When 50-year-old Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, died on 25 June 2009 in Los Angeles from a fatal dose of Propofol (a powerful anaesthetic), a tidal wave of grief engulfed Jackson's fans worldwide. Websites and Internet services crashed, as literally millions of people searched online to confirm the news and mourn his death. AOL called it "a seminal moment in Internet history."
At the same time, celebrities began crawling out of every nook and cranny, lamenting their 'friend's' shocking, untimely death. And Michael Jackson's estate became richer by over $600 million after his death.
All this is quite ironic, because, according to a new book, Remember The Time - Protecting Michael Jackson in his Final Days (HarperCollins), written by his personal bodyguards Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard, the legendary singer-songwriter died a lonely, friendless, unhappy man, on the brink of financial ruin, and pushed by the sharks around him to sign up for a physically gruelling, impossible-to-pull-off 50-show tour, This Is It.
"Mr Jackson didn't die. He left," says Whitfield (who joined Jackson's personal security in 2006), in a telephone interview from Florida. "He was never going to get any true rest in his life."
The beginning of Jackson's downward spiral began when he was first accused of child molestation in the mid-1990s. "It was the worst thing anyone can be accused of," says Whitfield. "There was no way Mr Jackson could have ever done something like that. He'd slit his wrists before hurting a child."
Whitfield claims Jackson was advised - wrongly - to settle out of court. "He thought it would go away. But it never did." The stench of suspicion continued to cling to him. A second accusation of abuse came up in 2003. Though Jackson was acquitted after a six-month trial in 2005, he was shattered, emotionally and mentally.
The accusations haunted him all his life. The media turned on him with a vengeance. Whitfield and Beard write that the only American publication Jackson ever read was The Wall Street Journal. "It was the only place he could get real news without running into crazy Michael Jackson stories. That's part of why he didn't watch TV, only DVDs. The man was a punch line on Jay Leno's show practically every night."
Above everything else, say Whitfield and Beard, he wanted to protect his three children Prince, Paris and Blanket, who were 12, 11 and 7 when their father died. "Since Prince was the eldest, Mr Jackson always relied and trusted him to look after his younger siblings," recalls Whitfield. "Paris was the only girl and he was very protective about her. Blanket (a term of endearment, meaning to blanket someone with love) he kept very close to him. Mr Jackson always made sure he held his hand when they went out, because Blanket had this habit of wandering off."
Jackson's well-known paranoia about his children's privacy made him insist that they wore masks when they went out. (If no one knew what his children looked like, they could occasionally go out to public places - movie theatres, children's playgrounds - without him and have a somewhat normal experience).
That's why none of the children were allowed to call each other by their real names. They all had code names. "People laughed at the idea of him being a father, laughed at the kids' names and the masks and all that," write Beard and Whitfield. "Like, how weird it must be for Michael Jackson to be a father. But the more you got to know him, you saw that being a father was the most normal thing about him."
A normal life for the children was probably never going to happen - because they were Michael Jackson's children. (Who else but Jackson could afford to go shopping in Las Vegas' toy store FAO Schwarz after hours, and pick up toys worth $10,000 for them?)
But on the flip side, say Beard and Whitfield, he made sure they were home-schooled and did normal things like go out on trips to museums and exhibitions, or just to buy ice cream. Beard's fondest memory of Jackson is the evening of the 4th July 2007 at a country retreat in Virginia. That night and for several nights afterwards, write Beard and Whitfield, "we'd see Mr Jackson and the kids out in the fields after dark, setting off firecrackers and bottle rockets and Roman candles." That was a happy, peaceful time for the family, says Beard. The emotion in his voice is hard to miss - even on the phone line.
But it was not to last. Burdened with astronomical debts, Jackson had no choice but to agree to a mega comeback tour, This Is It. But the burden of the tour, which began with the idea of ten performances and quickly went up to 50, ended up being even more severe. Says Beard, "He didn't want to disappoint his fans. He wanted to perform for them. He said, 'I can't sit on a stool and sing, can I?' But he wasn't up to it. He was 50 years old, and weighed something like 110 pounds."
According to the book, "...the stress began taking its toll. Jackson was regularly missing rehearsals, showing up late, and exhibiting erratic behavior. He was losing weight… his insomnia was worsening." When, on the morning of June 25, after a long night of insomnia and sedation, his physician, Dr Conrad Murray, gave him a final dose of 25 milligrams of Propofol, it proved too much for the frail Jackson. He never woke up again.
Beard and Whitfield are in some way perhaps still grieving for their 'Mr Jackson.' The book is a sympathetic look at the greatest pop star of all time, and stays away from the controversial stories that circulated in his lifetime. There is no mention, for instance, about the many surgeries he is supposed to have had. "After the book came out, people asked us questions like, 'Did he have a detachable nose? Could he just take it off and put it back?'" says Beard. "But we never saw him going for any surgeries in all the time we were with him. The truth is that the media never cut him any slack. He was a very nice person, he would have given the shirt off his back to help someone. That's why everyone took advantage of him. That's why we were - and are - so protective about him."
It shows in Whitfield and Beard's poignant portrayal of a man who had everything - but did he really?
From HT Brunch, June 29
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