"It's beautiful at the shows when people join together. It's our own little world. For that hour and a half, we try to show there is hope and goodness. It's only when you step back outside the building that you see all the craziness."
Michael's hunger for fame and success struck me as increasingly obsessive and unhealthy.
Even though 1982's "Thriller" was the biggest-selling album of all time, Michael told me one night that his next album would sell twice as many copies. I thought he was joking, but he had never been more serious.
As years went by, I watched with sadness as his music went from the wonderful self-affirmation and endearing spirit of "Thriller" to something increasingly calculated and soulless. His impact in the marketplace waned accordingly. It appeared that his desperate need for ultra stardom -- the "King of Pop" proclamation -- and his escalating eccentricities made it difficult for audiences to identify with him.
Even some of his "Thriller" fans were ultimately turned off. In the public mind, he went from the "King of Pop" to the "King of Hype."
When I surveyed leading record industry executives in 1995 to determine pop's hottest properties, Michael wasn't in the top 20.
One executive said flatly: "The thing he doesn't understand is that he'd be better off in the long run if he made a great record that only went to No. 20 than if he hyped another mediocre record to No. 1. The thing he needs is credibility."
Another executive said simply that Michael was "over."
Michael was furious when he called me the day after the story ran in The Times.
How could I betray him by writing such lies?
Couldn't I see the record executives were just jealous?
I tried gently to tell him that I thought there was some truth in what the executives were saying and that he had lost touch with the qualities that once made him so endearing.
"That hurts me, Robert," he said, his voice quivering.
I felt bad.
I started to say that he could be as big as ever if he would only . . . , but I couldn't complete the sentence.
Michael hung up.
After that, I followed his life from a distance -- the child molestation charges, the battle with painkillers, the marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, the increasingly bizarre lifestyle.
Although he would periodically announce recording projects or touring plans, I couldn't imagine, after all the humiliation and disappointment, that Michael could find the strength to step in front of the public again. I thought the fear of failure was too great. It was easier to stay in a fantasy land.
So I was surprised when he announced that he was returning to the stage in a few weeks and was even more surprised when he sold out 50 nights at the O2 Arena in London.
Maybe Michael was stronger than I thought. It took enormous courage to be willing to go back on stage for what could be a make-or-break moment -- and the ticket demand must have given him hope. Despite all that had happened, he saw that he was still loved by millions of fans.
In the best scenario, Michael, 50, would have triumphed in London, not only erasing his mountain of debt but also restoring to himself the sense of invincibility that fame represented. Failure in those shows, however, could have left him even more wounded and vulnerable.
As the July dates neared, I imagined Michael's anxiety mounting day by day, even hour by hour. There must have been days when he felt he could do it, could reclaim his crown with a series of breathtaking performances and stand forever alongside Elvis Presley and the Beatles in pop music lore.
But what if he was wrong?
What if he wasn't strong enough, physically and emotionally? What if he couldn't live up to expectations?
What if no amount of adulation could make him feel safe again?
The stress must have been immense -- and maybe in the end it was too much for his broken heart.
Robert Hilburn was The Times' pop music critic from 1970 to 2005. Parts of this article are excerpted from his memoir, "Corn Flakes With John Lennon, and Other Tales From a Rock 'n' Roll Life," which will be published in October.