Mark Ellen spoke to the King Of Pop for 45 minutes on the phone in 1982. Twenty-seven years later, moments after his death, that made him Jackson’s closest friend.
It was 11 o’clock on the night of 25 June 2009 when the phone rang.
“Mark Ellen? It’s the Today programme, Radio 4.”
“I’m in bed,” I said. “What’s happened?”
“Michael Jackson has died.” This was a researcher scanning the contributors’ files. “Weren’t you the last journalist to talk to him?”
“In Britain, yes, but that was 27 years ago. And on the phone.”
“But the last interview, right?”
“I guess it was, but…”
“A car will pick you up at 6.30am tomorrow. See you at Wood Lane at 7. We’re so grateful,” she said softly. Click. And she was gone.
I turned on my computer to find the net already clogged with clammy, high-handed, hysterical rants about “Wacko Jacko”, the boy genius gone wrong, the freakish surgical experiment in his friendless Disneyland, the human horror-show imprisoned by drugs.
Our street had once echoed to the sound of his music with small, one-gloved children skating about in their socks trying to moonwalk. I’d spoken to him in the autumn of ’82, a month before the release of Thriller, but its sales were so monumental he’d never needed the press again.
For the next few years his singles radiated from pubs, clubs, stereos and car radios like the soundtrack to an endless summer – the tremulous yelps of Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, the pumping textures of Billie Jean, the great planks of guitar-noise that creaked their way through Beat It. Wherever you looked, Jackson was sprocketing through graveyards to a rasping symphony of werewolves, vampires and the tones of Hammer’s premier ghoul, the gravelly Vincent Price.
I ran off a copy of my interview tape for the neighbours’ kids only to find, days later, that they’d copied it too and were handing out cassettes to all his local supporters. Everywhere I went, bedroom windows flew open and waving teenagers would lean out and impersonate his eerie, child-like voice. Jackson was 24 but still obsessed with fairy stories – “they’re maaagic,” he’d sighed during our interview.
“And I looove movies,” he’d told me, and he watched them in his 35-seat home cinema – Charlie Chaplin, Oliver!, The Wizard Of Oz. “But I don’t like scary movies as I can’t sleep after watching one. I looove ET ’cos it reminds me of
me, someone from another world coming down and you being friends with them and they’re filling you with all kinds of wisdom and magic, and he can teach you how to fly. I mean, who don’t want to fly?”
A picture emerged of a strange and isolated life. His “best friends” were Steven Spielberg, Diana Ross and Adam Ant (who he’d never met but talked to on the phone – “Will you say hi to him from me?”). Disney had installed a giant animatronic tableau of The Pirates Of The Caribbean in his West Coast compound – “the faces move, the bodies, the eyebrows move,” he gasped like a wide-eyed 10-year-old.
He seemed frozen in childhood. When the heavens opened a few years later and untold wealth rained down upon him, he spent a vast chunk of it on a fantasy ranch full of monkeys, merry-go-rounds and machines that made candy floss. And the more his records sold, the more elevated and unimpeachable he seemed to be. In one moment of absurd megalomania, he insisted on being referred to as ‘The King Of Pop’.
But this glorious reign was about to end. I’d never forgiven him for the day my sons came home from school – aged 9 and 7 – and asked me what he’d done at a sleep-over that the whole playground was whispering about. When musicians let me down as a child, I learned to live with it; when they let me down as a parent, I wasn’t so compassionate. I still liked his music, but the man behind it now seemed sad and repulsive.
A simpler world
The BBC’s studios were humming when I arrived, Jackson’s face on every screen. There was aerial footage of his LA house and shots of his ambulance and his personal physician. I was rushed to the Today studio and plonked straight in the chair opposite the day’s main anchor, Sarah Montague, who was scanning a laptop for updates while her producer barked facts and figures to her.
“Tributes are pouring in for Michael Jackson, who died last night at his home in Los Angeles of a suspected heart attack,” she told five million listeners. “The pop icon was treated by paramedics at the scene and later pronounced dead at the nearby Ronald Reagan Medical Centre on the eve of his 51st birthday. I’m joined now by Mark Ellen, the last person to interview Jackson in the British press. He was a complex man, Mark, plagued by sex scandals and medical issues, but have we forgotten his music?”
We had indeed, I told her. He’d been the biggest event since Elvis Presley and The Beatles but none of the morning’s tabloid coverage mentioned that he’d brought a rich variety of music to a world market – soul, R&B, gospel, hip-hop. But he’d seemed happier in the past than the present, I pointed out. He’d wanted to return to his childhood, a simpler world before he was famous.
We rattled on in the giddy, super-charged way of live radio and I stumbled out to find a crowd had gathered in the corridor, rumours of my connection to the ‘doomed superstar’ already bent out of shape.
Within seconds I was on World Service radio – talking to Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific. I steamed back into the passage and was shunted to the TV studios. “It’s BBC One’s Breakfast next,” an efficient girl informed me. “Let’s get some powder on you.”
Make-up teams came at me with combs and sponges and I was ferried to a scarlet sofa beside two presenters; one of them waved, the other gave me a wink. The Jackson saga was now a giant fireball vaporising all other stories, a feeding-frenzy devouring everything in its path.
I was hauled out of the studio and catapulted on to Live World News, preposterously billed as “a friend and confidante to the troubled star” and grilled by a pair of orange-skinned types with great hair and immaculate teeth for the benefit of people pounding treadmills in Hong Kong health spas or chewing steak in a truck-stop in Idaho.
It was farcical. Someone who’d once had a 45-minute phone conversation with Michael Jackson was being hailed as a world authority because no one else appeared to have got anywhere near this baffling, over-protected recluse – and this made me a comparative expert. “Radio 2 next,” hissed the efficient girl.
But out in the passage the pace seemed a little slower, the crowd was melting away and a producer was standing in the studio doorway looking slightly embarrassed. The red light was already on and a soft voice was emanating from the guest seating area, the familiar sound of the BBC’s Number 1 pop pundit who’d been stuck for an hour in bad traffic. “You’re off the hook, mate,” said the producer. “Paul Gambaccini’s in the building.”
Mark Ellen’s memoir, Rock Stars Stole My Life!, is out now (Coronet)