By DAVID BRINN
The Michael Jackson Tapes
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach | Vanguard Press | 304 pages | $25.95
It's only in a tabloid-friendly universe like the one in which we live that Michael Jackson and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach could have become such good friends. Here we have the most famous singer in the world and the outspoken American rabbi who, in his syndicated column familiar to Jerusalem Post readers, writes candidly about sex, marriage and pop culture. For a year or so in 2000-2001, the two developed a symbiotic relationship that defied all realism.
Ostensibly paired in a fledgling project to encourage parents to prioritize their children, the two quickly bonded and Boteach took on the role of Jackson's unofficial spiritual adviser and one of his closest confidants. As their relationship flourished, Jackson agreed to sit down with Boteach and record long question and answer sessions for a future book about everything from his fame to his family, his childhood, his failed marriage to Lisa Marie Presley and his life in Neverland, the fantasy fortress he had constructed for himself in Los Angeles.
According to Boteach, Jackson wanted to bare his soul and unburden himself of the image he had cultivated as a child-molesting deviant who slept in oxygen chambers and was addicted to plastic surgery. However, before the hours of interviews could be transformed into a book, Jackson and Boteach had a major falling-out, with Boteach explaining that Jackson, who was on a path of recovery thanks to the program Boteach had worked out for him based in a great part on Jewish values, was again returning to his old ways of pop star seclusion and pampering.
Never one to shy away from controversy or self-promotion, Boteach has been criticized for "cashing in" on Jackson's death at 51 by releasing The Michael Jackson Tapes now, when the interviews had sat dormant for so many years. According to the author, the timing of the book's release was due to the "distorted portrayal of his legacy" following his death. "Whatever people think of Michael, there was good in him, and it deserves to come out."
In the book's 56-page introduction, which reads like an elongated version of Boteach's column, he quotes a manager explaining why Jackson's and Boteach's relationship could not continue: "You want to make Michael normal. What you don't understand is that he's famous because he's not normal."
Nobody's ever accused Jackson of being normal, and The Michael Jackson Tapes, while revealing his emotional vulnerability and gentle nature, present a page-turning and ultimately harrowing profile of a man-child living in a fantasy world.
There are many fascinating fly-on-the-wall passages with Boteach and Jackson discussing issues like Jackson's Jehovah's Witness upbringing and donning disguises even as an adult to knock on strangers' doors to hand out literature; the interest Jackson shows in the Boteach family Shabbat table and the recitation of the blessing for the children; and the curiosity he displays about the family walking to shul instead of driving ("Shmuley, you guys walked three miles? You and the children? And they didn't complain?")
But there are just as many unsettling moments that expose Jackson's fragility, the sense that he had given up his childhood for his career, his unsettling outlook on children and his downright simplistic views on many subjects. Talking about the importance of children in his life, Jackson blurts out, "If it weren't for children, I would choose death. I mean it with all my heart." And on the other end of the spectrum, Jackson expresses an aversion to aging: "...when the body breaks down, and you start to wrinkle, I think it's so bad... I don't want to grow old."
While he doesn't gloss over any of the controversial issues that plagued Jackson, Boteach presents his opinion that, based on the countless hours they spent together, Jackson was neither anti-Semitic nor a pedophile.
Regarding his sexual predilection, Boteach writes that he felt that Jackson was heterosexual, despite not engaging in "normal" relationships with women. In a less than ironclad example, he cites Jackson asking Boteach to set up a date for him with TV journalist Katie Couric (which didn't come to fruition due to a flattered Couric already being in a relationship). Despite these tabloid disclosures, the book also manages a serious discussion about the magnetic nature of celebrity and how it ultimately caused Jackson's downfall.
The book isn't just about Jackson - written by Boteach, it's naturally about Boteach as well. And while some may see that as more self-promotion in his attempt to become something like the Oral Roberts of American rabbis, it contributes a counterpoint to the often self-absorbed elements of the Jackson transcripts.
Boteach admits more than once that he became caught up in the contact high of being so intimately involved with the King of Pop, and began to lose his sense of basic values.
"I have since learned from my mistake and have tried to educate my children to know always that no man but God is the real Thriller," he writes.
Boteach writes that he hopes the book "may cause you to shed a tear, not for the death of a superstar or a cultural icon but for a tortured and broken soul who once had highly developed insight and sensitivity but who in the end represented a colossal waste of life and potential."
Whatever his true motivations for bringing The Michael Jackson Tapes to life, Boteach succeeds in turning Jackson into a three-dimensional, all-too-human figure. Once you read it, you might hesitate the next time a Michael Jackson joke is on the tip of your tongue.
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