There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll {Excerpt}

There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll {Excerpt}

Lisa Robinson is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, where she has produced music issues and written many major profiles over the last sixteen years. Prior to that she was a longtime columnist for the New York Post, was syndicated by the New York Times Syndicate, and edited several rock magazines. She has interviewed the biggest names in music – including Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Eminem, Lady Gaga, U2, Jay Z and Kanye West. Her memoir, “There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll,” is out now in both hardcover and paperback, published by Riverhead Books.

Below, we’re proud to present an exclusive excerpt about Michael Jackson from “There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll.”

On October 8, 1972, I went to 4641 Havenhurst Drive in Encino, California to meet the Jackson Five for the first time.

I was there to do a big story for a little fan magazine I edited called “Rock and Soul.” We put the Jacksons on the cover as often as possible, because the family group had sold over 14 million albums, had four Number One singles, and were teen heartthrobs — complete with lunchboxes, posters, a television cartoon show and dolls. Like most of the houses that Michael would live in for the rest of his life, it had a long driveway leading to a locked gate. But unlike the other houses that Michael would live in, the house on Havenhurst was not crawling with security or cloaked in secrecy. In fact, Michael met me when I arrived, and was friendly, outgoing, curious, fun. Michael was 14 years old when I met him, but I thought he was 12, because when the Jacksons were signed to Motown in 1969 and Michael was 10, he was told to say he was eight; Motown owner Berry Gordy thought it would sound “cuter.” After spending the day interviewing all of the brothers, but mostly chatting with Michael, I called a friend and said, “This kid is going to be the greatest entertainer ever. Seriously, like Frank Sinatra.”

Over the next twenty years, Michael and I would do phone interviews, or every time I was in Los Angeles or he was in New York, we would get together.

On February 5, 1975, we met at the Warwick Hotel in New York City. Michael was self-concious about his acne, and admitted that his brothers teased him about it. We talked about “Dancing Machine,” the first album that Motown had allowed the brothers to produce themselves. “I got to sing free,” Michael said. “It was the first time I got to do my own thing. Our persistance in continually telling [Motown] we didn’t want other writers was what finally changed their mind. You’ve got to remember,” he said, “I’ve been around studios since I was a child, and I just picked it up.” He said he always wanted to work with Barbra Streisand, and that he wrote a ballad for her. “Ballads are more special,” he said. “You can have a pop song that will be known for three weeks and after that you hear nothing about it. But if you do a good ballad, it’ll be in the world forever. Like Stevie Wonder’s “Living in the City” — it’s a great song and I love it, it opens up the minds of a lot of people. But it won’t be around as long as a song like “My Cherie Amour” or “You are the Sunshine of my Life.”

In February 1977, we talked on the phone: I asked Michael if he resented never having had a “normal” childhood.

“No,” he said. “There’s such a thing as talent, and I was taught that this was given to me. If I didn’t like doing it, if it [felt like] work, I don’t think I would have lasted this long. I’d probably go crazy.” Another time, when we met in New York at the Plaza Hotel, Michael had visited the Bronx Zoo that morning; it was his first time there. He asked if Coney Island was still any good. He compared Disneyland to Disneyworld and said, “Disneyworld is better; it’s more of a world, like they say. It’s a resort, it has everything — golf, tennis, hotels. It’s all fantasy, all the time.”

*   *   *

Michael had a completely different voice (high, whispery) when talking in public, than he did when he was talking to a lawyer or a record company executive (normal, forceful). I heard both.

On February 15, 1985, in a phone interview from Los Angeles, Michael was surprisingly candid about his disatisfaction with many aspects of the Jacksons “Victory” tour. I asked him if, especially after his massive solo success with “Thriller,” working with his family again had been a problem. “Well…. it depends,” he said. “I never really wanted to use a lot of the people we had, but I was outvoted a lot of times. I’ve always tried to do everything first class. But it was a different story with the family. For example, I didn’t want the ticket price so high. But it’s hard to see your brothers and look in their eyes and see they’re upset with something. Or they won’t talk to you. But I’m going to do bigger and better things in the future. I love performing, creating, and coming up with unusual new things. To be a kind of pioneer….innovative. I get excited about ideas, not about money. Ideas is what excites me.”

*   *   *

On February 23, 1988 I went to Kansas City for the opening night of Michael’s “Bad” tour.

His manager Frank DiLeo arranged for me to visit Michael’s suite at the Westin Crowne Hotel after the show. Alone. No handlers, no family members, no animal companions, no child companions, no bodyguards were present — unusual for a Jackson visitation at this stage of his career. As I entered his large suite, let in by a security guard who stood outside the door, Michael was nowhere to be seen. “Michael?,” I called, as I walked around. I heard giggling from behind a door. The 29 year-old Michael Jackson was playing hide and seek. Finally, he appeared, wearing black trousers and a bright red shirt, his semi-straightened hair pulled back into a loose ponytail with a few strands falling over his face. He hugged me. He was taller than I’d remembered, taller than he appeared in photos. Then he pulled back, looked at me and said, in the lower and more “normal” of the two voices he could produce at will, “What’s that perfume? I know that smell.” I laughed and said, “Oh Michael, you don’t know this perfume. It’s an old drag queen perfume from the 1950s.” At the words “drag queen” he started giggling and repeated it: “Drag queen…..hahahahahaha!!! No, I know it. It’s ‘Jungle Gardenia,’ right?” I was taken aback. How did he know that? I told him that the only people who ever recognized this perfume were Bryan Ferry and Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes. Well, I said, I guess you’re not as la-la as they say you are. The words “la-la” cracked him up and he repeated it…”La-la..hahahahaha!” A week later I sent a case of 24 bottles of ‘Jungle Gardenia’ to his hotel suite at New York City’s Helmsey Palace. And on March 2nd, I stood backstage in the wings at the Grammy Awards live telecast in Radio City Music Hall, while Michael waited with a gospel choir, about to perform “Man in the Mirror.” Looking at me he whispered, “Thanks for the smells….I’m wearing it now.”

*   *   *

On November 7, 2011, Dr. Conrad Murray was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson.

That night, I was in Kanye West’s dressing room at Madison Square Garden for the first of two sold out “Watch the Throne” shows he would perform with Jay Z. Jay came into the room to go over the set list with Kanye. As he and Kanye played some music on a laptop, I heard snippets of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” — which Jay sampled on his 2001 song “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” — and an Otis Redding sample they used on “Otis,” the first single from their collaborative “Watch the Throne” album. I told Jay and Kanye that I probably was the only person in that room who had seen Otis Redding — at a concert in Central Park in the 1960s — the Jackson Five, and these two guys about to go onstage.

Eric Clapton and Keith Richards have always talked about the blues, and how they were just “passing it on.”

They passed on to new generations the things they learned listening to Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. That night, sitting in that Madison Square Garden dressing room, I thought, here it was again. Full cycle. Michael was dead. But his 12 year old voice would be heard by 20,000 hip hop fans in Madison Square Garden. And whether they even knew who it was or why or how it all came about, or what the song was or any of it — Michael Jackson was in the building.

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