Getting out of oneself is a recurrent theme in Michael's life, whether the subject is dancing, singing or acting. As a Jehovah's Witness, Michael believes in an impending holocaust, which will be followed by the second coming of Christ. Religion is a large part of his life, requiring intense Bible study and thrice-weekly meetings at a nearby Kingdom Hall. He has never touched drugs and rarely goes near alcohol. Still, despite the prophesied Armageddon, the spirit is not so dour as to rule out frequent hops on the fantasy shuttle.
"I'm a collector of cartoons," he says. "All the Disney stuff, Bugs Bunny, the old MGM ones. I've only met one person who has a bigger collection than I do, and I was surprised – Paul McCartney. He's a cartoon fanatic. Whenever I go to his house, we watch cartoons. When we came here to work on my album, we rented all these cartoons from the studio, Dumbo and some other stuff. It's real escapism. It's like everything's all right. It's like the world is happening now in a faraway city. Everything's fine.
"The first time I saw E.T., I melted through the whole thing," he says. "The second time, I cried like crazy. And then, in doing the narration, I felt like I was there with them, like behind a tree or something, watching everything that happened."
So great was Michael's emotional involvement that Steven Spielberg found his narrator crying in the darkened studio when he got to the part where E.T. is dying. Finally, Spielberg and producer Quincy Jones decided to run with it and let Michael's voice break. Fighting those feelings would be counterproductive – something Jones had already learned while producing Off the Wall.
"I had a song I'd been saving for Michael called "She's Out of My Life," he remembers. "Michael heard it, and it clicked. But when he sang it, he would cry. Every time we did it, I'd look up at the end and Michael would be crying. I said, 'We'll come back in two weeks and do it again, and maybe it won't tear you up so much.' Came back and he started to get teary. So we left it in."
This tug of war between the controlled professional and the vulnerable, private Michael surfaces in the lyrics he has written for himself. In "Bless His Soul," a song on the Jacksons' Destiny LP that Michael says is definitely about him, he sings:
Sometimes I cry cause I'm confused
Is this a fact of being used?
There is no life for me at all
Cause I give myself at beck and call.
Two of the Jackson-written cuts on Thriller strengthen that defensive stance. "They eat off you, you're a vegetable," he shouts on "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." "Beat It," a tense, tough dance cut, flirts with paranoia: "You have to show them that you're really not scared/You're playin' with your life, this ain't no truth or dare/They'll kick you, then they beat you/Then they'll tell you it's fair."
Yes, he says, he feels used, declining specifics, saying only that in his profession, "They demand that, and they want you to do this. They think that they own you, they think they made you. If you don't have faith, you go crazy. Like not doing interviews. If I talk, I say what's on my mind, and it can seem strange to other peoples' ears. I'm the kind of person who will tell it all, even though it's a secret. And I know that things should be kept private."
For his own protection, Michael has rigged himself a set of emotional floodgates, created situations where it's okay to let it all out. "Some circumstances require me to be real quiet," he says. "But I dance every Sunday." On that day, he also fasts.
This, his mother confirms, is a weekly ritual that leaves her son laid out, sweating, laughing and crying. It is also a ritual very similar to Michael's performances. Indeed, the weight of the Jacksons' stage show rests heavily on his narrow, sequined shoulders. There is nothing tentative about his solo turns. He can tuck his long, thin frame into a figure skater's spin without benefit of ice or skates. Aided by the burn and flash of silvery body suits, he seems to change molecular structure at will, all robot angles one second and rippling curves the next. So sure is the body that his eyes are often closed, his face turned upward to some unseen muse. The bony chest heaves. He pants, bumps and squeals. He has been known to leap offstage and climb up into the rigging.
At home, in his room, he dances until he falls down. Michael says the Sunday dance sessions are also an effective way to quiet his stage addiction when he is not touring. Sometimes in these off periods, another performer will call him up from the audience. And in the long, long trip from his seat to the stage, the two Michaels duke it out.
"I sit there and say, 'Please don't call me up, I am too shy,'" Jackson says. "But once I get up there, I take control of myself. Being onstage is magic. There's nothing like it. You feel the energy of everybody who's out there. You feel it all over your body. When the lights hit you, it's all over, I swear it is."
He is smiling now, sitting upright, trying to explain weightlessness to the earth-bound.
"When it's time to go off, I don't want to. I could stay up there forever. It's the same thing with making a movie. What's wonderful about a film is that you can become another person. I love to forget. And lots of times, you totally forget. It's like automatic pilot. I mean – whew."
During shooting for The Wiz, he became so attached to his Scarecrow character, the crew literally had to wrench him from the set and out of his costume. He was in Oz, and wasn't keen on leaving it for another hotel room.
"That's what I loved about doing E.T. I was actually there. The next day, I missed him a lot. I wanted to go back to that spot I was at yesterday in the forest. I wanted to be there."
Alas, he is still at the dining-room table in his condo. But despite the visible strain, he's holding steady. And he brightens at a question about his animals. He says he talks to his menagerie every day."I have two fawns. Mr. Tibbs looks like a ram; he's got the horns. I've got a beautiful llama. His name is Louie." He's also into exotic birds like macaws, cockatoos and a giant rhea.
"Stay right there," he says, "and I'll show you something." He takes the stairs to his bedroom two at a time. Though I know we are the only people in the apartment, I hear him talking.
"Aw, were you asleep? I'm sorry . . . ."
Seconds later, an eight-foot boa constrictor is deposited on the dining-room table. He is moving in my direction at an alarming rate.
"This is Muscles. And I have trained him to eat interviewers."
Muscles, having made it to the tape recorder and flicked his tongue disdainfully, continues on toward the nearest source of warm blood. Michael thoughtfully picks up the reptile as its snub nose butts my wrist. Really, he insists, Muscles is quite sweet. It's all nonsense, this stuff about snakes eating people. Besides, Muscles isn't even hungry; he enjoyed his weekly live rat a couple of days ago. If anything, the stranger's presence has probably made Muscles a trifle nervous himself. Coiled around his owner's torso, his tensile strength has made Michael's forearm a vivid bas-relief of straining blood vessels. To demonstrate the snake's sense of balance, Michael sets him down on a three-inch wide banister, where he will remain, motionless, for the next hour or so.
"Snakes are very misunderstood," he says. Snakes, I suggest, may be the oldest victims of bad press. Michael whacks the table and laughs.
"Bad press. Ain't it so, Muscles?
The snake lifts its head momentarily, then settles back on the banister. All three of us are a bit more relaxed.
"Know what I also love?" Michael volunteers. "Manikins."
Yes, he means the kind you see wearing mink bikinis in Beverly Hills store windows. When his new house is finished, he says he'll have a room with no furniture, just a desk and a bunch of store dummies.
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