When John Whyman, the photographer, and I [Taraborrelli] pulled up to the ominous black wrought-iron gate at 4641 Hayvenhurst, the Jacksons' estate, it stood open, but Whyman pressed the buzzer on the squawk box anyway. We had heard about the vicious guard dogs and did not want to take any chances. An electronic camera, conspicuously mounted on a fifteen-foot-high pole, seemed to zoom in for closer inspection. Our images, we later learned, were being projected on a closed-circuit television screen in the Jackson kitchen. "You may come in," said a disembodied male voice.
We pulled into the circular driveway, a cache of Cadillacs, Rolls Royces, Mercedes-Benzes, Datsun 240Zs, and a Pantara. Three angry sentry dogs, penned up at the end of the drive, hurled themselves against the chain link fence. Their ferocious barks were in contrast to the raucous cries of three large peacocks-one pure white-caged nearby. The sound from the peacocks was something akin to a baby's wail and a cat's howl. We decided to wait in the car.
Looking around, I noticed a custom-made street sign, Jackson 5 Boulevard, nailed to a nearby tree trunk. To the left stood a basketball court. I glanced up at the two-story house and noticed four expressionless faces staring down at us from as many windows. Michael, LaToya, Randy, and their mother, Katherine, had their countenances pressed against the panes as if they were prisoners in a compound.
It seemed that nobody would rescue us, so we took our chances, got out of the car, and approached the front door. I rang the doorbell. Twenty-two-year-old LaToya, in a white tennis outfit, answered. When Michael approached seconds later, she excused herself, walked out into the driveway, got into a sporty red Mercedes convertible, and sped off.
"Glad you could make it," Michael said as we shook hands.
He was wearing a yellow Jaws T-shirt, black jeans, and a safari hat, around which his afro seemed to billow. His feet were bare and, to me, he looked painfully thin. He spoke in an odd, falsetto whisper, which seemed even softer than it had the last time we had talked. In exactly a week, he would turn twenty.
Michael led us through the house toward the living room. A huge yellow and green parrot sat perched on a ledge outside the window, shucking peanuts. A red, blue, and yellow cockatoo eyed us warily through another window. It let out an ear piercing screech as we sat down. I suddenly felt like I was at a zoo.
"How come you're not getting your guests lemonade?" Katherine asked her son when she came into the room. I could not help noticing that Michael's mother walked with a slight limp, the result of a bout with polio she had as a child. At some times the handicap was more pronounced than at others.
"Oh, sorry," Michael murmured. He dashed off to the kitchen, giving me an opportunity to talk alone with his forty-nine-year-old- mother while the photographer set up his equipment.
The house, which they had lived in since 1971, was a combination pale yellow, soft green, and white, a reflection of Katherine's warm personality. She was gregarious, friendly, and she had a benevolent glow about her. She told me she had decorated the house herself as an assignment for a home-decorating class. She mentioned that Michael's favorite foods were hot apple turnovers and sweet potato pies.
"Only now I can't get him to eat anything. I try and try," she said, shrugging her shoulders. "I keep thinking he'll eat when he gets hungry, but the boy never gets hungry. Have you noticed how skinny he is? It worries me."
I looked around at the opulent furnishings. "These last few years have certainly been good ones," I said to Katherine. "Maybe the best of your life?"
"Not really," she answered thoughtfully. "The best years were back when Michael was about three and I used to sing folk songs with him. You see, I'd always wanted to be a country star, but who'd ever heard of a black country star back then? Those restrictions, again. Anyway, we had one bedroom for the boys and they all slept together in triple bunk beds. Before going to sleep, we'd all sing. We were all so happy then. I'd switch my life now and give up all that we have now for just one of those days back in Gary when it was so much simpler. When we first came to
California, I don't know how many times I said, "I wish things were the way they used to be in Gary." But things have never been the same," she added sadly. "It's all changed now."
Michael came back into the room juggling two glasses of lemonade. He handed one to me and the other to the photographer and then sat in a chair, lotus position. Katherine excused herself.
During our two-hour interview, Michael shared his thoughts on a wide range of topics. "I don't know much about politics," Michael admitted. "Nothing, I guess. Someone told me recently that Gerald Ford was president." He laughed a silvery peal, as he did often; he was in good spirits this afternoon, not at all the shy, reclusive superstar he would become in a few years. I laughed with him because I was certain we were sharing a joke, but we weren't. He was serious.
"I remember when he was vice-president," Michael continued thoughtfully. "That I remember. But president?" He shrugged his shoulders helplessly. "That I missed."
In just a few years, Michael would become an avid reader and exchange ideas about politics with Jane Fonda. But at the time, Michael was quite naive about current events. Astounded at the extreme isolation of this twenty-year-old's world, I began to probe deeper. "How do you keep up with current events? Do you read newspapers? Watch TV?" "I watch cartoons," he told me. "I love cartoons." His eyes lit up. "I love Disney so
much. The Magic Kingdom. Disneyland. It's such a magical place. Walt Disney was a dreamer, like me. And he made his dreams come true, like me. I hope."
"What about current events?"
Michael looked at me blankly, "Current events?"
"Do you read the paper?" I repeated.
He shook his head no. "See, I like show business. I listen to music all the time. I watch old movies. Fred Astair movies. Gene Kelly, I love. And Sammy [Davis]. I can watch those guys all day, twenty-four hours a day. That's what I love the most. Show business, you know?"
We talked about old movies for a while, and about his involvement in The Wiz, the film he had just finished shooting in which he plays the Scarecrow. I asked what he saw as his biggest professional challenge.
"To live up to what Joseph expects of me."
"Joseph? Who's Joseph?" I wondered.
"My father, Joseph."
"You call your father by his first name?" I asked.
"And living up to what he expects of you is a professional challenge?"
Michael mulled over my question. "Yes. A professional challenge."
"What about the personal challenges?"
"My professional challenges and personal challenges are the same thing," he said uneasily. "I just want to entertain. See, when I was in the second grade, the teacher asked me what I wished for. I asked for a mansion, for peace in the world, and to be able to entertain...Can we talk about something else?"
"Do you have any friends that you can really confide in?"
Michael squirmed. "No, not really. I guess I'm pretty lonely."
"How about Tatum O'Neal?" I wondered.
Michael shrugged his shoulders. "She's nice. She was really happy for me when I got the part in the Wiz. She and Ryan were on my side, helping me with my lines, and I owe them a lot. Tatum understands me, I guess. She's gonna teach me how to drive a car. She introduces me to people, famous, famous people. But my real dates, they're the girls who stand outside the gate out there. I go out and sign autographs for them
when I can. They like that. They stay on one side of the gate, and I stay on the other."
"You mean you keep the gate closed?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah. Of course."
"Any other friends?"
"Well, I do have one friend," he said. "A very dear, close friend that I can tell my deepest, darkest secrets to because I know she won't tell anyone, not another living soul. Her name is..." He paused dramatically. "Miss Diana Ross."
"You have deep, dark secrets, Michael?"
He laughed, "Everybody has deep, dark secrets."
At this point, Michael was joined by his brothers Jackie, Tito, Marlon, and Randy. Michael talked about the group's success at Motown and about the fanatical hysteria generated by their fame, which Motown tagged "Jacksonmania."
"Once at a record store in San Francisco, over a thousand kids showed up," he said in a hushed tone. "They all pushed forward and broke a window. A big piece of glass fell on top of this girl. And the girl's throat..." he paused for effect, "was slit." Michael swiftly ran his index finger across his neck. "Michael, don't do that. That's gross," his youngest brother, Randy, said. Michael ignored Randy and continued with his story. "She just got slit. And I remember there was blood everywhere. Oh God, so much blood. And she grabbed her throat and was bleeding and everyone just ignored her. Why? Because I was there and they wanted to grab at me and get my autograph." Michael sighed. "I wonder
whatever happened to that girl."
"Probably dead," Tito muttered. Jackie tried to stifle a laugh.
Fans were as much a curse as a blessing. "We got three guard dogs. One is Heavy, one is Black Girl, and the other one don't got no name," Michael said. "We have to have them," he insisted. "See, once a lady jumped over the gate and into the house and sat down in the den. We came home, and she looked at us and what did she say?"
He turned to Marlon for help. "What'd that lady say?"
"She said, 'I'm here cause God sent me,'" Marlon replied.
"Yeah, God sent her," Michael repeated.
Jackie laughed again. "Yeah, God sent her to sit in the Jackson 5's den and wait for them to get home so she can get their autograph, and maybe her picture with em too. She was on a divine mission. Man, that's funny."
"And then once, a whole family managed to get into the estate somehow, and they toured the whole house," Michael continued. "Lookin' all in our stuff. Findin' all our most private things. And Janet was here all by herself. It was scary. And sometimes, fans ask weird questions. They don't think you're real. Once a fan asked me the most embarrassing question and in front of everyone. She said, "Do you go to the bathroom?" I was so embarrassed."
In the middle of the interview, the good-natured ribbing among the brothers turned nasty when someone brought up the subject of nicknames.
"Mike has a nickname," Jackie mentioned. "It's a real good one."
Michael's smiling face suddenly turned dead serious. "Don't, Jackie," he warned. He looked away.
"We call him-"
"Please, you guys!" Michael pleaded.
"Big Nose," Jackie continued, oblivious to Michael's embarrassment.
The brothers laughed among themselves. Michael's face became flushed.
"Yeah, Big Nose," Marlon repeated, grinning. "We call him Big Nose." Marlon reached over and punched Michael on the arm playfully. "What's happenin', Big Nose?"
But Michael was not laughing. He seemed to curl up inside himself. The others ignored him, continuing their game until Michael seemed close to tears. He would hardly say anything the rest of the afternoon.
"That ain't funny, guys," Tito said in his monotone.
After the interview, we walked outside to take photographs in the warm California sunlight. Father Joseph Jackson, a hulking six-footer with a mole on his face, a pencilthin mustache, and a pinky ring with a diamond the size of a marble, came swaggering into the yard. "The boys aren't taking any pictures," he said to photographer Whyman.
"But the publicist from Epic said for us to come dressed for pictures," Marlon protested.
"Maybe we can get a couple of shots with you in them," Whyman offered, hoping to charm Joseph.
Joe considered the offer. He took a deep breath and puffed up his chest. "Let's take some pictures, boys." After the picture session, the photographer and Michael went off to the aviaries nearby, which were stocked with large, colorful birds. Joseph Jackson approached me.
"You see, I have a philosophy about raising children," he suddenly said, although I hadn't asked him a question. "My father was strict. He was a schoolteacher, and he treated me like I was one of his students, not like I was his son. I never got any special treatment from him. And I'm glad that happened. I got a strict raising when I was young, and I've been able to accomplish a lot because of that. And my kids have gotten a strict raising, and look at what they've accomplished. I think children should fear their parents more. It's good when they fear you a little. It's good for them, and it's good for the parents too. I did my best with those boys, the best I could do."
"Have they ever disappointed you?" I asked.
Joe pondered the question. "Lots of times," he said. "Look at the thing with Jermaine. Jermaine's over there with Berry at Motown instead of with us. Chose Berry over me. Do you know how that makes me feel? It hurts deep. It hurts right here." Joe thumped the left side of his chest with a clenched fist.
"I've been disappointed lots of other times too," he continued. "But I don't think I have ever once let my boys down. If I did, too bad for them. You do the best you can do, raising kids. It helped that they had something to look forward to. "My boys, they always had entertainment, and me to rehearse them. And they also play character-building sports like football and baseball," he said proudly. "Did they tell you that? Jackie coulda been a baseball player if he wanted to. In the majors. Chicago White Sox. They're all good at sports. Except for Michael. Never picked up a
bat in his whole life." Joe smiled. "Wouldn't know what to do with a baseball bat. We tease him about it, but he don't like that too much. Michael has always been very, very sensitive.
"Another thing you should know about Michael," Joe said, "is that ever since he was four, he wanted to be an entertainer. And he always wanted to be number one. That's why sports upsets him so much, cause his brothers can whip him and outdo him at sports and he can't be number one. But in music, Michael knows he's number one. Number one," Joe repeated, nodding his head. "That's what Michael has always wanted to be. Number one.
"And speakin' of Michael, Marlon told me what happened. You're not gonna write that part about Michael's nickname, are you?" he asked.
I told him I wasn't certain how I would handle it.
He doesn't like that nickname they gave him. Liver Lips."
"Liver Lips? They told me his nickname is Big Nose."
"Oh, yeah," Joe said. "That boy's so sensitive about his nose. Do you see anything wrong with his nose?"
I shook my head. "No, not at all."
"Me neither," Joe said. "But that's all he ever talks about. His damn nose. Threatened to have it fixed. What can he do with it?" Joe looked perplexed. "I told him I'd break his face if he ever had it fixed." He laughed. "You don't fix something that ain't broke. He's got a great nose. It looks like mine."
Afterwards, Michael returned to the living room for some final thoughts about his life and career. As the photographer and I watched, he crossed his left leg over his right knee and began absentmindedly picking at his toenails.
"When I'm not onstage, I'm not the same. I'm different," he observed. "I think I'm some kind of stage addict. When I don't get onto a stage for a long time, I have fits and get real crazy. I start crying, and I act weird and all freaked out. No kiddin', I do. I start to dancin' round the house."
He began to talk rapidly. "It's like a part of me is missin' and I gotta get it back, cause if I don't, I won't be complete. So I gotta dance and I gotta sing, you know? I have this craving. Onstage is the only place I'm comfortable. I'm not comfortable around...," he paused, searching for the right word, "normal people. But when I get out onstage, I really open up and I have no problems. Whatever is happening in my life don't matter no more. I'm up there and cuttin' loose and I say to myself, "This is it. This is home. This is exactly where I'm supposed to be, where God meant for me to be." I'm unlimited when I'm onstage. I'm number one. But when I'm off the stage," he shrugged his shoulders, "I'm not really..." Again he paused, trying to find the right word. "Happy."
Earlier in the day, I had conducted an interview with Sidney Lumet, director of The Wiz. "Michael Jackson is the most gifted entertainer to come down the pike since, I guess, James Dean," Lumet told me. "He's a brilliant actor and dancer, probably one of the rarest entertainers I have ever worked with. His talent is awesome."
I shared Lumet's observation with Michael. He seemed embarrassed for a moment.
"Who's James Dean?" He asked.
Later, he began talking about his role as the Scarecrow in The Wiz. "What I like about my character," he observed, "is his, I guess you could call it, his confusion. He knows that he has these, uh, these problems, I guess you could call them. But he doesn't know exactly why he has them or how he got that way. And he understands that he sees things differently from the way everyone else does, but he can't put his finger on why. He's not like other people. No one understands him. So he goes through his whole life with this, uh...," he paused, "confusion."
Michael Jackson looked away from his toenails for a split second. "Everybody thinks he's very special," he concluded thoughtfully, "But, really, he's very sad. He's so, so sad. Do you understand?" He asked urgently. "Do you understand his sadness?"