Interview: Stephen Davis, ghostwriter of Michael Jackson’s autobiography, remembers the King of Pop. And his monkey.

Posted by Jacqueline

In 1987, Stephen Davis — the noted rock and roll biographer, and author of arguably the most notorious non-fiction rock tome of all time, the Led Zeppelin screamer Hammer of the Gods — was living with his family in Malibu and working on a book about Fleetwood Mac when his agent called and offered him a plum gig: ghostwriting Michael Jackson’s autobiography. That book, Moon Walk, became a #1 NY Times Bestseller, and broke the news of Michael’s accusations that he’d been abused by his father.

Earlier this evening, about 45 minutes after the networks confirmed Jackson’s death from a heart attack, we phoned Davis at his home in Milton, MA, as he watched his subject’s demise unfold on CNN. We talked about the odd circumstances surrounding the book, his memories of what Jackson was like at the time, and how Michael saved Davis’s seven year old daughter from the clutches of Bubbles the monkey. “This was still a 30 year old black kid when I was working with him,” Davis mentioned, still incredulous at Jackson’s death. “And the guy who just died looked kind of like a 60 year old white woman in garish lipstick. Kind of like the Joker.”

How surprised were you at Michael’s death?
Oh, totally shocked. I was going to go to London and go to one of those shows. [At the time of his death, Jackson was preparing to play 50 sold-out comeback performances at the O2 Arena in the UK.] And I figured as his biographer — as his autobiographer — it would be a cool thing to do. I mean, I thought maybe I’d do my own book someday. I’ve just been trying to figure out if my confidentiality agreement with him from 1987 is still in force. I guess I’ll have to get legal advice.

As someone who’s written about some of the biggest stars of the age — from Led Zeppelin to Ziggy Marley to Guns N Roses — is there any question that Michael Jackson was at the top of the list?
Well, you know I wasn’t a very big fan of Michael Jackson. I’m a reggae fanatic. But there’s certainly nobody in the second half of the 20th century who burned brighter than him. He’s one of these semi-mythical, elfin figures, like Elvis. There’s not too many people who would call himself the king of pop and then have it be picked up as a title by the media in general – because it was indisputable. There was no other King of Pop. There was the King of Rock N Roll, and then there was this little kid from Gary, Indiana, via Detroit, who was burned into the national consciousness as a seven-year-old, and really kind of never went away. It’s an incredible story, really. And then burned out, I guess, or retired, or was hounded and prosecuted, out of the country for many years, and two trials, and massive extortion. It’s very sad in a way. As I like to say, everything you ever heard about Michael Jackson is true, except that he molested those kids. Which I never believed for a minute. And he was acquitted [of those charges].

What are you memories of working on Moon Walk?
I was in California, and I was working on a book with Fleetwood Mac at the time. And my agent called me up and said that Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis had hired Michael Jackson to write his autobiography and was having trouble — they’d assigned a couple of writers already, and Michael either didn’t like them or, well, I don’t know what happened. I was the third writer on the project. And I had some of their previous transcripts, and they weren’t very good. And I’d been interviewing Mick Fleetwood a lot and living with my family in Malibu and they said, “Well, we’d like you to go over and have an audience with Michael Jackson and see if he likes you, and the deadline is approaching.” So I went there to his house in Encino, California. And the zoo was there, and the candy store and all this stuff.

This is 1987, pre-Neverland?
He moved, later on, to Neverland Ranch. But this was in his LA house, his mother’s house, where he was living all through the ’80s, when he was doing Thriller and Bad and those records. He was extremely kind, he took me up to his bedroom and showed me all his collections and obsessions — y’know, the hyperbolic oxygen chamber. And we talked about the situation. He was afraid to look at me in the eye, at first. He was very shy. Remember, he’d never been to school, never been socialized, never learned to play well with others. Grew up sleeping in hotel rooms with his brothers and cousins. Just never been to school a day in his life, so he was very shy. And a little freaky. But, y’know, I’m cool — I just said, “Y’know, Mrs. Onasis sent me, wanna see if we can do this?”

So I started going to his house every day at two o’clock in the afternoon. I decided early on that I would treat this like a therapeutic hour — 50 minutes or an hour, at most, at a time, because he had a short attention span. So that’s how we did it: every day I’d go over there, we’d talk for an hour, maybe an hour and a quarter. Sometimes I’d take my wife and kids, and then we’d screen a movie, and we’d be served lunch in his screening room while watching To Kill A Mockingbird for the third time. And he was extremely nice to my seven-year-old daughter. And when someone like that is nice to your kids — I feel very loyal to him.

After writing the book, did you ever have any contact with him again?
No. And that’s what everyone wants to know. I was with him for a very intense period — maybe eight months it took to get those texts together. And then the book was published, it was the #1 NY Times Bestseller, and it also came out in England — and then he refused to let a paperback come out. I think he and Mrs. Onasis kind of fell out over it. Because he kind of blackmailed her into writing a forward, which she never did [for her authors]. And I think she was kind of miffed about that. That was the take the I got on it.

Moon Walk has been out of print since its first edition?
Yeah. The day it hit the NY Times Bestseller list it went out of print. It’s one of the weirder stories in a) my career, and b) in publishing history. You can look – I have it somewhere. Someone framed the Times Non-Fiction best-seller list that week and sent it to me.

I’m on Amazon now, and sure enough, there’s only used copies: they’ve got five starting at $55. That’s about to go way, way up.
I think there were 100 signed copies. Someone told me that, and that Michael kept like 60 of them, and that some of them were in that auction they were gonna do – the one two weeks ago, or last month, and then he cancelled at the last minute. But apparently there were half a dozen signed copies that were going to be auctioned off. But I guess they’ve gone back to the estate. (Ed. Note: a more thorough search of Amazon suggests an import paperback was issued at some point)

What was the most surprising thing that Michael told you when you interviewed him for the book?
Oh, well — that there had been some physical abuse by his father. But that wasn’t really surprising: what was surprising was that he told me. It had been kind of obvious for years. And he only called it abuse – he didn’t say it was sexual or anything like that. The rest was how he got to where he was, with Diana Ross discovering them and the early days on the Ed Sullivan show. It was a pretty straightforward meat-and-potatoes — it was kind of a clip job. I just realized I have eight hours of Michael Jackson telling me his life story, but I don’t think there’s anything on those tapes that I didn’t put in the book. Of course, there wasn’t that much scandal then — this was before the molestation charges, and before the massive skin-whitening, before the psychopathology really started to crank in there. This was still a 30 year old black kid when I was working with him. And the guy who just died looked kind of like a 60 year old white woman in garish lipstick. Kind of like the Joker.

Do they know you have those audio tapes?
The only one who would know is Frank DiLeo, his manager from that era.

Coincidentally, Frank DiLeo reportedly had re-entered Michael Jackson’s life in the past couple of weeks.
I saw that. And I’m not surprised. Frank was a very, very good, very, very tough guy, and exactly the kind of mob-looking father figure who was really the only successful guy who ever managed Michael Jackson — through Thriller and Bad and the highlights of his career. And of course Frank emerged a multi-millionaire and doesn’t really need to work. But if Michael Jackson calls you, no matter where you are, you’re going to pick up the phone and say, “How can I help you, Mike?”, because he was a very endearing, sweet guy.

Oh look — this is the house, on CNN, where I worked with him! That’s the Encino house! Oh, wait — no. That’s the ambulance. My God I need a drink. I can’t believe he died.

When you remember Michael, do you have an epigraphic moment that you’ll think fondly of?
Michael had this monkey called Bubbles. And they brought in Bubbles one day after lunch when my daughter was with me – she was seven at the time, her name is Lilly. And there weren’t many kids around at that time. This was in the Encino house, before he moved out to Neverland. And the monkey comes in and takes one look at Lilly, my little seven year old girl, and grabs her by the arm – and then starts dragging her out of the room. And Michael Jackson grabs Lily’s other arm. And he says to the monkey, “Hey Bubbles – Where you goin’ with my girlfriend?”

Meanwhile, I notice that the hand that is being held by the monkey is turning blue, because he’s got this vice grip on it. So I said, Mike, this is getting a little old here, I’m a little worried about the hand turning blue. So he kind of intervened, sort of kicked the monkey with his foot. But it’s that moment – where the monkey is pulling one way, and Michael is pulling the other, and Lilly looks up at me, and Michael goes, “Hey Bubbles – where you going with my girlfriend?” And my heart just went out to him, it was such a sweet thing to do.

Speaking of which, whatever happened to Bubbles?
What happened to Bubbles in the end was that he started jerking off in front of busloads of school children who would come to Neverland Ranch. So they put him in monkey school, they retrained him, and they put him in these diapers. But one day, some very important schoolchildren came to Neverland – from Japan, I heard later – and they brought the monkey out, because the kids wanted to know where Bubbles was. So they bring the monkey out, but he had managed to reach into the diaper and had these two handfuls of monkey shit, which he threw at the kids. And that was the end of Bubbles. They sent him to like, Monkey Ranch, or something. I don’t think he’s alive. Although they can live for years and years. I’ll have to do some research and see if Bubbles Jackson is still with us

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