Flawed genius reached tragedy through fantasy

Michael Jackson could not cope with the life he and his exploitative promoters built for him. Esther N McCarthy looks at the harrowing evidence

Flawed genius reached tragedy through fantasy

Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson

Randall Sullivan Grove Press £25 

Kindle $12.29 

A 50-YEAR-OLD virgin, with no nose who was hoping to settle in Westmeath. Not the image of Michael Jackson I had before reading this book, but there you have it.

Being the biographer of the most prolific pop star in the universe is no easy feat, especially when so very much has already been written, filmed, filed, Facebooked and tweeted about Jackson — everything from his fortune to his fame, his face to his family — don’t we know it all already?

Apparently not. Former Rolling Stone contributing editor, Randall Sullivan, started out writing a magazine article in the aftermath of Jackson’s death in June 2009, but realised he wanted to tell the story of the King of Pop’s final five years.

He opens the book with a terribly sad insight into Jackson’s family situation. Days before his departure to take part in his “30th Anniversary” concerts at Madison Square Gardens in 2001, Michael rang his business partner Marc Schaffel from the Neverland Ranch. He was hiding with his children in a secret room at the back of his bedroom closet as his parents Joe and Katherine and his brother Jermaine ransacked the place looking for him, demanding he sign a contract to pay them $500,000 more than the already agreed $250,000 for them to appear at the concerts. He was crying, sobbing: “Do you understand now why I am the way I am? How else could I be?”

What’s all the more fascinating is deep into the book it emerges it is this very room that deputies discovered when they swarmed the ranch in November 2003, looking for evidence to support molestation claims. A room decorated like a small child’s bedroom, with photographs of babies in nappies on the walls, pillowcases with Peter Pan images and a signed, framed photograph of Macaulay Culkin on the bed stand. This is where Jackson brought boys to molest them, claimed the Santa Barbara sheriff’s department.

Sullivan is sympathetic to Jackson and presents compelling and compounding evidence that all the charges were opportunistic and false, saying he told Michael’s mother Katherine he didn’t believe Michael was a paedophile. Surely, if he was using the room for such depravity, would he hunker down there, using it as a safety bolt with his children?

But Sullivan went on in interviews to say he couldn’t be 100% sure of MJ’s innocence, there was a shadow of a doubt. This, along with him positing that the autopsy showed Jackson had “a nose so cut away that, without a prosthetic, it looked like little more than a pair of slightly ridged nostrils” prompted devoted fans to boycott the book, with the author saying he wouldn’t make any bookstore appearances outside Portland because of security concerns.

So what is the truth of Jackson’s sexuality? Sullivan puts forward his theory: Jackson was “pre-sexual”.

“Of all the answers one might offer to the central question hanging over the memory of Michael Jackson,” he writes, “the one best supported by the evidence was that he had died as a 50-year-old virgin, never having had sexual intercourse with any man, woman or child, in a special state of loneliness that was a large part of what made him unique as an artist and so unhappy as a human being.”

But to be fair, he doesn’t really offer much in the way of convincing evidence to support this virgin theory. Kind of a hard one to prove, really, except he couldn’t find anyone to say they actually had sex with Michael. Notwithstanding his ex-wife Lisa Marie Presley whose relationship is covered quite well, but disappointingly, without Sullivan interviewing her.

Everything he reports on here — and I found this a lot throughout the book — is taken from other interviews, both print, TV, online and radio. Presley had been reported as telling her friend Jackson was “very hot” in bed and they were “sexually active”.

So was she lying? Sullivan doesn’t delve any further and this is typical of the many frustrations I felt reading the book. Some of it is so in depth and detailed, like his labyrinth of financial messes, the headache of his estate, his relationships with so many different advisers and managers and staff, but the bits where I really wanted to know more seemed glossed over.

But, his time in Ireland was of interest especially and Sullivan gives a touching portrayal of a happy devoted family man hopping from Blackwater Castle to Ballinacurra House in Kinsale, to celebrating his 48th birthday in Wicklow’s Luggala Castle and working with Will.i.am in Grouse Lodge on his comeback album. Scenes of Jackson apple picking on horseback, discussing the Celtic Tiger and taking leisurely afternoon strolls depict Ireland as somewhat of a idyllic haven for the then very-troubled star.

The Irish accents gave me a good few arfs too — listen to what Des McGahan from Ballinacurra has to say. “People were all askin’ one another, ‘Didjya see Michael Jackson around town in his pyjamas?’” And: “I Popped my head through the hedge and saw him moonwalkin’ across the lawn. I thought, ‘This can’t be true. Michael Jackson is dancin’ on the grass.’” He disappointingly stops short of adding a ‘begorrah’.

The narrative of the book chops back and forth from Jackson’s childhood and meteoric rise to the dark period after the 2005 child-molesting trial. No-one can accuse Sullivan of not doing his research and with a large portion of the book dedicated to notes on sources, bibliography, chapter notes and timelines, it became quite a slog getting through the detailed, intimidating catalogue of characters and legal battles and court dates.

But Sullivan does a fine job relaying the star’s descent into a hopeless addiction to drugs and doesn’t fall short when it comes to revelations that shed light on the kind of life MJ had — things like having to paying Marlon Brando $1m to say nice things about him on a documentary, ‘gifting’ giant gems to Liz Taylor in return for her approval and the truth behind the Martin Bashir documentary. He reveals how everyone close seemed to end up taking advantage of him, how he got paper bags stuffed with cash because he had no personal bank account and seemingly no concept of money management. The books also portrays a fiercely intelligent man, a clever, clued-in negotiator, undone by emotional blackmail and an addiction to spending. The mind — well my mind at any rate — boggles at the vortex of money that swirled around the Earl of Twirl at any given time in his career.

Yet, Jackson’s life was so surreal, so utterly bizarre, so full of contradictions and hyperbole, that after a while the revelations become quite humdrum.

I didn’t find it titillating or juicy or shocking, nor, to be fair, do I think Sullivan wanted it to be. It was just really sad. Michael Jackson had such incredible talent, a creative genius so full of contradictions and frailties. He seemed to only want to be left alone, yet yearned for companionship. But it is somewhat lacking in the portrayal of Jackson, the artist. Yes, it inventories the accolades, the statistics, the relationships with managers but lacks heart and Michael’s musical motivations still somehow remain a mystery.

Perhaps it is the relentless focus on the grim days of his downfall, the myriad of manipulations concerning the fight for his estate and custody of his children, that this book left me feeling really quite empty.

Untouchable is a hefty read, at times fascinating and revealing but ultimately so full of minute detail that, alas, it turned into a bit of a chore in the end. Not ‘Bad’ by any means, but not quite a ‘Thriller’ either.

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