I'll always regret that the last conversation I had with Michael Jackson ended with him angrily hanging up the phone — at least I've long thought of Michael's mood that day more than a decade ago as angry. I now realize the more accurate description would be "wounded."
Michael was at times among the sweetest and most talented people I met during my 35 years of covering pop music for the Los Angeles Times.
I was fortunate to be present at many of his proudest moments. I was in the audience the night in 1983 that he unveiled the electrifying moonwalk on the Motown TV special and in the studio in 1985 for the all-star We Are the World recording session. I also was with him at the family house in Encino soon after he purchased the Beatles song catalog in 1985.
But even all this wasn't enough to prevent me from seeing Michael as one of the most fragile and lonely people I've ever met. His heart may have finally stopped beating June 25, but it had been fatally broken long ago.
During weekends I spent with him on the road during the Jacksons' "Victory" tour in 1984, I learned that he was so traumatized by events during his late teens — notably the public rejection by fans who missed the "little" Michael of the Jackson 5 days — that as an adult he relied desperately on his fame to protect him from further pain. That overruling need for celebrity was at the root of his tragedy.
I first met Michael in the early days of the Jackson 5 at the family home in Los Angeles, and the memory that stands out was that Michael, as cute and wide-eyed as an 11-year-old could be, was eager to get through the interview so he could watch cartoons before having to go to bed.
By the time I caught up with him again a decade later, his personality had changed radically. That happy-go-lucky kid was nowhere to be found.
Michael's sales had fallen off dramatically in the mid 1970s, and by the time he re-emerged with the hit Off the Wall album in 1979, he was forever scarred emotionally. There's often a gap between a performer's public and private sides, but rarely is it as noticeable as it was with Michael.
Sitting at the rear of the tour bus after a triumphant concert in St. Louis in 1981, Michael was anxious, frequently bowing his head as he whispered answers to my questions. In contrast to the charismatic, strutting figure on stage, he wrestled with a Bambi-like shyness. Despite the resurgence in sales, he complained of feeling alone — almost abandoned. He was 23.
When I asked why he didn't live on his own like his brothers rather than at his parents' house, he said, "Oh, no, I think I'd die on my own. I'd be so lonely. Even at home, I'm lonely. I sit in my room and sometimes cry. It is so hard to make friends, and there are some things you can't talk to your parents or family about. I sometimes walk around the neighborhood at night, just hoping to find someone to talk to. But I just end up coming home."
That's as far as Michael could go that night to explain his deep-rooted anguish. It would be four more years before he was willing to tell me more.
Michael had signed a book deal with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, an editor at Doubleday, before the "Victory" tour, and he wanted me to help him write it. I spent several weekends on the road with him during the tour. The problem, I soon discovered, was that Michael — who guarded his privacy at all costs — simply wanted to put together a picture book, while Onassis wanted a revealing, full-scale biography.
After a showdown between the two, Michael's longtime attorney and friend John Branca called to thank me for my efforts on Michael's behalf, but said that Doubleday was going in a different direction, and my involvement ended.
During our time together, however, the conversations with Michael led — once the tape recorder was off — sometimes to darker moments from his past. One night when we were going through a stack of old photos, a picture of him at 17 served as a trigger for a sudden openness.
"Oh, that's horrible," he said, recoiling from the picture.
Michael explained his face was so covered with acne and that his nose so large at the time the photo was taken that people wouldn't even recognize him — a rejection so painful that it contributed to a personality change in him, he said. "They would come up, look me straight in the eye and ask if I know where that 'cute little Michael' was." It was, he added, like the "whole world was saying, 'How dare you grow up on us.' "
After repeated rejection, Michael said, he started looking down at the floor when people approached or would just stay in his room when visitors came to the family house in Encino.
Michael vowed after those wounds to do whatever it took to make people "love me again." The rejection fueled his ambition to be the biggest pop star in the world and to try to make his face beautiful. Unfortunately, Michael's need was so great that no amount of love seemed to be enough.
Michael's main sanctuary, however, was on stage, where he would be larger than life and no one could threaten him. Every time he left the stage, he said, he felt vulnerable again.
In the 1981 interview, he told me, "My real goal is to fulfill God's purpose. I didn't choose to sing or dance. But that's my role, and I want to do it better than anybody else. I still remember the first time I sang in kindergarten class. I sang Climb Ev'ry Mountain, and everyone got so excited.
"It's beautiful at the shows when people join together. It's our own little world. For that hour and a half, we try to show there is hope and goodness. It's only when you step back outside the building that you see all the craziness."
Sadly, though, the insecurities of his teen years left Michael hungry for more fame and success; a hunger that struck me as increasingly obsessive and unhealthy.
Even though 1982's Thriller was the biggest-selling album of all time, Michael told me one night that his next album would sell twice as many copies. I thought he was joking, but he was never more serious.
As years went by, I watched with sadness as his music went from the wonderful self-affirmation and endearing spirit of Thriller to something increasingly calculated and soulless. It appeared that his desperate need for this ultra stardom — the "King of Pop" proclamation — and his escalating eccentricities made it increasingly difficult for audiences to identify with him.
Even some of his Thriller fans ultimately were turned off by what struck them as megalomania. In the public mind, he went from "King of Pop" to "King of Hype."
When I surveyed leading record industry executives in 1995 to determine pop's hottest properties, Michael wasn't in the Top 20.
One executive said, "The thing he doesn't understand is that he'd be better off in the long run if he made a great record that only went to No. 20 than if he hyped another mediocre record to No. 1. The thing he needs is credibility."
Another executive said, more simply, that Michael was "over."
This second public rejection must have been mortifying for Michael to read, because he was furious when he called me the day after the story ran in the Los Angeles Times.
How could I betray him by writing such lies? Couldn't I see the record executives were just jealous?
I listened and tried gently to tell him that I thought there was some truth in what the executives were saying and that he had lost touch with the emotional qualities that once made him so endearing.
"That hurts me, Robert," he said, his voice quivering.
I felt bad.
I started to say that he could be as big as ever if he would only . . . but I couldn't complete the sentence.
Michael hung up.
After that, I followed his life from a distance — the child molestation charges, the battle with painkillers, the marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, the increasingly eccentric lifestyle.
Although he would periodically announce recording projects or touring plans, I couldn't imagine, after all the humiliation and disappointment, that Michael could find the strength to step in front of the public again. I thought the fear of failure was too much. It was easier to stay in a fantasyland.
So I was surprised when he announced that he was returning to the stage in a few weeks and was even more surprised when he sold out 50 nights at the O2 Arena in London.
Maybe Michael was stronger than I thought. It took enormous courage to be willing to go back on stage for what could be a make-or-break moment for him — and the ticket demand must have given him hope. Despite all that had happened, he saw that he was still loved by millions of fans.
In the best scenario, Michael, 50, would have triumphed in London, not only erasing his mountain of debt but restoring to him the sense of invincibility that fame once represented. Failure in those shows, however, could have left him even more wounded and vulnerable.
As the July shows neared, I imagined Michael's anxiety mounting day by day, even hour by hour.
There must have been days when he felt that he could do it. With a series of breathtaking performances, Michael could reclaim his crown and stand forever alongside Elvis Presley and the Beatles in pop music lore.
But what if he was wrong?
What if he wasn't strong enough, physically and emotionally?
What if he couldn't live up to expectations?
What if no amount of love could make him feel safe again?
The stress at times must have been immense and, maybe, just too much for his already broken heart.
Robert Hilburn was the Los Angeles Times' pop music critic from 1970 to 2005. Parts of this report are excerpted from his memoir, "Corn Flakes With John Lennon, and Other Tales From a Rock 'n' Roll Life," which will be published in October.