Interview 1983

Downtown between the Pacific American Fish Co and the Hotel St Agnes Hospitality Kitchen there's an alley. Cars block each end, no escape. And, silhouetted in the car headlights, two rival LA gangs are swaggering towards each other. A couple of people pop their heads out of the hotel window, mutter something incomprehensible and go back to sleep. Down below in the smoke, the gangs are getting closer. They look mean. Those Cripps, the ones with the blue bandannas, look really mean, slapping their fists in their hands and scowling and getting closer. Then someone switches on a tape machine and a bit of "Beat It" blares out into the night ...
"Magic" - says Michael Jackson, who talks a lot about magic - "is easy if you put your heart into it." There can't be that many things much more magic than standing around in downtown LA in the middle of the night watching marauding hordes stand to attention when someone with a fruity English accent gives the command. This particular bit of sorcery will, by the time you read this, be the video for "Beat It", Michael Jackson's new single. This song's about machismo; so's the video. Michael wakes up in some sleazy downtown bedroom in a cold sweat; he's had a dream about the upcoming punch-up and has to go stop it. He leaps out of bed, seriously endangering the lives of a whole family of cockroaches.

Back in the warehouse they're doing the choreographed fight sequence. The real gang members stand on the edges while a dozen or so imitation gang members, professional dancers, dance and wave knives.
All this time, a thin, long-fingered man in a brown leather jacket too big for him, is sipping orange juice, gazing wide-eyed and curious at the dancers and the monitors, nodding his head soberly in time to the music, his foot on automatic tap. Michael Jackson looks fascinated by the whole thing. It's three in the morning before he gets his go. He's to come in, break up the fight and lead them dancing out of a warehouse. Pied Piper meets Peter Pan. Dawn was breaking by the time they finished; Michael Jackson wasn't.

Where the man gets his energy from no one knows. It's certainly not drugs - he doesn't touch them and rarely drinks. It's certainly not raw meat - Michael's a strict vegetarian and wouldn't eat at all given an alternative; he fasts and dances every Sunday and manages to live to start another week. Michael Jackson manages to do more in a week than most manage in a decade. In the time it took Supertramp to get the right piano sound, Michael sang harmonies with Donna Summer, backing vocals with Joe King Carrasco, wrote and produced "Muscles" for Diana Ross, wrote and sang "The Girl is Mine" with Paul McCartney, and did a song for a narrated ET album, gathered together everyone from Vincent Price to Eddie Van Halen to help out with his solo album, and still had time for his pet llama, snake and parrots.
Just back from England (a couple more tunes with Macca, whom he met at a Hollywood cocktail party at silent comedian Harold Lloyd's place and swapped phone numbers: "I love Paul, Linda and family very much."), he's already planning projects with Gladys Knight, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Katharine Hepburn, and Freddie Mercury of Queen, his old pal. Not to mention working on a film with Steven Spielberg ("a futuristic fantasy with music") and an album with the Jacksons. Remember the Jacksons? Michael's been their singer and choreographer ever since his dad Joe Jackson - one-time head of a Chuck Berry cover band in Indiana, the Falcons - noticed the five-year-old's nifty James Brown impersonations.

The songs, ideas, energy come from God, he reckons - the man's a devoted Jehovah's Witness, He'll just wake up in the night and there they are. Several more million sellers. His first solo album, Off the Wall, sold seven million copies. Thriller's not exactly ready for the cut-out bins yet. The first act in history, no less, to top the pop and R&B singles and albums charts all at the same time ...
I talked to Jackson before the video shoot. In a three-story condo in the San Fernando Valley - where Michael is staying while they rebuild his family house five miles down the road - filled with books, plants, art-work, animals, organic juices and nephews and cousins and siblings of the Jackson family. La Toya was there in a cowboy hat. Little sister Janet was there to parrot my questions to Michael. Oh, I forgot, and there was a record collection ranging from Smokey Robinson to Macca, with stops at funk, new wave, classical and just about anything else.
"James Brown, Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry and Little Richard - I think they had strong influences on a lot of people, because these were the guys who really got rock'n'roll going. I like to start with the origin of things, because once it gets along it changes. It's so interesting to see how it really was in the beginning."
Michael's got a tiny, otherworldly voice. You've heard him described as childlike and angelic. You will again. He's painfully shy, stares at his hands, his shoes, his sister, anywhere he can forget there's an interviewer around.
He goes on: "I like to do that with art also. I love art. Whenever we go to Paris I rush to the Louvre. I just never get enough of it! I go to all the museums around the world. I love art. I love it too much, because I end up buying everything and you become addicted. You see a piece you like and you say, Oh God, I've got to have this ...
"I love classical music. I've got so many different compositions. I guess when I was real small in kindergarten and hearing Peter and the Wolf and stuff - I still listen to that stuff, it's great, and Boston Pops and Debussy, Mozart, I buy all that stuff. I'm a big classical fan. We've been influenced by all kinds of different music - classical, R&B, folk, funk - and I guess all those ingredients combine to create what we have now.
"I wouldn't be happy doing just one kind of music or label ourselves. I like doing something for everybody... I don't like our music to be labelled. Labels are like ... racism."
How does he choose who he works with? Anybody who asks?
"I choose by feeling and instinct," says Michael.
What does he get out of them?
"I feel it would be... magic."
Then again, you've got to keep in mind the man lives for his work.
"My career is mainly what I think about. It's hard to juggle your responsibilities around - my music here, my solo career, my movies there, TV and everything else."
Is that what makes you happy?
"Yes. That's what I'm here for really. It's like Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci," his voice trails off; he looks torn between sounding immodest and telling the truth, which, as he sees it, is that talent comes from God anyway, so don't go patting him on the back. "Still, today, we can see their work and be inspired by it."
So, as long as there are stereos, Michael Jackson lives?
"Yes. I'd like to just keep going and inspire people and try new things that haven't been done."
To what extent has his belief in divinity influenced his life?
"I believe in God. We all do. We like to be straight, don't go crazy or anything. Not to the point of losing our perspective on life, of what you are and who you are. A lot of entertainers, they make money and they spend the rest of their life celebrating that one goal they reached, and with that celebration comes the drugs and the liquor and the alcohol. And then they try to straighten up and they say, 'Who am I? Where am I? What happened?' And they lost themselves, and they're broken. You have to be careful and have some kind of discipline."
Is he a very self-disciplined person? "I'm not an angel, I know. I'm not like a Mormon or an Osmond or something where everything's straight. That can be silly sometimes. It goes too far."
It must be hard being an angel when you're acknowledged as one of the sexiest performers around, have girls camping in your backyard and the like.
"I wouldn't say I was sexy! But I guess that's fine if that's what they say. I like that in concert. That's neat."
What isn't neat is: "Like you run into a bunch of girls, which I do all the time, you'll drive outside and there'll be all these girls standing on the corner and they'll start bursting into screaming and jumping up and down and I'll just sink into my seat. That happens all the time ... Everyone knew where we lived before, because it was on the Map To The Stars Homes, and they'd come round with cameras and sleeping bags and jump the fence and sleep in the yard and come in the house - we found people everywhere. Even with 24-hour guards they find a way to slip in. One day my brother woke up and saw this girl standing over him in his bedroom. People hitch-hike to the house and say they want to sleep with us, stay with us, and it usually ends up that one of the neighbours takes them in. We don't let them stay. We don't know them."

More tales of crazy fans. One girl who tried to blow them up; another who screams at him in supermarkets. Must get a bit tough knowing who's your friend sometimes.
"It does become difficult. It's hard to tell, and sometimes I get it wrong. Just the force of feeling, or if a person's just nice without knowing who you are."
Lonely at the top? "We know lots and lots of people because we have such a big family. But [I've got] maybe two, three good friends."
Things weren't much different when he was growing up in Gary, Indiana. He remembers "a huge baseball pitch at the back of where I lived and children playing and eating popcorn and everything" and not being allowed to join in, but still reckons: "I didn't really feel left out. We got a lot in exchange for not playing baseball in the summer. My father was always very protective of us, taking care of business and everything.
"We went to school, but I guess we were even different then, because everyone in the neighbourhood knew about us. We'd win every talent show and our house was loaded with trophies. We always had money and we could buy things the other kids couldn't, like extra candy and extra bubblegum - our pockets were always loaded and we'd be passing out candy. That made us popular! But mostly we had private schooling. I only went to one public school in my life.
"I tried to go to another one here, but it didn't work, because a bunch of fans would break into the classroom, or we'd come out of school and there'd be a bunch of kids waiting to take pictures and stuff like that. We stayed at that school a week. The rest was private school with other entertainment kids or stars' kids, where you wouldn't have to be hassled."
But spending your life almost exclusively with your brothers and sisters - doesn't it get claustrophobic?
"Honestly, it doesn't, and I'm not just saying that to be polite."
Not even when they're on the road?
"No. We're so silly when we're on the road. We play games, we throw things at each other. It seems like when you're under pressure you find some kind of escapism to make up for that - because the road is a lot of tensions: work, interviews, fans grabbing you, everybody wants a piece of you, you're always busy, the phones ringing all night with fans calling you, so you put the phone under the mattress, then the fans knock at the door screaming, you can't even get out of the room without them following you. It's like you're in a goldfish bowl and they're always watching you."
How do you escape the madness?
"I go to museums and learn and study. I don't do sports - it's dangerous. There's a lot of money being counted on, and we don't want to risk anything. My brother hurt his leg in a basketball game and we had to cancel the concert, and just because of him having an hour of fun, thousands of people missed the show, and we were being sued left and right because of a game. I don't think it's worth it ... I try to be real careful."

Even about talking to the press. Another reason he hates interviews is a fear of being misquoted. Magazines he reckons, "can be so stupid sometimes that I want to choke them! I say things and they turn it all around. Once I made a quote - I care about starvation and I love children and I want to do something about the future. And I said, one day I'd love to go to India and see the starving children and really see what it feels like. And they wrote that Michael Jackson gets a kick out of seeing children starve, so you can see what kind of person he is!"
You wonder how someone so sweet and shy and childlike gets to be such a demon onstage.
"I just do it really. The sex thing is kind of spontaneous. It really creates itself."
So you don't practise being sexy in front of the mirror?
"No! Once the music plays, it creates me. The instruments move me, through me, they control me. Sometimes I'm uncontrollable and it just happens - boom, boom, boom! - once it gets inside you."
Michael has complete control over every aspect of his career. And he criticises his own efforts more than anyone else's: "I'm never satisfied with what I do. I always think I can do it a lot better."
Anyway, as we told you already he's going to be working on a film with Steven Spielberg. "I love Steven," says Michael. "I can't really tell you anything about the project. I will say Steven is my favourite director, and that he's looked long and hard for the right property."
Just heard that Francis Ford Coppola wants to do Peter Pan with him as the lead. And we at Creem haven't seen such a blatant bit of typecasting since Sly Stone made his fortune playing mindless beefcake. At 24, doesn't it get on his nerves being referred to as a "child"?
"I don't mind. I feel I'm Peter Pan as well as Methusalah, and a child. I love children so much. Thank God for children. They save me every time!
But how about a film of his own life, then? Will we ever get to see a film of Michael Jackson's magical life?
"No. I'd hate to play my own life story," he grimaces. "I haven't lived it yet! I'll let someone else do it."
© Sylvie Simmons, 1983