Southern Bound: The reader, a quieter side of Michael Jackson Posted by John Sledge, Books Page Editor Categories: Books
Michael Jackson: "I watch cartoons. I love cartoons. I play video games. Sometimes I read." Paul Theroux: "You mean you read books?" Michael Jackson: "Yeah. I love to read short stories and everything." Paul Theroux: "Any in particular?" Michael Jackson: "Somerset Maugham ... Whitman. Hemingway. Twain."
Who'd a thunk it? Michael Jackson a serious reader? Paul Theroux's recollection of an old conversation published in a recent London Telegraph indicates, and a June 27 story in the L.A. Times confirms, that the King of Pop was apparently just that. Jackson certainly isn't the only popular musician known to have a literary bent -- Keith Richards is famously bookish, and in her 10,000 Maniacs days, Natalie Merchant flung paperback copies of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" into the audience -- but he is surely the most surprising.
Michael Jackson, The Reader
Or perhaps not. That Jackson was complex and troubled is common knowledge. And though California hosts legions of self-help gurus and clinics and pills of all sorts, great literature has wrestled with the conundrums of the human condition for centuries. Wherever else he may have turned for answers, it is now evident that Michael Jackson found solace in literature.
In the L.A. Times story, numerous southern California booksellers reported that Jackson was a regular customer, and a good one, often leaving with four or five volumes. Sometimes a store would get a request to close early so he could browse without being confronted by fans. He always arrived with beefy bodyguards and sometimes perused the shelves in outsized sunglasses or behind a surgical mask or under a black umbrella. He rarely spoke, but when he did, he was quiet and polite. One clerk recalled that Jackson loved poetry and another that he favored Emerson. "I think you would find a great deal of the transcendental, all-accepting philosophy in his lyrics," one of them told the Times.
Jackson liked to discuss what he had read, though the circle of trusted confidants who could keep up with him was likely small. "We talked about psychology, Freud and Jung, Hawthorne, Sociology, black history and sociology dealing with race issues," one of Jackson's attorneys, Bob Sanger, told the L.A. Weekly. Noting that Jackson was well-versed in the classic works of all those subjects, Sanger concluded, "Go down the street and try and find five people who can talk about Freud and Jung."
Theroux was surprised at how substantive his exchange with Jackson turned out to be. After being vetted for an interview by Elizabeth Taylor ("He'll talk to you if I ask him to"), Theroux was awakened by a telephone call during the wee hours from the King of Pop himself ("the voice was breathy, unbroken, boyish"). After some discussion about Jackson's close friendship with Taylor, which Theroux likens to the relationship between Wendy and Peter Pan, the talk ranged over issues of fame and family before moving to the theme of lost childhood.
Theroux quoted a line from the Irish poet George William Russell: "In the lost boyhood of Judas/ Christ was betrayed." Jackson's response was a soft "wow" and then a series of rapid-fire questions about what this meant, and what exactly was known about Judas, his childhood and his life. "I told him," Theroux explained, "that Judas had red hair, that he was the treasurer of the Apostles, that he might have been Sicarii -- a member of a radical Jewish group, that he might not have died by hanging himself but somehow exploded, all his guts flying." This was followed by another 20 minutes of "Biblical apocrypha with Michael Jackson on the lost childhood of Judas" before the star uttered another soft "wow."
So, in his quiet moments Jackson was reading long and deep, seeking inspiration and insight. Then why did those vapid tours of Neverland Ranch (both before and after his death), which highlighted the carnival rides and the zoo animals and the fountains and the floral clock and the palatial mansion and the theater, never show or even mention Jackson's personal library? According to Sanger in the L.A. Weekly, it consists of ten thousand volumes. There, I would humbly suggest, might lie more than a few answers to the many puzzles of Michael Jackson.
(John Sledge edits the Press-Register's Books page. He may be reached at the Press-Register, P.O. Box 2488, Mobile, AL 36652.)