Encounter with Michael Jackson

Originally published in the Sunday Guardian, June 28, 2009.

Crowds gather outside the San Fernando Town Hall (later City Hall) as the Jacksons pay a courtesy visit to the Mayor. Michael did not accompany his brothers on this trip. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

In 1978, I was an absolute neophyte, just out of college with big, maddeningly elusive dreams of being a writer and photographer.
Michael Jackson, born in the same year I was, had already had a pop star's career. With his brothers, he had been performing since the age of five and on the day he arrived in Piarco, had logged an imposing number of hit songs both with his brothers and as a solo act.
The concerts in Trinidad and Tobago would constitute a sliver of the band's performance history and register as a fragment of that for Michael Jackson, whose star was about to go incandescent. The very next year, he would release Off the wall and everything about his life would change forever.

The group had just left Motown and signed with Epic Records, producing a nondescript album,
Goin' Places which didn't. In the United States, they were popular but considered a bit past their prime in 1978. In Trinidad and Tobago, they were the biggest stars the country had seen since Sam Cooke.
The Martineau brothers, trading as Spektakula Promotions, delivered concerts at the Queen's Park Savannah and at Skinner Park in San Fernando, performances by a band that was polished and practiced at delivering the hits of more than a decade.
Through a confluence of event and opportunity, I ended up in a small meeting room at the Hilton where the Jacksons were to meet local performers a day before the first of their local concerts.

Alfred Aguiton's new public relations company AMPLE was handling the press liaison, and he struck on the idea of bringing Penny Commissiong down to meet the boys. His brother, William, worked at the hotel and facilitated the request and so it came to pass that the first black Miss Universe came to meet the future King of Pop.
And I was the only photographer in the room. Armed with a beginner's Pentax, the K1000, and a little flash, I shot the encounter, prompting a bemused Penny to ask my colleague, Joan Christopher in an aside she later took some glee in reporting to me, "Does he normally shake so much?"

The resulting photo of Penny and Michael greatly pleased the Epic representatives, who requested prints that were promptly circulated to the international press. The pay was not commensurate with the resulting publicity, but I got an in with the group for the remainder of their tour and had a chance to see what the Jacksons were like in their immediate outer circle. I leveraged this access into a story for Owen Baptiste's People Magazine and began my career in the media, nudged by this glancing brush with Jackson's fame.

There is, regrettably, little that happened of any consequence during their short stay. The boys, minus their brother Jermaine who remained with Motown, were press savvy, presenting themselves as quiet, generally shy young black men who largely kept to themselves and signed autographs politely when cornered.
Michael was the quietest of the group, prone to gently bowing his head as if the weight of his enormous afro was just a little too much for him, speaking a pitch and tone lower than his brothers and responding to direct looks with a shy smile. Thriller, cosmetic surgery and vitiligo were still in this young man's future.

At his request, John Cupid and I accompanied him to the top of Picton Road in Laventille, his security rolling along in a car a respectful but close distance behind as he set out to "meet the people" as he put it.
The lanky young black man, his hair a massive puff that swayed in the evening breeze, walked along the road, waving, shaking hands and chatting with surprised people relaxing in their verandahs on a warm sunny Sunday afternoon. I photographed the entire encounter for what I was told were his scrapbooks, memoirs he gathered of his travels.

In return for another pittance, I handed over my unprocessed film of this evening stroll. Somewhere in the collected properties of the Michael Jackson empire, I sometimes imagine, is an old scrapbook full of these pictures, images I've never seen.
I learned less about Michael Jackson's world that evening than I had the day before, when the security team I was travelling with switched cars with the Jackson's official vehicle.

We bundled into the car in the evening on its way to Skinner Park, and it rolled into a huge crowd waiting for the pop stars. Hands pressed against the tinted glass and groped at the door handle of the backdoor. I had failed to lock the door, and it sprang open with a roar of screams, now clearly audible.
I looked up, into the face of Michael Jackson's world, a web of grasping digits, wide eyes and open mouths beyond them, accompanied by a ululating screech.
A hand shot past me, pushing me back into my seat and seizing the door handle firmly, gently but forcibly shutting it again as the hands retreated and the sound dimmed.
Through my shock, I heard the guard growl, "You never, ever, forget to lock the door."

Fifteen minutes of fame
Michael Jackson in Trinidad, a remembrance
Jacksons Mania, 1978
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