Biography of Michael Jackson dishes up a lot of dirt about other people



J. Randy Taraborrelli.

Birch Lane Press.

625 pages. $21.95.

There are really only two kinds of pop-star biography. One is diligent and scholarly, using personal events to explain artistic achievement; the other is dramatic and scandalous, peeling back the layers of fame to expose all sorts of failings and foibles, as if the performer's flaws were only occasionally redeemed by artistic success.

Want to guess which category "Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness" falls into?

No, never mind -- anyone who reads People or watches "Entertainment Tonight" knows the answer. J. Randy Taraborrelli's book is being hyped as a tattletale tour de force, and no wonder. When it comes to dishing the dirt, this guy delivers by the bucketful.

Where other Jackson biographies keep their focus on the concert stage and recording studio, Mr. Taraborrelli takes his readers into the bedroom. There, he reveals the darker side of Jacksonmania, telling of teen-age groupies and sex-crazed fans, hushed affairs and illegitimate children. It's hot stuff, believe 11 me.

Too bad none of it happened to Michael.

That's not to say "The Magic and the Madness" plays fast and loose with its facts. Mr. Taraborrelli is painstaking in his research, backing up his claims with first-person accounts, court documents and the like. Moreover, he avoids the usual trap of relying largely on the easily discredited word of embittered ex-employees, quoting heavily from Jackson's family, friends and relations.

But the juiciest items in the book all have less to do with "Wacko Jacko" than with his exceedingly troubled family. Forget LaToya's Playboy spread, or Janet's abortive marriage to James DeBarge; that's kid stuff compared to what Mr. Taraborrelli unearths.

For instance, Joseph Jackson, the family patriarch, is portrayed as a bully and lech, who beat his children during rehearsals and cheated on his wife while on tour; he even had a daughter out of wedlock in 1973 (Mr. Taraborrelli includes a photo of the girl), much to the family's dismay. Nor does Michael's longsuffering mother, Katherine, seem all that saintly, as Mr. Taraborrelli tells of the time she beat up a woman she believed to be Papa Jackson's paramour.

No wonder the Jackson kids had problems. Jackie, Michael's oldest brother, had an extramarital affair with Paula Abdul, the book says; Mr. Taraborrelli quotes Jackie's ex-wife as saying that Ms. Abdul called once to say "she had just had an abortion. Jackie's child." Jermaine was sued for divorce after impregnating one of his girlfriends, as was Randy.

Yet when Mr. Taraborrelli finally turns his attention to Michael, the best he can manage is gossip and speculation. Consider the question of Mr. Jackson's sex life. Mr. Taraborrelli happily chases down rumor after rumor, spending pages on alleged liaisons with groupies and hookers as well as reputed flings with Tatum O'Neal and Maureen McCormick (TV's Marcia Brady), and each time his report is the same: Mr. Jackson never made a move on these women.

Is he gay, then? Once again, Mr. Taraborrelli has more anecdotes than evidence. But that doesn't stop him from dropping hints. Thus, when Michael and Emmanuel Lewis check into a "swank hotel in Los Angeles," the author smirks, "It's not known what fantasy they were acting out." Likewise, when Michael goes shopping in disguise, Mr. Taraborrelli makes sure to mention his purchase: "a hand-held power vibrator." And, of course, duty demands that he report whispers "that [record magnate David] Geffen and Jackson are having a sexual relationship."

Yet for each innuendo, there's a corresponding insistence that Mr. Jackson "definitely is not gay." As the author ultimately admits, "None of his friends or associates -- and no biographer for that matter -- can know the reality of Michael's sexual identity."

In other words, Mr. Jackson's personal life is a mystery -- as if we needed 625 pages to tell us.

Mr. Taraborrelli may not add much to the big picture, but he's great at detail work. Ever wonder how many copies "I Want You Back" sold? The answer's on page 57: 2,060,711. (Considering that many Motown stars never knew exactly how well their records sold, Mr. Taraborrelli's exactitude is nothing short of miraculous.) There's also plenty of data on how much Mr. Jackson's deals were worth, and even an inventory of Jackson's facial alterations.

One thing the book doesn't tell us about is the music. For all the detail Mr. Taraborrelli packs into the book, there's precious little about what made Michael Jackson matter in the first place. His musical efforts are given only the sketchiest description, and often ignored outright.

But that's typical of "Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness." Entertaining though the book is, it's ultimately a TC bait-and-switch operation, promising dirty details about one Jackson while actually delivering the goods on the others. Which, in an odd way, mirrors the Jackson family's fight to keep Michael performing with his brothers. After all, Michael doesn't need the other Jacksons to further his career -- but J. Randy Taraborrelli sure does.

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