Michael Jackson: The final decline of a pop legend

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The Independent Culture

For the crowds gathered outside UCLA Medical Centre, and the stunned anchormen talking viewers through shaky footage from scrambled helicopters, and former pop colleagues hitting the airwaves to express shock and sorrow, Michael Jackson's sudden death came as a bolt from the blue.

Yet to the small band of family members and associates still allowed into his inner circle, it served as tragic confirmation of their very worst fears: in recent months, the warning signs about his fading health had become all-too painfully obvious.

Jackson was 50, but had the fragile demeanour of a man several decades older. He looked thin, gaunt, and pallid, yet boasted a minor pot belly. In recent years he'd been confined to a wheelchair and unable to work. He hadn't been on tour since 1997, and his last original album was released in 2001.

Evidence that emerged during his child molestation trial four years ago revealed that he suffered from a long-standing addiction to powerful prescription pain-killers. He'd started taking them in the mid-1980s to cope with a lower back problem aggravated by performing. There was no indication that he ever stopped.

Court documents also suggested that Jackson's lifestyle was hopelessly indulgent: a typical day involved rising at lunchtime, knocking back painkillers from silver pillboxes, watching Disney films and drinking bottle after bottle of expensive wine, which his young companions were told was "Jesus juice".

Put simply, Jackson had become a physical wreck. Even if he was able to sing (and at a press conference in March, he'd struggled to speak coherently), he was almost certainly incapable of dancing, still less a moonwalk. Elizabeth Taylor, the 77-year-old friend who has now managed to outlive him, was in better shape.

This, however, was the man who earlier this year bullishly announced that he was going to re-live his vigorous glory days by returning to the stage, and headlining a gruelling, physically demanding series of no less than fifty solo concerts at the O2 Arena in London.

Little wonder that even hopeless optimists among the 750,000 fans who helped tickets to the "This is it!" tour sell out in a matter of hours, bought their seats in a spirit of hope rather than expectation.

Little wonder that music industry rivals were quick to question the wisdom of concert promoter AEG's decision to indulge and finance the singer's attempts at a comeback. And little wonder that many informed-commentators predicted the worst, reminding readers that most active stars of a similar vintage, like Madonna, maintain a fearsome fitness regime

Jackson, though, was virtually forced into the fatal London concert run. He had few alternatives. For at a stage in his life when most pop legends have either shuffled off into genteel retirement, or settled into the sepia-tinged luxury of occasional nostalgia tours, the longstanding King of Pop had a very big problem: money.

Put simply, Jackson was in debt; vast quantities of it. Estimates of how much he owed ranged from a conservative $60 million [£36m] to the astonishing-sounding figure of $500m [£305m] quoted by the Wall Street Journal earlier this month.

Almost everything he owned was leveraged or sold off. Neverland, the ranch near Santa Barbara he'd called home for nearly three decades, had fallen into foreclosure in 2008. Earlier this year it had been sold, in an opaque deal worth $35m to a firm called Colony Capital.

His only remaining assets were his own back catalogue, and a remaining quarter of a tranche of 251 Beatles songs that he'd bought the rights to in the 1980s. But declining revenues from record sales had seriously affected his income.

"The man has been flat-broke for most of the past decade," Diane Dimond, the veteran TV reporter who covered most of Jackson's trials, told The Independent recently. "He's mortgaged everything he owns, and his wealth was always exaggerated anyway. Every penny of income is needed to service income payments on loans."

Unfortunately, even existing was an expensive business. Since the early 1990s, the singer had fallen into the habit of spending between $20 and $30m a year more than he makes. Some paid for $10,000-a-night hotel suites he liked to live in for weeks at a time. Other portions were spent on shopping splurges.

Staff costs, to maintain the often-dodgy entourage that surrounded him, have been estimated at $4m [£2.4m] annually. At the time of his death, he was living in a rented, French-chateau-style house in Los Angeles, which cost $100,000 [£60,000] a month.

To subsidise his lifestyle, Jackson had spent recent years attempting to freeload his way around the world, supported by star-struck benefactors.

He'd spent 2006 in Bahrain, as a guest of Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad al-Khalifa, and later years in Ireland, where he lodged with the Riverdance star Michael Flatley. He's also popped-up in Dubai, Germany, the South of France and Japan, where he was seen signing autographs at $600 a pop.

Eventually, though, a string of debts and costly lawsuits caught up with him, and he returned to the US, intitially basing himself at his mother's house in Las Vegas, early in 2008. His intention: to balance his books with one of the few assets he had left: his enduring fame.

The concert series, which would earn him an immediate $50 million [£30m] was intended to be the first part of a string of ventures that would ultimately encompass a three-year world tour, a new album, promotional movies, a Graceland-like museum, musicals in Las Vegas and Macau, and even a "Thriller" casino.

In three years, the plan went, Jackson would be able retire in comfort. However in recent months, evidence began to emerge that the stresses of re-launching his career were weighing heavily on his fragile soul..

In May, it also emerged that he was suffering from minor skin cancer. AEG was suddenly forced to delay the scheduled date of the opening night of his London run, due to what it described as "unforseen circumstances."

An investigation by The Wrap, a Hollywood website, then revealed that Jackson had only showed-up to two rehearsals at the venue in Burbank where the concert was being put together. He had been due to attend more than forty. When he did appear, one witness said he seemed "lethargic."

At the time, Ramone Bain, Jackson's former publicist, expressed doubts that the concerts would go ahead at all, saying that dancers had yet to be hired and that Jackson, who remained a proud individual with a healthy ego, was deeply troubled at the prospect of attracting negative reviews.

In the pressure-cooker atmosphere of recent weeks, with the O2 run fast approaching, Jackson had finally begun attending rehearsals under the watchful eye of creative director Kenny Ortega. He was running through his routine at the Staples Centre in Downtown Los Angeles on the eve of his death.

The suddenly heavy workload, and growing emotional strain, came as Jackson also adopted a vigorous workout schedule under the watchful eye of his friend Lou Ferrigno, the actor who achieved fame playing the Incredible Hulk.

His death could leave AEG nursing losses of up to $40 million [£24m] on the concerts, particularly if the insurers find that Jackson's death was brought about by a pre-existing medical condition. The firm's shareholders will also miss out on the $400m [£240m] that experts believed could have been made from working with Jackson for the coming three years.

Some say it serves them right for indulging the singer's far-fetched belief that he was capable of a comeback. Others say they can hardly be expected to take responsibility for a veteran showman's enduring desire to entertain his public.

Either way that the coming months will almost certainly represent a bloodbath for lawyers and a slew of other former connections, who will attempt to extract a pound of flesh from Jackson's estate.

Before yesterday's events, he had dozens of legal cases outstanding, including a $40m [£24m] suit from a New Jersey concert promoter called Allgood Entertainment, and a breach of contract case from the Thriller producer John Landis, who claimed he hadn't received his share of royalties for three years.

The biggest and most tragic victims of Jackson's sudden death, though, may be his three children - Prince Michael, Paris, and "Blanket" – who have no obvious future guardians or sources of income. His ex-wife Debbie Rowe is the birth mother of the first two, but formally gave up custody during their divorce settlement. "Blanket" was the product of Jackson picking a surrogate from a catalogue.

Even given inevitable earnings from future tribute albums, the King of Pop's heirs are likely to inherit a troubled estate whose financial commitments far exceed its assets. After a bizarre and sometimes troubled childhood, their only potential source of future stability is now gone forever.