The gates to Neverland, the 3,000-acre ranch that represents one of the few places Michael Jackson has ever really called home, seem as good a place as any to take a deep breath of the freshest air in smog-drenched Southern California and start wondering where, exactly, the old razzle-dazzle might have gone.
Back in the day, before Jackson went round in wheelchairs and wore face-masks, before his bewildered face turned to an ashen putty and his nose started being held together by sticking plaster, this quiet country lane led to the front door of an extraordinary, undisputed King of Pop.
It is a pertinent fact that seems easy to overlook, just as it has become easy to forget the soaring artistic genius that once saw Michael Joseph Jackson bridge the gap between black soul and white pop music. We can barely remember the limitless talent that sold 750 million records, won 13 Grammy awards, and held the world in thrall for a quarter of a century. These days, it belongs to another era.
But on a warm November evening, looking at the parched homestead beyond Neverland's polite-but-firm "Keep Out" signs, you can forget the strangely bewildered figure who appears in snatched photos plastered across supermarket tabloids, ignore his strange vulnerability, and remember for a moment the haunting reach of his old possibilities.
This was the place where, at the height of Jackson's fame, the former child star built his gaudy, Hearstian theme park. The place where he slept in oxygen tents, held hands with a chimpanzee called Bubbles, and (at a time when it didn't have dubious connotation) invited thousands of children to play. It was the exotic private realm of an energetic genius, who once declared: "This is like stepping into Oz. Once you come in the gates, the outside world does not exist."
Yet, for most of the adventurous souls who still seek out Jackson's old gate-house, five minutes north of Los Olivos – a small tourist town where LA's chattering classes spend weekends sampling the delights of Santa Barbara wine country – the old mystique has all but vanished. Neverland today is surrendered to the genteel decay of a stately home.
The parkland is well tended and beautifully framed by the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest. Birds tweet, squirrels play. Jackson's old house, invisible from the road, is served by a dusty single-track driveway, rather than the concrete monstrosity you might expect. While its owner imploded, it merely fell into disrepair.
Jackson is conspicuous by his absence. He's not been seen at Neverland since 2005, when for several months he left the ranch each morning to drive half-an-hour north to a court in Santa Maria, where he stood accused of child molestation in a sensational trial that, despite his eventual acquittal, seems only to have accelerated his pitiful decline.
Actually, Jackson may very well no longer even own the place. In February, it emerged that Neverland was going into foreclosure to settle debts of $25m secured against it to maintain the singer's lifestyle. Shortly afterwards, the creditors were paid off by Tom Barrack, a colourful real- estate billionaire who also owns the Las Vegas Hilton.
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Last month, Neverland's deeds were transferred to a firm controlled by Barrack (in which Jackson retains a stake) called Colony Capital. The intriguingly opaque deal was said by the Santa Barbara County Assessor's office to be worth $35m. At the signing, Jackson was accompanied – as he almost invariably is these days – by the remaining nucleus of his travelling entourage: four bodyguards and a medical doctor, whose duties include vetting phone calls, arranging diary appointments, and offering counsel in the manner of a normal Hollywood PA. According to a witness at the hotel, he looked robust, if a little podgy, and stayed indoors throughout his short stay.
Locals have since seen Jackson's old fairground rides hauled away by the lorry-load. Its private zoo is long gone, and aerial photographs show that the house's once-colourful flowerbeds have been allowed to wither. The main building is falling apart. Soon, it may have a new owner, they say.
"We hear rumours all the time," says Gill Read, a teacher at Midland Boarding School, an exclusive educational establishment nearby. "Eminem's buying it, or Brad and Angelina. The other day, the choo-choo train was towed away. The rides went a week or two earlier. In the old days our students would be invited to play there once a year. Now it seems deserted."
Rumours are all anyone ever hears about Jackson these days. He long ago disappeared into near-invisibility, his finances in disarray, his health having apparently deteriorated to the extent that a back problem often makes him unable to walk unaided. He remains fantastically famous, of course, but equally elusive. Establishing what has become of him is like piecing together a fragile jigsaw.
Here, however, is what we do know: first, Jackson now lives mostly in Las Vegas, in a modest house in a gated community that he and his most successful sibling – sister Janet – bought for their mother, Katherine, in the days when he still moonwalked, roughly 20 years ago. Second, Michael is more or less estranged from his father Joseph, the Jehovah's Witness and former boxer from Indiana, who created the Jackson Five and nurtured their lucrative early careers with a zeal that later saw many of the band members (most notably Michael) accuse him of having denied them a childhood.
He also no longer speaks to several of his eight siblings, many of whom he believes have betrayed his trust by off-loading memorabilia or seeking to otherwise profit from his stratospheric fame. His brothers and sisters pursued varied paths. One, Tito, was recently a judge on the BBC reality- TV show Just the Two of Us, then went house-hunting in Devon – an event recorded for posterity in the extraordinary The Jacksons are Coming!, aired on Channel 4 last week.
Michael remains close, however, to his 88-year-old mother, and also shares her home with his three children, who are occasionally photographed, often wearing veils. Two, Michael Junior and Paris, come from his short marriage to his former nurse, Deborah Rowe. A third, named Prince Michael Jackson II, but known to the family as "Blanket" and said to be his father's favourite, was born to an anonymous surrogate mother in 2001. It is by no means clear how many of the children were conceived by artificial insemination.
"I believe he is a good father," says Uri Geller, who has in the past been close to Jackson. "Sure he's made mistakes – dangling the baby out of a window was not a good idea – but he's a dedicated dad who loves them very much. When you see the kids wander around with their face-masks, it might look strange. But trust me: to them, it's just a big joke on the world."
Jackson is also, at 50, showing signs of concern regarding his legacy. He is, let there be no doubt, the creator of ' two of the most important pop records of modern times: Bad, released in 1987 and which defined that era, and Thriller, which 26 years after its release is still the bestselling record ever. His last interview, with the black-culture magazine Ebony almost a year ago, dwelled heavily on his musical past. After posing for a heavily airbrushed spread of pictures, he claimed to have recently returned to the studio and was working daily on new material. "I always want to do music that inspires each generation," he said. "Let's face it, who wants mortality? You want what you create to live, and I give my all in my work as I want it to live."
The comments sparked talk of a comeback. It would certainly be overdue: Jackson has not released an original album since Invincible in 2001 (though his record label, Sony, has put out several re-mixed albums). He hasn't been on tour since 1997. Musically, he has shown every sign of being a busted flush for the best part of a decade.
But the fiercely loyal fans who follow his every move have learnt that his mooted comebacks have a habit of coming to naught. Last year, for example, the close circle of managers he still trusts, led by his lawyer Peter Lopez, confirmed they were in negotiations with AEG, the company that owns the cavernous O2 venue in London, regarding a series of gigs. No deal has yet been announced.
More recently, Jackson was rumoured to be in talks with the British impresario Simon Fuller about a future show and album. Nothing came of that, either. Then we learnt he was in advanced discussions regarding an appearance at this year's Grammys. That fell through, apparently after Jackson demanded to be called "The King of Pop" throughout the show.
The best chance of him returning to the stage now seems to be connected to Tom Barrack. The rumour mill suggests that in return for the property mogul's generous financial support, Jackson may play a series of "greatest hits" concerts (which ticket agencies reckon they could sell out at $1,000-a-head) at the Las Vegas Hilton.
"Michael Jackson is the same age as Madonna, and there's no reason he couldn't pull in the crowds as she still does," says a source close to a promoter who recently discussed a mooted show. "He's in terrible shape, of course, and has actually got a little bit fat in the last year. But that wouldn't stop him, for example, sitting on a stool singing slower versions of his old back-catalogue. He wouldn't even need to be able to still sing. There's so much you can do with technology these days. In fact, you'd be surprised how many of the top-selling live acts who have been around for years aren't actually able to sing any more. And people would certainly pay to see it. If he could get Jackson to show up, Barrack would be on to a winner."
Barrack is by no means the only colourful billionaire Jackson has been associating with. Last month, Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the second son of the King of Bahrain, sued him at the High Court in London, in a row after the Sheikh's generous agreement to accommodate him in Bahrain following the 2005 trial.
The court heard how Khalifa had subsidised Jackson's lifestyle for almost a year, building a recording studio, hiring a $300,000 motivational guru, and advancing him $7m to shore up his shaky finances. In return for the Sheikh's largesse, Jackson apparently agreed to produce a new record, a candid autobiography, and a stage play, the profits from which would go to repaying Khalifa.
Jackson enjoyed life in Bahrain, where he stayed until 2006. It boasted excellent luxury hotels, and allowed him to circulate and visit shopping centres (relatively) incognito, since he was in the habit of wearing an abaya, the traditional dress of local Muslim women. On one occasion, to the Bahraini version of raised eyebrows, the story has it that he even visited a female public lavatory.
Unfortunately, he wasn't so taken by the prospect of performing. In 2006, he hopped on a flight to Germany. Then, after a brief stint in Dubai, Ireland (courtesy of the Riverdance star Michael Flatley), the South of France and Japan (where he signed autographs at $600 a pop), he returned to Vegas at the end of last year.
In effect, Jackson has spent two of the past three years globetrotting, and the other one holed up in Las Vegas. What he does with this time is anyone's guess: on the record, his associates have claimed he is constantly producing new music. But even off the record, they can't explain why it never sees the light of day.
Jackson's productivity could very well be suffering due to his alleged relationship with alcohol and prescription medication. It would certainly explain why even the Sinatra-esque Vegas show mooted by associates has never materialised.
"He's just not capable of performing," says Diane Dimond, the veteran TV reporter who has covered almost all of Jackson's trials, and wrote the book Be Careful Who You Love about the 2005 molestation case. "He's got a problem with his lower back, and he's had problems with alcohol and pain-killers for years. In the trial it was revealed that he had dozens of prescription drugs sitting in his nightstand, and staff testified that he drank bottle after bottle of wine. People overlooked that, because they were more interested in whether he had given alcohol to underage children."
Whatever the reason, Jackson's failure to produce new material has had a devastating impact on his finances, and his erratic globetrotting has been heralded as an attempt to flee creditors, to whom he is rumoured to have commitments totalling tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars: since the mid-1990s, the singer has been in the habit of spending roughly $35m a year. Some goes towards the $10,000-a-night hotel suites he insists on frequently hiring, and often barely uses. Other portions are spent on the shopping splurges, when he will walk into souvenir stores and – as seen in Martin Bashir's famous 2003 documentary – spend hundreds of thousands on porcelain tat. '
Put simply, his outgoings had for too many years exceeded his income, to the extent that he, like many in credit-crunched America, has flirted with bankruptcy. His assets include his own back-catalogue and about a quarter of a catalogue of 251 Beatles songs. But – as with the rest of the record industry – his income from existing music sales has been declining fast in recent years.
"The man has been flat-broke for most of the past decade," says Dimond. "It never ceases to amaze me how people agree to float his lifestyle. He has mortgaged everything he owns, and his wealth was always exaggerated anyway. Every penny of income is needed to service income payments on loans secured against his assets."
Last month, the financial troubles finally caught up with him. Khalifa forced a trial at the High Court, in an effort to get back some of the $7m he had put Jackson's way. In court, the Sheikh, a keen amateur songwriter, told how he had been betrayed by a man he once had a "close personal relationship" with and used to call "my brother".
For a moment, it seemed Jackson was set to tell the world his side of the story. Having unsuccessfully pleaded ill health to avoid flying to London (where the case was being heard by mutual consent), he prepared to fly into the UK to appear in court for the first time since the Santa Maria trial, when he once turned up to give evidence in a pair of pyjamas
Then an out-of-court settlement was suddenly announced. "As Mr Jackson was about to board his plane... he was advised by his legal team to postpone his travels since the parties had concluded a settlement in principle," said his new British spokesman, Celena Aponte. "Therefore, he will not be attending court on Monday."
Further details were not revealed. But it's unlikely that Jackson got away without spending a penny in compensation. Meanwhile, further stories hit the papers regarding his private life. The Sun claimed in a front-page article that Jackson had converted to Islam ("categorically not true", says a close associate who declined to be interviewed on the record).
Then other rumours began circulating regarding the identity of Jackson's new spokesman. Aponte is a leading light at The Outside Organisation, a London PR firm famous for rehabilitating difficult celebrities. It has helped polish Naomi Campbell's image, recently added Amy Winehouse to its books, and looked after Paul McCartney during the recent divorce from which his status as national treasure emerged unscathed.
Outside is close to Simon Fuller and helped promote Prince, another ageing and eccentric US star, when he played at the O2 last year, so the firm's sudden appointment (which, for the time being, lasted only for 48 hours of the trial) has once more sparked talk of a Jackson comeback.
First, though, Jackson will have to prove he's capable. That may be harder than it seems for a man who is physically fragile and in many people's eyes – thanks in no small part to his portrayal in the Bashir documentary of five years ago – has long since crossed the fine line between genius and a form of madness.
That programme showed him holding hands and cuddling a 13 year-old boy called Gavin Arvizo, a clip which eventually led to the prosecution on 10 separate charges: four of molesting a minor, four of giving alcohol to a child, one related to abduction, and another regarding an alleged conspiracy to hold Arvizo and his family hostage.
The legacy of the months Jackson spent in court remains deeply ingrained in him. Not only did he feel deeply betrayed by Bashir, a man he had grown to trust (and who declined to be interviewed for this article), he was also forced to watch many former friends testify against him.
When the acquittal came, it shocked the media and much of the world, who had neatly overlooked the lack of physical evidence against Jackson. "It was one of those moments I felt like the emperor who had no clothes," recalls Aphrodite Jones, who covered the trial for Fox News and later described it in the book The Michael Jackson Conspiracy. "There was just no evidence. I had seen the outtake footage from the Bashir documentary in court, and you can see, in retrospect, how Bashir created what he wanted out of it. Michael Jackson was pictured holding a child's hand. Well, if you look properly, he was doing it to show he liked to be around children. There was nothing sinister about it at all."
Yet, even acquitted, Jackson remains guilty by suspicion to those who believe smoke must always equal fire. To a man who often appears to have the mentality of a child, and who has frequently lamented his own lack of childhood, it has only added to his fragility and the sense of mistrust with which he greets the world at large.
"We may never really know whether he had sex with kids," says The New York Times columnist Margo Jefferson, author of On Michael Jackson. "But he did admit he slept with kids, and share his bed with kids. When you're 40 or 50 and you're doing that, clearly something is deeply wrong. He has a childishness, a fear of adulthood, a narcissism that is off the chart."
It's hard, though, not to follow the torturous story of what became of Michael Jackson without concluding that his only possible route to happiness lies in the medium that made him famous. Could Jackson moonwalk again? Or simply sit on stage, performing gentle versions of the old hits? Stranger things have happened, even if his shimmering star would have to be at its brightest to pierce the world's deepening economic gloom and persuade enough punters to help him out of his financial malaise.
"Michael was always fragile, but he gets incredible energy, motivation and inspiration when he engages himself with music," says Geller. "He has always lived through that, and when he's not writing or producing, when he's not dancing in that incredible way of his, all you really have left is this vulnerable person in a wheelchair. He should be more than that."
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