You Are Not Alone_Michael, Through a Brother’s Eyes (2 page)

BOOK: You Are Not Alone_Michael, Through a Brother’s Eyes
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We’ve arranged ‘Plan B’ without his knowledge, but when I had told him not to worry because every scenario is covered, he will have suspected something, without wishing to know. He doesn’t need to. Not yet.

I have negotiated with myself that the moment Tom Meserau starts to suggest that the scales of justice are tilting against us, I will action the plan and move him to the airport in the San Fernando Valley, outside L.A. We’ll sneak him out of Neverland under a blanket, during the night. Or something. In the meantime, I resolve to play it hour by hour because, so far, Tom has said nothing other than ‘yes, that was a good day for us’, even when the testimony
sounded
horrible. He knows the evidential nuances, and when the prosecution is swinging with its punches and missing. We’ve quickly learned not to judge the trial by its truncated media
coverage. So, I bide my time, but this trust takes all my power and has me writing messages on bathroom mirrors.

As I hit the road and drive south on auto-pilot, I start to wonder where Michael resources the strength and belief that is pulling him through this. I feel immense pride in him – at a time when he is presumed guilty until proven innocent by a media coverage that is unbalanced. It trumpets the weird and titillating testimony, leaving valid defence points as a postscript. I remember what Michael said at the start of these proceedings in 2003: ‘Lies run in sprints, but the truth runs in marathons … and the truth will win.’ The truest lyric he never sang.

I start to visualise him walking free from the criminal court. I picture it like a scene in a movie. When this is over, I will do everything I can to clear his name in the public arena. The worst will be behind us. There will be nothing else they can throw at him. And I will defend him because I know what makes him tick – his heart, his soul, his spirit, his purpose. I know the boy inside the superstar’s costume. I know the brother from 2300 Jackson Street. We have been in sync since infancy, throughout everything: the dream, the Jackson 5, the fame, the separate paths, the rifts, the sorrows, the scandals, and the impossible pressure. He has cried with me. I have shouted in his face. He has refused to see me. He has begged me to be with him. We have known each other’s loyalty and each other’s unintended betrayal. And it is because of everything contained within this history – this brotherhood – that I know his character and mind like only true blood can.

One day, I tell myself – when 2005 is behind us – people will give him a break and attempt understanding, not judgement. They’ll treat him with the same gentleness and compassion he extended to everyone else. They’ll cast aside their preconceived ideas and view him not just through his music but as a human being: imperfect, complex, fallible. Someone very different from his external image.

One day, the truth will win the marathon …

THE BEGINNING

THE EARLY YEARS

CHAPTER ONE
Eternal Child

MICHAEL WAS STANDING BESIDE ME –
I was about eight, he was barely four – with his elbows on the sill and his chin resting in his hands. We were looking into the dark from our bedroom window as the snow fell on Christmas Eve, leaving us both in awe. It was coming down so thick and fast that our neighbourhood seemed beneath some heavenly pillow fight, each floating feather captured in the clear haze of one streetlight. The three homes opposite were bedecked in mostly multicoloured bulbs, but one particular family, the Whites, had decorated their whole place with clear lights, complete with a Santa on the lawn and glowing-nosed reindeers. They had white lights trimming the roof, lining the pathway and festooned in the windows, blinking on and off, framing the fullest tree we had seen.

We observed all this from inside a home with no tree, no lights, no nothing. Our tiny house, on the corner of Jackson Street with 23rd Avenue, was the only one without decoration. We felt it was the only one in Gary, Indiana, but Mother assured us that, no, there were other homes and other Jehovah’s Witnesses who did not
celebrate Christmas, like Mrs Macon’s family two streets up. But that knowledge did nothing to clear our confusion: we could see something that made us feel good, yet we were told it wasn’t good for us. Christmas wasn’t God’s will: it was commercialism. In the run-up to 25 December we felt as if we were witnessing an event to which we were not invited, and yet we still felt its forbidden spirit.

At our window, we viewed everything from a cold, grey world, looking into a shop where everything was alive, vibrant and sparkling with colour; where children played in the street with their new toys, rode new bikes or pulled new sleds in the snow. We could only imagine what it was to know the joy we saw on their faces. Michael and I played our own game at that window: pick a snowflake under the streetlight, track its descent and see which one was the first to ‘stick’. We observed the flakes tumble, separated in the air, united on the ground, dissolved into one. That night we must have watched and counted dozens of them before we fell quiet.

Michael looked sad – and I can see myself now, looking down on him from an eight-year-old’s height, feeling that same sadness. Then he started to sing:

‘Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way

Oh what fun it is to ride,

On a one-horse open sleigh …’

It is my first memory of hearing his voice, an angelic sound. He sang softly so that Mother wouldn’t hear. I joined in and we started making harmony. We sang verses of ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Little Drummer Boy’. Two boys carol-singing on the doorstep of our exclusion, songs we’d heard at school, not knowing that singing would be our profession.

As we sang, the grin on Michael’s face was pure joy because we had stolen a piece of magic. We were happy briefly. But then we stopped, because this temporary sensation only reminded us that we were pretending to participate and the next morning would be
like any other. I’ve read many times that Michael did not like Christmas, based on our family’s lack of celebration. This was not true. It had not been true since that moment as a four-year-old when he said, staring at the Whites’ house: ‘When I’m older, I’ll have lights. Lots of lights. It will be Christmas every day.’

 

‘GO FASTER! GO FASTER!’ MICHAEL SHRIEKED,
hitting an early high note. He was sitting tucked up in the front of a shopping cart – knees to chin – while Tito, Marlon and I were running and pushing it down 23rd Avenue, me with both hands on the handlebar, and my two brothers either side as the wheels wobbled and bounced off the road on a summer’s day. We built up speed and powered forward like a bobsleigh team. Except this, in our minds, was a train. We’d find two, sometimes three, shopping carts from the nearby Giants supermarket and couple them together. Giants was about three blocks away, located across the sports field at the back of our home, but its carts were often abandoned and strewn about the streets, so they were easy to commandeer. Michael was ‘the driver’.

He was mad about Lionel toy trains – small, but weighty model steam engines and locomotives, packaged in orange boxes. Whenever Mother took us shopping for clothes at the Salvation Army, he always darted upstairs to the toy section to see if anyone had donated a second-hand Lionel train set. So, in his imagination, our shopping carts became two or three carriages, and 23rd Avenue was the straight section of track. It was a train that went too fast to pick up other passengers, thundering along, as Michael provided the sound effects. We hit the buffers when 23rd Avenue ran into a dead-end, about 50 yards from the back of our house.

If Michael wasn’t on the street playing trains, he was on the carpet in our shared bedroom with his prized Lionel engine. Our parents couldn’t afford to buy him a new one, or invest in an electric-train set, complete with full length track, station, and signal boxes. That is why the dream of owning a train set was in his head long before the dream of performing.

 

SPEED. I’M CONVINCED OUR EXCITEMENT AS
kids was built on the thrill of speed. Whatever we did involved going faster, trying to outgun one another. Had our father known the extent of our thirst for speed, he would have banned it for sure: the potential for injury was always considered a grave risk to our career.

Once we grew bored of the shopping-cart trains, we built ‘go-karts’, constructed from boxes, stroller wheels and planks of wood from a nearby junkyard. Tito was the ‘engineer’ of the brotherhood and he had the know-how in putting everything together. He was forever dismantling clocks and radios, and re-assembling them on the kitchen table, or watching Joseph under the hood of his Buick parked at the side of the house, so he knew where our father’s tool box was. We hammered together three planks to form an I-shaped chassis and axle. We nailed the open cockpit – a square wooden box – on top, and took cord from a clothes line for our steering mechanism, looping it through the front wheels, held like reins. In truth, our turning circle was about as tight as an oil tanker’s, so we only ever travelled in straight lines.

The wide open alleyway at the back of our house – with a row of grassy backyards on one side and a chain-link fence on the other – was our race-track, and it was all about the ‘race’. We often patched together two go-karts, with Tito pushing Marlon, and me pushing Michael in a 50-yard dash. There was always that sense of competition between us: who could go faster, who would be the winner.

‘Go, go, go, GO!’ yelled Michael, leaning forward, urging us into the lead. Marlon hated losing, too, so Michael always had fierce competition. Marlon was the boy who never understood why he couldn’t out-run his own shadow. I can picture him now: sprinting through the street, looking down to his side, with a fierce determination on his face that turned to exasperation when he couldn’t put space between himself and his clinging shadow.

We pushed those go-karts until the metal brackets were scraping along the street, and the wheels buckled or fell off, with Michael tipped up on his side and me laughing so hard I couldn’t stand.

The merry-go-round in the local school field was another thrill-ride. Crouch down in the centre of its metal base, hold on tight to the iron stanchions, and get the brothers to spin it as fast as they could. ‘Faster! Faster! Faster!’ Michael squealed, eyes tight shut, giggling hard. He used to straddle the stanchions, like he was on a horse, going round and round and round. Eyes closed. Wind in the face.

We all dreamed of riding the train, racing the go-karts and spinning on a proper carousel at Disney.

 

WE KNEW MR LONG WAY BEFORE
we had heard of Roald Dahl. To us, he was the original African-American Willy Wonka; this magical man – white hair, wizened features, leathery dark skin – dished out candy from his house the next avenue up, on 22nd,
en route
to our elementary school at the far end of Jackson Street.

Many kids beat a path to Mr Long’s door because his younger brother went to our school. Knowing Timothy meant we got a good deal, two to five cents being good value for a little brown bag full of liquorice, shoe strings, Lemonheads, Banana Splits – you name it, he had them all neatly spread out on a single bed in a front room. Mr Long didn’t smile or say very much, but we looked forward to seeing him on school mornings. We grasped at our orders and he dutifully filled the bags. Michael
loved
candy and that morning ritual brightened the start of each day. How we got the money is a whole other story that I will reserve for later.

We each protected our brown paper bags of candy like gold and back at the house, inside our bedroom, we all had different hiding places which each brother would try and figure out. My hide-out was under the bed or mattress, and I always got busted, but Michael squirreled his away somewhere good because we never did find it. As adults, whenever I reminded him of this, he chuckled at the memory. That is how Michael laughed throughout his life: a mesh-up of a chuckle, a snicker, a giggle; always shy, often self-conscious. Michael loved playing shop: he’d create his counter by laying a board across a pile of books, then a tablecloth,
and then he’d spread out his candy. This ‘shop’ was set up in the doorway to our bedroom, or on the lowest bunk-bed, with him kneeling behind, awaiting orders. We traded with each other, swapping or using change kept from Mr Long, or from a nickel found in the street.

But Michael was destined to be an entertainer, not a savvy businessman. That seemed obvious when our father challenged him about getting home late from school one afternoon. ‘Where were you?’ asked Joseph.

‘I went to get some candy,’ said Michael.

‘How much you pay for it?’

‘Five cents.’

‘How much you going to re-sell it for?’

‘Five cents.’

Joseph clipped him around the head. ‘You don’t re-sell something for the same price you bought it!’

Typical Michael: always too fair, never ruthless enough. ‘Why can’t I give it for five cents?’ he said, in the bedroom. The logic was lost on him and he was upset over the undeserved whack on the head. I left him on the bed, muttering under his breath as he sorted his candy into piles, no doubt still playing shop in his head.

Days later, Joseph found him in the backyard, giving out candy from across the chain-link fence to other kids from the street. The kids who were less fortunate than us – and he was mobbed. ‘How much you sell ’em for?’ Joseph asked.

‘I didn’t. I gave them away for free.’

 

EIGHTEEN HUNDRED MILES AWAY, AND MORE
than 20 years later, I visited Michael at his ranch, Neverland Valley, in the Santa Ynez region of California. He had spent time and money turning his vast acres into a theme park and the family went to check out his completed world. Neverland has always been portrayed as the outlandish creation of ‘a wild imagination’ with the suggestion that a love of Disney was its sole inspiration. Elements of this may be correct, but the truth runs much deeper, and this was something I
knew immediately when I saw with my own eyes what he had built.

Childhood memories were brought to life in a giant flashback: white Christmas lights trimming the sidewalk, the pathway, the trees, the frame and guttering of his English Tudor mansion. He had them turned on all year round to ensure that ‘it was Christmas every day.’ A huge steam train with carriages ran between the shops and the movie theatre, and a miniature train toured the circumference of the estate, via the zoo. In the main house – through the doors, passed the welcoming, model life-size butler with tray, up the wide stairway and down the hallway – was the playroom. Inside, beyond the full-size Superman and Darth Vader at the door, was the biggest table dominating the room. On it, a vintage Lionel train set was always running: two or three trains travelling the tracks with lights on, around a model landscape of hills, valleys, towns and waterfalls. Inside the house and out, Michael had built himself the biggest electric train set you could ever imagine.

Back outside, there was a full-on professional go-kart track with chicanes and tight bends, and the merry-go-round was spinning to music, a beautiful carousel of ornate horses. There was a candy store too, where everything was free, and a Christmas tree lit up all year round. In 2003, Michael said he developed the ranch ‘to create everything that I never had as a child.’ But it was also about re-creating what he
had
enjoyed for too short a time, rebuilding it in an exaggerated version. He called himself a ‘fantasy fanatic’ and this was his eternal fantasy.

Neverland brought back our lost days because that is how he perceived his childhood – as a missing person; an inner child wandering around his past looking to somehow reconnect with him in the future. It wasn’t a refusal to grow up because if you asked him, he never felt like he was a boy in the first place. Michael was expected to be an adult when he was a kid, and he regressed into a kid when he was expected to be an adult. He was more Benjamin Button than the Peter Pan comparison he made himself. However much I might remember laughter in our childhood, he
struggled to recall it, which probably had a lot to do with the fact that I am four years older.

A friend, a nephew and I took quad bikes to explore Neverland’s 2,700 acres, which seemed endless, rolling beyond every green horizon, scattered with oak trees. One dusty fire road took us climbing to the highest peak, far away from the developed area, and a plateau, providing a 360-degree vista. My eyes scanned it all – the property, the theme park, the lake, the ferris wheel, the trains, the greenery – and it filled me with awe and pride.
Look at what you’ve created
, I said to my brother in my head, and repeated to him later.

‘A place of ultimate happiness,’ he told me.

The later warped perception of Neverland shows how Michael was judged on the face value of his world and, in many cases, on the claims of others. There only ever seemed to be lurid judgements about him and his ranch without any attempt to figure out the more complex ‘why?’. As with everyone, his background shaped him. But fame – especially the iconic status attached to my brother – built a public barrier as big as a dam in front of his need to be understood. But to understand him, we need to walk in his shoes and see life from
his
perspective. As Michael said in 2003, in a message to his fans via Ed Bradley at CBS: ‘If you really want to know about me, there’s a song I wrote. It’s called “Childhood”. That’s the one song people should listen to …’

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