Venue: 'Century City', CBS HQ, Los Angeles
Date: April 1981
Background: The Jacksons were promoting their 1980 album 'Triumph', featuring the hit 'Can You Feel It'. Michael Jackson had already enjoyed solo success with 'Off The Wall', but 'Thriller' and superstardom was still a year off.
Nevertheless, there was an air of mystery surrounding Michael, even then. NME journalist Danny Baker had been given bizarre, cryptic warnings by Michael's PR – astrology and The Osmonds were both strictly off-limits as conversational topics.
Strangest of all, Michael conducted the entire interview with a phone clasped to his ear. He never spoke into it, and it was never clear who – if anyone – was on the other end of the line…
This is an edited version of a feature which originally appeared in NME, April 1981
Up on the seventh floor I sit cradling my two notebooks and a glass of Heineken. As [The Jacksons] arrive one by one I’m struck by a terrible thought. Jesus wept, I can’t place the names to the faces.
Let’s see, there’s Michael and Tito and Marlon and … and … oh sure, Randy the little one and uh … er … Dopey, Happy and Doc. No this is serious. Help. I’m shaking hands with each member as they arrive, grinning away, and I’m trying to think of the album credits.
Suddenly I hear a raising of vocal octaves and an increase in nervous giggling from the outer office. Michael’s here. In he comes, waving meekly to the kin and smiling benignly at my forehead as we shake hands. He shakes hands like I imagine the Queen Mother might.
All united, the family begin requesting all manner of manna from the press office people. I see they may be a few seconds yet so I take a stroll into the outside room. Here, Jim from [the record label] Epic catches my arm.
“Hey Danny, you OK?”
“Now you know there are a couple of subjects that are strictly out don’t you?”
No I don’t, I’m dying to know.
“OK, so one is The Osmonds.”
“The Osmonds. The boys are fed up with questions putting them with The Osmonds.”
I’m staggered. Two thirds of my interview just peeled away.
“The other thing is astrology, you know – signs and stuff.”
Well there goes the other third. Goodbye.
“No, you see they are followers of Jehovah and they don’t hold with anything like Astrology – dates, birthdays, Christmas, nothing like that. They keep it all very private and have been known to walk out of interviews because they objected to the questions.”
“And has anyone told you about Michael?”
I’m beginning to go numb. No Jim, nobody’s ‘told me’ about Michael.
“Well.” He sighs as if before a major declaration. “Be easy with him. He’s very, very shy but has got a lot better.”
Better? I’m bewildered.
“He can seem odd to people who don’t know him. Like you may find that once you’ve asked him a question he’ll need one of his brothers – usually his sister Janet – to whisper it into his ear. He might seem to drift off but he’s still with it – it’s just the way he is. He likes to have one of the family explain questions to him before answering. I think it’s down to confidence.”
I flat back into the meeting with my thoughts all of a heap. It seems that one peep outta line and I’m gonna be conducting this piece with five empty chairs and a rubber plant. It’s not as though it’s going to be tough – there they are all smiling and joking, genuinely wanting to meet their fans – as they put it – through the press.
But all of a sudden they don’t seem like the five funky kids who fought their way up from Gary, Indiana, the gritty sharp Jacksons of the wizard pop and sex appeal. God forgive me, but they’re taken on the sheen of … of … so help me, The Osmonds.
I sit and fix a grin like a man who’s just been slipped a note that his dinner guest is a schizophrenic axe murderer. One of the press office attendants closes the door – but remains in the room – and announces that the interview may begin. Half expecting a gong or a starting pistol, I take off.
You don’t think much to interviews do you? Why do you do them?
Marlon: “We like to talk to our fans. Let them know how we feel. We feel we have to do that.”
The brothers are gathered around a table, except Jackie who sits behind on a chair and Michael who is reclining over by the wall on a square couch affair. He speaks, in his light almost feminine voice.
“What paper you from?”
I tell him.
“The NME? Enemy? Oh wow! Haha.”
Somebody chips in with the obligatory ‘enema’ and there’s much suppressed giggling. Happy days.
Do you scream at each other very much?
Marlon: “Very seldom. We don’t scream.”
Tito: “You can take more stuff from your brother. Like if you told me something, well we might get into a fist-fight. But it must help when you’ve grown up together, peed in the same bed.”
Marlon: “Ah, he did the peeing. I didn’t.”
They all erupt into small verbal exchanges. At the back Michael cuts in.
“Yellow mattress. That’s a good album title.”
It’s already becoming pretty clear that they’d all rather be someplace else. Before we’d began they’d all been extremely keen to find out when they’d be free to get off that day.
They’re all crazed baseball followers and get to most games they can. It occurs to me that they mightn’t feel safe out in the open like that. How do stars of your bracket react to something like the Lennon murder?
Pow! The room goes still. Punctuated only by a few “Oh God that’s awfuls!”.
Michael: “We…we don’t even like to think of it. We don’t wanna talk of it.”
OK so let’s get some stories rolling. What was it like growing up in public as The Jackson 5?
Tito: “Those were fun days.”
Michael: “We talkin’ bout Motown?”
Tito: “Naw, I’m talking about the Peppermint Lounge, Guys and Gals…”
Michael: “Oh yeah…”
Marlon: “Me and Mike we used to sell our photos. Can you believe that? Who would want our photo then? This is when we were working the night clubs till four, five in the morning and be up for school at eight. Yes sir.”
What sort of material did you start with?
Michael: “I think the song that really tore the house down was ‘Skinny Legs And All' by Joe Tex.”
With all the theatrics?
Michael: “Oh yeah. You know I used to go in the audience and lift all the girls’ legs up! God I’m so embarrassed about that. I would never dream of …”
He trails off in a chuckle, raising his hands to his cheeks.
Marlon: “Favourite part of the act – lifting up all them skirts.”
Five minutes of bandying about tales of yore seems to perk them up. It’s Tito and Marlon who do most of the answering from here, and although there’s no signs yet of Michael getting whispered assurance, he does seem to wander mentally sometimes. Transcribing the tape was a pretty dull affair I might tell you.
[The Jacksons] really do believe that repeating those non-committal line-walking platitudes in their songs amounts to some sort of ‘message’. However, Tito and Marlon do have a point when the say:
“Disco music was one of the greatest things that ever happened in the world. Never before did we see blacks and whites under the same roof dancing to the same songs. It stopped people giving attention to the colour of a performer’s skin. It did that. They all had a good time – and it wasn’t just on the night either. I believe they took that attitude outside and home with them.”
Do you think there’s black music in America?
Marlon: “I call black music the blues. The old blues songs.”
Michael: “Or jazz or how rock and roll started. But like that Blondie song ‘Rapture’ – that was originally done by a black artist that didn’t cross over. She did it and it became a big hit.”
Don’t you resent that somehow?
Michael: “Resent it? No, I don’t resent it. I’m proud for her but I wish they were more equal.” He struggles for the right phrase. “Just … more equal…”
The Jacksons refer to what they do as ‘show business’. I wondered if they pay the same attention as film people to awards. They grab at it.
Michael: “We like Grammys.”
Tito: “Oh boy, we want a Grammy badly. Whew, I tell you.”
Tito: “Why? We’ve put a lot of years into this business, a lotta years. And we want one. We want it.”
Michael Jackson is allegedly a big fan of classical music. He fails to elaborate on why but Tito puts in a nice angle.
Tito: “I don’t like that. Well actually, I heard some classical music once – I can’t remember it now – but it really impressed me and I didn’t expect it. But I don’t think I can waltz with my wife to it though …”
The opening to the new album ['Can You Feel It', from 1980's 'Triumph'] is quite grandiose through, right?
Tito: “Well, Michael wrote that bit – hey, Michael. Y’wanna tell him how you wrote that?”
Michael: “Ah well, that opening … I thought … would be a good opening for an album.”
You may have found it hard to distinguish between my earlier mentioned ‘light’ and ‘dark’ posers. So have I. However, these must have come from the light. Anybody got any favourite actors?
They all agree on Richard Pryor.
Michael goes further. “De Niro for me. And Brando. And Pacino.”
I find this list-ette surprising from somebody who, I hear, is very DOWN on swearing. The boys go on to list James Earl Jones and Diana Ross.
“You know,” they say. “The greats.”
Alright, Michael, so what’s all this about you and Diana Ross?
He looks to the floor and flounders a bit.
“We’re just good friends.”
All my life I’ve been waiting for an interview that contained that exchange. Now, I feel, I am a proper journalist.
What, or rather who, makes The Jacksons laff is in little debate. Especially with Michael who really springs to life for the first time here.
“Oh wow, Benny Hill!”
“Uh! Are you kidding – every day! I love Benny Hill. I like him better than Monty Python!”
What is it you like?
“He just do things. You think, how can he think that way to come out with that joke! You never know. He just cracks me up – a genius!”
The Benny Hill thrill causes me to realise that Michael has put down the telephone receiver he has had to his ear for a good stretch of the interview. He never spoke into it, just had it to his head. Several times, when I particularly wanted his answer to something he would apologise for it. What he was listening for/to remains unclear.
Just before the press officer called a close to our audience I couldn’t resist one purely selfish – for us smug Brits – question. I wonder what y’all made of The Sex Pistols?
Marlon: “The Sex…?”
Michael: “They never broke open big here.”
Maybe not broken open but they certainly broke up.
Michael: “The broke up?”
Jackie: “You remember that shooting Marlon?”
I explain the confusion vis-à-vis the sordid deed.
Michael: “Ha! I love that name – Sid Vicious.”
It was at this point that an ugly flavour crept into their comfortable, cheery manner. You see, we needed some photographs and …
Michael: “You want some pictures, like, now? Will we get to see these things first? How come you’re not using CBS’ pictures?”
The excellent folk at Epic press try and explain the NME to a risingly alarmed MJ.
Michael: “Oh come on, look the only thing is we don’t like the way covers come out because they’re not what we like them to be. How come … I mean we don’t have make-up on! I’m sorry really, but we wanna look good for the girls. I don’t wanna be photographed like this.”
He looks healthier, better and thinner than you’ve ever seen. But I guess when you’re used to make-up and the whole bit you need them for more than just covering zits. It’s not safe without them.
Anyway, off go the boys to get ready for the impending press conference and Epic promises to arrange another photo sesh tomorrow, or maybe Thursday.
A cloak of secrecy and protection – over-protection – seems to surround Michael Jackson. Whatever lies at its core won’t be penetrated in a decade. From all the advice and semi-apologies that accompany my meeting with him, I might deduce a kid on the edge.
He is vague, he is in possession of a butterfly thought pattern, and externally he is painfully fragile. Quite unlike his brothers. He’s certainly not a star, a la wonky Streisand. His aloofness stems more from a childlike shyness and apparent lack of confidence in his own conversational voice.
As for all the whispering, phone listening, and attention wandering, well, I’m beat. He struck me at times as having just a touch of the character that Peter Sellers played in 'Being There'. This was never more evident than when we parted. He shook my hand very lightly.
“See you, Michael,” I said. “Mind howya go eh?”
He stood for a second, unblinking and with that ever-present, almost hippyfied smile.
“Thank you,” he began with absent-minded sincerity. “Thank you. I will. I will mind how I go.”
And he slowly walked toward the lift.