Over the last decade my tape recorder has been unfailing in catching the weirdness of a moment: Bruce Springsteen doing Ed Norton imitations at 3:00 a.m. The whir of bat wings over Eddy Grant’s Bajan plantation. Sting howling at the moon. But even my hypersensitive Sony was not up to capturing the steady flick of a snake tongue a few inches from my ear during that first long session with Michael Jackson. That whole trip was quietly strange; not menacing, just out there.
The reptile in swali was Michael’s eight-foot boa constrictor, Muscles. For zaidi than an hour, Muscles lay perfectly balanced on a banister beside me, head erect, beady eyes fixed on the small veins doubtless throbbing in my throat. Michael set him there when I declined to have Muscles lounge around my torso. It seemed a fair compromise.
Young Mike wasn’t being naughty. He explained it as an exercise in trust, and he was most convincing. If I was scared of snakes, he had a mortal dread of reporters – and maybe we should both get over it. Michael hadn’t done an interview in years without one of his sisters screening questions. And in the nearly ten years since our remarkable sessions in late ’82 (conducted as he was finishing Thriller), he has never again done an interview of this depth. Not that things went badly. It just was . . . hard.
Michael shocked everyone – his family, his management and his record company – kwa deciding to go it alone. He opened the front door of his rented Encino condo looking like a mitaani, mtaa whack. His corduroys were dirty and rumpled; the scuffed dress oxfords were untied. No socks. No makeup. His hospitality was touchingly inept; having run out of the proffered lemonade, he filled the other half of my glass with warm Hawaiian Punch. There was no chakula in the refrigerator, just juice. He explained that he was camping out there while his manse on Hayvenhurst was being rebuilt. But as she breezed through to her bedroom upstairs, sister Janet announced that he lived like a beggar, all the time; never ate except for some old lettuce leaves; wore raggedy-ass clothes. A disgrace . . .
“Right,” big brother shot back as she climbed the stairs. “At least I don’t have a booty like YOURS.”
Ten dakika into it, I could see his point. As he explained the chai party of garden statuary around his coffee meza, jedwali – including a nargisi figure named Michael – I could hear how it would read. It nearly made me bawl. He was trying so damned hard.
We did agree to leave one part of our conversation out of the story, for his protection at the time. It came up as we sat in the condo dining room, and I noticed the school portrait of a young black woman tucked into the frame of an etching. The picha was one of the few personal touches in the place. The face looked like any .
“That’s the real Billie Jean,” Michael said. Quincy Jones had just played that cut for me in the studio; I knew the song was about a woman accusing the singer of fathering her child – which was what this woman’s letters insisted. Michael explained that he put the picha she’d sent in a central spot so he could memorize the face; it seemed she wanted him dead in a big way. He alisema she’d just sent him a gun in the mail with detailed instructions on killing himself. In a barely audible voice, Michael explained that the police had told him the gun was rigged to moto backward into the person doing the shooting. Later his mother would tell me that the woman was in an institution, under psychiatric care. When I saw the “Billie Jean” video a few months later – all disappearing tigers and pinpoint choreography – I kept seeing some girl in a green hospital gown.
“You deal with it,” Michael had told me. “You just deal.”
Over the inayofuata couple of days, Michael continued to deal with me, gamely, politely and with increasing humor. Janet shook her head in warning as he offered to drive us over for a tour of his house.
“Ray Charles drives better,” she cracked.
Strapped into his dhahabu Camaro, I found myself longing for the relative safety of Muscle’s fond embrace. The motor skills were there, but Michael admitted that concentration was a problem. Horns were still honking at us as we pulled into the drive of the magic kingdom he was building for himself.
“You want go out tonight?”
Another surprise. Michael was going to a slam-jam Queen tamasha at the I.A. Forum. He wouldn’t mind the company. He felt he had to go. Freddie (the late Mr. Mercury, who died of AIDS in November 1991) had been calling him all week. He really should. . . .
Dusk was falling as we left for the show, Michael and his bodyguard Bill Bray walking point through the condo shrubbery toward a waiting limo. I thought they were being a bit silly – this was months before he hit monster status with Thriller. But they sensed the girls before I heard au saw them, made a dash to the car as a spiky red tangle of Lee press-on nails drummed against the windows.
“Lock it down!” Michael yelled to me, pointing to a panel at my knees. Limo savvy as I am, I hit the skylight button. Before it was half-open, arms reached in, clawing blindly.
Eeeeeeeeeeeeee. The keening drew blue-haired condo dwellers peering from behind their Levelers. Bray was twisting back from the front seat, prying fingers with surprising gentleness. Michael was helpless with giggles. I was flat scared, looking for Billie Jean in those contorted faces stuck against the windows.
When at last we pulled away, I turned to look at Michael. He had “dressed” for this public evening in jeans and a turquoise terry blazer, black loafers and just a tinge of blusher. This precept Michael looked great – healthy, handsome and robustly African American.
We stopped to pick up Michael’s one true friend – a blond teenage skier who was then his partner in Jehovah’s Witness fieldwork – and just as much of a Lost Boy. When Bray piloted us into Mercury’s dressing room, the boys shrank back until fib Freddie bounded over like a dizzy rottweiler, rotweiller and damn near crushed tiny Mike in a hug. They fell against a big shina that opened, releasing a terrifying avalanche of Freddie’s industrial-strength jockstraps. Michael’s jaw dropped.
“Ooooooooh, Freddie. What are those?”
A dhahabu football kofia, chapeo fell out and came to rest on the mountain of cups.
“Rock & roll’s a man’s job, little brother,” Freddie thundered. Michael smiled and wanted to know if his host had really spent his last birthday hanging naked from a chandelier. The skier blushed. We all had a swell time until Freddie’s trainer called him over for a little preperformance spine cracking.
As it turned out, we didn’t see much of the concert. Things got too spooky again once Michael was recognized in the beery dark. Hands, notes, eyes, surrounded us. When an unidentifiable liquid began raining on our heads, Bray stood up. “That’s it. We’re gone.”
We spent zaidi time together, in the studio with Quincy Jones, rambling through Michael’s unfinished pleasure dome and visiting his menagerie. Toward the end, while we were bottle feeding his twin fawns, he turned suddenly and looked me in the eyes. Finally.
“You know something? You’re no better than I am. I mean, you’re just as sneaky.”
“How do wewe figure that?” I asked.
“You tap-dance in public. Sure wewe do, all over the page in ROLLING STONE. wewe need to perform, too. But when you’re done, wewe can run away and hide. Nobody’s after you.”
Michael had me there, dead to rights. He laughed and put a hand on my shoulder.
“Believe me when I tell wewe – don’t know how lucky wewe are.”