the mystery of
New memoirs on the King of Pop grapple with the vexed question of why his incredible talent came hand-in-hand with a penchant for self-destruction. Alexis Petridis reports
Michael Jackson went to his grave pop's greatest enigma. He was arguably the most famous man in the world, but his own world seemed so utterly alien - the plastic surgery, the rumours of paedophilia, the children conceived by artificial insemination, the erratic behaviour, not to mention the almost inhuman degree of talent - that it was impossible to work out what the man at the centre of it all was actually like.
There's a chance that, after living 41 of his 51 years in the public eye, Jackson was as confused as anybody else. Yet two memoirs - one by his elder brother, the other by his former personal manager - claim to offer a definitive picture.
Neither does, although his brother's book is the more substantial and, initially at least, the more insightful of the two. Reading the section about Jackson's early life you wonder not why he became so weird, but how he didn't end up even weirder.
His mother was a devout Jehovah's Witness who swabbed her children with alcohol, smeared their faces with Vaseline in the belief it made them look "nice and shiny" and protected them from the winter cold by putting boiled potatoes in their coat pockets.
Meanwhile, the best that can be said of Michael's father Joseph Jackson is that he isn't quite the grimmest figure in the pantheon of tyrannical fathers living their dreams of pop stardom through their children: that remains the Beach Boys' patriarch Murry Wilson.
Still, Jackson whipped his children with a belt and the cord from an electric kettle and forced them to spend hours carrying cinder blocks from one side of the garden to the other.
When he learned that the teenage Michael was self-conscious about the size of his nose, he began calling him Big Nose.
Although Jermaine's book reads like a misery memoir, he claims not to see it that way.
He presents all this ghastly evidence, then spends pages admonishing as "ridiculous" those who suggest that his father's abuse scarred his most famous son for life. But You Are Not Alone's detail on what you might call the Wacko years, those after Thriller's record-breaking success, is sketchy.
The second book, My Friend Michael by his personal manager Frank Cascio, handily takes up the slack.
It's subtitled An Ordinary Friendship With an Extraordinary Man, but there seems to be nothing ordinary about the friendship at all. Cascio was four when he first met Jackson: his father was the manager of the New York hotel where the singer stayed. The first time Jackson was accused of child molestation, Cascio's father's reaction was to pull his son out of school and send him to Tel Aviv to keep Jackson company. He ended up an employee, trying to sort out Jackson's business affairs.
It's a largely uncritical account, and yet Jackson still cuts a strangely pathetic figure: a middle-aged man addicted to prescription drugs, hopelessly chasing the childhood that had been denied him.
The most intriguing things about Cascio's book are the disparities with Jermaine's account. Both are adamant that he was not a child molester.
But while Jermaine insists that Lisa Marie Presley was the love of Jackson's life, Cascio claims the singer told him their marriage was just a business arrangement.
Neither of them has much to say about the music, nor the remarkable burst of creativity that began with the Jacksons' 1978 album Destiny and culminated in the world-beating Thriller and Bad, nor the slow decline in quality thereafter.
Jackson seems to have always had appalling taste in everything but music and choreography. Just as his increased wealth allowed him to pursue his passion for schlock to new heights at his Neverland ranch, so his success ensured it would gradually seep into his music as well: 'Earth Song', with its deathless question 'what about elephants - have we lost their trust?', Invincible's creepy 'The Lost Children' and 'Speechless'.
He was so rich and famous no one could tell him to lay off the children's choirs and tone down the Messiah complex a little.
He was still at it just before his death: "I'm the light of the world," he sang on 'This Is It', which was intended as the theme song for his 2009 London concert residency, but was released posthumously.
You Are Not Alone's description of preparations for those concerts makes for a harrowing counterpoint to the glossy, posthumous documentary based around them. The book claims, not entirely convincingly, that indications of Jackson's ill-health in the year before his death were "all part of a clever plan" to make his comeback seem more stunning.
But midway through rehearsals, his health declined dramatically.
In Jermaine's telling, a man barely capable of standing was pressured by promoters fearful of losing money into continuing work.
Michael Jackson, it seems, ended his career as he began it: impossibly talented but terrified; bullied into singing and dancing whether he wanted to or not.