Why He's a Thriller

Michael Jackson's songs, steps and sexy aura set a flashy beat for the decade

  • Share
  • Read Later

(6 of 6)

Over the next six years, the Jackson 5 became one of the cornerstone acts for a label that had more than its fair share of the best soul in the land. But after seven more Top Ten singles, there were the inevitable career dissatisfactions. Their father struck up a deal with Epic Records, provoking bad feeling at Motown and some family tension. Jermaine, who had married Berry Gordy's daughter Hazel, stayed behind at Motown, soloing, while the other brothers moved on.

Now calling themselves the Jacksons (Motown retained title to the name Jackson 5), they proceeded to cut four albums, two of which, Destiny and Triumph, went platinum. But it was Michael's first Epic solo album, Off the Wall, that started to set the barns all burning. His excessive prominence within the family was always manageable, one senses, but not without stressing the importance of perspective. "Michael is pretty stable," his mother says. "I think it's his raisin'. We used to talk to the boys about getting big heads. None of them is better than anyone else. One might have a little more talent, but that doesn't make you better. You're just the same as anyone else. It's just a job. Other people might be doctors and lawyers, but Michael entertains because maybe that's Michael entertains because maybe that's what he can do best. That doesn't mean he's better."

What it does mean, however, is living your life on guard, within tantalizing reach of platoons of adoring fans who stake out the gates of the Encino house starting at 4 a.m. or so. It means bringing home the hospital gown you wore after the accident on the Pepsi commercial and letting it be tossed over the fence, to be caught by one of the most adoring of the faithful, Dena Cypher, 16. "I look at it every night, smell it, all that good stuff," she reports. "I was going to wear it to bed, but my mom talked me out of it. We didn't want to wrinkle it. I mean, those are Michael's wrinkles in there."

Beguiling as those comparisons are between the extraterrestrial and Michael, the earthly, slightly spacey superstar, what may be most pertinently recalled about E.T. is the way in which the family's house was suddenly closed by outside forces, turned from a home into a hermetically sealed fortress. Spielberg talks about the "rage" he senses when he watches Jackson in concert, and the impression of angry release. Jackson, in front of an audience, is like a projectile—alive, explosive—that always returns, charge intact, to the chamber from which it was fired.

Jackson's whole existence is lined with insulation. His friends, many of whom are famous, help him keep life at bay and illusion near at hand: their celebrity, which complements his, also helps cast his everyday life with the living embodiments of public fantasy. "We might think his bubble world is fantastical," says one of his most sympathetic pals. "But to him it's very real. My only fear is that he'll step out and become like everybody else. He is too special the way he is. He is not immune. If he steps out of that world, it might be his last time."

Still, even a fan like Amy Gancherov, 13, of nearby Sherman Oaks, can sometimes notice, as she catches a phantom glimpse of Jackson, that "he looks so sad." She thinks the reason may be that "everybody is always shoving things in his face." Occasionally Jackson comes out to the yard. Sometimes he will ride a red-and-white motor scooter. Sometimes he will take his electric car for a spin. It is a close copy of a vehicle from Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Disneyland. Outside the iron gates, the fans on the street can see him whizzing along the driveway, playing by himself, and at those times, he is too far away for anyone to see his face at all. —By Jay Cocks. Reported by Denise Worrell/Los Angeles, with other bureaus

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. Next Page