Rolling Stone Interview February 17, 1983
Michael Jackson: Life In The Magical Kingdom by Gerri Hirshey
"HI, MICHAEL." A few such girlish messages are scratched into the paint of a
somber security sign on the steel driveway gate at his house. There is a fence, dogs
and guards, but girls still will loiter outside, in cars and in bushes.
As Michael conducts the tour of the two-story Tudor-style house, it's clear that the
room he will sleep in is almost monkish compared to those he has had designed for
his pleasures and the ones reserved for his sisters Janet and LaToya, who pored over
every detail of their wallpapered suites. "Girls are fussy," he explains, stepping over a
power saw in his bedroom. "I just don't care. I wanted room to dance and have my
The rooms Michael inspects most carefully are those marked for recreation. "I'm
putting all this stuff in," he says, "so I will never have to leave and go out there." The
"stuff" includes a screening room with two professional projectors and a giant
speaker. And then an exercise room, one for videogames and another with a giantscreen
video system. In addition, there is a huge chamber off the backyard patio,
which has been designated the Pirate Room. It will be not so much decorated as
populated. More dummies. But this set will talk back. Michael has been consulting
with a Disney technician, the very man who designed the Audio-Animatronics figures
for the Disneyland ride Pirates of the Caribbean. If all goes well, he will install
several scowling, scabbard-waving buccaneers, wenches and sea dogs right here.
"There won't be any rides," Michael says. "But there will be a pirate shootout,
cannons guns. They'll just scream at one another and I'll have the lights, sounds,
Pirates is one of his favorite rides in the Magic Kingdom. And Disneyland is one of
the few public spots even he cannot stay away from. Sometimes Michael stops at a
magic booth and buys one of those Groucho Masks -- fake glasses with nose attached.
But it's better when the staff leads him through back doors and tunnels. It's murder to
cross the Court of Sleeping Beauty's Castle in daylight. "I tried to go just last night,
but it was closed," he says with some disbelief. "So was Knott's Berry Farm."
If you live in the funhouse, you usually don't have to worry about such things.
Michael has sung it himself:
Life ain't so bad at all, if you live it off the wall.
WHEN WE ARRIVE BACK AT THE condo, Michael finds that a test pressing of
"The Girl is Mine" has been delivered. This is business. He must check it before
release, he explains, as he heads for a listen on the stereo in the den. Before the record
is finished, he is puching at phone buttons. In between calls to accountants and
managers, he says that he makes all his own decisions, right down to the last sequin
on his stage suits -- the only clothes he cares about. He says he can be a merciless
interviewer when it comes to choosing management, musicians and concert
promoters. He assesses their performances with the rigor of an investigative reporter,
questioning his brothers, fellow artists and even reporters for observations. Though he
truly believes his talent comes from God, he is acutely aware of its value on the open
market. He is never pushy or overbearing, but he does appreciate respect. Do not ask
him, for insurance, how long he has been with a particular show-business firm. "Ask
me," he corrects, "how long they've been with me."
Those who have worked with him do not doubt his capability. Even those to whom he
is a star child. "He's in full control," says Spielberg. "Sometimes he appears to other
people to be sort of wavering on the fringes of twilight, but there is great conscious
forethought behind everything he does. He's very smart about his career and the
choices he makes. I think he is definitely a man of two personalities."
When Michael was looking for a producer for his solo album, Quincy Jones was
happy to hear from him. Jones knew Michael was in a special class. A few things
tipped him off, he says. First there was the Academy Awards ceremony at which
Jones watched twelve-year-old Michael deliver a trash-flick love song to a fascist
rodent ("Ben") with astounding poise. Years later, while working with him on The
Wiz soundtrack, Jones says, "I saw another side. Watching him in the context of being
an actor, I saw a lot of things about him as a singer that rang a lot of bells. I saw a
depth that was never apparent, and a commitment. I saw that Michael was growing
In the studio, Jones found that his professionalism had matured. In fact, Michael's
nose for things is so by-your-leave funky that Jones started calling him Smelly.
Fortunately, when corporate rumblings feared the partnership too unlikely to work,
Smelly hung tough and cocked an ear inward to his own special rhythms.
Indeed, Off the Wall's most memorable cuts are the Jackson-penned dance tunes.
"Working Day and Night" with all its breathy asides and deft punctuation, could only have been
written by a dancer. "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," the album's biggest-selling
single, bops along with that same appealing give-and-go between restraint and
The song begins with Michael talking in a low mumble over a taut, singlestring
"You know, I was wonderin'...you know the force, it's got a lot of power, make me
feel like a...make me feel like...."
Ooooooh. Fraidy cat breaks into disco monster, with onrushing strings and a sexy,
cathartic squeal. The introduction is ten seconds of perfect pop tension. Dance boogie
is the welcome release. The arrangement -- high, gusting strings and vocals over a
thudding, in-the-pocket rhythm -- is Michael's signature. Smelly, the funky sprite.
It works. Such a creature as Michael is the perfect pop hybrid for Eighties. The
fanzine set is not scared off by raunchy lyrics and chest hair. But the R-rated uptown
dance crowd can bump and slide right along the greasy tracks.
Thriller is eclectic enough to include African chants and some ripping macho-rock guitar work by Eddie
Van Halen. It is now being called pop-soul by those into marketing categories.
Michael says he doesn't care what anybody wants to call it. Just how it all came about
is still a mystery to him--as is the creative process itself.
"I wake up from dreams and go, 'Wow, put this down on paper,'" he says. "The whole
thing is strange. You hear the words, everything is right there in front of your face.
And you say to yourself, 'I'm sorry, I just didn't write this. It's there already.' That's
why i hate to take credit for the songs I've written. I feel that somewhere, someplace,
it's been done and I'm just a courier bringing it into the world. I really believe that. I
love what I do. I'm happy at what I do. It's escapism."
Again, that word. But Michael is right. There is no better definition for good, wellmeaning,
American pop. Few understand this better than Diana Ross, that Tamla teen
turned latter-day pop diva. Her closeness to Michael began when she met the
"No, I didn't discover them," she says, countering the myth. Motown head Berry
Gordy had already found them; she simply introduced them on her 1971 television
special. "There was an identification between Michael and I," she says. "I was older,
he kind of idolized me, and he wanted to sing like me."
She has been pleased to watch Michael become his own person. Still, she wishes he
would step out even more. She says she had to be firm and force him to stay in his
role as producer on "Muscles." He wanted them to do it jointly. She insisted he go it
"He spends a lot of time, too much time, by himself. I try to get him out. I rented a
boat and took my children and Michael on a cruise. Michael has a lot of people
around him, but he's very afraid. I don't know why. I think it came from the early
Michael's show-business friends, many of them women not thought of as especially
motherly, do go to great lengths to push and prod him into the world, and to keep him
comfortable. When he's in Manhattan, Ross urges him to go to the theater and the
clubs, and counteroffers with quiet weekends at her Connecticut home. In notes and
phone calls, Katharine Hepburn has been encouraging about his acting.
Michael has recorded much of this counsel in notebooks and on tape. Visiting Jane
Fonda -- whom he's known since they met at a Hollywood party a few years ago--on
the New Hampshire set of On Golden Pond proved to be an intensive crash course. In
a mirror version of his scenes with the stepgrandson in the movie, Henry fonda took
his daughter's rockstar friend out on the lake and showed him how to fish. They sat on
a jetty for hours, talking trout and theater. The night Fonda died, Michael spent the
evening with Fonda's widow, Shirlee, and his children Jane and Peter. He says they
sat around, laughing and crying and watching the news reports. The ease with which
Michael was welcomed into her family did not surprise Jane Fonda. Michael and her
father got on naturally, she says, because they were so much alike.
"Dad was also painfully self-concious and shy in life," she says, "and he really only
felt comfortable when he was behind the mask of a character. He could liberate
himself when he was being someone else. That's a lot like Michael.
"In some ways," she continues, "Michael reminds me of the walking wounded. He's
an extremely fragile person. I think that just getting on with life, making contact with
people, is hard enough, much less to be worried about whither goest the world.
"I remember driving with him one day, and I said, 'God, Michael, I wish I could find a
movie I could produce for you.' And suddenly I knew. I said, 'I know what you've got
to do. It's Peter Pan.' Tears welled up in his eyes and he said, 'Why did you say that?'
with this ferocity. I said, 'I realize you're Peter Pan.' And he started to cry and said,
'You know, all over the walls of my room are pictures of Peter Pan. I've read
eerything that [author J.M.] Barrie wrote. I totally identify with Peter Pan, the lost boy
of neven-never land.'"
Hearing that Francis Coppola may be doing a film version, Fonda sent word to him
that he must talk to Michael Jackson. "Oh, I can see him," she says, "leading lost
children into a world of fantasy and magic."
In the book, that fantasy world lies "second to the right star, then straight on til
morning" -- no less strange a route, Fonda notes, than Michael's own journey from
"From Gary," she says, "straight on to Barrie."
ALL CHILDREN, EXCEPT ONE, grow up. This is the first line of Michael's favorite
book, and if you ask Katherine Jackson if she finds this similar to what happened in
her own brood of nine, she will laugh and say, oh yes, her fifth son is the one.
Five children -- Maureen, Tito, Jackie, Jermaine and Marlon -- are married and have
families. LaToya is a very independent young woman. At thirteen, Janet was starring
as a self-possessed ghetto twerp on the sitcom Good Times. Now she has a hit single
of her own, "Young Love," and appears in the sitcom Diff'rent Strokes. Youngest
brother Randy is already living on his own at twenty. Michael is sure he'd just die if
he tried that.
"LaToya once told me she thinks that I over protected them all," Mrs. Jackson says.
"But under the circumstances, I truly don't think so."
Marriage had brought her from east Indiana, just outside Chicago, to the chilly
industrial town of Gary. A growing family had forced Joe Jackson to disband the
Falcons, and R & B group he had formed with his two brothers. Playing Chuck Berry
and Fats Domino covers in local clubs was as far as they got. The guitar went to the
steel mills as a crane operator. The family budget didn t have a lot of slack for toys,
but there was an old saxophone, a tambourine, some bongos and a homey patchwork
of songs from Katherine's childhood. What she could remember, she taught her
children. "It was just plain stuff," she says, "like 'Cotton Fields' and 'You Are My
The breadth of the harmony grew with the family. Jackie, Jermaine and Tito started
singing together, with Tito on guitar and Jermaine on bass. Then Marlon climbed
aboard. Baby Michael, who liked to flail on the bongos, surprised his mother one day
when she heard him imitating Jermaine's lead vocals in his clear toddler's falsetto. "I
think we have another lead singer," she told her husband. The brothers agreed.
"He was so energetic that at five years old, he was like a leader," says Jackie, at thirtyone
the oldest brother. "We saw that. So we said, 'Hey Michael, you be the lead guy.'
The audience ate it up. He was into those James Brown things at the time, you know.
The speed was the thing. He would see somebody do something, and he could do it
"It was sort of frightening," his mother says. "He was so young. He didn't
go out and play much. So if you want me to tell you the truth, I don't know where he got it. He
the whole group. Local gigs were giving way to opening slots at larger halls in distant
cities. Joe Jackson spent weekends and evenings as chauffeur, road manager, agent
and coach. He taught Michael how to work a stage and handle a mike. Michael does
not remember his father making it fun; the boys always knew it was work. Rules were
strict. Grades had to be kept up, even with five shows a night, or the offender would
be yanked off the road. When Motown called, Joe took the boys to Detroit, and
Katherine stayed in Gary with the rest of the children. She says she never really
worried about her children until she went to a show and heard the screams from the
audience. "Every time I'd go to a concert I'd worry, because sometimes the girls
would get onstage and I'd have top watch them tearing at Michael. He was so small,
and they were so big."
There have been some serious incidents, too, one so chilling and bizarre it landed a
young woman in a mental institution. So Katherine Jackson has made it her business
to talk to some of these wild, persistent girls. What is so very crazy, she says, is that
they do it in the name of love. "There are so many," she says. "You have no idea
what's really on their minds. That's why it's going to be so hard for my son to get a
Michael is aware of, if not resign
have children in the future, but says he would probably adopt them. For now, he has
only to walk into one of his brother's homes and he's instantly covered with nephews.
He says he gets along with children better than adults, anyhow: "They don't wear
Kids and animals can nose their way into Michael's most private reserves. It's the
showbiz spook show that makes his own growing up so public and hard. He has
borne, with patience and good humor, the standard rumors of sex-change operations
and paternity accusations from women he has never seen. But clearly they have
affected him. "Billie Jean," on Thriller, is a vehement denial of paternity ("the kid is
not my son"). In reality there has been no special one. Michael says that he is not in a
hurry to jump into any romantic liaison.
"It's like what I told you about finding friends," he says. "With that, it's even harder.
With so many girls around, how am I ever gonna know?"
inquiring young woman decked out with the latest video equipment. She blocks the
corridor leading to the warren of dressing rooms beneath the L.A. Forum.
"Can i tell my viewers that Michael Jackson is a Queen fan?"
"I'm a Freddie Mercury fan," he says, slipping past her into a long room crowded with
Queen band members, wives, roadies and friends. A burly man with the look of a
lineback is putting lead singer Freddie Mercury through a set of stretching exercises
that will propel his road-weary muscles through the final show of the group's recent
U.S. tour. The band is merry. Michael is shy, standing quietly at the door until Freddie
spots him and leaps up to gather him in a hug.
Freddie invited Michael. He has been calling all week, mainly about the possibility of
their working together. They've decided to try it on the Jacksons' upcoming album.
Though they are hardly alike -- Freddie celebrated a recent birthday by hanging naked
from a chandelier -- the two have been friendly since Michael listened to the material
Queen had recorded for The Game and insisted that the single had to be "Another One
Bites the Dust."
"Now listens to me, right Freddie?"
"Righto, little brother."
The linebacker beckons. Freddie waves his cigarette at the platters of fruit, fowl and
candy. "You and your friends make yourselves comfortable."
Our escort, a sweet-faced, hamfisted bodyguard, is consulting with security about seat
locations. There had been girls lurking outside the condo when Michael sprinted to
the limousine, girls peering through the tinted glass as the door locks clicked shut.
This was all very puzzling to Michael's guest, who has waiting in the car.
he is a real friend, one of the civilians, so normal as to pass unseen by the jaded eyes
of celebrity watchers. He has never been to a rock concert, nor has he ever seen
Michael perform. He says he hopes to, but mainly, they just hang out together.
Sometimes his younger brother even tags along. Most of the time they just talk "just
regular old stuff," says the friend. For Michael, it is another kind of magic.
At the moment, though, it's show business as usual. Gossip, to be specific. Michael is
questioning a dancer he knows about the recent crises of a fallen superstar. Michael
wants to know what the problem is. The dance mimes his answer, laying a finger
alongside his nose. Michael nods, and translates for his friend: "Drugs. Cocaine."
Michael admits that he seeks out such gossip, and listen again and again as the famous
blurt out their need for escape. "Escapism," he says. "I totally understand."
But addictions are another thing. "I always want to know what makes good
performers fall to pieces," he says. "I alway try to find out. Because I just can't believe
it's the same things that get them time and time again." So far, his own addictions--the
stage, dancing, cartoons--have been free of toxins.
Something's working on Michael now, but it is nothing chemical. He's buzzing like a
bumblebee trapped in a jely jar. It's the room we're in, he explains. So many times,
he's stretched and bounced and whipped up on his vocal chords right here, got crazy
in here, pumping up, shivering like some flighty race horse as he wriggled into his
"I can't stand this," he fairly yells. "I cannot sit still."
Just before he must be held down for his own good. Randy Jackson rockets into the
room, containing his brother in a bear hug, helping him dissipate some of the energy
with a short bout of wrestling. This is not the same creature who tried to hide behind a
Now Michael is boxing with the bodyguard, asking every minute for the time until the
man mercifully claps a big hand on the shoulder of his charge and says it: "Let's go."
Mercury and company have already begun moving down the narrow hall, and before
anyone can catch him, Michael is drawn into their wake, riding on the low roar of the
crowd outside, leaping up to catch a glimpse of Freddie, who is raising a fist and
about to take the stairs to the stage.
"Ooooh, Freddie is pumped," says Michael. "I envy him now. You don't know how
The last of the band makes the stairs, and the black stage curtain closes. Michael turns
and lets himself be led into the darkness of the arena.