Tuesday, 22 May 2012

I BOUGHT MICHAEL JACKSON AN ICE CREAM


May 23rd 1988. As a merciless sun blazed down on Rome’s Spanish Steps, I took a stroll towards the Trevi Fountain to find an ice cream, toss a couple of coins in, and gather my thoughts ahead of Michael Jackson’s gig that night. As usual, with him, it was a lot to take in: the sensational ‘BAD’ tour, which had enthralled the Japanese in Yokahama the previous September, mind-boggled Australia and thundered halfway across America, was set to raise the sky above Rome’s Flaminio Stadium, the first of two remarkable shows. They were billing it as the greatest rock spectacle the Eternal City had ever seen, on a tour which would, by the time it ended back in Los Angeles the following January, have notched up 123 concerts, played to 4.4 million people and grossed over £76 million – more than any other entertainer on a single tour. In the UK alone, Jackson was to shatter a world record that July, with 504,000 fans attending 7 sold-out Wembley Stadium shows - more than any other artist in history.

Michael Jackson was the biggest artist on the planet. No surprise, then, that the world’s media had descended on Rome for the European kick-off. The city was packed, my walk frustratingly slow. Hot, anxious, and running out of time, I was unprepared for what I found down by the fountain: a familiar face peeping out through the falsely cascading curls of a nylon wig, fake moustache and the raised collar of a raincoat, shoulders hunched and turned against the milling throng. He was dropping dimes into the gush, and mumbling something about the Coliseum.

‘What are you doing here?’ I asked Michael,
‘Aren’t you supposed to be over at the stadium now?’
‘Not for a few more hours’, he murmured.
‘How did you get here?’
‘Walked. Ran out of the hotel, then I walked.’
‘On your own?’
‘I did. I did it. For once in my life. I wanted to find the Vatican and see the Pope and I wanted to see the lions at the Coliseum. I have been everywhere. I’ve seen nowhere. I just wanted to see something for myself, on my own, just one time.’
‘Security will be going nuts,’ I told him.
‘Didn’t even see me. But I’m lost now. Do you know where this is?’
‘All roads lead to Rome’, I winked..
‘What's that mean?’
‘Maybe it means you’re where you need to be right now’.

A stupid, meaningless comment which makes me cringe whenever I think of it - though it did make him laugh. We lingered for 20 minutes or so, shooting the breeze or would have, had there been one. I bought him an ice cream at a nearby gelato parlour (wild Sardinian strawberry honey flavour, in a tub). I actually bought Michael Jackson an ice cream. How freaky that sounds now. We mugged for a few photos at the fountain, taken by Daily Express reporter Roger Tavener, before hailing a cab and dropping Michael back at the luxurious Lord Byron Hotel near the Villa Borghese. Tavener's Canon Sureshot sat forgotten in the back of the cab.  He never got it back.

Our encounter in Rome wasn’t the first time I’d met Michael. Having long been a vague friend of his pop wannabe sister and Playboy centrefold La Toya, whom I’d originally met in Atlantic City and with whom I’d briefly shared a midtown Manhattan apartment, I was one of the few journalists who could vouch for the fact that Michael and La Toya were not the same person (that rumour had been doing the rounds for years). I has also got to know Jermaine, their libidinous brother, and cute sister Janet, then forging her own pop career. Globally famous since the late Sixties, when he had been the classic child star and darling of his family’s group The Jackson Five, Michael had not yet adopted the reclusive stance which defined him at the very height of his fame, and which served to offset fascination with the less comfortable aspects of his personality.

In those days, Michael would talk openly about his bleak, largely fun-starved childhood. Born in Gary, Indiana, into a humble working class family, he identified his primary role models as his Jehovah’s Witness mother Katherine and hisstrange steel worker father, Joe. The seventh of nine children – five brothers, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Randy, and three sisters, Maureen (‘Rebbie’), La Toya and Janet – Michael admitted he’d been forced against his will to perform in the group which their frustrated musician father was determined would make the family’s fortune. Thus, Michael was singing and dancing for money before he’d even started school. He never got off that treadmill. What chance of a normal life did he ever have?

‘There were sad moments in my childhood’, he admitted.

‘It’s true for any child star. Elizabeth Taylor told me she felt the same way. When you’re young and you’re working, the world can seem awfully unfair. There were times when I hated my father. Times when I wanted him to die, when he beat me like a dog.’

But he always spoke fondly of his ‘adorable’ mother, recalling a meek materfamilias who deferred almost incessantly to her strict brute of a husband, even turning a blind eye to his relentless beltings and beatings of her much-cherished kids.

Softly-spoken like his polio victim mother, whom I met only once, Michael smiled a lot, talked less. He liked to listen, and would soak up information and general knowledge like a sponge. He wasn’t stupid, but lamentably under-educated. It was always obvious from the level of conversation, both with Michael and his siblings, that formal learning had never been a priority. Their collective intellect had barely moved beyond first grade. What Michael had, however, was a gut instinct when it came to music, both the writing and the expression of it, which came so naturally to him that he seemed to take it for granted. He would joke about his impressions of Stevie Wonder, James Brown and Ray Charles, whom he had started impersonating at the age of 5. His talent was natural. When the original Jackson Brothers first stepped out on the mid-east American black club circuit during the late 1960s, they often found themselves the support act for strippers and other explicit entertainers. It proved a rude awakening for Michael, one which he never forgot. Having been exposed at point-blank range to adult sexuality at such a tragically young age, without anyone ever explaining it to him, sex became his obsession. It was also, he told me, the one dimension of normal adult relationships that he most feared.

Those who would later describe the King of Pop as ‘undeniably sexy but absolutely safe’ missed the point. How the public ever fell for his mono-gloved brand of sexless sensuality, even while he polished his crotch in public, is a mystery. With so many of his song lyrics and breathtaking dance routines revealing a fully mature male, how could he possibly be oblivious to it himself? And what drove him to insist that it was all an act?

Few of us who were there in the Eighties will ever forget Frank DiLeo: the redoubtable, rotund, Pennsylvania-born record industry executive and sometime movie actor with a mobster’s deflectional gaze. Ten years Michael’s senior, the star turned to Frank for personal management in 1984, following the terrifying success of ‘Thriller’, the biggest-selling album of all time - the impact of which had all but drowned its creator. DiLeo’s apparent genius was in interpreting the value of the things that Michael wasn’t, as well as maximising interest in what he was. Capitalising on contradictions had long been artful DiLeo’s game. Thus, Michael’s inherent shyness was hyped to Howard Hughes levels of reclusion. His light, breathy speaking voice was deployed as proof of boyish innocence. His plaintive, cracked ballad vocals betrayed an irrevocably broken heart. But who broke it? - and so on. Nor did DiLeo ever deny rumours of Michael’s extensive cosmetic surgery, despite MJ's eventual insistence that he’d only ever had two nose jobs. The fact that we could all see otherwise, simply by looking at him, was irrelevant. By preventing the media from getting anywhere near him, by dismissing all requests for personal interviews and never allowing him to be photographed – in the Eighties, Michael spent most of his time in the open air with a blanket over his head (which affected him so profoundly that he chose ‘Blanket’ as the nickname for his own third child) – DiLeo created a Wizard-of-Oz-like aura of mystery around his charge which, as in the fairy tale, was out of all proportion to reality.

It was odd to sit there listening to DiLeo giving Michael’s press conference in Rome in 1988 – when I knew, having spent a day with him earlier that year at Barry White’s barbecue at the latter’s home near Santa Ynez, that Michael could have given it himself, perfectly well.  He should have been allowed to. The comprehensive gagging of Michael by DiLeo was a move which privately outraged La Toya and Jermaine. They were beginning to feel, despite having hired DiLeo to manage the family’s acclaimed Victory Tour, that the manager was selling their brother short. Worse, that he was turning him into a laughing stock. It certainly seemed that way when, contrary to Michael’s protests that his skin was lightening due to treatment for the skin pigmentation deficiency Vitiligo, DiLeo suggested to the world that he was actually having it bleached. That it contradicted the line in Michael’s celebrated hit that it doesn’t really matter if you’re black or white, appeared to escape him. Then there was Bubbles, the pet chimpanzee, who accompanied Michael on every leg of the tour and shared his hotel room; rumours that he slept in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, to preserve his vocal chords; his landmark endorsement deal for Pepsi, during the filming of a commercial for which a pyrotechnic display set his hair alight, leading to tales of new hair-weave treatments hitherto unheard-of on planet Earth.

Meanwhile, back in Encino, California, in the grounds of the mock-Tudor mansion he had purchased, Peter Pan began building his personal Disneyland. Neverland was at once a fortress and an amusement park complete with a zoo, movie theatre, animated model museum, ice cream parlour and toy store – filled with models of the ‘friends’ he wasn’t allowed to cultivate as a child, and with whom he had never-ending fantasy conversations. It was weird. When I visited Neverland, I was upset by it. The grounds were filled with topiary cut in animal shapes; snakes slithered around the house; and Michael had such a collection of hard-core pornography, it had to be seen to be believed. Here was the guy who'd won 8 Grammy awards for Thriller: the consummate professional living the lifestyle of an obsessive. Of the actual human beings he deigned to hang with, every one seemed damaged, compromised or challenged in some way - just like him. Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Diana Ross, Marlon Brando – all significantly older than Michael himself. Perhaps only Paul McCartney, whom he’d met through music industry executive Judd Lander, with whom he later recorded and whose Beatles publishing rights Michael purchased in 1985, was a genuinely sane and balanced friend. The one friendship he could have done with was not to last.

When he wasn’t duncing around with eccentric pals, Michael was filling his Neverland ranch with hoards of innocent children. Many of them were cancer victims, some were terminally ill, others deprived and poverty-stricken. It was, he insisted, about giving them a chance at the childhood he’d never had himself. That Michael’s heart was loving was never in doubt. Having watched him inter-act with my then five year-old daughter Mia, whom he invited with a little gang of others to sing with him on stage during his Wembley Stadium concert in July 1992 – he had a dressing room on the stage itself, his legendary hat dangling from the bulb-popping mirror - there was no doubt that he identified better with children than adults; that he was clinging to the childhood he never had. It was the reason he was desperate to have children of his own, despite the fact that he was incapable of maintaining relationships with their mothers. After his childless 1994 marriage to Elvis’s daughter Lisa Marie Presley ended in divorce after only two years, he had 2 children - Prince Michael I and Paris Katherine - in his brief, chilly marriage to nurse Debbie Rowe. A third child, Prince Michael II - who made headlines when his father dangled him as a baby over a hotel balcony – was born to an un-named woman.

Where it went wrong for him, I reckon, is that the edges became blurred. It was only a matter of time before his fantasy dream world imploded. Michael would learn to his everlasting cost that some children are more innocent than others – often in direct proportion to the influence of their parents. No smoke without fire, huh? No clean-break comeback from accusations of the corruption of minors, however deluded those accusations may have been. His 2005 trial was one of the largest and most documented legal battles in history. The debate rages to this day as to whether, despite conclusive verdicts, Michael was actually guilty of child abuse. His consistent argument – that innocent kids were the only people who made him feel secure – would turn Neverland into Dangerland, a sinister territory where adult desires and urges invaded the innocent realm of childhood.

As for the money: a millionaire from the age of 14, and having banked fortunes in the ensuing years, big-spender shopping addict Michael became monstrously broke. On the brink of bankruptcy, and owing millions in tax as well as to a variety of individuals for defaulting on deals - including one with Prince Abdullah of Bahrain for two unmade albums for which he allegedly advanced the singer £3.3 million - he was forced to flog Neverland and agree to his hugely ambitious 50-date O2 comeback. With mastermind DiLeo long-gone, the debts had continued to rise. As his half-century loomed, he stepped out from behind his Oz-style smokescreen, looked in on 21st Century reality, and vowed to reinvent himself as an adult in charge of his destiny for the sake of his kids. The trouble was, he wasn’t strong enough for a mad bad world. He wouldn’t even allow his children to go to school; couldn't bring himself to let them experience the normal childhood he never had. His loyal family rallied, ranting endlessly about the O2 commitment, warning that Michael, who by this time was dangerously addicted to painkillers after allegedly having broken a vertebra, was far too frail to do such a mammoth run of shows. Their warnings went unheeded. Cocky promoters AEG, who were under-insured, got to pay the price.

A few of us had been saying for months that the 02 concerts would never go ahead.

I believe Michael knew that, too. He probably had an inkling that his days were numbered, that his fragile heart would never sustain the pace. Was his announcement of the comeback, the frantic scramble for tickets, the tidal-wave revival in global Jackomania, his way of checking out - not with a whimper, which would have been an pitiful let-down, but with the loudest, baddest, Jacko-worthy bang - ? We’ll never know. What we get to keep, let’s not forget, is the music.

Michael and I shared a few cherished personal friends. One of the best, Jonathan Morrish, who orchestrated Michael’s publicity for years at CBS Records,who was later a senior executive at Sony Music, and who truly loved Michael, said this:

‘Michael leaves behind one of the greatest musical legacies of all time. He didn’t just change music, he changed the whole music industry. I still miss him as a friend and also share in the world’s sense of loss of an extraordinary entertainer. People always ask me what he was like – to which I say that he was kind and sensitive, humorous and exciting. He was a great guy. Listen to his music … and you will discover what he was like. You don’t make music as great without knowing a thing or two about the human soul. It is music that will reach out to generations down the ages. My heart goes out to his family, and always will.’

Mine too.




Saturday, 19 May 2012

MAKE ME SMILE (COME UP AND SEE ME)

I always wonder what they'll choose. 

I had an inkling yesterday, given that  the funeral was family, and Welsh, and that those burying their mother and grandmother are fervent music lovers.  I was surprised to learn yesterday that my Great Aunt Coral had not in fact been born in Wales, but in London, in 1928, her parents moving to the homeland weeks after her birth. Coral was deeply Welsh, married a Jones - my Great Uncle Ivor, like my grandfather Emlyn a professional footballer - and adored Welsh music with all her heart. 

Bryn Terfel came as no surprise, then  (he was born a Jones, too).  His rich bass baritone filled the Yardley crematorium chapel with 'Calon Lan' - the rousing Welsh hymn known to fans of Rugby Union, and of this season's Britain's Got Talent, being one of the songs sung by the  great choir from the valleys, Only Boys Aloud.  Then 'Abide With Me', which I think I'd expected. As that massive coal-fuelled voice echoed as if straight out of the pits with death and hope and longing, I found myself thinking how Coral would have loved to have him there, belting it live. 

We sang Psalm 23, creaking voices straining for the high notes; we left the chapel to Johnny Mathis singing 'What'll I Do'.  That old Irving Berlin standard always evokes memories of 'The Great Gatsby' for me. It also rings with so many indelible, perfect voices - Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Pat Boone, Elkie Brooks, Judy Garland, Cleo Laine, Sarah Vaughan, Perry Como, Crystal Gayle, Harry Nilsson - they could have chosen any one of them.  If it is the Mathis recording which haunts, it must have been what Coral would have wanted.  It was wonderful.

This is what it's all about, isn't it?  Music to remember them by.  The choices people make speak volumes, or are supposed to.  The millions who get played out to 'My Way', usually by Sinatra and, get this, the most popular funeral-song choice, wish to leave us with the memory that life was always on their terms, that they called the shots, that they have few if any regrets. Life mostly isn't like this, don't we know. We look around the chapel, thinking about where we are in our own lives, all the nightmares going on and whether we will get back in time to pick up the kids and who'll let the dog out, and we scrap in our bags and pockets for bits of snotty tissue and wonder which of us will go next. The song is so loaded with poignancy, we can hardly bear to sit still and actually listen to it. Why do so many choose it, then?  Because a funeral is the one time when we must hear. Because, whatever they choose, they are playing our song.

It got me thinking about other songs I have heard at funerals down the years.  Some of them feature on the Top Ten lists of the most popular - Bette Midler's 'Wind Beneath My Wings', Celine's 'My Heart Will Go On' and even Gerry's 'You'll Never Walk Alone', for example. Then there are those who seek solace in the elegance and dignity of soaring classical works: Elgar's Nimrod, Puccini's 'Nessum Dorma' and 'Pie Jesu' from Faure's Requiem being favourites. As for hymns, I wish I had a quid for the number of times I've had to warble 'The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended', 'Morning Has Broken' and 'the Old Rugged Cross'. There are hundreds of hymns in the Oxford University Press 'Songs Of Praise' (my old school hymn book);  countless thousands of popular songs and classical pieces we could have. The fact that we resort to the familiar, the predictable, the all-too-expected in times of grief says much. We won't hear our loved-one's voice again.  We can listen to their music, though. 

There won't be any 'My Way' for me... even though I've lived a life that's been far too full, travelled a lot of scabby highways and have bitten off so much more than I could chew. But it's not the song I'd have my loved ones remember me by. They know what is. My lifelong friend Steve Harley has promised to sing it at my funeral, if I turn out to be the one of us who gets there first.  Every time I see him, he asks me if I've got a date.     

Monday, 7 May 2012

ALL YOU NEED IS A VOICE

It's not all about pitch, posture, pacing, control, breathing, delivery.  It doesn't matter if it misses the odd high C.  It's certainly not about reproducing faithfully a vocal style that someone else has invented.  All you have to do is be unique.  They must know you instantly, from the precious first few bars.  The voice must sound like no one else but you. 

It takes guts to stand up in front of a hoard of strangers, open your lungs and sing. It is  perhaps one of the hardest things to do.  Shows such as the X factor and Britain's Got Talent have deluded the masses into thinking that anyone can do it; that musical stardom is everyone's oyster, ours for the taking. It's not. I have always admired those who give it a go, because I cannot do it.  Never could.  I did my share of warbling in the back row in my school choir, and once made it as far as the stage of the Fairfield Halls.  I even put myself through an all-female barber-shop convention in Miami, once - not for a dare, for a magazine feature - and did a bit of backing-vocalling when I was living in LA. Not that I was desperate to 'get good' at it.  I knew I never would.  I just wanted to know what it felt like from the other side of the lights. I still break out in a cold sweat at the thought. 

There is a lot of talk these days about the '10,000 hours':  the time it takes to become any good at something we love.  This arose out of ground-breaking work done by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson at the Florida State University.  Bob Lefsetz often refers to it in his challenging music business letter (www.lefsetz.com/)  You've got to put the hours in before you even start trying to get a deal, is the gist.  While I don't disagree with the premise, I have issues with its implication, having pondered it.

10,000 hours equals 417 days.  It doesn't sound like much, but it's a lot. There are only 168 hours in a week (and we spend, on average, around 50 of those just sleeping). If we devote, say, 40 hours a week to trying to get good at something, that's a little over 2,000 hours per year.  At that rate, it's going to take 5 years to become a master of your craft. How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  You gotta practise.

Anyone can spend the time.  What makes the difference is the talent.  It's not practise that makes perfect, either.  It's perfect practise that makes perfect.  Think about it. Get a guitar for Christmas or your birthday, hone a few tunes, give it a shot with the best of them, they're no better than you, is the 21st century message.  It's not true.  Most can't.  Most are better off fantasising, singing 'Stand By Your Man' or 'The Power of Love' into a hairbrush in the bedroom after a hard day's wine. Or equivalent.

Not all, but many of our greatest modern musicians had the benefit of a classical training.  That's not easy, for a start. But the likes of Rick Wakeman and Elton John stuck at it until their bitten fingertips festered. They got their Grade VIII, wept through weeks and months of Music Theory, spent more time at their keyboards than they did at life.  It makes them eccentric, sure.  But rock stars are nothing if not extreme creatives.  They do wondrous things with their minds, hands and voices that we commoners will never comprehend. Not all of them went this route - Paul McCartney for one. No one is arguing with the talent there. There is no recipe ... and if there were, it wouldn't necessarily be the answer.  Anyone can buy the latest celebrity chef cookbook, assemble the ingredients and follow the instructions to the letter.  Doesn't mean our doughnuts will turn out like Fanny's.

So what's the point in trying, my youngest two children ask. One has been learning the guitar for years, the other is studying piano. Both have singing lessons.  They attend extremely academic schools, so these are extra-curriculars. Day after day I find myself nagging them to practise. It's not quite a kicking and screaming scenario, but it's not far off.  My kids are never going to make it big in the music business, because they can't be arsed.  But what all these lessons have given them is a respect for real musicians, an appreciation of how difficult it is to do it, and a sense of awe whenever they see and hear it done live. They know first-hand how hard it is. 

Last Friday night, I joined my friend Sharon Dean, the magical Judie Tzuke, her talented daughters Bailey and Tallulah and a small throng of others at a Crystal Palace showcase for Sharon's protege, new artist Goran Kay. The evening was opened by Jamie Wisker - a young guy I'd stood talking to at the back when I first arrived.  He had a face like a satellite dish, it was all going on.  He had come all the way from somewhere near Watford, and he'd brought his guitar. We chewed some cud before he nipped out to the back stairs for a final fag. Then he got up and sang.

Jamie blew me away.  Not because the songs he delivered were unlike anything I'd heard before - but because of his voice. This was Elvis curdled with Orbison in the burnt-out years, a swallowed gargle gagging with pain and despair.  He can't be more than 25, I thought, where's all this coming from?  Then, between songs, he offered snips of the facts of his life ... how his wife had left him for a bit, then came back;  how he'd been taunted for living in a council house;  what his little daughter means to him. The guy had lived a whole lifetime in a few short adult years.  He had found a way to process his emotion, and was channelling it. He was proud of himself. He was dignified. No expensive music lessons for Jamie, this was all his own work. The room stood still.

Not forgetting that it was Goran's night. The chalk, then the cheese.

Goran is one of those guys who sweats charisma. He and his little brother (who accompanies him admirably on piano) moved to England from Switzerland when his parents came to work in the UK.  Classically trained on piano since the age of 7, he has soaked up everything from Chopin to Carole King, from Jacques Brel to Ella Fitzgerald. He speaks 6 languages fluently, and started writing songs when he was 13.  His first break came when he was asked to co-write for G4's second album. He is writing with Judie Tzuke too. There is something utterly inevitable about his voice.

The sound wasn't great in that little rehearsal studio on Friday. It didn't matter.  It reminded me of something George Martin once said, another lifetime ago, when we all worked in the Chrysalis Records building in Stratford Place.  'I'm no one, the Fifth Beatle insisted, when asked about the importance of the producer in the scheme of things.  'The song itself has got to be good enough to throttle you in its most basic form.  All the producer does is style it and shape it, and add the frills.  I don't write the songs, and I couldn't write the songs.  My job is simply to make the best of other people's'. 

Classic George, heart-ripping understatement.  But we know what he means. 

Not forgetting the voice. 

Jamie and Goran?  By George, they've got it.  It's always such a thing to witness, when you think you've heard it all. 


https://www.facebook.com/GoranKay
www.tzuke.com - Judie's incredible new album 'One Tree Less' is out now.