One evening last month, the clerk at R-Country Market in tiny Los Olivos, Calif., was about to close up for the night when he saw an odd figure walk in the door. ''He was all by himself,'' says the clerk, Michael Donahue. ''He was wearing a black fedora, mirrored goggle glasses, a khaki shirt, and dark pants. There was lots of liquid makeup around his nose area. He looked like he was in a wax museum. He didn't seem to be quite human.'' Knowing that Michael Jackson's Neverland Valley Ranch was not far away, Donahue quickly recognized the customer as the fallen King of Pop. The two chatted for a few minutes and Jackson bought some vanilla cookies on sale for 25 cents. Before leaving to rejoin his wife, Lisa Marie Presley, who was waiting outside in the passenger seat of their van, Jackson asked how late the store was open. ''I said, 'For you, a minute after nine,''' Donahue recalls. ''He said, 'What time do you usually close?' I told him nine.''
After decades in the spotlight, Jackson is used to getting favors from the public. But this month, as he launches the comeback of his life with a new double album, HIStory, Past, Present & Future-Book I, he will need more than 60 seconds of goodwill to restore a career that was nearly ruined after he was accused of child molestation in 1993.
Though 1982's Thriller remains the best-selling record of all time, Jackson, 36, has not released an album since 1991's Dangerous. Can he overcome the past and climb back on top? ''As long as the music is there, it'll be huge,'' says Freddy DeMann, Madonna's manager and head of her Maverick Records company. ''People don't give a s--- about something that happened a couple of years ago.''
But evidently Michael Jackson still does. If the deeply personal songs on the new album (which also includes 15 remastered hits) are any indication, Jackson appears determined to answer his accusers and make his return a triumphant vindication. ''Stop questioning me!'' he snarls defiantly on ''Scream.'' In ''Childhood,'' the theme from the upcoming Free Willy 2, he turns wistful and asks, ''Have you seen my childhood?'' In the four-minute, estimated $4 million trailer for the album that's being shown in theaters nationwide, a seemingly deified Jackson struts as crowds cheer a gargantuan statue of him. Overkill? The hissing that has greeted screenings might suggest so. Yet Michael watchers say Jackson's resurrection is a carefully calculated event as cannily choreographed as his famous moonwalk. ''We're in the midst of a great Michael Jackson redemption,'' says Jackson biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli. ''Nothing will screw this up, I assure you. Michael Jackson is the big architect he's calling the shots and making the moves.''
Maybe so, but Sony Entertainment, which signed a much-hyped deal potentially worth $1 billion with Jackson in 1991, is taking no chances. Still hoping to salvage its investment in the scandal-scarred singer, Sony is reportedly spending $30 million to promote the album in a publicity megablitz. The $7 million video of ''Scream,'' Jackson's duet with sister Janet Jackson, will debut June 13, the day before he and Lisa Marie sit down for an hour-long live interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC's PrimeTime Live. Sony execs hope to keep the album alive through Christmas 1996 by gradually releasing at least seven singles. But will Jackson's fans spend $32.98 to listen to a slick album with ethereal, Streisandesque tunes like ''Childhood''? ''So far, each day's signs appear to be entirely positive,'' said an executive from Sony's Epic label soon after ''Scream,'' the album's first single, was released. ''I can only go by what the marketplace is telling me, and so far it seems to be telling me that things are cool.''