Friday, Jun. 26, 2009

Deformed by Surgery. Warped by Fame. The Sad End of an American Icon

When was it, exactly, that Michael Jackson completed the transition from merely eccentric to faintly creepy? It began as far back as the mid-1980s, not long after Thriller made him a star of the magnitude of Elvis Presley or the Beatles. At first, his rumored oddities seemed harmless. Trying to buy the bones of the Elephant Man? Idiosyncratic maybe, but not sinister. Sleeping in an oxygen chamber? Unusual but, hey, superstardom has its prerogatives.

By the '90s, however, a more complicated transformation of Jackson's image was under way. In the last few months of his life, he could still sell hundreds of thousands of tickets for the long series of London concerts that he hoped would mark the start of a big, lucrative comeback. But the very fact that a comeback was in order was a sign of how much the once flourishing career had been undercut by the peculiarities of the man. When he was still in his 20s, Jackson's attachment to childhood pursuits — the amusement-park rides and Disney movies and ice cream carts — could still be borderline charming, the delayed preoccupations of a child star denied a real childhood. When the guy on the merry-go-round was 50, it started to look pathological. The wigs, the skin bleaches, the face masks and parasols, the plastic surgery more thorough than what you get in the witness-protection program, the suspicious dealings with young boys — in the final decade or so of his life, Jackson accomplished his last remarkable feat: he turned himself into such a spectacle, he almost made people forget the real phenomenon he was.

Maybe it began long ago. In Moon Walk, the memoir he published in 1988, Jackson told stories of physical abuse by his father Joe, the man who whipped his boys on to stardom as the Jackson 5. As Jackson said in a later interview, "He practiced us up with a belt in his hand." Before long, Jackson had two well-established and irreconcilable personas. There was the eternal boy so sensitive that his voice in any love song could end up on the verge of sobs. And there was the raging adult with his yelps and war whoops and his dance moves full of spring-loaded aggression. Like Mike Tyson, he had a child's high-pitched voice and the pent-up furies of a man. The original version of the video for his song "Black or White" included a long pantomime of rage in which, for four minutes, he smashed up a car, grabbed his crotch and carried out one of his angular, hip-jabbing dances in silence. He quickly thought better of it and had the segment cut — maybe because it said too much.

At the time, he was still indisputably a star, if an unusual one. Jackson's 1991 album, Dangerous, debuted at No. 1 with big pop anthems like "Heal the World" and jaunty, darting tracks like "Black or White" — a song that led a lot of people to notice that over time Jackson's skin had been getting significantly lighter. Eventually he explained that he suffered from vitiligo, a pigment disorder that causes discolored patches on dark skin. He claimed to be compensating with skin bleaches to turn himself a more uniform color.

But the real trouble started in 1993, when it emerged that Jackson was being investigated on suspicion of child molestation by Tom Sneddon, the district attorney of Santa Barbara County, California. Sneddon even ordered the police to photograph Jackson's genitals to see if they had the identifying marks of vitiligo that Jackson's accuser, age 13, claimed to have seen. But before Sneddon could bring criminal charges, the boy's father brought a civil suit against Jackson on behalf of his son. The investigation and lawsuit put all the question marks about Jackson on display — his over-the-top identification with children, his particular fascination with boy actors like Macaulay Culkin and Emmanuel Lewis, his habit of conducting sleepovers with "special friends," the absence of any known adult sexual relationship in his life, male or female. From the fastness of his Neverland ranch, Jackson issued to the public an anguished videotaped statement protesting his innocence, but he eventually settled the suit for a reported $20 million.

In September of the next year, prosecutors made a final decision not to file criminal charges, because the chief accuser was no longer willing to testify. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but by that time Jackson was married. In May he had quietly wedded Lisa Marie Presley. The daughter of Elvis Presley, Lisa Marie was a sort of kindred spirit, somebody who had seen up close the lethal burdens of fame on a scale few others could imagine. But the marriage lasted less than two years.

Through it all, Jackson kept recording, touring and selling. He was no longer racking up the massive sales of his peak years in the '80s, but then, what mere mortal could? In June 1995 he released the double album HIStory: Past, Present and Future — Book I, a greatest-hits collection that had an added disc with some angry new material. In the following year, Jackson entered a second marriage, this time with Debbie Rowe — a nurse in the office of his dermatologist — who was already pregnant. A few months later, she gave birth to Prince Michael I, and a year after that, to Paris Michael Katherine. In 1999 she and Jackson divorced. Jackson got custody of both children. Rowe got a multimillion-dollar settlement.

There was another child to come, Prince Michael II, born in 2002 to a still unnamed surrogate mother. For all the strange circumstances in which they grew up, Jackson's children have impressed people who have met them. A few years ago, the rock musician Lenny Kravitz got together with Jackson to record a track. "His children were there. I grew up in an old-school West Indian family where respect was paramount. And these kids were just like that, full of respect but not robotic. They both drew pictures for me and signed them."

Jackson's next album, Invincible, released in 2001, was a relative flop, going double platinum in the U.S. but costing a reported $30 million to produce. By that time, the world was teeming with boy bands and girl singers whose every move and yelp were borrowed from Jackson, but the King of Pop couldn't deliver his own lines anymore. He had too much backstory, which made it impossible for his voice to be plausible as the pure vessel of romantic need, devotion or — let's not even go there — desire. He was inducted the same year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist. He was still the man who had electrified the world with Thriller, but people were starting to wonder if the thrill was gone.

Still, there were times when the old habits of hard work and professionalism shone through. J.C. Chasez, a member of 'N Sync who shared a stage with Jackson several times, remembers being backstage at a 9/11 benefit concert and listening in awe as Jackson rehearsed before his performance: "He was doing vocal drills for an hour before he went out — 40 years old and the guy is warming up for an hour before every show. He wanted to give that audience the best he had."

Offstage, though, the stranger kind of performances just kept on coming. In 2003, Jackson appeared in a two-hour documentary with British journalist Martin Bashir. When Bashir asked him about taking boy visitors to Neverland for sleepovers, Jackson answered, "The most loving thing to do is to share your bed with someone, you know?" At one point in Bashir's film, a 13‑year-old cancer patient could be seen holding hands with Jackson. Soon that boy would be the accuser in a criminal case brought by the same district attorney who had investigated Jackson in '93. This time, Sneddon persuaded a grand jury to bring a felony indictment against the singer for child molestation, conspiracy and giving alcohol to a minor.

What followed, starting in February 2005, was a 14-week trial by jury and by media. Since cameras weren't allowed in the courtroom, E! Entertainment Television produced nightly staged re-enactments of the previous day's testimony. The prosecution brought out porn magazines seized from Jackson's house and called the boy to testify that Jackson had plied him with wine — Jackson allegedly called it "Jesus juice" — before making his moves. But it also called to the stand a parade of witnesses who had to admit they had lied in other proceedings or sold their stories to the tabloids. And it had to contend with an 80-minute video — produced by the Jackson camp — in which the boy's mother went on about how grateful she was for the time her son had spent with him. The jury found Jackson innocent on all counts.

Nevertheless, the trial had been an ordeal for him. And it offered the world another painful look at his strange, sad isolation. "He didn't trust people," says Thomas Mesereau, Jackson's lead attorney in the case. "He felt he'd been let down so often. And he would sometimes isolate himself because he felt that anyone that went near him wanted something. There was a side of him that just wished he could be an ordinary person and walk down the street."

After the trial, Jackson never again lived at Neverland. With his children, he decamped for almost a year to Bahrain at the invitation of the ruler's son, Sheik Abdulla bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, a friend of Jackson's brother Jermaine. He later sued Jackson in a British court, claiming the singer had reneged on a music contract and book deal. The suit was settled out of court last November, just before Jackson would have had to testify.

By then, Jackson's personal fortune was in steep decline. He lost control of Neverland when he defaulted on a $24.5 million loan. At his molestation trial, a forensic accountant, John Duross O'Bryan, testified that in the early 2000s, Jackson each year spent up to $30 million more than he was earning. At the time of his death, he may have been as much as $500 million in debt.

Jackson stayed afloat by leveraging his two principal assets: Neverland and the Sony/ATV music catalog, with its 251 Beatles songs, among other treasures. In 2005 he borrowed $270 million from banks at interest rates that reached 20%. After Jackson fell behind on payments, he sold the debt to Fortress Investment Group, a New York City private-equity firm that threatened to call in the loan in December 2005 when Jackson seemed about to default. Sony came to the rescue, arranging for financing at just 6% in return for Jackson's agreement to give the company an option to buy half his stake in the Beatles catalog for about $250 million if he defaulted on those loans.

But Jackson wasn't finished. In March he announced his comeback plan, a series of concerts at the O2 arena in London, backed by the concert promoter AEG Live, that were set to begin on July 13. When the initial demand for tickets was huge, he extended the run to 50 shows, which would have gone right into 2010. There was also the prospect of a years-long world tour that might bring in as much as $400 million. In the days just before he died, Jackson was in Los Angeles rehearsing for the London shows.

Even if he had succeeded in making it back to the top for a while, however, it would have always been difficult to imagine Jackson, the eternal child, in old age. It was hard not to picture him as ever more eccentric and secluded, like Howard Hughes, or Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. The Michael Jackson we prefer to keep in our memories is the man-child at the height of his phenomenal powers, the one with the saw-toothed yelps and the jackhammer moves, the one who flung thunderbolts from the stage. That's the man whom the future, which has a way of putting uncomfortable questions to the side, will take to its heart. —With reporting by Laura Fitzpatrick, Barbara Kiviat and Julie Rawe