Smooth criminals: why the music industry turns a blind eye to sex abuse
Michael Jackson documentary has trained spotlight on the murky mores of the industry and its untouchable megastars
“I have slept in a bed with many children,” the King of Pop admitted in the 2003 documentary Living with Michael Jackson. “It’s not sexual, we’re going to sleep. I tuck them in ... It’s very charming, it’s very sweet.”
Who among us didn’t hear alarm bells? Who never wondered, where were the parents? Who didn’t think to themselves, what kind of family surrenders its infants into the care of an adult stranger; a globally acknowledged eccentric, if not downright weirdo at that – a superstar known for cavorting with chimps and sleeping in hyperbaric oxygen chambers?
During his lifetime, Jackson was never found guilty of child abuse, instead settling a string of charges against him out of court for considerable fortunes. Yet Leaving Neverland, a new two-part documentary, makes allegations so visceral in nature that they are impossible to ignore.
British filmmaker Dan Reed presents two grown men in his documentary – James Safechuck and Wade Robson – who accuse Jackson of having molested them when they were children. Both filed lawsuits through the courts but failed.
Robson, 36, was five years old when he met Jackson after winning a competition to dance on stage with him. In 1993, and again in 2005, he denied that anything untoward had happened between them. But in 2013, four years after Jackson’s death, he declared that the singer had both brainwashed and subjected him to seven years of abuse from the age of seven, claimed to have suffered a nervous breakdown, explaining that his perspective on events had changed after having become the father of a son himself.
Safechuck, 40, met Jackson in the 1980s after being cast in a Pepsi advert at the age of 10, before joining the star on his 1988 Bad tour. In 2014, he filed a lawsuit accusing Jackson of having abused him hundreds of times between 1988 and 1992, with the additional disturbing detail that Jackson staged a mock wedding between them only surfacing later.
Though similar stories were levelled against Jackson when he was alive, these latest claims, made in an era keen to make amends for decades in which bad behaviour went unpunished, have taken on a seemingly more powerful quality, marking a turning point for both our impressions of the man and the industry that brought him staggering fame.
I cannot speak to their accusations, but I knew Jackson for a time in 1988, having joined the Rome leg of his Bad tour, where his show at the Flaminio stadium was billed as the greatest rock spectacle the Eternal City had ever seen. Having been close to and, at one point, shared accommodation with his sister, La Toya, in New York, and known libidinous Jermaine and industrious Janet, then forging her own pop career, I had heard a great deal about their bleak, fun-starved upbringing in Gary, Indiana, and about the abuse they had been subjected to by their steelworker father, Joe.
Michael had been singing and dancing for a living before he’d even started school – his Peter Pan sense, then, of being unable to part with the childhood he ought to have left behind, seemed almost inevitable. And so I would find the biggest artist on the planet down by the Trevi Fountain, a familiar face peeping out through cascading curls, a false moustache and the raised collar of an old raincoat dropping dimes into the gush. He recognised me straight away. We were not strangers: I’d had dinner with him and La Toya in New York; visited his mother, Katherine, at the family abode in Encino, California; attended a barbecue at the home of Barry White, at which Jackson was a fellow guest; and had even visited the Neverland ranch.
Yet the two of us had not conversed at length; he never seemed that confident in adult company. Under-educated and insecure, he seemed happier among children. When he met my then three-year-old daughter, Mia, he seemed enchanted by her, calling her “Snow White”.
His incognito day out in Rome was a reaction to a life spent having “been everywhere [but] see[ing] nowhere. I just wanted to see something for myself, on my own, just one time.” And so this was his chance, before the two of us went off for an ice cream.
That night, he wowed us on stage, but failed to attend his own party afterwards. I never saw him or his family again.
Twenty-one years later, in 2009, I was looking forward to catching up with him when he rented the home of a friend, ahead of his ill-fated 50-night 02 Arena residency, the This is It tour. Somehow, I had a feeling that he’d never make it. At the time of his death, he was reportedly worth $500m, and remains the third-best selling artist of all time, behind Elvis Presley – who, while in his early twenties, turned his attentions to a then 14-year-old Priscilla, who would later become his wife.
Having worked as a music journalist for three decades and published eight books on some of its biggest stars, I know only too well that minimal digging is required when it comes to the questionable behaviour of many of the music industry’s luminaries: Bill Wyman, 52, married Mandy Smith, then 18, whom he had known since she was 13 – the same age at which Myra Gale Brown married her cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis, in 1957.
Consider the Allman Brothers Band, too, whose tour manager used to provide a chart detailing the legal age of consent in every US state: he would make copies for everyone in the band and hand them out at the start of each tour to avoid their getting into trouble.
Then there’s Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, claimed to have had a relationship with 14-year-old Lori Maddox, or, more recently, RnB singer R Kelly, first accused of sex abuse during the 1990s – allegations that only brought him to a criminal court last month.
Different times, different morals, so the mentality goes. As one household-name rock star friend admitted to me recently: “Nobody was asking for birth certificates. We would all have got done, down at Top of the Pops.”
Certainly, the culture seemed to almost celebrate the idea of illicit relations, appearing to favour the pairing of the randy rocker and underage schoolgirl as the most desirable state of affairs – Brown Shoes Don’t Make It by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention in 1967 was described as “Zappa’s first masterpiece”, in which he fantasised about sex with a 13-year-old; Aerosmith’s Jailbait made its intentions clear; Depeche Mode’s A Question of Time features the unequivocal line: “Well, now you’re only 15 and you look good, I’ll take you under my wing.” And what were Abba thinking with Does Your Mother Know? or Police’s Don’t Stand So Close to Me or Young Girl by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap?
And so on.
For all this time, the music industry has remained immune on the grounds that it is a different country, a final frontier, the last place where truly anything goes. It is still a realm of fantasy and myth: what else is rock n roll but Disneyland – Neverland – for grown-ups?
No matter what nefarious activity its key players involve themselves in, music is still the place we all secretly aspire to, if only we could write songs and play guitar. And so a blind eye has permanently been turned.
Forget hurling television sets out of hotel windows or driving Rolls-Royces into pools, darker forces are often at work; scandal and debauchery, after all, have always been the blood and guts of rock n roll.
I wince as I call to mind an orgy in LA, long since swept under the carpet, that resulted in the death of a teenage groupie; of the rent boy injected with heroin so that the band could get off on watching him convulse; of the rock fan left for dead in a hotel rubbish bin.
Why was no one ever brought to justice for such crimes?
Because those party to these, and many other misdemeanours, couldn’t risk losing their place in the inner sanctum, perhaps; because remaining one of the in-crowd mattered more than life, or because, given the status of the perpetrators, they feared that they would never be believed?
The light being back on Jackson’s alleged indiscretions proves that, like the acting world before it, glamorous industries – while among the last to fall – are no longer safe.
What Robson and Safechuck are trying to achieve is unknown: setting the record straight; peace of mind? Wherever their motivation lies, having presumably taken into consideration the effect that their horrific allegations will have on their own families, they must feel convinced that the fallout will be worthwhile.
• Lesley-Ann Jones has written bestselling biographies of Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. Her memoir, Tumbling Dice, will be published in April 2019.
– © The Daily Telegraph