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Remembering Michael Jackson

His fragile, lonely heart had broken long ago

As Michael grew from a boy to an anguished man, a critic bore witness

July 12, 2009|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn was The Times' pop music critic from 1970 to 2005. Parts of this article are excerpted from his memoir, "Corn Flakes With John Lennon, and Other Tales From a Rock 'n' Roll Life," which will be published in October.

I'll always regret that my last conversation with Michael Jackson ended with him angrily hanging up the phone -- at least I've long thought of Michael's mood that day more than a decade ago as angry. I realize now that a more accurate description would be "wounded."

Michael was among the sweetest and most talented people I met during 35 years covering pop music for the Los Angeles Times. I was fortunate to be present at many of his proudest moments. I was in the audience the night in 1983 that he unveiled the electrifying moonwalk on the Motown TV special and in the studio in 1985 for the all-star "We Are the World" recording session. I was with him at the Jackson family home in Encino soon after he purchased the Beatles song catalog in 1985.

Michael struck me as one of the most fragile and lonely people I've ever met. His heart might have finally stopped beating June 25, but it had been broken long ago.

Spending weekends with him on the road during the Jacksons' "Victory" tour in 1984, I learned that he was so traumatized by events that transpired in his late teens -- notably the rejection by fans who missed the "little" Michael of the Jackson 5 days -- that he relied desperately on fame to protect him from further pain. In the end, that overriding need for celebrity was at the root of his tragedy.

I first met Michael in the early days of the Jackson 5 at the family home in Los Angeles, and the memory that stands out is that Michael, as cute and wide-eyed as an 11-year-old could be, was eager to get through the interview so he could watch cartoons before having to go to bed.

When I caught up with him a decade later, his personality had changed radically. That happy-go-lucky kid was nowhere to be found.

Michael's sales had fallen off dramatically in the mid-1970s, and by the time he reemerged with the hit "Off the Wall" album in 1979, he was scarred emotionally. There's often a gap between a performer's public and private sides, but rarely was it as noticeable as with Michael.

Sitting at the rear of the tour bus after a triumphant concert in St. Louis in 1981, Michael was anxious, frequently bowing his head as he whispered answers to my questions. In contrast to the charismatic, strutting figure on stage, he wrestled with shyness. Despite the resurgence in his popularity, he complained of feeling alone -- almost abandoned. He was 23.

When I asked why he didn't live on his own like his brothers, rather than at his parents' house, he said, "Oh, no, I think I'd die on my own. I'd be so lonely. Even at home, I'm lonely. I sit in my room and sometimes cry. It is so hard to make friends, and there are some things you can't talk to your parents or family about. I sometimes walk around the neighborhood at night, just hoping to find someone to talk to. But I just end up coming home."

That's as far as Michael could go that night to explain his deep-rooted anguish. It would be four years before he was willing to tell me more.

Michael had signed a book deal with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, an editor at Doubleday, before the "Victory" tour, and he wanted me to help him write it. I spent several weekends on the road with him during the tour. I soon discovered that Michael -- who guarded his privacy at all costs -- wanted to put together a picture book, while Onassis wanted a full-scale biography.

After a showdown between the two, Michael's longtime attorney and friend John Branca called to thank me for my efforts and said Doubleday was going in a different direction. My involvement ended.

During our time together, my conversations with Michael sometimes led -- once the tape recorder was off -- to darker moments from his past. One night when we were going through a stack of old photos, a picture of him in his late teens triggered a sudden openness.

"Ohh, that's horrible," he said, recoiling from the picture.

Michael explained that his face was so covered with acne and his nose so large at that time that visitors to the family home in Encino sometimes wouldn't recognize him. "They would come up, look me straight in the eye and ask if I knew where that 'cute little Michael' was." It was as if the "whole world was saying, 'How dare you grow up on us.' "

Michael said he started looking down at the floor when people approached or would stay in his room when visitors came to the house. He vowed to do whatever it took to make people "love me again." The rejection fueled his ambition to be the biggest pop star in the world and to try to make his face beautiful. Unfortunately, Michael's need was so great that no amount of love seemed to be enough.

The stage was his sanctuary. There, he was larger than life and no one could threaten him. Every time he left the stage, he said, he felt vulnerable again.

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