I first met Michael Jackson some 33 years ago when Diana Ross introduced the Jackson 5 — then a brand-new Motown act — to 350 music and media folk at the Daisy Club in Beverly Hills. My husband, Ken, and I were then publishing Soul, one of the first national black-entertainment newsmagazines.
Ten year old Michael already knew how to charm a crowd. Acknowledging Diana’s support, he said, “After singing for four years and not becoming a star, I thought I would never be discovered — this is, until Miss Ross came along to save my career.”
Just four months later, the Jackson 5’s first single, ‘I Want You Back’, soared to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts, followed two months later by ‘ABC’. Thousands of letters from across the country poured into our mailbox. Responding to the Jackson’s first tour, one reader wrote: “Those youngsters performed in a manner that could be harmful to one’s health. The heart can only stand so much soul, and their performance was definately an overdose.”
Over the next decade, Soul kept up with the Jackson family as a guest at parties, weddings, and concerts. We were also regular visitors to the family home, where Michael — soft-spoken, polite, curious, and quiet — was usually off by himself, drawing or playing with his snakes and other pets, while his older brothers, cousins and visitors played basketball. But when Soul stopped publishing in 1980, I lost touch with the family.
And then Michael became a pop-culture superstar, changing the face of music, dance, fashion, and music video with hit after hit. He was idolized and chased by fans and media wherever he went. He took an art form, refined and packaged it, and became an international icon. The American Music Awards recently named him the Artist of the Century. When it comes to the King of Pop, the world is insatiable.
You can tell a lot about someone by the people who work for him. Arriving at Michael’s 2700-acre Neverland Valley Ranch in Los Olivos, Calif., north of Santa Barbara, I’m greeted by some of the 70-odd members of Michael’s exceedingly friendly staff, which helps the self-proclaimed King of Pop maintain the comples and welcomes busloads of visitors a year, mostly kids who suffer terminal illnesses.
Dressed in black slacks, white socks, black loafers, and a soft yellow shirt, Michael greets me with a warm smile hello and a big hug. He then excuses himself to see about his son, Prince, 5, and daughter Paris, 3, who have just returned from a long walk and are excitedly chattering to their dad about their day.
The governess, who closely resembles Michael’s mother, Katherine, suggests I have a brief look around the ranch before dark. So I take off in a battery-powered golf cart, while Michael spends some time with his babies.
I discover an amusement park, playground, train station, arcade, swiming pool, Jacuzzi, bumper-car tent, and various areas where anumals roam free. I spot a llama, a parrot, a cheetah, a pony, and several deer.
Michael is ready to talk when I return 45 minutes later. I’ve brought along a bound volume of Soul, and he looks at the old photographs and laughs at himself, his brothers and a picture of Diana Ross. “Do you remember interviewing me when I was little?” he asks, reminding me of the time Soul talked to him through his ‘interpreter’, Janet. “It wasn’t a game, it was real,” he says. “I felt afraid. I felt that if my sister was there, the person would go easier on me.”
Often very animated, Michael goes from a whisper to raucous laughter in a split second. The only matter that he refuses to address is his plastic surgery. “That’s a stupid question,” he says. “That’s one reason I didn’t do interviews for years.”
At a time when stars routinely boast about their Bentleys and blingbling, Michael is singularly modest. He brushes off a question about his financial health — there have been recent reports of trouble — saying only, “I’m taken care of fine.” Michael makes money when he sleeps. He owns half of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which includes most of the Beatles catalog as well as songs by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Babyface, and Elvis.
At 43, Michael is indisputably back. 'Invincible', his first album in four years, was No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. His two sold-out tribute shows at Madison Square Garden last September (just before the terrorist attacks) were later aired as a CBS special watched by more than 25.7 million viewers, making it that network’s highest-rated music special of all time.
As we resume the conversation that began so many years ago, I discover that, in spite of all the flash and tumult of Michael’s time in the spotlight, he’s remarkable unchanged still caring, inquisitive, and sensitive.
Jones: How is it to be competing for sales with the likes of ’N Sync and Britney Spears, children who were basically born at the height of your fame?
Michael: It’s a rarity. I had No. 1 records in 1969 and ’70, and still entered the charts in 2001 at No. 1. I don’t think any other artist has that range. It’s a great honor. I’m happy, I don’t know what else to say. I’m glad people accept what I do.
Jones: What are your thoughts on the current state of R&B?
Michael: I don’t categorize music. Music is music. They changed the word R&B to rock n’ roll. It was always been, from Fats Domino to Little Richard to Chuck Berry. How can we discriminate? Its what it is — great music, you know.
Jones: Are you feeling hip hop?
Michael: I like a lot of it, a lot of it. I like the music. I don’t like the dancing that much. It looks like they’re doing aerobics.
Jones: How did you decide to feature Biggie Smalls on ‘Unbreakable’, off ‘Invincible’?
Michael: It wasn’t my idea, actually. It was Rodney Jerkins’, one of the writer/producers working on the album. It was my idea to put a rap part on the song, and he said, “I know just the perfect on — Biggie.” He put it in, and it worked perfectly.
Jones: Why did you choose Jay-Z for the remix of the first single, ‘You Rock My World’?
Michael: He’s hip, the new thing, and he’s with the kids today. They like his work. He’s tapped into the nerve of popular culture. It just made good sense.
Jones: What was it like for you to appear at New York’s Hot 97 Summer Jam concert as Jay-Z’s guest?
Michael: I just showed up and gave him a hug. There was a tumultuous explosion of applause and stomping, a lovely, lovely welcome, and I was happy about that. It was a great feeling — the love, the love.
Jones: Does it bother you to see people emulate you, such as Usher, Sisqo, Ginuwine, and even Destiny’s Child?
Michael: I don’t mind it at all. These are artists who grew up with my music. When you grow up listening to somebody you admire, you tend to become them. You want to look like them, to dress like them. When I was little, I was James Brown, I was Sammy Davis Jr., so I understand. It’s a compliment.
Jones: Did you know that you were creating timeless classics when you were recording ‘Thriller’ and ‘Off the Wall’?
Michael: Yes, not to be arrogant, but yes. Because I know great material when I hear it, and meoldically and sonically and musically, it’s so moving. They keep the promise.
Jones: Do you feel there’s a greater acceptance of black artists these days?
Michael: I think people have always admired black music since the beginning of time, if you want to go back to Negro spirituals. Today, the market is just accepting of the fact that that’s the sound. From Britney to ’N Sync, they’re all doing the R&B thing. Even Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees he always tells me [immitating a British accent], “Man, we do R&B.” I say, Barry, I don’t categorize it, but it’s great music. I understand where he’s coming from. I love great music — it has no color, it has no boundaries.
Jones: You seem to be enjoying life as a single parent.
Michael: I never had so much fun in all my life. That’s the truth. Beacause I’m this big kid, and now I get to see the world through the eyes of the really young ones. I learn more from them than they learn from me. I’m constantly trying things and testing things on them to see what works and what doesn’t. Children are always the best judges to monitor something. If you can get the kids, you’ve got it. That’s why Harry Potter is so successful — it’s a family-oriented movie. You can’t go wrong there. We want a wide demographic, and that’s why I try not to say things in my lyrics that offend parents. I don’t want to be like that. We weren’t raised to be like that. Mother and Joseph [Michael’s father] wouldn’t say stuff like that.
Jones: What do Prince and Paris listen to?
Michael: They listen to all of my music, and they love classical, which plays all around the ranch. They like any good dance music.
Jones: How would you feel about your children becoming pop icons, based upon your experience?
Michael: I don’t know how they would handle that. It would be tough. I really don’t know. It’s hard, since most of the children of celebrities end up becoming self-destructive because they can’t live up to the talent of the parent. People used to always say to Fred Astaire Jr., “Can you dance?” And he couldn’t. He didn’t have any rhythm, but his father was this genius dancer. It doesn’t mean that it has to be passed on. I always tell my children, You don’t have to sing, you don’t have to dance. Be who you want to be, as long as you’re not hurting anybody. That’s the main thing.
Jones: Which artists — past and present — inspire you?
Michael: Stevie Wonder is a musical prophet. All of the early Motown. All the Beatles. I’m crazy about Sammy Davis Jr., Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson — the real entertainers, the real thing, not just gimmicks, showstoppers. When James Brown was with the Famous Flames, it was unbelievable. There are so many wonderful singers — Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis. Real stylists. You hear one line, and you know who it is. Nat ‘King’ Cole, great stuff. Sam Cooke — they are all ridiculous.
Jones: How involved were you in selecting the artists to perform in your 30th anniversary special?
Michael: I wasn’t involved at all.
Jones: How were you able to let go of something so big and so special?
Jones: What was your experience on September 11?
Michael: I was in New York [after performing at Madison Square Garden on September 7 and 10], and I got a call from friends in Saudi Arabia that America was being attacked. I turned on the news and saw the Twin Towers coming down, and I said, Oh my God. I screamed down the hotel hallway to our people, Everybody get out, let’s leave now! Marlon Brando was on one end, our security was on the other end. We were all up there, but Elizabeth Taylor was at another hotel. We all got out of there as quickly as we could. We jumped in the car, but there were these girls who had been at the show the night before, and they were banging on the windows, running down the street screaming. Fans are so loyal. We hid in New Jersey. It was unbelievable — I was scared to death.
Jones: On another tip altogether, what do you do for recreation?
Michael: I like water-balloon fights. We have a water-balloon fort here, and we have a red team and a blue team. We have slings and cannons, and you are drenched by the time the game is over. There’s a timer, and whoever gets the most points is the winner. If I’m going to do some kind of sport, I have to laugh. I don’t do anything like basketball or golf. Basketball is very competitive, and so is tennis; they make you angry. I’m not into that. It should be therapeutic. I also like to go to amusement parks, hang out with animals, things like that.
Jones: Do you have a fantasy of something that you’d like to see in your lifetime?
Michael: I would like to see an international children’s holiday to honor our children, because the family bond has been broken. There’s a Mother’s Day, and there’s a Father’s Day, but there’s no children’s day. It would mean a lot. It really would. World peace. I hope that our next generation will get to see a peaceful world, not the way things are going now.
Jones: Has singing ever stopped being fun and become work?
Michael: It’s always been fun. Unless I get physically sick, it’s always fun. I still love it.
Jones: Many of us see you as a historic figure, an innovator who has set a standard that still exists in music. Where does Michael Jackson go from here?
Michael: Thank you, thank you. I have a deep love for film and I want to pioneer and innovate in the medium of film — to write and direct and produce movies, to bring incredible entertainment.
Jones: What kinds of movies? Are you looking at scripts?
Michael: Yes, but nothing has been finalized yet.
Jones: Are you ever lonely?
Michael: Of course. If I’m onstage, I’m fine there. But you can have a house full of people and still be lonely from within. I’m not complaining, because I think it’s a good thing for my work.
Jones: Tell me about the inspiration for ‘Speechless’. It’s very loving.
Michael: You’ll be surprised. I was with these kids in Germany, and we had a big water-balloon fight — I’m serious — and I was so happy after the fight that I ran upstairs in their house and wrote ‘Speechless’. Fun inspires me. I hate to say that, because it’s such a romantic song. But it was the fight that did it. I was happy, and I wrote it in it’s entirety right there. I felt it would be good enough for the album. Out of the bliss comes magic, wonderment, and creativity.
Jones: Do you collect anything?
Michael: I like anything to do with Shirley Temple, the Little Rascals, and the Three Stooges. I love Curly. I love him so much that I did a book on him. I got a hold of his daughter, and we wrote the book together.
Jones: Is there anything that you would like to say to VIBE readers?
Michael: I love Quincy Jones. I really do. And also, I want to tell the readers not to judge a person by what they hear, or even what they read, unless they hear it from the person himself. There is so much tabloid sensationalism. Don’t fall prey to it, it’s ugly. I’d like to take all the tabloids and burn them. I want you to print that! Some of them try to diguise themselves, but they are still the tabloids.
Jones: Finally, how do you channel your creativity?
Michael: I don’t force it, I let nature take its course. I don’t sit at the piano and think, I’m going to write the greatest song of all time. It doesn’t happen. It has to be given to you. I believe it’s already up there before you are born, and then it drops right into your lap. It’s the most spiritual thing in the world. When it comes, it comes with all the accompaniments, the strings, the bass, the drums, the lyrics, and you’re just the medium through which it comes, the channel. Sometimes I feel guilty putting my name on songs — written by Michael Jackson — because it’s as if the heavens have done it already. Like Michelangelo would have this huge piece of marble from the quaries of Italy, and he’d say, “Inside is a sleeping form.” He takes a hammer and chisel, and he’s just freeing it. It’s already in there. It’s already there.