Setting the record straight on Michael Jackson: Denver author’s “definitive” biography

Denver-based author Steve Knopper wrote "MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson," which looks at life of Michael Jackson from his beginnings in Gary, Ind., through the end of his life in 2009. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)
Denver-based author Steve Knopper wrote “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson,” which looks at life of Michael Jackson from his beginnings in Gary, Ind., through the end of his life in 2009. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post)

Steve Knopper’s fearlessness in tackling thorny, gargantuan subjects can be traced to his first book, “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age.”

The Rolling Stone contributing editor and freelance writer managed to wrestle a monumental topic into an approachable narrative that spoke directly to music fans instead of littering them from on high with smug insight.

“MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson” is the Denver-based Knopper’s latest Mount Olympus, a climb that demands the sort of rigorous reporting and writing that has seemed rare in Jackson’s life and 2009 death — overshadowed as it’s been by allegations of child molestation, drug abuse and general weirdness.

Knopper spent three years interviewing more than 450 people for the nonfiction book, which was published Oct. 6 by Scribner. They’re pitching it as the definitive Jackson biography, and “MJ” makes an excellent case for that, shot through as it is with critical deconstructions, a historian’s perspective and an objective but lively tone.

We talked to Knopper, 46, at his Highland neighborhood home about the process of writing the book, his inspirations along the way and why he’s convinced Jackson is innocent of the most heinous allegations against him.

Knopper will appear at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 28 at the Tattered Cover on East Colfax Avenue to read from and sign the book.

Q: Why Michael Jackson? Why now?

A: A few reasons: One, it’s a book I could sell. I wrote this book about the music business and I was super happy with it and it got a lot of press. But in the end, it was a pretty limited audience (of) people who are interested in the music business. And so I wanted another book, but as I was pitching idea after idea it kept not going anywhere. Then Michael passes away…

Which was not too long ago, in the scheme of things.

June 25, 2009, which is burned in my brain. But immediately after that I pitched my previous agent, and it just all kind of crystallized.

A lot of people might assume there’s not much new information, given the dozens of books already out there about him.

There are, but there hasn’t really been a book that’s credible. Not a salacious tell-all, but a narrative, music-business book. I kind of pitched it as the Peter Guralnick version of Michael Jackson’s story. He’s the guy that did the Elvis Presley biographies (“Last Train to Memphis”), and those books are great because there’s a lot of dirt in there, a lot of sexy stuff. But in addition to that, it’s high-level criticism and analysis, and you don’t come away from that going, “Wow, Peter Guralnick is really a cheap celebrity biographer.” That’s what I aspired to. My agent liked the idea but at the time he said, “Can you finish it in six months?” and almost immediately after Michael’s death. And I said, “No, I really think it needs a lot more depth than that. I don’t think we should rush-release something into the market just because he died.” His death reminded me and so many other people how much we loved him and his music and I really wanted to give it some respect. I didn’t think a quickie bio would do that.

There is certainly no shortage of entry points into Michael Jackson’s life and art.

It has everything. If you cover baseball you want to do the Babe Ruth biography. If you cover politics you want to write about Lincoln or Obama or somebody who’s got some heft. As I was doing this, I was marveling at how many different eras (Jackson) touched. I can’t think of any precedent. He starts out on the south side of Chicago being influenced by blues and James Brown, then he goes to Motown, then Philly International. Then he works with Quincy Jones — who touches everything — then he kind of moves onto hip-hop. His career spans the history of pop music.

How did your opinion of him evolve?

Most of the books that have come out about Michael, and there are some very good ones, have been like, “I’m going to get this guy. I’m going to nail down all the weird details and not let him squirm under these half-truths.” And of course I wanted to tell the truth, too. But my feeling was that I didn’t want to get this guy. I wanted it to be sympathetic to what his life was like. But I didn’t expect to be so thoroughly convinced of his innocence on child molestation charges.

What convinced you?

It’s media-driven, because he was just crushed by tabloids and cable TV news in the post-O.J. era. People went into those events and into his trial — and this is documented — saying “He’s guilty, we’re going to get this guy.” I interviewed unbiased journalists with the same observations. He was declared innocent by a nonpartial jury in 2005, which I do not think was scammed or bought in any way. The prosecution against him was very aggressive and well-funded. And I just don’t think the evidence is there to overcome that ruling. The people who accused him are the wrong people.

There was a period there, when my daughter was 2 or 3, when she had her first Michael Jackson phase — and this was before he died — so we were hanging pictures of Michael on our Christmas tree. People would come over and they’d just be shocked that a 2-year-old is putting this horrible child molester on the Christmas tree. But not everyone thinks of him that way anymore. Now you can kind of go back to, “What a great performer!” A lot of that weirdness doesn’t seem as important anymore. All the major stars are weird in some way. Elvis was weird, Johnny Cash was weird, Ray Charles was weird, on and on and on.

Does thinking of him as a tragic figure give him too much credit or not enough?

He was tragic figure in many ways. Anyone who dies the way he did, that’s a tragic figure to me. He reached the highest peak and in the end he was at his lowest low.

What about Michael Jackson’s artistic prowess? Did your opinion of that change at all?

I always thought of him as a singer and dancer, a contemporary of Madonna. And he was. But now I think of him like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. He would hear whole symphonies in his head. And he wasn’t an instrumentalist, so what he had to do throughout his career was communicate to these hired hands who would translate it to an instrument. And the ultimate person who did that was Quincy Jones.

You capture some pretty incredible moments from that relationship.

I had a source leak me some tapes of Michael and Quincy talking right after “The Wiz” (in 1978). And Quincy’s eloquent, but he’s a rambler. And Michael speaks very sparingly. (Jackson) would do a lot of “Mmmm … hmmm … interesting.” And sometimes he would go “Woo!” which is hilarious. But there’s this moment where Michael says, “I hear stuff in my head.” And there’s this pause. And Quincy goes, “You know, Michael, if you hear stuff in your head, I can write that stuff down for you.” And it felt like that was the moment that the Michael and Quincy partnership happened. I was like “Wow, I got to hear that.”

And it’s a partnership that led to classic albums like “Off the Wall” and “Thriller.” You really deconstruct a lot of how his music and dancing worked, which is a daunting task.

My favorite thing in the book was the dance, because choreographers love to talk. In addition to having a gift of gab and charisma, they’re usually technical people. They’re constantly figuring out where the steps are so they can break things down for you. One of the best interviews I did for the book was Toni Basil. She didn’t really work with Michael but she could really deconstruct all the steps. I tried to draw a bridge from Motown and the Jackson 5 and the stuff he did on stage — which was just kind of twirling around — to The Robot, which was like his first mind-blowing Michael Jackson move, to The Moonwalk. And I had a lot of choreographers and dancers show me how that evolved.

It’s tough to write about dead people, for obvious reasons. Were there any advantages to that?

Right, you get into the issue of an authorized vs. an unauthorized book, and I’m thinking about that now. Who would I write my next book about? Ice-T comes to mind, because I love Ice-T. You think he’d be a super-interesting story, and then you think, “I gotta talk to Ice-T and get his approval. I can’t do a write-around with someone who’s alive because you have to talk to all their friends and family.” And they won’t want you to talk to them because they’re still alive and telling you not to talk. And so you go, “OK, do I do the unauthorized version, which is just going to be salacious because you’re not going to get anybody, or do I do the authorized version and get to talk to him, but it’s just going to be whitewashed?” There are some books that manage to be great while working in the nether-region. The Steve Jobs book is the most obvious example of that. Or Neil Young did a book with a guy called Shakey, and then Neil changed his mind and they had a legal dispute, and then it came out anyway. So if you do a book about a dead person, it’s by nature a write-around because I obviously can’t talk to Michael. His family did not participate.

Did you ever think, “I’m crazy for taking on this subject”?

Oh yeah, I’ve never interviewed more than 400 people for anything. It’s like putting a giant “kick me” sign on your back. There are so many people with interests. Everybody has an opinion about everything — his legal troubles, his race, his (masculinity), his music. But doing interviews and writing in strictly chronological order really saved my ass, even if it turned from music criticism to straight cop reporting near the end, given the sad way his life turned out.

I like that you begin the book with an anecdote that illustrates how segregated and hostile his hometown of Gary, Ind., was while he was growing up. It grounds the subject and differentiates your approach from other writing on Jackson.

I used to work for the Gary, Ind., newspaper in the mid-’90s and grew up in Detroit, and the whole story of some of those Midwestern cities is one of race and segregation and institutional racism. There’s a James Brown book by RJ Smith called “The One” that really delves into the history of racism and slavery and ties it back to the subject, and I wanted to do that. I mean, the story of everything in the U.S. is the story of race and segregation — certainly the entire history of American popular music.

Steve Knopper will appear at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 28 at the Tattered Cover on East Colfax Avenue to read from and sign the book.