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Whacko Jacko, the comeback kid

MICHAEL Jackson, the King of Pop who became ridiculed as Whacko Jacko for his bizarre personal traits and activities, has been plagued by a series of financial, legal, and medical woes over the years and a previous attempt to relaunch his career collapsed amid reports of ill health. He has been a virtual recluse since being cleared of child molestation charges in 2005, and has struggled to pay his debts. But he is on the comeback trail with a new series of sell-out concerts in Britain later this year.

Michael Jackson has spent a lifetime surprising people since making his debut at age 11 as a member of the family performing group The Jackson 5. Last month, Jackson, now aged 50, announced his return to the stage after eight years, a reclusive period marked more by scandal than by song: a surreal personal life, lurid legal scandals, serial plastic surgeries and erratic public behavior that turned him - on his very best days - into the butt of late-night talk show jokes and tabloid headlines.

There were concerns that the middle-aged star may not be up for a return to the spotlight, that after years of erratic behavior, health fears, child-abuse allegations and money woes, the once-golden Jackson was tarnished beyond repair. However, there are compelling financial reasons for him to return to live performing for the first time in years.

But the fans have dissed that idea and their almost insatiable demand has caused the performer to expand his London show program from an original 10 performances to 50 after an astonishing 750,000 seats were sold.

Despite all the woes, Jackson signifies the start and the end - an icon - of a musical age. When his career began to take off nearly four decades ago as a member, fans and entertainment industry veterans recognized something else about the pint-size musical dynamo that was unusual: he possessed an outsize, mesmerizing talent.

The King of Pop met the press at a London concert arena in March and announced the mother of all comebacks - a string of concerts that organizers hope will net the financially troubled star untold millions of dollars in receipts.

Screaming fans

An hour and a half late, Jackson appeared at the O2 - where the series of concerts are due to be staged this summer - to announce the gigs.

More than 300 journalists had been marshaled to capture the event, even though news of the concerts had leaked out to the media days before. A telegenic army of screaming fans was there to greet their star - although many in the crowd said they were there to catch a live show due to play shortly after the announcement.

The hours spent waiting frayed some tempers and a few fans shouted obscenities at journalists being escorted in ahead of them for the announcement. But most were just happy to catch a glimpse of Jackson.

Wearing his trademark sunglasses and a silver-embroidered black military-style jacket, the King of Pop said his series of shows starting in July would be his "final curtain call" in the British capital.

"This is it," Jackson said in a brief statement punctuated by the squeals of fans who gathered inside the massive O2 Arena in southeast London. "I'll be performing the songs my fans want to hear. And when I say this is it, I mean this is it," he said of what he described as "a final curtain call."

Although Jackson said the shows would be his last in London, his statement left the door open for further concerts elsewhere. Promoter AEG Live told the BBC the shows might be part of a bigger, final world tour.

The concerts - possibly followed by other gigs and a 3-D movie based on "Thriller" - could end up netting Jackson more than US$400 million, Randy Phillips, chief executive of AEG Live, was quoted by the BBC as saying.

"I've always been a fan ever since I was really little - his music and the way he moves," said 21-year-old student Shellie Watson. When asked if Jackson - who was almost Watson's age when he released "Thriller" in 1982 - still had star power, she said "100 percent."

"Thriller" is still the best-selling album of all time, but Jackson - who has sold more than 750 million albums and won 13 Grammys - has not performed a major concert since 2001.

Tickets priced between 50 pounds (US$70) and 75 pounds, sold quickly for the shows, despite concerns the performer may not be up for a return to the spotlight.

"Because of what's happened to him and how he's lived his life over the last 20 years, he's made it very difficult for people to 'out' themselves as Michael Jackson fans," British music writer and broadcaster John Aizlewood said. "These concerts are a huge opportunity for rehabilitation."

But even if Jackson-mania is a diminished force, his comeback will be a huge event. Jackson has not released a studio album or played a full concert since 2001. His last major tour was the History World Tour in 1996-97. Since then, his ever-changing appearance and erratic behavior have often overshadowed his music.

Assessing exactly how much money has passed through his hands over a career that spans decades is impossible.

Sales of his recordings through Sony's music unit are believed to have generated more than US$300 million in royalties for Jackson since the early 1980s.

Revenues from concerts and music publishing, including the creation of a venture with Sony that controls the Beatles catalogue, as well as from endorsements, merchandising and music videos, added, perhaps, US$400 million more to that amount. Subtracted were hefty costs like recording and production expenses, taxes and the like.

Those close to Jackson say that his finances have not deteriorated simply because he is a big spender. Until the early 1990s, they said, he paid relatively close attention to his accounting and kept an eye on the cash that flowed through his business and creative ventures.

After that, they say, Jackson became overly enamored of something that ensnares wealthy people of all stripes: bad advice.

The arc of Michael Jackson's career, and his management of business and financial affairs, tracks some of the timeworn truisms about the realities of the entertainment industry and those who inhabit its upper tiers: a child star unwittingly beholden to others who control his bank account; a more mature adult who is savvy about packaging and marketing himself but who grows increasingly undisciplined about his spending; and, finally, a reclusive caricature locked inside a financial and emotional fantasyland of his own making.

The King of Pop was arrested in 2003 on child-molestation charges and acquitted in 2005 after a trial in California. Since then he has traveled the world, spending time in Ireland, France and the Gulf state of Bahrain.

His last live performance in Britain was at the 2006 World Music Awards. He was scheduled to perform "We Are the World" but only managed a few lines before leaving the stage to boos from audience members.

He has struggled to pay his debts after his financial empire crumbled following his arrest. Last year he was forced to give up the deed to Neverland, his 1,000 hectare ranch and miniature amusement park in California.

In November, Jackson reached an undisclosed settlement with a Bahraini prince who had brought a US$7 million breach of contract suit against him.

A video of Jackson trying to record a new single, shown at a British court hearing the case, revealed him struggling to keep up his powerful vocals.

His health is rumored to be as precarious as his finances. He often looks gaunt in photographs, and rumors of his condition have ranged from lung disease to an infection acquired during nose surgery.

Bookmaker William Hill is already taking bets on whether Jackson will show up for his first gig. It is offering 5/1 odds that he won't, and spokesman Graham Sharpe anticipates brisk business.

"Once people start buying tickets they may well want to have a bet that he won't show up as a form of insurance," Sharpe said.

Aizlewood said he would bet on the ever-erratic Jackson pulling it off.

"This is Michael Jackson playing his greatest hits - some of the greatest hits in the history of music - live," Aizlewood said. "It is a great event. I think even Michael Jackson won't blow it."

On March 4, he launched a lawsuit against an auction house to stop the scheduled sale of more than 2,000 personal items from Neverland, including platinum and gold records, a customized Harley Davidson and a Rolls Royce limousine.

The O2 has become a venue of choice for big-name acts and comeback performers. Britney Spears is due to play there for eight nights in June, Prince did a 21-day series of shows at the arena in 2007, and Led Zeppelin played a one-off reunion gig there the same year.

Rebecca Kellner, 17, said it didn't really matter how Jackson sang - the fans would come.

"He's not the greatest singer and maybe not the greatest person," she said. "But he's Michael."

The Troubled Times of Michael Jackson

1991: After the release of "Dangerous," he retreated from working regularly.

1993: He was accused of child sexual abuse by 13-year-old Jordan Chandler and his father Evan. By the fall, Jackson was addicted to drugs and the stress of the allegations caused him to stop eating. With his health in decline, Jackson's friends and legal advisers called on him to settle the allegations, believing that he could not endure a lengthy trial.

1994: Jackson settled with the Chandlers out of court for US$22 million. No criminal charges had been laid against him and police cited lack of evidence.

Later that year, he married singer-songwriter Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley. They divorced less than two years later, remaining friendly.

In 1995, Jackson merged his Northern Songs catalogue with Sony's publishing division creating Sony/ATV Music Publishing, retaining half-ownership of the company and earning US$95 million upfront as well as the rights to even more songs.

2003: Arrested on child molestation charges and acquitted in 2005 after a trial in California.

2006: Agreed to a financial overhaul with Sony, using the catalogue, as well as copyrights to his own songs, as collateral for roughly US$270 million in bank loans.

2008: Filed a grant deed transfering ownership of the 1,000-hectare Neverland Ranch to a joint venture investment company. He later defaulted on Neverland's US$24.5 million mortgage. In November, he reached an undisclosed settlement with a Bahraini prince in a US$7 million breach of contract suit.

2009: Will auction this month more than 2,000 personal items from Neverland, including platinum and gold records, a customized Harley Davidson and a Rolls Royce limousine.


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