It had to happen sometime. Halley's Comet has come and gone. The Earth circled the sun three times. Prince became a star. Bruce Springsteen became everybody's Boss.
And now, he's back.
It took almost three years for Michael Jackson to re-emerge from the mysterious labyrinths he'd constructed around himself. His return is as meticulously planned as ever: A new LP, "Bad" (produced by hitmaker Quincy Jones) is scheduled for release Aug. 31 in conjunction with a half-hour CBS special to be aired that night, featuring the 16-minute "Bad" video directed by Martin Scorsese. His upcoming tour, the first ever without his brothers, is scheduled to open Sept. 12 in Tokyo. The Gloved One is winding up the machine.
And wind it up he must. His image is different from the days of old. Gone is the fairy tale man-child who fed deer in his back yard and smiled for photographers with Muscles, his pet boa constrictor, wrapped around his neck. Today's posters sport a figure with a cleft chin and dark leather jacket; belts and bands tied around his legs suggest chains. Michael Jackson, who will be 29 on the 29th of this month, has become a man.
Questions about his masculinity, rumors of homosexuality (he's not gay) haunted him during the 1984 Victory Tour, but would that Jackson's problems had ended there. As he begins his new quest for greater heights, he faces an enormous image problem, helped in part by media overkill, his shyness and refusal to talk to the press (save Ebony magazine, which published an interview with him in December 1984) and his sometimes eccentric behavior.
Jackson's recent unsuccessful attempt to buy, for a cool million, the mummified corpse of Britain's "Elephant Man" (the deformed John Merrick), prompted a barrage of laughter from society's sophisticates. The image of His Hotness lying in an oxygen-filled tank to preserve his youth didn't help either.
But bear in mind that when it comes to scraping together the remains and rising from the ashes like a phoenix, nobody does it better than Michael Jackson. Already the single from the "Bad" album ("I Just Can't Stop Loving You," a duet with Siedah Garrett), released July 22, has climbed from 34th to 10th in this week's Billboard Top 100 pop charts. It is a reminder that Jackson is a survivor, an artist who sold an unprecedented 38.5 million copies of a single album and a member of one of Hollywood's most successful musical families.
When the Jackson Five made their soulful, high-stepping debut on the national music scene in 1969 with Michael and brother Marlon as the lead-singing tots, the Jackson Five were not Hollywood's only singing family. Quick to follow were, among others, the Osmonds and the Sylvers, both of whom melted into relative musical obscurity. The Jackson brothers -- Michael, Jackie, Jermaine, Tito, Randy and Marlon -- have sold tens of millions of records; the Jackson sisters -- Janet, Latoya and Maureen (Rebbie) -- have made their mark as well.
But there's no doubt about who the musical boss of the family is. To the bill-paying world at large, the parents who buy records for the kids and worry about car payments, the Gloved One might seem terminally weird. (On the other hand, no one thinks it very strange when Shirley MacLaine announces that she lived another life as a pregnant woman in a cave.) But beneath his peculiar, patented mannerisms, Jackson is one of the shrewdest and most sophisticated minds in the record business.
The upcoming tour sold out in an hour in Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama to nearly a quarter million ticket-buyers, and has scheduled stops in Australia and New Zealand. It won't arrive in the United States until 1988 -- evidence that while Jackson is gearing up the machine, he is gearing it up carefully. His Victory spectacular cost him valuable career points and most likely he is anxious to erase it from public memory as deftly as possible.
The Victory Tour was wild and disorganized, marred by criticism, high ticket prices and controversy. Tour agendas changed from day to day; promoters came and went (one disgruntled soul who claimed to have an oral agreement to promote the tour reached an out-of-court settlement in Los Angeles District Court last October) and there was mass confusion over a mail-order system of purchasing tickets.
Exacerbating the ruckus was boxing promoter Don King, who jive-talked his way into the racially sensitive Jackson inner circle on what appeared to be civil rights grounds, causing squabbling within the Jackson clan that embarrassed Michael and marred the tour from start to finish.
Victory might have never gotten off the ground had not Michael's manager, Frank Delio, a former promotional wiz at CBS Records, had a moment of what in retrospect might be considered divine inspiration: Delio called upon Chuck Sullivan, owner of Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., home of the New England Patriots, to promote the tour.
Sullivan, an attorney and a staid, low-key New Englander, had never previously promoted any national rock event. The Victory extravaganza was one of the largest in rock 'n' roll history -- 30 tractor-trailers crisscrossed the nation through 20 cities, carrying a 375-ton stage, five elevators that required 22 men to operate, 120 speakers and 2,220 aircraft lights. Sullivan did a miraculous job of heaving the show into the stratosphere, though he nearly lost his shirt in the process.
The tour reportedly grossed $80 million, a not so fabulous sum when one considers that the Jackson payroll included six Jackson brothers; their parents; Don King; a reported $12 million repayment to Sullivan for advance tour expenses; a plethora of lawyers, accountants and agents; the tour musicians; a gigantic road crew and show with a $30 million overhead, and a group of black "promoters" who accompanied the tour under the guise of "looking after the interest of black fans." Included in that number, for example, was a street preacher from Brooklyn who traveled with the tour for months, apparently doing not much of anything.
Tour publicist Jim Murray nicknamed it "The Agony of Victory," a fitting label, since ironies abounded. One of the most glaring ironies was that some black leaders charged that Jackson "forgot his roots" in asking $30 for tickets -- keeping away just those fans who had supported the Jacksons during their lean years.
Another irony was that the Jacksons were not happy with the prices either, and gave away a million dollars' worth of tickets to the underprivileged. Michael Jackson donated his personal proceeds to three charities, one of which was the United Negro College Fund, but he did so only after the ruckus began. By then, the damage had been done.
What saved the Victory Tour from complete disaster was the show itself, which, when compared to the gut and sweat of a four-hour Springsteen experience, might be considered less than spontaneous, but in the funk and snap of the pop music world ranks as one of the greatest live shows ever. Even the slowest and oldest of the Jackson brothers can still dance circles around most of today's bubble-gum soul-searchers, and Michael himself was at his best, driven and consumed. He was convinced that Victory would silence his critics and he drove his brothers and band to exhaustion, to the point where the Kansas City opening date was nearly canceled when the Jackson drummer fell ill with exhaustion and dehydration.
This time around he is probably more consumed than ever. The Los Angeles rehearsals are being conducted with no outsiders, including label executives, permitted to attend. And while many doubt that the "Bad" album, the third Quincy Jones-Michael Jackson collaboration, will top "Thriller," it's not safe to bet against it. Curiously, CBS' Epic Records is said to be shipping only 1.5 million copies of "Bad," small numbers by Jackson standards. Epic should know his comeback history better than anyone.
The same how-can-he-top-this question arose after the Quincy/Michael debut collaboration, "Off the Wall," the first solo album to place four singles from the same LP in the nation's Top 10. Jackson was stunned when "Off the Wall," which sold 8 million copies worldwide, did not win a Grammy for best album. He walked away with a paltry Best Male R&B performance for one of the LP's singles instead and wept in disappointment, telling his family, "My next album will be so big, they'll never ignore me again." Then came "Thriller."
As quiet as he's been during the last three years, he'll be hard to miss now. In May, he signed a three-year dealwith Pepsi USA, reportedly worth about $15 million, the largest personal endorsement contract in advertising history, and is expected to make at least two commercials. His latest film venture, the George Lucas-produced, Francis Coppola-directed "Captain EO," a three-dimensional film Jackson made for Walt Disney Productions, is a permanent attraction at California's Disneyland and the Epcot Center in Florida's Disney World.
His line of stuffed animals, "Michael's Pets," inspired by his back yard menagerie, is reportedly being developed as an animated children's television series by Sepp International Studios, the company responsible for the "Smurfs" and "Snorks" programs.
So fasten your seat belts, or buy a ticket for Australia, or run to Peru and hide. But face the facts: Michael's back.