Physical wreck pushed to limit to pay his debts

Michael Jackson was in no condition to take on a punishing schedule of 50 gigs. But his finances left him with no choice.
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The Independent Culture

Behind the face masks, and the bewildered stare, and that ashen brow that needed to be held together with sticking plaster, there was a hopeless vulnerability about Michael Jackson. His sudden death might have shocked the world when it was first reported, shortly after 3 o'clock on Thursday afternoon. But it also felt grimly inevitable.

Stars die young, of course. And though Jackson had reached the age of 50, he never quite shook off the fragile demeanour of a small child. To millions of fans, together with the small band of family members and old friends still allowed into his inner circle, the warning signs about his fading health, and the dangerous nature of his "comeback", were blindingly obvious.

Jackson was no longer the ball of vibrant energy who danced to "Billy Jean" and recorded Thriller, which is still, after all these years, the best-selling pop record of all time. In recent years, he'd looked thin, gaunt, and pallid. Since 2005, he'd been largely confined to a wheelchair and unable to work. Punters hadn't been able to see him on tour since 1997; his last original album was released back in 2001.

He also had longstanding problems with substance abuse. Evidence that emerged during his child molestation trial revealed that he suffered from an addiction to powerful opiate-based prescription painkillers. He'd started taking them in the mid-1980s to cope with a lower-back problem that was aggravated by performing. There was no indication that he ever stopped.

Court documents released at the 2005 trial also suggested that Jackson's lifestyle was hopelessly indulgent: a typical day involved rising at lunchtime, knocking back painkillers, watching Disney films and drinking bottle after bottle of expensive wine, which he controversially offered to young companions, telling them it 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 this year, he struggled to speak coherently), he was almost certainly incapable of performing a dance routine. Elizabeth Taylor, the 77-year-old best friend who has now managed to outlive him, was probably in better shape.

This, however, was the state of a man who earlier this year bullishly announced that he was going to relive hi glory days by getting back in peak physical condition and returning to the stage at a gruelling series of 50 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 to sell out in hours, generating almost £100m in overnight revenue, bought their seats in a spirit of hope rather than expectation.

Little wonder that music industry rivals questioned the wisdom of concert promoter AEG's decision to indulge the singer's attempts at a comeback, and remain quizzical about the nature of the insurance policy that covered any "unforeseen events" that might cause the lucrative gigs to be cancelled.

And little wonder that many informed commentators predicted the worst. Most stars of a similar vintage who decide to remain on tour maintain a fearsome fitness regime. Madonna has her gym sessions and vitamin diets; Sting his yoga; even the Rolling Stones look after themselves these days.

Jackson, by comparison, could barely walk unaided. Yet circumstances had forced him into the fatal London concert run. 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 gigs, the longstanding King of Pop had one very big problem: money.

Put simply, Jackson was in debt; vast quantities of it. Estimates of how much he owed range from a conservative $60m (£36m), cited by news agencies yesterday, to the astonishing-sounding figure of $500m quoted by the Wall Street Journal in an investigation earlier this year.

For him to even exist was an expensive business. Indeed, he was often described as a millionaire who wanted to live like a billionaire. Since the early 1990s, the singer had fallen into the habit of spending between $20m and $30m a year more than he made. Vast sums were dropped on $10,000-a-night hotel suites he liked to live in for weeks at a time, or bizarre luxury shopping splurges.

Staff costs, to maintain the often-dodgy entourage that surrounded him, have been estimated at $4m annually. At the time of his death, he was living in a rented, French-chateau-style house in Los Angeles, once owned by Sean Connery, which cost the small matter of $100,000 a month.

After his acquittal on charges of child molestation in 2005, Jackson's income had further shrunk. To subsidise his lavish lifestyle, he spent 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. Then he moved to Ireland, where he lodged with the Riverdance star Michael Flatley. He 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, initially basing himself at his mother's house in Las Vegas, early in 2008. In the face of looming bankruptcy, he decided to balance his books with one of the few assets he had left: his enduring fame.

So began plans for the O2 concert series, which would earn him an immediate $50m, and was intended to be the first part of a string of ventures that would ultimately encompass a three-year world tour, a new album, a Graceland-like museum, musicals in Las Vegas and Macau, and even a "Thriller" casino.

By his mid fifties, 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 and physique.

In May, newspapers reported that he was suffering from 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 "unforeseen 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'd been due to attend more than 40. 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, 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 negative reviews. Jackson's father worried that he was addicted to morphine.

In the pressure-cooker atmosphere of recent weeks, with the O2 run fast approaching, Jackson finally began 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.

Under growing strain, 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 massive losses: in additions to tickets sold, they'd spent $30m developing the show, and given Jackson a $10m advance.

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

'He made me believe in magic'

"I am so very sad and confused with every emotion possible. I am heartbroken for his children who I know were everything to him and for his family. This is such a massive loss on so many levels, words fail me."

Lisa Marie Presley

"I can't stop crying over the sad news... I have always admired Michael Jackson. The world has lost one of the greats but his music will live on forever. My heart goes out to his three children and other members of his family. God bless."


"I can't find the words right now to express how deeply saddened I am by Michael's passing. We have lost a genius and a true ambassador of not only pop music but of all music. He has been an inspiration to multiple generations and I will always cherish the moments I shared with him on stage"

Justin Timberlake

"Michael Jackson showed me that you can actually see the beat. He made the music come to life! He made me believe in magic."

Sean "Diddy" Combs