by Gary Smith
The word had spread. The people waited. Rock’s reigning monarch and the Boss—Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen—were about to meet for the first time, and 25 members and guests of the Jackson entourage had wedged into the reception room of Jackson’s suite in Philadelphia to gawk. It felt like history.
Springsteen, 35, entered first, wearing boots, faded jeans, a short-sleeved shirt rolled up to free his biceps, stubble on his chin and a red kerchief knotted around his neck, as if his body needed a tourniquet to cut off all that energy on nonworking days. Then came Jackson, 26, fresh from a postconcert shower. He wore a pink button-down shirt over a white T-shirt, dusty rose pants so long they accordioned at the bottom and blue slippers with his initials stitched in gold. He seemed like a friendly, rich little schoolboy curious to know something about the world of a working man.
A space cleared around them, and both remained standing.
“Hi,” said Jackson, extending his hand. “I just read a story about you in PEOPLE magazine. It was very good.”
“Oh, thanks,” grinned Springsteen. “I really enjoyed seeing your show tonight.”
“I hear you play long concerts. How long do you go?”
“Oh, about three hours.”
“How do you do it? Do you take a break?”
“Yeah, about a half hour. It works out pretty good, I guess.”
A camera clicked, eyes strained, ears tilted. Jackson’s eyes flitted about the room, never pausing long enough to see. He seemed anxious to think of another question, the way he seemed anxious onstage at the end of a song to sing another song. Springsteen sucked on an ice cube.
“Did you write that song Fire [sung by the Pointer Sisters]?” Jackson asked.
“Yeah, that was a quick one. Only took me about 10 minutes. But I don’t write when I’m on the road. Can you?”
“No,” said Jackson. “There’s too much going on.”
His hands fidgeted for a home, folding in front of him, then connecting behind him, then looping over the unused belt loops of his pants. A reggae song came on the television nearby, and he started a dance step, then stopped himself.
Couldn’t he simply ask Springsteen back into his empty bedroom so they could talk like two normal human beings, maybe discover that they both loved watching reruns of The Honeymooners? Or was the anxiety of intimacy perhaps greater for him than the anxiety of holding center stage?
During the lull Michael seemed to be looking for a prop. “My secretary, Shari, wants you for Christmas,” he said, putting his arm around her waist and pulling her between them.
“What’s wrong with Thanksgiving?” laughed Springsteen, as the three posed for Jackson’s personal photographer.
“Do you talk to people during your concerts?” Jackson asked. “I read that you do.”
“Yeah, I tell stories. People like that, I’ve learned. They like to hear your voice do something besides singing. They go wild when you just…talk.”
“Oh, I could never do that. It feels like people are learning something about you they shouldn’t know.”
“I kinda know what you mean—the songs are a protection. But I remember once I played for a Vietnam veterans’ benefit and I had to go onstage to introduce this guy who was a president or something, and I didn’t have my guitar. Man, I was shaking. I realized it was the first time in 15 years I’d been onstage without it, and I’ve never been so nervous in my life.”
Jackson’s voice grew softer, so no one could hear. “Do you like talking in front of all these people? It feels kind of strange.”
“Yeah, it is strange, isn’t it?”
Jackson took a deep breath, then took a small step toward the door. Springsteen’s boots remained planted. He broke the pause. “How long did you rehearse for this tour?” he asked.
“Oh, one or two months.”
“There’s so many cues in that show.”
“Yes, there is a lot of technology…. We’ll finish up in December. Then we’re going to do a movie.”
“Yeah, I heard about that—with Steven Spielberg?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I just spoke on the phone with him today,” Jackson said. “It’s not certain just what the movie will be yet, but it will be with him.”
Pause. Jackson’s hands rapped the rhythm of the reggae song on his thighs, his eyes hopping like sparrows.
“I read you go right to sleep after you perform. You can’t really do that, can you?” Jackson asked.
“No, I feel good after a concert, because I feel like I’ve worked hard. I stay up till about 4. What do you do?”
“I watch TV or read,” said Jackson. “I can’t go to sleep.”
“Don’t you ever go out?” Springsteen asked.
“I can’t. Too many people would bother me…. How did you decide to let PEOPLE magazine do that story on you?”
“I just rolled the dice,” said Springsteen, blowing on his fist and tossing imaginary dice.
“Oh,” said Jackson, shaking his head. “I could never trust anyone enough to do that.”
He took another fleeting scan of the room, his bank of questions emptied. “Well, I think I’m gonna slide on out now,” he said quietly. “It was real nice meeting you.” He thrust out his hand quickly and walked through the door to another part of the suite.
Springsteen lingered for a moment. A little earlier he had seen Jackson do things for more than an hour and a half onstage that appeared almost effortless. But this was something Springsteen seemed more familiar with, 15 minutes of a human being struggling.
“You know,” he said, spitting an ice cube back into his cup, “he’s just a real nice guy.”