(ABOVE: Jackson performing "Earth Song," an estimated twelve hours before his death.)
Across the Atlantic, where it was still early morning, AEG President Tim Leiweke read the message and fired back on his BlackBerry: "Are you kidding me?"
"I screamed at him so loud the walls are shaking," Phillips, CEO of the company's concert division, told him. "He is an emotionally paralyzed mess riddled with self loathing and doubt now that it is show time."
The story of Jackson's ill-fated comeback attempt has been told in news reports, a manslaughter trial and a feature-length documentary. But a cache of confidential AEG emails obtained by Tribune Newspapers offers a more troubled picture of the relationship between the down-on-his-luck idol and the buttoned-up corporation backing his "This Is It" tour.
The 250 pages of messages illuminate the extent to which top executives were aware of doubts about Jackson's stability as they prepared for his 50-show concert run at their London arena.
The emails will probably play a central role in two lawsuits set for trial next year. The shows' insurers are asking a judge to nullify a $17.5 million policy that they say AEG got with false claims about Jackson's health and readiness to perform. Jackson's heirs are pressing a wrongful-death suit that accuses AEG of pressuring the pop star to carry on with a comeback despite indications he was too weak.
Lawyers for AEG, which has denied any wrongdoing, said most of the correspondence was produced as discovery in ongoing litigation. They said messages seen by Tribune Newspapers were incomplete and leaked to portray AEG in a negative light. (Tribune Newspapers received 250 out of 500+ pages of the emails.)
"If you are in the creative arts business, you are going to be involved with individuals who have a great many problems," said AEG attorney Marvin Putnam.
Jackson was a megastar but also had a trail of burned investors and canceled shows that loomed large when AEG began contemplating a deal with him in the fall of 2008.
Even before meeting with Jackson, executives at the highest levels of AEG, including billionaire founder Phil Anschutz, were seeking insurance to protect the company's bottom line if the shows didn't come off, according to the emails.
Anschutz invited Jackson to a meeting at a Las Vegas villa in September 2008. Paul Gongaware, an AEG Live executive who knew Jackson, emailed colleagues a strategy memo. Wear casual clothes, he told them, "as MJ is distrustful of people in suits" and expect to talk "fluff" with "Mikey." (Wow, how condescending.)
The company was proposing a world tour that would net the star $132 million, according to the memo. "This is not a number that MJ will want to hear. He thinks he is so much bigger than that," Gongaware warned, skeptical of Jackson's ticket draw. (He had no need to worry. In the space of 24 hours, over a million people from around the world registered for pre-sale tickets for "This Is It," enough to fill the venue 50 times over.)
The singer and AEG signed a deal in January 2009. According to the contract, AEG agreed to bankroll a series of London concerts at its O2 Arena and Jackson promised "a first-class performance." If he reneged, AEG would take control of the debt-ridden singer's company.
The contract required a medical examination as part of AEG's effort to get cancellation insurance, and nine days after Jackson signed, a New York doctor went to the star's Los Angeles mansion. Dr. David Slavit concluded that Jackson was in "excellent condition."
It's unclear how thorough the exam was. Slavit, an ear, nose and throat doctor, wrote extensively about Jackson's vocal cords in his report, which AEG said was given to its insurance broker.
AEG planned to announce Jackson's comeback in March with a London news conference. But as the date drew near, Jackson dropped out of sight. Inside AEG, there was growing fear.
"We are holding all the risk," Gongaware wrote to Phillips. "We let Mikey know just what this will cost him in terms of him making money."
Jackson made it to London, but according to emails Phillips sent to Leiweke, the star was "despondent" and initially refused to leave his suite to attend the conference. Jackson had been drinking to calm his anxiety.
"He is scared to death," Phillips wrote to Leiweke.
(ABOVE: Kenny Ortega, former Jackson manager Frank Dileo, and AEG's Randy Phillips, at the 2009 premiere for "This Is It.")
In an interview, AEG attorney Putnam suggested Phillips exaggerated in his emails and said Jackson's behavior appeared to be a case of "nerves."
Jackson arrived 90 minutes late for the news conference, and his brief comments struck some of the 350 reporters gathered as disjointed and strange.
Still, fan enthusiasm was undeniable: Demand for an initial 10 shows crashed Ticketmaster's servers.
Two months later, Jackson and AEG got insurance from Lloyd's of London, according to the policy that is contained in court records. For rehearsals in LA, it only covered accidents. The policy would expand to include illness and death coverage when Jackson got to London in July 2009 and was evaluated by Lloyd's doctors there.
AEG officials first met Dr. Conrad Murray during May rehearsals. Murray, who was deep in debt and in danger of losing his home, was giving Jackson nightly doses of propofol (an anesthetic) for his chronic insomnia, according to the doctor's statement to police.
In an interview, AEG's lawyers noted that none of the emails referred to propofol and said no one at the company knew about Murray's use of it.
In mid-June, a month before his scheduled debut, those working with Jackson began complaining he missed rehearsals, and was "not in shape enough yet to sing this stuff live and dance at the same time."
Emails reviewed by Tribune Newspapers show far greater alarm about Jackson's mental state than has emerged previously.
The show's director, Kenny Ortega, told Phillips their star was not ready and urged an intervention. "There are strong signs of paranoia, anxiety and obsessive-like behavior," he wrote. "It is like there are two people there. One (deep inside) trying to hold on to what he was and still can be and not wanting us to quit him, the other in this weakened and troubled state. I believe we need professional guidance in this matter."
Phillips resisted the request for immediate psychiatric intervention, adding that Murray was confident the singer was ready.
At a meeting, Jackson vowed to improve, and Murray said he would help.
By all accounts, the next two days of rehearsals — the last of Jackson's life — were superb.
"With time and rehearsal," Phillips wrote, "[he can pull this off]."
In the recent interview, Putnam, AEG's lawyer, said the company responded responsibly to concerns raised by Ortega and others by monitoring rehearsals and consulting Jackson and his physician.
Numerous emails show that at the same time, Lloyd's of London was pressing AEG to schedule a complete medical examination for Jackson.
That exam in London by Lloyd's would include three doctors, heart monitoring and blood work. AEG's insurance broker tried to persuade Lloyd's to drop the physical, according to the email discussions by AEG officials.
After agreeing to the policy in May, Lloyd's had sought more information from AEG — medical records, details about Jackson's daily fitness program and responses to media reports about his health.
"Always with no response," a Lloyd's underwriter wrote.
Lloyd's also insisted on five years of medical records. The insurer wrote that it wanted a thorough account for all doctor's appointments, hospital visits and cosmetic procedures since 2003.
Within AEG, it was determined that Murray was the best hope to get the records, and in the final week of Jackson's life, officials sent at least 10 emails reminding him to gather them.
Murray responded to the last of the requests on the morning of June 25, from within the singer's home, according to emails presented at the doctor's criminal trial. He wrote that "authorization was denied." Not an hour later, Jackson stopped breathing, according to a timeline Murray gave police.
A week later, AEG filed a claim for the entire $17.5 million policy and said publicly that it was out more than $35 million.
But within a very short period, it became clear that Jackson's demise, however terrible for those who loved him, was a commercial boon for his heirs and for AEG.
The celebratory documentary "This Is It," which AEG co-produced, grossed more than $260 million worldwide.
"Michael's death is a terrible tragedy, but life must go on. AEG will make a fortune from merch sales, ticket retention, the touring exhibition and the film/dvd," Phillips wrote to a concert business colleague in August, adding, "I still wish he was here!"
None of this is new, tbh (similar testimony/emails were given during Conrad Murray's trial) . . . but nonetheless, it's heartbreaking stuff. :(
And Randy Phillips is an ass, but other private email correspondences between AEG execs. showed that Phillips changed his opinion of MJ by the end . . . so I do agree that whoever leaked these emails was picking-and-choosing in order to paint AEG in the worst light possible. I don't see why Lloyds would do this, but I'd bet you this was leaked by the Jacksons.