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Michael Jackson – Four Stories

First of all, I want to thank everyone who showed up for my talk and opening last Saturday at Nucleus Gallery. It was a healthy turnout and my lecture went well, I thought (I did my career overview slide show).

Good news in that regard: Although the exhibition officially closed late yesterday, it is being moved to the upstairs gallery at Nucleus today. It will be on view for a few more weeks. This is the very first public display of any of my preliminary studies and paintings for the San Diego Natural History Museum murals. They look great out of my crowded house and on big bare walls, beautifully lit. Don’t miss seeing them!

Now, on to the title subject.

I never met Michael Jackson. Our paths kept crossing throughout the past thirty years but we just kept missing each other.

Michael Story #1: In 1981 I received a call from director John Landis. John wanted me to storyboard a film he was making of Michael Jackson’s song “Thriller.” Sadly, I had to turn John down. My work plate was far too full at the time. I recommended my studio mate Dave Stevens for the gig.

Dave, not surprisingly, did a great job. The “Thriller” video became legendary. My friend Rick Baker created the make-ups for the film; my friends Mick Garris (the film director) and Cynthia Garris (talented actress & musician and Mick’s wife) appeared as zombies in the short movie.

Michael really admired Dave’s work and gave him many more jobs after “Thriller”, like storyboarding the Jackson 5 dance moves for their “Victory” tour.

Michael already had a slight reputation for being a unique individual, so I asked Dave if he had any interesting stories, as Dave was spending a lot of time at Michael’s Encino mansion.

Dave Stevens was a very private person. Being such, he respected the privacy of others. He did tell me one detail of Michael’s life, however, I’ve never heard or read elsewhere.

Dave related that Michael’s personal assistant/secretary was the most beautiful woman he had ever met. To Dave’s amazement, in rooms all over the mansion were various full sized body cast/sculptures of her in a staggering array of sexual positions. Dave and I pondered the implications of that for quite some time.

Michael Story #2: It’s pretty well known that I have a sizable collection of early twentieth century illustrated children’s books. I particularly love the illustrations of Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, the Detmold brothers and Kay Nielsen. Many of the volumes I have in my collection were acquired from Gene Blum, the owner of Cherokee Books. Cherokee Books used to be on Hollywood Boulevard near Whitley, down the street from the location of Ozcot, L. Frank Baum’s home and gardens. I began going to Cherokee Books in the late 1960s — not for the illustrated books, which were downstairs, but for the rare comic books being sold upstairs by Gene’s brother Burt. It was hard for me not to slowly become familiar with Gene, as I passed by him at least once a week on my way upstairs to see Burt.

Eventually as my collecting habits changed I saw lots more of Gene. He’d call me when anything special came in. Gene had a great, very dry, sense of humor (he’s a professional poker player now). At one point in our client/provider relationship I began to notice that Gene’s calls were becoming fewer. When asked about it, Gene revealed that I had some competition for the books I was collecting: Michael Jackson. Gene was helping Michael to put together a fantastic collection of classic illustrated children’s books. Money was no object.

I thanked Gene for the info and spread my collecting net farther.

I still stopped in to see Gene once a week to see if there was anything that Michael might have passed on. On one such afternoon Gene told me, “I just had the strangest customer. He walked in here wearing a long trenchcoat and a slouch hat. He had on big, dark horn-rimmed glasses and Jerry Lewis’ huge protruding teeth from ‘The Nutty Professor.'”

Gene continued. “I began to usher this bizarre character out of my shop when he stopped me.”

In that unmistakable sweet, high voice of his, he said, “Gene — It’s Michael.”

Michael Story #3: Two of my dearest friends, Virginia Johnstone and Mick Mashbir, worked on the “Billie Jean” video. Virginia was a set decorator at the time. Her future hubby Mick was the lead guitarist for Alice Cooper and The Turtles/Flo & Eddie. Mick was in between gigs so he was helping out with the set dec.

While waiting for the lighting to be set up, Mick found time to talk to Michael as a fellow musician. At one point Michael asked what Mick was doing currently. “Looking for a record deal,” was Mick’s reply. Mick still chuckles at Michael’s shocked response. “In Michael’s world, one never had to look for a record deal. It was always there. It was a gimme. He was truly shocked that for some musicians it wasn’t any easy thing to readily acquire a record deal. That possibility had never even occurred to him.”

I asked how the shoot went. Virginia said that while everything was being set up (properly lighting a set often seems to take forever) she noticed that Michael was getting increasingly anxious with each passing minute. The longer it took, the more tense Michael became. She said you could see it all physically building within him.

Finally, everything was ready. Michael excitedly took his place on the set. The music blasted over the P. A. system and Michael began to dance. WHOOOSH! All of that anxiety disappeared in an instant! All of that tenseness, all of that anxiety — Michael had just needed to dance. That suppressed bundle of pent-up energy was completely channeled and released into his electric dancing for that video. Michael lived for performing.

Michael Story #4: I’ve done a lot of themed entertainment design, beginning with a two year stint as a full time consultant for Walt Disney Imagineering. I bounced back and forth between Disney and Universal after that. Almost any project in that field that Disney or Universal didn’t do was picked up and executed by the Landmark Entertainment Group. Landmark’s founder, Gary Goddard, was my director on “Masters of the Universe.”

For a long time I was annoyed that Landmark hadn’t called me in on their Wizard of Oz theme park they were designing for Kansas City. I later found out why when I finally was called in to work on it. The money for what I was needed for hadn’t been in place. As soon as it was, I got the call. Designing Oz day in and day out was the most fun nine months I’ve ever had.

In the middle of my Oz work I was suddenly pulled off the project for a few days.

Landmark president Tony Christopher told me, “We need to have you design some new gates for Michael Jackson’s NeverLand.”

Michael Jackson was nuts about theme parks — particularly DisneyLand. This is why he had turned his own place of residence, NeverLand (named after fantasy island from “Peter Pan”) into his very own mini-theme park. Thinking he wanted to expand in that area, Michael teamed up with a Middle Eastern sheik to purchase controlling interest in Landmark. Landmark’s chiefs welcomed this huge infusion of cash.

Michael had his fingers in a lot of business pies. There was a flurry of activity on Michael’s behalf after the initial acquisition of the company. Then, Michael’s attention drifted to other areas of his business world. At Landmark, life fell back into Business As Usual.

Every once in awhile, Michael would remember he owned this theme park design company. Landmark would get a “What have you done for me lately?” call from Michael. The company would immediately switch gears and create something to satisfy Michael. Michael would be thrilled and his attention would drift away once more and Landmark would return to their regular jobs.

That was the reason I was told to drop everything and design some new wrought iron gates for NeverLand. Michael had called.

I had a blast doing that job. I am a HUGE Peter Pan freak. I also knew that Michael’s and my collecting tastes were identical. I knew I could create something that Michael would love. I was secretly hoping that through this gig I’d finally get to meet Michael (I really wanted to see his book collection) but that did not come to pass.

The gate design was fun. I created wrought iron silhouettes of all the main elements from “Peter Pan”. They included Peter, Captain Hook, Tinker Bell, the Darling children, mermaids, pirates, Indians and Hook’s pirate ship, the Jolly Roger. I don’t know if it was ever made but I heard that Michael was thrilled by my design.

From all the accounts I read, including excerpts from his own autobiography, Michael Jackson was an incredibly lonely person. He didn’t need to be. I believe, especially after reading recollections from those closest to him, that Michael ultimately had the wrong motivations at the core of his being. He was a very competitive person, which is fine — to a point.

I see this problem with a lot of brilliant creators (except for Michael, I won’t name names here because a lot of them are my friends). Most (if not all) of their initial motivation came out of anger, an anger that made them determined to “show the world.” That truly works as a great motivator. But what happens when, as in Michael’s case (and with a number of people I know), you have shown the world? Where do you go from there, when you don’t have anyone left to show, and when that was the main drive and motivation of your life and career? If you don’t have the correct answer for that one, you either stop working or try to fill that sudden, gnawing emptiness with quick-fix surface obsessions, like extravagant spending, seclusion, drug use, sex, grand gestures and the like. None of it works for long. It’s all like little band-aids being placed on gaping wounds.

Here’s what does work: the work itself. Michael needed to be satisfied and excited by the creative process — and not by what that process brought him in terms of fame, money and awards. He needed to keep stretching and pushing himself artistically, whether what he did sold or not. He needed to take creative chances. Michael needed to be his own biggest fan. He should have been bursting with excitement just to see what he would do next. That would have taken him out of himself and put him in touch with other creators with similar problems and challenges. It would have imbued him a confidence, contentment and joy that would emanate from the very core of his being, something whose pleasure would be minimally affected, if at all, by the surface trappings of money, fame and the rest.

Does this eliminate pain and doubt in your life? No. But it does take you out of yourself in an extremely positive way. The big change is this: Instead of competing with others being your sole motivation, you begin competing with yourself. Others will rise and fall & come and go. You will always be there.

Follow this path and creatively you will make mistakes. I tell my students I’ve learned more from my mistakes, though, than I’ve learned from my successes. It’s often my mistakes that create the path to my successes. As a creator you need to take chances in order to grow. You need to be fearless.

If you’re sufficiently philosophical on top of all this, you’ll realize realistically that you’re not going to hit it out of the park with everything you do. Instead, you’ll remember that overall, in the Big Picture of things, what you’re really shooting for here is a really high batting average. The more you produce (with the highest quality always in mind), the more home runs you’re going to hit. If you’re a serious creator, you’re in this cockeyed caravan for the long haul.

This is something I have learned that applies to all of us who work as creators in the arts. Perhaps this important message resonates to those outside the arts as well.

10 thoughts on “Michael Jackson – Four Stories

  1. Really beautifully written and poignant Bill. Some of the best advise on being creative and finding balance I have ever read.

    You have one more path where your path crossed with MJ’s. The massive abandon Sea-plane hanger in Terminal Island where you shot the Invaders From Mars re-make with Tobe Hooper, was also the location for MJ’s Music Videos – The Way you make Me Feel and Dirty Diana. : ) I was the Stage Manager on both, and a fan of yours and Michael’s.

    I had to take down that massive Martian set after it was used for Journey to the Center of the Earth ( produced by Rusty Lemorande, another MJ alumni.)

    Took 60 containers to haul off all of that debris! lol. Almost killed me even in a caged Bulldozer ! lol.

  2. Great retrospective of missed situations and your advice to your students (and anyone reading) is rock solid.
    I pitied Michael. It seemed like he always surrounded himself with the wrong people. Who knows? They my have started out as the right people but the money and fame may have eaten away their resolve to be his friends. Whatever happened, and it was a combination of a lot of bad things, this day seemed to be almost fated for him, as much as I and others wished otherwise.
    The media circus is a shame but it always is. From the hatred to the praise (our all too mortal demigods) this double edged sword seemed to follow the guy wherever he went and now they can only hurl their words at each other, which is easy to avoid.
    I am annoyed that, from what I’ve sampled, the local radio stations keep playing these musical montages and not whole songs to commemorate his passing.

    Thanks again for the insights.
    They’re always appreciated.

  3. A very good piece.

    I fell into being an artist by accident as an adult (late in life by the standards of most artists) so drawing and painting have never been about unresolved issues in my childhood. So often I failed to recognize the visceral level of raw competition that many artists feel for each other. Because artists are often also lost in ‘tunnel-vision’, I’ve seen decent people blind-sided by merciless cruelty. Some of the stories are legendary and I bet we both know the many of the artists that these things have happened to.

    Until you said it out loud, I just couldn’t reconcile the horrible and self-destructive behavior I’ve seen peers inflict on each other for no good reason. Like seeing a bloody car wreck, even when you’re not the victim, you are scarred by just being there to see it.

    I have much more sympathy for the sad things I’ve seen. Thank you for that.


  4. Michael Jackson was like a family member to me. I’ve been dealing with his death and it has been very emotional for me. I can’t believe how he influenced the industries around the world. I wish his family the best. Thank you Michael for the most amazing life!

  5. Michael J was like a icon to me. I’ve been dealing with his dying and it has been incredibly tough for me. I can’t believe how he progressed the world around the world. I wish his family the best. Thank you Michael for the most amazing life!

  6. Thanks for writing this. I love stumbling across stories like these during aimless internet hours. It’s funny how you can get more of a feel about a person from stories like this as opposed to huge biographies.

    One question…

    “Dave related that Michael’s personal assistant/secretary was the most beautiful woman he had ever met. To Dave’s amazement, in rooms all over the mansion were various full sized body cast/sculptures of her in a staggering array of sexual positions. Dave and I pondered the implications of that for quite some time.”

    Is this really true? LOL!!

  7. I started to listen to Michael a lot lately. I wish i would have done that before he died :(. RIP

  8. I really miss Michael Jackson. He is truly the greatest pop singer of the century. Farewell king of pop..

  9. I’d love to see the sketches of the gate you did…

  10. I worked at Cherokee books in 1984 I was searching for info on Burt and Gene, and found this page I remember Michael coming into the store, I was sitting at the counter where the register was an a young black guy came in he was carrying a young white little boy an assistant took the little boy girls where in front all excited he came in Gene locked the door so he could look at the shop he came back a few times I hung with him, he was very down to earth, friendly we talked like we knew each other for a long time he signed an autograph for a girl I had a crush on (she didn’t believe me threw it away)I wish I had kept that! it was great to meet and spend time with a legend he treated me with respect he loved kids books Gene was the specialist, I worked near by before that time at a record store called one stop records 6609 an 6623 Hollywood Blvd worked for Burt sorting comics, those were great times I worked for Burt later when he moved to Santa Monica use to visit Gene there too I miss those guys! Michael came in once bought a poster we had in the window for sale rolled up copies (1) an put a 20 on the counter I gave him change 10 bucks put on the counter he walked out never picked up his change lol he didn’t care about that he was happy to see us!!! take care Michael!!!

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