Michael Jackson live in Rome

BAD in the Eternal City

As if Rome wasn’t mad and maddening enough on it’s own, the arrival of Michael Jackson for his European Press Conference and the first date of the European tour really made for a suitably surreal, exhilaratingly exasperating week.

Arriving, I wait ten minutes to buy a tram ticket as the man selling them, bleary-eyed and clearly soaked, serenades the girl I am with. She introduces me to her wild-eyed, wholly stylish punk friend who greets me with an affectionate, “ciao, James. Do you-a like-a your life ?”
I say, I try to, and he tells me about a couple he knows who are desperately in love, even though the only Italian the boy knows is ‘Buon giorno’ and the only English she knows is ‘chocolate biscuits.’ You think I’m making this up ? Christ, I wish I could. I’d be churning out surreal little sitcoms like nobody’s business.

No, this is just Rome. Derek Griffiths is advertising Italian coffee, there are nuns wearing sunglasses, street sellers are selling used porn mags and the state TV channel is showing the friendly between Greece and Russia, recorded live so that you have to sit through all the throw-ins, the fouls and even the bloody time-wasting.

I doubt this was the Rome Michael Jackson saw. He spent his five days here on the cover of a thousand magazines, waiting to meet the Pope, complaining about not being allowed to play the Coliseum, visiting children’s hospices and banqueting with me, Fleet Street, Fellini, Zefferelli, Loren, and Lollobrigida. La Lollo emerged to reveal to the world that “Michael is a very, very shy boy.”
Grazie Gina.

Jackson was chased round Rome in the scalding heat wearing a camel coat and checked scarf permanently over his mouth to protect himself from the suffocating smog (‘lo smog’, as the Italians put it), stopping for half an hour at the Sistine Chapel and a few antique shops down Via dei Coronari.

Perhaps he might have seen the scraggy Roman ragamuffins waiting at every suburban traffic light to wipe down windscreens, and flog you newspapers, flowers, cassettes – the ultimate in private enterprise.

Meanwhile the beggars and their often-sedated babies are clocking in for duty at Vatican City amidst a sea of John Paul II lampshades and Michelangelo ashtrays. Plastic crucifixes, Jesus tea trays and red-splashed icons are nothing compared to a large likeness of Christ with blinking doll’s eyes. Look once and they’re raised to heaven; look again and the gaze is gone, the eyes are shut. You just killed Christ by looking away. If hypocrisy is a commodity, it’s a best seller at the Vatican.

Wherever Jackson was doing in Rome, he wasn’t doing his European Press Conference. Instead his exclusive personnel manager Frank Dileo is there, explaining that the conference “was something I’ve decided for him not to do” with obvious satisfaction and just a hint of grammar.

With his crocodile smile and ponytail, and a cigar rattling around in a mouth the size of a false leg, Dileo plays the part of wisecracking Capone clone with evident relish. Asked repeatedly by Europeans, American and Japanese paparazzi jackals to sit just a little closer to Quincy Jones, he responds, “Sit any closer and we’ll be engaged.” We all laugh, but none of us laugh as much as Frank laughs.

Is it true, gulps a trembling, Japanese journo that Michael Jackson isn’t there because he isn’t, um, well, all there ?

Suddenly Big Frank is very serious.
“Let me tell you. Michael Jackson is very intelligent.”
He pauses and thinks and informs us gravely, “I wish I was as intelligent as he is.” This is clearly very grave. He adds, perhaps unwisely, “In fact, Michael Jackson probably reads a book a day.” Of course he does.

Members of the press leave with a blow-up Jackson Pepsi-Cola cushion, a Michael Jackson Fred Perry, and a ‘Dirty Diana’ CD but no story, hence Fleet Street’s laughable exaggeration of an incident when two fans brushed against Jackson’s limo.

The following day, as I make my way to the concert through the ruined chaos of Rome, its populace seems to flourish as if putting on a show for my sole benefit.

A mad toothless hag bag-lady asks me with a straight face: “Mi da 68,000 lire” (“ Will you give me 35 quid please ?”
I am so shocked I almost do. The police raid a group of Moroccan street sellers, who flee, leaving their gear behind. A gang of old ladies gather quickly to fill their handbags with radios, lighters and fake Valentino jumpers, scurrying away before the police return.

At the gig I’m sitting next to the doyenne of Fleet Street, Jean Rock, borrowing her binoculars – “invaluable for the Royal Wedding, dear” – but they don’t help me comprehend anything about Jackson’s quite breathtaking choreography: moon walking in circles, executing the ‘Beat It’ routines with clinical precision. The man is mercury.

Decked in silver shields, a Tyson-sized belt, taped fingers and ponytail, Jackson’s face resembles some Egyptian death mask or Terrahawks creature. His eyes are heavy with surgery, the skin stretched tightly like leather. His closest living relative would be Tammy Bakker, or possibly Niki Lauda. His only words all night are: “I love you.” What else would they be ? A couple of stunning gospel vocal solos incite a galaxy of lighters from 30,000 crowd and candles from the houses up on the surrounding hills, a veritable mass of lights.

The power of ‘Dirty Diana’ has a gang of Carabinieri (the police branch of the military) bopping away until one of them is so overwhelmed, he ends up rocking out altogether, down on his knees miming a vicious guitar solo with the butt of his machine gun. Italians always put enjoyment first.

Afterwards, as we make our way home, the same Carabinieri turns admiringly in the direction of my companion and mutters approvingly to his mates, ‘Che fica !’, a Roman version of ‘Look at the state of that…’ so obscene that I daren’t translate it for you. An Italian journalist asks me if I know Mick Jones of, ‘Big Audio Deenameaty’ and Jean Rock suddenly feels obliged to tell me that The Glass Spider tour was the greatest show she’s ever seen. For once I’m speechless.

Leaving Rome the next day, the heat was still scorching, the traffic still manic mayhem and the weight machine told me I weighed less than Michael Jackson. If I had stayed I would have disappeared altogether. Rome and Michael Jackson was a very special madness.