MY FRIEND MICHAEL
An Ordinary Friendship with an Extraordinary Man
By Frank Cascio
With Hilary Liftin
As I drove my car through the dark cobblestone streets of Castelbuono, Italy, I turned my phone on. Text messages started rolling in, one on top of another, so fast that I couldn't read them. Flashes of phrases like "Is it true?" and "Are you okay?" piled on top of one another on the screen, layers of questions and concern. I had no idea what news they were talking about, but I knew it wasn't good. In Castelbuono, my family's hometown, many people have two homes, one in the town, where they work, and a summer retreat up in the mountains, where they plant vegetable gardens and tend fig trees. I had spent the evening at the summer home of the man who had rented me a house down in the town. He had invited me to a dinner party with six or seven other people, and I was the guest of honor, because in Castelbuono, having flown in from New York is reason enough to be warmly and widely welcomed. It was June 25, 2009. There weren't many of us at the table, but as at any good Italian dinner party, there was more than enough food, wine, and grappa. During the dinner, I turned off my phone. Having spent years of my life tethered to a cell phone, I've grown to love those moments when good manners force me to shut it down. The other guests and I lingered in the balmy night, then finally said our good-byes to our host, and around midnight I headed with a few friends back to the house I'd rented, following my cousin Dario's car down the dirt mountain roads into the city.
Now, as the stream of text messages flooded my phone, my cousin Dario's car swerved suddenly to the side of the road and came to an abrupt stop. As soon as I saw him pull over, I knew that what I was starting to glean from the texts had to be true. I rolled to a stop behind Dario. He ran toward my car, shouting, "Michael's dead! Michael's dead!"
I got out of my car and started walking down the road, with no plan or destination. I was numb. Shocked. I don't know how much time passed before I finally dialed one of Michael's most loyal employees, a woman I'll call Karen Smith. Was this one of Michael's schemes? A prank on the press or an ill-conceived attempt to get out of a concert? Sadly, Karen confirmed that what I had heard was true. We cried on the phone together. We didn't say much. We just cried. After I hung up the phone, I just kept walking. My friends were still waiting back in my car. My cousin was following behind me saying, "Frank, get in the car. Come on, Frank." But I didn't want to be around anyone. "I'll meet you at home," I called out as I walked away from them. "I just want everyone to get away from me."
And then I was alone. I walked up and down the cobblestone streets, under the streetlights, late into the summer night. Michael, who was a father, a mentor, a brother, a friend. Michael, who was the center of my world for so long. Michael Jackson was gone.
I'd first met Michael when I was five years old, and it hadn't taken long for him to become a close friend of my family's, visiting our home in New Jersey, spending Christmases with us. As a child, I'd spent many vacations at Neverland, both with the rest of my family and alone. As teenagers, my brother, Eddie, and I had joined Michael to keep him company on the Dangerous tour. When I was eighteen, having grown up with Michael as a mentor and friend, I went to work for him, first as his personal assistant, then as his personal manager. To be honest, I didn't ever have a clear title for my position, but it was always personal. I conceived the idea for a network television special honoring his thirty years in show business. I was alongside him as he made the Invincible album. And when Michael was falsely accused of child molestation for the second time, I was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. The pressure of that trial was more than any friendship should be expected to bear. For nearly all of my life, until Michael's death—over twenty years in all—I was with him in one capacity or another, through ups and downs, struggles and celebrations, always as a close friend and confidant.
Knowing Michael was both an ordinary and an extraordinary experience. From the very beginning (almost—after all, I was only five), I knew that Michael was special, different, a visionary. When he walked into a room, he was captivating. There are plenty of special people in the world, but Michael had a magic about him, as if he were chosen, touched by God. Wherever he went, Michael created experiences. His concerts. His Neverland estate. His midnight adventures in far-flung cities. He entertained stadiums full of people, and he enthralled me.
But at the same time, he was a regular, expected presence. I always appreciated the moments we shared. But I never looked at him as a superstar. He was my friend, my family. I knew I wasn't living a traditional life. Not compared to what my friends were doing. I knew this was not normal. But it was my normal.
It was no accident that when I heard the news of Michael's death, I walked away from my friends and family. From the very beginning, I kept my relationship with Michael to myself; his fame required that his friends be discreet. When I was a kid, it was easy enough to just compartmentalize. I had one life at home in New Jersey, going to school and playing soccer, occasionally bussing tables and cooking at my family's restaurants, and another with Michael, having adventures and hanging around. The two never intersected. I did my best to keep them separate.
When I started working for Michael, I moved into a completely confidential world and the rest of my life took second place. I didn't talk about what happened at work, not the everyday details of what had to get done, not the darkest moments of false accusations and insane media spectacle, not the joyful moments helping children and making music.
Living in Michael's world was a rare and special opportunity, of course, and that was why I stayed there. But, without my realizing it, the discretion affected me. From a very young age, I trained myself not to talk freely. I kept everything inside and suppressed most of my reactions and emotions. I was never one hundred percent open or free. That's not to say I lied—except, I'll admit, when I was working for Michael and told people I'd just met that I was a door-to-door Tupperware salesman and that I was very proud of the plastic we manufactured. Or that my family was from Switzerland and was in the chocolate business. With my close friends and family, I never lied, but when it came to my experiences with Michael, I chose every word I said carefully. Michael was a private person, and so am I. I didn't want to call attention to myself or to have people look at me differently because of my connection to Michael, and I certainly didn't want to be the source of any gossip about him. There was plenty of that already. Speaking is revealing. It's still hard for me to talk freely: I always think, and think again, before speaking.
Over the course of our relationship, Michael played many roles. He was a second father, a teacher, a brother, a friend, a child. I look at myself, and I see the way my experiences with Michael have shaped and molded who I am, for better and for worse. Michael was the greatest teacher in the world—to me personally and to many of his fans. At first I was a sponge. I agreed with all of his thoughts and beliefs and signed on to them. From him I learned the values of tolerance, loyalty, truthfulness.
As I got older, our relationship evolved, and I began to see more clearly that he wasn't perfect. I became a protector of sorts, helping him through the hardest times. I was there for him when he needed a friend—to talk, to brainstorm and conceptualize ideas, to just hang out. Michael knew he could trust me.
When Michael and I had free time at Neverland Ranch, his 2,700-acre fantastical home/amusement park/zoo/retreat near Santa Barbara, we liked to kick back and relax. Sometimes he would ask me if we should just get some movies, stay in, and "stink." (Michael had a particular affinity for juvenile jokes about body odor.) On one of those days, when the sun was just about to set, Michael said, "Come on, Frank. Let's go up to the mountain." Neverland was nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley, and mountains surrounded the property. He named the tallest one Mount Katherine, after his mother. The property had numerous paths that led up to the peaks, where the sunsets were extraordinary. We drove up one of those paths on a golf cart, sat down, and watched the sun flame out behind the mountains, shadowing them in purple. It was there that I finally understood the "purple mountain majesties" of "America the Beautiful." Sometimes helicopters flew over the property, trying to take pictures. Once or twice they saw us up in the mountains, and we sprinted away from them, trying to hide behind trees. But this time all was still. Michael was in a reflective mood, and he started talking about the rumors and accusations that plagued him. He found it all both funny and sad. At first he said he didn't think he should have to explain himself to anyone. But then his tone changed.
"If people only knew how I really am, they would understand," sat there in silence for a bit, both of us wishing there were a way for him to reveal himself, to have people truly understand who he was and how he lived.
I think about that night often as I mull over the roots of Michael's predicament. People fear or are intimidated by what they don't understand. Most of us lead familiar lives. We do what our parents or the other role models around us have done. We follow a safe, comfortable, easily categorized path. It's not hard to find other people who lead lives similar to those we chose. This was not the case with Michael. From the very first, alongside his family and later on his own, he forged a completely original path. Innocent and childlike as he was, he was also a complicated man. It was hard for people to know him because they hadn't seen anyone like him before, and, in all likelihood, never would again.
Michael's life ended abruptly and unexpectedly. And when it did, he was still misunderstood. Michael Jackson the superstar—the King of Pop—will be remembered for a long, long time. His work endures—a testament to his deep and powerful connection with millions of people— but somehow the man became obscured and lost behind the legend.
This book is about Michael Jackson the man. The mentor who taught me how to make a "mind map." The friend who loved to feed candy to animals. The prankster who donned a disguise and pretended to be a wheelchair-bound priest. The humanitarian who tried to be as great and generous in his private life as he was in public. The human being. I want Michael to be seen as I saw him, to be understood with all the silly, loving, challenging, imperfect beauty that I loved. My greatest hope is that, as you read this book, you can put aside all the scandals, all the rumors, all the cruel jokes that surrounded him later in his life, and come to know him through my eyes. This is our story. It's the story of growing up with a guy who happened to have one of the most recognizable faces in the world. It's the story of an ordinary friendship with an extraordinary man. It started simply; it shifted and evolved as we both grew and changed; it struggled for a footing when people and circumstances came between us . . . and most of all, it endured. Michael was a rare being. He wanted to give greatness to the world. I want to share him with you.