Willa: In honor of the rollercoaster of a World Series that just ended last night, Lisha and I would like to share a clip of the Jackson 5 singing the national anthem to open the 1970 World Series. An interesting side note is that the 1970 series was the first to include a black umpire, Emmett Ashford. Six years later, the Jacksons invited Ashford to join them in a guest appearance on their television variety show, The Jacksons. Here’s the clip:
Willa: So Lisha, I’ve been reading a fascinating book called Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier. Douglass was a freed slave and a tireless abolitionist, and he promoted his political goals in many different ways.
One way was through his ongoing relationship with America’s presidents, beginning with Abraham Lincoln and continuing through the next seven presidents. He met them all, from Lincoln to Harrison, until his death in 1895.
Another was his use of photography and his public image to challenge how white people saw black people. This was especially important after the Civil War, since so many white Americans had been trained for generations to see slaves as less than human. Douglass believed photography had the power to force whites to recognize the humanity of others, and lead whites to see and feel in new ways.
For example, Douglass was a supporter of Hiram Revels, America’s first black senator. While viewing Revels’ portrait, Douglass said, “Whatever may be the prejudices of those who look upon it, they will be compelled to admit the Mississippi senator is a man.”
I’d love for us to talk sometime about Frederick Douglass and how he used his public image to bring about social change. There are some fascinating connections to Michael Jackson, I think.
Lisha: That does sound fascinating, Willa! I suspect a good discussion of Frederick Douglass would go a long way in explaining the significance of Michael Jackson’s work.
Willa: I do too, especially the way he used his celebrity and his evolving public persona.
But for now, I thought Douglass might be a useful starting point to begin talking about Michael Jackson, photography, his public image, and the American presidency. …
Lisha: Well, yes. Because just like Frederick Douglass, Michael Jackson understood the subversive power of imagery, and this is especially interesting and meaningful when we look at how he interacted with the U.S. presidency.
Willa: Absolutely. For example, Douglass attended Lincoln’s inauguration – in fact, he was one of the first if not the first black man photographed as a guest of an American president. Here is a historic photo of Lincoln’s second inauguration, with Lincoln standing at the podium and Douglass circled in red.
Douglass was always very careful to carry himself in a very somber, dignified way in public, and that comes through in this image, I think – even as distant and chaotic as it is.
Lisha: Whoa! That photo is amazing. I had no idea it even existed. Now juxtapose that 1865 photo with this 1984 photo of Michael Jackson stepping out on the White House lawn with President and Mrs. Reagan:
Willa: That is fascinating, Lisha! It’s so incredible to put these two photos together like this, and think that Michael Jackson was standing where Frederick Douglass stood 120 years earlier. So many things changed in those 120 years, between Frederick Douglass at the White House with Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War, and Michael Jackson at the White House with Ronald Reagan as one of the most successful and influential men in America.
These two images serve as such interesting bookends to that long expanse of time, and both document a powerful cultural moment, I think. And Michael Jackson carries it off perfectly, with solemn dignity – just like Douglass. In fact, he has an almost regal bearing.
Lisha: Yes, I agree. And there is just so much information packed into this photograph: the flashy military pageantry, show business glitz and the trademark white glove – a proud, young, fabulously wealthy African American man outshining the leader of the free world! Michael Jackson had just toppled the music industry when this photo was taken, and he rattled many old, demeaning stereotypes at the same time.
Willa: Yes, very well stated, Lisha. And I’m also struck by Michael Jackson’s upright carriage, with Reagan turning in toward him in an almost deferential way. All together, this adds up to an image that conveys an unexpected visual message. If you didn’t know who these figures were, you’d probably think Michael Jackson was the reigning political leader and Reagan an aide!
Lisha: Exactly. It is a bold display of power, no doubt. President Reagan even joked to the unusually large crowd that day about how badly upstaged he was, saying: “We haven’t see this many people since we left China! Just think, you all came to see me.”
Willa: That’s funny! But jokes carry a lot of truth sometimes. …
Lisha: Clearly, Michael Jackson was commanding all the attention, which must have been an unusual feeling for a President and First Lady. One reporter said: “A head of state has never attracted so much attention, so much security and so much excitement,” as Michael Jackson did in Washington, D.C. that day.
Willa: Which is really interesting, if you think about it. After all, we’re increasingly becoming a celebrity culture, and in that environment, attention is power. As a result, power is shifting from the political realm as it’s traditionally been understood to the cultural/media/entertainment realm. At the same time, politics is becoming infused with celebrity. Reagan himself was an important figure in that transition, repurposing celebrity as a kind of political power. He was a former actor and very skilled at using the camera for political ends.
Lisha: Yes, many cultural critics have commented on how Ronald Reagan, as a television actor turned head of state, speaks to the affective nature of power in our society.
Willa: It really does. But even with Reagan’s position and charisma, Michael Jackson still upstaged him, which seems significant.
Lisha: Very significant, indeed. One Reagan aide, John G. Roberts, now Chief Justice of the United States, expressed concern over “the obsequious attitude of some members of the White House staff toward Mr. Jackson’s attendants.” Roberts even shot down a proposed letter from the President to Michael Jackson, warning: “The Office of Presidential Correspondence is not yet an adjunct of Michael Jackson’s PR firm.” It must have gotten dangerously close for White House counsel to issue a memo about it!
Willa: Wow, Lisha! I remember reading about those memos a few years ago, but had completely forgotten about them. And you’re right – for future Chief Justice Roberts to write a memo like that in defense of the American presidency says a lot.
Presidents have considerable political power, obviously. But Michael Jackson understood that artists, entertainers, and celebrities have the ability to shift people’s opinions and attitudes – he mentioned this a number of times – and politicians generally feel the need to follow public opinion. So in that sense, popular artists are sometimes able to lead the leaders. Michael Jackson’s “soft power” at this time was enormous, and in that sense maybe even surpassed Reagan’s.
But I want to get back to something you mentioned earlier, Lisha, about the “flashy military pageantry” surrounding this meeting between Michael Jackson and Reagan. I really think you’re onto something, and I see it in Michael Jackson’s 1990 White House meeting with George H.W. Bush also. Here’s an AP photo of that visit:
Again there’s the very upright carriage, the somewhat deferential politician at his side, and just look at that jacket! The sense of military pageantry you pointed out, Lisha, is so pervasive in these images with Reagan and Bush. These photos seem to be documenting a visit from a British royal rather than a musician.
Lisha: I must admit, this is one of my all-time favorite regal Michael Jackson moments. I remember seeing this British-style military jacket on display at the Getty Images Gallery in London, back in 2012. The jacket is truly spectacular in terms of design, the quality of the workmanship and the exquisite detail. Pictures really don’t do it justice.
Michael Bush commented that after he had finished making this costume, Michael Jackson saw it and pointed to the left side, saying he would like something added there. More specifically, he said he wanted something added “that shouldn’t be there.” So Bush placed a flashy rhinestone broach on the chest, right where one might expect to see a badge or medal on a military jacket like this:
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. I hadn’t heard that story before.
Lisha: I was fascinated by this because it really struck me as a symbol of exactly what we’re talking about here – the soft political power of art, which, by the way, governments have feared for centuries. By visually mixing up the symbols of state power with show business glitz – including a flashy, feminine broach exactly where one might expect to see a badge or another symbol of masculine authority – Michael Jackson creates a subtle but powerful message about the artist’s power and authority to influence the masses.
Willa: What an interesting way to interpret that! And what a great example of Michael Jackson evoking military pageantry – in this case, the medals of honor generally displayed on the left chest of a career military man – but then making a subtle change that profoundly alters it.
Lisha: Yes, it really is clever. Military pageantry has historically been an important component of power, and the British are particularly adept at it. For example, when the British occupied India they were vastly outnumbered, but one way they maintained control was through elaborate military displays and coronations that created a strong perception of power. Here is a photo King George V and Queen Mary at the Delhi Durbar ceremony in 1911:
Willa: Wow! That’s a fascinating concept, Lisha, and an amazing image illustrating it! You can really see the trappings of power on full display here. And for me it also highlights how much theater is involved in creating that sense of power and pageantry. There’s the staging and set design, the elaborate costumes, the choreographed processions, the scripted lines …
Lisha: Yes, exactly. It includes all the elements of good theater.
Willa: It really does. There’s also a feeling of theater about Michael Jackson’s White House visits with Reagan and Bush, and I wonder if that’s how he saw those meetings – as theater, as a performance.
Lisha: This comes across as spectacular theater to me! And it’s no accident. Michael Jackson studied military pageantry and theatrics through films like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which documents Adolph Hitler’s use of pageantry – something he riffed on in the HIStory teaser.
Willa: That’s true. I talked with our friend Eleanor Bowman about that in a series of posts a couple years ago.
Lisha: Yes, that was such a fantastic series. And there are other clues, like the military uniform pictured in the HIStory album liner notes. This uniform was customized for Michael Jackson by one of the oldest and best military tailors in London:
The tailcoat by Gieves and Hawkes has been described as “one of the finest examples of Hand & Lock hand embroidery” in the world. So it’s fascinating that one of the finest British military uniforms in existence doesn’t belong to the British armed forces or the royal family. It belongs to Michael Jackson.
Willa: That’s pretty ironic, isn’t it?
Lisha: Yes. And it certainly suggests Michael Jackson thought very carefully about how power can be exercised through art, imagery, costumes, and theatrics.
Willa: It really does. We know he studied British royalty, and their “art, imagery, costumes, and theatrics,” as you put it. Michael Bush mentions this repeatedly in his book, The King of Style: Dressing Michael Jackson. And Michael Jackson did seem to connect that kind of pageantry with political power. For example, early in his book Bush writes,
Michael was infatuated with British heredity and military history. One of Michael’s favorite quotes came from an unexpected source: “It is with such baubles that men are led.” Napoleon had said these words to indicate the significance of the medals with which he regaled his soldiers. When we toured in Europe, Michael made it his business to visit castles and ancient cities, where he was mesmerized by museum portraits of kings and queens. He would stare at them along the walls of Buckingham Palace, Tower of London, or the Houses of Parliament, absorbing it all – the glitz, the glamour, the medals and honors, the larger-than-life ways these royals and commanders were portrayed. Michael was fascinated by all of it. (8)
Lisha: That’s a great quote! In fact, the final Tompkins & Bush design for Michael Jackson shows this quite well. I really think they got this design right, in how beautifully it sums up his life’s work:
Willa: Yes, I think so too – especially the jacket, which Michael Bush says was Michael Jackson’s favorite design. It really is a wonderful reinterpretation that combines a very “masculine” military cut with “feminine” pearls and brooch, as you mentioned earlier. I have to say, it was very moving to read Michael Bush’s account of dressing Michael Jackson in this jacket before his funeral.
Lisha: I thought so, too. And I really can’t imagine a more perfect suit for Michael Jackson.
You know, I hate to interrupt such a serious thought with this, but talking about clothing and badges as an expression of power makes me think about the time John Lennon wore a bus prefect badge to a press interview, perhaps as a fashion statement, or a way of interrogating the whole idea of what a badge really means. When asked about it (here at 1:38), he said so matter-of-factly that he was wearing a bus driver’s badge, and that it meant he was “in charge of a bus”! I thought that was such an artistic way of pointing out how people find ways of expressing their power and authority.
Similarly, Elvis Presley was also fascinated by clothing, badges and displays of authority.
Willa: Yes, I’ve heard that too. In fact, it was in quest of a badge that he requested a meeting with Richard Nixon in December 1970. Here’s a picture of them shaking hands in the Oval Office of the White House:
Lisha: Oh, that is such fascinating image! Look at how similar his belt is to some of the belts Michael Jackson wore! I’m so glad you thought of this photo, Willa. Can you believe that this photograph is the most requested item in the National Archives, which also includes the U.S. Constitution?
Willa: Really? I didn’t know that. You know, this photo was kept hidden for a long time because Elvis didn’t want it released. According to an article in Smithsonian magazine, Elvis initiated the meeting because he wanted a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. (They claim he thought it would help him get through Customs when he was carrying things he shouldn’t be carrying, like guns and drugs.)
So this suggests a very different understanding of power than Michael Jackson’s iconic meetings with Reagan and Bush. Elvis asked to meet Nixon because he saw the president as a powerful person who could give him something he wanted. It’s a more traditional way of viewing power, kind of like a subject approaching the throne and requesting a special dispensation from the king.
Lisha: Yes, that’s right, and it’s my understanding that Nixon did authorize Elvis to have the BNDD badge that he wanted. But when Michael Jackson met President Reagan, the power dynamic was the other was around, as you suggest. Instead of Michael Jackson seeking a meeting with the President, it was the Reagan administration that contacted Michael Jackson, because Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole wanted permission to use the song “Beat It” in a public service announcement. According to Randy Taraborrelli, Michael Jackson initially wasn’t interested, but changed his mind after the White House agreed to stage an award ceremony in his honor.
Willa: Yes, and if that’s true, it suggests he very deliberately thought about the ceremonial aspect of this moment, just like the British royals staging their imperial pageantry during the colonial period in India, as you mentioned earlier, Lisha.
Just as importantly, Elvis didn’t want his pictures with the president to be made public, but Michael Jackson did. In fact, for him, creating and disseminating those visual images seems to be the main point. He seems to have been very aware of how he would appear on camera, and how these images would play out in public. He realized it was those images, not some sort of Special Agent’s badge, that would convey power.
Lisha: You’re right. The staging of the White House ceremony was the payoff for Michael Jackson, but that wasn’t the case with Elvis. In fact, we might not even have the Elvis/Nixon photo if it weren’t for the White House photographers who meticulously document the President’s daily schedule. Since it’s impossible to know in advance which presidential moments will someday be of historical importance, photographers pretty much capture everything. President Obama told National Geographic this takes some getting used to – the fact that all day, every day, the President is constantly being photographed. He talks about it in this documentary about White House photographer, Pete Souza, around 4:30:
Willa: Thanks for sharing that video link, Lisha. I hadn’t seen that before, and I was really struck by President Obama’s words when he said,
It’s actually a very difficult thing for anybody who occupies this office to be under that kind of constant observation.
I imagine that’s true, and that “constant observation” is something Michael Jackson had to deal with his entire adult life. But it also made him very camera savvy, so when a moment like his meeting with Reagan or Bush came along, he knew what to do to create a dramatic image that told the story he wanted to tell.
Lisha: I thought the very same thing – that constant observation the President has to endure is very much like what Michael Jackson experienced every time he stepped out in public. But I think Michael Jackson learned to use this as a form of gesamtkunstwerk, or one aspect of a more a total work of art.
Willa: I agree. I strongly believe he used his celebrity as a new genre of art. And I also believe that in his White House visits, Michael Jackson was deliberately setting the stage for the kind of “pageantry” you were describing earlier, Lisha.
So looking at the very different ways power is conveyed in Elvis’s meeting with Nixon (where power is transmitted individually through a Special Agent’s badge) and Michael Jackson’s meetings with Reagan and Bush (where power is transmitted globally through iconic imagery), it’s interesting to consider another meeting of a musician with a president….
Two years after Nixon met with Elvis, he met with James Brown, and the photos are very similar to the Elvis photos. In fact, they’re standing and shaking hands in the exact same spot. Here’s a picture:
Once again, the power dynamic is really interesting. Apparently, Nixon’s people sought out James Brown, just as Reagan’s people later contacted Michael Jackson, and they asked him for his support. James Brown had a lot of respect for Nixon, and eventually endorsed him during his reelection campaign. Here’s a video clip of that:
James Brown was harshly criticized for this endorsement, as you can imagine. But the more he was criticised, the more vocal he became in support of Nixon.
Lisha: Like Elvis, James Brown genuinely admired Nixon and appreciated his position on issues that were important to him. So like many artists do, he lent his celebrity and cultural clout towards helping Nixon’s political campaign. But that is something I don’t recall Michael Jackson ever doing.
Willa: No, he never did. He saw art as more powerful than politics – he said that on more than one occasion – and he chose to express his ideas, his beliefs and emotions, through his art.
Lisha: Yes, it seems quite deliberate. And it reminds me of what James Brown says in this interview about being a countryman, rather than a partisan. I really love how he expresses this.
Willa: I do too.
Lisha: I’m also really struck by how his philosophy describes Michael Jackson. After being decorated by two consecutive Republican administrations, Michael Jackson once again played a significant role in the next Democratic administration, performing for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration.
Willa: That’s right, and he also connected with Jimmy Carter after he left office. In fact, Jimmy Carter visited Neverland. We’ll talk about that more in our next post when we continue to look at Michael Jackson and the American presidency.
Lisha: To be continued!
Lisha: Well, it’s a presidential election year here in the U.S. and a pretty tumultuous one at that, much more so than usual it seems. And there is something going on that really has me scratching my head. Willa, have you noticed how many times Michael Jackson’s name has come up in relation to this election?
Willa: Yes, I have!
I told Michael Jackson, I said, If you are poor, you are a poor negro – I would use the N-word – but if you are rich, you are a rich negro. If you are intelligent, intellectual – you are an intellectual negro. If you’re a dancing and sliding and gliding nigger, I mean negro, [laughter] then you are a dancing and sliding and gliding negro. So dare not alienate, because you cannot assimilate. So, you know, you’re going to be a negro until you die.
Willa: You know, Lisha, I always feel very hesitant to speculate about what Michael Jackson would or wouldn’t do today, but I really don’t think he would appreciate Don King’s comments. As soon as I heard that I immediately thought of what King said at the end of the Victory tour:
What Michael’s got to realize is that Michael’s a nigger. It doesn’t matter how great he can sing and dance. I don’t care that he can prance. He’s one of the megastars of the world, but he’s still going to be a nigger megastar. He must accept that. Not only must he understand that, he’s got to accept it and demonstrate that he wants to be a nigger. Why? To show that a nigger can do it. (320)
Lisha: Wow. That’s from Randy Taraborrelli’s book, right? It’s almost identical to what Don King just said!
Willa: It is strikingly similar, isn’t it? And according to Taraborrelli – who I realize can be a problematic source sometimes – Michael Jackson was so upset by King’s comments he wanted to sue him. Apparently he told his lawyer, John Branca, “That guy has been pushing my last nerve since Day One.”
Lisha: Hmmm, I wonder. Was Don King really dressing down Michael Jackson when he said this? Or was he making an important point about the racial divide in American culture? Taraborrelli definitely gives the impression that King was putting Michael Jackson in his place for not agreeing to perform in another leg of the Victory tour. But I’m not so sure I buy it, especially given King’s recent statement.
Willa: Or maybe he was doing both. What I mean is, I think Don King is saying there is an unbridgeable division in the US between black and white, and Michael Jackson is a fool if he believes he can cross that divide.
Lisha: Yes, you’re right. As King just said, “dare not alienate, because you cannot assimilate.”
You know, there’s yet another account of this story in Jermaine Jackson’s book, You Are Not Alone: Michael Through a Brother’s Eyes. Jermaine recalls Don King’s remarks were made in a completely different context. Here’s how he tells it:
Don didn’t win awards for tact and diplomacy, and his giant ego was the reason he was a promoter. He was brash but effective. Had you seen him – the loudest mouth – and Michael – the quietest soul – interacting, you might have thought, There’s the kid with the embarrassing uncle he can’t help but find funny. I’ll never forget being in a meeting when we were discussing something about the show’s direction and Michael was talking about how he wanted to pay the fans back and keep pushing higher.
“Michael!’ said Don, cutting dead the monologue. “Remember this. It don’t matter whether you’re a rich nigger, a poor nigger or just a nigger. No matter how big you get, this industry’s still gonna treat you like a nigger.” In other words, and in his opinion, you’ll always be a servant to the music industry, so don’t ever think of becoming more powerful than that. Everyone in the room froze. If the music industry blew smoke up everyone’s ass, Don blew in an icy blast of straight talk.
It was Michael who was the first to laugh, cracking the suspended silence. He found it funny, in a shocking way, and wasn’t offended. None of us was. A black man had been addressing black men, and that kind of talk was hardly foreign to someone from Gary, Indiana. (243-244)
Willa: Wow, that is a radically different interpretation, isn’t it? It’s eye-opening to put Taraborrelli’s and Jermaine Jackson’s very different accounts side by side like this. It really demonstrates how the same story can be perceived and interpreted in dramatically different ways by different viewers.
Lisha: Yes, it does. Jermaine seems to think Don King was making a larger point about systemic racism in the music industry, and that’s the way he felt his brothers understood it as well.
Willa: Well, that’s a really important distinction, Lisha, that casts the situation in a very different light. But it’s difficult to know what Michael Jackson’s true feelings were. He encouraged frank talk about race and racism, suggesting he would appreciate King’s comments as Jermaine says, but it’s also well established that he did not want King to be perceived as speaking for him during the Victory tour. In fact, he issued written instructions that “King may not communicate with anyone on Michael’s behalf without prior permission.”
Even before that, Michael Jackson made it very clear he did not want Don King hired as the promoter of the Victory tour. However, his father and his brothers supported King because he promised them a big payoff. So Michael Jackson was overruled and Don King was hired, but ultimately he was proven right, I think – Don King did not have the experience to handle the Victory tour. And all of that history may have some effect on how Jermaine portrays things. He seems to be saying that, despite the surface tensions, deep down Michael Jackson really liked Don King, and that may or may not be true.
Lisha: I agree with you. And I certainly don’t mean to be taking up for Don King! My guess is that boxing is a far cry from the world of concert promotion, so I would imagine King was out of his depth when he worked on the Victory tour. But it does sound like he was trying to be helpful when he made these remarks about the way American culture and industry intersect.
And I think that’s what King is getting at in his pitch for Donald Trump, too. He emphasizes in his speech that his support for Trump is based on a belief that the entire American political system needs to be demolished and rebuilt, because it is a system based on inequity towards women and blacks.
Willa: And that is a real call to arms that has been lost in the controversy surrounding his use of the N-word, which Michael Jackson himself used in “This Time Around.” I think they were both using it to make a point about race and perception, so for me the N-word itself is not the issue in this case. I agree with you that Don King is making a strong statement about systemic racism, and unfortunately there is a lot of truth to his words.
However, King also seems to be saying that racism is unchanging and unchangeable – that no matter what Michael Jackson does, people in the music industry – and people more generally – will always view him, and all people of color, through the lens of racism. And I think Michael Jackson would strongly disagree with that.
While he did speak out forcefully at times about racism, especially as he became older, his entire career was built on the conviction that, through his art and his unique cultural position, he could change people’s beliefs and perspectives. He saw art as a powerful force for change, and I think he fervently believed he could challenge bigotry and other prejudices and make a lasting difference in people’s hearts and minds.
Lisha: I wholeheartedly agree. Michael Jackson’s steadfast refusal to accept cultural norms, even in the face of tremendous backlash, had a powerful impact on American society – far more than we probably realize. And I wonder if rather than discouraging Michael Jackson, King ended up actually encouraging him to defy the very limitations he was being asked to negotiate.
Willa: That’s an interesting question, Lisha. I can imagine that King’s advice to accept that he would never be anything more than “a dancing and sliding and gliding negro” would fill him with ambition to prove King wrong.
Lisha: Exactly. I can’t imagine it otherwise, actually.
But Don King isn’t the only one name dropping Michael Jackson in this election! Trump himself has gone out of his way to let people know about his friendship with Michael Jackson, and I think it speaks volumes about how Michael Jackson actually pushed the culture forward. For example, here’s a Jonathan Ernst/Reuters photo that ran with an article about Donald Trump’s success in the Republican primaries:
Apparently one of Trump’s supporters requested an autograph for this photo. But instead of just signing it and handing it back, Trump turned around and proudly displayed it to the press corps. This really struck me as a power move. Like, hey, see how awesome and powerful I am? Here’s proof I’ve hung out with Michael Jackson!
Willa: That’s an interesting way of interpreting this, Lisha, and I think you might be onto something. After all, the very next day he told Anderson Cooper that “Michael Jackson was actually a very good friend of mine.” Here’s a video clip of that interview:
Lisha: I mean, think about it. As part of his pitch for why he should be taken seriously as a candidate for the U.S. presidency, Donald Trump goes out of his way to talk about his friendship with Michael Jackson!
Willa: Yes, and I’ve been trying to figure out what it means. In that interview, Donald Trump emphasizes that he “knew the real story of Michael Jackson,” as he says, and was an insider into his world. I disagree with much of what he says about Michael Jackson – both here and other times when he’s talked about him – which suggests he really didn’t know him that well at all, but I’m struck by how eager he is to claim a close friendship.
Maybe it’s a power move, as you say, or maybe it’s a way of showing he’s in touch with pop culture and not just a businessman. After all, Trump has a lot of respect for the power of pop culture. This is a man who starred on The Apprentice for 14 years – a show that featured LaToya Jackson at one point – and used it to redeem himself after the collapse of his casinos, his airline, his entire empire. Instead of being a real estate magnate, he’s now a celebrity, and his fortune is built on his name rather than physical assets. A man like that would value the power of Michael Jackson’s celebrity, but I’m not sure he ever understood him as a person or an artist.
Lisha: Excellent point. I agree that Trump’s own words suggest he didn’t really know Michael Jackson that well. Even brother Jermaine spoke out about it and seemed pretty offended by what was said.
Willa: Yes, as Jermaine tweeted after the interview, “Name-dropping Michael don’t make you cool and won’t win you votes. Especially when using botched facts.”
Lisha: Jermaine also didn’t mind suggesting that Michael Jackson would not have supported Trump politically, either. But one of the interesting things about Michael Jackson is that he seemed comfortable with so many different people all across the political spectrum.
Willa: That’s certainly true! And it’s also true that Michael Jackson seems to have known Donald Trump for many years. For example, he was at his side during the dedication of the Taj Mahal in 1990. Here’s a video clip of that:
Lisha: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen clips of this in various reports about Donald Trump. One measure of Trump’s success seems to be how he attracted the attention of Michael Jackson. A reporter who covered the Taj Mahal event, Alex Connock, recently wrote a fascinating article about it for The Spectator. He describes the frenzy Michael Jackson created at the opening of Trump’s casino: “If Queen Cleopatra herself had risen from the dead and checked in using a solid gold Amex card there could have been no more excitement in reception than that which greeted Jacko’s arrival.” Sorry for the insulting moniker, but I think this description captures the scene perfectly!
Connock also describes being on a private plane with them after the event, when Michael Jackson produced a copy of the National Enquirer and showed an article to Trump!
Willa: Wasn’t that interesting? Can you imagine Michael Jackson and Donald Trump sitting side by side reading the National Enquirer? That is too funny! Apparently there was an article in it about Trump, and they were reading it and talking about it. I wish Connock had taken a picture of that. …
Lisha: Yes, he does too! But he said he was too intimidated to pick up the camera and shoot the picture. Can you imagine how much a photo of Trump and Michael Jackson reading the Enquirer would have been worth?
Willa: I’m sure we’d be seeing a lot of it these days! I’ve also heard that Michael Jackson had an apartment in Trump Tower for many years. Do you know anything about that? If that’s true, I imagine they did cross paths on occasion.
Lisha: I haven’t really seen much about it until recently. The apartment is now up for sale so there has been some publicity about that, including some nice photos.
The whole idea of these two men hanging out together, both of them cultural shorthand for wealth and celebrity, definitely generates some interest.
Willa: Yes, and to some extent I can see why Michael Jackson might have enjoyed spending time with Trump. He is definitely a colorful figure – kind of like P.T. Barnum in a way – and Michael Jackson was certainly drawn to colorful characters.
Lisha: Every time I hear Trump claim that all publicity is good publicity, I have to wonder if Michael Jackson schooled him on the ways of P.T. Barnum!
Willa: I do too!
Lisha: In many ways Trump is a showman, too, something that seems to come in handy these days when you’re running for president. Did you see the funny Jimmy Fallon spoof of Trump’s dramatic entrance at the Republican National Convention?
Willa: I did! The “Smooth Criminal” segment was wonderful!
Lisha: It totally cracked me up!
Willa: But I think it’s important to note that while Michael Jackson does seem to have spent some time with Donald Trump over the years, he also subtly criticizes him in “Money,” as the MJ Academia Project pointed out several years ago. Unfortunately, their videos are no longer available, and now the transcripts seem to be gone also. But in the soundscape of “Money,” Michael Jackson calls out a list of ruthless and unethical tycoons, and he includes Trump’s name on that list.
The entire song is a harsh critique of the love of money, and it begins this way:
Lie for it
Spy for it
Kill for it
Die for it
So you call it trust
But I say it’s just
In the devil’s game
Of greed and lust
They don’t care
They’d do me for the money
They don’t care
They use me for the money
So you go to church
Read the holy word
In the scheme of life
It’s all absurd
They don’t care
They’d kill for the money
Do or dare
The thrill for the money
You’re saluting the flag
Your country trusts you
Now you’re wearing a badge
You’re called the just few
And you’re fighting the wars
A soldier must do
I’ll never betray or deceive you my friend but
If you show me the cash
Then I will take it
If you tell me to cry
Then I will fake it
If you give me a hand
Then I will shake it
You’ll do anything for money
That’s a harsh indictment. And if you listen carefully to the background sounds of “Money,” at 3:18 minutes in Michael Jackson says, “If you want it, earn it with dignity,” and then he calls out a list of robber-barons who most definitely did not “earn it with dignity”: “Vanderbilt, Morgan, Trump, Rockefeller, Hinde, Getty, Getty, Getty, …”
Lisha: This segment names some of the most ruthless and unethical business tycoons in the nation’s history. They’re often called the robber-barons, as you said, and that term isn’t meant to be flattering. It was initially used to critique Cornelius Vanderbilt as both a criminal and an aristocrat. The robber-barons were despised for their predatory business practices, but because of their power and wealth, they also enjoyed a great deal of prestige.
For example, the Rockefeller name is now synonymous with privilege and wealth, but at the time, John D. Rockefeller was called the most hated man in America. He was one of the first to employ a public relations manager – a totally new concept in his day – to combat the negative publicity he received.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. I didn’t know that. No wonder Michael Jackson calls him out in “Money”!
I also noticed that the list of names in “Money” ends with a repetition of “Getty, Getty, Getty, … ” J. Paul Getty made his money in oil, and at one time was the wealthiest man in America. Decades later, his grandson Mark Getty used some of that inheritance to create Getty Images, which includes many photos of Michael Jackson in its holdings, both iconic ones and scandalous ones.
Lisha: You’re right! Getty is singled out for repeat. And perhaps it’s no coincidence, given that Getty owns the rights to so many Michael Jackson photographs.
Willa: It doesn’t seem coincidental to me. And it also seems significant that Trump’s name is on the list. I don’t think Michael Jackson would have included him if he really respected him or held great affection for him.
Lisha: Interesting, isn’t it? I mean, as far as influence goes, I would guess Trump is kind of small potatoes compared to the other industrialists and financiers on the list. So maybe it is more about the unscrupulous ways these men achieved their wealth, rather than their influence and social prominence.
I also noticed that Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, mentioned Michael Jackson in an interview with DuJour, a magazine that caters to America’s ultra-wealthy 1 percent. Rolling Stone also commented on that interview because she describes this charming, intimate dinner party with Michael Jackson. To me, it gives the impression that she is indeed quite accustomed to a privileged and powerful lifestyle.
Willa: It was an interesting story, wasn’t it? And if her memory is right, it sounds like Michael Jackson felt at ease with her – as she said, “we were laughing so hard.”
Lisha: It’s such an endearing story! And impressive. Not everyone has that kind of access to Michael Jackson.
Willa: That’s true, though at the time she met Michael Jackson, not everyone wanted to meet him. I’m not sure of the exact timing, but she implies it was after her marriage to Donald Trump, which was in January of 2005. So she must have met Michael Jackson either after the 2005 trial or just before – a time when his public image was perhaps at its lowest point, and a lot of people were treating him like he was toxic. I have to say, it made me feel a little kinder toward the Trumps that they were inviting Michael Jackson into their home at that terrible period in his life.
So all this adds another layer to this entire situation – not just what it says about Donald and Melania Trump and their motives for name-dropping Michael Jackson, but also what it says about the rehabilitation of Michael Jackson’s image since his death. I mean, Trump tends to closely align himself with popular opinion – for example, he was for the Iraq War when it was popular, turned against the war when it became unpopular, and now claims he was against it all along despite recorded evidence to the contrary.
So I have a feeling if Trump had run for president in the 2008 elections, he wouldn’t have been boasting so much about his “very good friend” Michael Jackson, or flashing his picture around in front of photographers. The fact that he’s doing so now is a pretty strong indicator that Michael Jackson’s image has shifted considerably since 2009.
Lisha: Good point.
Willa: But what exactly are popular perceptions of Michael Jackson now? How does Trump see him? And what does he hope to gain by aligning himself with him? Those are the questions I’ve been wondering about….
Lisha: I can’t help thinking about your insightful conversation with Susan Woodward a while back, about how Michael Jackson conveyed a real sense of power, even with all the negative publicity he faced. Trump is clearly aligning himself with that power, and also with the narrative that media portrayals can be unfair and very misleading. He told Fox News:
I remember when Michael Jackson died, I was friends with Michael Jackson. I knew Michael Jackson very well, and then everybody commented on Michael Jackson. I said to myself, you know, it’s amazing, he didn’t even know those people. But it’s like that. The world of politics is a very strange world and people want to get on and they say things. They have no idea what they’re talking about, and I watch it and I listen to it all the time.
Willa: Yes, that’s true. And apparently media biases were a topic of conversation between Donald Trump and Michael Jackson for many years – for example, when they were reading the National Enquirer together in 1990, as you mentioned earlier.
Lisha: There’s something else that I wonder about that might have come up in conversation. Tom Barrack, whose company owns the majority of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, has been named as one of Trump’s top economic advisors. In fact, it was Barrack who introduced Trump and his daughter at the Republican National Convention.
Willa: Really? I didn’t make that connection. That’s kind of shocking to me, for reasons I can’t quite explain.
Lisha: It doesn’t sit well with me either, given that Michael Jackson’s Estate put out a statement that they were “saddened” by the intended sale of Neverland Ranch. I saw some tweets and other evidence that Michael Jackson’s children wished to keep Neverland Ranch in the family, but it looks like that isn’t going to happen.
Willa: And as we talked about in a couple of posts with Brad Sundberg, Neverland was much more than just a piece of property. It was one of Michael Jackson’s most immersive and experiential works of art, and now it’s been dismantled. That’s just tragic, on so many levels.
Lisha: For sure.
Willa: Well, Michael Jackson certainly had a long and complicated history with Donald Trump – and with the Clintons as well. After all, he sang at Bill Clinton’s inauguration celebration. And he interacted with numerous other presidents over his long career. We’ll begin taking a look at that in our next post.
Lisha: Can’t wait to dig in!
A quick note: With the recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., C-Span posted a wonderful YouTube video of director Lonnie Bunch discussing a Michael Jackson costume that the museum has acquired:
Lisha: Willa, I can’t stop thinking about our previous discussion on “The Lost Children.” To be honest, I hadn’t given this song a lot of thought before, so I was surprised to discover how much is there. Now the song hits me in a totally different way. It somehow went from this sweet, simple little song to something that has a lot more weight to it, musically. Actually, I’m surprised that I now hear it as both heavy and light, all at the same time, which is something I previously missed, if that makes any sense.
Willa: Yes, I know exactly what you mean! At least, I think I do. The opening music is light and fun, with a twinkling kind of sound like a kid’s song – something Raffi might sing.
Lisha: Exactly. Overall, this feels a lot like a children’s song to me. I think it is safe to assume that was intentional, given it’s a song about children and we hear children’s voices throughout.
Willa: I think so too. And even the lyrics sound like a kid’s song, if you think only about form and not content. What I mean is, the lyrics are composed almost entirely of one- and two-syllable words, which is surprisingly difficult to do. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to write a kid’s book, but it’s hard! There are only two words longer than two syllables in the entire song: “families” and “addressing.” That’s it. And most of the words are only one syllable.
Lisha: Wow, you’re absolutely right. Most of these lyrics would be suitable for a young reader.
Willa: Yes, or even a pre-reader. Even children as young as three or four could understand most of these words when hearing them, I think. And then those one- and two-syllable words are combined into really short phases – most are only five words. And except for the chorus, Michael Jackson’s voice tends to go up at the end of each phrase, which also creates a “lighter” feel.
Lisha: There’s also a slight little stretch on the first beat of each measure, which gives the melody a lilting quality and emphasizes the light waltz feel.
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Lisha! I hadn’t noticed that. So all of these things combine to create a song that sounds like a nice, light kid’s song, at least on the surface.
But once you start thinking about what the words mean, suddenly it becomes much darker. And that coupling of a “light” form with “dark” content is pretty unsettling.
Lisha: It’s deceptive. I guess I should have expected that given the subject matter: “The Lost Children.” It isn’t exactly a cheery song title, and it doesn’t have happy ending either. You never get any assurance that the children have made it safely home.
Willa: No, you don’t. We hear Prince’s voice at the end saying, “It’s getting dark. I think we’d better go home now,” so there’s the implication that they are heading home, but we don’t hear a happy homecoming. Instead, the ending is left unresolved. It’s not clear if they make it home or not.
Lisha: The more I think about that, the more unsettling it is.
Willa: It really Is.
Lisha: Willa, there’s a small detail in this song that you mentioned to me earlier, and I think it’s worth really zeroing in on it. It’s an unusual word choice, “thee,” which happens at the end of the bridge:
Home with their fathers
Snug close and warm
Loving their mothers
I see the door simply wide open
But no one can find thee
The word “thee” feels like it just comes out of nowhere. We have this simple tune – easy, simple lyrics – and then suddenly the word “thee” appears. What is up with the inexplicable shift into old English? Wouldn’t “them” or “you” fit the writing style much better? Why the odd use of the word “thee”?
Willa: That’s a good question, Lisha. “Them” or “you” does seem like a more obvious choice. Or the word “me.” In fact, I thought it was “me” until I saw the liner notes said “thee.” Then I asked you about it, and you put your trained musician’s ears to the task and decided the liner notes were right (they aren’t always!) and it was “thee.”
Lisha: Well, I did listen quite a few times because I also thought the lyric was “no one can find me.” I’m still not 100 percent sure, but I finally concluded it does sound more like “thee,” just because that word has a crisp, clear attack, which would be more difficult to do with the word “me.”
Willa: Hmmm. So now you have me intrigued. What do you mean by “a crisp, clear attack”?
Lisha: Well, I just noticed the beginning consonant has a very neat, tidy beginning to it. The “mmm” sound requires you to vocalize with the lips closed, so I would expect it to take just a split second longer and not be quite as clear on the attack. I’m splitting hairs here trying to figure this out, so bear with me.
The art of singing is really all about vowel sounds – learning to produce beautiful, clear sounds by sustaining the different vowels. But if you want to add semantic meaning to those sounds, you need to add consonants, which are more difficult to produce and they are hard on the vocal cords. One of the big challenges in singing is learning how to deal with consonants. In general, the trick is get off of them as quickly as possible and let the voice rest on the vowel.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha. I’m not a singer but I’ve sung with choirs a few times, and they do encourage you to sustain a word with the vowels, not the consonants. Like if the word “home” is to be held for a measure, they’d rather you sing it like “hooooooooome” than “hommmmmmmmmmme” – in other words, hold it on the “o” sound, not the “m” sound. But I thought that was just because they thought it sounded better that way, not because it could hurt your voice.
Lisha: Yes, you’re right. It does sound better. And I didn’t mean to imply that the only reason to avoid consonants is because they are hard on the voice. Just as you said, when you’re singing the word “home,” what you’re really singing is the vowel “o.” Adding a quick “h” and “m” gives that “o” a very specific meaning. Now that I think about it, I wonder if it’s even possible to sustain a consonant without adding a vowel. For example, even with your lips closed you can hear a subtle difference between “ma, mo, me, may, moo.” The vowel sort of blends in with the consonant. It’s the vowels that make singing possible. Believe it or not, a lot of instrumentalists think about how to convey vowel sounds through their instruments too.
Willa: Really? That’s interesting!
Lisha: Yes, it’s out there, I know! But many instrumentalists study the art of singing to improve their playing. It reveals so much about how to deliver a melody with real style and flair.
Along these lines, I’ve enjoyed listening to some recordings of Seth Riggs coaching Michael Jackson over the phone. Here’s one from YouTube:
In the first part of this warm-up, you hear Michael Jackson vocalizing while buzzing his lips. I know this exercise sounds really goofy, but it pays big dividends for singers because it warms up the voice very gently without straining the vocal cords. The next part of the routine is a series of vowels. Consonants are added later, working for a clean attack while keeping that same clear tone on the vowels. So for example at about 6:05 in the recording, you can hear Michael Jackson practicing “ma.” I’m not a singer or a vocal coach, but I think I can hear him adding his tongue in the highest notes, which makes more of an “n” sound. The tongue gives those high notes a sharper attack. The true “m” sound isn’t quite as crisp, to my ear.
Willa: That clip is really interesting, Lisha! I’ve listened to some of these before but not this one, and there’s a fascinating discussion starting about 6:40 minutes in. After talking about the approach for singing the phrase “is a cold,” as in “Dom Stanton is a cold man,” Riggs gives Michael Jackson some advice on how to make that phrase easier to sing:
All right, so the “c” could throw you, so just be careful that you keep it as pure as you can and drop your jaw on “o.” [Riggs sings “is a cold.”] If the “kuh” throws you too much, you can take “is a gold” – put a “g” on it. It’ll sound like a “c.” But if Bruce picks up on it, of course, and you do too, then you’ll have to put the “c.” [Riggs sings “is a gold.”]
Lisha: Isn’t that interesting? Notice how Michael Jackson saves his voice here (7:25) by singing the phrase on “o,” leaving the consonants for the recording session. Riggs’ suggestion for this high passage really makes a lot of sense, since “g” is much softer on the vocal cords and requires less air on the attack. Good musicians have thousands of little tricks like this. But, they require good judgment as to when to use them, as Riggs cautions. For example, I hear an obvious stylistic consideration as well. Notice how operatic that “g” sounds when Riggs demonstrates the phrase “is a gold.” Not sure that would really fit with D.S. “is a cold man”!
Willa: No. You’re right – “D.S.” is intentionally harsh, with a short, choppy, jabbing feel, so an operatic voice wouldn’t fit very well at all!
Lisha: Exactly. I think this music requires harsh sounding attacks! There’s good reason to lash out on these lyrics.
Willa: That’s a good point, Lisha. But I have to admit, I’m kind of shocked by Seth Riggs’ suggestion to sing “cold” as “gold.” I tend to focus on the meaning of words much more than the sounds, so it’s pretty startling to hear a vocal coach talk about words this way!
Lisha: It’s a completely different logic for sure.
Willa: You know, this discussion of swapping out “cold” for “gold” reminds me of the bridge in “Much Too Soon”:
Take away this never-ending sorrow
Take this lonely feeling from my soul
If only I knew what things bring tomorrow
She’d be sitting here beside me
And my heart wouldn’t be cold
At least, I think that’s what he’s singing. To be honest, I have trouble understanding that last line. That final word sounds like “gold” to me but that wouldn’t make sense – he must mean “cold.” And Seth Riggs’ suggestion that he substitute “gold” for “cold” may explain why I hear it the way I do.
Lisha: You’re right! There’s such a tiny difference between “gold” and “cold.” It’s easy to confuse the two. The “c” requires more forceful air and a stronger click on “cold.” Other than that, they are pretty much identical. Riggs suggests using that confusion to the singer’s advantage.
Willa: Yes, which is kind of a shocking concept to me! But you’re right – you hold your mouth and tongue in the same position for both “gold” and “cold.” The primary difference is the hard “g” is voiced and the hard “c” isn’t. It’s like “z” and “s,” which are identical except “z” is voiced and “s” isn’t.
Lisha: Exactly. And it’s interesting to me that you hear that line as: “And my heart wouldn’t be cold.” I’ve always heard the softer sound: “And my heart would then be gold.” I looked at the liner notes and it shows yet another variation: “And my heart would fill with gold.”
So out of curiosity, I checked Google Play and Metro Lyrics. They both claim the line is “And my heart would dimly go.” A-Z Lyrics drops the guttural consonant altogether for “And my heart would then be whole.”
Willa: Really? That’s funny!
Lisha: It definitely shows how ambiguous that line is!
Willa: It really does.
Lisha: I think this raises an important point about Michael Jackson’s work in general. I’m not convinced Michael Jackson necessarily wanted to lock in specific meanings for his lyrics. From what I can tell, his first priority was melody and sound. In the writing process, the lyrics were often crafted last, after the musical ideas had fallen into place.
Willa: Yes, I think you’re right. Though that doesn’t mean that the meaning of his songs wasn’t important to him. I think it was very important. But he conveyed meaning through many different threads at once, all interwoven to work beautifully together, and the denotative meaning of the lyrics was just one of those threads. And he had a poet’s awareness of the music of words themselves – of the sounds and rhythm of words.
Lisha: Oh I agree, absolutely.
Willa: I remember reading an interview with Paul McCartney where he said he and Michael Jackson debated the word “doggone” in “The Girl is Mine.” Paul McCartney didn’t like it and wanted to substitute a different word, but Michael Jackson insisted they keep it because he felt the song needed those particular sounds in that particular spot.
Lisha: Gosh, I had forgotten about that interview! What a brilliant example, Willa! Here’s the McCartney quote, which is from the 1983 Newsweek article titled “Michael Jackson: The Peter Pan of Pop”:
The song I’ve just done with Michael Jackson, you could say that it’s shallow … There was even a word – ‘doggone’ – that I wouldn’t have put in it. When I checked it out with Michael, he explained that he wasn’t going for depth – he was going for rhythm, he was going for feel. And he was right. It’s not the lyrics that are important on this particular song – it’s much more the noise, the performance, my voice, his voice.
Willa: Wow, thanks for tracking that down, Lisha! You are a marvel at research! And of course this is all secondhand, but McCartney’s memory of their discussion is that Michael Jackson felt the meaning of the words were less important – at least in this instance – than the “rhythm” or sound of the words.
Lisha: Although it doesn’t get talked about much, the sound of the words is such an important consideration in songwriting. There is a real art to making words fit a melody, and a lot of that is based on “feel” as McCartney says. Michael Jackson seemed to be hyper-aware of this.
As we were discussing the “o” in “gold” and “cold,” I thought of another famous song, Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow” from Wizard of Oz. According to the lyricist, Yip Harburg, the opening line was created out of the need to insert the sound “o” into this melody. The original working title was “I Want To Be Somewhere on the Other Side of the Rainbow.” But Harburg changed it when he realized the “ee” sounds were too harsh for the melody. Here’s a clip of Harburg himself explaining the sound of “o” in “Over The Rainbow.” (Skip to 8:20):
As he says,
I finally came to the thing, the way our logic lies with it, “I want to be somewhere on the other side of the rainbow.” And, I began trying to fit it…Now, if you say “ee,” you couldn’t sing “ee, ee, ee, ee.” You had to sing “o.” That’s the only thing that would get it … I had to get something with “o” in it, you see. [sings tune on “o”] Now that sings beautifully, see. So this sound forced me into the word “over,” which was much better than “on the other side.”
Willa: Wow, Lisha, that is so interesting!
Lisha: Isn’t it? I really hope everyone can access the Yip Harburg interview, because when you hear him sing the tune both ways, it makes perfect sense why the sound of the words have to be matched to the melody.
Willa: I love hearing a songwriter work through his creative process like this, and it’s so interesting to hear how Yip Harburg solved the problem of conveying the meaning he wanted while getting the sounds he needed – in this case, that important long “o” sound. As he said, “I had to get something with ‘o’ in it,” and that emphatic “o” sound in “over” and “rainbow” really does drive the melody and the lyric.
Lisha: It is such a dramatic example. The vowel sounds, completely separate from their semantic meaning, have to fit the music just so.
Many Michael Jackson demos show how this creative process works. You can hear him experimenting with all different kinds of vocal sounds, looking for something that will fit musically. His primary objective seems to be melody and sound. The lyrics sort of fall into place later, pieced together like a puzzle. One of my favorite examples is the demo of “People of the World”:
There are a ton of great made-up words and nonsensical phrases in this like, “the Black Hills of North Virginia.” That phrase is pretty funny, since there is no state named North Virginia, and the Black Hills are actually located in South Dakota! It is obvious this was never intended as the final lyric. But notice how beautifully those words fit the melody. In that sense, it’s flawless. I understand perfectly why he wanted to experiment with those words in this particular phrase.
Willa: That’s a great example, Lisha! But it’s forcing me rethink the distinction I made earlier between form and content. Even though there are “great made-up words and nonsensical phrases,” as you say, there is still meaning conveyed by the sounds he sings and the way he sings them. For example, there’s a sweetness to this song, but it doesn’t sound like a love song to me. Instead, there’s a lolling quality that makes me think of time passing, and I also get a strong sense of harmony – and yearning for harmony. So he is conveying a lot of meaning in this unfinished song even without fully developed lyrics.
Lisha: You’re right and I think that’s a very important distinction to make. Musical ideas are expressed even without the lyrics, just as instrumentalists make music without words. Singers have the advantage of being able to add semantic meaning to the musical phrase, but it’s almost like icing on the cake. If musical expression were not the primary consideration, there wouldn’t be a need to sing. You could simply read the words aloud as a poem and that would be enough.
I think it’s worth remembering here that not all Michael Jackson’s vocalizations include words. Think of the chorus in “Earth Song,” sung entirely on the vowel sounds, or the famous vocal tics all throughout his work. In fact, we devoted an entire post to Michael Jackson’s non-verbal vocalizations a while back.
Willa: Yes, I remember that post with Bjørn – as a poet, he’s always so interesting to talk to about aspects of language we don’t often think of, like the sounds and rhythm of language. Bjørn and I did another post where he talked explicitly about vowel sounds – the “o” sound in particular – and referenced Edgar Allan Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition”:
In this essay Poe links the “o” sounds to melancholia. In English, there are a lot of “o” words denoting a sense of loss, so I think that’s why Poe got the idea: old, gone, done, lore, before, forlorn, lost, loss, sorrow, mourning…
So Bjørn suggests that sounds convey meaning separate from the denotative definition of a word. And Poe’s linking of “o” with melancholia certainly fits “Over the Rainbow” with all its “o” sounds, where a young girl is longing to escape her problems to a happier place.
Lisha: Oh that is just fascinating! It’s absolutely true that spoken words can be quite musical without any kind of musical accompaniment. Maybe that accounts for why Michael Jackson loved Edgar Allan Poe so much and why he tended to focus on the sound of a word, beyond what it denotes.
Circling back to where we started with all this, “no one can find thee/me” in “The Lost Children,” I can’t help notice how the “ee” sound seems to hit that phrase just perfectly in a musical sense. “No one can find them” or “you” just doesn’t work at all. There’s a lot of tension on that note, and that bright, open “ee” works so beautifully right there at the end of the bridge. It leads the listener right into the chorus, reminding me of something Michael Jackson said about songwriting in his Mexico City deposition: “when the chorus comes it should be like a flower blossoming in your face.”
Willa: I love that image!
Lisha: I do too! And the “ee” sound in that transition from the bridge to chorus really feels like “a flower blossoming in your face”! It is the exact right sound for that moment in the song.
But is it “thee” or “me” that he sings? I keep thinking about our previous post and what Michael Jackson told author Darlene Craviotto about the old man in “Kick the Can.” He said, “This is me! This is me! This is me!” The lyric “No one can find me” makes an awful lot of sense in that context.
Willa: It really does, and actually that’s how I still “hear” it – as “no one can find me” – even though the actual sounds might be “thee,” if that makes any sense.
But I also really like the way the sound and meaning slips back and forth between “me” and ”thee,” so that it’s like I’m hearing it both ways at once. As Marie Plasse mentioned in a post with us a while back, Michael Jackson often encouraged us to see a situation from multiple points of view, including the perspectives of those who are generally overlooked or ignored. As Marie said,
the multiple subject positions and perspectives are in service of Michael’s larger mission of calling attention to the experiences of those who are “othered” or forgotten by mainstream society and who suffer for it. By shifting the perspective so often to these marginalized ones, he pushes us out of what may be our own relatively comfortable positions and makes us see through the eyes of the “other.”
And of course, missing children, homeless children, runaways … they are all very much on the margins of society and rarely have a voice. So it makes sense to me that he wouldn’t draw a clear distinction between “no one can find thee” and “no one can find me.” In the first, we as listeners are in the position of someone who’s searching for a lost child and feeling despair because we can’t find them. In the second, we are in the position of a child who is lost and feeling despair because the people we care about can’t find us. Both ways make sense. So both ways work, and they work beautifully together.
Lisha: Beautifully said, Willa. I think that’s why the more I thought about the slipperiness of thee/me lyric, the more haunting and tragic this song became for me. When you think of all the ways that an intense longing to return home might apply to the composer/artist of this song, it’s heartbreaking. Shocking, actually. It raises some serious questions in my mind about what we as a society demanded from Michael Jackson, and at what cost to him personally.
Willa: Hi Lisha! Welcome back! Did you have a good summer?
Lisha: Excellent! Busy as always. How about you, Willa?
Willa: It was a lot of fun, but bittersweet. I just dropped my son off at college – in fact, his first day of class was Michael Jackson’s birthday. And while I’m really happy and excited for him, I’m going to miss him a lot! He’s great fun to be with and talk with, and I just can’t imagine not having him here.
But as we were walking into the registration building, I heard a song playing on the sound system, so quietly you could barely hear it. In fact, I wondered at first if I was imagining it. But it was definitely there, quietly playing behind all the bustle: “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough.” And it just gave me a little reassuring nudge that my son was right where he needed to be.
Lisha: That’s amazing! I love it when Michael Jackson shows up at just the right time. And how serendipitous that your son’s first day of college was on Michael Jackson’s birthday! No doubt you are really going to miss him this year, Willa. That will be a huge adjustment – so prepare yourself for the empty nest syndrome!
Willa: Oh, I know! In fact, a friend whose daughter just graduated suggested we start an Empty Nest Club. I think that’s a great idea.
Anyway, in a funny way, all of this has me thinking about “The Lost Children,” one of those neglected songs from the Invincible album that never seemed to get much attention. On the surface, it’s a song about children who’ve run away from home or been abducted – the “missing children” you see on posters sometimes. We took a ferry this summer from Washington state over to Vancouver Island, and as we entered into Canada the wall of the Customs office was covered with posters of missing children. It was heartbreaking – all those parents looking for their lost children.
Lisha: Can you even imagine living through such a nightmare?
Willa: No, I can’t. I really can’t.
Lisha: Michael Jackson empathized so strongly with these families. It’s inspiring to know that he offered a song, reminding us to keep them in our thoughts and prayers at the very least. The thought of a missing child is so overwhelming, it’s easy to block that out and not let yourself go there. Maybe that’s why it strikes me as such an unusual subject for a song.
Willa: I agree. It’s rare to hear a song about something as tragic as a missing child, and maybe that’s because it’s just too frightening and painful to think about, as you say. I can really understand that. But Michael Jackson frequently – and courageously, I think – broached difficult topics like this.
But he also tended to create multi-layered works that could be interpreted many different ways, and I see that with “The Lost Children” also. While the main focus of this song is definitely on children who have been abducted or for some other reason are “missing” from their homes, it also makes me think about children like the “lost boys” in Peter Pan who never really had a home: kids like my father who grew up in an orphanage, or kids who’ve had to grow up on the streets or bouncing from one place to another. These kids never had the kind of family life Michael Jackson sings about in “The Lost Children”:
Home with their fathers
Snug close and warm
Loving their mothers
Some children never had that, and simply don’t have a home to go back to.
Lisha: You’re so right. Of course there are children who live in beautiful homes with their parents, but they still lack the safety and emotional security depicted in this verse.
Willa: That’s a good point, Lisha. They may have a family and a physical house, but if there is physical or emotional abuse or simply coldness, it may not feel like much of a home. In fact, a lot of kids who run away do so to escape abuse, as Michael Jackson sang about in “Do You Know Where Your Children Are.”
Lisha: An excellent point. I am also thinking about children lost in early adult responsibility – like children working in show business – an issue Michael Jackson flagged throughout his entire adult life.
Willa: That’s true. He talked about that often, and sang about it in “Childhood.”
Lisha: Another good point!
Willa: But you know, there are other ways to interpret this song as well. While I think raising awareness about missing children was Michael Jackson’s primary motivation in writing this song, there are some interesting details that point toward other, less obvious interpretations as well.
Lisha: It’s always in the details, isn’t it?
Willa: It really is – especially with Michael Jackson. And one of those details is that throughout “The Lost Children” he repeatedly samples a Twilight Zone episode called “Kick the Can.” It’s most noticeable near the end, beginning around the 3:25 mark, but you can also hear it at 0:55, 1:45, 2:45, and 3:00. And thinking about this song in relation to “Kick the Can” leads to a very different interpretation of the song as a whole.
Lisha: Whoa, are you kidding me? I have to confess I am one of the ones guilty of neglecting this song! I totally missed the Twilight Zone credit on this track. I knew Michael Jackson’s oldest son, Prince, gets a credit for some of the dialogue. So I guess I assumed all the children’s voices were recorded specifically for the track. Now that I see The Twilight Zone credit, it opens up up a whole new world when approaching this song, doesn’t it?
Willa: It really does.
Lisha: Hey Willa, do you remember reading Darlene Craviotto’s book, An Agoraphobic’s Guide to Hollywood: How Michael Jackson Got Me Out of the House?
Willa: Yes! In fact, I read it because you suggested it, Lisha. You said there were parts of it that were pretty troubling, but it had some really interesting insights too. After you said that I just had to read it and, boy, you were right on both counts.…
Lisha: It’s true that some of the author’s conclusions are rather disturbing and not well thought out, in my opinion. But at the same time, some of her stories are totally captivating. For example, she recalls several conversations she had with Michael Jackson about “Kick the Can,” which was in relation to a film project they were working on together.
In 1990, Craviotto was hired by Steven Spielberg to write the screenplay for a new musical version of Peter Pan, starring Michael Jackson. Unfortunately, the film was never made. Instead, Spielberg went on to release Hook with Robin Williams, a film that never lived up to its hype critically or at the box office.
However, Craviotto’s first-hand account of working with Michael Jackson is really magical at times, especially when she describes their one-on-one meetings. Because their discussions were typically recorded for study purposes, she seems to relate exactly what was said.
Michael Jackson was deeply involved in the creative process for Peter Pan. And he insisted that Craviotto watch “Kick the Can” to better understand his vision for the film. Here are some excerpts from the book:
“There’s a good movie you gotta see!” Michael says, excitedly. “It was on ‘The Twilight Zone.’ It has so much heart! And it reminds me of Peter. Called ‘Kick the Can.’ Gotta see it! Next time we meet, I’m showing you.” He laughs at the thought of it, brimming over with enthusiasm. “It has heart about it! That should be Peter!” …
“You’re gonna like it!” He beams. “It’s got heart!” he shouts. “You gotta see it!” He lowers his voice and says slowly, “It’s wonderful!” Snapping his fingers for effect, “It has in it what Peter should have.” …
“When I saw it, I loved it! And I thought, ‘This is me! This is me! This is me!’”
Michael Jackson was just so enthusiastic about this episode of The Twilight Zone! I got the feeling he strongly identified with the main character and felt his role was essential for understanding Peter Pan as well.
Willa: That’s interesting, Lisha. I agree he loved “Kick the Can,” but I actually interpreted this a little differently. To me, he was saying he really liked the feeling of “Kick the Can” and thought it was a good example of the kind of emotional response he wanted to create with Peter Pan. And he wanted Craviotto to see it so she could try to create a similar feeling in her screenplay. At least, that’s how I read it.
Lisha: Well, maybe that’s right. I could be reading way more into this than is actually there. But hearing how insistent he was that Craviotto watch The Twilight Zone before starting work on Peter Pan, I really got the idea there was a connection between the two.
Willa: Well, that’s a good point, Lisha. And it’s interesting that in those conversations Craviotto quoted, he kept saying that “Kick the Can” has “heart.” As I remember, she also included several conversations where he worried about Spielberg’s “heart” – specifically, whether he had the “heart” to make the kind of Peter Pan movie Michael Jackson wanted to make.
Lisha: Craviotto says that even though Michael Jackson was a huge fan of Steven Spielberg, he had serious reservations about whether or not Spielberg was the right director for Peter Pan. Spielberg had remade “Kick the Can” for the 1983 film Twilight Zone: The Movie, which left a big question in Michael Jackson’s mind. He felt there was something essential missing from that film that would be crucial to their retelling of Peter Pan. He even brought Craviotto up to Neverland Ranch so they could watch both versions of “Kick the Can” and discuss them.
Willa: Yes, I remember that! So maybe you’re right, Lisha – maybe he was suggesting a connection between Peter Pan and “Kick the Can.” You’re starting to convince me …
Anyway, back when I read Craviotto’s book, I was really intrigued about why he was so smitten with “Kick the Can.” So I went to the local library and found a copy of the original TV version and watched it, and I see what he means. There’s something very tender about it – a feeling that’s lost in Spielberg’s remake, which is kind of manic and has a harshness to it that isn’t in the original.
Lisha: I agree. The original develops the main character in the story so beautifully. You get a glimpse into his psychological makeup and genuinely care about his perspective. The Spielberg version, however, doesn’t really get into this kind of character development and uses a more controversial story device instead. It doesn’t work nearly as well, to my way of thinking. At any rate, it’s a wonderful exercise to compare the two versions, just as Michael Jackson suggested.
Willa: Yes, it is. And when you do that, you notice the remake has other problems as well. But the main problem, as Michael Jackson said, is that it lacks the “heart” of the original.
Lisha: I agree.
Willa: So as I was watching the original version, I was struck by these repeated scenes where children are playing the game Kick the Can (which I loved when I was a kid, by the way, especially at twilight – it’s just a perfect kid’s game). Each of those scenes begins with a boy counting off, like this: “…, 85, 90, 95, 100. Ready or not, here I come! … Last one into the forest is a rotten apple!” That sounded so familiar to me, and then I realized it was in “The Lost Children.” In fact, Michael Jackson repeatedly samples these scenes from “Kick the Can” so they become a recurring motif in the background soundscape of “The Lost Children.”
Lisha: Now that I’m aware of The Twilight Zone samples in “The Lost Children,” they feel like such a prominent part of the song. I think I dismissed them before as a background layer that simply added a nice touch. You know, a song about lost children that includes a sonic memory of happy children playing without a care in the world. But now, I hear this a little differently and I’m starting to think “Kick the Can” should be required viewing before listening to this song!
Willa: It really adds a whole other dimension to the experience of listening to it, doesn’t it?
Lisha: Unbelievably so.
Willa: Especially when you know the plot of the story. The main character is an elderly man named Charles Whitley, who is living at Sunnyvale Rest Home for the Aged, along with his childhood friend, Ben, and many other elderly residents. Charles doesn’t want to be there, and he becomes convinced they all feel old because they’re acting old. After watching the children play, he tells Ben, “It’s almost as though playing Kick the Can keeps them young.” And later he says, “Maybe the fountain of youth isn’t a fountain at all. Maybe it’s a way of looking at things – a way of thinking.”
He becomes convinced that playing will help them all feel young again, so one night he encourages them to go outside and play Kick the Can, like they did when they were children. He describes that liberating feeling of play in such a wonderful way that many of them become caught up in the moment and go outside and play with him, but Ben refuses.
Lisha: Ben just doesn’t get it, does he? He warns Charles that these crazy ideas put him in danger of being diagnosed senile, which would greatly restrict his personal freedoms in the home.
Willa: Yes. In fact, he’d been threatened with that.
Lisha: True, but even so, Charles still tries to convince the others that play is the magical force that holds “the secret of youth.” He begs them to play Kick the Can and suggests they hold the empty can in their hands while contemplating the value of childhood play:
“Look! Think! Feel! Here, hold it! Doesn’t that wake some sleeping part of you?”
Willa: That’s such a wonderful scene! And it’s so Michael Jackson. I can see why he loved it.
Lisha: To my way of thinking, that entire episode has Michael Jackson written all over it!
Willa: It really does. Later on, Ben hears a group of children outside playing Kick the Can, even though it’s late at night. He goes outside with the facility supervisor, who chases the children away, but Ben recognizes one of the children as Charles – he’s become a boy again. Ben suddenly realizes that all the residents who went outside to play have reverted back to childhood, and he begs Charles to let him join them, but it’s too late. Charles runs away and Ben is left sitting on the porch alone, holding the can.
Lisha: The magic worked! At least in that spooky Twilight Zone kind of way, which might actually suggest that Mr. Whitley made his final transition. But this is also where I feel like there is a connection between lost childhood in “Kick the Can” and the “lost boys” in Peter Pan. Both stories depict a magical, idyllic realm where carefree youth is honored, valued and preserved. It is more of a metaphorical, magical place than an actual geographical location, as you suggested earlier. When we think of “The Lost Children” this way, it starts to get pretty interesting. We could even add “Childhood” to the mix here as well.
Willa: Yes, I agree. Looking at “The Lost Children” through the lens of “Kick the Can” expands the idea of “lost children” to include “lost childhood” – to adults who’ve lost the connection to that magical time when they were a child. And of course, that’s a central idea in Peter Pan as well, and his band of “lost boys,” though they’re “lost” in a different way.
But there’s an important difference between “The Lost Children” and “Childhood.” “The Lost Children” really focuses on the importance of the family as a whole, of the family being together, and it considers the parents of lost children as well as the children themselves.
Lisha: Wow, you’re right. I had never thought about that before.
Willa: It’s interesting, isn’t it? In that sense, it’s kind of like “Do You Know Where Your Children Are,” which begins with a mother reading a note from her missing daughter, and then shifts to the daughter’s story. For example, Michael Jackson begins “The Lost Children” with these lines:
We pray for our fathers
Pray for our mothers
Wishing our families well
And then in the bridge he sings those words I quoted earlier, but there’s more to it than that. Here’s the full bridge:
Home with their fathers
Snug close and warm
Loving their mothers
I see the door simply wide open
But no one can find thee
In these final two lines, Michael Jackson creates an image of a door standing open, waiting for a child to return home, which is a very important image, I think.
Lisha: The door is like the symbolic threshold that divides the “real” world from the magical, mythic realm. Just like the retirement home door in “Kick the Can.”
Willa: Oh, that’s interesting, Lisha! It also reminds me of Peter Pan. In the third chapter of the book, Peter teaches Wendy, John, and Michael how to fly, and they go soaring out of the nursery window just moments before their parents and Nana rush in to stop them. And while we spend most of our time following their adventures with Peter and the lost boys, J.M. Barrie also reminds us of how much Mr. and Mrs. Darling miss their children. They sleep in the nursery in hopes they will return someday, and as their mother says, “The window must always be left open for them, always, always.”
Lisha: Yes, that window is also a symbolic threshold, like the doors we were just discussing, and it is central to the entire story.
Willa: It really is. In Chapter 11, when Wendy and her brothers are feeling a little homesick, she describes the warm reunion they’ll have if they return home, and she emphasizes the open window waiting for them: “‘See, dear brothers,’ says Wendy, pointing upwards, ‘there is the window still standing open.’” She finishes by saying, “So up they flew to their mummy and daddy; and pen cannot describe the happy scene.”
This “sublime faith in a mother’s love” comforts her brothers and all the lost boys, but not Peter:
But there was one there who knew better; and when Wendy finished he uttered a hollow groan.
“What is it, Peter?” she cried, running to him. …
“Long ago,” he said, “I thought like you that my mother would always keep the window open for me; so I stayed away for moons and moons and moons, and then flew back; but the window was barred, for mother had forgotten all about me, and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed.”
Barrie then says, “I’m not sure that this was true, but Peter thought it was true; and it scared them.”
Lisha: Wow. That is scary. And really dark. It’s about a deep longing to return home. But home is a place that has been lost somehow, and there’s no guarantee the way back will ever appear again.
Willa: I think so too. You know, Michael Jackson loved Peter Pan, but he didn’t see it as a lighthearted kid’s story. It was tragic for him. Jane Fonda says he cried when he talked about it. And a lot of it has to do not only with a lost childhood, but also a lost sense of home – of a sheltered place to return after playtime where you are loved and safe and cared for, and free to be a child.
Lisha: That is so sad. These stories are really, really dark. And they completely change how I hear “The Lost Children.” I’m reminded of something else Michael Jackson said to Darlene Craviotto about Peter Pan:
“We’re playing into that part of everyone … The child,” he tells me. “The same thing that ‘E.T.’ did. And the ‘Wizard of Oz.’ That’s what I want to continue to have, that reality. It’s fantasy, but still … fantasy is reality. It becomes real … Even though it’s fantasy, it’s real! It’s inside of everyone!”
So what are the main ideas in E.T. and Wizard of Oz? “Phone home.” “There’s no place like home.”
Willa: You’re right! I never thought about that before!
Lisha: And Peter tries to fly home. Charles Whitley longs to go home with his son and is psychologically shattered when he learns he can’t. And what about Prince Jackson’s voice at the end of “The Lost Children”?
“It’s getting dark. I think we’d better go home now.”
So what is meant by the mythic return home? What is the place inside of everyone where fantasy and reality meet?
Willa: Those are all really good questions, Lisha. Children need to be free to play and explore – both literally in real forests, and in the “forest” of their imagination – but they also need to be able to come home. It’s like “home” is this mythic place, and we need to know there’s a door there, open for us, waiting for us, “always, always,” as Mrs. Darling said. Even as we begin to explore and go out into the world, we need to know that door is still open to welcome us back home if we need it. Maybe that’s why I’ve been thinking about this song as my son goes off to college. …
Lisha: Yes, there’s a deep-seated need to know the way back to the safety and security of home, even when off on an exciting adventure. And that seems true for everyone, except Peter!
Willa, I really hope your son has a wonderful and adventurous first year of college. Here’s to wishing him well, and wishing him home.
Willa: Thanks, Lisha! He sounds quiet but happy, so I think he’s transitioning well, and he’ll be coming home at Thanksgiving. So I just need to be patient until then and keep the door “wide open.”
So here are a couple of quick notes before we go. The Smithsonian’s newest facility – the National Museum of African American History and Culture – is opening soon, on September 24th. And they just announced on Monday, Michael Jackson’s birthday, that one of the inaugural exhibits will be a collection of costumes he wore during the Victory tour. Here’s a link to an article about it.
Also, Raven Woods published two in-depth posts this summer in The Huffington Post about media coverage of Michael Jackson, and we wanted make sure you all knew about them. The first provides a reality check on the media hysteria earlier this summer about alleged child pornography at Neverland. The second discusses recent media coverage of Conrad Murray and his new book about Michael Jackson.
Willa: Last June our friend and frequent contributor Eleanor Bowman visited Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where Michael Jackson is interred. I had never thought much about it before – I guess I just assumed it was a nice cemetery where a lot of Hollywood stars were buried – but Eleanor explained that it was much more than that. For example, she said the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn is filled with life-size reproductions of Michelangelo’s statues, carved in marble like the originals.
Eleanor’s emails sparked my curiosity, so I started doing some research and learned that Forest Lawn was modelled on a very different vision of what a cemetery could be – as a joyful public place where people could experience great works of art, reconnect with nature, and celebrate the lives of their loved ones. In fact, it helped change popular ideas about cemeteries. As founder Hubert Eaton wrote in 1917, “I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness, as Eternal Life is unlike death.”
So this year, as we approach the seventh anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death, we would like to talk about Forest Lawn, about Dr. Eaton’s vision and how it relates to Michael Jackson’s ideas about art, and whether Forest Lawn is an appropriate final resting place for him. Eleanor, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us!
Lisha: Wow, this sounds like a fascinating topic. I had no idea Forest Lawn had such an unusual history. Eleanor, thank you so much for joining us. I’m anxious to learn more.
Eleanor: Hi, Willa and Lisha. And thanks for the invitation to again talk about my favorite person.
Last year, I was visiting my son, Shaw, in LA and realized it was close to the anniversary of Michael’s death, and I wanted to do something, to somehow feel closer, to honor him. And my son, who a couple of years ago had humored me by driving me by the gates to the original Jackson compound on Hayvenhurst, entered into the spirit of things and spent the whole day taking me to places associated with Michael.
Willa: Oh really? So you and your son took your own private Michael Jackson tour?
Eleanor: Yes, we did. And it was a wonderful day!
Willa: That sounds really fun! There are professional Michael Jackson tours costing hundreds of dollars, but doing your own tour sounds much better.
Lisha: I agree. Ever since I saw this YouTube video called the “Ultimate Michael Jackson Fan Tour (Red in L.A.),” I’ve wanted to do some DIY Michael Jackson tourism myself:
Willa: I love that video, Lisha. And how wonderful that you were able to do some “DIY Michael Jackson tourism” with your son, Eleanor! Where all did you go?
Eleanor: First we went to Holmby Hills (Holmby Hills is adjacent to Beverly Hills) to see the house he was living in when he was preparing for This Is It. It occupies an entire block, sitting on a steep, pie-shaped piece of land with the house at the top, backing up to the narrow end, and the front looking out over terraced gardens and beyond that over LA. The double garage opens right onto the street and the garage door was open, and I could imagine MJ coming and going from his house. The neighborhood is so beautiful and tranquil, curving narrow streets lined with lovely trees and flowering plants. So green and quiet.
Next we went into Hollywood and I found his star in the sidewalk. That evening we went to La Cabanita, a Mexican restaurant in Glendale which was one of Liz Taylor’s favorites, and we could imagine MJ and Liz having dinner together. (The food was wonderful!)
But the best and most moving part of the day for me was the visit to Forest Lawn. Very quiet. Rolling hills, mostly, with graves flush with the ground. Except, of course, for the huge mausoleum where the rich and famous, including MJ, are entombed – a sort of cathedral for the dead. Elizabeth Taylor’s crypt has beautiful sprays of white orchids on either side of a huge marble block with her name. On top was an enormous statue of an angel.
Eleanor: The building is a real cultural experience. I have never seen anything like it. Copies of Michelangelo’s sculptures everywhere, as you mentioned, Willa. Full size. And a huge stained-glass window that is a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Really over the top, but still … fitting, I think, for these people who in some way represent our cultural archetypes.
I told Shaw I was reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One and Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, both cultural critiques of the US, both inspired by Forest Lawn, and representing all I knew about Forest Lawn. I mean, Forest Lawn is a cultural icon all by itself, if a cemetery can be an icon.
Willa: I know what you mean, Eleanor. It really changed the look of cemeteries across the nation. I didn’t realize how significant it was until you told me about it and I started doing a little research. In fact, I knew very little about Forest Lawn. But after you piqued my interest I visited California and went to Forest Lawn – something I probably wouldn’t have done without your encouragement – and I was surprised by how beautiful it is. It feels like a park. In fact, it’s a popular place for weddings, which is pretty uncommon for a cemetery …
Lisha: Weddings? You can’t be serious! I can’t think of anything more antithetical to a cemetery than a wedding ceremony!
Willa: I was shocked when I read that too, so I asked David Macdonald about it. The Forest Lawn company actually has six separate cemeteries – or memorial parks, as they call them – and Mr. Macdonald is in charge of the original Glendale facility, where Michael Jackson is. Toni Bowers and I visited California last November, and before our trip we contacted Mr. Macdonald. He very kindly took us on a tour, and while we were walking around I asked him if it was true that Ronald Reagan was married there. He said yes, that thousands of people have been married there, and it’s still a popular place for weddings. In fact, he said he himself was married there. I was really surprised by all the weddings. That wasn’t at all what I expected at a cemetery.
Lisha: That is so cool you also got to visit! And that is just so surprising about the weddings – I just can’t picture it.
I google-searched and found this photo of Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman’s 1940 wedding, which was held in the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather, a church at Forest Lawn:
The newlyweds are sitting in the church’s “Wishing Chair,” a stone monument that says, in part, “good fortune will forever smile upon the bride and bridegroom who sit in this chair on their wedding day.” Forest Lawn’s wedding coordinator, Mildred Broking, told the Los Angeles Times that, “In the ’40s, if a couple wasn’t married in the Wee Kirk, they just weren’t married.… It was the elite place to be married.”
Never in a million years would I have guessed that a cemetery church would become “the elite place” for a wedding!
Eleanor: I wouldn’t either, Lisha, and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable with the idea.
Willa: It’s certainly unexpected, isn’t it? But in a way it’s a testament to the success of Dr. Eaton’s vision. He didn’t think a cemetery should be a mournful place, but a place of celebration. In fact, Mr. Macdonald said that before Disneyland was built, Forest Lawn was the most popular tourist attraction in Los Angeles, and it still attracts a lot of visitors – though not nearly as many as Disneyland, of course. It’s just hard to imagine a cemetery being such a popular place to visit.
Lisha: That’s really something. It sounds like Dr. Eaton really wanted to challenge the way people were accustomed to thinking about death.
Willa: Yes, I think so too.
Lisha: I know the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris also attracts lots of tourists, but I thought that was because of their famous “residents” like Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Édith Piaf, and Frédéric Chopin. Visitors enjoy finding the graves of the historical figures who are buried there.
Willa: And that’s true of Forest Lawn as well. It’s amazing how many famous people from many different spheres have been laid to rest there, including actors, musicians, athletes, and politicians. There’s Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Gracie Allen and George Burns, Mary Pickford, Ethel Waters, Sammy Davis Jr, Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, Red Skelton, Casey Stengel – even Dr. Suess. Here’s a list of over 1,000 famous people buried there.
Eleanor: Thanks, Willa. Pretty comprehensive.
Willa: It’s a long list, isn’t it? But I think there’s something else at Forest Lawn that accounts for all the visitors and the wedding ceremonies. Dr. Eaton envisioned it as a place for the living as well as the dead.
Legend has it that on New Year’s Day of 1917 he was walking the hills at Forest Lawn and suddenly had a vision of what it could be. He came home and wrote what came to be known as “The Builder’s Creed.” It has since been carved in stone on a wall near the entrance to the Great Mausoleum. Here are some of his words:
I believe in a happy eternal life. …
I therefore know the cemeteries of today are wrong because they depict an end, rather than a beginning. …
I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness, as Eternal Life is unlike death. …
Forest Lawn shall become a place where lovers new and old shall love to stroll and watch the sunset’s glow, planning for the future or reminiscing of the past; a place where artists study and sketch; where school teachers bring happy children to see the things they read of in books …
So Dr. Eaton actually envisioned Forest Lawn as a place for lovers! In that sense – that it’s a place where lovers stroll, artists sketch, and schoolchildren visit on field trips to see great works of art – it’s very different from most cemeteries.
Lisha: That is such a radical concept – for the end of life to be celebrated as a new beginning, which is how we usually think of weddings, not funerals. It turns the concept of a burial into a celebration of life and love, rather than the ultimate tragic end.
Willa: I think you’re right, Lisha.
Lisha: The Forest Lawn website has an interesting story about the very first statue Dr. Eaton purchased for the cemetery, back in 1915, known as Duck Baby. The idea of placing art in a cemetery was so foreign at that time, the purchase created some controversy and was initially rejected by the company’s board of directors. Duck Baby depicts a smiling child, full of life, holding baby ducks in its arms. Installing a beautiful statue like this was such a different way of thinking about burials, many had a hard time envisioning the concept.
Eleanor: Yes, it is very different. And not everyone has shared or admired Eaton’s vision. Especially not early on. Forest Lawn has had quite a history and has aroused a lot of controversy, often seen as an example of American commercialism and bad taste. Jessica Mitford used it as an example of what not to do. And Evelyn Waugh used it to satirize American life.
Since my only association with Forest Lawn was through those two books, I had some reservations, myself, about it as a proper burial place for Michael Jackson. But, of course, he isn’t really buried, but entombed. For one thing, it seemed almost sacrilegious to me for him to be entombed anywhere. He seemed to feel himself so much a part of nature, it seemed against everything he believed in to separate his body from his beloved Planet Earth. Cremation seemed more appropriate.
Willa: That’s a really good point, Eleanor. I mean, Michael Jackson basically wrote a love letter to nature in “Planet Earth,” where he said,
In my veins I’ve felt the mystery
Of corridors of time, books of history
Life songs of ages throbbing in my blood
Have danced the rhythm of the tide and flood
Your misty clouds, your electric storm
Were turbulent tempests in my own form
It’s hard to believe the person who wrote those words would want his body to be kept separate from nature and the cycle of life – shut away inside a metal box which was then placed inside a stone box. But I also see how his family and fans would want a place to remember him and memorialize his life.
Eleanor: Yes, I agree. On the one hand, he seemed to feel so in tune with nature, so much a part of it. I like to think of his art as an expression of nature, flowing through his body in his dance. His voice singing nature’s songs.
However, I did a reality check and, although I think cremation would have been more suitable, he was, after all, Michael Jackson and that just wasn’t going to happen. So, on second thought, I decided that there couldn’t be any more appropriate place than Forest Lawn for the King of Pop.
Willa: It’s interesting you should say that, Eleanor, because one of the things I learned at Forest Lawn is that an early definition of “mausoleum” is “a burial place for kings.” So it’s appropriate, as you say, that the King of Pop should be laid to rest there.
Eleanor: I didn’t know that! So, really fitting for Michael.
Willa: Yes it is. But Forest Lawn was also an early proponent of cremation. According to Forest Lawn: the First 100 Years, a book published to celebrate their centennial, “Facilities for a crematory were listed among Forest Lawn’s earliest goals in the articles of incorporation in 1906,” and they built a crematory in 1917, when cremation was a pretty unsettling idea for many people and not nearly as accepted as it is today. In fact, one of their many challenges in the early days was “dispelling myths” about cremation.
But while they still offer cremation services, that isn’t what they are known for. They are known for the Great Mausoleum and the beautiful grounds, and the many celebrities who are buried or entombed there.
Eleanor: Yes, and Forest Lawn is probably the only cemetery in the world that has the resources to protect him from crazed love and hate. The part of the mausoleum where he is is kept locked – which may also have something to do with his gold casket. I don’t know. Do either of you? I couldn’t get in when I visited, so had to content myself with imagining what it was like inside.
Willa: Well, the Great Mausoleum is huge, and while some of it is open to the public, a lot of it is private. There’s the main building, which was built in 1917, and then additions have been added over the years. The first was Azalea Terrace in 1919, and then they continued alphabetically up through Jasmine Terrace. Michael Jackson is in Holly Terrace, which was added in 1949. I found a website that had a historical photo taken in 1952, before the Iris and Jasmine terraces were built. Holly Terrace is highlighted in red:
So the Great Mausoleum is an enormous structure, or series of structures, and much of it is inaccessible to the public, though family members may visit whenever they wish. In fact, I believe all of the terraces are private. I’m not sure about that, but I think that’s right. I know Holly Terrace is closed to the public, and Michael Jackson’s family chose to place him there. According to an article in Time magazine published the day of his funeral, concerns about privacy were a major factor in their decision.
Mr. Macdonald told us the Jackson family actually purchased the entire alcove where Michael Jackson is, which includes about a dozen additional tomb spaces in the walls surrounding his crypt. (Mr. Macdonald wasn’t sure of the exact number.) So I assume his mother will one day be laid to rest there, along with other family members as well.
Lisha: That’s really interesting. I have never heard that before.
Willa: I hadn’t either. By the way, you can see the outside of the Jackson alcove in the picture above. It’s the bump-out on the right side of Holly Terrace (the part in red). Here’s a better picture, looking up at the alcove where he is:
And here’s a picture I found on Pinterest of the Jackson alcove from the inside:
The beautiful stained-glass windows surrounding his crypt are called the Ascension windows, and they are based on Nicola D’Ascenzo’s “The Ascension,” which is an elaborate window in the Church of the Good Shepherd in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The series of stone panels on both sides of the alcove are where additional caskets can be slid into the walls.
Eleanor: Willa, thank you so much for including this picture.
Willa: It’s beautiful, isn’t it? And notice all the flowers. While fans aren’t allowed inside Holly Terrace, Mr. Macdonald said they try to accommodate fans as much as possible. He said that, for security reasons, they can’t place anything by his crypt that is sent from outside Forest Lawn. But if fans purchase an arrangement from the Forest Lawn flower shop, so they know it’s safe, they will take it inside and place it by his casket. Fans from around the world regularly do that, he said, and there were a lot of flower arrangements when we were there.
Eleanor: I wish I had known that last year. When we arrived, we headed over to the mausoleum and pressed a button outside the door, and a sepulchral disembodied voice from within told us it was closed, but then directed us to the door closest to Michael Jackson’s resting place.
Willa: Yes, there’s an area near the main door to Holly Terrace that has become a perpetual memorial site. When we were there, there were fresh flowers and letters and hand-made posters, and that was in November, which isn’t really a special time in the Michael Jackson calendar – not like June or August.
Eleanor: Yes. The terrace outside Holly Terrace has become a gathering place for people who have come to honor Michael. There were a few flowers near the door, and love notes. I went to buy some flowers from the onsite florist, and when I came back a few people were standing around talking quietly. I laid my spray down with the others, and then a very nice older man with an Australian accent spoke to me and said he would fill a vase with some water for my flowers so they would last longer in the hot sun. There was a feeling of such love – the love Michael Jackson gave to us in his art and his life we were giving to each other. It affected me really deeply, brought tears to my eyes.
Willa: That sounds lovely, Eleanor. We didn’t see any fans while we were there, but some fans had been there earlier that morning, and Mr. Macdonald said fans visit pretty much every day. And I was deeply affected being there also – more than I expected. I have to say, I didn’t really feel Michael Jackson’s presence at Forest Lawn. I feel him much more strongly when I’m listening to his music, or watching his short films or concert footage. But it was very moving, and there are aspects of Forest Lawn that make it particularly suited to him, I think.
For example, Dr. Eaton wanted Forest Lawn to be a place filled with statues and paintings, where people without much money could walk in a beautiful place and experience great works of art. So there’s incredible statuary, like very well crafted replicas of Michelangelo’s David and The Pieta, and a fascinating work called The Mystery of Life by Italian sculptor Ernesto Gazzeri. Here’s a picture:
There’s also an unusual tableau called Christ and the Children by Vincenzo Jerace. According to Forest Lawn: the First 100 Years, “Eaton took great joy in recounting the story” of Jerace’s statue:
He would tell listeners that he believed that Christ must have had a wonderful warm personality to draw children and adults to Him. But most art depicted Him either in agony on the cross or with a very somber expression. Eaton searched and searched for a Christ figure that exuded joy. Being unable to find such an artwork, he assembled a group of Italian sculptors and explained his vision. Most of them replied that they could not do that as their religion taught them that Christ had suffered for their sins and it would be improper to show a smiling Christ. One artist, however, Vincenzo Jerace, told Eaton that he would try. The result is this statue that is also known as “the smiling Christ.”
Here’s a picture of the Jerace statue:
Lisha: Wow, that is really beautiful!
Willa: Yes, and I really like the story behind it. There’s also incredible stained glass. There’s the reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in stained glass, as you mentioned earlier, Eleanor, which took Italian artist Rosa Caselli Moretti seven years to create using da Vinci’s original sketches. And there are the Ascension windows in the Jackson alcove. There’s also a wonderful place called the Poet’s Corner on a lower level of the Great Mausoleum, where scenes from poetry have been recreated in stained glass. When Toni and I were there the sun was low in the sky and shining directly through those windows, and it just took our breath away. It was indescribably beautiful.
Lisha: I would love to see that. It sounds absolutely gorgeous.
Willa: Oh it was! I tried taking pictures, but I just couldn’t capture that light. I’m not a very good photographer, I’m afraid …
So what I’m trying to get across is that there’s artwork everywhere at Forest Lawn, both inside the mausoleum and scattered throughout the gardens, and the statues of children especially reminded me very much of Michael Jackson. For example, here’s a statue of a girl and a boy looking up at the engraving of Dr. Eaton’s “Builder’s Creed”:
Eleanor: Hmmm. Reminds me of Neverland.
Lisha: That’s exactly what I was thinking!
Willa: I think so too, especially the way they’re holding hands, with a puppy in a wagon. Statues like this are one reason I think Forest Lawn is very well suited to Michael Jackson.
Lisha: You know, not having been to Forest Lawn, I’m having a hard time picturing what a cemetery park looks like, with all the artwork and Michelangelo replicas. It seems so unusual. I found some vacation footage that was posted to YouTube that helped me visualize all of this a little better:
My gut instinct is that Michael Jackson would love this place. In many ways, it seems like the ideal resting place for someone who was so deeply committed to making the world a more peaceful place through beauty and art.
Willa: I agree. It feels right that he should be in such a beautiful place filled with art.
Eleanor: A perfect resting place for an artist, especially a pop artist. Forest Lawn in its early years was a symbol for what is now known as pop culture, but then the juxtaposition of “pop” and “culture” was seen as oxymoronic, if not moronic, reflecting the old British/European snobbery toward the US and its more democratic approach to art, an approach exemplified by American film and popular music. For so long, “culture” and art were identified with the old world, not the new, and with the elite, not the masses.
Willa: Right, and Dr. Eaton wanted to bridge that divide and make “high” art – or at least duplications of high art – available to everyone, including schoolchildren.
Eleanor: It is interesting that Forest Lawn and so many of the people who are buried or entombed there are so closely associated with film, an art form that has struggled to be taken seriously and recognized as art, just as popular music has. And that Forest Lawn came in for some of the same kind of criticism – like that dished out by Mitford and Waugh – that dogged Michael Jackson.
For example, both Forest Lawn and Michael Jackson were accused of “commercialism.” The Los Angeles Magazine described Forest Lawn as a “theme-park necropolis,” paraphrasing Jessica Mitford, indicating “Forest Lawn’s kitsch was just a sophisticated strategy for lubricating the checkbooks of the grieved.”
Lisha: That’s kind of funny, actually!
Eleanor: Yes, and Mitford’s analysis is probably not too far off the mark. I can’t imagine how much it costs to be laid to rest in the mausoleum.
Willa: Yes, but admission is free. Anyone who wants to visit and walk the grounds and view the artwork is able to do that, free of charge. So in death, the wealthy pay to provide art and serenity to everyone. But I imagine you’re right, Eleanor – I imagine it’s very expensive to purchase a crypt in the mausoleum.
Eleanor: Forest Lawn was viewed by Mitford as turning death into an industry, and film and pop music are also referred to as industries – or lumped in together as the entertainment business – or in LA, just “the business.” Certainly, success in these areas does bring fortune as well as fame. And Michael Jackson was often criticized for his focus on sales.
Lisha: Oh, don’t even get me started on the old art/commerce binary! It’s really time to get past that. I’ve noticed it’s the same critics of commercialism who ignore all Michael Jackson albums except Thriller. As a culture, we’re really stuck in the idea that commercial success and artistry are at odds. It’s as if Michael Jackson is somehow “guilty” of having the best selling album of all time.
Eleanor: I know, Lisha. So depressing. And so wrong! He equated sales not so much with money but as an indicator of how many people he was reaching – and changing – through his art.
Willa: Exactly. I interpret this the exact same way, Eleanor. He was trying to change the world, and he needed a global audience to do that.
Eleanor: Also, his commercial success reflected a level of cultural value not usually accorded to black men. So it was very important – especially to him.
Lisha: I agree with you, Eleanor, and I think this can’t be stressed enough. There’s also the cultural idea that only the “original” work of art is of high value, while any duplicate copy, no matter how skillfully done, is a worthless replica devoid of any “real” artistic value.
It seems to me that kind of thinking plays into the devaluation of recorded music, which is often assumed to be of lesser quality because it is factory duplicated and sold to the masses, rather than being reserved for cultural elites.
Willa: That’s a really interesting connection, Lisha.
Eleanor: And, when you think about it, why should art only appeal to the few, and not the many? Why should it be an acquired taste? Forest Lawn, as a symbol of pop culture, is the perfect resting place for the King of Pop.
Lisha: I would have to agree.
Eleanor: Some critics have dismissed Forest Lawn as sort of a Disneyland for the Dead, but I think Michael Jackson would have seen that more positively, given his appreciation for pop culture and Disney. So maybe he would like the idea of being in a Disneyland for the Dead!
Lisha: Hey! Isn’t that literally true? I mean, isn’t Walt Disney buried there?
Willa: Yes, he is – or rather, there’s a private garden dedicated to him where his ashes were scattered. Here’s a link to a description and photos of his garden, which includes a Little Mermaid statue.
Apparently, Walt Disney and Dr. Eaton were good friends, and Disney wanted to be a pallbearer at Dr. Eaton’s funeral but was too sick from lung cancer to attend. He was listed as an honorary pallbearer instead, and died three months later. His nephew, Charles Disney, was also a close friend of Dr. Eaton’s, and wrote a tribute to him after his death.
Lisha: That’s wild. It’s a small world, isn’t it? I also read there is an wonderful art museum at Forest Lawn. An exhibit is on display there now through the end of the year that features the work of Eyvind Earle, one of Disney’s legendary animators. He is credited with conceiving some of the amazing background animation in Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan.
Willa: Wow, and what could be more appropriate than that, given Michael Jackson’s love of Disney and Peter Pan?
Lisha: I agree. That’s an exhibit I would love to see, and I imagine Michael Jackson would have been quite interested as well.
Eleanor: No doubt about it. Michael Jackson was fascinated by film, especially Disney, and oddly enough the hilly terrain where Forest Lawn is located was once used as a location for films. For example, Birth of a Nation was filmed there.
Lisha: Whoa! Birth of a Nation was actually filmed there, before it became a cemetery?
Eleanor: Yes! Can you believe it!
Willa: Wow, I had no idea. That’s mind-boggling.
Eleanor: I mentioned that to my son and he reminded me that when the film industry was new – and it was very new when Birth of a Nation was made – and before LA grew to its current size, a lot of the land surrounding Hollywood served as locations for films, just as LA itself does today. Given Michael Jackson’s interest in film and his desire to be in film, and the personal significance of Birth of a Nation for him, it’s interesting that his tomb is on what once was its set. (“I ain’t scared of no sheets!”)
Willa: That’s really chilling, isn’t it? It adds a whole new dimension to the significance of Forest Lawn as his final resting place. As Joe Vogel talked about in a post with us last year, Birth of a Nation was incredibly influential in shaping American ideas about film and about race – after all, it glorifies the Ku Klux Klan. And Joe sees Black or White as pushing back against that racist history.
So how wonderful that people from around that world now come to that place – the very spot where Birth of a Nation was filmed – to pay tribute to Michael Jackson. What a reversal! That’s incredible.
Lisha: You’re right, Willa, that really does turn the tables, doesn’t it? That’s a wonderful way of thinking about this. As you pointed out earlier, visitors show up almost every day to pay their respects to Michael Jackson, as one of the most famous and distinguished artists of our time. That’s a far cry from the racially segregated future that Birth of a Nation imagines. It is so strange to think that film was widely applauded and accepted in its own time.
Eleanor: Yes, really strange. Also, in a related vein, in its early years Forest Lawn was segregated – closed to African Americans, along with Chinese and Jews.
Willa: That’s another important point, Eleanor. And now their most famous “resident” is Michael Jackson, attracting people from around the world. So again, it’s like an act of reclamation.
You know, in the beginning Forest Lawn was pretty exclusionary in their art also. The emphasis of their collection was definitely on white European art and traditions, especially the Italian Renaissance, with Dr. Eaton visiting Europe again and again in pursuit of art for Forest Lawn.
But they have become more inclusionary now, both in terms of who’s buried there and what kinds of art are displayed there. For example, on June 29, 2000, the Dalai Lama visited Forest Lawn to bless a new sculpture – the Shi-Tro Mandala – and they seem very proud of the fact that while he was there he recognized Forest Lawn as “a sacred place.”
Lisha: That’s amazing! I had no idea.
Eleanor: Wow. A sacred place. I love it. Well, it is sacred to me because Michael’s tomb is there. But I like the idea that the Dalai Lama sees it as sacred, too.
Willa: I do too. Well, thanks so much, Eleanor, for making me aware of what a special place Forest Lawn is, and encouraging me to visit!
Lisha: And thanks for joining us today to talk about it. I learned so much from you both.
Eleanor: Thanks again for inviting me.
Willa: Hey Lisha. This week I was wondering if we could talk a bit about the song “Destiny.” To be honest, it’s perplexed me for a long time. But I recently had an idea that opened up a new way of interpreting it, and I wanted to run it by you to see what you think.
What’s puzzled me about “Destiny” is the way it keeps switching genre. It starts off sounding like a country song, but then it gets funkier in the choruses and toward the end it sounds much more futuristic. You can really hear that around 3:20 minutes in: there’s a passage that sounds like a sonic “lift-off” and then at 3:30 it goes into a brief interlude of what I guess you would call “space music,” kind of like what you hear on the radio show Hearts of Space. I feel sure Michael Jackson was switching genres like this for a reason – to create a shift in mood or convey an idea – but what exactly? I’ve pondered this for a long time.
Lisha: Willa, I’m glad you brought it up because I’ve been perplexed by this song as well. If you were to add Clint Black or Reba McEntire’s twangy Southern vocals to “Destiny,” nothing would be out of place. The intro and the verses of this song would fit into any mainstream country music programming. However, by the first chorus, things start getting really urban and funky, and the rest of the song is consistent with 1970s pop/rock and R&B. And even though I hadn’t noticed it before, you’re right, there is that section after the final vocal improv that ends with some new-agey electronic sounds and feedback, almost like the ambient sonic explorations on the Hearts of Space radio show!
Willa: Yes, it’s a real smorgasbord of genres. There’s pop, rock, and R&B as you say, and even a strong hint of disco.
Lisha: Yes, especially some of the string and electronic sounds suggest disco to me in spots as well.
Willa: So the question I keep asking myself is why? Why would Michael Jackson begin a song with acoustic guitar and a bit of twang in his voice, probably the most “country” of any of his songs – his published songs, anyway – and end with synthesizer and a much more futuristic sound?
“Destiny” happened to come on the car stereo the other day, and as I was listening to it an idea struck me. Michael Jackson and his brothers repeatedly said that their mother loves country and western songs and raised them with that music. For example, in Moonwalk he writes, “My first memories are of her holding me and singing songs like ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and ‘Cotton Fields.’” And they’ve also said they started off singing together as a group by singing country songs around the house. I think Marlon and Jackie Jackson talk about that in Spike Lee’s Off the Wall documentary. So I wonder if in some ways “Destiny” charts the Jacksons musical journey, beginning with a country sound but then moving in a new, more futuristic direction?
Lisha: What a fascinating idea, Willa. While the lyrics talk about searching to “find my destiny,” it’s accompanied by music that strongly resembles the Jacksons’ own musical journey. Maybe that’s part of the plan!
Willa: Yes, that’s what I’m wondering. And you’re right, the lyrics themselves suggest the idea of a journey or quest, like when he sings, “I do dream of distant places / Where I don’t know now, but it’s destiny.” And we can interpret that as a physical or spiritual journey, or more specifically as an artistic journey.
Lisha: I really think you are onto something. The songwriting credits include all five brothers who were in the group at that time. It’s reasonable to think they might have wanted to reflect on their own musical heritage and a sense of destiny by creating a song that illustrates their journey musically. Of course, even if that wasn’t their intention, your observation still holds true. It would be hard to deny that the song makes use of the very different musical styles – styles that the family was immersed in and that are generally considered to be worlds apart, both musically and culturally.
Willa: It really does. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another song like it – meaning one that begins with country and then shifts so dramatically to other forms.
Lisha: I can’t really think of a similar move either. Mainstream country music has had strong elements of rock for some time, but that is achieved by blurring genres together, rather than just placing them side-by-side as in “Destiny.” In fact, Country Music Television’s Chet Flippo has said: “Many fans of ’70s rock have discovered that today’s mainstream country is ’70s rock.” He claims genre distinctions are not as rigid as they used to be, which means genre is not the effective marketing tool it used to be either. Today’s listeners just aren’t as loyal to one style over another, as in the past.
Willa: That’s interesting. I’d need to think about that some more, but I think he might be right. But while “blurring genres together” isn’t uncommon, that isn’t what’s happening in “Destiny,” as you pointed out, Lisha. The intro and verses are distinctly “country” so they really sound like traditional country music, and then he’s “placing them side-by-side,” as you say, with other genres in the choruses.
That’s really unusual, but juxtaposing genres in this way is something Michael Jackson experimented with more than once, as you noted in a brilliant analysis of “Black or White” a few years ago:
[T]he white rap section in Black or White uses black hip hop, but runs it through a white perspective, Bill Bottrell’s feel good lyrics and performance. The previous section, “I am tired of this devil” uses white hard rock and heavy metal but runs it through a black perspective and the frustration of racial injustice. He is deliberately confusing musical codes here, attempting to integrate all these perspectives into a single view in a very trans-ethnic way (the way he uses his body). He is autonomously choosing the perspectives he wishes to use, ingeniously expressing the Black or White theme in the song.
I’m still blown away by this! And by the paper you wrote building on these ideas. I think it’s the most insightful analysis I’ve ever read about the musical structure of “Black or White.” It’s so fascinating how he juxtaposes genres to make a statement about race, and that raises another way to approach “Destiny.” After all, country music is coded “white” just as much as hard rock is – maybe even more so. So maybe he’s subtly saying something about racial divisions in “Destiny” also?
Lisha: Thank you so much for your kindness! And I think you’re right about “Destiny.” What I found so fascinating about “Black or White” is that the lyrical content is supported by running musical commentary as well. “Destiny” strikes me as an early expression of that same idea.
Willa: Yes, it seems that way to me too.
Lisha: What is so striking to me about them both is that the rigid boundary between genres is observed, but then that boundary is dealt with by just ignoring it. It’s as if there’s nothing unusual about writing a country song, and then switching to an entirely different genre for the chorus! And even when you listen to the intro to “Destiny” in the context of the album, the country feel is strangely not out of place though I’m not exactly sure why. It doesn’t jar you into thinking, what the heck is going on? It just kind of happens.
It’s the same move in “Black or White,” when the bridge suddenly has eight bars of hard rock/heavy metal, and then it’s followed by eight bars of hip-hop rap. The seamless way the transitions are made, you almost don’t notice it.
Willa: Yes, it fits, even though when you stop to think about it, it’s not clear why. How does he do that? He makes those huge transitions so effortlessly, they seem natural, as if there’s nothing the least bit unusual about jumping genres like this. And I just want to say again that your analysis of race and genre in “Black or White” is so interesting! I’ve thought about it a lot the past couple of years, and it’s just so brilliant what he’s doing there. And I think “Destiny” could be an early experiment in using genre to subtly talk about race, just like he does in “Black or White.”
In the US, genre is divided pretty rigidly along racial lines – for example, country music is labeled as “white,” as if it’s somehow off-limits to black artists and audiences. Michael Jackson alludes to the racial biases surrounding country music in Moonwalk. After saying that his mother liked to sing country songs like “Cotton Fields,” he goes on to say,
Even though she had lived in Indiana for some time, my mother grew up in Alabama, and in that part of the country it was just as common for black people to be raised with country and western music on the radio as it was for them to hear spirituals in church. She likes Willie Nelson to this day.
So he’s using his mother as an example to show that, even though country music tends to be seen as exclusively white, that isn’t really true.
Lisha: You know, the fact that we’re even talking about music in racialized terms demonstrates how strongly music will reflect the society it was created in. What better proof of a divided nation could there be than the fact that American music codes so strongly along black and white racial lines?
Willa: That’s true, Lisha, and it’s a really important point. Musical genre – or how we think about genre – reflects the history of segregation in the US. University of Rochester music professor John Covach offers a series of free online classes through Coursera, and he talked about this in one of his History of Rock classes. He said that Billboard magazine began as a trade journal, and the Billboard charts originated as a way of letting jukebox companies know which records to put in which jukeboxes. The country charts told them which songs were popular with young white rural listeners, so they should put those records in jukeboxes in rural white hangouts. The pop charts told them which records to put in jukeboxes in urban and suburban white areas, and the R&B charts told them which records to put in jukeboxes in black areas. The assumption was that those audiences had very different tastes and didn’t intermingle much, so the jukeboxes serving those audiences each needed their own separate list.
Since that time Billboard has expanded the R&B chart (the “black” chart) to include hip-hop, and they’ve added some new categories (rock, Latin, electronic dance music) but actually this just reinforces that kind of segregated thinking: that whites want pop, rock, and country; blacks want R&B and hip-hop; and now Latin Americans want Latin music.
Lisha: Yes, segregation was the law of the land when Billboard began compiling data in order to better understand how people buy music. It makes sense that marketing people would be very interested in correlating genre and race. But I think genre is a really tricky subject for many reasons.
Willa: It really is. For example, Billboard compiles separate lists for different genres, but R&B and hip-hop are lumped together into one chart. From what I can tell, R&B and hip-hop have very little in common musically, but they have been grouped together for marketing purposes because they are both seen as black or “race music” as Billboard used to call it. So the assumption is that R&B and hip-hop appeal to the same audience or market share simply because they have both been racialized as black, but that’s a big assumption to make.
Lisha: It is. And musicians, musicologists and marketing departments often use the same terms in very different ways, so it creates a lot of confusion.
Willa: That’s true. “Folk” or “funk” or “punk” or any of those labels don’t necessarily mean the same thing to musicologists and the general public, to marketers and the musicians themselves.
Lisha: Exactly. This reminds me of the time in 1963 when a song called “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs hit #1 on the Billboard R&B chart. Because R&B gets used as a marketing term for black music that appeals to black audiences, when you listen to how hilariously white “Sugar Shack” is, it’s hard to believe it once topped the R&B charts! Billboard mysteriously didn’t publish another R&B chart for over a year after this happened, presumably so they could rethink their approach.
I guess my point is that defining genres and demographics is not that straightforward. But we can make some broad generalizations about who consumes what music, and I think that is exactly what “Destiny” is commenting on: musical styles that we recognize as belonging or appealing to different groups.
Willa: Or have been perceived as appealing to different groups, though those perceptions may not be true.
Lisha: Yes, “Destiny” seems to challenge those perceptions.
Willa: I agree. Dave Marsh talks about this in Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream, referring specifically to how country music has traditionally – and wrongly – been seen as exclusively “white.” Marsh raises some important issues about this, but unfortunately it’s part of a rant where he chastises Michael Jackson for not knowing much about music history. Seriously.
Lisha: Oh please! All right, go ahead. Let’s hear it.
Willa: Ok, prepare yourself. It’s long, condescending, and incredibly irritating. This is what Marsh says, and keep in mind that he’s writing this directly to Michael Jackson, in an open letter addressed to “Michael”:
To understand how today’s music really developed, you have to know what Berry Gordy learned from writing for Jackie Wilson; what Jackie Wilson learned from Roy Brown and Al Jolson; where what they all learned came from: the heart of American racial conflict. You have to know that just as the Beatles and Rolling Stones built a musical edifice from the foundation established by Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Elvis, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard – black and white performers, but mostly black ones – so did Chuck Berry come up with his style by drawing upon the jump blues of Louis Jordan and and the nasal country harmonies of Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers’ “Ida Red” and Little Richard draw upon the great gospel shouting of Marion Williams and the Ward Singers and the flamboyant costuming and pianistics of Liberace; and Bob Dylan forge his style from Roy Acuff and Robert Johnson, Ma Rainey and Woody Guthrie. And that Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen” was a black man and that Nat Cole had to have spent a lot of time listening to Bing Crosby … and that your own grandfather, a black man in Arkansas, where his skin color was an excuse and opportunity for humiliation and degradation all the livelong day, nevertheless tuned in “hillbilly” radio programs not out of perversity but because that music was “his” as much as it was “theirs.” That is, because buried somewhere deep in American cultural memory is the story of your own rise and fall from grace told over and over and over again as a continuing multiracial passion play. And without knowing where your music came from – not from magic and dreams alone, as you’ve been known to claim, but from hundreds of years of such interminglings and attempts to separate and segregate them – you will never, ever be able to make sense of what has happened to yourself.
Lisha: Wow. There is so much going on there I hardly know where to start as far as trying to untangle Marsh’s superior attitude and selective amnesia. It’s revealing that he considers, in all seriousness, that there’s a black American anywhere on the planet who has failed to notice “today’s music really developed” from “the heart of American racial conflict.” That’s funny enough without accusing Michael Jackson of it!
Willa: Oh absolutely. I mean, just think of Michael Jackson’s background. He toured on the “chitlin’ circuit” while still in grade school with some of the biggest names of the day: the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the O’Jays, Sam & Dave, and many others. He played the Regal Theater in Chicago and the Apollo in Harlem. He watched wide-eyed from the wings as his heroes James Brown and Jackie Wilson performed on stage. He talked with Etta James in her dressing room, and lived for a time with Diana Ross. He was groomed by Bobby Taylor and Berry Gordy, and sat in the studio obsessively watching Gordy and Stevie Wonder and others mix an album. He danced with the Nicholas Brothers and Jeffrey Daniels and Michael Peters, and danced on Soul Train and at Studio 54. He worked with Gamble & Huff and Quincy Jones, as well as some of the best songwriters, session musicians, sound engineers, vocalists, dancers, and other performers in the business.
I mean, just think about the amazing life he lived, learning about the history of American performing arts from the people who knew it best – and not just as an eyewitness but as a fellow artist. He didn’t just research the history of performance in America; he lived it.
But Marsh never seems to consider that with this incredibly rich artistic background, steeped as it was in the traditions of previous generations (vaudeville, country, soul, R&B), coming of age at Motown (“the Sound of Young America”) and continuing on through pop, funk, and disco, Michael Jackson might know some aspects of music and entertainment history much more fully and more intimately than he (Marsh) does. It’s unbelievably patronizing.
Lisha: Well said, Willa. To challenge Michael Jackson’s knowledge of the racial divide in music or the industry shows what a naive position Marsh is coming from. He manages to overlook just about everything that Michael Jackson brings to the table, which is a pretty massive blind spot.
Lisha: Interestingly, Marsh’s book was published in 1985, seven years after Destiny. According to Marsh’s own account, he wrote the book in response to Michael Jackson’s breathtaking success in the 1980s, including his “triumph over apartheid broadcasting.” It’s revealing that Marsh specifically cites Michael Jackson’s breach of the racial divide while setting up his book-length rant.
Willa: Yes, that’s true. He praises a few individual songs on Thriller, especially “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” and notes that the album as a whole “crossed over” and appealed to white audiences on a scale that no album ever had before. But then he harshly condemns it precisely because of its crossover appeal, claiming it sells out in a way that harkens back to blackface minstrelsy. Lifting quotes from Robert C. Toll’s Blacking Up and applying them to Michael Jackson and Thriller, Marsh writes,
Why did they [white listeners] find Thriller so attractive? I’d say because both you and your album let them see what they expected, a “lazy, pretentious, frivolous, improvident, irresponsible and immature” black “who loved to entertain whites.” Now Michael, I know you aren’t improvident – you have lots of money. Maybe you aren’t lazy when the chips are down, but intellectually you are a sloth. You go ahead and deny meeting the other standards. There’s no way I can.
Lisha: Wow. I’m sorry, but that really crosses the line from harsh critique to a racially motivated personal attack.
Willa: It feels that way to me too. And by equating Michael Jackson with minstrel show stereotypes and condemning him as a black performer “who loved to entertain whites,” Marsh places him – and in fact all successful black “crossover” artists – in an ironic double bind, as if the mere fact of their ability to entrance white audiences is prima facie evidence that they have sold out their race.
Lisha: That’s a brilliant observation, Willa. I get the feeling that what Marsh ultimately wants is for Michael Jackson to stay on his side of the color line. He put an awful lot of energy into writing a book that attempts to put Michael Jackson back in his place. At least that’s what I take from it.
Willa: Yes, I think you’re right, in the sense that Marsh wants him to “be black” and stay black, but it’s more complicated than that. He actually wants Michael Jackson to be a kind of Moses figure who will lead America out of its racist past and bring about racial healing, and he expresses a mournful dismay that he apparently isn’t Moses and isn’t trying to be. As Marsh says,
Chances are, even if you’d wanted to do it, you could not have crossed an army over into the Promised Land with you. But you could have gotten them to wade in the water.
It’s really manipulative what he’s doing. We could do an entire post on Dave Marsh.
Lisha: Great idea! I think we should devote an entire post to Dave Marsh. His book is such an important document for understanding the fierce backlash Michael Jackson had to face.
Willa: It really is. However, as provoking as Marsh is, he does make an important point in that long passage I quoted earlier when he says that “your own grandfather, a black man in Arkansas, … tuned in ‘hillbilly’ radio programs not out of perversity but because that music was ‘his’ as much as it was “theirs.’” In other words, he’s saying that country music belongs to black audiences just as much as it belongs to whites. That seems to be exactly what Michael Jackson was getting at in Moonwalk when he said, “my mother grew up in Alabama, and in that part of the country it was just as common for black people to be raised with country and western music on the radio as it was for them to hear spirituals in church.”
So maybe one way of interpreting that country-sounding intro to “Destiny” is to see it as reclaiming that heritage.
Lisha: Yes, I think you’re right and that is so important to emphasize. Country music is also called the “white man’s blues” because it too owes a debt to black musicians from the Mississippi Delta. And misconceptions about the origins of rock and roll are abundant, thanks to Elvis Presley and other white artists who covered this music early on. The true architects and pioneers of rock and roll were black musicians coming out of the R&B tradition, like Little Richard for example, who was also influenced by the country music that surrounded him. “Destiny” seems to be questioning why music is still coded black or white at all.
Willa: I agree, and that’s a really interesting way to think about “Destiny,” Lisha. So by placing the genres side by side as he does, maybe he’s emphasizing their similarities and common history.
Lisha: Well at least in theory, it stands to reason that all forms of American music should be a part of our musical heritage as Americans. But as you said earlier, Willa, country music is “somehow off-limits to blacks.” And whites have repeatedly rejected or felt threatened by black music, even while appropriating it as their own.
Record producer Don Was did this amazing project called Rhythm, Country and Blues back in 1994, which addressed the issue of race and genre by focusing on the surprising commonalities between black R&B and white country music. He made some amazing recordings with country and R&B artists working together, and he did it so convincingly that you begin to question how different these genres really are. There is a wonderful documentary film about this project, and I think the segment with Little Richard and country star Tanya Tucker is especially relevant to our discussion. It starts at about 25:00 in:
Wouldn’t “Destiny” be a perfect song to receive the Don Was treatment? It so beautifully illustrates how American music has been racialized and divided, but then really makes you question why that has to be, if you stop long enough to think about it!
Willa: Wow, that is fascinating, Lisha! I remember when that album came out, but I’d never seen the documentary before – didn’t even know it existed. I loved listening to all the duets again!
Lisha: I did too! Aren’t they amazing?
Willa: They really are! What a treat to hear Aaron Neville and Trisha Yearwood sing “I Fall to Pieces” or Clint Black and the Pointer Sisters sing “Chain of Fools” or Gladys Knight and Vince Gill sing “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” or Natalie Cole and Reba McEntire sing “Since I Fell for You” or Marty Stuart and the Staple Singers sing “The Weight.” I’d forgotten how great the music on that album is, and it really shows how the separation between genres – especially between “black” music and “white” music – is “just an illusion / Wrought by the magical lens of / Perception,” to quote a very wise person. We tend to hear Little Richard and Tanya Turner as very different – as belonging to completely different musical spheres – because we’ve been trained to perceive them that way. But our conditioning fools us. They really aren’t that different. And what a wonderful way of showing that, Lisha.
Lisha: I’m glad you thought so. Willa, do you remember the interview Michael Jackson gave John Pidgeon in 1980, the one where Janet sits in and repeats the questions back to him?
Willa: Oh yes. I love that interview.
Lisha: I do too. I wanted to go back and read that again, because it was done just a couple of years after Destiny was released. Here are some excerpts that I thought were especially interesting in this context:
I hate to say it’s a category – pop, jazz. I don’t like that. It’s music. It’s wonder to the ear and that’s what counts. If you can move a person through music, that’s what makes me feel good. That’s what I enjoy about it…
I think secretly and privately, I mean really deep within, there’s a destiny, for me, and just for me to stay on that track and follow it…
Call it disco, call it anything … it’s music. … That is the ugly thing about man – they categorize too much. They get a little bit too racial about things when it should all be together. That’s why you hear us talk about the peacock a lot, because the peacock is the only bird of all the bird family that integrates every color into one.
And that’s our main goal in music, is to integrate every race into one, through music, and we’re doing that. If you go to our concerts you see every race out there, and they’re all waving hands and they’re holding hands and they’re smiling and they’re dancing. And that to me is accomplishing everything. That’s the biggest reward for me, more than money, is to bring those people together and do that. That’s what makes me feel good. You see the kids out there dancing, as well as the grownups and the grandparents. All colors. And that’s what’s great. That’s what keeps me going.
So according to Michael Jackson, integrating race through music was his “main goal.” It’s not just a happy accident that his music ends up so effectively addressing the racial divide. It’s by design. His thought process seems to be, What would happen if these musical categories began to drop? Can artists steer the culture by addressing these issues in their work? What better place to do this kind of cultural work than the music industry – an industry that is already set up to deliver artistic product to a mass audience?
Willa: Wow, Lisha. Those are really important questions. So if we approach “Destiny” from this perspective, then the way it juxtaposes different genres could really be seen as a political statement.
Lisha: Yes, I think so. It also strikes me as a deeply spiritual position, too, as you said earlier. Looking again at what Michael Jackson told John Pidgeon, “I think secretly and privately, I mean really deep within, there’s a destiny, for me…”
In this part of the interview, Michael Jackson was specifically talking about having a vision for how he wanted to push music performance and composition forward in very visual and dramatic way. When I thought about this more, the peacock illustration on the back cover of the Destiny album came to mind.
Michael Jackson said the peacock is “the only bird of all the bird family that integrates every color into one.” So the peacock is used as a visual symbol on the album of integrating all colors through music. The peacock is also featured on the back of the Triumph album, and a peacock feather floats upwards towards the sky at the end of the short film Can You Feel It, followed by a display of peacock feathers imposed on an image of the planet.
Willa: Yes, I was just thinking about that! And Can You Feel It really advances the idea of bringing people together through art, as Joie and I talked about in a post a while back. So it seems significant that the image of the peacock would appear in both Destiny and Can You Feel It.
Lisha: It does to me too. It’s a visual symbol that sums up the spiritual values or philosophy of the music.
Willa: That’s really interesting, Lisha, and it just goes to show how “Destiny” begins as a country song but ends up being so much more.
Lisha: Something else I noticed about “Destiny” is how consistent the thematic content is with the genre of country music. I’m even tempted to think of it as a country song that strays into other musical territory, rather than think of it as a Jacksons’ song that simply tacks on a country section. The lyrics deal with some very familiar themes in country music such as longing for “the simple life,” a desire to get away from the city, a cautious attitude about excessive materialism, a stubborn but highly-valued sense of individualism. I think this holds true for the entire song, but these lines in particular strike me as typical of the country music genre:
And I’ve tasted the city life and it’s not for me…
If it’s the rich life I don’t want it,
Happiness ain’t always material things…
Give me the simple life…
Let me be me
C’mon, let me feel free…
Nobody can change my mind
Willa: That’s true, Lisha. There’s also the idea of constantly moving on, which is a common feature of country music also. For example, the cowboy, alone on the range, is a very old motif – or more recently, the country singer or the gambler moving from one honky tonk to another, playing a night or two and then traveling on. We see something similar in “Destiny,” such as the urge to “up and fly away so fancy free” or the repeated lines “I’m getting away from here / Let me be free / Let me be me.” In fact, the entire song focuses on a quest that may take him around the world as he searches for his destiny.
You know, it would be really easy to interpret this search for his “destiny” as a longing for success – wealth, accolades, a penthouse in the city – but as you pointed out earlier, Lisha, the lyrics contradict that. In the lyrics you just quoted, he emphasizes that “Happiness ain’t always material things.” So while commercial success may be part of his destiny, that doesn’t seem to be his main goal. He’s talking about something deeper and more spiritual when he refers to finding his destiny.
Lisha: That’s an excellent point. It’s clear that the character in this song is not motivated by success in terms of material gain. His motivation is something much bigger: a desire to fulfill his own destiny. He follows his own moral compass and sense of purpose.
Willa: Yes, and the idea of defining success on your own terms is part of the country music tradition also. Success may be a good paycheck, but more often it’s the satisfaction of living life on your own terms, free from constraints. You don’t need a penthouse to be happy – just a pickup truck and the love of a good woman. I’m oversimplifying of course, but that’s the general idea …
Lisha: I’m not sure you can oversimplify when it comes to satisfaction and pickup trucks in country music!
Willa: That’s funny, Lisha. But you’re right that “Destiny” evokes a lot of themes frequently heard in country music, so maybe the country flavor in the intro was also used to help convey those thematic ideas. In fact, you may be right in looking at it more as “a country song that strays into other musical territory” instead of “a Jacksons’ song that simply tacks on a country section.”
Well thank you, Lisha, for another fun conversation! I learn so much every time I talk to you.
Lisha: It’s always great to hear your ideas and talk about Michael Jackson’s work! I loved revisiting this song.
Willa: I did too. I also wanted to let everyone know about a conversation you and your friend, historian Roberta Meek, recently had with Elizabeth Amisu and Karin Merx of the Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies. Here’s a link to the podcast, which is a fascinating look at Michael Jackson and Prince. Joe Vogel recently published an article about Michael Jackson and Prince also, and Raven Woods republished a 2011 post about them on her AllForLoveBlog, with an updated ending. It’s an important topic.
Lisha: Thanks for mentioning the podcast, Willa. We had a wonderful time putting that together. I understand Part 2 of the conversation goes up June 7th, so stay tuned.
Willa: Wonderful! I’m really looking forward to it.
Lisha: In Part 1 of our tour through Neverland Valley Ranch, Brad Sundberg gave us a detailed look at the first third of Michael Jackson’s incredible home, including the guard gate, the magical “ornate gate,” the train stations, the pastures, the water features, the guest villas, and the main house. Neverland guests would usually drive a mile or so onto the property to reach the ornate gate. From there, they could park their cars and walk through that gate, boarding a train that transported them to the next section of the property. This meant most guests would bypass the main residence altogether. Is that right, Brad?
Brad: Yes, most people wouldn’t go into the main house. That was really Michael’s private home. But VIP guests would certainly stay there, and if he wanted to bring his friends in there, that was for him to do whatever he wanted.
But then you keep going to that second third, the middle section, and that was the amusement park. And that’s what people have seen all the aerial photos of. I’ve had guests at my seminars who went there on special days. They got to go to the park. So if you were going to go to Neverland as a guest, that’s probably what you were going to see.
That’s where the theater was – that big beautiful theater on the left side of the valley.
And it really was a valley. Going back to my surfboard analogy, it would be like laying a surfboard down and having hills on either side of it. You just didn’t go up into those hills that much, unless you had a motorcycle or a horse or something. Most of the activity was down in the valley.
The bulk of our work was building all the music and all the systems for the park. We had a small stage there, where you could have a barbershop quartet or something. We had the Zipper and the bumper cars and the Ferris wheel and the carousel, and it just seemed like it was never going to stop. He would add one ride, and a month later he’d call me and say he’d bought another ride, and could I start coming up with some ideas for it.
Lisha: So he would call and talk to you in terms of what you were going to do with the rides musically, right?
Brad: Yeah, or I would go up there and we would have a meeting in his library, or he loved to have meetings in the castle. And he’d roll some plans out and start talking about what’s coming next. He was very specific.
It was kind of a cool relationship where he would – and it certainly was not just with me, I think Tony would say something very similar, or different people who worked up there – he would kind of tell us what he wanted to do, but then he wanted our ideas. You know, could we do this? Or what do you think of this? It wasn’t a dictatorship, by any means. Like I say, if you’re going to work with Michael, you’ve got to bring something to the table. You can’t just kind of sit there and wait for orders. You’ve got to contribute some ideas.
Willa: So he wanted your ideas about what kinds of sounds to provide? Or how to provide them? Or … ?
Brad: Well, I’ll give you a goofy example. Michael wanted music everywhere. Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. He did not want a place on that ranch where it would just be quiet. So he came to me one day and said “I bought a Ferris wheel.” I said, “Of course you did. Why wouldn’t you?” And he said, “I want music on the Ferris wheel.”
Well, I’m a guy. I understand geometry and electronics and physics, and all these things make perfect sense to me. So I’m thinking about a Ferris wheel, and you’re picturing a wheel that’s turning. And then on that wheel there are 16 little wheels that are all turning. But you can’t get wire anywhere, because after two rotations the wire is twisted up and it’s going to break.
Willa: Oh! I didn’t think about that.
Brad: So, I don’t want to bore you with too much stuff. But with lights and things like that, you can have big pieces of copper and brushes that get the power across to the next set of wheels. But music is a whole different animal. It gets really tricky trying to have stereo speakers and wires.
So we came up with this whole complicated scheme of having a battery pack in each car, and a radio receiver and an amplifier and speakers, and then we would transmit music up to each car. And I designed the whole thing for him, and I said I can do this. But I said, good grief, Michael, the cost of this, and having to charge batteries and all the headache involved. I said, just let people take a breath! Let them just get to the top of the wheel and they can see the park, they can hear everything, they can hear kids laughing. We don’t have to flood them with more music.
And luckily, he agreed, because I didn’t want to build that. I was just like, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever designed. And it would have worked! I had a pretty good design. But, the point being, that he would listen. It was really nice when I could edit once in a while and say, just because we can doesn’t mean we should. So he was good about that. He gave me a tremendous amount of freedom.
And I’m actually going to elaborate on one point. I was a kid! I mean, I’m five years younger than Michael, and we build Neverland when I was in my 20s and into my 30s for the bulk of that work. So I’m working with him and Bruce in the studio, you know, for weeks and weeks and months and months. And then, once a project is done, he’s yanking me up there, and we’re building stuff up there. And this is Michael Jackson! He could have hired the best audio company in L.A. He could have flown people in from Berlin if he wanted. And the fact that he let me do it, and he trusted me, to this day it really humbles me, and it means so much to me.
I didn’t get rich. I was too dumb! I was charging a fair price but I was learning. He let me learn at Neverland, and that’s something I’ll never forget. He gave me a tremendous amount of freedom, and in return I gave blood, sweat, and tears. There’s not a single project that I did at Neverland that I wasn’t proud of. We really, really gave everything we had at that ranch. And I wasn’t the only one. But I’ve always been really proud of the fact that he trusted me that much. So, I’ll get off my soapbox but…
Lisha: I can definitely see why he valued you so much.
Brad: It’s something that I value to this day.
So, all through the ranch – and we’ll get to the zoo in a few minutes – but everything I’ve been describing to you, there’s always music. And Michael would hand-pick, well, he hand-picked probably 80 percent of the music. He had a playlist, and he would call me and say ok, I want you to make a CD, and I want this song and this song and this song.
And then he would repeat himself. He loved the song “Carol Anne’s Theme” from Poltergeist. It’s kind of haunting and beautiful. So he wanted “Carol Anne’s Theme” to play twice – not twice in a row, but he’d do “Carol Anne’s Theme,” and like then “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, and then some Debussy, and then he’d want “Carol Anne’s Theme” again. And I’d say, Michael, we just did that. We just played that song 9 minutes ago. And he’d say, No, but it’s so beautiful I want it again. And you couldn’t argue with him! It made no sense, but it worked!
And you’d hear music everywhere. You’d get on the trains, and there he gave me a little more freedom. I could kind of play what I wanted, but it was always classical. We never had Michael music. That was absolutely forbidden.
Lisha: Here’s the playlist Brad shared with us at his seminar and on Facebook:
Brad: Now in the later years, I’m told that people would go there after 2004, 2003, 2005, and they’ve told me it was Michael music everywhere, which is a little disappointing because that’s never what he wanted. He was so clear about the fact that he did not want his music played anywhere on the ranch.
So you’d just have this wash of music, and you didn’t know where it was coming from. It was just everywhere.
Willa: So was it the same playlist playing everywhere you went? Or would like different rides at the amusement park have different music?
Brad: Yeah, the rides were different. So as you’re walking or on a train or something, it’s the same lush beautiful music. But then on every ride we had very specific music just for that ride. And he would pick almost all of that music. So we would have to build these enormous sound systems. And I’m a carnival junkie. I love carnivals. I love Disneyland. We had annual passes to Disneyland before it was cool. So I love that kind of stuff. So yeah, the carousel, for example – on that one he would want Janet. That was when Rhythm Nation was huge. So we had a couple of Janet songs that we played on the carousel.
On the Zipper, which was his favorite ride … Do you know what the Zipper is?
Lisha: Yeah, do you, Willa?
Willa: Isn’t it kind of like a double Ferris wheel, but it flips you upside down?
Brad: Yeah, it’s just the craziest, most awesome ride. That was his favorite ride, the Zipper, and for whatever reason he loved the song, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes. And good grief, everybody who would ride that ride would have to hear that song over and over and over again. It didn’t really make sense, but it was Michael! And you just had to accept it. This is what he likes.
I think in a certain way, he was very … um, what word am I looking for? Not predictable, but he liked routine. I haven’t really thought about this before, but I think there was something about, I’m on the Zipper so I’m going to hear “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” And that’s just what it was. You didn’t change it. You didn’t adjust it. It’s what he wanted.
Willa: Earlier you said something that was so fascinating. You said that going through the security gate and driving up past the sagebrush and going through the ornate gate – you said it was like the introduction to a song. And now it almost seems like, with the amusement park, you’re kind of getting some of the verses, the different verses of the song.
Brad: Yeah. I don’t want to try to get too poetic on it or anything. But Neverland really did have kind of a beginning, middle, and end, like a song. In the beginning you had the ornate gate, this “where am I?” moment, this beautiful entrance.
And then you’d get to the theme park, and that was just craziness: the superslide and the bumper cars and the Sea Dragon and music pounding from everywhere. And the theater was right there, and it was big and dramatic and bold.
And then maybe later in the day you’d go up to the zoo. And the zoo was much more soothing. So yeah in a sense, it was almost like an intro, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, fade-out.
Willa: Oh, that’s fascinating! That’s really fascinating.
Brad: Michael loved drama. You could experience Neverland in a full day, and at the end of the day you’re up petting a giraffe and feeding a duck or something, and it’s calm again. It’s very, very soothing.
So yeah. Whether it’s was by design or by accident – I kind of lean toward design – it really worked out to be a unique experience for a lot of people.
Lisha: That is fascinating, and how it would unfold in a certain way, a kind of calculated way.
Brad: Yes. Now having said that, we had plenty of screw-ups! We would try anything. He wanted to do these goofy, you know, like at Disneyworld, the little autopia cars? Little go-karts basically. Well, we had this elaborate go-kart track that ran up the side of the mountain over by the superslide. And it was beautiful! I mean it was paved, and I have no idea the amount of time and money that was put into building this go-kart track. This was not some little figure 8. This was legit – up the side of a mountain and under the trees. It was beautiful!
And the stupid cars weren’t strong enough to take people up the side of the hill, especially the adults, and people would be out pushing the cars! I’m not sure why we didn’t get bigger engines, but I think at that point they’d spent so much money that they had to cut their losses. So they moved the go-karts down to a flat track behind the theater. It wasn’t nearly as cool, but at least they didn’t have to have people out of their cars pushing them.
Willa: As a mom, I think having kids driving cars with big engines might be a safety issue!
Brad: Yeah, there were a lot of things that you just kind of had to bite your bottom lip and go “I hope nobody dies on this thing!” But, uh…
Willa: Oh no!
Brad: I’m kind of kidding! But you’ve probably seen pictures of the superslide. The slide was hysterical. It’s one of those big, yellow… I think it had four lanes or something like that.
Well, for Michael, nothing can ever be normal. It has to be, just crank it up to level eleven. So they found some Teflon spray or something. I don’t know if they got the stuff from NASA or where it came from. But you’d sit in a gunny sack, and they’d spray the sack with this spray … and it was terrifying! I mean I love any of this stuff, but you would go so fast you’d go airborne over those bumps and think you were going to break your back and be paralyzed! And Michael would just laugh until he’d almost pee his pants. Especially for someone like me who, you know, I’m not a small guy. And I would go down that thing, it seemed like 90 miles an hour, just bouncing from hill to hill.
Willa: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh!
Brad: It’s like, you’re going to kill somebody! Or another one was the bumper cars. I loved the bumper cars. And we’ve been pretty fortunate. We travel quite a bit, and so we’ve been in Europe several times. And I’m sorry, I’m a weirdo. I still, if there’s a theme park within 40 miles, I’m going to go to it. That’s just how I am. I could care less about a museum, but get me to a theme park.
And so we were at Tivoli, which was one of Michael’s favorite parks, in Copenhagen. This was just a couple of years ago, after Michael had passed. They had bumper cars there and it was the weirdest thing, because I was like thrown back to Neverland.
In Europe, and I’m not trying to stereotype, but there are just very different standards than in the US. I mean, it’s full speed ahead, smashing into people and thinking you’re about to knock your teeth out, where in the US everything is safety related and OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulated and everybody has to be safe.
Well, Michael didn’t really have a whole lot of OSHA going on up there. So his bumper cars were outrageously fast. They would just go. You’d think you were going to kill yourself! Then we’d fill that tent with smoke and black lights and strobe lights, and then a huge sound system. We had Joe Santriani – that was usually the sound track in there – and then these bumper cars would just go full speed ahead. And the same thing: Michael would just die laughing! It was, I hate to say it, but it was borderline dangerous. But it was so much fun you just didn’t care.
So I can’t talk about every single ride, but the other thing that I thought was really cool in the theme park was the castle. I don’t know if people have seen pictures of it. If you go way back, I’ve got some really cool pictures of the park when it was being built, and it used to be a tree house. Michael used to go up and watch people from the tree house, and it was cool but it wasn’t that big a deal.
Well, we had so much equipment coming in that we had to have a place for all of our power and our racks and amps and everything. So we decided to build a room on the bottom of the treehouse. Well, once again this is Michael Jackson, and you can’t do anything normal. So somehow that quickly escalated into the castle.
And so nobody ever got to go into the bottom of the castle because it was just an equipment room, and that’s where we kept all of our gear. But there was a big deck up on the side of the castle. And then above that, to one side was an office. And it was a really cool room that Michael could have meetings in. We’d sit up there and talk about rides that were going to come in. Or if he had to make a phone call or something, he could run up there. There’s no cell service at Neverland, and back then cell phones were pretty crude anyway. So it was just kind of a place where he could stay connected. You know, if he had some VIPs and they just wanted to get away, they could have lunch in the castle or something. It was just so unique and so different – a really, really beautiful little piece of architecture.
Then all through the park were the Disney animated butterflies, and the elephant that at night would kind of spray water in the air, but it wasn’t water. It was just lights.
And that’s another thing. During the day, the park was fun. It was an amusement park like nobody’s backyard anywhere. But at night, we would light that place up with, I don’t know if it would be millions, but tens of thousands of little twinkling lights in the trees.
In fact, I swear this is true. I shouldn’t swear, but I believe this is true. There’s these gigantic oak trees all through Neverland. All through the park I should say.
Willa: They’re the trees you see in the Say, Say, Say video, right? It was filmed there.
Brad: Was it?
Willa: Yes. So those big oak trees you see in the Say, Say, Say video, that’s at Neverland.
Brad: Ok. Well, those were covered, and I mean covered, with little twinkling lights – you know, the little tiny lights. And each tree had what’s called a 200-amp service. And now your music people just went to sleep when I say that, but that’s the equivalent of a normal size house in America. A normal size house gets 200 amps of electricity. That’s how much power those goofy trees needed for all the lights in them.
Lisha: That’s per tree?
Brad: That’s what I’m told. You know, I don’t want to take a lie detector test. But it was just enormous power that was feeding that ranch.
But that’s where all the lights came from. We didn’t have any street lights. It was all either lights in trees or lights from the amusement park, and that was it. And at night … I’ve been to some beautiful places, but Neverland at night ranks up so high. When it was in its prime and the rides were going, and the music was going, and it was lit up, I would pretty much put it right up with being in the middle of Disneyland, or Paris. It was really, really, really a magical place.
Willa: It sounds beautiful.
Lisha: A lot of the things that we’re talking about, such as the train system, and the park, and the flowers, and the clocks, and things like that, remind me so much of Walt Disney. And we know that Michael Jackson was a huge admirer of Walt Disney, who continually blurred the line between reality and fantasy with art and animation, until he finally built Disneyland. And the idea of Disneyland was that you were going to step into these fantasy worlds that he had previously created through art.
Brad: Stories, yes.
Lisha: It sounds like to me that Michael Jackson’s Neverland is so similar, and I’m just wondering about your take on that. You know Disneyland very well and you’ve also actually been on the ranch and know that very well too. But was there some kind of fundamental difference between those places?
Brad: Well let’s see. At Disneyland you’ve got 70,000 people on a crowded day, and at Neverland there were a couple hundred – that would be one difference! I mean, they were different experiences, obviously. Neverland was breathtakingly remarkable for somebody’s backyard. Yeah, it wasn’t Disneyland, but for being able to step out in your pajamas and go out to that park was just – and I’m not saying I did that – but that experience was unlike anything else.
Michael knew that I loved Disneyland and I’ve been a Disney fan my whole life. Brace yourself for something really syrupy, but I even proposed to my wife on the steamboat to Disneyland.
Willa: Oh, really!
Brad: Yeah, actually that was the same year that I met Michael. So we kind of had our little Disney connection. We never went to Disneyland together. We always talked about it, but for him to go was such an ordeal. So he would always ask me about it, and what was new, and what he should go see.
So yeah. Neverland – there were certainly, I guess you’d call them nods or tributes to Disney all over the place. And vice versa. I mean the Imagineers did more work than I really knew about at Neverland, like the animated figurines. When you went inside the theater, there were the two dioramas. One of them was Pinocchio, and the other one was Cinderella. And you’d push a button and these things would come to life – there were lights and music and motion and everything. And I believe those came from the Imagineers. I think Michael commissioned those to be built. So yeah, there was no shortage of nods to Disney.
Willa: I just found this video clip of the Pinocchio diorama, filmed when it was scheduled to go up for auction. I’m afraid the video quality isn’t very high, but it gives an idea of what happened when you pushed the button:
Lisha: That’s so interesting! I found a photo of the Cinderella diorama, which depicts the moment the Fairy Godmother turns Cinderella’s rags into a beautiful ballgown.
So both of these displays are focused on transformation: the moment when Pinocchio is magically transformed from a puppet into a real boy, and when Cinderella is transformed from a household servant into a princess.
Willa: That’s a fascinating observation, Lisha! – especially since transformations were such a recurring theme in Michael Jackson’s work. For example, I noticed there’s a small scene from the Smooth Criminal segment of Moonwalker tucked into a corner of the Pinocchio diorama, which I imagine the Imagineers added as a little surprise. It seems a little out of place here, but at the same time it’s kind of appropriate since Moonwalker is full of transformations. For example, the main character, Michael, transforms into a sports car, and a robot, and a space ship, and there are psychological transformations as well. (By the way, there are also a lot of tarantulas in Moonwalker, which reminds me of what you were saying earlier, Brad, about the tarantulas on Figueroa Mountain Road.)
Lisha: Brad, do you remember how Michael Jackson felt about his own image being added to the Pinocchio diorama?
Brad: My recollection is that Michael did not like the Smooth Criminal in the diorama, as he had very few images of himself in the public areas of Neverland.
Another thing you said that I kind of thought about for a second, about how at Disneyland you would step into the stories or the movies. You know, Michael could have done kind of a Michael Jacksonland where the bumper cars would – you know, I’m just talking completely silly – but we could have themed things, like the Thriller bumper cars or something, and had “Thriller” playing and a bunch of zombies.
He would never in a million years have done something like that. Nor would I have suggested it. That’s not what he wanted. He wanted something that kids would love and appreciate, as well as adults. If anything, there was almost a noticeable absence of anything Michael Jackson at Neverland, except Michael. Does that make sense?
Willa: It seems like he was really trying to create this fantasy experience, and the fantasies he drew on are all kind of nostalgic kid stories, like the teepee village, and cowboys – you said the people at the zoo dressed like cowboys – and the steam engine. They’re all evoking nostalgic kid’s stories and imagination games that boys, especially, used to play in the past.
Brad: Well, if there was one theme all through Neverland, it was Peter Pan. Obviously it’s called Neverland, so there is clue number one. It’s funny – I wrote a post on Facebook about this several months ago. You know, people send me pictures, and I’ve got a pretty amazing collection of pictures now from Neverland that people have shared with me. And I was going through a bunch of them one day, and there was a picture that just stopped me in my tracks.
Out behind the house there was kind of an office. And in that office, kind of looking out at the barbecue area on the back side of the house, was this Peter Pan figure. It was probably 24 inches tall, maybe 30 inches tall – something like that. And whenever I walked by it, I would always notice it. It didn’t move. There was nothing special about it. It was just this cool figurine of Peter with his hands on his hips and his little goofy hat and everything, just kind of proudly looking out at the backyard and the barbecue area.
And it always was just like, you know what? That is the coolest thing. And even though Michael’s got Rolls Royces and a steam train and everything you can imagine, there was something about that Peter Pan that just struck me. That may have been my favorite little part of the ranch. Because it was him. I mean Michael saw himself as Peter Pan. We didn’t talk about it. I mean, I don’t want to make it sound nutty. But you know Michael just had that Peter Pan connection.
When somebody sent me that picture, it just put a little bit of a lump in my throat because it was just a really cool memory from Neverland.
Willa: The teepee village is another Peter Pan reference. I mean, there’s a teepee village in Peter Pan – that’s part of the story.
Brad: Oh yeah. And in the big train station, up in the ceiling of the station, was this kind of a flying, it wasn’t full motion, but it was Peter Pan and a couple of the other characters. They were kind of suspended up there on string or rods or something. So they were flying above you when you walked into the train station.
Willa: Oh cool! I was just looking at an interesting post that had images of Peter Pan and Tinkerbell battling Captain Hook at Neverland. Were these up in the rafters of the train station?
Brad: Yes, great photos! There was something I was going to mention about the big train station a few minutes ago. Michael would have huge groups of guests, especially if his whole family came up. The ranch house itself was pretty funny because I think it only had four bedrooms, maybe five. There weren’t that many rooms. And there were only like five guest houses. Well, his family is huge, and then he’s going to have friends and different people. So [Brad] Buxer told me that they would actually have people sleep in the train station.
Brad: Oh, they’d sleep everywhere! They’d sleep in the theater – they’d be all over the place. But the train station was really just supposed to be a train station. There was never any forethought of needing beds in there. So I don’t know if they’d sleep on air mattresses or something. But there was no bathroom! And so Buxer talks about … I don’t know if it was the brothers, Tito or whoever – you know, if you wake up in the middle of the night you’d have to walk all the way down to the house to use the bathroom. Nobody ever thought about, gee, you might want to put a bathroom in here because people might sleep here. It was just supposed to be, come in, get some candy, and get on the train.
But Michael lived there, man, and that was his house. It was not a little stopover!
Willa: And the train station – that’s something he added, right? It wasn’t part of Sycamore Valley Ranch when he bought it?
Brad: Correct. The first time I went – I always get, you know, little giggles from some of my guests in the seminars when I talk about this – but my very first job at Neverland was putting music in the bedroom, in his room. So I put big speakers on either side of his bed, and I was pulling cables and built this cool little system in the bedroom.
And there was really not a whole lot else there. I mean there was the main house, and then there were the pastures way in the back. I don’t know when the theater was built, but I think he built that soon after he bought the place. I didn’t build the theater. Lee Tucker from Warner Studios built that. But then I wound up doing just about all the other projects.
So to kind of get to the third section – when you’re finally done with the park, usually guests could jump on the train, either the big train or the little train, and then go up to the zoo. Or you could walk up there. In fact, as the park kept growing, it kept getting closer and closer to the zoo. So if you go back to my surfboard analogy, the top of that middle circle started creeping up towards the far one, which was the zoo.
So then you get up to the zoo. The petting zoo was really cool. Everything was beautiful. I mean, it was manicured like nobody’s business. People were sweeping and cleaning. The petting zoo was one of the later additions. We didn’t have that for the first few years. In the early years, I think it was just… The elephants were pretty early. Kimba the lion was pretty early. Most guests didn’t get to see Kimba. Kimba was kind of kept up the hill a little bit because he was so mad at life!
Willa: Oh no!
Brad: He was just not a friendly animal. But if you went to the ranch early in the morning or right around sunset, that’s when Kimba was going to get fed. And that animal would roar, and it would scare you to death! I mean, you could hear that roar two miles away. It was just this beautiful, angry, cool roar.
I don’t want to make it sound like like he was mistreated in any way because he wasn’t, but he was just not soft and cuddly, “come play with me.” I mean, he was just a … He was tough. So we kind of kept him a little further away from the kids, because you didn’t want to terrify them.
But we had the horse barn. We had the snake barn. That was another just complete work of art, in a weird way.
Lisha: The snake barn?
Brad: Yeah, the reptile barn they called it. It was right across the street. Now you’re way up in the zoo. And this is where the fire department is. Neverland always had, I believe, two full-time firefighters in the fire station. That was required by the county, if I’m not mistaken. Right across the road from them was the horse barn, and then the snake barn.
You’d go into the snake barn, and the first room was all of these cages. It’s funny how I think about this stuff, because the first room was kind of not that impressive. You’d go in and it was full of terrariums – almost like going to a science fair or something. And it’s kind of cool – it’s like, ok, there’s a lizard and there’s a snake and there’s hissing cockroaches. It was kind of like, yeah ok, I’m good. Let’s get out of here.
But then you go through a second set of doors – I never really thought about this before – and all the sudden you’re in a different place.
Willa: You know, it kind of reminds me of what you were saying earlier about going through the first gates and it’s not that impressive. But then you go through the ornate gates and, Wow! Now you’re in a different world.
Brad: Yeah! I swear, I’m not making this up! But I’ve never really thought about it before. I always kind of thought the first room was kind of like, yawn, whatever. But that was where you were welcomed. And we had these little – we called them spiels – which is like a little 30-second recording, you know, just like at Disneyland: keep your hands and arms inside the car at all times, permanecer sentado, por favor!
In this room, you’d walk in, and I recorded one of the the animal trainers. His name was Brock, not to be confused with Brick [Price], but Brock. We had Brick and Brock! And Brock just had this beautiful deep bass voice, you know, “Welcome to…” I can’t even do it – I don’t have a voice that deep. But it would be something like, “Welcome to the reptile barn. In this room we hope to teach you about unique creatures from all over the world. Please don’t tap on the cages.”
Willa: Here’s an audio clip of that spiel that I found in a post on your Facebook page.
Brad: Yeah, and then you’d go through a second set of doors, and there was this dark, really cool hallway. It was just a long hallway all the way to the end of the barn. And then on either side of the hallway were these beautiful glass terrariums, and that’s not even the right word. These were enclosures. I mean, they were probably six feet wide, something like that, and I don’t know, three or four feet deep by five feet tall. I mean, they were big. And for some of the big snakes, they were even bigger than that. That’s where we had the rattlesnakes and the cobras and the reticulated python and Madonna, the albino python. And they were beautiful!
Lisha: Here’s a picture of “Madonna”:
Brad: I think they had one full-time snake handler, and at least one or two assistants. Now we’re not at the science fair anymore. Now we’re in a full blown, almost like a Sea World type environment. Those enclosures were beautiful – hand-painted, with water. They were really, really something to see. And then each enclosure would have its own little narrative telling a little 30-second story about that snake and where it came from.
But then Michael wanted to … Actually, I think this was my idea. I said, “Can I have a little bit of fun in here?” And he’s like, “Yeah, whatever you want to do.” So I put these hidden speakers all through the length of the hallway, down by people’s feet. It was kind of dark in there, and we had crickets sounds, and it was kind of … not creepy, but it was very authentic. And I did some recording in my front yard, of all places. I had ivy in my front yard instead of grass, so I pulled a cooler – like an Igloo cooler with a rope on it – I pulled it across the ivy and recorded that sound. Then I put that onto a play-back chip.
And about every nine or ten minutes people would be in the snake barn, and they’d be looking at snakes and kind of looking around. Then they’d hear this rustling at the far end of the hallway, and it would just go whizzing by them, down the hall of speakers. And they would jump and think some stupid snake had escaped from a pen! Michael would just die laughing! He thought it was the funniest thing.
So you know, it was all those little details that … there’s just no way the guests could take all that in one day. We put so many surprises and cool little treats up there that you really could explore it for a long, long time.
Next to that was the alligators. And then you’d go a little bit further, and it was the chimps – huge, huge chimp enclosure. And then the elephants. I tell people in my seminars that the only time I got yelled at at Neverland was when I put my hand in the elephant cage.
Brad: You know, it’s common sense. But they’re big, beautiful animals and I wanted to pet it. And man, this trainer came and she tore my head off! She said never, ever, ever, put your hand between a steel fence and an elephant! Because they don’t know. I mean, they’re just going to lean 4,000 pounds against your hand, and now you’ve got a waffle for a hand! So I learned, don’t ever do that.
Another thing that I thought was a really nice touch was Michael had those beautiful giraffes. I’ve never really been around giraffes. Who has? It’s just not something that we encounter very often in L.A.! But he put in this deck. You’d go up like two flights of stairs, and then they had these big buckets of feed up there. And so now you’re literally eye to eye with these beautiful animals, and you’re feeding them. Any chance I got – you know, if I was going to be working up there for a day – almost without fail I’d make a buzz up to see the giraffes before I went home. They’re such beautiful, gentle giants. And to actually have them kind of push their big heads against your chest while you’re feeding them … Really, really cool stuff.
Brad: So I mean, it goes on and on and on. But, you know …
Now let’s say that I missed my ride, and I got left at the giraffe pen and had to get myself back to the ornate gate. If I had to guess, I’d say you’re going to be walking for the better part of 45 minutes. If you just, you know, put your head down and started walking. It was huge. You just didn’t really walk around Neverland. You’d walk around the area that you were in. But that’s why they had the trains and the golf carts, and I’ve seen pictures where they had trams. Because it was too big to walk it. I don’t think people understand how big it was.
Lisha: And we’re just talking about the part of the property that was developed, right? I mean, the majority of the property was not developed, is that correct?
Brad: Yeah. I found some pictures – you know, like aerial photos – that show how big it was because, yeah, it went way up the sides of the mountains on either side.
Lisha: Here are the aerial photos from Sotheby’s Sycamore Valley Ranch website:
Brad: At the very, very far end of the ranch – past the giraffes and everything – was the train barn. And I don’t think anybody really went there. There was nothing to see. But that’s where the little train would go at night for repairs and things like that. And that was about as far back as the ranch was developed.
And then after that you’d need a motorcycle or a horse or an ATV or something to keep going, exploring Michael’s land. So a big, big piece of property.
Lisha: How much of the property would you say was developed?
Brad: You know, I just don’t know how far it went. But I suppose if I had to guess, maybe it would be a quarter to a third, something like that. But a lot of it would just be, I mean, Michael had little gazebos, I want to say he had two or three gazebos up on the hills. And he was a goofball! I mean he would take his golf cart or his … What do you call those three-wheeled things that are so ridiculously dangerous? Maybe he rode a quad. I think he rode a quad.
Brad: Yeah, he would take those things up to his gazebos. He loved to be up there with a pair of binoculars, and he’d be watching people build stuff and workmen and the gardeners. And even there – it was the weirdest thing – there was a gazebo that was way above the park, and I don’t know how they even got power up there but they got electricity up there. And sure enough, man, he wanted music up there! And I’m like, Michael, no one’s ever going to come up here. “No, but I have to have music. I have to have my music!” So there we’d be, hauling speakers up the side of a mountain. I mean there were paths. And almost anywhere that you’d go – I mean, not on the horse trails – but any place that he would go or guests might go, there would almost have to be music playing.
There was kind of a joke whenever he would leave the ranch. You know, almost everyone at the ranch had a radio, and when Michael was on the ranch he was always referred to as “the owner.” They didn’t say, you know, Michael Jackson’s on property. There would just be an announcement, “The owner will be here in five minutes.” And it kind of means, you know, everybody be on your best behavior. When Michael would leave the ranch, security at the last gate would announce, “The owner has left the ranch.” And then there would be this yelling from the gardeners, “Shut the music off! Please, shut the music off!” You can only listen to Debussy and The Sound of Music so many times, and you just can’t take it anymore!
Willa: That’s funny!
Brad: So when he was gone, they would shut the music off. But man, when he was there, it had to be on!
Brad: So that’s my little virtual tour of Neverland.
Lisha: Wow, that’s fascinating. Thank you so much, Brad! That’s really incredible.
Willa: It really is! And I’m so intrigued with this idea that visiting Neverland was like moving through a song. I’m really going to have to think about that some more.
Lisha: I agree. You’ve given us so much to explore and think about.
Brad: So any final thoughts or questions?
Willa: Well, we would love to include some pictures to illustrate some of the things you’ve been talking about. I know you have some pictures on your website, and there are a lot of pictures of Neverland online. Are there any specific things you’d recommend we include pictures of?
Brad: Well, everyone has seen pictures of the park. But I would say the carousel was kind of Michael’s crown jewel. Each one of those horses and animals was, I believe, hand carved. Those were really, really beautiful pieces of art. And then David Nordahl was one of Michael’s artists, and I believe David hand painted almost all of those animals.
Willa: Oh really? I didn’t know that.
Brad: So the carousel is definitely something that people should see. You know, there’s pictures of the superslide and the old go-kart track. I’ve never found a picture of the reptile barn. Man, if one of your readers happens to have a picture of that, that would be a real treat. I have searched and searched trying to find one, and just can’t.
Willa: OK, we’ll be sure to pass that along. And thank you again for joining us!
Lisha: Yes, thank you once again, Brad, for being so generous with your time and knowledge.
Brad: Thank you both. Have an awesome evening!
Willa: So following up on Brad’s suggestion, here’s a YouTube video of the carousel at Neverland that focuses on the artwork on the horses and other animals:
During our chat with Brad, he mentioned the incredible attention to detail throughout Neverland, and you can really see that in the artwork on the carousel animals.
Lisha: Yes. I’m reminded of some of my favorite photos on the Terrastories website, from the article “Inside Neverland Ranch“:
Another great resource is Rob Swinson’s book, Maker of Dreams: Creating Michael Jackson’s Neverland Valley Park, which has many detailed photographs of the carousel at Neverland, as well as a lot of information about how the park was created. Here’s a teaser photo from the 25th Anniversary of Neverland Valley Amusement Park Facebook page.
According to Swinson, this is “a photo of the ‘Butterfly Cherub Horse’ with flowers woven into the mane that Robert Nolan Hall, Chance Rides Inc., personally custom sculptured, decorated and painted for Michael as his very own special gift. It was totally unknown to Michael at the time of delivery that it existed on his new 50′ Grand Carousel as one of the 60 different menagerie animals and horses.”
Swinson’s book also acknowledges Oliver “Brick” Price, of WonderWorks in Canoga Park, California, as an important member of the “Dream Team” who helped make Neverland a reality. Brick Price will be one of the special guests speaking at Brad’s MJU seminar next month. I hear this is something not to be missed!
Lisha: Willa and I are thrilled to be joined once again by Brad Sundberg, a recording engineer who served as Michael Jackson’s technical director for the Dangerous and History albums. Beyond the studio, Brad designed and installed music and video systems in virtually every corner of Michael Jackson’s incredible Neverland Valley Ranch property. In addition to personal listening and dance studio systems, Brad created outdoor sound systems throughout the grounds with the exact same attention to detail.
At a recent In the Studio with MJ seminar, I was so intrigued by Brad’s description of Neverland and the work he did there, it left me wanting to know more! Thank you so much, Brad, for joining us again today for an in-depth look at Neverland Valley Ranch.
Willa: Yes, welcome, Brad. Thanks so much for joining us again! From everything I’ve heard about Neverland, it wasn’t just a home for Michael Jackson but also an extension of his artistic imagination. It’s almost like Neverland was a living work of art. So I’m really curious to learn more about this relatively unknown work of “art.”
Lisha: I have to say, Brad, your seminar gave me a sense of Neverland that I really hadn’t had before. We’ve all seen photos and aerial views of the property, but I don’t think I really had an idea of the true scale and grandeur of the property until I heard you describe it.
Brad: Ok, so what I want to try and do is give you guys a sense of the size of Neverland, and in a sense almost kind of walk you through it.
Lisha: Yes, being able to visualize Neverland from the ground level is what I think a lot of us are missing.
Brad: Right. Neverland was huge. You know, I’m not from Texas, and I don’t mean like Texas ranch huge, but it was 2,800 acres. To an American, that’s basically 2,800 football fields, if I’m not mistaken. It was big.
Lisha: There are many small towns that don’t have that much land!
Brad: Right. So when you went to Neverland, number one it was … I drove to Neverland countless times. I lived just outside of Pasadena, California, and Neverland is north of Santa Barbara. So you drive to Santa Barbara and get off the freeway, and then you start winding up the side of a mountain. And it’s like two-lane mountain roads. Bel Air and Beverly Hills are a million miles away. This is sagebrush and cattle and steep ravines, way, way outside of L.A. So it would take me about two and a half hours, two hours and twenty minutes, something like that, to get from the Pasadena area to Michael’s gate.
So when you drove down the road towards Neverland – and probably some of your readers have done this – I think it’s about seven miles down Figueroa Mountain Road, and it’s just a flat, pretty nondescript road. I’ll tell you one thing: that part of the country – this is going to creep some people out – there’s a lot of tarantulas. And I know about as much about tarantulas as I do writing an Italian opera, which is nothing. But tarantulas apparently live in the ground – and we’re way off topic but I’ll go fast – and I don’t know what month they come out, but I want to say it’s like March or April or something like that. And you’d be driving down Figueroa Mountain Road, and as you’re driving you would just hear this pop, pop, pop – and you’re driving over tarantulas, and they’re popping.
Brad: I don’t want to say that the road was covered in them, but there were times when I would be swerving because I don’t want to run over the little guys! But there were so many of them you couldn’t avoid them.
Willa: Oh no!
Brad: They come out of the ground, and they’re trying to warm up and find something to eat. I never really saw too many of them on the ranch, but it was always on that road out to the ranch. A few times a year they’d be all over the road, and it was really weird.
So you’d get to Neverland, and the first thing you come to is the outside gate – kind of the guard gate. And that’s where you’ve got to say who you are, and even me – and I’m not tooting my own horn – but man, every time I’d go to Neverland, I’d have to be on the list, and I’d have to be pre-approved, and I’d have to sign this three- or four-page release that I’m not going to talk about it – which of course I am.
Lisha: Every time? Every time you went?
Brad: Every single time. Every. Single. Time. Everybody in the car would have to sign this release. Whoever the guard was, they’d know me and they’d say, Hey Brad, how are you doing, and they’d get the release, and yeah. We would have to do it every single time.
So now you’re in, and it looks just like it does out. It’s sagebrush, and do you know what cypress bushes are? That’s kind of a California thing. Just kind of low, green – they’re not pretty but kind of desert-ish looking. And you drive up and over a hill, and I’ll never forget – now other people have written about this, I’m not the only one – but you would crest over this hill, and I think somewhere up there was a sign that said “Welcome to Neverland” with a cherub or a baby or something on it.
You’d come around a corner and over this hill, and then you’d start going down the other side. It wasn’t like a steep climb in the Alps or something – it was a just a road that went over a hill. And that’s when you’d start seeing the white fences and the green grass. And then you’d go a little bit further and you’d see the fountains, and the oak trees. And I think Michael kind of coined the phrase that it was like being in The Wizard of Oz where it goes from black and white to color. And it really was. It was very, very dramatic coming down that other side, and you’re like, Holy cow, I did not know this was here, because you can’t see any of that from the road. This is easily a mile or a mile and a half onto the ranch before you even see the ranch. Does that make sense?
Willa: It does. Rabbi Boteach talks about that a bit in his book. He has a quote where Michael Jackson says,
You know, it’s almost an act of psychology. . . . I was gonna have people swing them [the gates] open and really kind of have them funky and tattered, just so psychologically you really feel like you’re coming to a ranch, so that when you go around the bend I want it to change to Technicolor, like The Wizard of Oz does.
So that’s exactly what you’re describing!
Brad: Yeah. I mean the guard shack and the gate, they were nice. But it wasn’t until you got to the second gate – the ornate gate – that it really started to make a statement.
Willa: So the gates he was talking about in this quote, that’s the first gates? And then there’s a second set of gates?
Brad: Yeah, there’s the security gate out by the road, and then there’s what he called the “ornate gate” inside. So when you got to the second gate – like I say, I’m estimating – but it had to have been a mile, or maybe even a mile and a half, from the first gate to the second.
Then there was a huge parking lot that was on the left-hand side of that gate. And they did that because when we had a lot of guests, most people were not allowed to take their cars or buses into the ranch itself. You would stop at that second gate and park there. And then you would generally walk through the ornate gate. People have seen all the pictures of the black ornate gate with the gold crest and everything. And so at that point, that’s where we would unload the buses. You know, there might be kids coming in from L.A. or Santa Barbara or someplace, or Make a Wish kids or different things. That was kind of the staging area. Then they would walk through that gate. And that’s where the little train was waiting for them.
So when people would get out of their cars and buses, Michael wanted to welcome them to Neverland in a very grand way. So he asked me to build an enormous sound system right at that gate. So up to that point, there was no music, there were no lights. I remember leaving Neverland at night and, man, after you left that ornate gate, it was dark. There was just nothing up on that hill.
So our guests would show up to the gate, the gate would open up, and we would just flood them with music. And I don’t just mean a couple speakers hanging from a chain. I mean, if I’m not mistaken, we probably had 20,000 watts of power.
Willa: I don’t know much about electricity, but that sounds like a lot.
Brad: That’s a small concert system. So they actually built us a small building, kind of a shed next to the gate – I mean, not a shed, nothing at Neverland was ever a shed – but they built it just for equipment because we had so much power. Michael’s words to me were, “I want it to be loud enough to shake a bus.” So we built just this monster system. And that’s what would welcome people in. So they would walk through that gate, music is playing, and now they’ve kind of entered into Michael’s world.
Lisha: Amazing. Were there any light designs there?
Brad: Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that! I didn’t put the lights in but we had a fiber optic guy, and at night that sign would just explode in lights. I cannot remember if it was just white lights or color. I seem to think it was just white lights. But you’ve seen fiber optic lights – you know, very Disneyesque – where they flutter from left to right. So there’s thousands of fiber optics in that sign.
Willa: This is the Neverland sign up above the gate?
Brad: Yeah, this is the big black Neverland sign, and it has the big gold crest above it. That whole thing at night was just outrageously beautiful.
So then you would walk through, and there’d be one of the staff or a couple of staff members to meet the guests there. And there’d be the little train there. Michael was very big into costumes – you know, he kind of took a cue from Disney where just about everybody at the ranch was in costume. You know, not silly, but the guys who worked on the train and the rides, they kind of had that formal kind of a conductor’s look with a conductor’s hat and a black jacket and the whole thing.
So this is an experience. You’re stepping into a different world.
Lisha: And I’ve seen maids in uniform, right? At the time, it wasn’t fashionable for wealthy people to have their employees wear uniforms, but I’ve seen pictures of the Neverland staff in maid costumes – that kind of Hollywood look?
Brad: Yep! All the security guys were in uniform. Back in the horse ranch, it was very much cowboy attire. The firemen wore firefighters clothes, and they were real. So yeah.
Lisha: And these are all elements of theater, right? We have wardrobe. We have sound. We have lights. We have these dramatic entrances and so forth. It’s very theatrical, wouldn’t you say?
Brad: Absolutely. And very planned. There was nothing at Neverland that was by accident or overlooked.
So there was a small train station right next to the big gate, and there’s something I talk about my seminars and that’s the details of Neverland. There’s that train station, and it’s smaller than a very, very small house – you know, like the size of a southern porch, maybe, or a very big gazebo. But this thing has a slate roof and architecture, and the railings and the pillars are just beautifully turned.
I’m trying to think of the word, but there’s almost like plaques or little things on the pillars – little paintings and etchings and things. It’s just gorgeous, and this is just the first train station!
Lisha: Unbelievable. Here’s the first train station as it looks now on the Sotheby’s website for Sycamore Valley Ranch:
Do you remember the name of the architect or designer?
Brad: Well, Tony Urquidez was the contractor. I don’t know who the architect was, but Michael was really good about using local guys.
Lisha: Do you think that he actually helped design it?
Brad: Oh, I’m sure Tony did. I’m positive Tony did.
Lisha: Do you think Michael Jackson also contributed?
Brad: I’m sure he might have done some rough sketches or something, but I think he was probably a little bit more involved on the concept. He would send Tony on trips. He and Tony would travel together and go to different parks and different cities and just look at architecture and get ideas. So yeah, Michael was very specific about what he wanted. But then he also kind of got a kick out of surrounding himself with creative people, and seeing what they could bring to the table. So I think the combination worked.
Willa: Brad, you mentioned earlier that everything was very carefully thought out for effect. So how would you describe the overall effect of the first gate, the drive, the ornate gate, the little train station? What I mean is, what effect or experience do you think he going for with that?
Brad: Well, I never like to try to crawl inside his head, but it was very theatrical. And you’re setting the stage. You know this is kind of the introduction – the song is beginning. And so you don’t want to flood people with everything at once. They just got off a two-hour drive, they parked, they’re finally here, and you know, it’s almost like the excitement is building.
So at that point the guests would get on the train. And it’s not that every day was the same, but the way that we designed it was they could get on the train there, and the train would, in essence, bypass the house. The house is kind of his private residence. But the train is going past the lake, and the swans, and the swan boat. And we’ve got music playing, and these gorgeous oak trees, and that’s slowly taking them up to the theme park.
Willa: And there are actually two separate trains – is that right?
Brad: Yeah. So other guests, depending on who they were, Michael might just meet them there with a golf cart, or different things would happen. You could walk to the main house, but I’m telling you – getting from one point at Neverland to another on foot, you were hoofing it! It was a good little walk to get from the ornate gate to the house. But the house is kind of the first thing you come to. There’s pastures. There’s guest housing – I think there are five or seven guest villas. I forget. And then you get to the main house.
But then from there, you can walk further to the left, and again, it’s going to be a hike, but you’re going to go past security and past the video library, and Michael had some memorabilia upstairs. Then you keep going up the hill, and you’re coming up to the big train station. And people have seen pictures of that with the flower clock and the moving figurines. That was another just absolute piece of artwork. We had music playing there. We had cricket sounds and classical music, and all kinds of things.
Lisha: What were the cricket sounds?
Brad: Well, up in that part of California, believe it or not, it’s really quiet. Michael wanted to always be creating ambience of some sort. So we would have speakers tucked away in hedges and things just playing cricket sounds that we recorded. And there would be music playing so there were all these layers of sound. We’d have birds chirping in trees. It was funny, when you would shut everything off it was almost eerily silent. Michael always wanted something – even if people didn’t really notice it – something that just added to the ambience of Neverland.
Lisha: So there was an outdoor sound design at Neverland?
Brad: Yeah. We had these rock speakers that we got from a company called Rockustics in Colorado. They sound really good, but you know, instead of having two of them or four of them or six of them, we probably had close to 300 of them, just all over the ranch. We’d use them for music, and we’d have birds. Well, we had our own bird houses that we had built with speakers in them.
But then you would walk up to this massive train station, and this is just, I’m not quoting anybody, but I’m sure you guys have read stuff about Walt Disney. Walt used to have an expression he would use when he was building Disneyland, and it sounds kind of funny to say it, but it would be like when you go to a county fair or something, there needs to be a “weenie.” There needs to be something to get people’s attention. So at Disneyland, that’s the castle. At Epcot, it’s the giant golf ball.Well to me, at Neverland, it was that big train station. It was so beautiful and you could see it from so far away.
In fact, if I’m not mistaken, when you came over that first hill, I think you could see the train station almost right away. That thing was gorgeous. You’d go in there, and that’s where the big train would go.
So there were two trains at Neverland. There was the little train that was used to carry people really for transportation. And then the big train was more of an attraction. It was an actual steam engine, The Katherine, and that was really, really beautiful.
Willa: So it was a steam engine? It was actually powered by steam?
Brad: Oh yeah.
Willa: Wow, I didn’t know that. That’s wonderful!
Brad: Yeah, the big train was an actual refurbished steam engine. They sent a bunch of us out to, I think, it was Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and that’s where the train was refurbished. It was an old functioning steam engine, steam train, and they rebuilt the whole thing in Mt. Pleasant. So we were out there for, I don’t know, two weeks.
Lisha: Were you working on the sound system for the train? Is that why you were sent out there?
Brad: Yeah. We were doing all the sound and lights, the generator, and the whole thing. Michael had no patience, in a good way. When a new attraction would come to the park, he would want to ride it that day. So they would actually send us away to work on stuff off site, so when the new thing would show up, we could just basically hook it up and he could jump on it and start playing. He didn’t want to wait two weeks for us to put music on the train. He wanted us to go away and put music on it and have it show up just ready to go.
Willa: That’s great that he was so excited about it. Like a kid getting a new train set, only it’s a real train!
Brad: Oh, absolutely.
Willa: Did he have a water tower to fill the steam engine with water?
Brad: Oh yeah. Right by the big train station on the back side to the right, there’s a water tower. It was legit.
I believe the heat source was propane. They weren’t shoveling coal – it wasn’t quite that authentic. But no, there was nothing artificial about it. It was the real deal. They had two or three guys who were trained – no pun intended – to operate the train. It was not something where you’re going to have some 12-year-old kid jump in there and start pulling levers. There were places at the ranch where you could have all the fun you wanted, but there was stuff like that that was real deal.
Willa: That’s incredible.
Brad: So once you were at the big train station, it was basically, for lack of a better word, almost like a huge hourglass, where there was a loop on either end, and then a long path in the middle that would take you past the theater. There was a stop at the theater, and you could jump off there. And this was on what I would call the high side of the valley. If you’re in Neverland looking all the way down the valley, the big train was on your left and the little train was on your right. They both took you all the way to the back side of the valley.
So on the big train you could jump off at the theater or keep going into a giant loop back by the zoo and the chimps and giraffes and all that. So when you’re at the train station, you could either take the train or you could walk to the theater, if you really wanted to burn some calories. I didn’t have a smart phone with a GPS on it back then, but I’m guessing it had to have been the better part of three-quarters of a mile from the train station to the theater.
It was just big. When we were working up there, we always had our trucks or cars on the property because we weren’t usually there with guests, or it would be a small group of guests. It’s pretty hard for us to be there if there were going to be three buses of people up there. But you would jump on a golf cart or something to get around.
Now go back to the little train, over on the other side of the house – way on the other side – and that’s where the teepee village was. The teepee village and the waterpark. That was one of the only places where we did not put music. We wanted to keep that really authentic.
Willa: In the teepee village?
Brad: Yeah, there was no electricity back there. It was just the teepee village and the waterpark. And it was the coolest waterpark ever, because when kids would go back there, only at Michael Jackson’s ranch are there just barrels of water balloons that have already been filled up, and they’re all set to go for you. And you can just go crazy. So they had firehoses back there, and water cannons. Of course, California has been in a pretty vicious drought for a while so now it might be frowned upon just a little bit, but back then that wasn’t quite as big a deal.
Willa: I’m just imagining being the person whose job it was to fill water balloons!
Brad: Well, I’m told that at its peak, Neverland had something like – I don’t want to exaggerate, and there’s people who have done more research than I have – but I’m told there was somewhere around 100 to 110 employees. Now about 60 or 70 of those were gardeners. The landscaping was just gorgeous. They had nurseries and fresh flowers all the time.
So yeah, I’m sure they had somebody who just filled water balloons for special event days. They had ride operators and zoo keepers and gardeners and housekeepers and cooks, and then just the ranch staff – I mean, the ranch manager and maintenance, and those kind of people behind the scenes. It was a full-blown operation. I’ve worked in some pretty astounding homes in my life, but this was on a whole different level. Really not like anything else.
Lisha: It sounds more like a hotel in that there were so many employees 24/7, right? It’s not like all the employees went home at night.
Brad: It was scheduled very well. It’s not like they had ride operators out standing by the bumper cars at 4 in the morning, wondering if someone is going to show up. It wasn’t quite like that. It was very scheduled where, if a big group was going to come on a Saturday, then they would have all the ride operators there, and the rides would be open for maybe six hours or something. If there were VIP guests there, then yeah, you could get spaghetti at 3 in the morning if that’s what you wanted. I don’t think a lot of people would do that. I mean it wasn’t that big. There weren’t that many guests. But yeah, Michael wanted his guests to be pampered to the nth degree.
Willa: Like a resort.
Brad: Yeah. So, I kind of treat the ranch in thirds. I’ve kind of taken you through the first third, which is the guard gate, the ornate gate, the pastures, the main house, the waterpark, the big train station. If you picture Neverland almost like a surfboard or something, the bottom third of it is what I have described.
Lisha: Ok, so for our readers, here’s a map of Neverland that illustrates the surfboard analogy quite well and how the ranch was divided in thirds:
Also, here is a link to some recent drone photography of the property, now called Sycamore Valley Ranch, for those who might not have seen it!
Stay tuned for Part Two of Brad’s description of Neverland, and thank you again, Brad, for being so generous with your time and walking us through Neverland Valley Ranch!
Willa: This week Lisha and I are very happy to be joined by Brad Sundberg, a recording engineer who worked with Michael Jackson for twenty years – is that right, Brad?
Brad: Oh yeah, right around twenty years, on and off, between various projects.
Willa: And you were the technical director for Dangerous, History, and Blood on the Dance Floor?
Brad: Well, really just Dangerous and History. I worked on some of the tracks for Blood – I was one of the engineers on several of those projects.
Willa: Ok, and then you also were a sound engineer at Neverland and worked on a lot of different projects there, right?
Brad: Yeah, I built most of the systems at the ranch and I worked on a bunch of his videos. So if it involved music or some sort of, you know, light control or something, I was probably involved.
Lisha: You also did the sound design at Neverland, correct?
Brad: I did the sound design. I stripped the wires. I pulled them through tubes. I carried speakers and ladders. I did it all – me and a small crew.
Willa: And you’ve also taken an active role in educating people about Michael Jackson as an artist. In fact you’re organizing something called MJU, or Michael Jackson University, that’s coming up in June. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about MJU and what it’s about.
Brad: Sure. Thank you both for having me back. It’s always great to chat with you guys.
Willa: Oh, it’s great to have you here!
Lisha: Thank you so much for joining us, Brad!
Brad: We just launched our website – or a new website, I should say – and in the process of doing that I was kind of given the task of counting all the seminars and events that we’ve hosted and where we’ve been. And we’ve done something like 75 live events to this point, in about 12 countries, and hosted somewhere around 2,400 guests. I’m pretty proud of that and I’m really pleased with our guests and the events that we’ve come up with.
So this summer we wanted to do something bigger, different … dare I say, something that no one’s ever really done before. We decided to call it MJU, and we want it to cover a pretty extensive portion of Michael’s professional life, starting at Off the Wall and going through Thriller, Bad, Dangerous, and so on all the way to This Is It.
I’m pretty fortunate in that I know so many of those guys – Ed Cherney, Matt Forger, Jerry Hey, Brian Vibberts, Brad Buxer. And so we just started making some phone calls. I started calling guys. I sent emails, smoke signals, whatever it would take to see if I can get these guys interested in all of us essentially being in one place at one time. Well, it’s too many guys for one day, so we broke it up into a four-day event that we’re going to be doing on June 20th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd at SIR studios in Hollywood.
June 20th, the first day, which is a Monday, is going to be kind of my solo show. That’s going to be the newest version of In the Studio with MJ and we’re going to spend a good bit of time talking about Neverland, and kind of the latest incarnation of my seminar, if you will. We’ve added quite a few new songs, some new material that we tried in Europe this past January, and it went really well. So the first day is going to be In the Studio with MJ.
Day Two we’re going to dig into what I call the early years. And that’s going to be where we’re going to go all the way back to Off the Wall and I’ve got Ed Cherney coming in. Ed was basically me several years before. He was Bruce Swedien’s assistant engineer.
Willa: Oh interesting.
Brad: I find it interesting sometimes to talk to the people behind the scenes because they are a bit more, you know, they were there but they weren’t really the star of the show. So Ed was there with Michael at a really cool time. I mean that was Michael’s first project with Quincy and Bruce and that team.
Ed’s going to be opening up Day Two, and we’re going to dig straight into Off the Wall. Then from there, we’re going to bring Matt Forger in and start talking about Thriller. Matt was the assistant engineer on Thriller. Matt actually recorded the Eddie Van Halen solo on “Beat It” and pieced that whole thing together.
Willa: Oh really!
Brad: Matt’s got some great stories. Matt is the sweetest, kindest man. I love Matt, absolutely think the world of him. So then Matt went on to do Captain EO. So he did that alone with Michael. We’ve done an entire seminar just on Captain EO. Lisha, were you here for that?
Lisha: Oh my god, it was incredible. Just incredible.
Brad: You’re so kind.
Lisha: No, I’m a huge fan of Captain EO, and not nearly enough has been written about it. Just in the history of the music video in general, it has not gotten its due. Hearing Matt Forger recall how it all came together was an amazing experience. I just loved it.
Brad: You’re very kind, thank you. We need to do another one.
Willa: Now you did that at Disney World, and you all actually saw the 4D version of Captain EO a couple of times, right?
Brad: Yeah, we knew that it was going to end, and Disney would never really say when the last day was. They finally did, but I was getting nervous that they were going to pull the plug on it. So I flew Matt out, and we had a good group. Yes, we did that here at Epcot. We did the seminar at – where were we? Stark Lake Studios? Do you remember, Lisha? I think it was at Stark Lake.
Lisha: Yes, that’s right, and then we spent the next day at Disney.
Brad: I think we saw EO three or four times – something like that.
So anyway, we’ll have Matt, and somewhere I’ve got a working copy of Captain EO – kind of a production print. So we might watch part of that. Then, all on that same day, we’ll jump into the Bad album. Matt was very involved in the pre-production of the Bad album, and so he recorded a whole lot of those early versions. And then Bruce and Quincy took it from there, and did kind of the final production on that album.
Willa: Now, when you say pre-production, do you mean creating the demos so they can decide if they want to move forward with that song? Or what does pre-production involve?
Matt: Well, in Michael Jackson world, it’s much bigger than for a lot of artists. Michael had his own studio – at Hayvenhurst, I should say – you know, his home. And so Matt Forger and Bill Bottrell and Brent Averill spent a lot of time at Hayvenhurst, in essence recording a good chunk of the Bad album: “Smooth Criminal,” “Liberian Girl,” “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel.” Most of those songs were done before the album even started.
There’s all kinds of forums and goofy talk about this stuff where sometimes they’re referred to as the B Team, and I just think that’s tacky and uncalled for. These are Michael’s guys, and they did a really beautiful job. But Bruce and Quincy wanted to take it up even another notch, so some of those songs were re-recorded. But the melody is in – the core, the heart of those songs was done by these guys.
So we’ll have Matt there, and of course I was very involved with the Bad album. So we’ll be talking about that. And that’s Day Two.
I don’t know what time we’re going to crawl out of there that night, but Day Three we’re going to go in a whole different direction. We’re going to start talking about Michael’s short films, and the tours. I’ve got a guy by the name of Brick Price, and Brick is an old, old dear friend. See Michael had all these – you know, Michael was complicated, and he had friends in the film industry, he had artists, and just people – like he’d hang out with the Imagineers at Disney. Brick was one of these guys. I think he came from the Star Trek world. And Brick is really good at building spaceships, and so I know Brick was involved in Captain EO. But then he was very involved in Moonwalker, and I believe Brick was also involved in Ghosts.
Willa: Oh really!
Brad: Yeah, I could be wrong, but I know he was very involved in Moonwalker. I’ve got some other friends from Ghosts and I haven’t even reached out to them yet.
But Brick has some stuff up his sleeves. I don’t know what he’s going to bring. I mean he built like the Captain EO sets and all that stuff. He’s got some crazy stuff in his collection, and it’s just in a warehouse. So he’s kind of excited to, you know, pull it out and blow the dust off it and let us see it. He’s got some photos of Michael that have just never been seen. And he’s very protective of that stuff. And he’s just a good guy. He was with us at the ranch and did a lot of the visuals up there. His kids ran around the ranch like they owned the place. He was really good friends with Michael.
So we’re going to start Wednesday with Brick. And I don’t know how I’m going to stop, but at some point I’ve got to stop that and then we’re going to shift into the tours. At that point, my plan is to have Brad Buxer and Michael Prince. And there are other people I’ve reached out to, and they may or may not surprise us. I don’t know.
But we’re going to spend a good bit of time talking about what it was like to tour with Michael Jackson. That’s something I haven’t really dug into too deep in my seminars because I didn’t tour with him. I would do all what’s called the tour pre-production, where we would get the band trained on new songs. I wasn’t involved in any of the visuals on the tours but I was involved in the music. We’d have to change the tempo of songs, change the key – things like that.
Willa: And why would you need to do that?
Brad: Well, Michael liked shows to be fast and exciting. Most artists do this, especially pop musicians. You know, if you listen to the old Jackson song, “You’ve got me working, working day and night” – listen to the album speed, and then watch one of the videos where he does it live, it’s just ridiculously fast. So he wants the audience feeling that energy. He wants the really fast tempo that’s fun to dance to. And then we would pitch it way down so he could actually sing it, because you can’t sing at that key night after night. So we’d want to get it down into a register that he was comfortable singing at.
Willa: Oh interesting. I thought you were going to say just the opposite – that you would slow it down so he could conserve energy on a long tour and not wear himself out.
Brad: Oh no! No, he wanted the tempo to be just outrageously fast for all of those songs, and then we’d pitch them way down. So we’d work with the band, and that’s where Brad Buxer really comes in, taking Michael’s ideas musically and turning them into something that’s going to be fun for the band to play and for an audience to enjoy.
Willa: So if he would sing at the pitch that it was on the album, night after night, that would strain his voice?
Brad: Yeah. If you’re going to sing live, you want to pitch it down to a lower register. It’s just easier to sing. It’s pretty hard to hit those high notes night after night – that’s going to blow your voice out.
Willa: Oh interesting. I didn’t know that.
Brad: But some of the stuff that Buxer and I have talked about before is just, you know, things that I find interesting. I don’t know, maybe I’m just a weirdo but I’ve been to so many of the shows that, yeah, it’s kind of fun what goes on on stage, but I’m always curious about backstage, and how they traveled. The European tours where they had these giant Russian jets – Brad has told me about those, and that stuff’s just crazy.
They would have three stages. Michael would be on one stage on a Tuesday. The crew would be at the previous stage that same day, breaking it down in a previous city. And there would be another crew in a third city, setting the next stage up.
Willa: Oh, so they would leap frog?
Brad: Exactly. And the logistics of that – I love that kind of stuff – just to coordinate all of that activity. They actually had a baker that traveled on the crew with them, so every day they’d have fresh bread, fresh pies. Who does that?!
I love that kind of stuff. So we’re going to dig into the tours, on stage and backstage, on that Wednesday. And then if we have any strength left at all, we’re going to come back on Thursday and dig into the later years. And more than likely that’ll be Dangerous, HIStory, Invincible. And then all the way through the Vegas years, and the Apollo Theater, and the Dubai show, and the Clinton – what was it? The Democratic National Convention whatever it was.
Willa: Oh, the inauguration?
Brad: No, I think it was a Clinton gala or something.
Lisha: Yeah, he actually did both.
Brad: Ok. And then we’ll take it all the way to, you know – it’s like I sometimes say, the story doesn’t really have a happy ending, but we’ll talk about This Is It. Brad Prince was with Michael that last night, and you know, I think it’s a good story for people to hear.
So that’s MJU. We’re kind of taking my seminar and just blowing it up over four days. And I’m bringing in the people that were there. And I could go on and on and on. There’s plenty more people I’d like to bring in in the future.
Willa: It sounds like it could go on for four months. I mean, that’s a semester’s worth of material you’re covering.
Brad: There’s actually one guy I inadvertently overlooked, and that’s Jerry Hey. Jerry’s going to be there on Day Two, the early years. Jerry is a sweet, sweet, remarkably talented man. Jerry was the lead horn player for Seawind, and he went on to build what’s called the Seawind Horns in L.A. And these guys played on all of Michael’s records – the horn section – and Quincy’s, and all over town they played.
But Jerry also was very involved in a lot of the vocal arrangements and background melodies and all that, and he’s just a funny guy. He’s another piece to the puzzle that people may not sit up and go, Oh wow, Jerry Hey’s going to be there. But you don’t want to miss Jerry. He has so much knowledge, and Michael loved Jerry so much. I haven’t really hung with Jerry in years. Jerry had a little bit of a health crisis this past summer, and thankfully he’s doing well. But I’m really, really excited to have Jerry with us on Day Two.
And then Day Four we’ve got Brian Vibberts and Rob Hoffman, who both were with us on the HIStory projects and stayed with Michael beyond that. So you know – let’s see, what more can I give? We’ve really pulled out all the stops, and I’m really excited about this.
Lisha: Wow, it sounds absolutely amazing.
Willa: It does, and I also think it’s really important. There have there been more than a few critics – and I think this is changing somewhat – but there have been quite a few people who have made it sound like Michael Jackson was a very talented singer and dancer, but that basically he was just a performer. That he didn’t have a vision. It was really Quincy Jones’ vision or Berry Gordy’s vision, and Michael Jackson was just performing. They were really the people creating the art.
Willa: And I think your seminars have really countered that and shown that Michael Jackson was very active in the studio and an artist in the fullest sense of the word.
Brad: And he was smart. I mean, to surround yourself with people that you trust. You’re in essence kind of putting your career into their hands and saying, That was great, now where are we going to go next? That takes a lot of guts. And so he would surround himself with good people – some would stick around for a while, some would kind of come and go.
You know, I think if there’s one thing you’re going to see in people that I use in my seminars, but also people that really worked with Michael for long term, they’re just good people. And they’re approachable. And they’re funny. And they might be a little bit eccentric, but they bring something to the table that Michael knew. And Michael loved that. He loved having a variety of people around him. We just didn’t have a lot of crazy egos in the studio with Michael. I think people see that in my seminars – that we just don’t have egomaniacs. Michael just didn’t work well with people like that. So they’re really cool guys, and I’m pretty proud and pleased that they’re willing to kind of go on this journey with me.
Willa: It sounds fabulous.
Brad: So buy your tickets! Get on my website and buy a ticket. It’s the biggest facility – well, we had a big facility in Tokyo – but this is probably the biggest facility that we’ve used in the States. It’s a big room where people are going to be able to stretch out, and the sound system there is unbelievable. It’s really going to be a special event.
Willa: So how many people can that studio hold?
Brad: I’m told that we can do about 100, maybe 120 – something like that.
Willa: So it will still be really intimate?
Brad: Oh yeah. We’re not talking thousands. No, it’ll certainly be comfortable. And it’s a funky dark studio that people like. I do these all over the place, and some places are so clean and pristine that it’s a little boring. I kind of like something that’s got a little more grit to it. This is a place that just has years of history. So I hope people will consider coming.
Willa: And you’ll be bringing your tapes and pictures and stories?
Brad: We’ll be bringing all kinds of stuff. I haven’t really publicly announced this yet, but tentatively we’ve got a really heavy collector – I don’t want to mention his name – but he’s offered to come and bring some crazy, you know, one of the original gloves, several of the jackets. He just has a remarkable collection. And he’s offered to come in and set that up. People aren’t going to be able to try on jackets or anything, but you know.
And then at night, we’re kind of kicking around the idea of having a Moonwalker night, and just some fun extra things that we might put together. We’re putting our heart and soul into it, and I think it’s really going to be a cool event.
Willa: It sounds very fun!
Brad: So June 20th through 23rd, in Hollywood, California.
Lisha: If anyone would like more information, check out Brad’s beautiful new website. Even if you can’t go to the seminar, you’ll definitely want to spend some time looking around on this site. There’s lots of great information on Brad’s In the Studio with Michael Jackson Facebook page, too.
Thanks again, Brad, for giving us a sneak peek of MJU!
Willa: Yes, thanks so much for talking with us! And we’ll continue our conversation soon, when we talk about Neverland.
Brad: Thank you both!