Michael Jackson: Trouble in Paradise?

The pop star is about to embark on what may be the biggest tour ever. But the struggle for power in the Jackson camp could lead to a major disaster

US boxing promoter Don King (bottom R) announces a tour of the Jackson Five group on November 30, 1983. Credit: AFP/Getty

"Jacksons! Jacksons! Jacksons!"

The din inside Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium is more than deafening. It is awesome, all-engulfing: the adoring roar of 3000 fans. The reunited brothers are not giving a concert; they are filming the final sequence of a TV commercial for Pepsi-Cola. But that doesn't matter. Because the real reason these people are all here, clapping and hollering and heralding the arrival of a new musical age, is Michael Jackson. Michael is now, quite simply, the biggest star in the pop-cultural universe – if not bigger than Jesus, as John Lennon once boasted of the Beatles, then certainly bigger than that group, or any other past pop icons. Michael is the man who has sold more than 25 million copies of a single album, Thriller; the man who will surely sweep this year's Grammy Awards; the man who is about to embark with his brothers on what may be the most phenomenally lucrative concert tour in entertainment history.

Michael Jackson: Intimate Photos From the King of Pop's Teenage Years

And, if the truth be told, Michael is also the only person who would probably rather not be here tonight. A confirmed health-food disciple, he is endorsing a product he isn't likely to use (unlike his brothers, he apparently will not be shown swigging Pepsi in the complete ad). And the man behind the commercial, the man who set the whole thing up, is Don King, the boxing impresario and promoter of the Jacksons' upcoming tour. Michael doesn't want to do the tour. He does not trust Don King and would prefer to have nothing to do with King. So why is the most popular performer in the world burying his pride and independence to participate in this project?

The answer is simple: He is doing it for his brothers, for Tito, Jackie, Marlon, Randy and Jermaine. Once they were Michael's professional equals, but they've long since been left in the dust of his dizzying drive to the top of the showbiz starpile. This summer's tour will be one last hurrah for them, one last blaze of cash and glory; Michael is calling it "the farewell tour" and "the final curtain." His feelings for his brothers are naturally strong, and they seem to have been exploited by his father, Joe Jackson. Joe Jackson is determined not to let slip his total control over a pop dynasty he feels he founded. Michael, the good son, will do the commercial; he'll do the tour. The family ties are deep and strong. But they are also, increasingly, ties that bind.

The crowd, however, doesn't know any of this, and as the Jacksons finally hit the stage, the chanting in the hall erupts into a single, searing shriek of adulation. A deep, pulsing beat rolls off the stage – the beat of "Billie Jean," Michael's best-selling single. But tonight, the words, once so personal, have been altered for the commercial:

You're a whole new generation

You're loving what you do.

The voice – that high, sweet, wholly inimitable voice – is Michael Jackson's, but he's still not in view. Suddenly, there is a blinding explosion at the center of the stage, and there, at the top of a staircase, stands Michael in unmistakable silhouette: hip tilted, head cocked, finger flipped out – a whole physical catechism of cool.

Put a Pepsi into motion

That's all you're gotta do.

Michael has descended the staircase. He stands frozen for an instant, then whips off a dervish spin. He charges to a microphone and, with steely eyed intensity, hits the revamped "Billie Jean" chorus right on cue:

You're a whole new generation

You're a whole new generation.

It is a dazzling moment, and it belongs entirely to Michael. He developed the choreography. He and the Pepsi people chose the director, Bob Giraldi, picked the music and worked up the new lyrics. He – not Pepsi, not the ad agency, not Giraldi, not even his brothers – has the final cut. He appears, as always, to be in total control.

Then the director calls for a sixth take. The song begins; the brothers hit the stage; the explosion illuminates Michael's jiving figure, and he bops beautifully down the stairs one more time.

But a spark has ignited his hair. Still focused on his feet, Michael is unaware of what's happened, and it is not until he takes his first spin at the bottom of the stairs that he realizes he's on fire. Frantically, he cries out "Tito! Tito!" to his startled older brother. A coat is quickly thrown over Michael's head, extinguishing the flames. Screaming in pain, he is rushed off to a hospital with what turn out to be second- and third-degree burns.

His injuries, however, do not prove to be critical: By the next day, Michael is happily joking with his doctors and fellow patients. But the incident may stand as a cautionary symbol for his future – the future he needs so badly to believe he still can control. Can he? And if not, whom can he trust, rely on, confide in? Whom can he turn to? These are increasingly crucial questions. Michael's money-minting stellar status is undeniable; but in the wrong hands, even superstars can get burned. And badly.

How big is Michael Jackson? Let's put it in the context of some of the biggest albums of the last year: Add up all the copies of David Bowie's Let's Dance, the Police's Synchronicity, the Rolling Stones' Undercover, Culture Club's Colour by Numbers, Quiet Riot's Metal Health and Duran Duran's Seven and the Ragged Tiger that have been sold in the U.S. A lot of records, right? Now double that figure. That's how big Michael Jackson is.

Jackson's Thriller album has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide – more than Grease, more than Saturday Night Fever, more than any other album in history. Thriller makes even Jackson's previous LP, Off the Wall, which sold 8 million copies, look like something of a stiff. In the one year and two months since its release, 15 million copies of Thriller have been sold in the United States alone. The LP has gone platinum in fourteen foreign countries, gold in seven more. The record is unstoppable. In January, right after Michael swept the American Music Awards, more than a million copies of Thriller were sold in just one five-day period. The following week, after his accident in L.A., over 700,000 copies were sold.

All of which means that Michael Jackson is a very rich twenty-five-year-old. According to his attorney, John Branca, "Michael has the highest royalty rate in the record business." (Michael would not be interviewed for this article; he referred all questions to Branca, a trusted adviser.) That royalty rate, which escalates along with sales, is reported to be in the very exclusive neighborhood of forty-two percent of the wholesale price of each record sold. In other words, Jackson is apparently paid about $2.10 on every album sold in the U.S., or a total of nearly $32 million on Thriller's domestic sales alone. Add to that another $15 million or so in foreign royalties, and you begin to get some idea of Jackson's commercial clout. That doesn't include the publishing royalties for the four songs that he wrote on Thriller.

But you get the picture. Some sixty weeks after its release, Thriller was still the Number One album on the pop charts, and it has been Number One for a total of twenty-nine mind-whirling weeks.

 * * *

No other pop star has ever sold so many records. No other album has ever spawned seven Top Ten singles ("Billie Jean," "Beat It," "The Girl Is Mine," "Human Nature," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" and "Thriller"). Small wonder, then, that concert promoters around the country see the Jacksons' upcoming concert trek as not only the tour of the year, but possibly the biggest performance gold mine of all time. Michael Jackson's drawing power alone is apparently limitless: New York promoter Ron Delsener estimates the Jacksons could sell out a full week of dates at the 60,000-seat Shea Stadium and still not exhaust ticket demand.

As currently mapped out – forty shows beginning in early summer and spread out over thirteen weeks (to conserve his energy, Michael won't do more than three shows per week) – about 1.2 million people are expected to attend the concerts. Depending on ticket price (either twenty or twenty-five dollars), that would mean a gross of either $24 million or $30 million. Assuming the latter figure, and deducting $6 million for expenses, that would leave $24 million net profit, eighty-five percent of which would go to the Jacksons, with the rest being divided between Don King and Joe and Katherine Jackson – $3.4 million for each member of the group (Michael will get the same amount as each of his five brothers); $1.8 million for King; and $900,000 each for Joe Jackson and his wife. Just the droppings from such a windfall are the stuff of which promoters' dreams are made.

Predictably, there is also talk of a concert film and of a live satellite broadcast of one of the shows. Plans abound: a film based on "Billie Jean," a Michael Jackson doll, a Michael Jackson leather jacket, trading cards, even a Michael Jackson postage stamp for a Caribbean country.

Other deals abound. Foremost among them is a book that Michael will write with the help of a still-to-be-hired author. "It is not just an autobiography," says his literary agent, Joy Harris. "It will be primarily pictures and drawings and poetry, and then a substantial text. You know, he's not forty years old, so I don't think he feels that it's time to do his autobiography, but it is the time to make this statement." Editing the book for Doubleday will be Jacqueline Onassis. Harris describes the deal as being "way over a million dollars."

And that's just for starters. "In the last two weeks," says Branca, "we've put together merchandising deals for Michael on a one-year basis with advance guarantees in the millions."

It's all a very far cry from those days in the mid-Seventies when the once popular Jackson 5 – their sales sagging, the brothers complaining that their creativity was being stifled by their own record company – left Motown Records to go to Epic, one of the CBS labels. The creative leeway they were looking for wasn't immediately forthcoming, however: There was little confidence in the group's songwriting ability, and Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who developed the lush Philadelphia-soul style, were brought in as producers. The dramatic success of the group's self-produced 1978 Destiny album and its platinum single, "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)," changed all that somewhat, but not enough for the Jacksons' father. Joe Jackson, who later claimed he needed help in dealing with the power structure at CBS, hired the management team of Ron Weisner and Freddy DeMann to replace his own longtime partner, Richard Arons.

Weisner and DeMann had plans for the Jacksons' young frontman: Michael would do a solo album – an album that would retire his cute, kiddy image and replace it with a more sophisticated, grown-up persona. "The tuxedo was the overall game plan for the Off the Wall album and package," says Weisner. "Michael had an image before that as a young kid, and all of a sudden, here was a hot album and somebody very clean-looking." Weisner doesn't take total credit for this transformation: "The socks," he says, "were Michael's idea; the tuxedo was ours."

Thus made over, the new Michael Jackson (whose face would later undergo the touch of a surgeon's scalpel, giving him a bobbed nose and heightened cheekbones) released Off the Wall in the late summer of 1979 and watched it rack up a then astonishing sales total of 8 million copies. Impressive as those numbers were, no one could have predicted the extent to which his next LP would surpass its predecessor.

Thriller began at a sixteen-track recording studio at the Jacksons' home in Encino, California, where Michael Jackson resides with his mother, Katherine; his sisters, Janet and LaToya; and their father, Joe. It was there – sometimes alone, sometimes with writer-arranger Rod Temperton – that Michael Jackson wrote and recorded demos of songs, some of which, like "Beat It" and "Billie Jean," would end up on the album.

When recording began at Westlake Audio in Los Angeles, Michael shared the board with Quincy Jones. "Michael and Quincy is a perfect marriage," says Ndugu Chancler, a session drummer who appears on three of Thriller's tracks. "These guys are so in tune with each other that it makes it easy."

Jackson was involved in every aspect of the Thriller album. He chose the songs (more than 300 were considered) and the musicians. Throughout the recording, he focused intensely on the music, occasionally singing the rhythms or motioning with his arms to demonstrate exactly what he wanted from a player. It was hard work, and Michael's usual glamour was given over to T-shirt and sneakers.

Once the album was completed in late 1982 at a reported total cost of $750,000, the CBS publicity and promotion machines were geared up. The first track from Thriller to be heard by the public was "The Girl Is Mine," a duet with Paul McCartney that is arguably the album's weakest cut. Don Dempsey, senior vice-president of Epic Records, says: "We tried to take a worldwide view of Michael. We were seeing some initial interest in Michael outside the U.S., and we felt that one the duet with Paul McCartney."

The song went Top Ten, but it didn't quite make Number One. On December 1st, 1982, the album was released. A month later, "Billie Jean" hit the stores, and a curious strategy began to take shape. Ordinarily, a record company releases one single by an artist at a time. When the first single drops in the charts, a second is released, and so on. But while "Billie Jean" was still ascending, Epic decided to release the rock & roll-styled "Beat It." Frank Dileo, vice-president of promotion for Epic (and a rumored candidate for the job of Michael's personal manager), calls that the turning point.

 * * *

"See, we knew that 'Billie Jean' would come on the charts at about fifty. The day we started working that single, we started working 'Beat It' at AOR. And it built well enough at AOR that when 'Billie Jean' hit the Top Ten, we were ready to release 'Beat It' as a single – and get two singles in the Top Ten at one time."

Then came the videos. Michael was no stranger to the form: The "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" promo film, in particular, had given Off the Wall a boost. But that was before the days of MTV and the resurgence of dance music among rock & roll fans. When "Billie Jean" hit Number One, MTV began airing the cut. It was widely claimed, at the time, that CBS Records Group President Walter Yetnikoff had threatened to yank every other CBS video off the channel until "Billie Jean" was aired. MTV President Bob Pittman denies those stories: "Walter and I never had a conversation about 'Billie Jean.' "

Jackson's prodigious talents, especially as a dancer, are spectacularly displayed in the videos. "He's very precise; he's obviously very quick," says one noted choreographer, Twyla Tharp, who detects a great deal of mime in Jackson's style. "That's been in black dancing for a long time – with the early tap dancers and the street dancers. It's part of a tradition that Michael Jackson clearly had access to. There's probably no one so accurate and just basically sexy."

If the "Billie Jean" clip first revealed those talents to a rock audience, the "Beat It" video, à la West Side Story, established Jackson as a preeminent talent. That spot was filmed by Bob Giraldi, who went on to do "Say Say Say" with Jackson and Paul McCartney, as well as the Pepsi commercials. "He's absolutely a perfectionist," says Giraldi of Jackson. "Michael is the kind of person who surrounds himself with the best talent available: the best director, the best cameramen, the best hair and makeup people, the best wardrobe. He can tell if you're lightweight, and he'll move on to someone else right off the bat."

The hit singles kept coming, but at one point, according to Yetnikoff, Michael wondered whether he should release another single. "He was unsure whether 'P.Y.T.' was a Top Ten record. We told him we were quite confident that it would be, and he sorta said, 'Okay, I'll go with you guys.'"

"To use Michael's own words," says De-Mann, "'You got to put the jelly on the jelly.' The jelly means the absolute best. And Michael knew he had so much jelly."

And if anyone knows how to put the jelly on the jelly, it's Michael Jackson. Frank Dileo relates this story: "I was having my promotion meetings where I had my whole staff come to San Diego. I called Mike up and said, 'Michael, we're having these meetings, and a star of your caliber has never really come to something like this. It would be really great if you came down.'

"He loved the idea, so I brought him in to the final dinner. It was a complete surprise. I brought him out from backstage, and the place went crazy. The guys – I mean veterans who have worked in this business for twenty years – were crying. He gave them all plaques. Very touching moment."

$5001.

That's how much money Joe Jackson, the Jacksons' father, earned as a Gary, Indiana, steelworker in 1968, the year before the Jackson 5, fronted by ten-year-old Michael, stormed to the top of the charts with the great Motown single "I Want You Back." Joe, who had once been a guitarist for a small-time Fifties group called the Falcons, had encouraged his children's musical talent with an eye toward a professional career, and now they had one: "I Want You Back" was followed by "ABC," "The Love You Save" and "I'll Be There." As Michael said on the Motown twenty-fifth anniversary show, "Those were magic moments."

Their star rose, and the Jacksons were acclaimed as the apotheosis of the all-American black family. "Coming on the heels of the 1960s politics of confrontation, the Jackson 5 were a breath of fresh air," Billboard columnist Nelson George wrote in his recently published book, The Michael Jackson Story. "They were cute. They were a wholesome Midwestern family – with both parents together and active in molding their children's values,"

"They can't walk past each other without each one grabbing the other one and kissing," said promoter Don King.

But success always brings about problems, and for Michael Jackson, it brought conflict with the man who'd first made it all happen: his father. Ever since the Jackson 5 were signed by Motown, Joe Jackson has apparently received a percentage of every dollar the group has earned and has held at least the titular post as the band's manager, first in partnership with Richard Arons, then with Weisner and DeMann. "It was a comanagement situation, because Joe represented the group," says Ron Weisner. "But everything creative – material, marketing, promotion, whatever – was handled through this office." (Despite repeated attempts to contact him, Joe Jackson would not talk to Rolling Stone for this article.)

The success of Off the Wall revealed whole new areas to Michael. He grew away from his brothers professionally and, later, hired John Branca as his attorney and Marshall Gelfand as his business manager. Worried that he was being squeezed out of his management role and that Weisner and De-Mann were devoting too much attention to Michael and not enough to the other brothers, Joe Jackson took action. In early 1980, he fired off a letter to Weisner, seeking a greater role in the planning and marketing of his sons' careers. Bruce Lundvall, then a CBS executive, received a similar document.

The management rift between Joe Jackson and Weisner and DeMann took a dramatic turn June of 1983, several months after both of their management contracts had expired. Joe Jackson declared to Billboard that Weisner and DeMann might as well start packing their bags: "As far as I'm concerned, it's over. They don't have a contract, and my boys are not resigning.

"There are a lot of leeches trying to break up the group," he continued. "A lot of people are whispering in Michael's ear. But we know who they are. They're only in it for the money."

That was when Joe declared that Weisner and DeMann had been hired as "white help" with CBS, and Freddy DeMann responded in kind: "I don't think [Joe] enjoys a good relationship with anyone whose skin is not black."

His father's comments did not please Michael, who made what may be the most courageous statement of his career to Billboard: "I don't know what would make him say something like that. To hear him talk like that turns my stomach." Later, he added, "I happen to be colorblind; I don't hire color, I hire competence….Racism is not my motto. One day, I strongly expect every color to love as one family."

Joe may have lost that battle, but Weisner and DeMann lost the war. On June 22nd, Ron Weisner received a letter that Michael Jackson and his lawyer had delivered by a messenger. It informed him that Weisner and DeMann would no longer represent Michael Jackson. Weisner was stunned: Earlier that day, he had spoken to Michael several times and, he claims, "Everything seemed fine."

Was it Joe Jackson who persuaded Michael to dismiss Weisner and DeMann? "There was a lot of pressure on Michael," says John Branca. "But if there had been a lot of pressure and he was thoroughly enthralled [with Weisner and DeMann's performance], then I don't think that pressure would have been effective."

 * * *

In the eight months that have passed since Weisner and DeMann got the boot, Michael has spoken to many potential replacements, from Jerry Weintraub and Irving Azoff to Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's Svengali. These days, the name most frequently mentioned is Dileo's, but apparently, no firm choice has yet been made.

Still, there is Joe Jackson. Though he has not sought a new management contract with his sons, he continues to be closely involved with their careers. In fact, it was Joe who encouraged the Jacksons to work with boxing promoter Don King. But why King? As Branca himself says, "You're taking the number-one artist in the world; you would normally want somebody who has some experience in the music business." Why Don King?

$3,000,000.

That's the amount of money Don King advanced to the Jacksons after they agreed to let him promote their 1984 reunion tour: $500,000 to each member of the group. But from the beginning, Michael Jackson was not in King's corner.

"Don King was not Michael's first choice to promote the tour," says a tactful John Branca. "This tour is important to Michael because it's important to Michael's family. I'm not sure the tour was Michael's first choice. He might have preferred to do other things. But he found it important to tour at his brothers' request and his family's request. They very much wanted to work with Don King. So Michael said, 'If it's that important to my father and my family, I will work with Don King.' "

Back in April 1983, the Jacksons met with five or six promoters, including King, to discuss the tour. According to Curtis Shaw, Joe Jackson's lawyer, the band members weren't sufficiently impressed with any of the impresarios. But Joe Jackson suggested another meeting with King, and the sons and King hit it off the second time around. On September 30th, the Jacksons signed a contract with King to promote the tour. The contract defined King as an employee of the Jacksons', with the family having final say on all aspects of the tour.

But the family's support for King wavered almost immediately. The Jacksons were attracted to a sponsorship proposal from the Quaker Oats Company, which expressed interest in sponsoring the tour after the Pepsi deal was confirmed. The company offered a sum that was, in Branca's words, "forty percent more than the Pepsi deal." Certain members of the Jacksons sought to at least include Quaker in on the tour, but they discovered that Pepsi has an exclusive deal.

In fact, King had begun working on the Pepsi deal even before he had been officially hired by the Jacksons. The promoter had been in contact with Rockbill, a musical marketing outfit that specializes in hooking up potential commercial sponsors with big-name concert tours; King had previously worked with the company at the time of the Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney heavyweight-title fight. According to Rockbill's president, Jay Coleman, the organization had been in touch with Pepsi "as much as two years ago…about the Jacksons' reunion tour. Finally, when Don King got involved and the tour became a reality, we followed up on it – and the only thing that happened then was that the cost of being involved had gone up astronomically."

The deal they cooked up was the biggest of its kind, far in excess of the Rolling Stones' deal with Jovan or Schlitz' promotional pact with the Who. Coleman says it will make the Jacksons "well over $5 million for less than a year." (King and the Jacksons' parents also get a small percentage of the money from Pepsi.)

The Jacksons' displeasure with King also seemed to surface at a lavish, flack-crammed press conference at the Tavern on the Green restaurant in New York's Central Park, where King announced that he would be promoting the tour. The gathering turned into a marathon mouth-fest for the bombastic King, who declaimed to the crowd in fine P.T. Barnum style before yielding the floor to a fifteen-minute documentary – about Don King. The reporters were amused; the Jacksons, sitting sullenly behind their sunglasses, did not appear to be. King handled most of the questions directed at the group, and as cries for Michael increased, the promoter handed him the microphone. Said the soft-spoken superstar: "I don't really have anything to say…."

This was not entirely true: Around that time, Michael Jackson wrote a letter to Don King. In the missive, King was instructed:

• not to communicate with anyone on Michael Jackson's behalf without prior permission;

• that all moneys paid to Michael Jackson for his participation in the tour would be collected by Michael Jacksons personal representatives, not by Don King;

• that King did not have permission to approach any promoters, sponsors or any other persons on Michael's behalf;

• that King was not to hire any personnel, any local promoters, book any halls or, for that matter, do anything without Michael Jackson's personal approval.

On February 2nd, King was asked about the letter. "I don't know anything about it," he said.

Clearly, Michael Jackson neither trusts nor likes Don King, and as the tour has drawn closer, Jackson's feelings have become more apparent. As this issue of Rolling Stone was going to press, it was learned that at least two other concert promoters had been approached about the tour, and a major battle appeared to be taking shape between two of the biggest names in show business.

Joe Jackson's lawyer insists that King will remain as the tour's promoter and says that other promoters have been spoken to only in regard to local and regional representation.

Michael Jackson's lawyer says that "unless the tour is handled properly – financially, creatively and otherwise – Michael is not going to go out."

"With Michael," says Don King, "you always on trial."

"I Worry All The Time," says John Branca. "The Pepsi accident has caused everybody to be a little concerned. The Who had riots. With a tour of this magnitude, it's got to be planned with perfectionism to make sure it's conducted smoothly."

Indeed, the potential for disaster on the Jacksons' tour is undeniable, and the extraordinary scope of Michael's popularity magnifies tenfold the problems presented by an average rock tour. No method has yet been determined to ensure that a fair cross section of the Jacksons' fans will have an opportunity to obtain tickets – millions are certain to be disappointed. Scalping will be heavy, and counterfeiting of tickets is also likely.

But beyond those problems is the big worry: that some unforeseeable occurrence will spark a debacle on the order of – but infinitely more calamitous than – Diana Ross' violence-plagued Central Park concert last year. In fact, one promoter has dubbed the Jacksons' outing "the Nitro Tour: At any moment, the whole thing could blow up." Any such unseemly snafu would tarnish Michael's squeaky-clean image, as well as the reputation of all products associated with the tour. Even local promoters are sounding uncharacteristic notes of caution.

"I have expressed my opinion to one of the attorneys who represents the Jacksons," says New York's Ron Delsener. "I said, 'Look, I don't care if I play the date or not; I'm just very, very concerned from a safety standpoint, because I know his audience. It covers all age groups, but primarily, little kids love him. And when these little kids come there with their parents or by themselves, they're gonna make a beeline for the front of that stage, and I don't wanna see any little kids get trampled. So I'm concerned about the venues they do play."

Some promoters believe that for the Jacksons to attempt to play an outdoor stadium – something they clearly intend to do – would be to invite trouble. "I mean, there is a lot of money to be made in it, but I'm not interested in the quick buck if people are gonna get hurt," says Delsener. "I could not guarantee the safety of those in front of the stage. I don't think anybody can – if they do, they're liars."

"Michael Jackson whips people to a fever pitch," agrees Atlanta promoter Alex Cooley. "His fans are true to the root of the word fan. They're fanatic about it. So, yeah, there're problems."

Larry Larson is in charge of making sure that such problems never occur. He is the Jacksons' tour coordinator; he is also the man another promoter is thinking of when he says "not one A-level professional has been hired for the tour." Larry Larson manages soft-rock singer Kenny Loggins, and he's made a lot of money in that capacity. But he has never been involved in promoting a rock tour of this size before. This doesn't seem to bother him, though. "I'm involved in every aspect of the tour. Everything from the renting of the trucks to the sound and lights. I mean, they make the final decision, but it's my [job] to counsel them."

Larson is disturbingly phlegmatic about the chances for trouble on the tour. "I'm a realist, and I know that the Jacksons are going to generate a tremendous amount of enthusiasm," he says. "But at the same time, I don't think our problems are going to be any different than other major concert tours. The Jacksons do not have a history of creating riots."

In fact, though, the last time the Jacksons played New York City, dozens of youths were arrested after a chain-snatching spree inside Madison Square Garden.

The possibility that kids could get trampled is suggested to Larson. "Well, you can get run over by a truck while walking across the street," he says. "We all have certain risks in life."

 * * *

Michael Jackson's money, meanwhile, is being put to many uses. According to Branca, Jackson is pouring some of his wealth into the formation of at least five new companies, one of which, Experiments in Sound, is involved in the research and development of new sound technologies. He has already formed Optimum Productions, which put together the "Thriller" video and documentary and may hire staff songwriters and one or two staff producers. Like Paul McCartney, Jackson has purchased a major publishing catalog, which includes all of Sly and the Family Stone's hits, and is about to acquire other major catalogs.

His money has also given Michael the creative freedom to orchestrate a foray into motion pictures. He has considered numerous scripts, including a version of Peter Pan that might be directed by Steven Spielberg. "When Michael does a film, it'll be a sort of musical Michael-Jackson-meets-E.T.- and Star Wars," says one insider. "It'll be a spectacular extravaganza, a futuristic musical with all sorts of special effects, bizarre choreography and fantastic music." That music will probably comprise Jackson's next solo album for Epic (his contract as a solo artist calls for five more albums).

For Epic Records, Michael Jackson is the Wunderkind who has single-handedly brought the label back from a terrible 1982. And in the view of senior vice-president Don Dempsey, he has been indirectly responsible for the recent success of such label mates as the Romantics, Matthew Wilder, Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club and Nena. "A record company is required to perform on a monthly basis," says Dempsey. "When you have a record like Thriller, which in one month is capable of generating $10 million to $12 million in sales, it takes pressure off the label and allows it to develop new acts."

At Epic, preparations are already under way for the forthcoming Jacksons album, entitled Victory. Frank Dileo is already raving about the one track he's heard, "Buffalo Bill," Michael's latest uptempo dance composition. And, according to Walter Yetnikoff, Mick Jagger may also sing a duet with Michael.

But there's a time to work and a time to sit back and smell the roses. With so much to celebrate, CBS threw a party for its biggest star at New York's Museum of Natural History last month. The invitations, each printed on a single white glove, instantly became the hottest ticket in town. Hundreds of fans clustered on the street in subfreezing temperatures, straining to catch a glimpse. Gracious as ever, the star of the evening came outside twice to give the shivering assemblage a friendly wave.

Inside, a parade of female dancers hit the makeshift stage to the strains of "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." And suddenly, there he was, casually wending his way down the steps, his scalp burns covered with a natural-hair toupee. He looked tremendous: happy, handsome, relaxed. But he didn't sing, didn't dance. He just stood patiently, tossing the odd joke to the dancers, as a procession of CBS executives and Norris McWhirter from the Guinness Book of World Records bestowed honor after honor on him: most Top Ten singles off one LP, most sold by a solo artist, most records ever sold, and on and on and on.

Finally, after all the politicians' proclamations had been read and all the awards distributed, Michael took the mike. He thanked his family for making his career possible. He thanked CBS. He thanked Walter Yetnikoff. He thanked the Guinness Book of World Records. He was gracious, sincere, completely classy. He was in control, and it was hard not to think that if anyone could pull off this tour, this career, this life, he was the man.

After a peck on the cheek from his date-of-convenience, Brooke Shields, Jackson was off to the VIP lounge. While Michael secluded himself with his showbiz pals, Don King entertained the hoi polloi and posed for pictures in front of one of the museum's taxidermy exhibits: a wild dog, bloody-mouthed, ready for a fight to the death.