There only seems to be one story on the collective mind of America (and indeed the world) right now, and strangely it doesn’t appear to be the fact that I successfully got my green card yesterday. I feel bad that so much time and effort had been put into street parties and tribute concerts to welcome me into the lovingly litigious arms of the United States, only for a 50 year old man to die three thousand miles away forcing people to box up the champagne and take down the flags.
The strange thing is that this isn’t the first time that Michael Jackson has impacted my life. Although in all honesty, I suspect it may be the last.
When I first moved to London, I started my career in the capital as a showbiz journalist working for a wire agency whose chosen level of moral fib
reer would have made Bernie Madoff look like a latter day saint. Nothing was too low for these people, and as a result it was probably one of the most endlessly fascinating jobs I’ve ever had. I left after a year, unable to take the scurrilousness of it anymore, but not before I’d stolen a fax with possible house purchases on it from Jarvis Cocker, doorstepped Emma Bunton (Baby Spice, for the benefit of my American readers) and inadvertently pimped out one of my female colleagues to Gene Simmons.
But the time that particularly stays in my mind is the day that I spent in the company of Michael Jackson, travelling around London for a photo-feature on The King Of Pop on the streets of the city.
Actually, I say ‘Michael Jackson’ but what I really meant was ‘one of the world’s leading Michael Jackson impersonators’, a guy called E Casanova. The agency figured that a newspaper would lap up a photo feature on a fake Jacko shocking tourists at various attractions, and duly managed to convince E Casanova to take part in return for the promise of untold riches and fame.
Another reporter and I were roped in as fake bodyguards for the occasion, and we managed to get a local company to loan us a stretch limo to complete the look of – ahem – a worldwide megastar taking an incognito tourist trip.
The day didn’t begin very well, when we turned up at the skanky hotel that ‘Michael’ was staying in, and the star wasn’t willing to take part unless we made various promises about the levels of fame and cash we would bring him. Duly perjured, we set off with him and his manager (a guy who had a second career – and I swear that I am not making this up – as a Lionel Richie lookalike).
And to be fair, this guy looked incredibly like Michael Jackson. If you got too close, you could tell the difference, but from anything more than a few yards away, it could have been the man himself. And as a result, anywhere we went, we were pretty mobbed by people wanting to get autographs or to have their picture taken. When we had ‘Jacko’ pose with a guard at Horse Guards Parade, you could desperately see the poor guy trying not to break his stiff uniformed stance while at the same time thinking ‘f**k me, that’s Michael Jackson standing next to me’.
Over the course of a few hours, we made our way around London taking pictures of Jackson in various locations – 10 Downing Street, Big Ben, by the Thames etc. ‘Jacko’ insisted on winding down the window of the limo when we were stuck at traffic lights, allowing fans to gaze in and try to grab his hand for a fleeting second.
While at Piccadilly Circus doing the compulsory Statue of Eros shot, Jackson noticed the then-Tower Records store across the road. He’d already been pretty unaccommodating during the day, and now he insisted that we go in there to do some record shopping.
I think it was at this point that the mystique behind the day began to fall away. After all, it’s difficult to maintain the illusion that you are with the real Michael Jackson when you’re at the Michael Jackson section of a record shop, with dozens of music fans all around you, flipping through the CDs to make sure that you’ve got them all. “Bad – got. Thriller – got. Off The Wall – got. Dangerous…have I got that? Oh yeah, I bought that in Paris. HIStory – got…”
Then Jacko and his manager insisted that they go for dinner, ahead of a ‘business meeting’ that they had set up at lapdancing club Stringfellows. We’d already reserved them a table at the Rock Garden in Covent Garden – a poor man’s Hard Rock Cafe, if you will. Having watched them change tables three times (“We want somewhere private. No, not that private – we want people to see him. What about this table in the very centre?”) we managed to make our excuses and leave.
We’d barely been back in the office for more than five minutes when the phone rang. The manager was complaining that people were gathering around them and they couldn’t eat their burgers. One chat to the manager later, and they were calmed. Ten minutes passed. Another call. Why hadn’t we paid the bill at the restaurant – now they were scrabbling around for cash so that they could go to their meeting.
Another ten minutes elapsed and the phone rang one more time. The limo driver had headed back to his base, leaving Jackson with no car to take him to Stringfellows. Given that it was only 400 metres or so away, they decided to walk. But the sight of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie casually strolling down Long Acre was too much for passers-by to take, and the pair were being mobbed by all-comers. They’d been forced to take refuge in an old fashioned red pay phone kiosk, and were calling in the hope that we would come to rescue them.
We didn’t answer the phone for a while after that. But in my darker moments, the thought of Jacko and Lionel running to Stringfellows with a baying mob behind them has always been enough to bring a smile to my face.
I’m bad. You know it.