To make his documentary, Living With Michael

Jackson, British journalist Martin Bashir interviewed Jackson over the course of about eight months and edited together a disturbing portrait of a very strange and very lonely and disturbed individual. Friday, Jackson accused Bashir of doing a hatchet job on him, but I'm not sure I agree. I thought the most disturbing elements of the documentary were contextual: Jackson himself, in his own words, describing or defending bizarre behavior. I did not sense any trick edits designed to color Jackson's statements, but merely an open forum for Jackson to speak his mind. And speak it he did, revealing a pathetic and lonely existence of a man who rides his own Ferris wheel alone, spends weeks in Las Vegas holed up in seven suites at the Four Seasons (at $10,00 per night) for apparently no reason other than to go shopping for Faberge eggs and wander the halls in the wee hours in a senior citizen's motorized runabout.

Jackson seemed wholly disconnected from any sense of reality, a man completely out of touch with the audience he presumes to entertain. I find it unlikely the man I saw babbling semi-coherently and yoo-hooing through shopping malls could ever again speak to young America the way Jay-Z, Smashing Pumpkins or The Dixie Chicks can. The film explained, for me, the titanic failure of Jackson's latest effort, Invincible, a failure Jackson blames on Sony Records chief Tommy Mottola, whom Jackson improbably accused of racism (Jackson, who has twice married white women and who seems intent on fathering white children, playing the race card being his most bizarre public spectacle yet. Mottola was, famously, married to his protégé, Mariah Carrey). This guy is so far out of touch with pop America and pop music that he's practically in orbit. At 44 this year, and still gaining altitude, it seems unlikely Jackson will ever again write a substantial album that makes any kind of impact at all on our collective consciousness.

His move, I would suggest, should be to turn to Clive Davis, the guru genius of J Records, and relinquish the creative control he has accrued over the years since The Wiz soundtrack and his best work, his efforts with the legendary Quincy Jones (and Rod Temperton, the wholly unsung hero of Jackson's career; the former Heatwave frontman who wrote much of Thriller, including the title track, The Girl Is Mine, Pretty Young Thing, Rock With You, and most other well-known Jackson hits that Jackson himself did not write). At some point, both Jones and Temperton became expendable in Jackson's eyes, as Jackson, apparently, sought more and more glory solely for himself and insisted on doing his own writing and producing. The consequent downward spiral of his career matches exactly the increase in creative control of his music projects.

Jackson's ego, by this visual record, seems wildly out of control, which is to be expected, I suppose. Fame can have a terrible effect on stable people, and Jackson, by all accounts (including his own) has had nothing remotely like a stable upbringing. In the documentary, Jackson seems wholly addicted to the rush of screaming fans. Despite claims to the contrary and pleas for privacy, Jackson apparently goes out of his way to seek these fans out, becoming giddy, as Bashir described it, with an almost childlike manic sugar rush as his bodyguards swarm to protect him from a rushing, maddened throng (losing his own children in the rush; the guards and Michael himself seemed preoccupied with Michael, while Bashir, a reporter, grabbed Jackson's young children and pursued Jackson's entourage).

Jackson's frequently manic behavior (in full Bette Davis mode, Jackson agitatedly tried to feed his new baby, Prince Michael II (his first born being Prince Michael I) while defensively stammering how his dangling the child over a fourth floor Berlin balcony was “an act of innocence” and a favor to his fans) suggests to me that he has not, in fact, beaten his addiction to pain killers. Jackson began taking pain killers back in the 1980's after he was injured during the taping of a Pepsi commercial. During the early 90's firestorm triggered by a young boy's accusation of sexual molestation, Jackson conveniently retreated to Europe to seek treatment for an addiction to prescription drugs. Speculation held that Jackson had, in fact, gone to Europe to have further plastic surgery done to change the look of his genitals and other areas described in the boy's affidavit. While in Europe, Jackson hid out at the home of pop legend Elton John, who, years later, told Barbara Walters he did not agree with Jackson's having paid off the boy's family (to the tune of a reported $20 million). Said John, “If it were me, and I was innocent, I'd have spent my last dime before I'd have settled.”

Jackson's erratic and manic highs and lows, caught in Bashir's lens, suggests he is still an addict. A fame addict to be sure, an affection (if not intimacy) addict most certainly. But he also appears to be a drug addict. He behaves like a drug addict. He certainly looks like a drug addict. With every frame of Living With Michael Jackson, Peter Pan cries desperately for help. The loudest and most shockingly obvious of those cries was Jackson's defending his practice of spending the night with prepubescent boys.

"The one thing you can't do with Michael is a beauty shot, because that shot simply just doesn't exist anymore,” Brittan Stone, photo editor at the celebrity magazine Us, said. “I don't think you can put Michael Jackson's face on the full-page of a magazine.... I think the flaws in his face become a little too evident, a little too frightening. It becomes like a medical study.”

Jackson's denial of having had extensive plastic surgery stopped Bashir in his tracks, and Bashir gave the pop icon ample on-screen time to dig himself out of the hole he'd dug (and left this stuff in, long pauses where Bashir lets Michael speak until he exhausts himself. Bashir, in my view, giving Jackson every opportunity to explain himself). But Jackson became agitated and just kept digging, dismissing the issue of his children's mothers, denying the surgery, and suggesting we are all, somehow, demented for taking issue with his sleeping with preadolescent boys. To be fair, Bashir, on the ABC news show Primetime Live that followed the documentary, described Jackson as, “not particularly sexual.” Jackson's own accounts of his early sexual encounters (his brothers used to sneak groupies into their hotel room, and once Tatum O'Neal tried, unsuccessfully, to seduce him) suggests he is uneasy with sexuality or sexual issues. I can buy that, that Jackson is likely a sexually repressed guy, with a huge fear of intimacy, likely brought on by his devoutly religious mother and his, by all accounts, psychopathic and abusive father.

Nearly every photo I have ever seen of Joseph Jackson, Michael's father, is a portrait of a rabid loon. A scowling, unhappy, mean-looking selfish-sounding tyrant, Joseph Jackson is an intimating figure who, by all accounts (even the nicest ones by family spin guy Jermaine) ruled with an iron hand. If you believe Jermaine, Joseph wasn't all that bad, but was firm and heavy on the discipline. If you believe the dearly demented LaToya, and I do, Joseph was a violent predator who likely molested his own children, a scandal the family would stop at nothing to repress. If true, that would go a long way to explain LaToya's loopyness as well as Janet's irrational obsession with sex. In interviews, Joseph Jackson, who looks and sounds like a Gary Indiana steel mill version of Saddam, “I don't know nuthin' 'bout Michael... gurgitate (sp), but if he gurgitate (sic), he gurgitate (sic) all the way to the bank.” If Michael was physically, emotionally and even sexually abused as a child, leading psychologists suggest he is a candidate for doing this himself. But, he could also be pushed into the opposite direction, into becoming precisely who he claims to be— a repressed, asexual guy, emotionally arrested as a prepubescent— the only people he fully trusts or cares to keep company with.

It is entirely possible nothing even remotely sexual transpires in Jackson's room with those boys. Jackson, in his mind, could still be eleven years old. At eleven, many of my friends bunked out at one house or another, guys sleeping on the floor, on sofas, on beds. Nothing even remotely sexual went on, and, frankly, the issue never even came up. But, it is just as possible that Michael falls in love with the boys or the boys fall in love with him and, in the pre-dawn of their sexual awakening, the boys are much more vulnerable to a weeping, heartbroken Jackson who may cross the line between playmate and predator. Whichever case it is, I am convinced, based on what I have seen, that in Jackson's mind, at least, he has done no harm.

The scariest part about the documentary, for me, was Jackson's bald-faced lies. Most obviously the lie about his extensive and terrible plastic surgery. Jackson, I am sorry to say, is a guy who just lies. And this doesn't help him make his case for the harmlessness of his communal bedding of preadolescents. Maybe he has talked himself into believing whatever he is saying, but, honestly, Bashir and, frankly, the world, had to be perplexed over why Jackson would lie about things that are so obvious. And, even if he was continuing to sleep with boys (nearly exclusively boys and nearly exclusively white boys), why not at least lie about that, falling on the sword for using poor judgment and promising never to do it again, to the great relief of parents worldwide whose kids are most certainly enamored of this dysfunctional Pied Piper.

That Jackson lied about his net worth (he said he's worth over a billion, he is in fact worth around $350 million and owes at least $200 million of that to Sony), about his kid's mother (at one point, he said Prince Michael II's mother was a woman he'd been involved with and that he was keeping her identify secret to protect her, at another he said she was a hired surrogate, a black woman, though the baby is clearly very white), sends chills down our spine when we are asked to believe him that nothing untoward happens in his bedroom with these boys. Meanwhile images of Jackson lovingly clasping a young boy's hand, much more like a lover than a uncle, are flashed on the screen, a faux-Michelangelo oil of a semi-nude Jackson being attended by semi-nude cherubs hanging on the wall behind them. This is creepy stuff. A freak show of hardly reducible proportions.

By the time I was eleven years old, I was beginning to assert my own identity and sexuality. I knew what homosexual behavior was, and, emulating the homophobia common to those times, I'd have likely become violent if a pasty grown man tried cuddling me. It is inconceivable that I, at this young man's age, would have even thought of spending the night in his bed, or have allowed him to lovingly clasp my hand as I cuddled up against his shoulder. That was an entirely creepy image, one that suggests obvious and inappropriate behavior. And, rather than that child's parents smiling approvingly, they should have been calling the cops.

This documentary was doubtless intended as an image rehab for Michael, in the wake of his dud album Invincible. Ironically, or perhaps most tellingly, twenty seven million people watched the documentary here in America (and millions more abroad), but only two million people bought his last album. Which suggests Jackson's true net worth, these days, is in freak of nature more so than pop idol. Jackson's fall from grace is as precipitous as the effect Bush's rhetoric has on the stock market. Jackson intended to charm and to warm his image for us, but instead he creeped us out. He is a creepy, lonely, lost guy. I have great empathy for him, for what has brought him to this sad place in his life. And for the sad fact that, like Elvis before him, Jackson has grown too powerful and too isolated for anyone to intercede and halt his spiral.

Christopher J. Priest
10 February 2003