My surreal 1980 interview with Michael Jackson: ‘Direct your questions to Janet; she’ll put them to Michael’

He was topping the charts with Off the Wall, and already being hailed as a genius – but even aged 21, the young musician was showing worrying signs of what was to come

In January 1980, the gates of 4641 Hayvenhurst Avenue in Encino, California, were open, unguarded. The record-company PR greeted me at the door, and I waded after her through shaggy ivory carpet. Overhead, chandeliers twinkled like lights in an elfin grotto.

“One thing,” she said, as if it were an insignificant point she had just remembered. “You don’t mind if his sister sits in on the interview, do you?”

“Of course not. What’s her name?”

“Janet. Oh, and one more thing. If you could direct your questions to Janet, she’ll put them to Michael.”

My mouth opened to query this extraordinary request, but the arm that had been barring my way was behind me now, launching me through a double doorway and down several steps into the presence of he-who-must-not-be-addressed-directly.

Michael and Janet Jackson in 1978.
Michael and Janet Jackson in 1978. Photograph: BEI/Shutterstock

Michael Jackson stood up. I stuck out my hand and so did he. I held his flimsy fingers with unaccustomed care, suddenly fearful that I might hurt him. Jackson was stick thin, with fine skin and feeble hairs on his cheeks and chin that had never met a razor. His face was brown, haloed by an afro, and his nose was his own. The voice that welcomed me was tremulous. When I turned to say hello to Janet, she grinned as if this might all be a game. Jackson sat down again, and I perched on a hassock between brother and sister, separated by the glass top of a low table.

I found out later that I wasn’t the only interviewer who had been asked to go along with the wacky ritual of using the then 13-year-old Janet as a conduit for questions. While it was happening, I was too taken aback – and too concerned that a transgression of this ridiculous rule might bring the interview to an abrupt end – to ponder Jackson’s motives. In the end, I concluded that what Jackson craved was the erection of a protective barrier between himself and the rest of the world, symbolised by his habitual wearing in public of dark glasses, and later, several notches more bizarrely, a mask.

As his fame spread across the globe, his behaviour became incrementally erratic. He dressed like a foppish despot, pampered himself with the gewgaws of a princeling, raised a drawbridge between himself and the outside world, eventually completing his metamorphosis into a fairground-owning, chimp-hugging, toddler-dangling, pigmentation-denying, underage-bed-sharing, cosmetic-surgery-junkie.

I missed the media-shunning: one of the first symptoms of his unravelling. In the whole of 1982, he would grant just one interview, to Rolling Stone, and hardly any after that until his interview with Oprah in 1993. But in January 1980, with his Off the Wall album cresting the album charts and its sublime stand-out track, Rock with You, a No 1 single, he agreed to be interviewed by me for Capital radio, an excerpt of which appears in a new documentary by Spike Lee.

“Yes ... so, er, I was going to ... I mean, um …” I began, looking from one Jackson to the other, unsure whose eyes to settle on, “… if we could sort of go back to er … to er, you know, when you got started … er, when the Jackson Five got started … um, I was going to ask Michael how … they … fitted in to the Motown set-up?”

Jackson performing Don’t Stop till You Get Enough

A pause.

“Michael, how did you fit into the Motown set-up?”

Thank you, Janet. Yes, that’s what I was trying to say.

A longer pause.

“Errrrrr …” Jackson’s own hesitation was prolonged and curiously musical. If it had cropped up on a vocal track, his then-new producer Quincy Jones would, I’m sure, have left it on the record for texture. “We were doing a show at the Regal theatre in Chicago and it was like a talent show type of thing and we won, and Gladys Knight was there as well as a guy named Bobby Taylor, and they told Motown about us, and Motown was interested in seeing us audition for them. So we went to Berry Gordy’s mansion in Detroit – indoor pool – and all the Motown stars were there – the Supremes, the Temptations, the Marvelettes, the Miracles – and we auditioned and they loved it, and Diana Ross came over to us special after the concert we did for them and she kissed us all and said we were marvellous and she said she wanted to play a special part in our career and that’s how it started.”

Gordy’s mansion had made a big impression on Jackson and his brothers, the indoor pool especially. It was by far the biggest house the Jacksons had ever been invited into. Their own place in Gary, Indiana, was one storey with two bedrooms, one for parents Joe and Katherine, the other for the nine kids. Signing to Motown split the family up; several of the boys moving into Gordy’s home, the rest moving in with Diana Ross, until Joe bought the house on Hayvenhurst Avenue in 1971.

“And we did our first single, I Want You Back, it was gold, as well as ABC, The Love You Save, Never Can Say …, on and on and on.”

A tinkerbell giggle.

“That’s how it started.”

And that’s how the interview continued: me pinging a question to Janet, she ponging it to Jackson, he pinging it back to the microphone. I almost got used to the process.Sales statistics clearly counted with Jackson. All he had to say about the wonderful I Want You Back was that it went gold. Who gave a damn how many copies it had sold? Not me. What mattered was that it was two minutes and 40 seconds of pop-soul heaven. And Destiny? Double platinum. As if that made it better than I Want You Back, which it wasn’t. Come March 1984, CBS would host a party to celebrate Thriller’s inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest-selling album of all time, prompting Jackson to tell me that his entry in the annual marked the first time in his career that he felt he had accomplished something.

I was barely listening to Jackson’s answers, which were consistently unilluminating. It quickly became clear that he had little understanding either of the history of black music or of his place in it. So I shouldn’t have expected insights. So I didn’t bother correcting Janet when my question about Destiny – “Apart from its commercial success, since the Jacksons had written and produced the album themselves, were they also pleased creatively with what the record?” – emerged from her mouth as, “D’you think your brothers could’ve done better?” In fact, that was exactly what I should have asked him.

“I certainly did. I’m sure my brothers did too, because I’m never satisfied with anything ’cause I do believe deeply in perfection. If you’re satisfied with everything, you’re just going to stay at one level and the world will move ahead.” A thought that had him laughing again. “That’s not good either.”

The Destiny recording was the last time the Jacksons had enjoyed their brother’s undivided attention. Even while they were on tour promoting the record, he was Lear-jetting back to LA as often as the schedule allowed to work on tracks for Off the Wall. This was the first record for which he had been allowed to choose his producer, and he had picked Jones.

“I called Quincy up one day; I said: ‘Quincy, I’m ready to do a solo album. I’m going to produce it, too, but I want somebody to work with me. Can you recommend somebody?’ I wasn’t trying to hint around at all” – Jackson laughed at the notion – “I didn’t even think about him, and he said: ‘Smelly’ – he calls me Smelly he said, ‘Smelly, why don’t you let me do it?’ I said: ‘That’s a great idea.’”

Whatever Jackson’s mounting problems, his voice, an instrument of rare beauty and expression, was not one of them. The purity of note, the timbre, was, I suppose, an accident of nature, but in order to express feelings, a singer has to be able to feel, to have felt. Yet Jackson’s mollycoddled existence must have isolated him from a multitude of essential feelings. So from where did he draw the experience which imbued that voice?

“There is no real explanation. It’s nothing to do with personal experience. My singing is just – I’ll say it simple as possible – it’s just Godly really. It’s no real personal experience or anything that make it come across, just feeling and God; I’ll say, mainly God.”

Michael Jackson’s Rock With You

Jackson was 21, and he had been a star half his life. Ten years is a longer career than most in music. How did he see the next 10? “I think secretly and privately, really deep within, there’s a destiny for me. I’ve had strong feelings for films, that something’s directing me in that way for motion pictures, musicals and drama, that whole thing, to choreograph the films as well, even get into writing the pictures and doing the music.”

I asked him how he felt about his music being labelled disco.

“I hate labels, because it should be just music. Call it disco, call it anything, it’s music to me, it’s beautiful to the ear, and that’s what counts. It’s like you hear a bird chirping, you don’t say, ‘That’s a bluejay, this one is a crow.’ It’s a beautiful sound, that’s all that counts, and that is an ugly thing about men. They categorise, they get a little bit too racial about things, when it should all be together. That’s why you hear us talk about the peacock a lot, because the peacock is the only bird of all the bird family that integrates every colour into one, and that’s our main goal in music, is to integrate every race to one through music, and we’re doing that.”

On the sleeve of the Jacksons’ Triumph album, released later that year, Jackson would write, “In all the bird family, the peacock is the only species that integrates all colors into one … We, like the peacock, try to integrate all races into one, through the love and power of music.” Evidently he wanted to try the analogy out before airing it to a wider public. Just as well that I nodded approvingly. “When you go to our concerts, you see every race out there, and they’re all waving hands and they’re holding hands and they’re smiling. You see the kids out there dancing, as well as the grown-ups and the grandparents, all colours, that’s what’s great” – cue one last nervous giggle – “that’s what keep me going.”

Jackson withdrew from me the moment the interview was over. He remained in the room, but he wasn’t there for me. The publicist showed me out without offering an explanation for her extraordinary precondition. When I keyed the ignition in my car, Rock with You came on. I turned off the radio. My thoughts were a mixture of amusement and annoyance at the pantomime I had allowed myself to take part in and disappointment that I hadn’t learned anything about Michael Jackson or Motown that I didn’t already know. I reminded myself that I hadn’t really expected to, and I had his precious voice on tape.

When I met Jackson 36 years ago, although our verbal communication was indirect, at least we sat face to face, pressed flesh on flesh, breathed the same air. He was odd, but, as pop stars went, unexceptionally so. His next album, 1983’s Thriller, would be so big, there was nowhere else for him to go, but down, and further away from the public gaze. Michael Jackson became a thing of the past, and in his reclusion he became something else entirely: wacko Jacko.

Off the Wall is reissued, with a new documentary by Spike Lee, Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall on 26 February, on Sony.

John Pidgeon

The GuardianTramp

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