Never Say Never-Land

Tavern on the Green … shit. I’m still only at Tavern on the

Green.

It was going on 2 a.m.

inside Tavern’s glass-enclosed Crystal

Room. A small army of tuxedoed

waiters had encircled Michael Jackson’s table, their backs to him, and formed a

protective shield against the hordes who had come to

gawk at the entertainer after his comeback concert at Madison

Square Garden.

On the right of the 43-year-old Mr. Jackson sat a silent

Yoko Ono, who only an hour and a half earlier had been twisting up onstage with

Petula Clark. To her right was her son, Sean Lennon, and his girlfriend, model

Bijou Phillips, who was looking freaked, perhaps because no one was paying

attention to her. To Mr. Jackson’s left sat two plump, unidentified boys. They

looked bewildered, and maybe a little frightened.

But any living soul who had witnessed this crowd and the

concert that preceded it would have felt the same way-that clammy-palmed

feeling of having encountered something beyond one’s comprehension, and yet

unmistakably real. What could one make of the comic actor Jon Lovitz, leaning

into Mr. Jackson’s pasty face to tell him something while the King of Pop

tugged on the ugly yellow plastic lei that hung from Mr. Lovitz’s neck. Or of a diminutive man dressed as a member of that Munchkin

organization, the Lollipop Guild, being buffeted by endless ass cheeks as he

trudged across the room. Or, near the center of the Crystal

Room, the table of mostly

silver-haired screen greats that included Rhonda ( A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court ) Fleming, Jane ( Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ) Powell,

Margaret ( Meet Me in St. Louis )

O’Brien, Ann ( On The

Town ) Miller and Janet ( Psycho )

Leigh.

Rush Hour star

Chris Tucker was lurking somewhere, Ruth ( Citizen

Kane ) Warrick was vrooming around with both a wheelchair and a cane and

there-right there!-was the bearded, beaming face of The Gambler , Kenny Rogers. If you walked into the alcove off the Crystal

Room, past the shining pate of Late Show with David Letterman

bandleader Paul Shaffer, you’d spy, at the same table, Baywatch ‘s David Hasselhoff and Priceline.com pitchman William

Shatner, with his hot-off-the-presses new wife, Elizabeth.

“Quite a turnout,” Mr.

Shatner said with a gleam in his eye. “I’m proud to be part of it.” 

But what did he make of the crowd? The Transom asked.

“That’s Hollywood, man,” Mr.

Shatner said with a little laugh. “All this other stuff is shit.”

Decades and Decades

of Celebrity Muck

Actually, this was something transmuted from the accumulated

muck of decades and decades of celebrity. This was a fever dream, a journey

into the tragicomic heart of darkness- Apocalypse

Now as directed by David Lynch. True to postmodern form, the old Colonel

Kurtz had made a bizarre cameo at the beginning of the evening, but the real

tortured soul seemed to be Mr. Jackson.

As the singer sat behind this human wall, his face was

passive, but his eyes radiated the kind of sadness and pain that Anne Rice

writes into one of the tormented undead characters in her vampire books.

Fred Astaire had once complimented Mr. Jackson on being an

“angry dancer,” like him, but it had been evident during Mr. Jackson’s brief,

wordless appearance with ‘N Sync on the MTV Video Music awards two nights earlier

that Mr. Jackson seemed merely anguished. According to that morning’s New York Post, Mr. Jackson was a man with

problems. His concerts had not sold out; his new single, “You Rock My World,”

was getting lukewarm reception; and he was sweating a $200 million loan that,

if he defaulted on it, could cause him to lose his stake in the Beatles

catalog.

When The Transom asked Mr. Lovitz what he and Mr. Jackson

talked about, the comedian explained that he was a friend of Miko Brando, the

son of Marlon and one of Mr. Jackson’s bodyguards, and was just congratulating

him on his concert. “I’m happy for Michael. I think it’s

great fun,” Mr. Lovitz said, looking suspiciously at The Transom.

“So what did Mr. Jackson say about your lei?” we asked,

grasping at straws.

Mr. Lovitz’s eyes rose in alarm.

“What?” he said.

“Your lei,” we repeated.

“My what?”

By the time Mr. Lovitz realized that we weren’t accusing him

of canoodling with an accused child molester, even we didn’t care what his

answer was. We thanked him and moved on, only to find Chris Tucker signing

autographs.

Toward the end of the concert, Mr. Tucker-who has a cameo on

Mr. Jackson’s new single-had been introduced by an unseen announcer as “the

star of the highest-grossing comedy in history.” After doing some extremely

tame shtick about Mr. Jackson, Mr. Tucker introduced him as “the biggest star

in the world, the King of Pop”-a superlative that presumably carried more clout

when uttered by the star of the highest-grossing comedy in history.

We asked Mr. Tucker what, for him, was the most memorable

moment backstage at the event. He looked at The Transom as if we might have

staggered naked and dirty out of an IRT tunnel to pose this question. “Michael

Jackson and the Jackson Five, back together,” he said as he walked away.

And for Mr. Shaffer, that Wallenda of the

tightrope walk between show-business sincerity and postmodern irony, “It

was great. But I can’t go into details.”

Thank God for Mr. Shatner’s schlock: “Michael Jackson’s art

spans the generations.”

The grande dames of Hollywood’s

golden age of musicals-what the hell were they doing here, anyway?-effused

similarly. “Michael came to see me when I was in Sugar Babies with Mickey Rooney. He hasn’t lost a thing,” Ann

Miller said as her red-spangled jacket glittered in the reflected light of the Crystal

Room’s chandeliers.

“I’m certainly a fan of Michael Jackson,” added Janet Leigh.

“Seeing him onstage was so electrifying. I said, ‘Where have you been? Come

home to me.'”

The tickets-which cost

from $50 to $2,500-called the show for 7:40 p.m. sharp, but it didn’t start until around 9. This

left plenty of time for what must certainly have been a Michael Jackson

impersonator, dressed in a hat, surgical mask and military dress jacket, to

strut along one of the Garden’s walkways flanked by two swarthy men who were

holding an umbrella over the doppelgänger’s head. Screams rose up, and people

ran from their seats to get a picture or cop a feel. One 15-year-old named

Nicole Galante, with a Jackson tank top and thick, braided pigtails, ran

down, and the Jackson look-alike stopped to embrace her.

“I told him ‘I love you,’ and he said ‘I love you, too,'”

Ms. Galante told The Transom after she had walked, weak-kneed and  teary, back to

her seat. But what if, we asked, that was not the real Michael Jackson?

Replied Ms. Galante: “If it was, oh my God!  If it wasn’t, oh well.”

That was pretty much the concert in a nutshell. There were a

few oh-my-God moments, not all of them intentional, but many more oh-well

stretches, not to mention commercial breaks.

What made the evening more interesting was that Mr. Jackson

spent much of the time that he wasn’t performing at stage left in a kind of

royal box, with Dame Elizabeth Taylor, who was sporting a purple feather boa,

and Macaulay Culkin. Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss were among the

celebrities who sat with the hoi polloi. But the performer’s presence among the

mostly white audience did not compel them to show restraint when it came to

expressing their heated and vocal disapproval over something they did not like.

This gave the evening a gladiatorial quality that was

heightened when one of the first performers of the evening, the R&B singer

named Usher, took the stage wearing what looked like a Dalmatian pelt. Usher

was joined by Mya and Whitney Houston to perform a spirited rendition of

“Startin’ Something.”

Marlon Brando was up next, and he really did start

something. When the spotlight hit him, the actor-whose girth was concealed by a

suit and a pair of sunglasses that could have doubled as a welder’s shade-took

off his watch and sat, seemingly oblivious to the audience.

The crowd watched Mr. Brando staring at his watch on the two

large video screens that flanked the stage, and soon they started to get

restless. Finally he spoke. “Now, I’m Marlon Brando,” the actor said, adding

that while “you were … wondering who’s the old fat fart sitting up there,” he

had waited for a minute to pass on his watch. Mr. Brando said that in that

minute, there were “thousands of children” who had been “hacked to death with

machetes” or met other grim ends.

The booing started.

“Stella!” yelled

someone in the crowd.

People in the crowd looked stricken. Thousands had put aside

their suspicions and discomfort about Mr. Jackson’s personal life and shelled out

hundreds so that they could hear some music that would take them back to a more

innocent time in their lives. Now this fat fart was pissing all over their

nostalgia with nasty reality.

“Please think about what I’m saying,” Mr. Brando said,

raising his voice above the din. “Don’t chat. It could be you. It could be your

children.”

For some reason, there was a smattering of applause.

“Why are you applauding?” Mr. Brando demanded.

The booing and catcalls grew louder, but Mr. Brando was not

deterred. He urged the people to give what sounded like “a fingernail’s” worth

of their earnings to “MichaelJackson.com,” a Web site that appears to be

devoted entirely to promoting Mr. Jackson’s new album.

Up on the video screens, Mr. Brando seemed to be holding

back a smirk. “I could go on for an hour and a half and tell you the horrible

things I’ve seen,” he said.

The realization that Mr. Brando was a man capable of

carrying through on such a promise moved the crowd to react with a vehemence

usually reserved for prize fights and community-board meetings. With one more

plug for “MichaelJackson.com,” Mr. Brando finally relinquished his stranglehold

on the evening.

Lucky country star Billy Gilman got to follow Mr. Brando. So

relieved was the crowd that even after Mr. Gilman belted out “Ben”-a song about

a rat-they rewarded him with a big standing ovation.

Shaggy kept the crowd out of their seats and dancing with

his reggae-fied rendition of “Angel in the Morning” and-joined by Rayvon, a guy

who sounds a lot like Mr. Jackson-“Wasn’t Me.”

“Yo, Mike,” Shaggy shouted to Mr. Jackson after his

performance ended. “You the original banger,” he said.

But the audience wasn’t about to see why Mr. Jackson

deserved such a sobriquet for at least another hour. They had to sit through a

couple of numbers from The Wiz , as

well as performances by Gloria Estefan, James Ingram, Marc Anthony, Destiny’s

Child and Liza Minnelli, who now resembles a brunette Carol Channing by way of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Ms. Minnelli’s set

included a performance of “You Are Not Alone,” a few bars of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a bubble machine and enough showbiz

emoting to power three touring productions of Les Miserables . The crowd loved it, though, and even Mr. Jackson

stood, clasped his hands together as if in prayer and gave a little bow to Judy

Garland’s daughter.

The drastic change in Ms. Minnelli’s physical appearance was

only highlighted by a video clip of the singer, looking about 30 years younger, that ran with a number of other celebrity testimonials.

Gregory Peck called Mr. Jackson a ” monstre

sacre ,” and Sammy Davis Jr.-who’s been dead since 1990-talked about Mr.

Jackson’s exalted place in “the now world of music.” And there was Ms. Taylor

saying that Mr. Jackson has a quality of “innocence that we would like to

attain.”

But it seemed to The Transom that innocence can’t be attained, only lost. Mr. Jackson was, at the least, naïve to

think that people might actually want to sit through all this crap.

As 11 p.m. neared,

after the words “Brace Yourself” had appeared on the video screens and the

production had bogged down yet again, Ms. Taylor appeared onstage in her purple

boa. She introduced the band, appearing only slightly less wacky than she did

on the Oscars telecast.

The crowd roared as male silhouettes could be seen posing

beneath the archways of the stage set, and suddenly Tito, Jermaine, Jackie,

Marlon and Randy were onstage, and their little brother Michael was rising up

from beneath the stage in a get-up that made him look like a cricket player

from outer space. He removed his helmet and tossed it into the crowd, and then

the brothers began to veer around, dancing, voguing and singing “Can U Feel

It?” They were certainly aware of each other-the dance steps required it-but

there was no feeling of engagement up there.

Yet somehow, through truncated versions of “ABC” and “The

Love You Save May Be Your Own” (Mr. Jackson’s voice sounding a little tight and

rough) and “I’ll Be There,” the Jacksons

managed to transport the crowd to the nostalgic place they had wanted to go.

The population of Madison

Square Garden

stood, hands swaying, some with eyes closed, singing along to the music-until

it stopped. Michael began the first of several sessions of shouting “I love

you!” to the crowd, which immediately responded in kind. When Mr. Jackson

shouted back “I love you, too!”, the crowd repeated

his declaration verbatim. Mr. Jackson even threw out an “I love you, Donald” to

real-estate developer Donald Trump, who was in the house. But the way that Mr.

Jackson emphasized the word “love” made it sound as if his psychotherapist was

having him practice saying this to someone about whom he had conflicted

feelings.

The band further stoked the fires of nostalgia by performing

its first big hit, “I Want You Back,” employing the same dance moves they’d

used on The Ed Sullivan Show back in

1970. “Oh baby, give me one more chance,” Mr. Jackson sang, and it was clear by

the reaction of the crowd that he didn’t need to ask.

‘N Sync joined the Jacksons

onstage for “Dancin’ Machine,” and then it was over-a reunion that barely

lasted a half hour.

‘It’s How You Deal with the Valleys that Counts’

From that point until the finale, Michael Jackson would be

the sole Jackson on stage. That

portion of the concert began with Mr. Jackson behind a milky scrim. The way he

was lit at first made his shadow look huge and misshapen, like the Elephant

Man, whose skeleton Mr. Jackson reportedly has in his possession. Then the

shadow morphed into something more human-looking, and Mr. Jackson began singing

“The Way You Make Me Feel” as he chased after Britney Spears, who was wearing a

green dress. Ms. Spears’ voice is either very weak or her microphone was not

working.

The apex of Mr. Jackson’s solo numbers came when he carried

out a briefcase that contained the hat and glove that came from his Thriller -era costume. Up on the video

screens, the camera lingered on Mr. Jackson putting on the glove, and the crowd

went wild. The synthesizer music to “Billie Jean” began, and Mr. Jackson

started pulling his crotch up and down like a lascivious mime. He kicked, he

moonwalked, he sang with a vigor that, for a few moments, made it seem like

1983.

Former Guns ‘N’ Roses guitarist Slash came onstage and

assumed the rocker’s position for two pyrotechnics-supplemented numbers, “Black

or White” and “Beat It,” that had the Garden literally jumping.

Again the “I love you’s” came and went, and Mr. Jackson

asked a fan with a large placard that said “Burn All Tabloids” to show it to

the rest of the audience.

By midnight, the

concert was still going, though people were slowly filing out of their seats

and heading for home. Mr. Jackson was incurring some major union overtime when

Quincy Jones amassed many of the evening’s performers-and a few new ones, such

as Mr. Rogers-onstage to sing “We Are the World.”

Then it was uptown to Tavern on the Green, where Mr.

Jackson’s world ruled in the ostentatious fantasia that the late Warner

LeRoy-whose father, Mervyn LeRoy, directed The

Wizard of Oz -had created for New York.

Carnival games-which seemed to be rigged so that everyone won something-had

been set up in the restaurant’s outdoor area and, at 11 p.m., the “Lollipop

Guild” song began playing incessantly on the stereo system until, a half hour

later, some sensible soul turned it off. But one person who was at the party

around this time said that beneath the colorful lanterns strung throughout the

Tavern, with the Munchkins squeaking ad nauseam, the event, at that moment,

felt like the Do Lung bridge scene in

Apocalypse Now .

Even Mr. Hasselhoff, who said the concert left him wanting

“something new, something more” from Mr. Jackson, appreciated the singer’s

tenacity. “Marlon Brando once told my friend … that you have five careers, and

it’s how you deal with the valleys that counts,” he said. “Michael is one of

those guys who keeps coming back.”

As did the crowd, which

kept massing around Mr. Jackson’s table, obstinate and unresponsive to his

security guards’ demands that everyone back up. Eventually, Sean Lennon stood

on his chair and made a similar plea-and when that fell on deaf ears, he and

his girlfriend made a break for it through the unyielding crowd.  Then the security guard’s shouts grew louder.

They were trying to drag Mr. Jackson through the crowd, and he was getting tossed

about like a rhinestone-encrusted rag doll. People kept thrusting cameras in

Mr. Jackson’s direction and bathing his pallid, altered face in harsh flash

light.

“Don’t you see what’s happening to him!” screamed one of the

bodyguards.

” Leave him alone !”

screamed a middle-aged woman in a cocktail dress. “Goddamnit, leave him alone!”

The mass of people, with Mr. Jackson in the middle, stumbled

out the exit and into the night, leaving those who remained to ponder the

horror, the horror of it all. Never Say Never-Land