Michael Jackson: Bad! And very dangerous

This week, the news has been dominated by Michael Jackson. But, in this highly provocative article, the author and former music industry executive John Niven questions the adulation of the 'King of Pop', given the allegations of child abuse that emerged in recent years

Saturday 04 July 2009 00:00
Michael Jackson performing Smooth Criminal live in Munich in 1997

The barrage of utterly inane celebrity tributes (”inspirational”, “a true hero”, “a genius”, “a gentle soul” “a treasure”) was to be expected. The howling fans across the world, broken and gibbering nonsense for the rolling TV news crews (”he ... he died for all of us” etc), the inevitable autopsy results in a few weeks, with their Swiss laboratory inventory of prescription tranquilisers, all this too is standard operating procedure.

What has stunned me and truly floored me in the past week or so has been the complete sidelining by the entire media of Jackson’s later life. Across the board, from every news channel to all the quality papers, there has been wholesale collusion in the notion that “he was a great artist and, yes, there was some, umm, troubling stuff later on, but let’s forget all that right now and just celebrate the music”.

Hang on a minute. I’m not the kind of person to start Paedogeddon-style witch-hunts gratuitously, but ... I thought I’d find some real analysis of the “troubling stuff” somewhere. But here’s what we’re getting: “Another beautiful boy is gone, wiped out in an instant.” This was Germaine Greer in The Guardian. She made no mention at all of the multiple accusations of child abuse levelled at Jackson (although she was unintentionally hilarious when she wrote of his art no longer being fuelled by his ability to “run with the kids on the block”. Uh, Germaine, love, they’d be more likely to be running away from him). Rather, she went on to wax lyrical about Dionysus and Orpheus and how we should “salute this miraculous boy who will triumph over death ... becoming immortal through his art”. Well, the ancient Greeks were certainly a culture that would have sympathised with some aspects of Jackson’s life.

Then there was the editorial in The Independent last Saturday which (almost reluctantly) allowed that there were “most damaging of all, the accusations of child abuse”, before going on to say that “what will remain in people’s minds long after memories of his sad fall have vanished” – and this “sad fall” is priceless, suggesting something tragic and completely beyond Jackson’s control – “is how thrilling he was as a performer in his effervescent pomp”. There are at least several young men alive today who I am sure have very different memories of what it was to be caught in Michael Jackson’s force field at the height of his “effervescent pomp”. I have a feeling we might be hearing from some of them in the coming weeks.

He was acquitted, we are reminded. Well, like many people in our post-OJ, post-Tyson world, I am not inclined to treat the acquittal of a celebrity with a billion-dollar legal team behind him by a Californian court as a gold-plated get-out-of-jail-free card.

But on the rolling news channels and in the print media in the days following the death perhaps a certain level of inanity was to be expected. So it was with an almost purring sense of relief that I tuned into Newsnight Review last week: good old BBC2. Kirsty Wark, Paul Morley, Miranda Sawyer fer Chrissakes. Now here would be an island of sanity, where the disgrace (let me repeat, not the “troubling stuff”) would be mercilessly exposed and dissected. Over the next half-hour my jaw gradually dangled floorwards as we were treated to banal, celebratory fluff that made The Sun’s tribute look like the work of Woodward and Bernstein on a particularly feverish night. Paul Morley said things like: “That’s his genius – reinvention.... He was an amazing science fiction creation.” Kirsty Wark called him “unique”. Miranda Sawyer nodded a lot.

Then there was the playwright and singer Kwame Kwei Armah, who trotted out the old chestnut about how we must “separate the art from the artist” before going on to talk about how there was “Michael the artist and then there was Michael the celebrity with ... with all the, the attendant problems that came with it”.

He went on to say, unchallenged, how there were different Michaels and that he wanted to remember “the Michael who made Thriller and Off the Wall”. There were also, presumably, different Hitlers. Some people might like to remember the Hitler who reunited Germany and brought back full employment. Not the later Hitlers, with their “attendant problems”. The problem is that people keep on bringing up all the bloody stuff that these other later, more troublesome, Hitlers did. You can probably make a claim for several different Peter Sutcliffes, one of whom was a model employee who was very nice to his mother. The problem is....

Another Newsnight guest called Jacqueline Springer picked up on the “different Michaels” point and ran out of the park with it. She talked about the concept of a “cookie-cutter Michael”: you simply “take the bits you want and remember them”. Aww diddums. Lovely. I’ll take the songwriter and the dancer and just leave the paedophile thanks very much!

Finally, Kirsty Wark spoke up. Here we go, I thought. “So you wouldn’t choose to remember the Michael who – say – dangled his baby off a window ledge.” Wow. Nailed him there, Kirsty. Much has been made of this (of course idiotic) bit of horseplay, but, truth, you see fathers taking greater risks with their kids in London everyday as they whizz along with their children perched precariously on bicycles. Less of them, I imagine, fill kids full of booze, get them to watch online pornography and then offer to show them how to masturbate. I’d have thought the latter scenario more worthy of examination. To go back to the Nazi analogy: our Kirsty, having the chance to bring up the concentration camps, cuts in with a reference to one of the other pesky Hitlers dishonouring the Nazi/Soviet pact.

And this was Newsnight. I wanted to weep.

At this point let me state my own position baldly: I believe that, at least in his later life, Michael Jackson was an active, predatory paedophile. (In terms of focusing on this I seem to be in the minority: Google “Jackson death” and you’ll get something like 65 million hits. Google “Jackson paedophile” and you’ll get around 150,000.)

I am very familiar with the argument of separating the art from the artist – Philip Larkin was a compulsive masturbator with racist views who loved pornography. The poems were magisterial. Wagner was a boiling anti-Semite. The music is timeless. Now, having racist views, masturbating to pornography, I can guarantee that everyone reading this paper has had some contact with practitioners of these dark arts. I would not venture that everyone is on handshake terms with people who get little boys drunk and then try to abuse them – I’m afraid I can’t embrace the good tunes and overlook the “troubling stuff” and the “attendant problems” just yet.

Anyone with me? Anyone else fancy a refresher course on the kind of man Michael Jackson really was? Good. Let’s go back a few years....

“The accuser, now 15, remarked that ‘Sometimes Michael would also give wine’ to the New Jersey siblings ... which Jackson called ‘Jesus Juice’.” As a novelist you know a linguistic bullseye when you see it and “Jesus Juice” is just too good. It is exactly what a quasi-religious paedophile would call wine he has transferred to a Coke can and is trying to get a child to drink. When I heard that detail during the trial it literally stopped me in my tracks.

Jordy Chandler, Jackson’s first accuser, gave detectives a detailed description of Jackson’s genital area, including distinctive “splotches” on his buttocks and one on his penis. The boy’s information was so accurate he was able to locate where the splotch moved to when Jackson’s penis became erect and the fact that he was circumcised. Jackson was brought in and his genitals duly photographed. Soon after this shoot (surely one of the stranger photo sessions endured by the singer) was matched up to Chandler’s description, Jackson suddenly agreed to settle Chandler’s civil claim out of court for somewhere north of $20m (£12.2m).

At this juncture, some details recounted in the affidavit of Gavin Arvizo, Jackson’s second accuser, are also worth remembering: “Jackson told him [Arvizo] that boys have to masturbate or they go crazy, and related a story about a boy who had sex with a dog. Jackson, he said, then told him he wanted to show him how to masturbate.”

Again the writer in me responds strongly to the tawdry reality of the dialogue here. If you were going to make this stuff up this is exactly the tone you’d be shooting for: the childlike vocabulary and anecdote marshalled as supporting fact. It is just how you’d attempt to convince a child to do something.

Ultimately one is faced with two options. Either Jackson really was an innocent, a childlike man-boy who simply enjoyed hanging out with young boys, up to and including having them sleep in his bed (”There’s nothing more loving you can do,” he told Martin Bashir in the infamous 2003 documentary, while Arviso cuddled him adoringly), and that some of these children decided – in collusion with their money-grabbing parents – to take Jackson to the cleaners. Or Jackson was an active, predatory child molester.

Personally I believe the allegations are very real. Child sex experts will tell you the same thing over and over again: kids don’t make this stuff up. For a 13-year-old, the thought of being forced to talk – in public, in detail – about sex acts is so abhorrent there isn’t a cheque big enough that you could dangle. And what real concept of money does a 13-year-old have anyway?

Anyway, the eventual molestation trial was a freak show, with Arvizo’s mother ending up on trial rather than Jackson, a terrible example of jurisprudence in which the prosecution just about proved that Jackson molested seemingly every little boy in Los Angeles except the one in the witness box.

Let us go down the Albert Goldman road for a moment. (And the parallels between Graceland and Neverland are expected and wholly unsurprising: it is what happens when incredible fame, fortune and near-limitless power are bestowed on young men with no real education and no intellectual interests. The pleasures of the inhabitants of the two mansions are near-identical: lying in bed, attended by lackeys, while you indulge your sensory pleasures: food, small boys, whatever.)

Let us picture what was, by all accounts – that of the staff, of the parents and siblings of various young accusers – this grown man’s idea of a good time. We descend into the chilled, darkened bowels of Neverland, passing the Mickey Mouse posters, the discreet alarm systems (rigged to give advance warning of anyone approaching his chambers), we punch in the keypad security code required for access to the inner sanctum and we find the King of Pop: he lies on an enormous bed, numbed by opiates, smudged with wine or bourbon (”Jim Bean” one of the boys called it, a malapropism that might be charming in other circumstances) and surrounded by half-naked pre-pubescent boys.

A laptop is showing pornography, opened bottles of Pinot Noir and SKYY vodka are strewn around. Jackson is watching Disney’s Fantasia over and over again, drifting off up to the ceiling as a wave of the Dilaudid or Demerol hits him. He cuddles the nearest boy. His newest, most special friend. The medical bag in the corner glistens darkly, filled with brown tubs of prescription candy and pre-loaded hypodermics. Man, sweet dreams for the King of Pop.

“Michael,” an ex-adviser claims to have said to him once, “you’re going to wind up in a lot of trouble. Why don’t you stop all this stuff with the young boys?”

“I don’t want to,” Jackson replied.

His answer has the acrid whiff of the dismissiveness of the potentate, the emperor. It reeks of “I like not this news. Bring me some other news.” Finally, thankfully, for Jackson there will be no more news of any kind.

The author is a writer and former A&R (artist and repertoire) man whose novel ‘Kill Your Friends’ tells the murky story of a young record industry executive during the Britpop era.

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