Chapter 11

Michael Jackson’s expected arrival at the 2006 World Music Awards ceremony was being framed by the newspapers in London as a shot at recovery, if not redemption. Jackson’s last appearance on an English stage had been almost ten years earlier, at the 1996 BRIT Awards, where his performance of the best-loved number from the HIStory album, “Earth Song,” was disrupted by a particularly memorable protest against celebrity self-importance.

HIStory’s $30 million publicity campaign had been launched in the summer of 1995. When the executives at Sony met with him in the spring of 1995 to discuss how they would promote the album and the world tour that was to follow, Michael suggested, “Build a statue of me.” Sony built nine statues, each one a thirty-two-foot-tall construction of steel and fiberglass that depicted Jackson in his familiar pseudo-military garb with a bandolier strung across his chest, fists clenched at his hips as he gazed off into the distance. They were distributed in dramatic fashion to strategically selected European cities in June 1995. The scene that surrounded the giant crane that had lowered the Michael Jackson statue to the Alexanderplatz in Berlin was surreal to say the least, but even that didn’t compare to the sensation created by the giant Jackson statue that was floated down the River Thames aboard a barge in London. “Excessive” and “over the top” were among the milder criticisms made of the statue campaign; critics in several countries declared themselves “nauseated.” The distribution of the statues was followed shortly thereafter by the release of a “teaser” video that had cost $4 million and showed the real Michael Jackson costumed in the same way his statues were as he strode regally past hundreds of hired Hungarian soldiers who were surrounded by thousands of frenzied fans. “The clip doesn’t just stop at representing previously known levels of Michael mania,” wrote Chris Willman in the Los Angeles Times, “it goes well beyond the bounds of self-congratulation to become perhaps the most baldly vainglorious self-deification a pop singer has yet deigned to share with his public, at least with a straight face.”

That summer’s publicity campaign had included a joint interview of Michael and his new bride, Lisa Marie Presley, by Diane Sawyer for ABC’s Primetime Live. Seen by some sixty million viewers in the United States alone, the Sawyer interview demonstrated that Jackson’s ability to attract an audience was undiminished. The undisguised point of it all, though, had been to answer the questions that lingered after the settlement of the claims made against Michael by Jordan Chandler, and in this the interview had failed miserably. The most memorable moment had come when Michael told Sawyer that he saw no reason to abandon his sleepovers with children. The deer-in-headlights expression on Presley’s face produced a public outpouring of pity for her.

The 1996 BRIT Awards were held for the first time at London’s Earls Court. A significant minority of the audience had gagged on Bob Geldof’s introduction and presentation of a special “Artist of a Generation” award to Jackson: “When he sings, it is with the voice of angels. When his feet move, you can see God dancing.” Singing and dancing amidst a multicolored collection of clapping, chanting children, Jackson had struck what appeared to be a Christ-like pose as he stepped onto a platform and was hoisted above the crowd. Many of the audience’s younger members began to shake their heads. Just as the performance of “Earth Song” came to a crescendo, Jarvis Cocker, front man for the band Pulp, “invaded the stage,” as it was described in newspaper stories, to pantomime what appeared to be a highly stylized fart directed at Jackson.

Bundled off the stage by security, Cocker was detained and questioned by police on suspicion of assault but eventually released without being charged. The initial condemnation of Cocker’s “rude display” was swiftly overtaken by congratulations for his nervy defiance of an overblown idol. Many applauded when Cocker answered criticism in the press by stating, “My actions were a form of protest at the way Michael Jackson sees himself as some kind of Christ-like figure with the power of healing.” Noel Gallagher, leader of what was then Britain’s biggest band, Oasis, promptly suggested that Jarvis Cocker should be made a Member of the British Empire. The nation’s most influential music magazine, Melody Maker, also demanded that Cocker be knighted. Pulp’s record sales soared, even as “Earth Song” began to fall from the charts, and a $50,000 waxwork statue of Cocker was placed in London’s Rock Circus. Over the next few months, Jarvis Cocker became an icon of cool in England while Michael Jackson turned into a symbol of all that was passé in pop music.

Now, nearly a full decade since the BRIT Awards debacle, Michael was returning to Earls Court. Even before his arrival in London the city’s tabloids were reporting that Jackson had infuriated World Music Awards organizers with a half-million dollars of last-minute demands that included twenty first-class plane tickets and the erection of an eighteen-foot-high temporary wall around the Hempel Hotel in Bayswater, which he and his entourage had taken over at a cost of $80,000 per night.

At Earls Court, Michael’s failure to appear on the red carpet to greet the thousands of fans who had come out to see him got the evening off to a bad start. Tensions mounted when the crowd discovered that Jackson would not be joining Chris Brown’s performance of “Thriller,” as had been promised in the newspapers. The disappointed audience drowned out Brown’s solo and several performances that followed with boos, claps, and chants for “Michael!” When Jackson finally took the stage (after being introduced by host Lindsay Lohan as “a god”) to join a choir for a gospel-inflected version of “We Are the World,” he seemed “overawed and petrified,” as an audience member quoted by the Mirror put it. Michael sang only the chorus of the song before abruptly stopping, throwing his Roberto Cavalli jacket into the front row, then repeatedly telling the audience how much he loved them. There was little love coming back. Boos rained down from every corner of Earls Court as he surrendered the stage to Rihanna, whose performance of her hit “Unfaithful” was largely drowned out by the raging crowd. Critics savaged Jackson in the next morning’s newspapers, describing his performance as “embarrassing” and “a shambles.” Michael’s inability to explain what had happened—he told reporters only that it had all been “a misunderstanding”—further irritated the media, which mocked him for days afterward.

“Michael Jackson is beyond hope,” wrote one London columnist, and plenty of his colleagues seemed to agree. There was a new level of unattributed nastiness in the reporting on Jackson. One story described him as “a truly macabre figure” who was “so prone to panic attacks that he cuts himself off from human contact for days.” British press reports also called Jackson a “germaphobe” who hadn’t appeared on the red carpet at Earls Court because he was terrified of being touched by fans. An anonymous associate said Michael had become so lacking in self-confidence that he couldn’t bring himself to speak aloud.

The catastrophe of Jackson’s appearance at Earls Court chilled his relationship with Raymone Bain, who had served as his intermediary with the World Music Awards organizers. Bain did her best to put out the story that Michael’s performance of “We Are the World” had been stopped short when someone backstage inexplicably cut off the sound, but that was swiftly and furiously denied by a spokesman for the show’s organizers. The music blog PopRevenge disclosed that “Jackson’s people” had been so inept that they allowed one of its reporters to infiltrate the chorus that was to perform with Michael: “Nobody asked if I could sing or dance or knew the song,” the young woman told London newspapers.

By the time he returned to Ireland, Jackson was so distraught that he dispatched Bain to announce that he would not be traveling to Japan for a “premium Christmas party” event on December 20 that had been planned months earlier. Badly as he needed the $250,000 cash payment, Michael insisted that the event be canceled, resulting in a degree of excoriation he had never before experienced from the Japanese media. He promptly agreed to make a trip to Tokyo in the spring to “host” a buffet dinner and concert by Michael Jackson impersonators, but this did not entirely quell the criticisms of his “insensitivity to the Japanese people” that appeared on the editorial pages of newspapers.

By mid-December, the dank chill of the Irish winter was working its way into his bones, and the cold front that the London tabloids were sending his way across St. George’s Channel made the temperature feel freezing. He began to long for heat and light, and to ask if perhaps he had been out of the United States long enough to be missed. Three days before Christmas, he helped his children finish packing, then called for the limousine that would carry them all, plus Grace, to Cork Airport. While preparing to go, Michael gave the Dunnings his television set, a box of toys that had been bought for Prince, Paris, and Blanket, and the collection of hats he had worn during his stay in County Westmeath. He signed a slice of tree trunk, just as all guests at Grouse Lodge were asked to do, and left a page-size signature in the visitors book. As Michael left, he thanked the Dunnings for never once asking him to moonwalk, then told Paddy and Claire that they were “the only people who have never asked me for a photograph.” There were tears in his eyes as he walked out the door.

Two hours later, Michael, Grace, and the kids were aboard a private jet that flew into the setting sun. At least in America they would give him something to help him sleep.

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