Wednesday 19 October 2011

Jermaine Jackson Interview

On Saturday 10th September, Jermaine Jackson unwittingly provoked a media storm. He was on the promotional trail for his new book when a news story misquoting a section of the prologue was duplicated hundreds of times around the world, sparking a huge backlash against the memoir.

The story wrongly claimed that had Michael Jackson been convicted of child molestation in 2005, his family had an escape plan in place to whisk him to Bahrain, where he couldn't be extradited. The story was controversial and nonsensical. It was also untrue.

Wherever the story originated, the journalist responsible was apparently too lazy even to read Jermaine's eight-and-a-half page prologue in full before they wrote it up. Then, several hundred more journalists replicated that story without making any attempt to fact-check it. The furore was such that Michael Jackson's 2005 lawyer Thomas Mesereau publicly spoke out against the claims.

For Jermaine Jackson, watching his book misquoted on a global scale and seeing himself criticised over a story he never wrote was a disaster. He was marketing his book as an honest firsthand account of his brother's life, but it had scarcely hit shelves before it was made to look like a work of fiction.

It was amidst this controversy that Jermaine Jackson flew to London to promote the book - a trip I didn't find out about until he was already on his way here.

Arranging an interview slot involved three days of negotiation between Jermaine, his publicist and representatives of his publishing house on both sides of the Atlantic. In the meantime, though, I got a brief private introduction 'backstage' at his London book signing on Tuesday 13th September.

During our meeting, Jermaine thanked me for my work on his brother's trial and we spoke about his trip to the UK so far. He also reminisced about the Victory album when my friend Angela (above, left) handed him a copy to sign.

On the Wednesday evening, waiting to hear confirmation of my interview slot, I tripped over in my local park and landed with my hand in a patch of broken glass. On route to A&E, I learned that I would interview Jermaine Jackson the following day at the BBC studios.

On the afternoon of Thursday 15th, Jermaine's car picked me up in Wood Lane and delivered us all to the BBC studios. Now on his fourth consecutive day of back-to-back interviews in London, he'd just finished recording Loose Women and was at the BBC studios to be interviewed by Richard Bacon.

We were taken to an empty radio studio where Jermaine and I spoke for over half an hour about the backlash against his book, his family's struggle against biased reporting, how they coped with his brother's child molestation trial, and how racism affected the family both during the Jackson 5 days and in later life.

We discussed how he felt about the decision to put his brother's children onstage at the upcoming tribute concert in Cardiff (which happened on Oct 8th), his annoyance at the Los Angeles justice system's obsession with holidays, and the shocking content in chapter 22 of his book, which recounts his sources' recollections of the 'This Is It' rehearsals.

And we discussed a whole lot more, too.

Before I left, we snapped a picture - me sporting a hospital dressing on my right hand. Here we are in the empty radio studio:

Shortly after our BBC studios interview, Jermaine was generous enough to answer several more questions via email correspondence. I have woven those quotes into my article alongside the quotes from our in-person encounter, because it is too jarring and wastes too many words to keep differentiating between the two. My interview with Jermaine will be serialised on the Huffington Post. Part one is now online (link below). Keep checking the blog and my twitter page for updates on future installations.

Monday 17 October 2011

VIDEO: Thomas Mesereau Interview

On Friday evening I was contacted by a fan-site called Positively Michael who had organised a podcast with Thomas Mesereau, the lawyer who secured Michael Jackson's acquittal in his 2005 child molestation trial. The following day, Mr Mesereau was scheduled to spend an hour answering questions from specially invited contributors, and I was the only journalist to receive an invitation.

I've been covering the Michael Jackson story for four years now. My first published article on the subject of Michael Jackson's trial was in 2008, when I interviewed Aphrodite Jones about her book 'Michael Jackson Conspiracy'.

Aphrodite was one of the handful of journalists allowed inside the courtroom for every day of Michael Jackson's 2005 trial. After his acquittal, she decided to write a book about how she'd witnessed firsthand the media's intentional misrepresentation of the evidence and testimony in the case. But despite having seven previous New York Times bestselling books under her belt, no publisher would touch the manuscript. They weren't interested in any pro-Jackson material.

When Aphrodite self-published the book, I decided to interview her. Our interview was published in a small, short-lived magazine called 'Deadline' and Aphrodite described it as the best article she'd ever seen written about her work.

In May of the following year, the media's misrepresentation of the Michael Jackson trial formed a key part of the introduction to my self-published music magazine 'JIVE' and since Michael Jackson's death, my work on his trial has been published by Sawf News and the Huffington Post. So when I was presented with the opportunity to interview Thomas Mesereau on-air, however briefly, I couldn't say no.

During our conversation, Mr Mesereau spoke about the media's skewed coverage of the trial, why particular pundits are still bitter about the verdict, the peculiar closeness between the prosecutors and their witnesses, and why he felt Michael Jackson would be abused by prison guards and die in jail if he was convicted.

Here is the audio of our ten-minute exchange:

Click here to download the entire podcast, free of charge, from iTunes.

Monday 10 October 2011

VIDEO: James Brown Press Conference 2006

Having successfully ripped my Sky News appearance from a DVD and uploaded it to the YouTube, I was inspired to pluck another clip from my archive and stick that online for your enjoyment too.

Back in October 2006 I had just begun my journalism degree. I had been a James Brown fan throughout my teens and had seen him live three times. When I found out he was coming to the UK for a BBC concert, I decided to use my new 'student journalist' credentials to apply for an interview.

Most press officers would have simply ignored my email but Adam Dewhurst, who was looking after James Brown during his London trip, was kind enough to reply. He told me that Mr Brown wasn't doing any interviews while he was in the capital but that he was giving a press conference at Camden's Roundhouse a few hours before his concert there. If I wanted to go, he said, he'd put me on the list.

And so it came to be that on October 27th 2006 I found myself sitting in a small room upstairs at the Roundhouse - one of only two non-BBC journalists to be invited - waiting for an audience with my hero: the Godfather of Soul.

Mr Brown was late. I didn't much care. It gave my nerves time to settle. I was green; I'd never been to a press conference before; talk about a baptism of fire.

The other journalists seemed unphased - some actually seemed to view the press conference as an unwanted distraction from their other work. I couldn't understand it. How many people can say they've had the opportunity to pick the brain of the most influential musician of the last century? But their nonchalance subsided as soon as somebody whispered, "He's coming! He's coming!" There was a stunned silence.

Author Jonathan Lethem once wrote of James Brown:

"It is not merely that attention quickens in any room this human being inhabits. The phenomenon is more akin to a kind of grade-school physics experiment: Lines of force are suddenly visible in the air, rearranged, oriented. The band, the hangers-on, the very oxygen, every trace particle is charged in its relation to the gravitational field of James Brown...

"I'm also struck by the almost extraterrestrial quality of otherness incarnated in this human being... He's in his midseventies, yet, encountering him now in person, it occurs to me that James Brown is kept under wraps for so long at the outset of his own show, and is viewed primarily at a distance, or mediated through recordings or films, in order to buffer the unprepared spectator from the awesome strangeness and intensity of his person. He simply has more energy, is vibrating at a different rate, than anyone I've ever met, young or old. With every preparation I've made, he's still terrifying."

The description is an accurate one. A room full of cynical journalists, bemoaning James Brown's lateness and its impact on their deadlines, fell into a deferential hush as soon as he came into view down the corridor.

Mr Brown was in pain throughout his trip to the UK. In an article titled 'Jawedfather of Soul; James Brown ignores dental op agony at Scots gig', Glasgow's Daily Record reported that Brown had undergone dental implant surgery just days before flying to the UK and was "in so much pain he had to avoid talking and rinse his mouth with salt water just hours before going on stage."

Brown's cheeks looked sunken - the teeth he had in didn't fit properly. They were holding the fort until his final set were finished and inserted. It was when Brown attended a dental appointment two months later to have the final set put in that he was told he was too ill for surgery and sent to hospital with pneumonia, where he died shortly afterwards.

His voice was hushed, his speech difficult to decipher. It's not obvious in the below clip how quiet his voice was because he was speaking directly into a BBC microphone, but at 1m18s you'll notice a significant change in audio quality. This was because reporters were complaining that they couldn't hear Mr Brown's answers to their questions, so a door was closed.

The press conference was roughly fifteen minutes long, in which time Mr Brown discussed what to expect from his concert that night, the need to get children interested in playing instruments again and the negative impact that violent hip-hop imagery has on young people and on society in general.

Being as green as I was, I was too timid to shout my way through the other reporters and ask a question, so Mr Dewhurst kindly offered me the floor. I took the opportunity to ask Mr Brown about the album I knew he'd been working on, then known to fans as 'World Against The Grain' (it later turned out to be 'World Funk Against The Grain'). I got an answer I didn't expect.

During his lengthy response, Mr Brown spoke about the new track 'Gutbucket', in which he blasted hip-hop artists for their violent and misogynistic lyrics. This led to a discussion about the degradation of the music industry. Finally, though, he made some troubling comments. "Somebody's gonna have to die before we get that out," he muttered about the album. "I won't say much more than that."

He concluded, "We would love to get that out, but we need help." As he said the word 'help', his voice cracked - perhaps through emotion, perhaps because he was battling intense oral pain. Either way, to hear the notoriously proud James Brown publicly stating that he needed help was bizarre; as somewhat of a James Brown archivist, it is the only occasion I'm aware of on which Brown has ever publicly exhibited anything approaching weakness.

The comments prompted an uncomfortable silence and Mr Brown's personal manager, Charles Bobbit, leaned apologetically into the assorted microphones and said, "You should get that some time next year."

"I remember that press conference," Mr Bobbit would later tell me. "It was as if he had a premonition. I guess it came true, huh?"

Mr Brown's comments that night divide those who surrounded him. Some believe that those in charge of Brown's estate never intended the album to be released while he was alive and that his death was suspicious.

According to family sources, when Mr Brown's son-in-law told the National Enquirer he believed Brown had been murdered, he was shot dead days later and $500 was found in his pockets, ruling out robbery as a motive. Another family member told me last year that when they started asking questions, they were told, "that I could go missing and that there are a lot of swamps in Georgia."

Others, though, say the album simply wasn't finished and that Brown had a tendency to exaggerate, perhaps amplified on this occasion by pain medication he may have been taking to counter the agony caused by his dental surgery.

This month, former trustee of Brown's estate, David Cannon, is due to stand trial on numerous counts of mismanaging the James Brown estate both before and after Brown's death. Perhaps some answers will be provided by those proceedings.

The press conference was shot in full but never aired. The only footage broadcast on TV was the two-minute skit I have included below. My question was included but Mr Brown's answer, unsurprisingly, was not.

I didn't take many notes - I wasn't sure about the etiquette of breaking eye contact with James Brown as he spoke to me, so I maintained eye contact for the duration of his answer and scribbled down what I could when he finished. Those notes have long since been lost.

A few years ago I tried to obtain the unedited footage of the press conference but was told by the BBC that this skit was all they could find.

Although Mr Brown seemed troubled, I remain grateful to Mr Dewhurst for inviting me to that press conference. As it turned out, I would never have had another chance to speak to Mr Brown. He died less than two months later, on Christmas Day 2006.

My encounter with James Brown prompted my research into his final album, which produced my Guardian Award-winning article, 'James Brown: The Lost Album'. James Brown book-ended my career as a student journalist. In my first month of studies, I attended that press conference. Just over three years later, shortly after I graduated, I was handed my Guardian Award.

Though this footage is brief, and my own on-screen appearance amounts to about two seconds, this is a video I will treasure forever - and I'm glad to finally be able to share it with you all.

VIDEO: Sky News

Here is a clip of my appearance on Sky News on the morning of Saturday 8th October, which I wrote about in my last blog entry.

Sky News

On June 25th 2009, in the hours after Michael Jackson passed away, I was contacted by several rolling news channels who wanted to interview a 'Jackson expert' live on-air. By the morning of June 26th, I had appeared via telephone on BBC News 24, BBC World Service and Sky News.

Since then I hadn't heard much from any of them - perhaps because in the weeks after Jackson's death I declined a few appearances - but this Friday I received a surprise phone call from Sky News, looking for somebody to appear on-air the following morning and chat about Saturday's 'Forever Michael' tribute concert in Cardiff.

It was a brief appearance but fairly successful for a first ever live TV studio interview, by which I mean it was uneventful; I didn't faint, freeze up or barf into the host's lap. Although I did get home later one and notice this:

Did you spot that?

I'll zoom in.

Yes, Sky News became the latest in a long line of media organisations to misspell my name. But never mind. As live TV goes, it's a minor complaint.

I was blindsided by a few questions on Paul McCartney's wedding, about which I knew nothing except what I'd briefly read on the front page of the Mirror in the Sky News green room ten minutes previously. Fortunately, the McCartney questions weren't too probing. I think I got away with it.

I will post video of my appearance shortly.