like brother and sister, really. She was such a help—she made sure I was O.K. on the set; every morning she’d come to my room and ask if I needed anything. She was very protective. I just loved the world of moviemaking; I love it more than reality. Sometimes I just wish I could wake up in the morning to a big production dance number.
L.R. As for reality, do you still like meeting your fans?
M.J. I enjoy all that sometimes, seeing people who love me, or buy my records. I think it’s fun, and I enjoy meeting my fans and I think it’s important. But sometimes people think you owe your life to them; they have a bad attitude—like “I made you who you are.” That may be true—but not that one person. Sometimes you have to say to them, If the music wasn’t good, you wouldn’t have bought it. Because some of them think they actually own you. Someone will say, “Sit down,” “Sign this,” or “Can I have your autograph?” and I’ll say, “Yes, do you have a pen?” And they say, “No, go get one.” Honestly. I’m not exaggerating. But I just try to deal with it.
L.R. Are you having fun with your new car [a recently purchased blue Silver Shadow Rolls-Royce]?
M.J. Yes, it’s my favorite car. I know how to drive it, but I hate to take pictures in it. You know, you see so many people with their new cars, and it’s a little show-offy. I’m really not like that.
Interview with Michael by phone from Encino, California, September 4, 1979:
Jackson: “It was incredible, wonderful. I learned so much from [Diana Ross]. We’re like brother and sister, really.”
Ross and Jackson at the Paramount premiere of The Wiz, Los Angeles, October 24, 1978. © Berliner Studio/BEImages.
Michael said he knew that the Jacksons could do their own record production, and the success of Destiny (released in 1978 and yielding the platinum single “Shake Your Body”) proved them right. “Our persistence in not giving up, continually telling the record company we didn’t want other writers, was what finally changed their mind. You’ve got to remember I’ve been around studios since I was a child, and I’ve just picked it up. You learn, you watch … I’d sit in on Stevie [Wonder]’s sessions and just be amazed. He’d sit there and do everything.”
L.R. Why did you go outside the family and work with Quincy [Jones] on Off the Wall?
M.J. I felt there are still so many different things I want to learn that I didn’t want to go in myself and do it. I wanted to watch a giant and learn from him. That’s why I wanted to work with Quincy. He’s the kind of guy who’s unlimited musically: classical, jazz, disco, soul, pop—he’s done operas, movie soundtracks, he’s worked with Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, all the greats, he can do everything. He can work with me and do anything I want. I wanted an album that wouldn’t just consist of one kind of music, because I love all kinds of music. I see it all as music; I don’t like to label it. It’s like saying this child is white, this child is black, this child is Japanese—but they’re all children. It reminds me of prejudice. I hate labels. I went to a record store the other day and I saw the Bee Gees in the “Black” category. I mean, what is that? It’s so crazy. If somebody has a wonderful song that’s right for me, I’d love to do it. I wouldn’t pass up a good song just because I didn’t write it. On the Jacksons’ albums we write all the songs, but I love hearing other people’s material. It’s so much fun hearing things that I didn’t write; I think, How did you write that? How did you do that? That’s what I enjoy most about doing solo albums. You get to see how different people work in the studio. With the Jacksons we’re just doing our own thing in our little private world. That’s why I didn’t want the Jacksons to produce my album. I don’t want the same sound, because mine is different.
Michael Jackson, ever the showman. Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.
L.R. How was it filming The Wiz?
M.J. I had the time of my life. It was an experience I’ll never forget. I’m just dying to do the next film. It’s really killing me—and when I say killing me, I really mean it. Sometimes I could just scream, but I’m so busy with other things, and what I really want to do more than anything is film. Film will last forever. I can go on tour and it’s exciting, but when it’s done, it’ll be lost to the world. But if I do a movie, it’ll be there forever, that’s what I love about film: it’s something captured, a moment captured that’ll be there for eternity. The stars die, like Charlie Chaplin—he’s gone, but his films will be here forever. If he did Broadway and plays while he was alive, he would have been lost to the world. I’d have to set time aside to do films, but I always do things through force and feeling, and I always follow my instincts. If it’s meant to be, it’ll come, it’ll happen. It will make itself known.
In my interviews over two decades with the other Jacksons, I learned that for years Michael ate fruits and raw vegetables every day, and nothing else. “He loves carrots, celery, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, peaches,” La Toya once told me. Until they were 18, Janet said, their mother, Katherine, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, would take the kids to Kingdom Hall, but when they came of age, they could choose what religion they wanted. As for all the tabloid stuff about Michael—the plastic surgery in particular—in October 1986, Janet said it was just part of being in show business.
“Michael told me when you hear bad things about yourself,” she said, “just put your energies into something else; it’s no good crying about it. Just put it into your music—it’ll make you stronger.” But she had, had she not, said he was a weirdo? “I probably just said, ‘Oh, Michael’s crazy’ … like silly, fun. He’s very quiet, but every once in a while he says something that’s really funny, and I’ll say he’s crazy, like a lot of fun to be around. And it was taken as his being weird.” But, I say, people think he is weird, all that re-doing of his face. “You know, so many stars do that, but the press picks on certain people. I think if more people could afford it they’d do it, too. I see nothing wrong with it. You have to feel good about yourself. You can’t worry about pleasing other people. And aging is a sad thing. I don’t see anything wrong with staying young as long as you can.” The hyperbaric chamber? Is it in the house? “It is not in the house; I would know if it was in the house. Knowing Michael, if he had gone into one, it probably had something to do with his voice.”
His older brother Marlon, to whom he was closest growing up, said in October 1987, “Sometimes [the stuff they write about Michael] hurts, but the main thing is they’re keeping the name going. Regardless if it’s good or bad news. If they stop talking about you, then you’re in trouble. People have the right to write whatever they want to, but I don’t think that they give people a fair shot sometimes. Everybody has the right to do what they want to in life, to make themselves happy, regardless of what it may be. People probably don’t know the reason why Michael wanted to buy the skeleton [the Elephant Man’s bones]. Maybe instead of looking at it in a negative way, my first thought was maybe he wanted it at the burn center of a hospital so doctors could look at it and study a skull like it in case a case like that happened to an American kid. We’re not here on earth to judge other people. I feel that we’re here on earth to love one another and bring harmony to each other’s hearts.” As for the constant stories about how Michael had no fun as a child while the other brothers participated in sports and had dates, Marlon disagreed: “That’s not true—he did the same things we all did. We all rehearsed constantly, we rehearsed together, and that’s how we got to where we are today.” The family didn’t drink, except wine and champagne when guests came over or, according to Janet, brandy when someone was sick. They had snakes—one named Muscles and another named Revenge. They had two black swans, a llama, the dogs, two deer, and a giraffe named Jabbar. Michael and Janet were together all the time after Marlon got married and moved out of the house. Janet and Michael did everything together: they’d draw together, and when Michael went on the road he’d send boxes of drawings and paintings back to Janet. “He never put his name on it,” she said, “but I knew who it was from.”
Michael’s jaw-dropping solo performance of “Billie Jean” on the 1983 TV special Motown 25 put him into the stratosphere. This was the solo spot that Michael demanded from Berry Gordy and producer Suzanne de Passe before agreeing to appear on the show with his brothers. It was rumored that initially he refused to allow them to film the number, then he agreed after he was given approval of the final edit. During the 1980s, according to CBS Records Group president Walter Yetnikoff, Michael talked to him incessantly about his record sales, marketing, and promotion; “possessed” was the word Yetnikoff used to describe Michael’s involvement in his day-to-day business. On February 7, 1984, CBS threw a huge party at New York’s Museum of Natural History for 1,200 guests to celebrate the mega-million success of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The invitation was printed on a glove; President and Mrs. Reagan sent a telegram; Yetnikoff introduced Michael as the greatest star ever, and a few days later told me Michael was being pressured to tour again with his brothers.
Luncheon to announce the Jacksons Victory Tour, Tavern on the Green, New York City, November 30, 1983: Promoter Don King came out to announce the upcoming Jacksons Victory Tour. He talked about the Jacksons and himself, how wonderful the tour would be, how fabulous their association was, introduced the Jackson parents and the celebs in the room (Dustin Hoffman, Andy Warhol, Roberta Flack, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and a few boxers). King went on about how it would be the biggest-grossing tour of all time, the biggest this, the biggest that. He quoted Shakespeare; he introduced the boys. Michael introduced his sisters and the wives—it was a cross between a press conference for a heavyweight title fight and a revival meeting.
Michael’s jaw-dropping solo performance of “Billie Jean” on the 1983 TV special Motown 25 put him into the stratosphere.
Jackson singing on the NBC special, which honored one of his mentors, Berry Gordy. The show garnered an audience of 50 million. © NBC/Photofest.
The Jacksons Victory Tour, 1984: Michael traveled separately from his brothers on the tour. He reportedly sent Don King a letter stating that King could not communicate with anyone on Jackson’s behalf without prior permission, that Michael’s personal representatives were to collect all the money paid to him for his participation in the tour, and basically that King could not hire anyone to work on the tour without Michael’s approval. Michael referred to the Victory Tour as “the Last Hurrah” and “the Final Curtain”—meaning for the family group. On August 4, 1984, I took Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth to see the show at Madison Square Garden, and we met Michael in a private area of the Garden’s rotunda. I was surprised at how different Michael looked from the last time I’d seen him, how much makeup he was wearing (it rubbed off on my clothing when we hugged hello), but mostly I was surprised how fully aware he was of just exactly who David Lee Roth was—probably even to the number of records Van Halen had sold and their chart positions. Later, in a phone interview from Los Angeles on February 15, 1985, Michael admitted to me his problems with the tour and the pressures of working with his family—especially after having had such huge solo success.
On February 7, 1984, CBS threw a huge party at New York’s Museum of Natural History for 1,200 guests to celebrate the mega-million success of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Once rumored to be a romantic item, Jackson and Brooke Shields revel at the museum. By Ron Frehm/A.P. Photo.
L.R. I haven’t seen you since the Garden.
M.J. I know. What have you been doing? Do you still love New York?
Jackson: “I wanted to work with Quincy. He’s the kind of guy who’s unlimited musically … ”
Jackson poses with Quincy Jones and their trophies at the 26th annual Grammy Awards, Los Angeles, February 28, 1984. By Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images.
M.J. Better than L.A.?
L.R. You know, I haven’t been out to L.A. in so long …
M.J. You don’t like us out here?
L.R. I think it’s too … bright. Anyway, were you happy with the tour?
M.J. Well … ummm … it depends. I never really wanted to use a lot of the people we had, but it became a voting thing. It was unfair to me, you know? I was outvoted a lot of times. I never liked doing things that way. I always liked using A1 people who are considered excellent in their field. I’ve always tried to do everything first-class. Use people who are the best. But it was a different story with the family. And the fact that it was the biggest tour that ever happened, and my success has been so overwhelming, it’s as if they’re waiting to throw darts at you, too You know [Barbra] Streisand once said … um, I taped it, on 20/20, she said she first came out, she’s new and fresh, everybody loved her, and they built her up and then … they knocked her down. And she felt, you know, ‘Oh, is that it?’ You know, she’s human, she can’t take it, she can’t just forget about it.
L.R. Well, when you get that big, there is this backlash … people get jealous.
Kansas City, Missouri, February 23, 1988: Michael Jackson had just finished the opening night of his Bad tour and his manager, Frank DiLeo, arranged for me to visit the star in his hotel suite.
Michael Jackson performs onstage in Kansas City during the Bad tour. By Bettmann/Corbis.
M.J. I know. Steven Spielberg’s going through that … But I’m a strong person. I don’t let any of it bother me. I love doing what I do and I’m gonna keep moving mountains and doing bigger and better things because it makes people happy.
L.R. I heard some of the fans were upset because the ticket prices were high.
M.J. You know, that wasn’t my idea. None of that was my idea. I was outvoted. I mean, mail order … I didn’t want that—I didn’t want the ticket price the way it was … our production was so big, it had to pay for itself, but still, even then, I didn’t want the ticket price so high. But … I was outvoted … Don King … all of it, I was outvoted. And it’s tough, especially when it’s your family. Like Lionel Richie said with the Commodores, he would do the same thing, and he would say, ‘Can we talk about it?’ But they’re not his brothers.… It’s hard to see your brother and they’re upset with something and you can look in their eyes and see it, or they won’t talk to you. But I’m going to do bigger and better things in the future. I’m compelled to do what I’m doing and I can’t help it—I love performing. I love creating and coming up with unusual new things. To be a kind of pioneer. You know, innovative. I just love it. I get excited about ideas, not about money; ideas is what excites me.
L.R. The conception about you is that you’re totally insulated and isolated, locked up, can’t go anywhere …
M.J. Well, a lot of that is true, but I get a chance to have fun, you know. I show films, and I play games and have friends over sometimes, and I love children and stuff. I get to play with them; that’s one of my favorite things to do. Performing is fun. I miss that, but I’ve been writing a lot of good stuff lately and I’m real excited about the songs I’m coming up with.
L.R. Wherever I go in the world, I hear your songs.
M.J. Well, it just proves that what you put into something you get out of it. And I put my soul, my blood, sweat, and tears, into Thriller. I really did. And not only was it Thriller, but I was doing E.T. at the same time, the E.T. [soundtrack] album. And that was a lot of stress. But [when we first] mixed the Thriller album, it sounded like crap.
M.J. Oh, it was terrible. And I cried at the listening party. I said, “I’m sorry—we can’t release this.” I called a meeting with Quincy, and everybody at the [record] company was screaming that we had to have it out and there was a deadline, and I said, “I’m sorry, I’m not releasing it.” I said, “It’s terrible.” So we re-did a mix a day. Like a mix a day. And we rested two days, then we did a mixing. We were overworked, but it all came out O.K.
Michael Jackson’s induction as a solo artist into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Waldorf Astoria, New York City, March 19, 2001.
Michael Jackson’s induction as a solo artist into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Waldorf Astoria, New York City, March 19, 2001. Michael is wearing a white suit … It was the last time I ever saw him.
By 2001, Jackson’s public appearances had become increasingly rare. By Yael/Retna Ltd./Corbis.
Michael is wearing a white suit and is surrounded by huge bodyguards as well as his friend Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who, at that time, was—for lack of a better word—his “spiritual” adviser. Michael is standing against the wall in the kitchen to the left side of the stage (which serves as “backstage” at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies) when I catch his eye. “Lisa?” he says. We start to move toward each other and his bodyguards are on me. “No! It’s O.K.,” he says to them forcefully—in that other voice, not the whispered one, not the public one, but the one he uses when talking, say, to a lawyer or record-company executive. “She’s my friend.”
It was the last time I ever saw him.
Epilogue: When I was writing the Motown oral history for V.F. last year, Jermaine wanted the brothers to be a part of it. Annie Leibovitz and I didn’t want to photograph or interview the brothers without Michael. We got a message from Jermaine that we needed to contact Michael’s spokesman, Dr. Tohme Tohme, who had only a P.O.-box address somewhere in California. I wrote a letter requesting Michael’s participation. We never heard back.
Lisa Robinson is a Vanity Fair contributing editor and music writer.