Thirty Years Ago: Michael Jackson, 1988

In 1988 Witchdoctor’s GARY STEEL was editing teen pop magazine RTR Countdown and in February of that year he jetted off to New York with five competition winners to catch Michael Jackson at Madison Square Garden.

My life flashes before my eyes. Touchdown. Miraculously, it’s a safe landing. A straggly, strung-out bunch of New Zealanders jump in a maxi-transit van at Newark Airport, New Jersey, a suburb of New York made famous by Mr BornintheUSA Springbean himself.

RTR Countdown’s jetlagged editor and five Michael Jackson Pepsi Cola concert competition winners cruise in awe at midnight through the alien landscape, attempting conversation with a black driver whose patois is altogether too complex to decipher.

For reasons beyond human logic, our winner Nicola has been booked into the plush Grande Hyatt with the other winners, while I’ve been relegated a room on my lonesome in the 1930s art deco elegance of the Waldorf Astoria. No one is around to collect my bags, so it’s an arm-stretching haul up to my room on the tenth floor and along endless confusing corridors and the inevitable wrong-turnings.

I awake to the merciless sound of angry honking horns, and look out the window. Hey guys, this place is kinda BIG.

In the foreboding downstairs foyer I spot a Michael Jackson information desk. They send me to a Pepsi reception on the fourth floor, where I’m greeted, given a Pepsi pack, complete with free Pepsi glass! Along with a ticket to the show itself that night.

Unfortunately, a Pepsi person tells me to catch a special bus leaving from the hotel and going directly to the show… but when it comes time to leave, I’m asked to wait while they sort out some problems, which I do for an hour. And then I’m told the bus is for Pepsi employees only. Now, this may seem but a small problem to the average outgoing New Zealand teenager, but how’s a homely kind of guy like me supposed to cope with finding my way around this strange and depraved place? I mean… I lose my direction in Queen St, y’know?

My dilemma is soon solved, however, and I’m riding high in a big yellow taxi, first stop Madison Square Gardens. First I’m confronted with boisterous security guards shouting “Have your tickets ready”, and then I’m in a surge of people crowding escalators crawling up level after level of the venue.

I’m privileged to have been invited to a special pre-concert function, but it only dawns on me as I enter the room adjoining the concert stadium that this is not NZ and I’m not likely to spot anyone I know in this joint. Compound this with the fact that most of the other guests are extremely well dressed, middle-aged people of the black persuasion, and I’m something of a carp out of its aquarium.

You see, the concert – the very first and unofficial date of Michael Jackson’s American tour – is a special benefit gig for the United Negro College Fund. All proceeds from the show are going to the Michael Jackson Scholarship Fund, and many of the seats at tonight’s performance were purchased for substantial sums by people with fur coats and expensive suits. Yeeha.

But there’s also LOTS of little kids here tonight, and they’re the ones with energy and enthusiasm to burn; a camera crew is filming mini-interviews with people in the audience before the show, and whenever the camera goes in their direction, hundreds of kids cheer and turn into what one sarcastic friend describes as screen-lice (ie, the people you always see on TV making faces at the camera while someone else is being interviewed).

Before the lights go down, I check out the venue. Like a massive, slightly less decorous version of the Christchurch Town Hall or the Michael Fowler Centre, Madison Square Garden is a venue that can host sports or concerts with equal ease and comfort to players and audience alike. NZ could well do with such a venue.

When the lights DO go down, 20,000 people go crazy. For the next hour-and-a-half we get an ear and eyeful of positive proof of Jackson’s undeniable talent and charisma; the show is one of the most stunning and entertaining I have witnessed in… well, too many years of attending concerts.

‘Want To Be Startin’ Somethin’ does just that, and you can feel the excitement and anticipation. Scream! Right from the beginning it is obvious that this is a new, naughtier MJ. Regular sexually-oriented crotch-strokes are now integral part of his dance, and with the addition of a funky girl guitarist in tiger-skin tights and coloured heavy metal hairdo, the Prince comparisons aren’t easy to avoid.

The main stage is bare except for Michael and, where required, the carefully choreographed dancers and their routines. The band occupies a stage-behind-the-stage, and the more visual members occasionally dash out for a bit of frolicking fun. As there is seating right around the dimensions of the stage, there is a catwalk right round the back perimeter, enabling Jackson to present his inestimable charisma, and various profiles, to all the paying customers.

Every song is played out for maximum impact, and this means ground-moving explosions between several numbers, magic disappearing tricks and incredible computer-controlled laser lighting.

The second song is the Jacksons’ ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, which on album was an early indication of the rockier pastures Michael has since headed for. Somebody actually managed to get up on the stage during the song, but was quickly hustled off. It ends with perhaps the most perfect moment in the night… Jackson surrounded by a celestial blue swirl of laser lighting.

During the instrumental break of ‘Just Another Part Of Me’, the audience are chanting “Michael, Michael”, and he signals the music to stop. Pregnant pause. Just to say a heartfelt, convincing “I love you”, which signals a massive screaming attack because of course he means every girl individually. Sure.

‘Why Should We Give It Up’ from Bad is liberally sprinkled with semi-lewd gestures, which indicates that Jehovah doesn’t scheme much in Michael’s life these days. The most choreographed song is ‘Walking The Line’, a harder sound with a skit with a gangster theme in which, inevitably, Michael shoots the baddies at the end.

Now it’s ballad time. Sigh-o. A young lady joins him for a duet on ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’, a rather ordinary song fully transformed tonight by the setting; and he follows this with a real show-stopper, the classic weepie ‘She’s Out Of My Life’. Now this deserves a paragraph of its own.

A cute girl has somehow managed to get herself between the audience barrier and the stage, and mid-song, Michael jumps between the stage and barrier to hug the lucky little thing. She’s almost bursting with elation at the touch of Saint Michael before she gets swiftly tossed back into the audience. Now, do we all know the part of the song where Michael’s voice breaks with the intensity of the emotion? Well, he does it even better now… he stops for what seems like minutes to sob.

Even so, he manages to get his act together sufficiently to go straight into a brace of oldies of a slightly more upbeat nature. ‘I’ll Be There’ is a bona fide classic from way back there in MJ’s days of pre-adolescence, and he sings it beautifully, albeit a few notches lower on the scale! At the end, he improvises a solo vocal rave-up before segueing into ‘Rock With Me’, another of the disco era’s classic smoothies.

‘Young Girl’ takes us back into the now time-zone. It turns into a heavy metal rave-up, complete with two outlandishly dressed guitarists duelling it out onstage, running round the catwalk and generally doing their best to work up a sweat.

But the most spectacular bits are still to come. The first of Michael’s inexplicable disappearing magic tricks leads into ‘Thriller’, with its ensemble of ghouls dancing in time to the synchronised lights on their clothes! Incredible but true!

Signal major costume change, during which the band plays a jazzy instrumental. Just when the audience starts getting impatient, rudely calling for his return, he indeed does. ‘Working Day And Night’ is the song, and at the end of it he does another magic trick, this time disappearing from one side of the stage and ending up swinging out into the audience on a crane. This he does while simultaneously singing ‘Beat It’, which is followed by ‘Billie Jean’ and yet another amazing dance routine.

Yes, Michael can really dance, and this he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt in concert… this skinny, small guy has got to be VERY fit and nimble. When a synthesised voice starts asking ‘Bad? Who’s bad?’ you just know the end of the show comes soon.

‘Bad’ is given a real workout with an ensemble dance cast, and when an encore is unsurprisingly demanded, the answer is ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ and the recent single, “Man In The Mirror’. During the former song, a gorgeous dark-haired woman briefly walks onto the stage, flirts with Jackson, and walks off. Huh?

None of which conveys just how groovy the show is, and why I’m sad New Zealand never got to see it. Jackson is the complete entertainer, and this is the complete entertainment experience. No quibbles.

Which way home? A cop on a horse with a long baton points me in the right direction. An hour later I stumble into my hotel room, frostbitten, wet, but elated.

The following day, I read a critique of the ‘Man In The Mirror’ video in a New York newspaper. The gist was that, politically, Michael Jackson was somehow copping out of his responsibilities by telling us that we should look at ourselves in a mirror before we start pointing the finger at others. He should have done something politically specific.

Personally, I reckon the song is a little bland, but if the message was acted on, the effect would be more profound than any specific political statement. This is what I have to say: MJ’s okay!

* This was my first long-haul flight, my first time in America, and I think anyone could probably tell that from reading my wide-eyed account. I was supposed to be in New York for about a week, but ended up staying for nearly a month. Incredibly, the day I was due to check out of the hotel I bumped into a Kiwi chap in a store and he invited me to stay with him and his American girlfriend. The other concerts I saw during this trip were former Henry Cow/Art Bears guitarist Fred Frith at the legendary Knitting Factory, and my first and only Frank Zappa show. But that’s another story.

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