How reality came to Neverland: the King of Pop's disastrous demise
Kevin Courtneyreviews Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson By Randall Sullivan Grove Press UK, 776pp, £25
In his sprawling but bizarrely fascinating and forensic examination of Michael Jackson’s final years, Randall Sullivan follows the downward trajectory of the late superstar’s life, from the high-point of his Thriller album to the pitiful, disconnected figure he cut during his last decade.
It was in 1993 that the foundations of Jacko’s fantasy kingdom began to disintegrate beneath his moonwalking feet. Jackson was in Asia, finishing his megasuccessful Dangerous World Tour, when he learned that prosecutors in California were launching a criminal investigation against him, after he was accused by Jordy Chandler, a young boy whose family he had befriended, of child molestation. Jackson’s signature crotch-grabbing dance had once been a sign of his musical potency; now he had to endure the humiliation of having his genitals photographed by police so they could corroborate his accuser’s story. It was the beginning of the end for Jackson, but, as this book painfully reveals, the star was so divorced from reality that he was unable to deal with the truth of his situation.
By the end of the century Jackson the pop star was yesterday’s man, unable to repeat his huge successes of the 1980s and early 1990s. His attempts to bludgeon the public with his King of Pop shtick smacked of desperation. When he sent giant statues of himself floating down major rivers to publicise his HiStory album, people were nonplussed, and when his vainglorious performance at the Brit Awards was famously skewered by Jarvis Cocker’s stage invasion, it seemed as if the helium was leaking out of the king’s big balloon.
Sullivan, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, was dispatched to cover the story of Jackson’s death; the article expanded into a book detailing the final four years of the star’s life, with his career “brush-stroked” in, as Sullivan puts it.
It’s a little more than that. True, the focus is on the twilight years leading up to his death, but there are reams of well-researched information on Jackson’s life. It’s not the definitive biography, but you won’t find a better reconstruction of Jackson’s final days and their messy aftermath: the family wrangling over his estate and his children’s welfare, and the trial of Jackson’s personal doctor, Conrad Murray, who was accused of causing the star’s death and was eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Jackson was untouchable in more ways than one. When he was at the top of his game no one could come near him for sheer musical talent and unerring pop instinct. When he was being investigated for alleged child molestation in the early 1990s, there was a sense that the massed forces of LA justice couldn’t get to him, so well cushioned was he by his fame and his carefully constructed wall of privacy. But when he was brought to trial in Santa Barbara in 2005, indicted by a grand jury, no one would touch him with a bargepole; his showbiz friends suddenly disappeared.
On the wall over his bed in Neverland, his 1,000-hectare California ranch, Jackson had a painting of the Last Supper, with himself as Jesus and Einstein, Thomas Edison, JFK, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney and Little Richard among the apostles. He was, writes Sullivan, fascinated by figures who died young, and noted that many of them fell foul of the same twin evils: sex and drugs. By 2005, when he was acquitted of all charges of child molestation, Jackson was a shadow of his former wiry, agile self; sickly, emaciated and weak, he had to be helped into court to hear the verdicts. “Not guilty by reason of celebrity,” raged one TV pundit, echoing the feeling among media and public that the jury was overawed by Jackson.
Two days after his acquittal, and facing financial ruin after years of profligate spending, Jackson quit Neverland with his children, Prince Michael, Paris and “Blanket”, and began a nomadic existence that saw him flit between Bahrain, Paris, London, Germany and Ireland. He stayed in Ballinacurra House, in Co Cork, and Luggala Castle, in Co Wicklow, and spent several months at Grouse Lodge recording studios, in Co Westmeath, where he began working on his comeback album with Will.I.Am, and became friends with Grouse Lodge’s owner, Paddy Dunning.
Jackson read The Irish Times every day, and liked to listen to local traditional musicians. There was no outward sign of Jackson’s famed oddness, said Dunning. “We just saw a pure and utter gentleman who was an extremely great parent to his kids.”
Jackson also struck up a professional relationship with one of Ireland’s top cosmetic surgeons, Dr Patrick Treacy, director of the Ailesbury Clinic in Dublin. (Jackson’s apparent addiction to plastic surgery, which, notoriously, transformed his appearance, stemmed from when, as a teenager, his siblings teased him for his “big nose” and “liver lips”.) When Jackson wanted to visit the Limerick children who had been badly burned in a car during a gang-related attack, Treacy advised him that visiting a paediatric hospital would not look good so soon after his court case.
When Jackson announced a string of 10 concerts at London’s O2 arena for March 2009, a plan that soon expanded to 50 dates, many wondered if the star was physically and mentally up to the gargantuan task he’d signed up for. In the event he never even made it to the first show; following a rehearsal at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Jackson died of an overdose of the anaesthetic propofol at his rented home in LA. Sullivan reconstructs that last night in macabre detail.
In the end this is the story of Peter Pan with a nasty twist. The magic failed him, and when the world was finally able to touch him he crumbled into stardust.