By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce,” a puckish German wit once quipped. But were Karl Marx alive today, he would doubtless find both tragedy and comedy in the pedophile scandals of that most egregious piece of late-20th-century detritus, Michael Jackson. War in Iraq, turmoil in Turkey, continued unrest in Israel, mass demonstrations against George W. Bush in London — and in the U.S. every news camera was focused on a celebrity freak. Was it only 10 years ago that the singer-songwriter-skin-lightener-enthusiast was being investigated by the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office for molesting a preteen boy? Now here we are once more with the same D.A. charging an older but obviously none-the-wiser Michael Jackson for allegedly molesting another preteen boy. And now here I am as well, contemplating the self-proclaimed “King of Pop,” his mass-media crown ever askew. So, is it déjà vu all over again? Not quite.
Michael Jackson ’93 wasn’t handcuffed and perp-walked like Michael Jackson ’03. And the deference shown by the mainstream media to a musical superstar has given way to bemused indifference with a performer given to releasing “great hits” collections as new product while selling off his allegedly private life as a series of contrived documentary specials. In fact, the only new song on Number Ones — the album released on the day of Jackson’s new scandal tsunami — is “One More Chance,” a ditty co-written with R. Kelly, another star under investigation for child molestation, albeit with girls. But outside of that, as Edie Beale was wont to say, “Sometimes it’s very difficult to separate the past from the present.”
In 1993, I was writing for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, where we thought we had a full-scale “think”-style profile on our hands — what with Jackson’s show-business past and sex-criminal present to put into perspective. So, to that end I canvassed everyone from screenwriters, producers, plastic surgeons and PR personnel, to testy African-American minister Reverend William Epps (“This is a wake-up call to Michael Jackson, to let him know who he is”), Jackson hagio-biographer J. Randy Taraborelli (“I’d just as soon not have Michael reveal that his girlfriend is Brooke Shields because obviously she’s not. That says more about him than if he would have said, ‘I don’t have a girlfriend’”), famed L.A. muralist Kent Twitchell (who Jackson — via a front organization — was planning to pay to paint the performer’s likeness on the side of the El Capitan theater in Hollywood), and best of all, intrepid telejournalist Diane Dimond (then with Hard Copy, now with Court TV).
“Tom Sneddon, the D.A. in Santa Barbara, is a no-holds-barred graduate of Notre Dame. He’s not a politician,” Dimond told me back in ’93. “He’s a trial lawyer. And he doesn’t do anything for show. I think the case is going to stay open for the remainder of the six-year statute of limitations. All my police sources and investigative sources are telling me, ‘We might not be able to get him because the kid won’t testify — no victim, no crime. But we’re going to leave the case open and watch him like a hawk.’”
And indeed they did — well past the statute of limitations, moving in for a hawklike “kill” thanks to the fact that this time out, the victim hasn’t launched a civil suit like his predecessor, the now 23-year-old Jordie Chandler. Moreover, since that time, the law has changed, making it possible for the authorities to proceed with this new case as they hadn’t with the old one. No civil settlement can now get in the D.A.’s way. It was because of this settlement that my original article was eventually scotched — there being no further story to write. But as the great Mae West said, “Keep a diary, and one day it’ll keep you.” Likewise a reporter’s notes — which could well have been written yesterday rather than a decade ago.
“Michael likes photo books that document suffering,” says Todd Gray, a young African-American who worked as Jackson’s personal photographer (“I was his instant pocket camera”) from 1979 to 1983. “Remember those photos Louis Hine took of kids in sweatshops at the turn of the [20th] century? Michael liked the look of those photos and preferred to be shot like them — looking melancholy and a little distant.” And so, in a culture where appearance is all, Jackson’s aura of fragility — likened by Steven Spielberg to “a fawn in a burning forest” — was not only manufactured as a visual trademark but eagerly disseminated by an unfailingly credulous press as a key personality trait.
Gray, who was thrown out of the Jackson inner circle when he submitted photos of Jackson to Newsweek without the singer’s express approval, observed power plays firsthand. “He freezes people out. He’ll play people off against each other at board meetings — knowing they all want to impress him. And he has a history of changing all the people around him every two albums or so — the accountant, the lawyer, everybody.”