A Conversation with Owen Barstow

by Jack Curtin
Winter 2008

Owen Barstow became Michael Jackson's assistant in October 1995 and was with him until Michael's death on August 30, 2007, although only on an ad hoc basis for most of the last year. He was an art student and sculptor with a master's degree in art history who'd been working at a publisher on the last stages of a 20-year effort to put together the world's largest encyclopedia of the visual arts. With the project completed, he was looking for work and his girlfriend's best friend was the then wife of Andree Hoffmann, Michael's current assistant. When Hoffmann returned to Germany to finish his PhD, Barstow took over the position "on a temporary basis." We talked in October.

Your "temporary" turned out to be a dozen years.
Several people who had worked with Michael or been his business partners were quite surprised that I stayed for such a long time and even more so that he would actually be comfortable delegating things to me. Apparently, he was a terrible control freak with them. When I started, I knew Michael's TV series and I knew him by reputation, but I wasn't sure what was expected of me. It became apparent right off that he desperately needed someone to organize him, but at first I was simply doing research and filing, putting things into order. Then, after about the third week, I began to be involved in planning his travel. I remember he just left me a note saying please book a flight to New York and I had no idea who his preferred airline was or anything. But I just did it. The English are very good at sorting things out and getting them done.

Eventually, I was left very much on my own to manage things. I'd say, I think we need this kind of computer now, and Michael would say, okay, just order it. And soon people began to ask for me directly. It was quite nice to have that sort of responsibility. While Michael was 24 years older, we were both from the same area of Yorkshire, born and brought up about ten miles apart. We had a similar sense of humor and a very similar sense of irony. It was that Yorkshire connection, I think, that made him comfortable with me.

What was it like working with Michael on a personal level?
It was always great fun when he was in the office. Michael was a very clever man, very quietly clever. We were quite different in some ways, though. I come from an academic background, so I want to spend a long time getting to the bottom of a question. Michael was a journalist, and he simply wanted to find out enough material to answer the question and finish the article. Eventually I realized that, while it didn't always seem that way when you worked with him day to day, He really did have a genuine desire to learn purely for the sake of learning, for the abstract pleasure of acquiring new information and new knowledge and then linking that to something else. he had a very holistic view of the universe. He used to quote his first editor from 50 years before: it's a day ill-spent if you haven't learned anything new. That's a real Yorkshire sort of expression. My father used to say that knowledge is free, so you should get as much of it as you can.

We worked a regular Monday-Friday week. Michael got up very early and he was invariably in the office when I would arrive around 9:15 to 9:30. We would work through to lunch, and then he would go home to eat and I would have mine at my desk. I think in 12 years I went out for lunch four times. The phones just never stopped, you could not leave. Typically we'd work until 6 or 7 every day, often doing tastings of beer and whiskey which were necessary for Michael to write about them. Occasionally, if we were very busy working on a specific book or project, I would come in on a Saturday or even Sunday. On the last edition of The Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, I think I worked non-stop through something like four consecutive weekends. I very rarely took work home, however, except for occasionally making some calls from there.

I looked at it this way. The job was reasonably enjoyable although terribly stressful. I was in effect my own boss, I didn't have to wear a suit and tie, within reason I could turn up and clear off whenever I wanted, and I got good holidays. The first few years, actually, I didn't take much holiday and I thought it was because Michael was being particularly mean, but I realized after a bit that holidays were just not a part of Michael's life. He just didn't understand why people would need a holiday. In my 12 years, I think he took maybe four formal holidays. So I finally quoted to him some examples from job ads in the newspaper of what I'd get if I were an executive personal assistant, the terms that I'd expect, and he said oh, okay. I had 30 days leave every year just like that.

You mention the tastings. How were they conducted?
Michael did all the tasting by himself when I first started. Then after about a year, he began asking me what do you think of this or think of that. And we would sometimes go out to events and tastings. He'd always take note of what I said and began to be more open to the idea of tasting together. Eventually, if he need to review a whiskey or beer, we'd each have a sample and then I'd submit my notes to him and he'd work them up to put his own gloss on them. Sometimes Cathy Turner, who worked with us part time for the last several years, would taste as well, because she had a very good palate. For example, if we had three beers to review, we'd pour out three glasses each and taste and discuss and prepare notes. Obviously Michael's notes always took priority, but the reviews were usually a synthesis of our three inputs.

How did Michael's various endeavors support his career? How important was The Beer Hunter TV series in that regard?
Royalties from that were very, very tiny. He got a decent hit from that when it first came out, and it was always on somewhere in the world, but I believe the very last residual check we got, from a showing in Africa, was something like 30 pounds for six months. In the big picture, of course, it was not the scale of the payments but the fact that they persisted for such a long time.

And his books…?
The books were significant. The biggest book market for us, definitely for the beer books, has always been the U.S. It was shame that we could never get later editions of the Belgian book into the U.S. in sufficient numbers because it would have sold very, very well. Part of the problem was that it was not produced by a proper publisher in Belgium, but rather was a kind of collaborative effort among a group of professional people. The others, though, were a substantial part of his income. Each book, whether new or a revision, was a major undertaking and incredibly time-consuming. For Ultimate Beer as an example, I contacted every brewery mentioned-I think we did about 700 to 800 of them-and we had just over 1,000 beers sent to us, all with their own respective glasses. I personally styled all the photographs in that book, every picture of a bottle of beer and a glass of beer in front of it. That was about 40 days of photography over a 12 month period.

There is at least one unpublished book still to come, right?
Yes, Dorling Kindersley Inc. in New York will publish The Eyewitness Companion to Beer, by Michael and a series of collaborators. It is very similar to Whiskey: The Definitive World Guide in approach, but is a smaller volume, not coffee table sized. The book is finished. I've seen a proof, I'm just now sure what the rollout will be. Also, In September, Michael and I were planning to begin working together on a new edition of the Scotch book. The idea was that I would be credited as a collaborator with him on this edition and then subsequent editions would be Michael Jackson's Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch with me as the contributing editor. The publishers want to go ahead with that but we haven't come to any agreement as yet.

So Michael was planning for his ongoing legacy?
I think planning is a overstatement… I wouldn't really put the words "planning" and "Jackson" in the same sentence [laughs].

What role did Michael's magazine and newspaper work play?
Michael was a true journalist but what he wrote for various magazines the last few years were essentially loss leaders for us in terms of income. Typically, he devoted the same time and attention to the most obscure column as he did to more profitable enterprises. Back in the 1980s when you could make a living as a journalist, he was very, very active and his output was still prolific in the first years I worked with him. Journalism was a reasonable slice of the income then. He wrote for The Independent from its inception in 1988. Every week he went to a brewery or a distiller or a beer festival, went somewhere, talked to people an interview them, tasted whatever they made, then wrote about it in an intelligent way. Over the past six or seven years, though, British newspapers by and large no longer commission articles on beer and editors have become interested in only the most banal coverage of lifestyle issues. Everything has been reduced to that. Also, the rates that are paid, especially in the UK, just have not kept up with inflation.

I can sympathize. What about Michael's work as a consultant?
Consultancy is very interesting, because one of the things that has been picked up on in various obituaries about Michael has been just how pure, how independent he was, how he would not toe the industry line at all. We were frequently involved in the development of new whiskies and new beers and he would not pull any punches. If we were sent three samples, for example, and asked which we preferred, and they were all terrible, he would say that. If the client didn't like it, we would actually waive the fee in some cases. I think it was that impartiality that made him very attractive to large companies.

We handled different projects in different ways. Broadly, if we were presented with an interesting beer or whiskey, one made with love and made with passion, Michael would usually be happy to help out with his support. If a large whiskey company wanted to bring out a new single malt or new blended malt, let's say, and they wanted something which would not appear in the public sphere, just a private and impartial opinion that the distillers and blenders could read, knowing it was written by Michael, his approach would be very direct, simply offering his input for them to consider. We would only charge for the time involved in doing that. When he was asked from time to time to prepare a text for a press release or, in the case of very high end whiskeys, to prepare tasting notes for an insert with the product or a put on a label, we were more cautious. Michael would only do that sort of thing for a blue chip client, a brand which was well known and respected, and only if the new product was particularly impressive. If the whiskey came and it wasn't very good, we would say so and that we would rather not be associated with it.

Michael never saw a conflict between that work and straight journalism because he would never say anything that wasn't true. Still, he preferred that people quote from a source which he'd already written. Michael understood the value of publicity very well. When someone came along with a beer and said he'd written about their beer in Ultimate Beer, and they'd like to use that, he'd ask how they wanted to use it. If it was in something like a press release, that would be fine, provided that it was very clearly stated where the comment came from, because that also served as an advertisement for Michael. What we would make a charge for, or negotiate a royalty for, was if somebody wanted to quote Michael on a label, in a point of sale presentation or in advertising. Our position was that if something helps you make money, we'd like it to help us make money as well. We were very open about that. And to be honest, I sort of negotiated all that, since I don't think Michael had a formula before I came along. The penny finally dropped and he knew that we had to codify that sort of thing, get it on a business footing.

And what about his speeches and appearances around the world?
In truth, I looked at the situation at the end of each trip or event to see if we had profited and we rarely did. If we covered our expenses when all was said and done, I considered that a successful endeavor. It was all about promoting the brand of Michael Jackson, the business.

Finally, as Michael's de facto business manager, did you get involved with discussing his finances with him?
Michael never really talked about money, because he had no money sense at all. He was hopeless, which is rather surprising for a Yorkshireman, because we have a reputation for being very mean with money. The business did generate a reasonable income, particularly at the turn of the century, but he had to cover one or two members of staff, plus his own expenses, and an office in London, which is a very expensive city. Things were tight these last few years. The way he worked, it was always a balancing act between things which could be very lucrative and things which were loss leaders. That was managing Michael in a nutshell.

Copyright (c) 2008 Jack Curtin

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