He’ll Never, Ever Tell

My producing partner, Cardon, and I got a call at our office. It was Michael Jackson’s assistant. She told us Michael was a big fan of The Disney Family Album, a series we were producing for The Disney Channel at the time, and could we make him copies of all the shows we’d produced so far, and would we like to have lunch with him at his house, and would we bring the Sherman Brothers, Disney’s famous songwriting team, with us? Uh, yes! yes, yes, and you better damn well believe we’ll bring the Shermans. This was Michael Jackson at the height of his Popness — after Thriller and before Smooth Criminal. After he’d dabbled in plastic surgery and before it had turned him into a caricature of himself. After the family had moved out of the Encino home but before he moved to Neverland Ranch. After Corey Feldman and before Emanuel Webster.

On the day before we were to going meet him for lunch at the Jackson family home in Encino where he now lived alone, the L.A. Times ran a story about Michael’s pet giraffe, Jabbar, getting removed from the Jackson property by Animal Control officers, because neighbors claimed Jabbar was eating their trees. Perfect. I cannot wait to see how he’s dealing with his pet giraffe getting taken away. I’m thinking, what could be more Michael Jackson than a situation like that?

Cardon, the Sherman Brothers — Bob and Richard — and I rolled up to the solid black iron gate of the Jackson home at noon the next day. Half a dozen young girls and their young moms, cameras and autograph books poised for a Michael sighting, waited outside. Disappointment tinged with irritation washed their faces as Michael’s assistant buzzed us in. The big gate rolled back as the girls and their moms stepped into the driveway as the gate closed behind us for a quick glimpse into the King of Pop’s domain.

The Jackson house is a Tudor-style upper middle class castle, not so very out of scale for an Encino home, on what seems like a couple of acres of land. Brick driveway and big courtyard. A large garage with a couple of expensive cars parked outside. A fountain with four stone horse heads spewing water. Across from the main house, a two story coach house has been converted into a recording studio whose entrance looks like a shop at Disneyland, flower cart parked in front, gold leaf sign lettering on the windows .

Michael’s assistant seats us in what I’d call the trophy room to await his entrance. It’s a large, wood-paneled sitting room with comfortable couches and chairs. Its walls are caked with memorabilia — magazine covers from around the world, platinum and gold records, photos of Michael with lesser celebrities, expensive-looking gifts and Grammys galore. The centerpiece of the room is a glass case displaying one-foot-tall Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs figurines. Cardon explains that the figurines were a gift from Disney’s Imagineering division.

I have to pee. I don’t feel nervous, but when I’m nervous I have to pee, so I’m thinking I must be nervous. I tiptoe out of the trophy room and find Michael’s assistant, who me to a small hallway bathroom. The small bathroom’s walls are adorned with paintings of cherubs, small naked boys with wings. When I go to leave the bathroom and reach for the doorknob, I discover that it’s twice the size of a regular doorknob. My hand barely fits around it. A child would have a hard time opening this door, I think. It is a thought that will gain significance over the years, during the Neverland days, when the story takes a sinister turn. For now, it’s charming. Fantasia, after all, has cherubs. Alice in Wonderland has talking doorknobs. This is our Disneyfied world. I’m at home in it.

When I re-enter the trophy room, Michael is sitting there with Cardon and the Shermans. It’s a literal physical shock, seeing one of the world’s most famous people for the first time in the flesh. I don’t care who you are, the jolt of recognition is electric. You can’t not have a visceral reaction. The second thought, an instant after the first, is that I wonder why he’s wearing his Scarecrow makeup from The Wiz, because his nose is a different color from the rest of his face. That thought quickly passes, though, because it’s Michael Goddamn Jackson!

We spend half an hour or so in the trophy room with Michael, who mainly wants to talk music with the Sherman Brothers, which is fine with me, because I don’t really have anything I can say to Michael Jackson that is going to matter in any way whatsoever to Michael Jackson. I’d rather listen to him chat with the Shermans. Michael asks the Shermans how they came up with certain songs for Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. What inspired them. How they collaborate. At one point Richard Sherman says that of all Michael’s recordings, his and his brother’s favorite is Ben, the title song from the movie about a pet rat who recruits a pack of rats who communicate telepathically, and protect a boy from bullies.

Michael says, in his famously soft falsetto, Oh yes, I like it too. The gentlemen who wrote it [lyricist Don Black and composer Walter Scharf] wrote a whole album of songs for me. I don’t know what to do with it. There’s one song in it I really like. It’s beautiful. It’s called Not Now.

Michael sings four bars of the song for us. Music as conversation. I shiver like a laboratory rat. Michael Jackson. Singing. So pure. So familiar, yet ethereal, too. The voice of an angel. As he finishes, we are speechless. Anything, any voice or noise, will ruin the spell.

That’s beautiful, says Bob Sherman, finally, quietly ruining the spell.

Michael asks if we’d like to eat lunch. When we stand, I am surprised by how tall he is. Over six feet for sure. Cardon and I take our picture with him. He’s wearing a red button down shirt over a white t-shirt, black pants hemmed high to reveal his white socks and the black loafers. He walks on the heels of the loafers. He leads us to a large dining room. A long antique wooden table in the center of the room under a massive Tudor chandelier has food at one end, our seats at the other, one chair at the head of the table, two on either side. There’s no doubt who’s supposed to sit at the head of the table.

The music shoptalk continues over lunch. At one point Michael describes buying the Beatles catalog the way a person might talk to a neighbor about a buying a lawnmower.

The music publishing business is a great business, he explains, as if to suggest to the rest of us that we should buy a Beatles music catalog, too. I stayed at Paul’s house while the lawyers worked out the deal, he says. Paul and I watched cartoons and Linda made soup. Michael stops one beat short of explaining what kind of jammies he and Paul were wearing at the time.

I wait for a lull in the conversation, and jump in with the one question I’m dying to ask — What’s going on with your giraffe? I say. Jabbar? I saw in the Times where Animal Control took him away.

He is as concerned about it as an elephant about a fly. The lawyers are taking care of it, he says dismissively, and goes back to talking music with the Sherman Brothers. What was Walt Disney like? What about Hayley Mills? What about cartoon music? Michael was curious. The food was good. He had a good appetite.

One time during the back-and-forth of his conversation with the Shermans, I turn to look at him and he is looking at me, and when our eyes meet, he looks away quickly. He is super shy like that.

During our lunch, two things happen that catch my attention.

The first is that a phone in a small office adjoining the dining room keeps ringing. Ring and ring and ring and ring. Ring couple of minutes then stop. And then in another minute, it rings again, for two long minutes before it stops. And then a third time. Until, with no one but us anywhere in sight, Michael says, in such a soft voice I barely hear it — he says, I wish that phone would stop ringing.

The phone never rings again.

He’s mic’d, I think. Somewhere in this place, someone is listening to every word he says.

The second thing is that as we are getting our plates taken away by a beautiful Scandanavian-looking woman in a white turban whom I take to be our chef, we hear children laughing, as if the sound is getting piped into the room. When he hears the children laughing, Michael snaps alert like Bambi smelling Man in the woods.

Is someone watching them? he asks the turbaned chef.

They’re okay, Michael, she says, soothingly. They’re being taken care of, she says.

Somewhere in this place, I think, there are real children.

Would you like to see my bedroom? Michael asks. There’s lots of cool things in it.

Hell damn yeah we want to see your bedroom, Michael Jackson.

We follow him up a wide straight staircase to a door at the top of the stairs. Michael walks to the door and holds his ear to it for a second. Doesn’t like what he hears — whatever it is, we can’t hear anything. He knocks on the door as softly as you’d touch a baby on its head. Listens again. She’s supposed to be out of there by now, he says softly but perturbed. Knocks again, so quietly we can barely hear his knuckles on the wood. Listens again.

Okay, we can go in now, he says, finally, and opens the door.

Sitting alone the middle of Michael’s bedroom, dressed in a red t-shirt and blue overalls, is Michael’s baby chimpanzee, Bubbles.

Bubbles! Michael exclaims.

Bubbles bounces across the room and jumps into Michael’s arms.

Bubbles has a cage in the room. Apparently we were waiting on the chimp handler before could enter. We are part of a performance, I think. Our visit is staged, timed to the minute, and the handler was late on a cue. I suspect the handler will hear about it later from Michael.

We spend most of our time in Michael’s bedroom playing with Bubbles. The room is filled with expensive looking toys and props. The only bed is a deluxe mahogany bunk bed. And I’m thinking, ooooh-kay, who sleeps in the other bunk? But that’s only a passing thought, as, like the rest of our party, I’m completely caught up in the fact that we’re in Michael Jackson’s bedroom, playing with Bubbles.

Michael points out a miniature three-dimensional scene from Disney’s Peter Pan that’s built into a wall, behind glass, like a museum exhibit, another gift from the Imagineers, says Cardon. It’s the scene where the children are flying away with Peter to Neverland, with the the city of London below. In the foreground of the London landscape is the miniature Darling house, home of Wendy and the other children who’ve flown off with Peter.

Michael directs us to look through a tiny window into the miniature Darling house. I have to bend down to look through the tiny window of the miniature Darling house, which is no more than three-and-a-half feet from the floor. The tiny window of the miniature Darling house is the size of your little fingernail. Through it, I can see a room in the house that’s a perfect replica of the movie. There’s only one difference between this miniature and the movie: Above the mantle hangs an itsy-bitsy portrait, no bigger than a ladybug, of Michael Jackson. Oh wow, I say.

I just love that, Michael coos.

Years later, I will wonder if the height off the floor of the Peter Pan miniature, which is about the standing height of a child, is deliberate, and how many children Michael has introduced to Bubbles, and shown his miniature Peter Pan portrait hanging above the Darlings’ mantle. But right now, I’m not thinking any of that. Michael is asking us if we want to see his recording studio, and — what do you think? Hell damn yes we want to see Michael Jackson’s recording studio!

We exit the bedroom through a back door that opens onto a ‘backstage’ stairway outside the house. An unusual feature, but necessary, I guess, if, in the neverending performance that is your life, you don’t want to bump into your chimp handler on your way upstairs to visit Bubbles. Michael uses his hand to shield his face from the sun. I’m not supposed to be in the sun, he tells us.

The entrance to the recording studio looks like a shop on the Main Street of Disneyland. A wooden flower cart parked in front. Gold leaf lettering on the windows, identifying it as the Jackson Recording Studio. We enter into a kitchen. It is an unusual kind of kitchen. Every square inch of it — countertops, sinks, tables, cupboards — every surface except for the floor and ceiling — is filled with candy. Every kind of candy you can imagine, or have ever heard of, it’s here. So much candy.

Help yourself, says Michael. There’s plenty.

We each take a piece of candy. I take an Atomic Fireball. Save it for later, when I can share a story with someone about my day at Michael Jackson’s house while sucking on an Atomic Fireball I got at Michael Jackson’s house.

Michael leads us up a narrow stairwell into the upstairs of the large coach house that has been converted into his recording studio. The upstairs is open, and divided into two distinct halves. One half, the half we enter, is a shrine to Michael Jackson. The other half is devoted to the Jackson 5. In each corner of the Michael half, on pedestals, are wax statues of Michael Jackson, replicas from the world’s wax museums like Madame Toussaud’s. For a minute, I get vertigo, as everywhere I turn, there’s a Michael Jackson, five of them in all. Finally, the real one speaks, snapping me out of it. He points out a glass case that shows off six of his famous sequined gloves. People like to look at them, so I put them out for them to see, he explains.

There’s a joke, he continues, ‘What happened to Michael Jackson’s other glove?’ It’s funny. I laughed. I have a sense of humor.

A beat. I say, Well, tell us the joke.

Oh, nooo! he giggles. It’s ruuuuude.

Now Michael and I have our game and and and I will play it for the rest of time we spend with him. As he shows us the Jackson 5 half of the room, with the Panavision camera that’s set up for filming his dance rehearsals, in a room whose walls are covered with giant portraits of the Jackson 5 fronted by a cherubic Michael, I lean near him and whisper, What’s the joke?

And he giggles and shies away and says, Oh, no. You’ll never get me to tell! And for a few seconds I am back in the fourth grade, at recess, persuading a pious boy to repeat a dirty joke.

As we are walking downstairs to his recording studio, where we’ll see the lyrics for Smooth Criminal hand-written on the score sheet he’ll be recording later that evening — and I will realize that lunch with us was probably the beginning of his working day — I am walking behind him, and I bend down and whisper urgently, Tell me the joke, Mike! And he giggles some more, coy as hell, and says in his falsetto way, No! I’ll never tell! It’s a secret! We are one beat away from Michael ratting me out to the school principal. It’s fun. He and I are on the same wavelength for once. I can go there.

(FYI, the punchline to the joke is ‘Brooke Shields’ gynecologist has it.’ It was never that funny to begin with, and today it seems like a line you’d hear at the Motion Picture Country Home from an addled old comic who quips ‘Brooke Shields’ gynecologist has it!’ no matter what you ask him. Now that’s funny.)

The tour exited smoothly back into the courtyard, no doubt timed to the minute. The four of us got in our car and drove off as Michael waved goodbye. A different shift of moms and daughters was waiting outside the gate when we left.

I sometimes tell people that I felt sorry for Michael Jackson when we drove away that day, but I think that’s a perception that has grown over the years like a vines overgrowing a memory palace. He didn’t seem like a Lost Boy at the time. He seemed like Peter Pan. The Boy Who Could Fly.

What we’ve come to realize about Michael Jackson is that he never had a childhood. South Park nailed it in a 2004 episode. When other boys back in Gary, Indiana, were being boys, Michael was in the studio, or on tour, or rehearsing endlessly, or showing off for Berry Gordy at Motown, all for the man who never gave him a childhood, his Captain Hook — his dad. As an adult, Michael’s ideas about the childhood he’d lost had grown, with all the imagination and money a human being can pour into an enterprise, into things like chimpanzees in his bedroom and kitchens filled with candy.

And then we saw how grotesque it got over time. A grown man trying so hard to be a child, but with grown man urges, too. A tragic cocktail of desires for sure. He was not a boy, he was a man twisted by an insane desire to have a childhood that had been denied him. So desperate to be that boy, to be Peter Pan, but losing his ability to fly. It’s called Neverland for a reason. A childhood lost can never be re-gotten.

Until, at the last, he had lost touch with childhood, could not remember it at all, and the drugs made sure he could forget about being a grown-up, too.

But by and large, when I think back on that day with Michael, I smile. He was still Peter Pan then. Giraffes and chimpanzees were on the move. Children were laughing. His was the voice of an angel. And it spoke to me. And how can I not be happy about that.

In the trophy room with Peter Pan and other Disney characters
Bubbles!