He sat amid a 1 a.m. audience in the lobby of a Kansas City hotel, his gold watch and silver chains and diamond ring all aglitter. His porcupine hair, maturing with dignity, looked like that of a man who'd had a bag of powdered donuts detonate in his face.
"Michael Jackson has transcended all earthly bounds," proclaimed The Presenter. "Every race, color and creed is waiting for this tour. The way he shall lift the despairing and the despondent enthralls me. Only in America could this happen, only in America. Oh, I am so thankful to be an American..."
Pam McCoy walked past the mosaic of shattered glass, burnt grass, cigarette butts and empty half-pints outside her apartment house in South Dallas. She opened her scarred front door and slipped into the bedroom she shares with her 15-year-old brother. She pulled out a drawer and snapped open a black case, and when she smiled, her gold-rimmed front tooth glittered. There, behind the new binoculars, hid her treasure: a $30 ticket to see Michael Jackson at Texas Stadium.
She ran her hands over it and read the words on it to herself once more. Getting the ticket had required a monumental effort. First the 14-year-old girl had to convince her mother the idea wasn't fool crazy. Then she had to work with her for three days, folding linen, making beds and vacuuming the rooms at the Circle Inn in nearby Irving to earn ticket money. She turned down friends who asked her to go see Gremlins and held off buying school clothes for September. This was the only way she could afford to join her two cousins and one of their boyfriends in sending in the four-ticket, $120 mail-order coupon that was used for distribution the first three stops of the tour.
Her mother, who nets $120 working six or seven days a week as a hotel maid, couldn't let her daughter see Michael Jackson in any old clothes. She postponed Pam's $30 eye exam, delayed a $55 monthly payment for furniture and bought her a new outfit of white pants, purple blouse and white shoes. "I asked my son if he wanted to go, too—if I could suffer for my daughter, I'd do the same for him," said 38-year-old Beatrice McCoy. "But he said, 'No, mama, the price is too high.' "
Outside, in the shade of a 100-degree day, Mrs. McCoy's common-law husband worked on a game of dominoes and a pint of whiskey. "I'd like to go see him," said Jessie, "but I don't know anybody else in this whole neighborhood who was able to buy a ticket. Thirty dollars is robbing the poor."
Pam's eyes dropped to the picture of her idol on her T-shirt. Her voice was barely audible. "I don't like it when you talk like that," she said to him. "You could go if you wanted to."
"Yeah," said Jessie, "and what would I eat next week?"
In the depression that set in after they had amputated her fingers and feet, the only thing that made Adrianne Hopkins' eyes come alive was the mention of Michael Jackson. She gazed at the six posters of him the nurses had pinned up in her hospital room, and when Thriller came on her tape player, she finally obeyed her body's urge and let her upper torso move like his.
One day she learned that Michael Jackson was starting his tour in her city. It seemed like one more cruel trick of fate for the 15-year-old girl who had nearly died of a bacterial infection that had also clogged blood vessels in her extremities. Michael Jackson in her town! While she was lying helpless in a hospital.
Then one day a member of the Children's Mercy staff walked in and told Adrianne she was going to the concert that Saturday night, as one of the recipients of the hundreds of free tickets the Jacksons disburse to underprivileged and handicapped children in each city they play. It was too large a piece of news to stay still for.
With the new canes and artificial feet she had begun using that week, she went into the hallway and worked on a shuffling imitation of the moon walk. "I did it before," she said. "I'm going to moon walk out of here."
In Wichita, Kans. a 16-year-old boy named Ron Poe mopped the perspiration from his body and readied his sweat-soaked clothes for the washing machine. Now that his four-hour Michael Jackson dance frenzy was over, he felt his own consciousness returning, bit by bit, to his body.
Tomorrow he would travel to Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City in black loafers, white sequined socks, short black pants, red multizippered Beat It jacket, black hat, single sequined glove and sequined bow tie to see the person to whom he had surrendered his identity. He would even carry his Jehovah's Witness prayer book in case the sky opened and Michael appeared before him to autograph it.
Once his hero had been Prince, but his mother had seen that superstar prancing around in a bikini and had urged her son to stick with the clean-living Jackson. And so every night from 7 to 11 he had gone into his bedroom, dressed in these clothes, fixed his eyes on the Jackson posters coating the walls and practiced every one of Michael's moves. His weight dropped from 155 to 120 in four weeks.
"I'm so plain, normally; the prettiest girl in the school never even noticed me until I went out dressed like this," he said. "Now she's my girlfriend."
At the stadium the next evening he would be surrounded by crowds of fresh-scrubbed Midwestern white girls, snuggling their arms inside his, while their boyfriends snapped their Olympus cameras. Michael Jackson was making it easier for white and black people to touch and talk.
Throughout the tour at hotels and stadiums people would come dressed like Jackson, and look-alikes would cause mob scenes and arguments between 50-year-old spouses over whether that was really him. One look-alike—an 18-year-old named Odell Meadows who had won a Dallas lip-synch contest—arrived at Texas Stadium with four bodyguards and a manager who said Meadows would soon commence a tour of Mexico and the Middle East that would earn him $1.5 million and his corporation $750,000.
While the people were working to make their hair and clothes and movements look more like Michael Jackson's, Michael Jackson sat in a hotel room applying a false mustache and a worn hat to try to look more like them. Like them, he found it easier to go out into the world in disguise.
It was nearly time, at last, for the show to begin. The chauffeur ushered the four people into the limousine and started the drive to Texas Stadium.
"I didn't want to fight the crowds," said Clif Noland, a 39-year-old Dallas real estate broker, as he balanced his glass of champagne.
"A limo's the only way to go see Michael Jackson," said his friend Josh Carter, a 23-year-old loan officer.
"I needed some excitement in my life," said Katherine Guidry, a merchandising manager for women's apparel, which is also known as clothing.
"I go way back to '69 with him, to I Want You Back," said Anne Kuehl, a sales rep for designer jeans. The four friends settled back and drank from the last two of their five bottles of champagne in the limo they had rented for $400. Theirs was not a lonely luxury—all 320 or so limos in the Dallas area were booked for the three days Michael Jackson was appearing.
Once upon a time in America, celebrities came to their performances in limousines. Now it was celebrity seekers who did, while the haunted stars slipped into vans with dark windows.
The foursome's limo pulled into the stadium parking lot, and they agreed to party inside it and watch the fans file in. What they saw was not a rock-concert crowd, but what you see waiting on line at E.T. Darling little tanned girls in training bras and single gloves, mothers wearing Etonic running sneakers with little pink balls popping out the back of their socks, fathers in Izod shirts and sunglasses. Instead of rolling papers and plastic bags of marijuana to kill the two-hour wait, they clutched boxes of Trivial Pursuit. Like Trivial Pursuit, Michael Jackson has become a medium that makes it less difficult for American family members to sit down and talk to each other.
Patiently, they stood while security guards whisked metal detectors around their bodies. Knives, guns, bottles, cans—nothing dangerous except human beings was to be permitted to enter the fantasy Michael Jackson had created inside. The average attendees, one exit poll showed, were two middle-income white parents with two children between the ages of 6 and 15. The black-to-white ratio of 10,000 to 200 that had attended a Michael Jackson concert in Jacksonville five years ago had nearly been reversed.
"It's like a symphony crowd," said tour promoter Chuck Sullivan. "The thing that makes me happiest is that we've created a situation, security-wise, where parents are not afraid to bring 6-year-old kids into a stadium of 50,000 people at 10 at night."
"The Jackson concert is now a white show," declared Steve Corey, a Dallas promoter not affiliated with the tour, "and they're a white group."
Tour planners had hoped that New York—where the four-ticket minimum had been waived and the black population was larger—would create a more balanced audience. But after the first show at New Jersey's Giants Stadium, tour publicist Howard Bloom, looking puzzled, said, "All I saw were white faces. Sure, the Jackson brothers are aware of it. One of them brought it up at a meeting the other day and everyone seemed baffled."
Back in the limo in Texas, the champagne and discussion flowed on. "Personally," said Clif, "I don't think $30 is too much. Sure, Michael Jackson could have cut back on some things and done it cheaper, but if you're gonna do it, do it right."
"I wrote the check for $120," said Katherine, "and it didn't bother me."
"What it does," said Josh, "is keep the riffraff out."
The stairwells of the $200 million Loew's Anatole Hotel in Dallas echoed with the squeals and sandal slaps of roving posses of teenage girls. Fortress Jackson was frustrating them at every turn. The door on the 19th level of the stairwell was locked, the doorknob removed. The elevator refused to open on the 19th floor unless one knew the secret combination of floor buttons to push. Security men with walkie-talkies kept turning the girls away. Overcome by the remoteness of Michael Jackson, one girl finally sat in the stairwell and sobbed. "Can't we just see him?" she said. "We're the ones who made him what he is."
Surely the Dallas Cowboys would be permitted an audience. In the lobby halfback Tony Dorsett, receivers Tony Hill and Drew Pearson, and defensive backs Dennis Thurman and Dextor Clinkscale waited for approval. A half-hour passed, then an hour. The celebrities began to feel sheepish.
"I've got to go see my banker," Dorsett finally said casually. "We're talking a half-million-dollar deal."
"Hey, man," said Hill, checking his watch nonchalantly, "I've got to go to my restaurant."
Finally they were told they could see a Jackson—Randy, not Michael. Clinkscale presented Randy with a laminated color picture of himself that had appeared in the Dallas Morning News, in which he resembled Michael Jackson. "Michael," said Clinkscale, "is in a sense divine. He's not God, but God has touched him. There are two things I always wanted to do in life. Meet Michael and play for the Cowboys."
Down in the lobby, an amazing cross-section of America was assembling: white, black and Hispanic—the old as willing to stand and wait for a visitation as their young. Respectfully they stood beneath a $40,000 chandelier in this gaudy hotel. There was none of the urgency, the hysteria, the rebelliousness that rode with the Beatles 20 years ago in the last great pop-culture carnival that traversed America.
"Do you know why Michael Jackson's so big?" said Chris Arnold, a sportscaster who was waiting with the Cowboys. "It's because there's nothing about him that's depressing. He doesn't offend anyone. It's easy to like him. He's safe."
On the opening weekend of the tour, another famous man came seeking an audience with Michael Jackson. Unlike Michael, he had not used surgery to narrow his nose or chemicals to relax the kink in his hair. His nostrils and rhetoric flared in a way that only a sliver of America could accept, but now Jesse Jackson recognized a way to enlarge the sliver. A short while after he was granted a visit with Michael Jackson, Jesse came downstairs and slapped five with some old friends, then jerked his thumb toward Jackson's floor and shook his head. "They're scared of letting us be in a picture together!" he exclaimed.
The show does not begin until there is total darkness. It requires 2,200 lights, seven computers, two robotic spiders, three times the electrical power ever required for a concert, 750,000 pounds of equipment, $5,000 worth of fireworks a night, 24 tractor-trailers, 1,500 employees each show and $1.5 million a week in production costs.
It is neither cheap nor easy to construct a portable dream—but it is necessary and effective, for us and him. In this dream world, little children go "Oooh!" and wrinkled men's eyes widen. In this dream world his androgyny does not threaten the virile, his youth does not threaten the old, his blackness does not threaten the white, for nothing seems quite real and all is softened by fragility and innocence. He can tuck his gloved thumb inside the middle of his belt, dangle four fingers over his groin, thrust his hips out like they were dynamited—and make everyone forget that he is a Jehovah's Witness who believes even birthdays and blood transfusions are sinful.
The show ends, the people leave happy, and no one asks if he could have disassembled the dream, simply sung and danced with all his talented might—and charged $15. "Michael does not make decisions like this on commercial logic," said publicist Bloom. "When he sat around making plans for the tour, he was like a boy who wanted to bring home a present that would make his little brother's jaw drop."
One midnight in the parking lot of Texas Stadium, there stood a small black boy in cutoff shorts who had had to listen to the show from outside. His sneakers did not slide smoothly on the asphalt, and so he had crushed an empty Pepsi can and placed his foot atop it. As the shiny cars filed past and the people inside pointed and smiled, he spun 360s again and again in the darkness, just like Michael Jackson.