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Michael Jackson's autobiography, based on tape-recorded conversations with his editor Shaye Ereheart, was first published in 1988. This new edition has an introduction by Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records and his original mentor, and an afterword by Areheart about how the book was written.
The main part of the book is a straight reprint of the original, with no updating at all. Intriguingly, Gordy's four pages refer to his protégé in the past tense, calling him the greatest entertainer that ever lived. However Areheart's writing at the end, and also the cover, refer to him in the present. No reference anywhere is made to his untimely death last year.
The first pages tell of Jackson's childhood, as one of nine children born to musical parents. One of his elder brothers, Tito, used to enjoy furtive sessions on father Joe's guitar, until one day he gave the game away by breaking a string, and when he found out their (at first) angry father then challenged the children to show him what they could do on it. From there it was a short step to appearing on talent shows, and an audition with Motown. Michael was only eleven years old in 1969 when 'I Want You Back' gave the Jackson Five the first of four consecutive No. 1 singles in the US.
Despite the squeaky-clean family image, it is perhaps reassuring to learn that they all suffered from the same boredom as other groups on tour, which they relieved with pranks on others, usually including water bombs or full buckets on slightly open doors – though they stopped short of throwing televisions out of windows. There are also several references to the Osmonds and the friendly rivalry which existed between both families.
Eventually they found Motown too restricting, longed to write and produce their own records, and made the break to sign with Epic Records. After the early days with the Jackson Five (who had to change it to The Jacksons for legal reasons when they joined Epic), he has said little about the early period as a solo performer during the Motown era. Some more would have been welcome, but despite having a solo No. 1 in the US with 'Ben' in 1972, he goes into hardly any detail on this side of his career until its relaunch with 'Off The Wall' in 1979 and the phenomenally successful albums which followed it, namely the all-sales-breaking 'Thriller' and 'Bad'. All this is interspersed with references to his collaborations with Paul McCartney, the making of the video for 'Thriller', and the notorious Pepsi accident, when filming a commercial almost went horribly wrong and his hair was set on fire, resulting in second-degree burns to his scalp.
In addition to the accounts of his career, these pages give us insights into his love of privacy, why he used to wear sunglasses so often (in order to avoid having to look everyone in the eye), his friends, animals, tastes in food and vegetarian diet, references to nose surgery, and the little sartorial quirks like his love of white socks and a single glove. He talked about never being 'totally happy', and one of the hardest people to satisfy. At the same time he was aware of how much he had to be thankful for, as well as appreciating the gift of good health and the love of family and friends.
Even in 1988, he was hinting that 'too much too young' was getting to him. The opening chapter records that, even at 29, he had been in the business for 24 years, and sometimes he felt like he should be near the end of his life. In the closing pages, he referred to the sadness of showbiz celebrities such as Jimi Hendrix and Marilyn Monroe, who died too soon under pressure. Although he lived to 50, in view of the events of June 2009 those words have a rather ironic ring.
While the story comes to a halt in 1988, we know with hindsight that his best years were probably behind him. The last twenty years saw continued success with subsequent albums, but there were no records left to break. There were, however, the controversies which came close to derailing his career altogether, and album sales certainly did suffer in the US although not so much in the UK. Perhaps he chose the right time to tell the story. Did he have some sixth sense that it was all too good to last?
I'm reviewing this book as someone who was never a huge fan. I can appreciate some of the records, and like the late John Peel I can admire his talents as an entertainer, though much of what he did was not to my taste.
It is profusely illustrated, with colour plates plus black and white photos integrated into the text. Very few are captioned, and it would have been interesting at least to know which year some of the shots were taken. There is no index, although plenty of major personalities in the entertainment world are mentioned, and I'm always mildly suspicious of memoirs without indexes. Nevertheless, it is an honest, sometimes soul-baring memoir, far more than a recitation of his achievements. Reading it certainly brings the reader closer to understanding the man behind the almost surreal, none too happy showbiz exterior, and it is unreservedly recommended to all fans.
This is a revised version of the review I originally posted on Bookbag
I was never a huge fan either, but could fully appreciate his talent. For all his success and wealth I always felt sorry for him, as so many people wanted so much from him that you can understand why he seemed to lose the plot from time to time.
Templar19 12.09.2010 11:00
I remember the lively little kid at the beginning, and to think about what he became in the end is sad.