I got to interview Michael Jackson only once, at the family home in Encino, Calif. This was on the occasion of his 21st birthday, and I remember thinking that for a guy approaching a milestone, he didn’t seem very happy. Truth is, he seemed tired. Not from fatigue or exertion. It was an existential tired, as if he felt worn down by the simple act of being.
I remember Jackson did not walk about the place so much as haunt it, slumping from room to room as a great weight rested upon his sparrow shoulders.
He complained to me that he was lonely, told me how he wandered the streets outside the security gate sometimes, late at night, just looking for someone to talk to. I took it for image-making hyperbole until a friend of mine, singer Sam Moore of the old duo Sam & Dave, told me about driving through Encino one night and finding Michael, just walking.
One other memory from that interview: Michael was telling me in that soft, fey voice of his how some girl had climbed the security fence and been found wandering the property early one morning. She was lucky, he said, that the dogs were not out because they’d have eaten her alive. Moments later, by way of illustration, he took me to see the dogs in question.
We were standing before a pen in which the canines were lounging. And Michael said, “Pretend you’re attacking me.” I said, Beg pardon? He repeated it: “Pretend you’re going to attack me.” So I did as he said, hesitantly raising my hands toward his throat. In an instant the dogs had gone zero to bloodlust, barking and snarling, climbing the fence and trying to chew through the chainlinks. Suddenly, I was doing a statue imitation and wondering if I had soiled myself. Michael was laughing his head off.
He was an odd guy.
And this was before “Thriller” made him the most successful recording artist in history. It was before Bubbles the chimp and the elephant man’s bones, before Elvis’ daughter and plastic surgery, before the hyperbaric chamber and skin the color of bones. And yes, it was before sordid rumors and eventually a trial — and an acquittal — on charges of child molestation.
Michael Jackson’s life will always separate out like that, into epochs of before “Thriller” and after. Before: an apple-cheeked adolescent, child prodigy of the Motown stable, obsessed with fantasy and reptiles, and possessed of a raw talent (listen again to that explosive lead vocal on “I Want You Back”) years beyond his age. Years beyond anyone’s age.
And after: a star bigger, perhaps, than any human being ever should be, so big he redefined the very meaning of success.
Before “Thriller,” an artist might call himself successful if he got a gold record, signifying 500,000 copies sold. He might call himself a superstar if he got platinum, signifying a million copies sold. To sell five times or 10 times platinum was to have one of the biggest albums of the year.
“Thriller” has gone at least 48 times platinum worldwide. It has sold 28 million in the United States alone.
It made him bigger than Elvis, bigger than the Beatles, bigger than popular music itself. That the album produced videos (“Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Thriller”) that changed the face of music video seems almost incidental. That its grab-bag approach, its something-for-everybody style, was a work of prescience and marketing genius, seems almost irrelevant.
Because the truest statement of the success of “Thriller” is simply this: It made the man historic. It opened a whole new stratosphere of success. This was his great triumph. And his great tragedy.
Because the very magnitude of the achievement isolated him from the ordinary human contact he claimed to crave, made him prey for the leeches and hangers-on who troubled the last years of his life. The charming eccentric who walked the streets of Encino looking for companionship was suddenly unable to poke his head out of a window without causing a riot.
Worse, his success made him a man no one could say no to. Not when he altered his very visage with a series of plastic surgeries that, some said, were designed to remove every trace of Africa and of the father with whom he had a famously troubled relationship. Not when he made his home into an amusement park complete with a train and a zoo and a tree he climbed in order to be alone. Not when he spent a fortune on garish baubles and tchotchkes and drove his finances into the ground. Not when a series of scandals and public oddities ruined his image, and left one of music’s greatest showmen an object of pitiable scorn.
And not when he began sharing his bed — innocently, he always said — with little boys.
“Thriller” consumed Michael Jackson. It raised the stakes on everything he did, and until his last day he was always competing with it, always looking to top what he had done. He never did. And yet, you wouldn’t have been surprised if he had. That’s how good he was.
Which is why for those of us who remember Michael Jackson before, those of us who memorized his little ad libs in “ABC” and stayed up late to watch him dance the robot on Carson, those of us who saw him move seamlessly as liquid, or sing in a voice that shifted without apparent effort from saw-toothed rawness to a sweet and ethereal falsetto, there is a poignancy beyond mere grief here. We were waiting for him to get back to what he had been before all the extraneous madness: a singer and showman of astonishing genius. We were waiting for that, even those of us who thought we weren’t.
Just the other day, I exchanged e-mails with a friend who, like me, covered Jackson in the old days. We were talking about his recently announced comeback show and I asked my friend what he thought of it. My friend didn’t think much. He was sick of Michael’s self-centeredness, his manipulation of others, his general weirdness. As far as he was concerned, the comeback could pass him by. I agreed.
And we were both lying through our teeth. If that show had come off, we’d have gone.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for The Miami Herald who originally joined the paper as its pop music critic. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts AT miamiherald.com.