They took trips to Disneyland and spent time at billionaire Ron Burkle's La Jolla, Calif., estate, where Jackson's insomnia often meant Nordahl was enlisted for wee-hour practical jokes and beachside chats. (He also was a victim of Jackson's notorious tricks, once finding his briefcase stuffed with bubblegum.)
He discovered the unglamorous Jackson, who in the late '80s often drove by himself in a Chevy Blazer (and relieved himself in a bucket because he couldn't risk being mobbed at gas stations) and lived in a two-bedroom Los Angeles condo.
"I expected a penthouse with maids," Nordahl says. "There was a grand piano pushed into the kitchen, a popcorn machine and a good sound system. The other furniture, you couldn't have gotten 50 bucks for it at a garage sale. Before the kids, Michael lived real simply."
What fueled this bromance?
"I grew up in a difficult home, and he did too," says Nordahl, whom Jackson thanks in liner notes for 1991's Dangerous and 1995's HIStory. "We had no playtime growing up. We're both fanatical about work.
"There was a bond."
Nordahl's youth troubled, too
Born in Albert Lea, Minn., Nordahl left home at 12 and supported himself through high school by working on farms, pinstriping cars and selling his art.
"I can't remember not drawing," he says. "I had an abusive, alcoholic father, and drawing is something that takes you out of the real world. I was always interested in cowboys and Indians. I sold drawings of the Lone Ranger to my classmates."
He began specializing in Apaches after moving to Steamboat Springs, Colo., in 1977, and his detailed, meticulously researched depictions soon lured collectors.
"His work had a lot of integrity, and he was one of those rare artists who was humble but extremely talented," says prominent Santa Fe art dealer Ray Dewey, who held lotteries to determine buyers of Nordahl's work because of high demand.
"His technique took a long time, so he was not prolific. When he talked to me about leaving to paint for Michael Jackson, I had over 200 people on a waiting list for his work. It was an interesting decision on his part.
"I think what Jackson saw in David was a complete artist," Dewey says. "He was a perfectionist. He choreographed everything. Jackson also may have seen his commitment to family. David primarily painted the Apache people's culture and lifeways, but he painted a lot of children, not just warriors. And he painted animals beautifully, especially horses."
What Nordahl saw in Jackson was a wounded and misunderstood genius who felt spiritually obligated to help children.
Though Jackson was acquitted in his 2005 child sexual abuse trial, it "broke his spirit," Nordahl says. "Michael would never molest a child. He always felt so bad for kids who were mistreated or sick. He spent so much time with critically ill kids. If a mother called about a dying child somewhere, he'd jump on a plane.
"People talked about Neverland being his private amusement park. It was always meant for kids. The last time I was at the ranch, they put up a big Sony JumboTron across from a condo building for sick children, so if kids woke up at night, cartoons would be on."
'Michael was a real dad'
Nordahl was bewildered that Jackson seemed to elicit more mockery than sympathy.