On the night of June 25th, when I was on my nightly mile-long 1 am walk that loops me up to Prospect Park then takes me back to my brownstone, I passed a pair of 18 year olds sitting on a stoop at this lonely hour when the streets and sidewalks are usually utterly devoid of human beings. The guy had long dark black curly hair and the girl had a short, blond haircut and was wearing shorts. The male said something to me as I passed. I walked back, took off my headphones, and asked him to repeat it. He said, “Michael Jackson is dead.”
I asked him why he said that to me. I wondered if he knew me from the Tea Lounge on Union Street, where I do my writing, or from the streets and if he knew my Michael Jackson connection. No, he didn’t. He was telling it to everyone. He wanted no one to ignore it.
He was particularly emphatic about making sure that no one over the age of 30 pass it by or dismiss it. Michael Jackson’s death, he felt, was a loss to all of us whether we realized it or not.
How did I get involved with Michael and his brothers?
It was Spring of 1983 and the Jacksons were getting together to go on the road for their Victory Tour. They were getting the whole family together for this tour, including their dad, who had originally managed the rise of the Jackson Five to the top. Their manager for the Victory Tour called me over and over again for four months, asking me to work with the Jacksons. I kept saying no. At this point I’d helped Amnesty International establish itself in North America, had worked with Simon and Garfunkel when they’d reunited for an audience of half a million in a free concert in Central Park, then when they’d gone out on tour, and I had done Queen’s massive tour of 110,000 seat soccer stadiums in South America.
But I liked to do crusades–to fight for truths others didn’t see. The Jackson’s tour didn’t feel like a challenge. It already had it made. Michael had just sold 36 million copies of just one album–Thriller. That’s nearly three times as many as the previous record holder, Peter Frampton. I didn’t feel The Jacksons needed me. So I continued to turn them down. But I felt that if you’re going to say no to someone, at least you should have the courage to say it to their face. So when the Jacksons came into New York and asked me to meet with them at the Helmsley Palace hotel, I had to do it. Even though the meeting was at midnight on a Saturday night, and I worked from 9 am until I dropped during the weekends.
The minute I walked into the suite the Jacksons had set up for meetings, two things were obvious. One … from the body language of these brothers you could tell that The Jacksons were some of the most honest, ethical, open people you would ever meet. Two: They were in very big trouble. They didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what it was. But what I did know was this: here was a challenge. There was a wrong to be righted. An invisible wrong. A wrong all of us could feel but none of us could name. I had to say yes.
My first meeting with Michael didn’t come until four months later. I was with Michael’s brothers at Marlon’s pool house in Encino–a tiny two-story building with one room per floor in the back yard next to Marlon’s pool. By then I’d done my homework. I’d read thousands of articles on Michael. I’d compiled a dossier on the Jackson’s lives. One thing all the articles agreed on was this: Michael was not a normal human being. The articles called him a bubble baby, described him as a person who would shrink from your touch.
But the fact is that neither Michael nor I had been raised in a conventionally normal childhood; neither of us had been raised among other kids. So I didn’t know the common rituals of normal life. I had to teach myself by watching other people as if they were specimens and I was a visitor from Mars. One of the rituals I’d seen was the handshake between strangers. You know, you see someone you’ve never met before but who others want you to meet. You walk up to him or her, you stick out your hand, and you say, “Hello, my name is ______.” This was a ritual I’d almost never used. But when Michael opened the pool house’s screen door, I walked up to him stuck out my hand and said “Hi I’m Howard.”
I knew what would happen. The articles had explained it. Michael would recoil from my touch. But that’s not what occurred. Michael put out his hand, shook mine, and replied “Hi I’m Michael.” It was as normal and as natural as could be. The media stories were false. But thousands of press people had parroted them as truths. Something strange was happening in Michael’s noosphere–in the sphere of press perception we are handed as reality. Eventually those mistakes would kill him. But that’s a story for another time.
A few minutes later Michael and I climbed the cramped stairs to the tiny room upstairs where Marlon kept his recording equipment. I’d written a press release and I wanted Michael’s approval. We found places to sit on the stacks of amps and keyboards. I read the press release out loud. And as I did, Michael’s body softened. “That’s beautiful,” he said when I was finished, “Did you write that?” The fact was, I had. And the fact was that writing press releases was not just a hack job for me, it was an art. I’d edited a literary magazine that had won two National Academy of Poets prizes. And in the decades since, the Washington Post has called the writing in my books “beautiful.” But no one else had ever seen the art hidden in the craft and the creativity hidden in the ordinary. Michael apparently had.
Once Michael had approved of the press release, we went back downstairs to the small single room on the first floor. Against the walls and lining the room were arcade videogame machines, machines only amusement arcades could afford in those days. And in the center of the room, hogging up most of the space, was a billiard table. The Jacksons were scheduled to have a meeting with an art director from CBS so the group could decide on the Victory Tour album cover. They wanted me to be in on it.
When the art director arrived, she bore the portfolios of five artists, portfolios she stacked at one end of the pool table’s green felt playing surface. These were not just the black vinyl portfolios most commercial artists use to display their work. Every one of these was a custom-made presentation case made of hand-tooled leather or rich cherry wood. And every one was from a legendary artist, an artist at the very top of his field.
We were all bunched together on the opposite side of the pool table from the art director. Michael was in the center. I stood next to him on his left. And the brothers were crowded around us on either side. The CBS art director slid the first of the portfolios toward Michael. He opened the first page, slowly … just enough to see perhaps an inch of the image. As he took in the artwork his knees began to buckle, his elbows bent, and all he could say was “oooohhhhh.” A soft, orgasmic “ooooh.” In that one syllable and in his body language, you could feel what he was seeing.
Do you know the poem by William Blake –To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour . . .
The intense ambition of that poem, the intense desire for wonder, was alive in Michael. More alive than anything of the sort I’d ever seen. Michael saw the infinite in an inch. As Michael opened the page further, inch by inch, his knees and elbows bent even more and his ”ooohs,” his sounds of aesthetic orgasm, grew even more intense. Standing elbow to elbow and shoulder to shoulder with him, you could feel him discovering things in the brush and inkstrokes that even the artist never saw. By the time he’d opened the full page his body and voice expressed an ecstasy. An aesthetic epiphany. I’d never encountered anything like it. Michael felt the beauty of the page with every cell of his being.
I’ve worked with Prince, Bob Marley, Peter Gabriel, Billy Joel, and Bette Midler, some of the most talented people of our generation, and not one of them had the quality of wonder that came alive in Michael. He saw the wonder in everything. His quality of wonder was beyond anything most of us humans can conceive.
Look, above all other things I’m a scientist. Science is my religion. It’s been my religion since I was ten years old. The first two rules of science are 1) the truth at any price including the price of your life; and 2) Look at the things right under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before and then proceed from there. And that’s not just a rule of science. It’s a rule of art. And it’s a rule of life. Very few people know it. Even fewer people live it. But Michael was it, he incarnated it in every follicle of his being. Michael was the closest I’ve ever come to a secular angel. A secular saint.
Look, I’m an atheist, but Michael was not. He believed he was given a gift by God. He believed he was given talents and wonders and astonishments seldom granted to us very fragile human beings. Because God had given him this enormous gift, he felt he owed the experience of wonder, astonishment, awe, and Blake’s infinities to his fellow human beings. But unlike other generous humans–Bill and Melinda Gates, for example–with Michael giving to others was not just a part-time thing. The need to give to others was alive in every breath he took every single day.
Michael Jackson’s entire life was receiving and giving and the whole purpose of receiving was so he could give. He worked with every cell in his body to give the gift of that amazement, that astonishment to his fellow human beings. Needing the adulation of crowds WAS Michael’s connection to others, his most profound connection, far more profound than family and friends (though those are indispensable), and far more healing. That act of giving keeps an iconic person, a person who never knows normalness, alive.
I’d love to tell you the stories of how Michael made these things clear. But, again, those tales will have to wait for another day.
It seems strange to say this, but Michael will always be a part of me. No other superstar I worked with wound himself into the threads at my core the way he did. Michael opened a window to a quality of wonder unlike anything I’d ever been exposed to in my life. For that gift, I felt I owed him. I felt we all owed him. And we still do. We owe him an honest view of who he was. We will owe him that until we finally sweep away the crap of sensationalist headlines and clearly see why those who love him know more about him than any expert or journalist who claims to have probed his life. Those journalists and experts do not know Michael Jackson. But if you love him, there’s a good chance that you do.Find out more about Howard Bloom at Howardbloom.net
Howard Bloom (Coast to Coast AM / June 27, 2009)