I will resume my series on Michael’s work in relation to Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” soon, but for now, circumstances have once again intervened and required a detour. Late Wednesday, shock waves were sent throughout the fan community by a statement from the Michael Jackson estate. It is with a heavy heart that I begin this post today. First of all, here is the official statement that came late Wednesday night:
You will soon be reading news reports stating that Colony Capital has decided to sell Neverland. As the property manager, they have the right to do this. The Estate has issued the following statement in response to a media request for comment:
We are saddened at the prospect of the sale of Neverland which, under the agreement negotiated during Michael’s lifetime, Colony has the right to sell. The Estate will maintain Michael’s family home in Encino, including its iconic recording studio there. We continue to build upon Michael’s legacy as an artistic genius and humanitarian through his music and new projects such as the Michael Jackson ONE show in Las Vegas. We hope and trust that any new owners of Neverland will respect the historical importance and special nature of this wonderful property. Michael’s memory lives on in the hearts of his fans worldwide.
It is also important to the Estate that Michael’s fans understand that although the Estate has no right to stop or obstruct the sale, The Estate did explore a number of potential options for Neverland with Colony but zoning, financial and land use restrictions limited the alternatives and ultimately Colony made the decision to sell.
The Official Online Team of The Michael Jackson Estate™
In an apparent attempt to assuage concerns and accusations that the estate had not “done enough” to preserve its stake in Neverland, another statement was released on Thursday:
MJ Estate Additional Info- Last night, we sent you a message from the Estate regarding Colony Capital’s decision to sell Neverland. Many of you have inquired about the Estate purchasing Neverland. As you know, the Estate does not disclose the details of its business dealings but last night’s statement to the fans (not included in the comment to press) states “the Estate did explore a number of potential options for Neverland with Colony” but for the reasons stated none of those options were feasible. This sentence was included specifically for your benefit to let you know that the Estate tried to find a way to keep the sale from happening but for a variety of reasons, it was not possible. Zack O’Malley Greenburg broke the news in Forbes shortly after we sent you the Estate’s statement: http://www.forbes.com/…/michael-jacksons-neverland-is…/. He offers some further insight you might find helpful in understanding the situation. Like you, the Estate is sad and disappointed by Colony’s decision. Michael’s legacy is in his music, in his humanitarian efforts, and in his spirit. The Estate hopes that whomever the new owners may turn out to be, that they will continue to appreciate the property not only for its beauty but for its historical and cultural legacy as well. MJOnline The Official Online Team of The Michael Jackson Estate™
No sooner had the news broke, then the heated battles were waging on social media between the usual factions of estate haters vs.supporters. It all comes down to a few key questions: Just how much interest DOES the estate really have in Neverland, and are they being forthright in their claims that every feasible avenue was indeed exhausted-or is it, as some are claiming, a case of unburdening a troublesome asset that has little financial incentive or priority for them? OR is it all a big bluff? These questions are ones that are being raised everywhere at the moment, and the answers are as varied and complex as every aspect of Michael Jackson’s life. The full details of Michael’s 2008 deal with Colony Capital, which prevented foreclosure of Neverland and allowed him to maintain a stake in the property-but with the understanding that Colony Capital would maintain the full right to sell-may be best left to those with more legal expertise to unravel. For the layperson, Zach O’Malley Greenburg’s article, linked to in the above statement, may be a good place to start but it still leaves many questions as to whose interests are being best served. And perhaps it is a legal web I will best leave for those who have, as I said, more expertise with which to unravel it. What is known with certainty is that Michael Jackson, contrary to popular myth, never “gave up” Neverland. True, he never had a desire to live there again after the 2003 raids and the trial, although it has been said that he was also acting on the advice of his attorney Tom Mesereau who had warned him that he would never be able to live there again even if he wanted to; that Sneddon and company would continue their mission to drive him out.
But the truth is that even though Michael Jackson never again physically lived at Neverland after 2005, he never gave it up, either. Rather, he fought valiantly to keep it-or at least, to maintain some measure of control over it on paper-just as he fought throughout the last years of his life to maintain all of his valuable assets. He could have easily sold the property in 2008, or earlier, and perhaps alleviated at least some of his financial headaches. But apparently, maintaining Neverland, and keeping it in his name, was important to him. Important enough to fight for it. What were his eventual plans for the property? We may never know for certain. It doesn’t seem likely that he ever intended on living there again. In fact, he had already set his heart-and his sights-on a luscious property in Las Vegas that he intended to purchase from the profits of This Is It and transform into his new vision-Wonderland.
Michael’s new “dream home” was said to be this Las Vegas property. He intended to purchase it from the proceeds of “This Is It”:
But Neverland had been too hard won, and as he had told us, represented the totality of who he was. Having put his whole heart and soul into Neverland, it was not something he could easily just walk away from. Perhaps it represented too much for him to be able to just give it up. The big question is: Did Michael, in his efforts to hang onto the property, get suckered into a bad deal? I have seen a lot of talk to that effect. Basically, the terms of the agreement that Michael signed to in 2008 would be what passed into the hands of the estate after his death. As much as we might fault Michael (or shoddy advice from Tohme) about signing an agreement that gave Colony Capital the right to sell at their discretion, there are still a number of factors to keep in mind. My understanding is that Michael maintained an 87.5% interest in Neverland (with Colony Capital maintaining a smaller 12. 5% interest) which, upon his passing, would have reverted to his estate. If true, this would mean that any decision to sell would have to be a mutual decision of both parties. The key, however, may be in a 2003 decision to initiate a non-renewal option on the Williamson Act, which until then had protected Neverland-just as it protects all agricultural California landowners-from massive tax liability, provided the land remains used for agricultural purposes. Under this agreement, the contract would have expired around 2013. Well, this is 2014. So maybe this IS an important piece of the puzzle that makes good sense. You can read more about Neverland and the Williamson Act here:
The irony is that when the above blog post was written, in 2012, there was much optimism that the estate would reapply for the Williamson Act when it expired. Apparently, however, upon the contract’s expiration, the decision was made not to reapply. If we go back to why Michael ever agreed to tie this asset up with Colony Capital in the first place-especially under the terms that he did-we have to remember that dying and leaving it all behind for others to unravel probably wasn’t exactly in his plan. Tom Barrack supposedly said to him when the idea was proposed, “Don’t have me do this…unless you’re really interested in building a program going forward to create some revenue for yourself.”
Michael obviously had high hopes-right up to the very last-that he could generate the revenue again to somehow make everything turn out all right. At the very least, he probably looked at Neverland as an asset that would benefit his children one day. But it is also possible that he was thinking about the potential revenue he could generate for himself, in his own lifetime, by maintaining control of this asset. Even if Michael never set foot on the property again, he could still generate a sizeable yearly income just from leasing it-a practice he had actually been doing, under the radar, for years. Here is a video clip where he discusses (besides Marc Schaffel) the leasing of Neverland property to local cattle farmers:
There are some reports claiming that Michael understood, from the get go, that the intent was to ultimately sell, but that with an estimated $70 to $80 million to be gleaned from such a sale after renovations and increased property values, it would have been quite a financial windfall for him-and his children. I don’t know if there is any truth to those reports, and I tend to believe Michael’s words that he would never sell Neverland. Whatever the case, Michael’s untimely death changed the game plan considerably. But what about Tom Barrack, the man who agreed to “bail” Michael out in 2008? Back in 2010, I did an in-depth post on Barrack and Neverland when an article ran in “New York” about Barrack’s partnership with Rob Lowe and the business of investing in “distressed celebrities.” Unfortunately, just as with everything I wrote prior to 2011, that post is currently inaccessible, but the “New York” article on which I based it is still available. While the article did a good job of humanizing Barrack and letting us get to know the man beneath the “gleaming” bald dome, it also left no doubt that, for Barrack, this was all part of a successful business model built on the idea of investing in “artificially depressed” celebrities and properties. The following passage is excerpted from Benjamin Wallace’s “New York” article:
Over the past two years, Barrack has been lining up deals that target celebrities and entertainment properties whose value he believes to be artificially depressed. In some cases, that’s because they haven’t yet figured out a way to monetize their assets. But mostly it’s because the investment is, in the classic sense, distressed—individuals like Jackson or Annie Leibovitz whose financial mismanagement has obscured their future revenue potential, or properties like the Miramax film library, which Disney is unloading at a time when no one can agree on what a studio archive is worth. This summer, Barrack created a new $500 million media-and-entertainment investment fund, working with his friend Rob Lowe, who is a partner in the fund. Together they have been on something of a shopping spree—and generating a little tabloid coverage while they’re at it. In one TMZ appearance, a paparazzo’s telephoto captured Lowe and Barrack, shirtless, checking their BlackBerrys on a yacht in the Mediterranean. In a second, the two men were video-ambushed as they entered the Mayfair restaurant C London for dinner with owner Giuseppe Cipriani and Formula One’s Flavio Briatore. Barrack has explained the timing of his new direction by musing publicly that some of the investment sectors in which he amassed his wealth can no longer generate extraordinary returns. The world right now is “an environment that has very little visibility, and whatever you guess will surely be wrong the next day,” he says, glancing at his BlackBerry. “Everybody has been abjectly wrong if they’re trying to make macro bets.” The only thing to do is position yourself for opportunities—stand in the stream and wait for fish to swim between your legs. That’s how the Neverland—(At this point in the conversation, Barrack was interrupted by the arrival of his partner Rob Lowe).
You can read more of the article here:
I suppose there are two ways one could look at Barrack’s practice. Some might call it savvy business dealing (and after all, isn’t taking advantage of opportunity part of every successful business model?). However, it could also be viewed another way as well-that is, simply taking advantage. And taking advantage of someone who has fallen onto hardship-however temporarily–is certainly not the most ethical practice in the world. In Wallace’s piece, it isn’t exactly made secret that Barrack’s modus operandi is to take advantage of distressed situations with an eye towards the profit they will eventually turn. It doesn’t make Barrack a crook, necessarily, but the point is that just because something is legal doesn’t make it ethical. The tragedy is that Michael-and Neverland-was ever put into such a vulnerable position to begin with, and for that, the real blame must go all the way back to Tom Sneddon. Today, the property for which Barrack initially invested $23. 5 million is guaranteed to fetch him anywhere from $50 million on the lower end of the spectrum, to $70-$80 million on its highest end. That should be good for at least an additional yacht or two to sail on the Mediterranian. The upside of the situation is that a sale on the higher end will probably guarantee Michael’s kids at least a $20 to $30 million windfall, once Colony Capital takes their end. But as some sources have reported, a sale on the lower end could possibly mean they end up with nothing. However, this is not really an issue of what will line the children’s pockets. Michael’s children are already wealthy. It’s an issue of losing something that may be far more valuable to them than money-their link to their childhood and that magical, wonderful kingdom he created. But there is another reason why Neverland may hold special sentimental value for them. It was much more than just their childhood home. It was the only permanent home they ever shared with their father. It was the last place they could ever truly call “home.” The tragedy for the fans in the loss of Neverland is nothing compared to the tragedy this must be for them. Perhaps, again, not so much for what it is-or was-as for what it represents. Had Michael lived, they might have been content to move on, because any home they eventually made with him-whether it be “Wonderland” or elsewhere-would have been “home.” But as it stands, Neverland has probably loomed large in their imaginations as a connection to a time and place when life was much more innocent, fun, and happier-and, of course, magical. But the subtitle of this post is: What does this mean for us? And that is where I would truly like to focus. Several months ago, someone kindly sent me two leaves from Neverland. I assume they must have come from a tree on the property. I sat for quite some time before beginning this piece, inhaling their woodsy fragrance and hoping to draw from their essence the inspiration on how to even begin to assess how I feel about this news. I try to look at it from all angles; to keep my balance in perspective, but I cannot overcome the empty sadness.
Even though we know that “Neverland,” as such, really died in 2003, and has stood mostly as an empty, abandoned shell since 2005, there was still the comfort of knowing it was “there”; that it was still a part of Michael, still in his name, and that any time one felt up to making the pilgrimage to the gates, they would still be there (for me, this has been on my “bucket list” for over five years). As long as the property remained in limbo, there was always the hope that something good might come of it. There had been talk of many proposed projects and ideas-a museum, a Graceland-like mecca for fans, a state park, an art school for teens, even a children’s hospital (though I don’t know how seriously the latter was ever really proposed). In the end, as we have been told over and over, none of these ideas have proven “feasible” given the reality of Neverland’s zoning and geographic location. “Los Olivas isn’t exactly Memphis,” Zach O’Malley Greenburg has stated, and he’s right. Graceland is situated in a wonderfully convenient location adjacent to the interstate, just a few miles south of downtown Memphis. It is a location that can easily accomodate the many thousands of visitors Graceland receives per year. That being said, however, there are many such rurally located tourist attractions that manage to do quite well. The D.H. Lawrence ranch in Taos, New Mexico comes to mind (and it, too, requires a trek up some very treacherous mountain roads) but I don’t think we can even begin to compare the number of average visitors to a place like the D.H. Lawrence ranch to that which would descend upon Neverland, should those gates become open to the public. But I honestly do not think most Michael Jackson fans are really concerned that the place become some huge commercial asset-in fact, most would probably prefer that it remain exactly what it is at present, even if going there must feel a bit like visiting a ghost place. That is, a quiet and tranquil place where Michael’s spiritual aura can still be felt. For most of us, that is enough. But apparently, the estate can only see the viability of hanging onto Neverland if it is generating a profit. This is what I really read between the lines of their statement. In saying every option had been exhausted, it seems what they are really saying is that every feasible option to turn Neverland into something viably commercial and profitable had been exhausted. So, in the end, I suppose, it must have come down to a choice: Either to hang onto something of great sentimental and historical value to the estate, at the cost of draining the estate’s resources, or to let it go. Apparently, they made their decision but I think it is a huge mistake. Understand that even though I’m not an estate hater, I am also not one who blindly accepts their every decision without question, and I believe those questions do need to be raised, especially when we look at the implications of what is potentially going to be lost IF this sale goes through.
They like to to tell us that the business of an estate is to generate money and to protect its assets for the heirs. It is true that an estate must make money. But they also have a responsibility for protecting and preserving the historical legacy, especially when we are talking the estate of one of the most culturally iconic performers of our time. To be sure, having Neverland sold might not exactly be the end of the world as we know it. As some have said, it may all depend, ultimately, on who buys it. Yes, it “could” end up in the hands of some very benevolent benefactor who will fully understand and respect its legacy and importance to fans-or, at least, its importance to his kids, which is really what should be our utmost concern. It would be wonderful to think that someone might buy the place who would actually consider opening it up to fans, or giving us that museum (though, no shocker, that would probably end in a lawsuit with the estate!). I even heard one very ingenious idea of turning it into a bed and breakfast establishment. I’m sure that would be a windfall for anyone, with guaranteed bookings up to ten years in advance! (And, heck, there ought to be enough guest cottages on the property to make it a perfectly feasible idea! And imagine…for an extra fee, getting Michael’s master bedroom!).
Over time, there have been rumors of many celebrities, from Justin Bieber to Lady Gaga, who have reportedly been interested in purchasing Neverland. I can’t really imagine Justin Bieber, after all of his antics, being a viable candidate (I am sure the neighbors of Los Olivas would probably be none too thrilled!) but Lady Gaga, I am sure, would at least respect the property’s connection to Michael. But while it would be wonderful to envision such a “best case” scenario, the simple truth is that we have no such guarantees. The new owners might be people who would care about and respect the property’s legacy.
But then again, they might not. What if Neverland falls into the hands of someone who could care less about Michael Jackson or his fans, and in fact, would do everything in their power to strip and dismantle all reminders of Sycamore Valley Ranch as the infamous Neverland? I am sure that, for many of us, that is our worst nightmare scenario-the idea of Neverland being taken over by some indifferent or cold hearted individual who would strip away all physical reminders and ties to “Neverland.” Even if Barrack has worked hard to restore Neverland to its “former glory” and has respected Michael’s vision, as he claims, that is no guarantee that any new owner will feel an obligation to do likewise. Imagine the beautiful flower gardens gone; the clocks taken down; the Giving Tree perhaps chopped down, and cattle grazing where the Ferris wheel once stood. Imagine those magical gates being torn down to make room for something else-a new, much colder, and more imposing barrier that says nothing. The scary thing is that we simply don’t know. The above scenario is certainly the worst case scenario, but it could happen, and there are no guarantees that it won’t. But even if Neverland is lucky and does fall into the hands of an owner who respects and values it as Michael Jackson’s home, it doesn’t change the fact that Neverland will no longer be in Michael Jackson’s name. It will no longer be under the control and protection of his estate; it will no longer belong to the family. And that, for me, is the saddest part of all. Neverland-if for nothing else, its historical value-should remain in the control of the estate. For me, it simply isn’t good enough to “hope and trust” that the new owners will respect and honor the property’s legacy. Does anyone think that Elvis Presley’s estate would simply “hope and trust” that someone would come along to take care of Graceland? Recently, a petition has begun circulating on Change.org to save Neverland. Although I am somewhat skeptical about the success of petitions, I signed it in the spirit that no turn should be left unturned. This is what I commented:
It is important that Neverland be kept within the control of the estate and of Michael’s heirs. It is much too important a part of his legacy to be turned over to other hands. Even if the future owner(s) were to honor the home’s legacy, there are no guarantees once it is passed on to the hands of others. It could end up going through countless owners, who no doubt over time will chip away until there is nothing of Michael left. The Neverland property has just as much historical value as Hayvenhurst, if not more. Michael composed many of his biggest hits on its spiritual grounds, in his beloved Given Tree. And yes, it became tainted over time but even that sad history, too, is part of the historical legacy of NL and vital for future generations to understand not only Michael’s great vision for healing children, but what he had to sacrifice and endure as well. Nothing represents the full breadth and scope of Michael’s magic, endurance, trials and tribulations like the 2700 acres of NL. Those acres are the heart of Michael; to sell it is like ripping the heart from him, more surely than the coroner’s scalpel. Consider: Michael went from a 3-room house in Gary to Neverland. There is nothing else-no other home or landmark-that physically commemorates this achievement Hayvenhurst, after all, belonged to all the Jacksons. Neverland was not only Michael’s one and only permanent home, it was his own creation.
To sign the petition to save Neverland:
There have been many similar “Save Neverland” campaigns and petitions started in the past. I found a few such petitions on Google, all from several years back, many with as few as a little over a hundred signatures. But now it seems there is a new sense of urgency; a sense that “this is it.” The reality is looming that Neverland could indeed really be gone forever now. This petition alone has garnered over FOUR THOUSAND signatures and counting, not to mention that many others have started up as well.
To expand further on my comment, Neverland not only stands to this day as the only permanent home that Michael Jackson ever owned, it is also the only truly physical testament to what he accomplished in going from that tiny, three room house in Gary, Indiana to a 2700 acre estate. It is, in fact, an insult to both Michael’s memory and to his accomplishments to even insinuate that Hayvenhurst is more worthy of preservation than Neverland. They should both be maintained, but again, it is Neverland that represents the “totality” of who Michael was. Over the past two days I have heard many arguments and reasons as to how we should view the potential sale and loss of Neverland. All of them have validity to some degree. Some feel that Michael set the example when he walked away from Neverland and (presumably) never looked back. And there is something to be said for the ability to just “let go.” The reality is that Neverland has sat as an abandoned shell for over six years. But although I have not been to Neverland personally, I have been told that its energy can still be felt. And I believe this very strongly, as it is part of my own Cherokee belief and my knowledge that Neverland is indeed sacred ground. It was sacred ground for thousands of years before Michael ever sat foot on it, as it was a place that Chumash Indians used for ceremonial grounds. But Michael definitely left the stamp of his own energy and presence there. Part of my personal Cherokee belief is that spirits never completely disconnect from earth or from their physical embodiment. Spirits will always maintain a connection to the places where they were happiest. If the property is taken over by someone else, it won’t take away the fact that Michael’s energy and presence is there. But over time, that energy will become diluted and dispersed, especially if it senses it is no longer welcome there. As so many have sadly noted for the past five years, one of the most tragic aspects of being a Michael Jackson fan is the fact that we have no real “center” where we can come together to feel his presence. Forest Lawn is where his body lies, but it’s not where his spirit dwells.
That may depend on personal view. I have been in a few of the same places that Michael has been. I can say I have been inside the same hotel room that he once stayed in. I sat on a bed he slept in, but other than the bragging rights of being able to say I sat on Michael Jackson’s bed, I can say it pretty much felt just like any ordinary bed. There was no “magic dust” that rolled off the sheets; no fairy dust under the pillows. I have even ridden his Ferris wheel from Neverland, and presumably sat in his favorite seat (No. 13)-at least so they told me. It was exciting, but again, having my rump on the same spot where Michael’s rump once sat still did not impart anything extraordinary or magical. It felt like any, ordinary Ferris wheel seat.
The analogy I used-likening it to the moment when his heart was removed by the autopsy scalpel-may be unpleasantly graphic for some, but I stand by it. For me, that is an apt analogy as the sale of Neverland is exactly just that.
I can’t say I am totally shocked by this turn of events. I think a lot of us had seen it coming for years, but like everyone, I held out hope that eventually Neverland might be used for some good purpose that, of course, would honor Michael’s vision for it. As crass as it sounds, I always loved the idea of making it into a “Graceland” so that it would become accessible to everyone who wished to visit. But I would have been equally happy to see it become an art school or something equally productive-again, as long as it was within keeping with Michael’s original vision for the place. That could encompass a wide range, from recreational fun to spiritual healing.
I suppose the worst thing it could do would be to sit, abandoned. But there are some who say even that is not a bad thing. In the quiet stillness of its abandonment, one can still go there and find it a peaceful place to meditate, and to connect with Michael’s spirit.
Some will say it should not matter, as long as the music survives, and maybe the short films. But that is still only a part of Michael Jackson’s legacy, and maybe not even the most important part. The real essence of who Michael was-the father, the humanitarian, the man with a grand vision for himself, for the world, and its possibilities-is embodied by the grounds of Neverland.
It’s not to say we will lose the spirit and essence of Michael without Neverland. But it may be important to note that what we will lose is the closest physical representation of it that we have.