August 27, 2008
A middle-aged man wearing pyjamas is being pushed in a wheelchair down a sidewalk by an assistant. He is gaunt and frail-looking. His skin seems to be peeling. His fingernails are a sickening shade of yellow-brown.
Beneath a red Marines baseball cap a surgical mask is visible, covering the bottom half of his face. A pair of large sunglasses shield the top.
Three children walk ahead - two boys and a girl. All seem happy and look adorable in colourful clothing. Their baseball caps do not seem a deliberate attempt to shield their faces.
'Slow down,' the man commands in a hoarse whisper, but the children ignore him and quickly cross the street to stand in front of a bookshop.
When the man in the wheelchair finally catches up, one of the children dutifully holds the door open as he is wheeled inside.
'Thank you,' he mutters weakly. All seems calm, but then - just as the children are about to follow the man into the shop - a stranger approaches the smallest of them.
'Was that...?' she begins to ask. The boy is about to answer, when a large man steps between them.
'No. That was not,' he says, taking the boy by the hand and rushing him inside. But, just before the door swings closed, the young boy turns to his inquisitor, smiles broadly and mouths just two words: Michael Jackson.
Welcome to the very sad world of Wacko Jacko. The scene I've just described is typical of what goes on in his life almost every day in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he now resides.
As a journalist who has reported more on Jackson in the past 30 years than anyone else - including having written three best-selling books about him - I can't help but be deeply saddened by the way his life has turned out.
After all, I was the journalist who penned an article entitled 'Michael Jackson Turns 16' back in 1974 when his future looked bright.
I also wrote Michael Jackson Turns 21 when he reached that milestone. And then there was Michael Turns 25. 'He's the kid who has it all,' I wrote at the time.
In fact, I covered all the important birthdays, always with optimism because he was one of the most positive entertainers I'd ever known.
From the time he was a teenager, Michael Jackson believed he would sell more records than anyone else - and, of course, he did.
He also knew he would have the biggest-grossing concert tours in history. But all of that is now in the past.
Today, he spends his time wandering around Las Vegas with a gaggle of bodyguards and his three precocious children, Prince Michael I (11), Paris (ten) and Prince Michael II (six).
He is almost always in a wheelchair, wearing a bizarre outfit and so frail he appears to be at death's door.
Meanwhile, his record-breaking career seems a thing of the past. From all accounts, he is not motivated to do anything. He has no real plans for the future and is deeply in debt.
So, with the passing of his 50th birthday, how did it all come to this?
Those who knew Jackson before the 2005 child-molestation trial - in which he was acquitted - place the blame firmly at its door.
Emotionally devastated, he has been unable to bounce back, suffering almost as much as if the verdict had been a guilty one.
I remember the day of his acquittal. I sat behind Michael in the Santa Monica courtroom - as I had every day for months - and listened as each charge was dismissed.
When he stood up to leave, he didn't seem to know what was going on or even that he had been found not guilty.
He was a shell of the person I had known over the years. He was disoriented - his eyes vacant, his face expressionless - the result of obvious drug abuse.
I knew then that he would never be the same. The testimony had been so damning, I was certain that a man as private as Jackson would never recover.
After all, Michael Jackson had been carefully constructing an image for himself since the age of ten - a time when most kids are building tree houses.
He later fancied himself as a new-age Peter Pan and tried to recapture his lost childhood in any way he could - not least through his famous Neverland ranch with all of its amusement park rides, zoo and its bucolic grounds bustling with happy children.
Looking back, Neverland - which he bought in 1988 - was the worst thing ever to happen to Michael Jackson.
It allowed him too much solitude and gave him the chance to isolate himself from his friends and family, and from common sense.
He surrounded himself with children, animals and a false reality - so much so that he never learned how to cope in the real world. He never wanted to grow up, and his managers encouraged these eccentricities when they should have encouraged therapy.
They allowed him to live an excessive life and spend money like there was no tomorrow.
Alone in his madness, he became gradually weirder, and no one seemed to care.
During the Eighties, when he started to experiment with plastic surgery - an obvious cry for help - there was nobody to slow him down and not even his family seemed to help him.
But by then, it was almost impossible to get through to Michael in his increasingly isolated state.
Then in the early Nineties, Jackson's world was shattered when Jordan Chandler accused him of molestation at Neverland Ranch.
Jackson agreed a $20million pay-off with the Chandler family and the police charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. Jackson's image, however, had been shaken.
Almost exactly ten years later, the star was accused by another boy, Gavin Arvizo, of the same offence - only this time the case went to trial.
There was lurid testimony of inappropriate sleep-overs with children and tales of plying them with wine and making sexual advances toward them.
One whole week was devoted to the pornography found at Neverland. It didn't matter that Jackson was found not guilty. He was ruined - not just his reputation, but his self-esteem, too.
'Anyone who thinks he is just going to bounce back after such public humiliation doesn't know Michael Jackson,' his former manager Frank Dileo told me.
In the past, he has relied on his talent. 'I can always fall back on what God gave me,' he said in 1987.
'People can say what they want about me and make all the jokes they want. But they know that when I make records, they're going to be the best.'
That used to be true - no one made records like him. Thriller, released in 1982, remains the biggest-selling album of all time with 100 million sales, and Jackson still has an audience - if he wants it.
Recently, he had a deal to do 30 concerts at the O2 arena in London. The promoters were prepared to pay him a staggering $1million a show.
Initially, Jackson seemed enthusiastic, but in a subsequent meeting the singer sat staring at his business representatives as if he didn't care one way or the other.
Then he got up, shook their hands and that was the end of it. The lucrative deal - and Jackson could have really done with the money - was off.
Currently, there is another offer for a series of shows in Las Vegas, but Jackson has not moved forward with that either.
He doesn't seem to want to work - the fire he once had to be the biggest and best is all but extinguished.
In Jackson's defence, the standards of excellence he set himself so many years ago are so high that they're practically impossible for him to meet.
More than ten years ago, he told me: 'When I go on stage, people expect a lot. They want the dancing, they want the spins, and all. But I don't know how much longer I can do it. I don't know when it'll just not be possible.'
He has arthritic-like trouble with his knees, his ankles and his fingers joints - hence the wheelchair.
The self-confidence of the old Michael Jackson has disappeared, and with it his drive.
In addition, Jackson believes that the masses of fans who once flocked to his concerts won't be there for him today. He fears they have been turned against him by the trial.
At a recent meeting with a promoter in Las Vegas, he expressed amazement at the success of the recent re-release of Thriller.
'I'm really shocked,' he said. 'I can't believe people actually bought it. I heard it sold more than three million copies. Can you believe it?'
To commemorate his 50th birthday, a CD called King Of Pop is being released worldwide.
It is a compilation of Jackson's best 18 songs, as chosen by British fans via the internet.
Jackson was recently guest vocalist on a song called Hold My Hand by U.S. recording artist Akon.
He sounds great and it suggests that his voice is still there. But touring still seems out of the question.
Despite being in financial dire straits, he is thought to have bought a house in the upper-middle class suburb of Poughkeepsie, New York, for $1million.
When asked about it, Jackson replied enigmatically: 'I think someone in my organisation bought that for me. I don't know - sounds nice, though. I'll bet the kids would love it.'
And what of Neverland Ranch? Abandoned by Jackson, who was in default on the $25million loan, it had been scheduled for foreclosure, but at the last minute was purchased by an investment group called Colony Capital LLC.
'Neverland? Why, I don't know anything at all about Neverland,' Jackson said recently. 'That's someone else's problem now, I think. But I'm not sure.'
So what for the future? Jackson is due to reunite with his brothers on September 4 when the family act is honoured by BMI publishing company in Beverly Hills, but on his 30th birthday in 1988, he told me that he could never envisage working with his family again after the Victory tour of 1984.
'I don't live in the past,' he said. 'I think everyone should move on from the Jackson Five, I really do.'
Jackson has talked to only one or two family members since the trial ended. He hasn't talked to his sister, Janet, in at least three years. He rarely speaks to his mum. Never his father.
As for money, he has got The Beatles' back-catalogue, of course. But in reality it's all on paper and is viewed as money put aside for his children.
In truth, if Jackson could easily get his hands on it, he would probably spend it all. For Jackson, it seems, his children are the only source of hope and - by all accounts - he's at his best when being a dad.
Paris and Prince Michael I were born to Jackson's second wife, 49-year-old Debbie Rowe - the products of artificial insemination (Rowe will not say whether Jackson's sperm was used, or someone else's).
Both are stunning looking with high cheekbones and deep-set features.
'I turned out two pretty good-looking kids,' Rowe says of them.
When Rowe couldn't bear another child, Jackson became distraught. 'He was upset about that,' she now says. 'He couldn't understand it.'
Jackson went elsewhere for a third baby and the identity of Prince Michael II's mother remains a secret to this day.
Michael sees a lot of his youthful self in his children, especially in Prince Michael II (nicknamed Blanket).
All three have musical ability but he thinks Blanket is going to be the next star in the family.
It's what he hangs on to, the chance that he'll be able to relive the glory days through one of his children.
But for a man who is so obsessed with youth, so intent on remaining a child, many fear his birthday will be a day of reckoning for Michael Jackson. He has no plans to celebrate, other than in some small, private way with his children.
And this time there'll be no big interview with me - or anyone - to commemorate the occasion.
He has even begun to regret having plastic surgery and spends much of his time staring at his reflection in the mirror.
'I don't know what I was thinking back then,' he recently said. 'Everyone makes mistakes when they're young, I guess. But I still look OK, don't I? I mean, for 40?'
When reminded that, in fact, he was about to turn 50, Jackson gave a sad, half smile.
'It all went by so fast, didn't it? I wish I could do it all over again, I really do.'
But for Michael Jackson, it seems, the time for a comeback has passed. 'I'm tired,' he said last week. 'I've got nothing left to give. I just want to be left alone. Is that so bad?'