Sunday 26 February 2012

Jermaine Jackson Outtake

Since it was taken over by AOL, the Huffington Post has introduced a fairly restrictive word limit on blog entries, asking posters to cap them at an absolute maximum of 1,200 words. Under the current editorial policy, my piece on the Michael Jackson trial would never have been published by the website. It was also the reason I had to post an uncut version of my Troy Davis piece on my website.

With this word count in mind, I had to cut my interview with Jermaine Jackson into small chunks, which told an overall narrative but at the same time were self-contained and somewhat themed. The first, about the controversy surrounding his book and how it came to be published, was published in October. The second installment focused on he and his brothers' childhood experiences. That fairly uncontroversial segment is the one which was rejected without any explanation.

When I re-worked the piece for the Orchard Times, having those self-contained chunks was no longer a necessity and discussion of Jermaine's childhood would have been a diversion from the overall narrative. As such, the whole segment got dropped.

Rather than leaving it unpublished, I thought I'd stick up here on the blog for you all.

Through A Brother's Eyes: Jermaine Jackson Speaks - Part Two

Michael Jackson's solo career was so eclipsing that it's easy to forget the enormity of the Jackson 5's success. The first group ever to have their first four records go to number one, they sparked hysteria almost everywhere they went. Almost everywhere.

Concerts in Southern states were picketed by the KKK. Jermaine tells me about the trauma of, "checking into a hotel and they're telling you 'you don't have reservations here' and we know we have them. Then when they give us our rooms, they [are] way in the back facing the alley where all the trash was." Stories like this serve as a reminder that the Jackson 5 started out, as Jermaine puts it, as "five black guys from Gary, Indiana" - a fact overlooked by some generations who have simply never known a world in which the Jacksons weren't famous.

In fact, the Jacksons' story is one of the greatest rags-to-riches tales ever told. The family rose from a borderline poverty-stricken background - two parents and nine children living in a two-bedroom house on a crane operator's wage - to become the most famous family in America, challenging stereotypes and breaking barriers along the way.

In his book, Jermaine downplays their money woes. They weren't poor, he says, but they weren't privileged. He writes: "The best way of describing our situation was: not enough money to buy anything new, but somehow we scraped by and survived."

The group's rise to prominence is well-documented but Jermaine's descriptions of life at Motown have raised eyebrows among some fans, who believe he has sugar-coated the brothers' childhood, contradicting many of Michael's own recollections.

For example, Jermaine writes of their after-school work schedule at Motown: "[We went] to the studio for around 5.30pm, and sometimes stayed there till 10.30pm. Some people say this sounds exhausting but we were too excited to notice because we loved being at work."

This doesn't quite tally with Michael's own version of events. In 1993 he told Oprah Winfrey, "I remember going to the record studio and there was a park across the street and I'd see all the children playing and I would cry because it would make me sad that I would have to work instead."

When I put this to Jermaine he mentions a scene early in the book where he and Michael are stood at the window at Christmas, watching the local children play outside with their new toys, unable to share in their joy because of their Jehovah's Witness upbringing.

"I think that scene shows that same sadness," he says. "But I think the sadness was also balanced with our shared thrill of performing. I remember this time at the Apollo when we were in the dressing room looking down on the basketball courts, desperate to play. But we were born to entertain. Michael lost four more years of his childhood than I did, so I understand why he felt more strongly about this... Michael was probably the most sensitive out of all of us, so I think he was maybe more vulnerable to the impact of fame."

Fans have also questioned Jermaine's depiction of his father Joe's allegedly heavy-handed discipline, which Michael claimed left him so traumatised that he would vomit at his father's mere presence. Claiming that Joe's behaviour was both normal and necessary at the time, particularly because he was desperate not to see his children swept up in Gary's gang culture, Jermaine suggests that Michael's recollections may have been 'exaggerated' because he witnessed his siblings' punishments at a young age, hearing their 'screams' and seeing 'belt buckle imprints on bare skin at bed time'.

"This made him fear something long before he felt it," he writes. "In his mind the mere thought of Joseph's discipline was traumatic. That is what exaggerated fear does: it builds something in the mind to a scale that, perhaps, it is not."

But Michael often recalled being personally beaten and whipped by his father. In one 2001 interview with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, broadcast on NBC after his death, he recalled his father using extreme violence towards him and his siblings. "He would make you strip nude first," he told Boteach. "He would oil you down. It would be a whole ritual. He would oil you down so when the flip of the ironing cord hit you, you know... You had whips all over your face, your back, everywhere."

Jermaine tells me he does not share this particular recollection. He's quick to point out, though, that this doesn't mean it wasn't true. It was 'clearly Michael's emotional truth and recollection' - but just not one shared by Jermaine.

"Whatever people want to label it - beatings, whippings, spankings - it was not abuse," Jermaine tells me. "I was there. I shared the same discipline at the hands of Joseph and I have never considered myself 'abused'... In the book, I try to place Joseph's discipline and Michael's forgiveness of Joseph into a context no-one has written about before."

Still, Joe Jackson does not emerge from this book bathed in holy light. While he's portrayed more sympathetically than is common in Jackson biographies, Jermaine's recollections still detail what many would consider inappropriate discipline. Despite earlier attributing his father's brutal discipline to a fear that his children would be tempted to join local gangs, Jermaine reveals that even after the group had achieved global success and moved to California, rehearsals were still "administered under the threat of a beating."

One of Jermaine's more shocking claims is that Joe Jackson tricked a teenaged Michael into leaving Motown and signing a contract with CBS Records by pretending he'd get to have dinner with Fred Astaire as a reward. Then, he writes, Joe used that signature to try to convince Jermaine - at that time married to Motown boss Berry Gordy's daughter - to jump ship as well.

I ask Jermaine how his father has reacted to such revelations but, as far as he is aware, Joe has not yet read the book.

In 1975 Michael, Marlon, Jackie and Tito signed contracts with CBS and hopped labels with brother Randy filling Jermaine's spot. Jermaine remained loyal to his father-in-law and stayed at Motown. "There was a suggestion for years that I broke up the group by leaving," he writes, "but I've never viewed it that way. I did not leave them: they left me."

The split drove a wedge between Jermaine and the family. Joe wouldn't take his calls and the brothers were now often away on tour without him. Jermaine, used to his brothers' constant presence, found the separation almost impossible to bear. But, he says with hindsight, the distance between them would prove trivial compared to the chasm that later opened between Michael and his family. In a few years, he says, Michael would become surrounded by shady figures who assumed control of his affairs, screened his calls and locked his family out of his property. That was when everything started to go really wrong…