Never Say Never-Land
By Frank DiGiacomo. The New York Observer, September 16, 2001

Tavern on the Green … shit. I’m still only at Tavern on the Green.
It was going on 2 a.m. inside Tavern’s glass-enclosed Crystal Room. A small army of tuxedoed waiters had encircled Michael Jackson’s table, their backs to him, and formed a protective shield against the hordes who had come to gawk at the entertainer after his comeback concert at Madison Square Garden.

On the right of the 43-year-old Mr. Jackson sat a silent Yoko Ono, who only an hour and a half earlier had been twisting up onstage with Petula Clark. To her right was her son, Sean Lennon, and his girlfriend, model Bijou Phillips, who was looking freaked, perhaps because no one was paying attention to her. To Mr. Jackson’s left sat two plump, unidentified boys. They looked bewildered, and maybe a little frightened.

But any living soul who had witnessed this crowd and the concert that preceded it would have felt the same way-that clammy-palmed feeling of having encountered something beyond one’s comprehension, and yet unmistakably real. What could one make of the comic actor Jon Lovitz, leaning into Mr. Jackson’s pasty face to tell him something while the King of Pop tugged on the ugly yellow plastic lei that hung from Mr. Lovitz’s neck. Or of a diminutive man dressed as a member of that Munchkin organization, the Lollipop Guild, being buffeted by endless ass cheeks as he trudged across the room. Or, near the center of the Crystal Room, the table of mostly silver-haired screen greats that included Rhonda ( A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court ) Fleming, Jane ( Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ) Powell, Margaret ( Meet Me in St. Louis ) O’Brien, Ann ( On The Town ) Miller and Janet ( Psycho ) Leigh. Rush Hour star Chris Tucker was lurking somewhere, Ruth ( Citizen Kane ) Warrick was vrooming around with both a wheelchair and a cane and there-right there!-was the bearded, beaming face of The Gambler , Kenny Rogers. If you walked into the alcove off the Crystal Room, past the shining pate of Late Show with David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer, you’d spy, at the same table, Baywatch ‘s David Hasselhoff and pitchman William Shatner, with his hot-off-the-presses new wife, Elizabeth.

“Quite a turnout,” Mr. Shatner said with a gleam in his eye. “I’m proud to be part of it.” But what did he make of the crowd? The Transom asked. “That’s Hollywood, man,” Mr. Shatner said with a little laugh. “All this other stuff is shit.”

Decades and Decades of Celebrity Muck

Actually, this was something transmuted from the accumulated muck of decades and decades of celebrity. This was a fever dream, a journey into the tragicomic heart of darkness- Apocalypse Now as directed by David Lynch. True to postmodern form, the old Colonel Kurtz had made a bizarre cameo at the beginning of the evening, but the real tortured soul seemed to be Mr. Jackson. As the singer sat behind this human wall, his face was passive, but his eyes radiated the kind of sadness and pain that Anne Rice writes into one of the tormented undead characters in her vampire books.

Fred Astaire had once complimented Mr. Jackson on being an “angry dancer,” like him, but it had been evident during Mr. Jackson’s brief, wordless appearance with ‘N Sync on the MTV Video Music awards two nights earlier that Mr. Jackson seemed merely anguished. According to that morning’s New York Post, Mr. Jackson was a man with problems. His concerts had not sold out; his new single, “You Rock My World,” was getting lukewarm reception; and he was sweating a $200 million loan that, if he defaulted on it, could cause him to lose his stake in the Beatles catalog.

When The Transom asked Mr. Lovitz what he and Mr. Jackson talked about, the comedian explained that he was a friend of Miko Brando, the son of Marlon and one of Mr. Jackson’s bodyguards, and was just congratulating him on his concert. “I’m happy for Michael. I think it’s great fun,” Mr. Lovitz said, looking suspiciously at The Transom.

“So what did Mr. Jackson say about your lei?” we asked, grasping at straws.

Mr. Lovitz’s eyes rose in alarm. “What?” he said.

“Your lei,” we repeated.

“My what?”

By the time Mr. Lovitz realized that we weren’t accusing him of canoodling with an accused child molester, even we didn’t care what his answer was. We thanked him and moved on, only to find Chris Tucker signing autographs.

Toward the end of the concert, Mr. Tucker-who has a cameo on Mr. Jackson’s new single-had been introduced by an unseen announcer as “the star of the highest-grossing comedy in history.” After doing some extremely tame shtick about Mr. Jackson, Mr. Tucker introduced him as “the biggest star in the world, the King of Pop”-a superlative that presumably carried more clout when uttered by the star of the highest-grossing comedy in history.

We asked Mr. Tucker what, for him, was the most memorable moment backstage at the event. He looked at The Transom as if we might have staggered naked and dirty out of an IRT tunnel to pose this question. “Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five, back together,” he said as he walked away.

And for Mr. Shaffer, that Wallenda of the tightrope walk between show-business sincerity and postmodern irony, “It was great. But I can’t go into details.” Thank God for Mr. Shatner’s schlock: “Michael Jackson’s art spans the generations.”

The grande dames of Hollywood’s golden age of musicals-what the hell were they doing here, anyway?-effused similarly. “Michael came to see me when I was in Sugar Babies with Mickey Rooney. He hasn’t lost a thing,” Ann Miller said as her red-spangled jacket glittered in the reflected light of the Crystal Room’s chandeliers.

“I’m certainly a fan of Michael Jackson,” added Janet Leigh.

“Seeing him onstage was so electrifying. I said, ‘Where have you been? Come home to me.’”

The tickets-which cost from $50 to $2,500-called the show for 7:40 p.m. sharp, but it didn’t start until around 9. This left plenty of time for what must certainly have been a Michael Jackson impersonator, dressed in a hat, surgical mask and military dress jacket, to strut along one of the Garden’s walkways flanked by two swarthy men who were holding an umbrella over the doppelgänger’s head. Screams rose up, and people ran from their seats to get a picture or cop a feel. One 15-year-old named Nicole Galante, with a Jackson tank top and thick, braided pigtails, ran down, and the Jackson look-alike stopped to embrace her.

“I told him ‘I love you,’ and he said ‘I love you, too,’” Ms. Galante told The Transom after she had walked, weak-kneed and teary, back to her seat. But what if, we asked, that was not the real Michael Jackson? Replied Ms. Galante: “If it was, oh my God! If it wasn’t, oh well.”

That was pretty much the concert in a nutshell. There were a few oh-my-God moments, not all of them intentional, but many more oh-well stretches, not to mention commercial breaks.

What made the evening more interesting was that Mr. Jackson spent much of the time that he wasn’t performing at stage left in a kind of royal box, with Dame Elizabeth Taylor, who was sporting a purple feather boa, and Macaulay Culkin. Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss were among the celebrities who sat with the hoi polloi. But the performer’s presence among the mostly white audience did not compel them to show restraint when it came to expressing their heated and vocal disapproval over something they did not like. This gave the evening a gladiatorial quality that was heightened when one of the first performers of the evening, the R&B singer named Usher, took the stage wearing what looked like a Dalmatian pelt. Usher was joined by Mya and Whitney Houston to perform a spirited rendition of “Startin’ Something.”

Marlon Brando was up next, and he really did start something. When the spotlight hit him, the actor-whose girth was concealed by a suit and a pair of sunglasses that could have doubled as a welder’s shade-took off his watch and sat, seemingly oblivious to the audience. The crowd watched Mr. Brando staring at his watch on the two large video screens that flanked the stage, and soon they started to get restless. Finally he spoke. “Now, I’m Marlon Brando,” the actor said, adding that while “you were … wondering who’s the old fat fart sitting up there,” he had waited for a minute to pass on his watch. Mr. Brando said that in that minute, there were “thousands of children” who had been “hacked to death with machetes” or met other grim ends.

The booing started.

“Stella!” yelled someone in the crowd. People in the crowd looked stricken. Thousands had put aside their suspicions and discomfort about Mr. Jackson’s personal life and shelled out hundreds so that they could hear some music that would take them back to a more innocent time in their lives. Now this fat fart was pissing all over their nostalgia with nasty reality.

“Please think about what I’m saying,” Mr. Brando said, raising his voice above the din. “Don’t chat. It could be you. It could be your children.” For some reason, there was a smattering of applause.

“Why are you applauding?” Mr. Brando demanded.

The booing and catcalls grew louder, but Mr. Brando was not deterred. He urged the people to give what sounded like “a fingernail’s” worth of their earnings to “,” a Web site that appears to be devoted entirely to promoting Mr. Jackson’s new album. Up on the video screens, Mr. Brando seemed to be holding back a smirk. “I could go on for an hour and a half and tell you the horrible things I’ve seen,” he said.

The realization that Mr. Brando was a man capable of carrying through on such a promise moved the crowd to react with a vehemence usually reserved for prize fights and community-board meetings. With one more plug for “,” Mr. Brando finally relinquished his stranglehold on the evening.

Lucky country star Billy Gilman got to follow Mr. Brando. So relieved was the crowd that even after Mr. Gilman belted out “Ben”-a song about a rat-they rewarded him with a big standing ovation. Shaggy kept the crowd out of their seats and dancing with his reggae-fied rendition of “Angel in the Morning” and-joined by Rayvon, a guy who sounds a lot like Mr. Jackson-“Wasn’t Me.”

“Yo, Mike,” Shaggy shouted to Mr. Jackson after his performance ended. “You the original banger,” he said. But the audience wasn’t about to see why Mr. Jackson deserved such a sobriquet for at least another hour. They had to sit through a couple of numbers from The Wiz , as well as performances by Gloria Estefan, James Ingram, Marc Anthony, Destiny’s Child and Liza Minnelli, who now resembles a brunette Carol Channing by way of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Ms. Minnelli’s set included a performance of “You Are Not Alone,” a few bars of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a bubble machine and enough showbiz emoting to power three touring productions of Les Miserables . The crowd loved it, though, and even Mr. Jackson stood, clasped his hands together as if in prayer and gave a little bow to Judy Garland’s daughter. The drastic change in Ms. Minnelli’s physical appearance was only highlighted by a video clip of the singer, looking about 30 years younger, that ran with a number of other celebrity testimonials. Gregory Peck called Mr. Jackson a ” monstre sacre ,” and Sammy Davis Jr.-who’s been dead since 1990-talked about Mr. Jackson’s exalted place in “the now world of music.” And there was Ms. Taylor saying that Mr. Jackson has a quality of “innocence that we would like to attain.”

But it seemed to The Transom that innocence can’t be attained, only lost. Mr. Jackson was, at the least, naïve to think that people might actually want to sit through all this crap.

As 11 p.m. neared, after the words “Brace Yourself” had appeared on the video screens and the production had bogged down yet again, Ms. Taylor appeared onstage in her purple boa. She introduced the band, appearing only slightly less wacky than she did on the Oscars telecast. The crowd roared as male silhouettes could be seen posing beneath the archways of the stage set, and suddenly Tito, Jermaine, Jackie, Marlon and Randy were onstage, and their little brother Michael was rising up from beneath the stage in a get-up that made him look like a cricket player from outer space. He removed his helmet and tossed it into the crowd, and then the brothers began to veer around, dancing, voguing and singing “Can U Feel It?” They were certainly aware of each other-the dance steps required it-but there was no feeling of engagement up there.

Yet somehow, through truncated versions of “ABC” and “The Love You Save May Be Your Own” (Mr. Jackson’s voice sounding a little tight and rough) and “I’ll Be There,” the Jacksons managed to transport the crowd to the nostalgic place they had wanted to go. The population of Madison Square Garden stood, hands swaying, some with eyes closed, singing along to the music-until it stopped. Michael began the first of several sessions of shouting “I love you!” to the crowd, which immediately responded in kind. When Mr. Jackson shouted back “I love you, too!”, the crowd repeated his declaration verbatim. Mr. Jackson even threw out an “I love you, Donald” to real-estate developer Donald Trump, who was in the house. But the way that Mr. Jackson emphasized the word “love” made it sound as if his psychotherapist was having him practice saying this to someone about whom he had conflicted feelings.

The band further stoked the fires of nostalgia by performing its first big hit, “I Want You Back,” employing the same dance moves they’d used on The Ed Sullivan Show back in 1970. “Oh baby, give me one more chance,” Mr. Jackson sang, and it was clear by the reaction of the crowd that he didn’t need to ask. ‘N Sync joined the Jacksons onstage for “Dancin’ Machine,” and then it was over-a reunion that barely lasted a half hour.

‘It’s How You Deal with the Valleys that Counts’

From that point until the finale, Michael Jackson would be the sole Jackson on stage. That portion of the concert began with Mr. Jackson behind a milky scrim. The way he was lit at first made his shadow look huge and misshapen, like the Elephant Man, whose skeleton Mr. Jackson reportedly has in his possession. Then the shadow morphed into something more human-looking, and Mr. Jackson began singing “The Way You Make Me Feel” as he chased after Britney Spears, who was wearing a green dress. Ms. Spears’ voice is either very weak or her microphone was not working.

The apex of Mr. Jackson’s solo numbers came when he carried out a briefcase that contained the hat and glove that came from his Thriller -era costume. Up on the video screens, the camera lingered on Mr. Jackson putting on the glove, and the crowd went wild. The synthesizer music to “Billie Jean” began, and Mr. Jackson started pulling his crotch up and down like a lascivious mime. He kicked, he moonwalked, he sang with a vigor that, for a few moments, made it seem like 1983.

Former Guns ‘N’ Roses guitarist Slash came onstage and assumed the rocker’s position for two pyrotechnics-supplemented numbers, “Black or White” and “Beat It,” that had the Garden literally jumping. Again the “I love you’s” came and went, and Mr. Jackson asked a fan with a large placard that said “Burn All Tabloids” to show it to the rest of the audience.

By midnight, the concert was still going, though people were slowly filing out of their seats and heading for home. Mr. Jackson was incurring some major union overtime when Quincy Jones amassed many of the evening’s performers-and a few new ones, such as Mr. Rogers-onstage to sing “We Are the World.” Then it was uptown to Tavern on the Green, where Mr. Jackson’s world ruled in the ostentatious fantasia that the late Warner LeRoy-whose father, Mervyn LeRoy, directed The Wizard of Oz -had created for New York. Carnival games-which seemed to be rigged so that everyone won something-had been set up in the restaurant’s outdoor area and, at 11 p.m., the “Lollipop Guild” song began playing incessantly on the stereo system until, a half hour later, some sensible soul turned it off. But one person who was at the party around this time said that beneath the colorful lanterns strung throughout the Tavern, with the Munchkins squeaking ad nauseam, the event, at that moment, felt like the Do Lung bridge scene in Apocalypse Now .

Even Mr. Hasselhoff, who said the concert left him wanting “something new, something more” from Mr. Jackson, appreciated the singer’s tenacity. “Marlon Brando once told my friend … that you have five careers, and it’s how you deal with the valleys that counts,” he said. “Michael is one of those guys who keeps coming back.”

As did the crowd, which kept massing around Mr. Jackson’s table, obstinate and unresponsive to his security guards’ demands that everyone back up. Eventually, Sean Lennon stood on his chair and made a similar plea-and when that fell on deaf ears, he and his girlfriend made a break for it through the unyielding crowd. Then the security guard’s shouts grew louder. They were trying to drag Mr. Jackson through the crowd, and he was getting tossed about like a rhinestone-encrusted rag doll. People kept thrusting cameras in Mr. Jackson’s direction and bathing his pallid, altered face in harsh flash light.

“Don’t you see what’s happening to him!” screamed one of the bodyguards.

“Leave him alone !” screamed a middle-aged woman in a cocktail dress. “Goddamnit, leave him alone!”

The mass of people, with Mr. Jackson in the middle, stumbled out the exit and into the night, leaving those who remained to ponder the horror, the horror of it all.


articles from Vanity Fair by Frank DiGiacomo

The Game Has Changed
March 2008

John Mellencamp: One from the Heartland
February 2007

The Esquire Decade
January 2007

The Gossip Behind the Gossip
December 2004

articles from The New York Observer by Frank DiGiacomo

Puff Daddy’s Black and White Ball ’98
December 3, 2006

The Bling of Comedy
February 8, 2004

Baldwin Aroused
November 30, 2003

Triumph Sniffs a Hit
October 19, 2003

Jack Carter Smothers Brothers at Rip-Roaring Friars Roast
October 12, 2003

» See all posted articles


Me and Mr. Johnson
Here’s a link to my latest feature in Vanity…

And Featuring Scarlett Johansson in the Role of…Angelina Jolie
Following last night’s screening of Gomorra, an invitation-only crowd…

See Naples and Die of Heartbreak
If you have any connection to Italy, be it…

P.S. Elliott
This past summer, I wrote a profile of comic…

If You See Something, Say Something (to the Girl in the Hot Chiffon Top)
The police presence at my local subway stop was…


VF Daily
Shipment of Fail
TV Barn
Andrew Sullivan
The Huffington Post
Geeks of Doom
Big Apple Music Scene
WFMU’s Beware of the Blog
Funny or Die
Drew Friedman
Comedy Smack
The New York Observer
Dead Frog