Published: 11:22PM BST 27 Jun 2009
I heard the news today, oh boy, that Michael Jackson had a heart attack – and died of cardiac arrest, at the age of 50, in Los Angeles. I am reminded of a long conversation I had with him at four o’clock one morning, and of my visit to Neverland. The visit came first, the conversation a few weeks later, on the phone.
Neverland, a toytown wilderness of carnival rides and doll houses and zoo animals and pleasure gardens, lay inside a magnificent gateway on a side road in a rural area beyond Santa Barbara. Nosing around, I saw pinned to the wall of the sentry post an array of strange faces, some of them mugshots, all of them undesirables, with names and captions such as “Believes she is married to Mr Jackson” and “Might be armed” and “Has been loitering near gate”.
A road lined with life-sized bronzed statuary – skipping boys, gamboling animals – led past an artificial lake and a narrow-gauge railway to Michael’s house. Neverland occupied an entire 3,000-acre valley, yet very little of it was devoted to human habitation – just the main house with its dark shingles and mullioned windows, and a three-bedroom guesthouse. The rest was given over to a railway terminus, Katharine Station, named after Jackson’s mother, a formidable security headquarters, various funhouses, a cinema (with windowed bedrooms instead of balcony seats), and almost indefinable sites, one with teepees like an Indian camp.
And sprawling over many acres, the Jackson zoo of bad-tempered animals. The giraffes were understandably skittish. In another enclosure, rocking on its thick legs, was Gypsy, a moody five-ton elephant, which Elizabeth Taylor had given as a present to Michael. The elephant seemed to be afflicted with the rage of heightened musth. “Don’t go anywhere near him,” the keeper warned me.
In the reptile house, with its frisbee-shaped frogs and fat pythons, both a cobra and a rattlesnake had smashed their fangs against the glass of their cage trying to bite me. The llamas spat at me, as llamas do, but even in the ape sanctuary, “AJ”, a big bristly, shovel-mouthed chimp, had spat in my face, and Patrick the orang-utan had tried to twist my hand. “And don’t go anywhere near him, either.”
In the wider part of the valley, the empty fairground rides were active – twinkling, musical – but empty: Sea Dragon, the Neverland Dodgem cars, the Neverland carrousel playing Michael’s own song, Childhood (“Has anyone seen my childhood?…”). Even the lawns and flower beds were playing music; loudspeakers disguised as big, grey rocks buzzed with showtunes, filling the valley with unstoppable Muzak that drowned the chirping of wild birds. In the middle of it, a Jumbotron, its screen the size of a drive-in movie, showed a cartoon, two crazy-faced creatures quacking miserably at each other – all of this very bright in the cloudless California dusk, not a soul watching.
Later that day, I boarded a helicopter with Elizabeth Taylor – I was at Neverland interviewing her – and flew over the valley. It says something for Miss Taylor’s much-criticised voice that I could hear her clearly over the helicopter noise. Girlish, imploring, piercing, the loud yack-yack-yack of the titanium rotor blades, she clutched her dog, a Maltese named Sugar, and screamed: “Paul, tell the pilot to go around in a circle, so we can see the whole ranch!”
Even without my relaying the message – even with his ears muffled by headphones – her voice knifed through to the pilot. He lifted us high enough into the peach-coloured sunset so that Neverland seemed even more toy-like.
“That’s the gazebo, where Larry [Fortensky, her seventh husband] and I tied the knot,” Elizabeth said, moving her head in an ironising wobble. Sugar blinked through prettily-combed white bangs which somewhat resembled Elizabeth’s own white hair. “Isn’t the railway station darling? Over there is where Michael and I have picnics,” and she indicated a clump of woods on a cliff. “Can we go around one more time?”
Lost legend: Michael Jackson Photo: REUTERS
Neverland Valley revolved slowly beneath us, the shadows lengthening from the pinky-gold glow slipping from the sky.
Even though no rain had fallen for months, the acres of lawns watered by underground sprinklers were deep green. Here and there, like toy soldiers, uniformed security people patrolled on foot, or on golf carts; some stood sentry duty – for Neverland was also a fortress.
“What’s that railway station for?” I asked.
“The sick children.”
“And all those rides?”
“The sick children.”
“Look at all those tents…” Hidden in the woods, it was my first glimpse at the collection of tall teepees.
“The Indian village. The sick children love that place.”
From this height, I could see that this valley of laboriously recaptured childhood pleasure was crammed with more statuary than I’d seen from ground level. Lining the gravel roads and the golf-cart paths were little winsome bronzes of flute players, rows of grateful, grinning kiddies, clusters of hand-holding tots, some with banjos, some with fishing rods; and large bronze statues, too, like the centrepiece of the circular drive in front of Michael’s house, a statue of Mercury (god of merchandise and merchants), rising 30 feet, with winged helmet and caduceus, and all balanced on one tippy-toe, the last of the syrupy sunset lingering on his big bronze buttocks, making his bum look like a buttered muffin.
The house at Neverland was filled with images, many of them depicting Michael life-sized, elaborately costumed, in heroic poses with cape, sword, ruffed collar, crown. The rest were an example of a sort of obsessive iconography: images of Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Ross, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin – and for that matter of Mickey Mouse and Peter Pan, all of whom, over the years, in what is less a life than a metamorphosis, he had come physically to resemble.
“So you’re Wendy and Michael is Peter?” I had asked Elizabeth Taylor afterwards.
“Yeah. Yeah. There’s a kind of magic between us.”
The friendship started when, out of the blue, Michael offered her tickets for one of his Thriller Tour concerts – indeed, she asked for 14 tickets. But the seats were in a glass-enclosed VIP box, so far from the stage “you might as well have been watching it on TV”. Instead of staying, she led her large party home.
Hearing that she’d left the concert early, Michael called the next day in tears apologising for the bad seats. He stayed on the line, they talked for two hours. And then they talked every day. Weeks passed, the calls continued. Months went by. “Really, we got to know each other on the telephone, over three months.”
One day Michael suggested that he might drop by. Elizabeth said fine. He said: “May I bring my chimpanzee?” Elizabeth said, “Sure. I love animals.” Michael showed up holding hands with the chimp, Bubbles.
“We have been steadfast ever since,” Elizabeth said.
“Do you see much of Michael?”
“More of him than people realise – more than I realise,” she said. They went in disguise to movies in Los Angeles cinemas, sitting in the back, holding hands. Before I could frame a more particular question, she said: “I love him. There’s a vulnerability inside him which makes him the more dear. We have such fun together. Just playing.”
Or role-playing – her Wendy to his Peter. In the hallway of her house, a large Michael Jackson portrait was inscribed “To my True Love Elizabeth. I’ll love you Forever, Michael”.
She gave him a live elephant. Dr Arnie Klein, his dermatologist, showed me a birthday snapshot taken in Las Vegas, Michael looking distinctly chalky as he presented Elizabeth with a birthday present, an elephant-shaped bauble, football-sized, covered in jewels.
What began as a friendship with Michael Jackson developed into a kind of cause in which Elizabeth Taylor became almost his only defender.
“What about his” – and I fished for a word – “eccentricity? Does that bother you?”
“He is magic. And I think all truly magical people have to have that genuine eccentricity.” There is not an atom in her consciousness that allows her the slightest negativity on the subject of Jackson. “He is one of the most loving, sweet, true people I have ever loved. He is part of my heart. And we would do anything for each other.”
This Wendy with a vengeance, who was a wealthy and world-famous pre-adolescent, supporting her parents from the age of nine, said she easily related to Michael, who was also a child star, and denied a childhood, as well as viciously abused by his father. There was a “Katherine” steam engine, and a “Katherine Street” at Neverland; there was no “Joseph Street”, nor anything bearing his father’s name.
‘He’ll talk to you if I ask him to,” Elizabeth had told me. And at a prearranged signal, Michael called me, at four one morning. There was no secretarial intervention of “Mr Jackson on the line”. The week’s supermarket tabloids’ headlines were “Jackson on suicide watch” and “Jackson in loony bin”, and one with a South Africa dateline, “Michael Jackson King of Pop Parasails with 13-year-old”. In fact, he was in New York City, where he was recording a new album. This was 10 years ago.
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?” 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.