Imagine the banner headline if the National Enquirer got hold of the story: Michael Jackson shares hotel suite with “Actor friend.” The perennial bachelorhoold of Jackson – who at twenty-nine still lives with his mother – is one of the many mysteries that have provided the media with abonanza of gossip and speculation. But this time the story is true. Even Michael Jackson’s manager, Frank Dileo, confirms it.
When Michael kicks off his first solo tour in Tokyo this month, he will be sharing his two-bedroom suite with one of his closest friends, who is, indeed, an actor. Michael has even helped get an agent for this actor; you may have seen him in Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School. Michael’s friend is a three-year-old named Bubbles.
Bubbles is a chimpanzee.
Bubbles is just one of the many real-life characters who populate the elaborate fantasy world that the superstar has constructed around himself. Playing and chatting with Bubbles or Louie the Llama or Crusher, his new 300-pound python, Michael can effortlessly become one of those Disney characters he so loves.
Bubbles goes everywhere with Michael. They are a classic TV-style duo, like Timmy and Lassie or Wilbur and Mister Ed. Bubbles often eats at the dinner table with Michael; he was in the recording studio with Michael for much of the two years it took to make Bad, the follow-up to Thriller. Bubbles accompanied Michael to New York for Martin Scorsese’s filming of the “Bad” video, which debuted August 31 st on the. CBS special Michael Jackson … the Magic Returns. Bubbles is a star of the new line of stuffed animals known as Michael’s Pets, which will also be the basis for a children’s cartoon series. Bubbles even has a crib in Michael’s bedroom. And when Michael threw an elaborate dinner party at his Encino, California, mansion on a warm July night to begin the promotion of Bad, it was Bubbles, not the pop star, who worked the room, truly the life of the party.
Nearly five years had elapsed since the release of Thriller, which became the biggest album in history, spawning seven hit singles, winning eight Grammys and selling an unprecedented 38.5 million copies worldwide. Thus the unveiling of Bad was a major event, and treated as such. Less than a week after Bad had been mastered, Michael’s label, Epic, footed the bill for a group of the most powerful record retailers in America to be flown in and put up at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The party of 50 — including executives of CBS, Epic Records’ parent company — met at the hotel’s tightly guarded Crystal Ballroom to hear the première playing of Bad. Yet since most of those gathered were businessmen, not pop connoisseurs, they were uncomfortable sitting around listening to a record. They were eager to get to the real show — Michael Jackson and his child’s paradise.
The guests were chauffeured to Encino in a fleet of stretch limousines. They drove past the black iron gates that seal off the Wonderful World of Michael, down the long gravel driveway to the immense Tudor-style house. With its fanciful clock tower and turrets lighted like Christmas trees, well-stocked candy shop and manicured lawns, the estate strongly resembled Disneyland at night. Only the sight of the uniformed security men staked out on the roof of the house broke the magic spell.
For the next hour or so, everyone milled about, drinks in hand, touring the house as if it were an amusement park. They marveled at the large collection of antique clocks and the giant statues depicting Louis XIV on horseback and David killing Goliath. Michael’s machine-packed game room offered everything from Space Invaders to a mechanical bucking bronco; in the trophy room visitors could gawk at the astounding number of gold and platinum records.
Up the stairs, above the garage, was the gallery, containing memorabilia from nearly twenty years of show business: a life-size wax figure of Michael, glass cases containing his Sgt. Pepper-style jackets, his sequined socks, his famous gloves. Most impressive were the photographs, hundreds and hundreds of them covering the walls, dating back to Michael’s earliest years as a child star. Michael and President Reagan. Michael and Jimmy Carter. Michael and Fred Astaire. Michael and Yul Brynner. Michael and Sammy Davis Jr. Michael and Liza. Michael and Liz. (There’s one of Michael and Wayne Newton, too, but it hasn’t been put up yet.)
And if sightseeing grew tiresome, there was always the ever-delightful Bubbles. Outfitted in suspenders and trousers, under the watchful eye of his trainer, Bob Dunn, the mischievous chimp was willing to play with anyone who showed interest. He posed for photos with some of the guests, performed back flips and did his own version of Michael’s moon walk.
Just before dinner was served, Michael materialized with his sister La-Toya from the rear of the garden, striding toward the back-yard tables. Michael looked as if he had stepped right off the cover of Bad: black pants, black shirt, metal-studded belts. All that was missing was the black Bad jacket, festooned with zippers and buckles. (La-Toya, 31, was also in black, looking frighteningly like Michael, save for a white admiral’s hat.)
The clothes are part of Michael’s new street image. His manager and certain record-company honchos seemed to feel that the old sequined look was a tad fey, so now Michael’s duded up like a stylized punk. But his pale, made-up face with its newly clefted chin looks anything but street; it barely seems of this world.
In videos Michael always casts himself as a kind of showbiz Superkid, able to change the world merely by breaking into song. He seems truly to believe this. It’s the theme of the 3-D, seven-teen-minute movie Captain EO, in which he lived out the ultimate kid’s fantasy — having the makers of Star Wars construct a sci-fi adventure around him. And with Captain EO’s permanent installation at Disneyland and Disney World, Michael has become more than just a Disney character — he’s now one of the rides.
But business is business, and this evening Michael and La Toya dutifully took their places at a table with a group of Michael’s closest friends and advisers: Dileo; CBS Records Group president Walter Yetnikoff; CBS Records president Al Teller; and Michael’s attorney, John Branca. After a gourmet barbecue featuring grilled salmon and veal chops served up by celeb chef Wolfgang Puck and topped off with Cristal champagne, it was time for Michael to meet his guests — sort of.
Michael deftly maintained his famous there-but-not-there stance. The only actual interaction between Michael and his guests came toward the end of the meal, when one of his security guards preceded him to each table and grouped the visitors together for a photograph, explaining that the star would be there in one minute. Then another guard brought Michael over, a few banalities were exchanged, the photo was snapped, and he was scooted off to the next table. That was it. “It was almost like a military exercise,” says Record Bar executive Steve Bennett. Still, most retailers came away from the dinner ready to believe in the renewed magic of Michael.
His obligations met, Michael disappeared into the house. Perhaps he ducked into his thirty-two-seat screening room and sat beside the large, stuffed Mickey Mouse to watch a few cartoons: he has said he believes that “cartoons are unlimited. And when you’re unlimited, it’s the ultimate.” Or maybe he stopped for a moment in the trophy room, reveling in the awards and staring fondly at the centerpiece, a large terrarium containing a diorama from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which had been delivered to Michael personally by Disneyland characters.
Or maybe, just maybe, when Michael escaped the party, he headed up to the bathroom to stare at his ever-evolving features in the mirror, and ponder the note he’s taped to it.
Michael Jackson is fond of writing himself messages. In his house and around its grounds are signs on posts and walls, sweet aphorisms about the importance of memories, of reaching for the stars and following your dreams, that sort of thing. But the note on the bathroom mirror merely reads, 100 Million.
The note helps explain why Michael Jackson, the painfully shy, childlike recluse, would do something as bizarre as throw open the doors of his Xanadu to a bunch of ogling, hard-line business types and pose bar mitzvah style with them, activities that even a much lesser star would find degrading. Michael aims to sell a whopping 100 million copies of Bad, and he knows that requires the industry chugging behind him.
There are two Michael Jacksons: his own manager describes him as “a cross between E.T. and Howard Hughes.” His producer Quincy Jones says, “He’s the oldest man I know, and he’s the youngest kid I know.” One Michael is a shrewd businessman who makes these vague personal appearances, who wrangles staggeringly lucrative deals out of licensers and sponsors ($15 million from Pepsi this time around), who bought the publishing rights to the Beatles’ songs when Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono couldn’t and who controls his media exposure like a hawk.
His control mania can reach absurd proportions. He retains ownership of nearly every photographic image of himself. He hasn’t given an in-depth interview since 1983, and he demands that musicians who work with him sign a stringent nondisclosure form (his lawyer had to waive these agreements before interviews for this article could take place). And his authorized biography, Moonwalk, to be written with Stephen Davis and edited by Jacqueline Onassis, was supposed to come out a couple of years ago but still hasn’t been submitted in full to Doubleday. One reason for the delay, according to Dileo, is that Michael balked at how much hè was being quoted in it.
The second Michael is the flighty-genius star-child, a celebrity virtually all his life, who dwells in a fairy-tale kingdom of fellow celebrities, animals, mannequins and cartoons, who provides endless fodder for the tabloids with his plots to buy the Elephant Man’s remains, to oxygenate his body by sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber or to marry Elizabeth Taylor.
But it’s the same child in Michael who inspires the artistry that fuels all the subsidiary industries, who turns his primal fears and fantasies into wondrous, hyperkinetic and emotional music. Whatever else can be said about him. Michael Jackson sings with a shimmery soulful voice and dances like a swirling comet; as an entertainer he has no peer.
Nonetheless, for Bad to equal the dizzying success of Thriller, Michael the artist is under more pressure from Michael the corporation than ever before. Paralyzed by the burden of attempting to top himself, dreading rejection by the public, he was finally forced to declare Bad finished only because so many externals depended on it that it had to be released. Already, he had seen failure with a Michael Jackson clothing line and Magic Best perfume, both of which came out last fall and, with no new music to spark interest, disappeared without, a trace. During the Grammys, in February, Pepsi ran a commercial teaser featuring Michael that promised, THIS SPRING … THE MAGIC RETURNS. But Bad and its new set of Pepsi ads were so long delayed that Pepsi was forced to run out and hire David Bowie and Tina Turner to fill the gap.
And last fall a two-page ad ran in Women’s Wear Daify (see page 56) proclaiming, “Michael Jackson’s name is now available for licensing…. Here are the kinds of products that megastar Michael Jackson’s name could send through the roof.” The ad listed head wear, bumper stickers, lunch buckets – you name it. It concludes with the audacious claim that the Pepsi spots, the line of clothing and the new album are “marketing tools working together to help sell your product.“
Michael presold the song “Bad” to Pepsi for one commercial, and for the other he is providing a nonalbum cut called “The Price of Fame.” It’s a subject he should be familiar with. His priorities are now hopelessly jumbled: making music goes hand in glove with the need to be the Biggest Thing Ever. Raised on adulation and having already experienced a decline in popularity during the mid-Seventies, bamboozled by Motown and mishandled by his (former manager) father, Michael is now obsessed with maintaining his stature at whatever the cost. He’s broken with the former mainstays of his life: he has declared he will never again tour with his brothers; and conflicts about the sex and violence in his art have led to his departure from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Everything has been dropped in favor of his solo career.
Can Bad possibly be as big as Thriller? In the years since the success of Thriller the public has found new heroes playing similar music – including Michael’s own sister. Janet, whose album, Control, sold 4.5 million copies. If Bad sells “only” 10 million copies, that will be more than virtually any other record but could be viewed as a failure for Michael Jackson.
A few days after his house party Michael showed up unannounced at the offices of The Album Network, a small radio trade publication, to preview a few cuts of Bad for the editors. “It’s such overkill, and it’s undignified,” says the manager of another major star. “Michael Jackson is past the point where he should be appearing be beg radio. That’s what you do with your baby acts that you’re trying to introduce.”
“History’s history,” contends Frank Dileo. “I’ve got to work this harder. We’ve got to work this as if it was Miami Sound Machine. It’s got to have the same intensity…. You lose when you take things for granted. We don’t do that. We win. We’re into winning.”
But the reason for this big push is more complicated than that. To top Thriller, Michael must counteract the backlash that began in 1984 during the much-hyped Jacksons’ Victory tour. The slick and impersonal show was such an artistic and financial mess that by the end of the tour it wasn’t even selling out; Michael ended up giving his money to charity, but fans still felt cheated. And those who weren’t turned off by the intense media circus may have been alienated by Michael’s increasingly eccentric behavior.
Stevie Wonder, who has known Michael since his childhood at Motown and who duets with him on Bad’s “Just Good Friends,” thinks Michael’s priorities are a little out of whack. “You can’t think about what people will like; you go crazy doing that. If it’s possible for him to sell 50 million records, let that happen. But if it doesn’t, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just records.”
Failure seems an especially painful prospect for Michael, for whom satisfaction apparently comes not from within but from outside things like sales and awards, which can be fickle. In 1983 he and Rolling Stone’s Gerri Hirshey discussed the phenomenon of the four hit singles from Off the Wall, the album that preceded Thriller in 1979. “Nobody broke my record yet, thank God,” said Michael. “Hall and Oates tried but they didn’t.”
After Off the Wall won only one Grammy (in an R&B category), Michael told another reporter, “It bothered me. I cried a lot. My family thought I was going crazy because I was weeping so much about it.” The down side of the astronomical success of Thriller is that Michael is now no longer competing with anyone but himself: he has been catapulted forever into his own lonely stratosphere.
“I’m gonna sue!” cries michael Jackson’s manager, a 220-pound, five-foot-two cigar-chomping cross between Colonel Tom Parker and P.T. Barnum. Frank Dileo is standing in his Encino office, an oversize cabana facing his swimming pool, just a short distance from his roomy ranch house, fuming about the previous night’s Late Show, on the Fox network. The show featured a twenty-year-old Michael Jackson impersonator named Valentino Johnson, who had spent $40,000 to have his features cosmetically altered to look like the star. Dileo is infuriated that the subject of Michael Jackson and plastic surgery has again been raised in the media.
“I can’t understand why people keep bringing that up,” he says, settling into the sofa before his desk: a large, uncluttered coffee table. “So many terrible things have been written.”
Unwrapping a cigar, he places it in his mouth, unlighted. Dileo hasn’t shaved this morning; his longish brown hair is slicked back, tied in a ponytail. “Okay, so he had his nose fixed, and the cleft – big deal. I got news for you, my nose has broke five times. It’s been fixed twice. Who gives a shit? Who cares? Elvis had his nose done. Marilyn Monroe had her nose done, had her breasts done … everybody’s had it done.”
Michael calls Dileo Uncle Tookie (now also the name of the stuffed frog in Michaels Pets). The Bad song “Smooth Criminal” opens with the sound of Michael’s heartbeat and Dileo breathing heavily; on the Bad inner sleeve Michael put a photo of himself and Dileo in silhouette with a caption the reads, ANOTHER GREAT TEAM. “Elvis and the Colonel are in our minds a lot … the Beatles and Brian Epstein … Abbott and Costello,” Dileo explains. Michael and his manager talk on the phone constantly (Dileo has said “eighty-two times a day”), spend most of their days together, live less than five minutes apart. Dileo plays understanding father to Michael’s impetuous ten-year-old.
Dileo hesitantly claims some responsibility for Michael’s”new look,” noting that “I bring a street attitude to Michael” He proudly recounts teaching Michael about Al Capone, “me explaining to him about all those type of people. Whether Capone was a good guy or a bad guy is yet to be determined in my mind. But nobody had more style.” Dileo becomes animated when he mentions that Martin Scorsese wants to cast him as a gangster in the upcoming film of Wiseguy.
At thirty-nine, Dileo is self-assured, loud, excitable and prone to hyperbole. “Frank is explosive,” says a music-industry source who has worked with him. “If he’s pissed, you’ll know it He’s not a real stickler for details, and he’s not really a long-run planner. His forte is the immediate wallop.”
To watch Dileo in action, laying on the charm, slipping and sliding his way around tough questions, blustering about his sole client, it’s easy to understand why Michael has hired him as his liaison with the world. “Michael knows that if I tell him something, it’s the truth,” says Dileo. “I don’t have to agree with things if I don’t want to. In other words, ’cause I know this is eventually going to come up in this interview anyway, the hyperbaric chamber. I’m 100 percent against that I don’t want it It’s coming on the road with us on tour. I don’t want it around. I’ve spoken about it publicly. Some managers couldn’t have that conversation with their artist They’d be too afraid. He respects my opinion. He doesn’t always listen…. ” (According to one source, “cooler heads have since prevailed,” and it now looks like the tank stays home.)
Dileo once declared his goal as being “to keep [Michael] as popular and in demand as anyone can be.” But what about the price of fame, he has been asked. Might all this hoopla damage the singer’s already fragile psyche?
“It’s too late, anyway,” Dileo responded. “He won’t have a normal life even if I stop.”
It took three men to carry Crusher, a 300-pound, twenty-foot python into Studio D of Westlake Audio in Los Angeles, where the recording of Bad took place. Most in the Jackson camp are accustomed to seeing Michael’s pets in the studio; Bubbles once even rode around on the back of engineer Bruce Swedien’s Great Dane. But when one afternoon synthesizer ace Greg Phillinganes wandered into the studio and came face to face with Crusher, he “freaked,” says Quincy Jones. “Small heart attack. Greg Phillinganes could be an hors d’oeuvre for that snake.” Michael just sat back, watching the scene, laughing to himself in that soft, high voice.
Three weeks prior to the release of Bad, Quincy Jones is recalling this scene from his bed in L.A.’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he is soon to undergo oral surgery. Tonight the fifty-four-year-old veteran producer of such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Count Basie is recalling the recording of Bad in his inimitable hipster voice while viewing a rough edit of the “Bad” video on a TV across the room. On the screen Michael is sizzling through a highly stylized dance number like a young incarnation of James Brown.
As soon as he heard “Bad,” Jones thought of getting his friend Martin Scorsese to direct the video. But Michael was unfamiliar with Scorsese’s work, having only seen New York, New York, and wanted George Lucas or Steven Spielberg. But the image-savvy Dileo pushed Scorsese, knowing that a glossy Spielberg-type fantasy would merely cement further Michael’s problematic Peter Pan-sy image.
According to a close friend of Scorsese’s, the filming of “Bad,” which kept Michael out of the studio for six weeks last fall, was “a nightmare.” Michael insisted the director “reshoot and reshoot.” Scorsese describes his star as “a perfectionist” and says that because of Michael (who was also footing the bill), the video went “two or three times over budget,” costing about $2 million. Still, the director found Michael “sympaatheric and sweet and open.”
The “Bad” script, written by novelist Richard Price, was inspired by the true story of a Harlem youth named Edmund Perry who went to prep school at Phillips Exeter. The subject of the recent book Best Intentions, by Robert Sam Anson, Perry was shot to death two years ago by a New York plainclothes policeman who claimed Perry had tried to mug him. The video romanticizes things somewhat, allowing Michael’s character to dance his way out of the situation, though the ending is ambiguous. “Bad” – a stunning minimovie that enhances the lyrically vague song with vivid images – could help Bad beat the follow-up jinx.
“You have to forget about what you did before,” says Jones. “Figuring out how to sell 38 million albums? I don’t know how to do that. That’s in God’s hands.”
But during the recording sessions, Thriller loomed over everyone – especially Michael. He had written sixty-two songs, and during 1985 he recorded dozens of forty-eight-track demos at his home studio, including a cover of “Come Together,” one of his favorite Beatles tunes. By the time he and Jones moved to Westlake on August 4th, 1986, pressure was mounting. “There was so much stress,” says guitarist David Williams, “and so much tension” that “I was doing the exact same part at least five different times on each song. They were trying to match the other one, the Thriller album, at least.”
In the studio Michael usually dressed casually but sometimes showed up wearing, as Jones put it, “this Captain Marvel stuff” or “a beautiful, chic suit.” While recording his vocals, Michael demanded the lights be turned off and almost always danced; there’s a permanent wooden stage with mirrors built into Studio D.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, the proposed cover portrait was causing a commotion. When Walter Yetnikoff saw it – a close-up of Michael’s heavily made-up face with black floral lace superimposed – he went berserk, allegedly telling Dileo, “Look, this cover sucks.” The feminine-looking shot was scrapped in favor of a promotional photo of Michael in his tough-guy duds taken during a fifteen-minute break in the “Bad” filming.
At a 1986 Christmas party at Jones’s house, songwriter Glen Ballard approached Jones and asked, half jokingly, “Need anything for Michael?” “Yeah,” the producer replied, also only half joking, “I need a hit!”
Jones now says he wanted “four more killer songs”; during the first week of February, he held a meeting of his staff writers at his house, and he alerted other publishers that he was looking for material. He ended up finding two songs, “Just Good Friends,” by Tina Turner hitmakers Terry Britten and Graham Lyle, and “Man in the Mirror,” by Ballard and Siedah Garrett.
It seems fitting somehow that “Man in the Mirror” – the album’s one “message” song – was not written by Michael Garrett and Ballard’s lyrics speak of the confusion Michael feels when he sees “kids in the street, with not enough to eat.” He decides that “I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways…. If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.”
For the most part, Michael’s own lyrics – about groupies, fast cars, romance, sex and murder – don’t seem based on personal experience; rather, they seem secondhand, as if he had learned about these things from movies, TV, other songs or his associates. He even had help from Quincy Jones writing the confessional spoken introduction to “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” in which he talks lovingly to his duet partner Siedah Garrett and says wispily, “A lot of people misunderstand me. That’s because they don’t know me at all.”
The song had been conceived from the start as Bad’s first single; originally Michael wanted to sing it with Barbra Streisand. But according to Dileo, Streisand “didn’t like it”; Whitney Houston didn’t work out, either. “I didn’t lose any sleep over it,” says Dileo. “I knew the song was a hit – with or without Barbra.” In May, Michael met Garrett when she was adding background vocals to “Man in the Mirror.” “I love your voice,” he told her. “I think you are incredible. I love your song.” And suddenly she found herself recording the duet.
Throughout the sessions, celebrity friends were encouraged to stop by to relieve the tedium: Spielberg, Sean Lennon, Emmanuel Lewis, Robert De Niro and Oprah Winfrey all popped in. As Michael has become the world’s biggest celebrity, he’s also become the biggest fan. Fame seems the one constant in his life: the Bad liner notes thank Cary Grant and Marlon Brando.
In mid-February 1987, Michael took yet another break to shoot an $8 million extended video for the song “Smooth Criminal,” directed by Colin Chilvers, in which Michael plays an A1 Capone-era gangster. When that took two months, Michael’s advisers realized they had a crisis on their hands. Bad had to be completed and in the stores before the already-scheduled tour of Japan in September. Frank Dileo called an emergency meeting at Universal Studios, where Michael was still working on the video. Dileo and John Branca announced that the album had to be finished by June 30th. “This train has got to leave,” Dileo said, imploringly. The album was finally mastered July 10th.
“You need a dramatic deadline,” admits Jones today. “I swear to you, it doesn’t happen without that. We’d have been in the studio for another year.” In the end, the hundreds of reek of digital tape used for Bad fill an entire room at Westlake. The record took more than two years to complete (Thriller was recorded in just three months) and cost more than $2 million. And now it was time for Michael to leave his magic kingdom and try to sell some product.
Michael Jackson won’t drink Pepsi-Cola, but he sure wants you to.
In March 1986, Frank Dileo, John Branca and Pepsi president Roger Enrico completed Michael’s second Pepsi deal for $15 million. Up front. In exchange Pepsi would get to sponsor Michael’s world tour (which includes putting its logo on his tour book), and Michael would make two commercials, which could air for up to a year. There were three reasons Michael wanted the payment in full. Branca told Enrico one: Michael needed the income in 1986 for tax breaks that were available to him because of his purchase of the $47.5 million ATV Music publishing company (which owns nearly all the Beatles’ songs). The second reason, which wasn’t revealed, was that Branca and Dileo would instantly be able to renegotiate the deal to add as much as $10 million more for other participations. The third reason was completely irrational but perhaps the most important: the $15 million was about three times the previous record for such a deal (which was paid to the Jacksons by Pepsi in 1984), and getting the record-setting amount all at once would make Michael happy.
Perhaps because Michael was financially scorched during his years at Motown (the Jackson Five were only paid 2.7 percent royalties and weren’t allowed to write their own material), Michael Jackson has set out with grim determination to become the ruler of an immense business empire. His publishing concerns alone are worth perhaps $100 million. Besides the Beatles songs, Michael holds copyrights to countless hits by acts ranging from Little Richard to A-ha. He’s particularly fond of his Sly and the Family Stone copyrights, and he has his eye on the James Brown catalog. “A great song is like a great piece of art,” says Branca. “Any art collector buys based on a love of art. Michael approaches it in that way.”
Though sources close to Michael claim the singer makes the final decisions on all major business deals, he does rely heavily on Branca and Dileo, and rewards them well for their efforts. Clinching the ATV and Pepsi deals earned Branca and Dileo a $120,000 Rolls-Royce Silver Spur each. “Michael,” says Branca, “inspires loyalty and teamwork.”
The boyishly good-looking Branca is one of the top entertainment lawyers in the world. A partner in the powerful firm of Ziffren, Brittenham and Branca, he has executed many of Michael’s most savvy maneuvers. Branca, 36, is extremely bright, egocentric and ambitious, all qualities that have endeared him to Michael.
Michael’s power broker has no problem with the wedding of soda pop and pop star; Branca has negotiated sponsorship deals for Elton John, Don Johnson and Mick Jagger, among others. “You could look at a commercial like you look at radio,” he says, sitting in his office on the thirty-second floor of the Fox building in Century City, California. “If it’s a great commercial, when the song goes on the air on national TV in front of tens of millions of people, it’s free advertising for the artist.”
But doesn’t Michael risk alienating his fans? “Spielberg and E.T. in some ways is a parallel phenomenon to Michael,” says Branca. “Did anybody say that Spielberg did E.T. to make a lot of money? Or did anybody care that they licensed 797 E.T. products, from pencil erasers to clocks, and that therefore that was commercialization? No. E.T. was great and everybody wanted a little share in that magic. And it helped build the E.T. phenomenon even bigger.”
The comparison is not so farfetched: Michael, in fact, likened himself to E.T. in one of his last interviews. “His story is the story of my life in many ways,” Michael said. “He’s in a strange place and wants to be accepted…. He’s most comfortable with children…. He gives love and wants love in return, which is me. And he has that super power which lets him lift off and fly whenever he wants to get away from things on earth, and I can identify with that.”
But now E.T. Jackson wants to come back to earth, and wants a huge reception. To facilitate that, he, Dileo, Branca and CBS are orchestrating a marketing and promotion blitz so grand that it is a phenomenon itself. The game plan seems almost identical to that of Thriller. The choice of first single, the hard-rock guitar solo on another, the street-gang video, the Pepsi ads, the special TV events and the expensive long-form videos (also planned are “The Way You Make Me Feel,” to be directed by Pepsi-commercial director Joe Pytka, and “Speed Demon,” a Claymation piece by Will Vinton). Dileo says he hopes to release “nine or ten singles” off the album – in other words, every cut. Only one thing is certain: by the end of 1988 everyone should be so sick of Michael Jackson they’ll wish he takes ten years to make his next album.
Back at his cabana, the promotion man is at it again. “This will be, without a doubt – this is no hype, no B.S., no come-on, no lead-in, nothing of that sort – this will be Michael’s last tour.”
Dileo is clearly enjoying himself. “His only solo tour ever. ‘Cause after this he’s going to do movies. And records. This is what he has told me.”
Dileo is spending three hours of his Saturday morning giving this interview for one reason – Michael Jackson no longer talks to the press. There are several theories concerning this. One is that Michael’s extreme shyness makes interviews unbearable for him. More likely, he realizes that the less said, the more people clamor for tidbits. It’s said he wants his music to do the talking. That’s certainly less taxing and more profitable for him.
Associates say dealing with Michael is akin to talking to a preteen boy. Promised something, he stubbornly holds out for it. He has difficulty grasping abstractions; he is easily distracted, even more easily bored. Jerry Kramer, who is directing a sixty-minute TV or home-video special tentatively titled Moonwalker, recalls, “We were trying to share a concept with him, and I could see that he was listening, but he was bored. And then one of us got up and acted it out for him, and you could just see him come to life. He’s not a conceptual intellect.”
As Michael said at the beginning of the “Thriller” video, he’s “not like other guys.” It seems obvious why Michael would take a sympathetic interest in the Elephant Man: he, too, has been made to feel cut off from the rest of humanity. His fascination with Elizabeth Taylor, Sean Lennon, Jane Fonda and Liza Minnelli indicates that he’s most comfortable with those who, like himself, have grown up with fame. And his belief that the hyperbaric chamber will somehow extend his life and keep him young forever shows his inordinate, if understandable, fear that aging will somehow jeopardize his art.
But, like everything else in the Wonderful World of Michael, it’s also part of his marketing approach. He’s a packaged enigma. The calculated exploitation of Michael’s eccentricities is a crafty move that has helped him remain in the news without any new product.
“It’s real good P.R.,” says David Williams. “I know Michael. He collects certain objects, weird things. He didn’t have to let that out to the press. He’s got tons of shit that nobody knows about at his house that probably may be a little weirder than that. It’s a publicity stunt.”
Quincy Jones is more pragmatic about Michael’s quirks. “Most people, if they had enjoyed the success Michael has had, they could not handle it,” says Jones. “And I’d rather have a kid who’s talking about the Elephant Man’s bones than with a pound of cocaine. Any day. Send me the bones. Oxygen tank, too. I wish he were my little brother.”
Michael admitted in a 1979 20/20 interview that “being around everyday people and stuff I feel strange…. It’s some-thing I work on.” But those who have worked with him recently say that his problem dealing with “everyday people” has got worse. Even Dileo admits that Michael spends most of his time holed up at his estate. “Everything he does is at his house. He is a victim of being inside those four walls. That’s the sad part.”
This year and next, Michael will actually see a little of the world as he performs before millions of fans. But once the touring ends – perhaps by 1988 – his isolation will become complete, as he enters the hermetic environments of recording studios and movie sets.
“Michael is a human being,” says Williams. “He’s a person. If you said, ‘Shut up,’ around him, he’d probably break into tears. They think he’s shy and he’s evasive and all this. No. He’s just fucking scared and tired of people bugging him. He’s a little sweetheart, and people would eat him up if he let them.”
So figure we’ve already been as close to Michael Jackson as we’ll ever get. Maybe it’s close enough. Maybe we don’t want to know any more. For beneath the makeup and beyond the iron gate, past the P.R. machinations and the freak show, is a scared, shy, unworldly litle boy who just happens to be one of the most talented singers and dancers the world has known. And just maybe, if we actually hung out with him, it would be a drag. Or a bore. Or worse, we’d lose interest, cease to care.
And those possibilities are just too scary for Michael Jackson even to consider.
This story is from the September 24th, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone.