My phone rang and I heard: “This is Michael Jackson.” The voice was breathy, unbroken, boyish – tentative, yet tremulously eager and helpful, not the voice of a 40-year-old. In contrast to this lilting sound, its substance was denser, like a blind child giving you explicit directions in darkness.
“How would you describe Elizabeth Taylor?” I asked.
“She’s a warm cuddly blanket that I love to snuggle up to and cover myself with. I can confide in her and trust her. In my business, you can’t trust anyone.”
“Why is that?”
“Because you don’t know who’s your friend. Because you’re so popular, and there’s so many people around you. You’re isolated, too. Becoming successful means that you become a prisoner. You can’t go out and do normal things. People are always looking at what you’re doing.”
“Have you had that experience?”
“Oh, lots of times. They try to see what you’re reading, and all the things you’re buying. They want to know everything. There are always paparazzi downstairs. They invade my privacy. They twist reality. They’re my nightmare. Elizabeth is someone who loves me – really loves me.”
“I suggested to her that she was Wendy and you’re Peter.”
“But Elizabeth is also like a mother – and more than that. She’s a friend. She’s Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, the Queen of England and Wendy. We have great picnics. It’s so wonderful to be with her. I can really relax with her, because we’ve lived the same life and experienced the same thing.”
“The great tragedy of childhood stars. We like the same things. Circuses. Amusement parks. Animals.”
And there was their shared fame and isolation.
“It makes people do strange things. A lot of our famous luminaries become intoxicated because of it – they can’t handle it. And your adrenaline is at the zenith of the universe after a concert – you can’t sleep. It’s maybe two in the morning and you’re wide awake. After coming off stage, you’re floating.”
“How do you handle that?”
“I watch cartoons. I love cartoons. I play video games. Sometimes I read.”
“You mean you read books?”
“Yeah. I love to read short stories and everything.”
“Any in particular?”
“Somerset Maugham,” he said quickly, and then, pausing at each name: “Whitman. Hemingway. Twain.”
“What about those video games?”
“I love X-Man. Pinball. Jurassic Park. The martial arts ones – Mortal Kombat.”
“I played some of the video games at Neverland,” I said. “There was an amazing one called Beast Buster.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s great. I pick each game. That one’s maybe too violent, though. I usually take some with me on tour.”
“How do you manage that? The video game machines are pretty big, aren’t they?”
“Oh, we travel with two cargo planes.”
“Have you written any songs with Elizabeth in mind?”
“Is that the one with the line, ‘Has anyone seen my childhood?'”
“Yes. It goes…”, and he liltingly recited “Before you judge me, try to…”, and then sang the rest.
“Didn’t I hear that playing on your merry-go-round at Neverland?”
Delightedly, he said, “Yes! Yes!”
He went on about childhood, how, like Elizabeth, as a child star he used to support his family.
“I was a child supporting my family. My father took the money. Some of the money was put aside for me, but a lot of the money was put back into the entire family. I was just working the whole time.”
“So you didn’t have a childhood, then – you lost it. If you had it to do again how would you change things?”
“Even though I missed out on a lot, I wouldn’t change anything.”
“I can hear your little kids in the background.” The gurgling had become insistent, like a plug-hole in a flood. “If they wanted to be performers and lead the life you led, what would you say?”
“They can do whatever they want to do. If they want to do that, it’s okay.”
“How will you raise them differently from the way you were raised?”
“With more fun. More love. Not so isolated.”
“Elizabeth says she finds it painful to look back on her life. Do you find it hard to do that?”
“No, not when it’s pertaining to an overview of your life rather than any particular moment.”
This oblique and somewhat bookish form of expression was a surprise to me – another Michael Jackson surprise. He had made me pause with “intoxicated” and “zenith of the universe”, too. I said: “I’m not too sure what you mean by ‘overview’.”
“Like childhood. I can look at that. The arc of my childhood.”
“But there’s some moment in childhood when you feel particularly vulnerable. Did you feel that? Elizabeth said that she felt she was owned by the studio.”
“Sometimes really late at night we’d have to go out – it might be three in the morning – to do a show. My father forced us. He would get us up. I was seven or eight. Some of these were clubs or private parties at people’s houses. We’d have to perform.” This was in Chicago, New York, Indiana, Philadelphia, he added – all over the country. “I’d be sleeping and I’d hear my father. ‘Get up! There’s a show!’ ”
“But when you were on stage, didn’t you get a kind of thrill?”
“Yes. I loved being on stage. I loved doing the shows.”
“What about the other side of the business – if someone came up after the show, did you feel awkward?”
“I didn’t like it. I’ve never liked people-contact. Even to this day, after a show, I hate it, meeting people. It makes me shy. I don’t know what to say.”
“But you did that Oprah interview, right?
“With Oprah it was tough. Because it was on TV – on TV, it’s out of my realm. I know that everyone is looking and judging. It’s so hard.”
“Is this a recent feeling – that you’re under scrutiny?”
“No,” he said firmly, “I have always felt that way.”
“Even when you were seven or eight?”
“I’m not happy doing it.”
“Which I suppose is why talking to Elizabeth over a period of two or three months on the phone would be the perfect way to get acquainted. Or doing what we’re doing right now.”
At some point Michael’s use of the phrase “lost childhood” prompted me to quote the line from George William Russell, “In the lost boyhood of Judas / Christ was betrayed”, and I heard “Wow” at the other end of the line. He asked me to explain what that meant, and when I did, he urged me to elaborate. What sort of a childhood did Judas have? What had happened to him? Where had he lived? Who had he known?
I told him that Judas had red hair, that he was the treasurer of the Apostles, that he might have been Sicarii – a member of a radical Jewish group, that he might not have died by hanging himself but somehow exploded, all his guts flying.
Twenty more minutes of Biblical apocrypha with Michael Jackson, on the lost childhood of Judas, and then the whisper again.