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Michael Jackson: Life as a Man In the Magical Kingdom

The former child star talks new album 'Thriller,' his career, and wanting to escape it all

February 17, 1983
michael jackson 1983 cover
Michael Jackson on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Bonnie Schiffman

It's noon, and somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, the front shades of a row of condos are lowered against a hazy glare. Through the metal gate, the courtyard is silent, except for the distant splat of a fountain against its plastic basin. Then comes the chilling whine of a real-life Valley girl. "Grandmuther. I am not gonna walk a whole block. It's humid. My hair will be brillo."

And the soothing counterpoint of maternal encouragement: "Be good pup, Jolie. Make for mama."

All along the courtyard's trimmed inner paths, poodles waddle about trailing poodle-cut ladies on pink leashes.

"Not what you expected, huh?" From behind a mask of bony fingers, Michael Jackson giggles. Having settled his visitor on the middle floor of his own three-level condo, Michael explains that the residence is temporary, while his Encino, California, home is razed and rebuilt. He concedes that this is an unlikely spot for a young prince of pop.

It is also surprising to see that Michael has decided to face this interview alone. He says he has not done anything like this for over two years. And even when he did, it was always with a cordon of managers, other Jackson brothers and, in one case, his younger sister Janet parroting a reporter's questions before Michael would answer them. The small body of existing literature paints him as excruciatingly shy. He ducks, he hides, he talks to his shoe tops. Or he just doesn't show up. He is known to conduct his private life with almost obsessive caution, "just like a hemophiliac who can't afford to be scratched in any way." The analogy is his.

Run this down next to the stats, the successes, and it doesn't add up. He has been the featured player with the Jackson Five since grade school. In 1980, he stepped out of the Jacksons to record his own LP, Off the Wall, and it became the best-selling album of the year. Thriller, his new album, is Number Five on the charts. And the list of performers now working with him – or wanting to – includes Paul McCartney, Quincy Jones, Steven Spielberg, Diana Ross, Queen and Jane Fonda. On record, onstage, on TV and screen, Michael Jackson has no trouble stepping out. Nothing scares him, he says. But this. . .

"Do you like doing this?" Michael asks. There is a note of incredulity in his voice, as though he were asking the question of a coroner. He is slumped in a dining-room chair, looking down into the lower level of the living room. It is filled with statuary. There are some graceful, Greco-Roman type bronzes, as well as a few pieces from the suburban birdbath school. The figures are frozen around the sofa like some ghostly tea party.

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Michael Jackson

Michael himself is having little success sitting still. He is so nervous that he is eating – plowing through – a bag of potato chips. This is truly odd behavior. None of his brothers can recall seeing anything snacky pass his lips since he became a strict vegetarian and health-food disciple six years ago. In fact, Katherine Jackson, his mother, worries that Michael seems to exist on little more than air. As far as she can tell, her son just has no interest in food. He says that if he didn't have to eat to stay alive, he wouldn't.

"I really do hate this," he says. Having polished off the chips, he has begun to fold and refold a newspaper clipping. "I am much more relaxed onstage than I am right now. But hey, let's go." He smiles. Later, he will explain that "let's go" is what his bodyguard always says when they are about to wade into some public fray. It's also a phrase Michael has been listening for since he was old enough to tie his own shoes.

 

LET'S GO, BOYS. With that, Joe Jackson would round up his sons Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael. "Let's go" has rumbled from the brothers' preshow huddle for more than three-quarters of Michael's life, first as the Jackson Five on Motown and now as the Jacksons on Epic. Michael and the Jacksons have sold over a 100 million records. Six of their two dozen Motown singles went platinum; ten others went gold. He was just eleven in 1970 when their first hit, "I Want You Back," nudged out B.J. Thomas' "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," for Number One.

Michael says he knew at age five, when he sang "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" in school and laid out the house, that something special was going on. Back then, such precocity frightened his mother. But years later it soothed hearts and coffers at Epic when Off the Wall sold over 5 million in the U.S., another 2 million worldwide and one of its hit singles, "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," won him a Grammy. The LP yielded four Top Ten hit singles, a record for a solo artist and a feat attained only by Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, and by the combined efforts on the Grease and Saturday Night Fever soundtracks.

If a jittery record industry dared wager, the smart money would be on Michael Jackson. Recent months have found him at work on no fewer than three projects: his own recently released Thriller; Paul McCartney's work-in-progress, which will contain two Jackson-McCartney collaborations, "Say, Say, Say" and "The Man"; and the narration and one song for the storybook E.T. album on MCA for director Steven Spielberg and producer Quincy Jones. In his spare time, he wrote and produced Diana Ross' single "Muscles." This is indeed a young man in a hurry. Already he is looking past the album he is scheduled to make with the Jacksons this winter. There is a chance of a spring tour. And then there are the movies. Since his role as the scarecrow in The Wiz his bedroom has been hip-deep in scripts.

At twenty-four, Michael Jackson has one foot planted firmly on either side of the Eighties. His childhood hits are golden oldies, and his boyhood idols have become his peers. Michael was just ten when he moved into Diana Ross' Hollywood home. Now he produces her. He was five when the Beatles crossed over; now he and McCartney wrangle over the same girl on Michael's single "The Girl Is Mine." His showbiz friends span generations as well. He hangs out with the likes of such other kid stars as Tatum O'Neal and Kristy McNichol, and ex-kid star Stevie Wonder. He gossips long distance with Adam Ant and Liza Minnelli, and has heart-to-hearts with octogenarian Fred Astaire. When he visited the set of On Golden Pond, Henry Fonda baited fishhooks for him. Jane Fonda is helping him learn acting. Pen pal Katharine Hepburn broke a lifelong habit of avoiding rock by attending a 1981 Jacksons concert at Madison Square Garden.

Even E.T would be attracted to such a gentle spirit, according to Steven Spielberg, who says he told Michael, "If E.T. didn't come to Elliott, he would have come to your house." Spielberg also says he thought of no one else to narrate the saga of his timorous alien. "Michael is one of the last living innocents who is in complete control of his life. I've never seen anybody like Michael. He's an emotional star child."

 

CARTOONS ARE FLASHING SILENTLY ACROSS THE GIANT screen that glows in the darkened den. Michael mentions that he loves cartoons. In fact, he loves all things "magic." This definition is wide enough to include everything from Bambi to James Brown.

"He's so magic," Michael says of Brown, admitting that he patterned his own quicksilver choreography on the Godfather's classic bag of stage moves. "I'd be in the wings when I was like six or seven. I'd sit there and watch him."

Michael's kindergarten was the basement of the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He was too shy to actually approach the performers the Jackson Five opened for – everyone from Jackie Wilson to Gladys Knight, the Temptations and Etta James. But he says he had to know everything they did – how James Brown could do a slide, a spin and a split and still make it back before the mike hit the floor. How the mike itself disappeared through the Apollo stage floor. He crept downstairs, along passageways and walls and hid there, peering from behind the dusty flanks of old vaudeville sets while musicians tuned, smoked, played cards and divvied barbecue. Climbing back to the wings, he stood in the protective folds of the musty maroon curtain, watching his favorite acts, committing every double dip and every bump, snap, whip-it-back mike toss to his inventory of night moves. Recently, for a refresher course, Michael went to see James Brown perform at an L.A. club. "He's the most electrifying. He can take an audience anywhere he wants to. The audience just went bananas. He went wild – and at his age. He gets so out of himself."

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