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 McDuff and I are so honored to be joined by Brad Sundberg, who worked with Michael Jackson for nearly two decades. He served as Technical Director on the Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory albums, and helped design the sound system at Neverland. While working on Bad, Michael Jackson gave him the nickname Really, Really Brad, as in “I’m Brad, I’m Brad, I’m Really, Really Brad.” That cracks me up!
Over the past year Brad has been offering seminars in the U.S., Canada, and Europe to share his insights as well as sound recordings from his work with Michael Jackson. Several of our friends and contributors – Lisha, Susan Fast, and Joe Vogel – attended his recent seminar in Toronto, and from everything I’ve heard it was incredible! Lisha asked Brad if he’d like to talk with us, and he said yes. Brad, thank you so much for joining us!
Brad: Thanks Willa, great to be able to hang out with you and Lisha.
Willa: I’m eager to hear more about your seminar, In the Studio with Michael Jackson. And I understand you’re planning a very special one at Walt Disney World about recording Captain EO. Is that right?
Brad: The seminars are a lot of fun, and I think this will be my 10th one! Each one is a little different, sometimes I add or remove segments as time dictates. Back in 1984 I first met Michael at Westlake Studios where he was recording Captain EO with Matt Forger. Matt and I have remained friends over the years and have worked together on countless Michael projects. Disney has strongly hinted that EO will be closing in 2014, so I thought it would be fun to bring Matt out to Orlando and do a seminar with Matt, with a strong emphasis on the Captain EO project. To make it even more fun we will do one full day in the studio for the seminar (with “Family Friday” dinner included!), then attendees will have the option to meet up with us at Epcot the next day to watch EO a few times together, ask more questions, and hang out in the park all day. I think it is going to be an amazing weekend for MJ fans.
Lisha: I’d say that’s an understatement! The seminar I attended in Toronto was truly incredible, plus I don’t think nearly enough has been said or written about Captain EO, so this is something I wouldn’t want to miss. Watching Captain EO at Disney’s Epcot Center is a totally different experience than seeing the film any other way, right? Not only was Captain EO the first film to include 4D effects (it is a 3D film that includes special effects inside the theater as well), it was also the first surround-sound film ever made.
Brad: That is correct! I was talking with Matt Forger several months ago, and we were talking about EO. I was a runner (get food, vacuum, roll cables, etc.) at Westlake in ’84/’85, when Matt was recording Captain EO. Disney actually developed a true-digital surround-sound system just for EO. Matt had to replicate how the theater would sound in the studio, so he had speakers all around the room, cables everywhere … it was awesome! But it allowed him to mix the music so it still sounds like Michael, but it also fills those giant theaters that Disney built.
Lisha: I’ve always wondered how that was initially planned and worked out, so I’m really anxious to hear more from Matt Forger about this. I did have the opportunity to see the film at Disney a while back and I remember there were speakers all around the theater, even in the back of the house behind the audience. Captain EO is historically important for a number of reasons, I think, especially in how it conceptualizes sound and the 4D effects. It must been have a thrill, Brad, to have witnessed all this being put together.
Brad: Here’s a funny side-note: my wife and I have always been Disney fans, and we would often go to Disneyland on Sunday nights for dinner. We were there on the Captain EO opening weekend, along with half of Los Angeles, and it was fun to see something I had been a very small part of in the studio take over Disneyland! We still have our original t-shirts, geeky as that may sound. And yes, the theater does have some Disney “4D” effects in it that make the experience far more immersive than seeing it on a computer screen. Plus the theater sound systems were originally tuned by Matt, so they sound amazing.
Lisha: I don’t think that sounds geeky at all! I’m sure you’re glad you hung onto to those original t-shirts – that’s such a great memory. And I agree that the sound system is amazing, plus I love all the special theatrical effects as well.
For example, I remember there are cables under each seat that create movement that is synchronized with the film. When the spaceship does its crash landing you can actually feel the impact of the crash in your seat. Another great effect is that there are tiny fans and misters installed in the seat backs, so when Hooter makes his elephant sounds, you get a little blast of air and mist right in your face, as if it’s coming right from his trunk!
Willa: That’s funny!
Lisha: It is! There are lots of special lighting effects too coming from every imaginable direction, even from under the seats, and a sparkling disco ball effect that happens when the “Supreme Leader” is transformed into a beautiful goddess. On the big screen there are lots of details that you can’t see watching it any other way, like the small colorful lights that ornament Michael Jackson’s electrified costume.
I thought the surround-sound effects were really fun, too. I especially remember the battle scene and the sound of laser gunfire moving rapidly throughout the theater. I could hear it zoom overhead from the back of the theater all the way to the front, immersing the viewer into the action of the film.
I’m afraid once Captain EO closes at Disney, there won’t be a way to experience the film as it was originally intended by its creators, Michael Jackson, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola, one of the most stellar creative teams ever assembled! This could really be the last chance to get to experience it.
Willa: Wow, Lisha. You’re making me feel like I really need to get down there before it closes. I haven’t seen Captain EO since, hmmm … 1986, I think, at Epcot Center. And I remember the seats jolting and vibrating but I don’t remember any mist from Hooter’s trunk! And I don’t remember that soundscape you’re describing so vividly – I can tell you’re a musician! I just remember that the sound and visual and physical effects were all pretty incredible.
Brad: Captain EO is unlike any sci-fi movie or music video (short film) ever created. It was a huge budget (for the time), and the talent pool is pretty remarkable. Yes, the costumes and hairstyles scream 80’s!! But it was the 80’s, and it was fun. I can’t say, nor do I know for certain when the attraction will close, but the rumors are growing that its days are numbered, so I would rather do an event now than wish I had in a few months.
Lisha: I understand the budget for this film was unprecedented. At a cost of $30 million for a 17-minute film, that comes to $1.76 million per minute! It’s the most expensive film per minute ever made, and it was a major undertaking for Disney, Lucas, Coppola, and Michael Jackson. As you said, Brad, half of Los Angeles turned up for the premiere!
For the fans who never had the opportunity to see Michael Jackson perform live, the 4D film experience might be as close as it gets, don’t you think?
Brad: Sadly, I suppose that is true. Did either of you ever get a chance to see him live?
Lisha: No, unfortunately! I’m one of the new fans. Several people have said it’s impossible to know what it was like to see Michael Jackson perform live unless you actually experienced it for yourself. How about you, Willa? That’s something I’ve wanted to ask you. Did you ever get to see Michael Jackson perform live?
Willa: No I didn’t, and for the opposite reason. I’ve felt a strong connection to Michael Jackson since I was really young, in elementary school, and it just felt so intensely personal I couldn’t imagine seeing him in a stadium with thousands of screaming people. And he never did a concert anywhere near where I happened to be at the time – I’m sure if he had, I wouldn’t have been able to resist. But still … I should have gone anyway. It’s hard to explain, but the first concert I ever saw was Aerosmith – a friend talked me into it and it was really fun, but pretty overwhelming for me – and I just couldn’t picture seeing Michael Jackson that way. It just didn’t feel right. I really regret it now though.
Lisha: Oh, me too. I really regret it – what was I thinking?
Willa: How about you, Brad? I imagine you were able to see him a few times. …
Brad: Can I tell you a quick story or two? When I was still in college in 1984 the Victory tour tickets went on sale in LA at Dodger Stadium. I really wanted to go, but you had to buy tickets in clusters for four in sort of a lotto set-up. It was complicated and expensive, and I just didn’t make it. Fast forward just four years to 1988, and I was watching the show with my wife from backstage at Madison Square Garden!
Brad: Now here’s the crazy thing – I had worked with and been around Michael extensively on EO and Bad, but I had never seen him on a stage. It was electrifying – it was like I knew him, but at the same time I had no idea who he was.
Willa: You know, I’ve heard several people say that, like Bruce Swedien and Frank Cascio, and I’m so curious about it. That must have been amazing to see him transform from his off-screen self to his on-screen self.
Brad: I was fortunate to see him perform many times on the Bad, Dangerous and HIStory tours, as well as during his rehearsals with the band and dancers. During one show in Paris in ’97 during the HIStory tour, my daughter Amanda (7 at the time) was on stage with several other kids during “Heal The World.”
Willa: Oh, that’s wonderful!
Brad: That was fun to see. But my favorite tour story was backstage during the Bad tour, at MSG NYC. Pepsi was the sponsor, and they had a “VIP Lounge” backstage. My wife Debbie and I were roaming around backstage, and I ducked into a bathroom. On the way out, headed back to the stage, I walked into the “VIP Lounge” to grab a Pepsi. There was only one other person in there: super-model Christie Brinkley! I said hi and we chatted very briefly, and I said I hoped she would enjoy the show, and walked out. Deb was waiting for me a short distance away, and she started laughing as soon as she saw me. I kept walking, and she laughed harder. I was dragging about 6 feet of toilet paper on my shoe. I told her who I had just met, and she laughed all the harder! OK, I’m getting off topic, and I’m embarrassing myself… what was the question again?
Lisha: Ok, I’m crying with laughter. Sorry, but that’s really hysterical! I hope that everyone is getting a sense of how much fun it is to hear you tell these stories!
Willa: That is funny! So I know very little about how musical films are made. Which generally comes first – filming or recording? What I mean is, with Captain EO were the songs recorded first, and then Michael Jackson sang to match them during filming? Or did the filming come first, and then he sang the songs to match the film? And at what point did you become involved in the Captain EO project?
Brad: That’s a great question, and the truth is somewhere in the middle. The music is recorded first, but sometimes the music needs to be edited to fit a certain scene. He was lip-syncing on film to the music Matt recorded in the studio. Captain EO was (to the best of my memory) in very early production when I started working at Westlake.
Willa: And what does that mean, “very early production”? I really do know very little about all this. Were the storyline, characters, songs, dialogue, choreography all pretty much set, or were details still being worked out?
Brad: I don’t know for certain, because we were only working on the music. Having been around many productions, my assumption is that most of the story had been written, but ad-libs and last-minute changes generally come in to play.
Willa: That’s interesting. And how involved was Michael Jackson in those last-minute changes and other decisions? Was he focused pretty exclusively on performing, or did he also have ideas about how he wanted the final piece to look or sound?
Brad: I know that Michael loved being around film productions. He loved to watch and learn the process from the pros. Knowing him, I would imagine he was very focused on his performance, and likely trusted the production team. After all, it’s hard to go wrong with Francis Coppola and George Lucas.
Lisha: Brad, can you tell us how you started doing your seminars, and what someone can expect if they would like to attend one?
Brad: Great question. The very short version of a long story is that I was approached by some French MJ fans to share my stories with them nearly two years ago. I flew to Paris for a few days in the summer of 2012, and we had a group of about 12 in a studio. I brought loads of tapes and it was somewhat disorganized but a lot of fun. I would grab a tape, play an old mix, and tell some memories I had about it.
Willa: Oh, that sounds fabulous! What an incredible experience.
Brad: They really enjoyed it, and I thought I would try it again in New York the following spring. I did two seminars there, but I added some video, and made it a bit more chronological in terms of my years working with Michael. Those seminars also went very well, and pretty soon I was doing them in Orlando, then Paris, Stockholm, Toronto, and now back in Orlando on February 8th.
Michael had a unique connection with many people, through his music, his dance, his benevolence, his humor, and maybe his pain. I didn’t walk in his shoes, nor was I his best friend – but I loved working with him, and I am proud to be able to call him a friend. I can still hear his laugh, I can still see his excitement over a great mix in the studio, or a new ride at the ranch. He was like no one you have ever met before. He was Michael – and if I can give people a sense of what it was like to be around him, that makes me happy.
Willa: That sounds wonderful. Everyone I’ve talked to who’s been to one of your seminars, Brad, just raves about it. For example, Stephenson went to one in New York and sent us an email about it with lots of interesting details and good comments, like this one:
He played parts of a 2 hour recording of MJ and Bill Bottrell creating Give In to Me – it was so amazing because the song – the music and lyrics – slowly emerged from the experimental sounds of Bill’s guitar and MJ’s singing, and you could hear it taking form piece by piece. WOW!!!!!
And just the incredible sound quality alone of your seminars … I’ve been told it’s like you’re hearing his music – I mean, really hearing it – for the first time. Following that with Captain EO at Epcot Center, with the full sensory experience as it was originally envisioned, is an added bonus.
Brad: Rumor has it that Disney is going to close Captain EO after an amazing run, so I reached out to Matt Forger and asked if he would join me for a seminar with a section specifically on Captain EO and Thriller. He agreed, so it will be a pretty special day.
As to what to expect, that’s a hard one. I go into each seminar with a bare-bones flow, and just see where it goes. Sometimes we spend a bit more time on Bad, or we dig deeper into Dangerous. I like to keep it fairly loose and not overly structured. There are certain moments that have been written about, and attenders really want to experience those, but I like it when someone comes and has no idea what to expect. I had one guest who brought her husband, who you would not describe as a mega-fan. He was a really cool guy, and it meant so much to me that he said he really enjoyed the day. I like to think that learning about Michael’s working style, and the group of amazing people in the studio could be of interest to a lot of people who may not think they are MJ fans. Having said that, I have certainly met some incredible fans who are so appreciative of what I am doing.
Willa: Oh, it sounds fabulous, and I would love to learn more about his working style and creative process! As I understand it, he composed most of his songs by capturing ideas with a tape recorder – is that right? He’d sing the melody, the harmonies, even sounds approximating drums or strings or horns or guitar licks to indicate how he wanted the instrumentation to sound. So he’d bring that into the studio, and then what? What’s the process for turning his ideas on a tape recorder into a song on an album?
Brad: We would sometimes give Michael a tape recorder, but keep in mind – Michael would lose something within 45 seconds of giving it to him. Seriously. It was more common for him to call Matt (or one of the team) and meet at a studio. We might bring John Barnes or Michael Boddicker to help get the track put together. Michael would sing the melody line, and the rhythm parts, and we would start putting it together in a sequencer. Other times he would simply sing the parts right to tape, and we would replace his voice with instruments later.
Willa: That’s so interesting! Lisha speculated that he did that – sang parts that were later replaced by instruments – in a post we did a few weeks ago. Lisha, you were right!
Lisha: I am so fascinated by how that worked!
Brad: He would also love to collaborate with other songwriters like Siedah Garret or Bill Bottrell on some songs. Once the song was past the demo stage, we would start bringing more musicians in to really take it to a new level. During my years with Michael, we never used digital pitch correction on his voice. He sang every note, every line, every part. I go into great detail about that process in the seminar.
Lisha: You mentioned in Toronto that Bruce Swedien’s secret for getting a great lead vocal is to just choose the right mic and record it properly in the first place! I’m not sure if people realize how closely you got to work with Bruce Swedien.
Brad: Oh man, Bruce is a dear friend and my mentor. My years with Michael would not have happened without Bruce, period. In 1986 I was working sessions at Westlake, and Bruce and I were becoming friends. I think he saw promise in me and asked if I wanted to sit in for the recording of Michael’s new album. Can you imagine?? I jumped at the chance!
Brad: During the day I would work on Taco Bell commercials (“Run for the Border!”), and at night I would watch Michael sing “Man in the Mirror” or “Smooth Criminal.”
Willa: Wow, that’s a contrast!
Brad: It was nothing short of amazing. When the album was released, Bruce’s assistant Craig went a different direction, and I became Bruce’s assistant (“Technical Director”) for nearly a decade. Next came Quincy’s Back on the Block, then Michael’s Dangerous and HIStory. The crazy thing is that each of those projects took sometimes two years or more when you factor in all of the production time, remixes, dance mixes, video mixes, on and on. Bruce is a master, is the master of his craft. His humor puts everyone at ease, but his ability to record and mix music, to create a sonic soundscape is beyond compare. There is no one like Bruce, and I am grateful for all that he has taught me.
Lisha: I read your interview in Bruce Swedien’s new book, The Bruce Swedien Recording Method, and I thought you really nailed it when you said, “when Bruce finishes a mix it actually leaves the speakers – it floats in front of you and all around you.” It’s just a magical experience listening to what Bruce Swedien can do with sound.
We all know there is a lot of technical know-how that goes into being a great sound/recording engineer, but I’m not sure it’s really understood how much artistry and just plain old good musicianship is required as well. For instance, at your seminar, Brad, I noticed that as you were speaking to the group, you were constantly listening and adjusting the way your voice sounded through the speakers. You reached over several times and made tiny changes that produced the most gorgeous quality of sound. It struck me as similar to the way a good musician listens and adjusts to what they are hearing.
Willa: That’s interesting!
Brad: Wow, Lisha, you were really paying attention! I drive my girls nuts because I will adjust the EQ in their cars, or make sonic adjustments when we are watching TV or a movie at home. I have even walked out of a movie theater during a movie because the sound was so bad.
Lisha: Occupational hazard! You also told a fascinating story about working with Bruce Swedien under less than ideal circumstances, and how you watched in amazement as he found a way to make it work. It really convinced me that the equipment and all the technical wizardry involved in recording is secondary to the artistry of the person running it.
Brad: I was working with Bruce one time in a home studio in LA. It was far from our typical pristine places like Record One or Hit Factory. It was a console in a living room with couches and lamps and typical residential surroundings. Nothing wrong with that, but not quite what we were used to.
Lisha: That’s putting it mildly!
Brad: Anyway, Bruce does a mix on this older console that gave me chills – it still does. It was so transparent and punchy, it didn’t match the place where it was born. Like going to Dairy Queen and getting a perfect rack of lamb chops and great bottle of wine. Bruce brings a level of talent to any room that no equipment, software, or gadget can replicate. God blessed Bruce with an amazing set of ears, and the talent to create sounds in a class all of their own.
Lisha: Speaking to a group of students at Full Sail University, Bruce Swedien said something that really stopped me dead in my tracks. In a very emphatic tone of voice he said: “The first thing I want to tell you is – no matter how good a song is, or how accomplished the musicians playing it are, a poorly done recording and mix of that song will leave you cold.” Here’s a clip:
What a dramatic statement to make! And I think he’s right. At the end of the day, the musicianship displayed by the recording/sound engineers is at least as important as any other musical element in a song. You and your colleagues played such a vitally important role in creating some of the finest records ever produced. It was truly a collaborative effort, and I feel like Michael Jackson understood that in a big way.
Brad: In no way is this meant to sound arrogant, but it is hard to describe how amazing it was to be in the same room with Quincy Jones, Bruce Swedien, Rod Temperton, Bill Bottrell, David Foster, Teddy Riley, Greg Phillinganes, Steve Porcaro, Siedah Garrett, Michael Boddicker, John Robinson, David Williams, Paulinho De Costa … The list goes on and on. Amazingly talented people, all working together, pooling those talents to make Michael’s records as musical, creative, and sonically incredible as possible.
It took an artist like Michael to bring that type of production army together. I hear things in those albums that bring back countless memories – but overshadowing everything was a love for what we were doing, and a love for who we were working for. I think Michael knew that, because he would work just a little bit harder than any of us. I don’t live in the past, but I was so blessed to be a part of something bigger than I could have imagined, and I am thankful to have been a small part of it.
Lisha: I just want to say that although you are very humble and self-effacing, Brad, no one should be fooled! It was apparent to me from watching you work that there’s a reason you got to be in the room with the greats. I can see that you strive for excellence in all that you do – in the seminars, in the studio, and at Neverland Ranch. I really think I understand why Michael Jackson valued and trusted you so much.
Willa: And I’m glad you’re sharing your memories of working with Michael Jackson and that incredibly talented team of musicians and recording artists, both through your seminars and with us today. It’s been really wonderful to hear you talk about it!
So I know Lisha is planning to attend your February 8th seminar in Orlando. If others want to come too, or want to find out about other seminars, how can they sign up or get more information?
Brad: February 8th in Orlando is going to be an amazing day. I haven’t seen Matt in years, so having him in the same room, sharing his stories and memories is going to be awesome. We will cover Thriller, Captain EO, Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory, plus a few surprises. It all takes place in a beautiful studio in Orlando, and I will bring my Westlake speakers. These are the exact same speakers Bruce used to mix Dangerous and HIStory. You will hear the music and mixes exactly the same as Michael did.
Additionally, I am bringing my catering rock star, Linda, back to prepare an amazing meal just like we used to have on “Family Fridays,” where Michael would encourage us to bring our families to the studio for a couple hours of laughter, stories, and great food.
Lisha: I can’t wait! See you there.
Joie: So, “Dancing With the Elephant.” Pretty strange title for a blog about Michael Jackson, huh? Well, not really. Not once you understand where my friend and I are coming from and how this blog came to be.
My name is Joie Collins and I am one of the dedicated individuals who helps run the MJFC (Michael Jackson Fan Club) website. Needless to say, I’m a huge Michael fan and have been since I was a very small child watching the Jackson 5 perform on Soul Train. I’ve been doing what I do for MJFC for a long time and I love it! I get great satisfaction out of overseeing the website’s News page and answering the website’s business mail. Recently, I’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know Dr. Willa Stillwater when I agreed to read her new book, M Poetica, and give her my honest, gut-reaction from a fan’s point of view.
I’m not sure she knew exactly what she was asking of me at the time. As you know, we MJ fans tend to take our opinions very seriously! And, as you may have guessed, my “honest, gut-reaction” sparked an immediate, heated debate! Willa and I went back and forth and back and forth over various topics and points covered in her book. I would tell her all the things I loved about it, but I also pulled no punches in telling her what I hated about it. And she would counter with all the reasons why she had written it the way she had written it and I would explain to her why I felt the way I did and why most fans would agree with me. This went on for a couple of weeks, and finally she and I began to understand that we had hit on something special.
What we realized is that, during our debates, we actually had some pretty interesting discussions about Michael Jackson, his art and his music. We were talking openly and honestly, having real, in-depth conversations about the work of the greatest entertainer of all time. And even when we were disagreeing (which happened a fair amount of the time), we both always came away from the conversation with an enlightened point of view, and a new way of looking at the King of Pop than we had previously. So we thought… what if we continued the conversation on a larger scale? And what if we invited all of you to witness that conversation and even take part in it yourselves?
Still doesn’t explain the name though, right? Well, we wanted a name that spoke to both of us and also had relevant meaning to Michael himself. We all know how deeply Michael felt about the majestic elephant. He loved them! Gypsy and Babar were among his favorite animals at his Neverland Valley Ranch zoo. He even wrote a beautiful essay about elephants in his book, Dancing the Dream called “So the Elephants March.” In it, he talks about the lessons that elephants have been trying for centuries to teach man. He writes, “But the elephants’ most important message is in their movement. For they know that to live is to move. Dawn after dawn, age after age, the herds march on, one great mass of life that never falls down, an unstoppable force of peace.” I think that last part describes Michael pretty well. “An unstoppable force of peace.” In many ways, that’s what he himself was.
For me, not only are elephants amazing animals, but they also symbolize a “touchy subject.” A difficult conversation that people may wish to avoid. For example, I’m a Black American (I don’t like the term “African” American because neither I, nor my parents, nor my grandparents – or even my great-grandparents for that matter – have ever been to Africa) and my husband is White. He and I often talk about different racial issues and it’s wonderful because we can do so in a very open and honest way without the fear of offending anyone or hurting each other’s feelings. We’ve been married for 10 and a half years now and we often interact with one another’s families – all of whom have always been very supportive of our relationship. During our conversations about the differences between Black families and White families, one of the things I often say to my husband is that, in my experience, White families sometimes tend to want to avoid “the elephant in the room,” preferring to dodge the uncomfortable topics of conversation, while Black families tend to draw as much attention to the awkward topic as possible, often wrapping Christmas lights around that elephant and setting up big flashing arrows pointing right to it! It’s a generalization, of course, but you get what I mean. The point is, sometimes people (of all races) don’t really know how to tackle the uncomfortable topics, so instead they “avoid the elephant in the room.”
Well, I think we can all agree that when it comes to Michael Jackson there are a lot of uncomfortable topics that might come up. Even in a blog that focuses on his art. And Willa and I are not going to avoid those elephants. Instead, we’ve decided to dance with them!
Willa: Joie, I love your description of the elephant in the room! I just love it. It creates this little movie in my mind of a bunch of people sitting in a room with an elephant no one invited, and everyone is feeling uncomfortable and awkward and no one knows what to do. Finally someone walks right up to the elephant, welcomes him, and invites him to dance – and they all find out he’s not so scary after all. Suddenly, that awkward situation becomes much more comfortable, and maybe even turns into a party. I just love that image of dancing with the elephant!
I also think it’s crucially important to openly acknowledge the elephant in the room when trying to interpret Michael Jackson since confronting painful issues, especially racial prejudice, was so central to his work – from relatively straightforward anthems like “Black or White” to more complicated things like the changing color of his skin. I don’t think you can understand him and what he was doing and how incredibly important it is if you exclude race from the picture, or marginalize it off to the side somewhere. Confronting prejudice in one form or another was at the heart of almost everything he did, both as an artist and as a cultural figure.
Because we aren’t honestly acknowledging the elephant in the room, I don’t think we’ve even begun to realize the deep, tectonic shifts he helped bring about. I’m White and I grew up in the South, in a very racist place. Yet, as a teenager, my definition of the ultimate in sexiness was Michael Jackson, a young Black man. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. And there were millions of girls around the world who felt the same way I did. There’s a whole generation of us whose ideas about race and sexuality – about what’s sexy and what isn’t – were shaped by him. That’s huge. He was a teen idol, our first Black teen idol, and the implications of that are deep and powerful and profound, but no one’s really talking about that, or what it means culturally.
You know, every time he ripped his shirt on stage, like in Dirty Diana or Come Together, and showed us his dark chest and how beautiful and sexy it was, he was challenging how White America, especially, “read” his body. But he did it in such an interesting way. He was beautiful and sexy, but he was always a genuine person too – in part, I think, because he had the courage to let himself be vulnerable, and let us see that side of him too. He wasn’t just a Chippendale guy. He was sexy, but he never became just a glossy sex object because we could always see the humanity in him. I look at him in Dirty Diana up on stage with his bare chest and shoulders, and he’s so sexy I can hardly stand it, but he also looks so vulnerable. I don’t know whether to faint or make him some soup.
Joie: Faint or make him soup! I love the way you put things sometimes!
Willa: Well, you know what I mean! You just feel the urge to take care of him sometimes, and I think that vulnerability was really important also. This was during the 1980s, when the inner cities were erupting in gang violence and the dominant narrative in the media was that young Black men were scary and alien and dangerous. We kept getting told that – in news reports and movies and even commercials – but then there’s Michael Jackson, and he’s almost single-handedly pushing back against that dominant narrative and offering a very different vision. He was a young Black man, but he was sweet and funny and smart and sexy and vulnerable. He gave us an alternate image of what it means to be a young Black man in America, and for me, his vision always seemed more honest and human and believable than that scary stereotype.
Joie: Well, I agree with you completely. He did give us an alternative image of what it means to be a young Black man in America and, to this day, Black Americans take pride in that. And I could go off on a whole different tangent here, but before I do that, why don’t you explain what the title means to you.
Willa: So “Dancing with the Elephant” speaks to me about art and interpretation. To me, interpretation isn’t about passively observing a work of art, but about actively engaging with it, “dancing” with it, opening yourself up to it, and becoming emotionally invested in it.
It also reminds me of a folktale I love about six blind men trying to understand and describe an elephant. The first approaches the elephant and happens to touch his trunk. He feels the elephant’s trunk, realizes how strong yet flexible it is, and announces that an elephant is like a huge snake – like a python or boa constrictor. The second blind man steps forward and touches one of the elephant’s legs. He feels all around, noting the round shape and how sturdy it is, and says, no, an elephant is more like a column or pillar. The third comes forward and encounters the elephant’s side. He spreads his hands along the vast breadth of the elephant’s side and says they are both wrong: an elephant is like a wall. Then the fourth steps forward, happens to catch the elephant’s tail, and says, no, an elephant is like a rope. The fifth feels his ear waving back and forth and says an elephant is like a fan. The sixth feels his tusk and says an elephant is like a spear.
Each of the blind men is providing an accurate description of that aspect of the elephant he happened to encounter and experience for himself, but none of them comprehends the entire animal. They only perceive bits and pieces. Only by sharing their experiences and combining their ideas will they ever be able to develop some understanding of an elephant and begin to fully appreciate what a truly magnificent animal it is.
I love this story of the six blind men, and think it’s especially important to compare notes and share our perceptions and experiences when trying to understand something as complicated and subjective as a work of art, especially with an artist as experimental as Michael Jackson who pushed so many boundaries and challenged so many preconceived ideas and accepted beliefs.
For example, Joie and I really went back and forth and around and around about how we interpret the changing color of Michael Jackson’s skin. She wasn’t kidding when she talked about our heated debates. I saw it as a brilliant artistic decision that profoundly influenced how White America, especially, experiences racial differences. Joie saw it as a wrenching emotional decision that he struggled with for years. My discussions with Joie haven’t fundamentally altered my interpretation, but they’ve influenced me tremendously. Her ideas have deepened and complicated my understanding of this aspect of his work and actually made it much more powerful and meaningful to me by helping me understand just how difficult this decision must have been for him, and how very painful it must have been to be so misunderstood.
Joie: So, with this blog, Willa and I hope to have some really in-depth conversations about Michael Jackson’s art and his cultural impact. We intend for this to be a weekly blog, so come back next week and we’ll get the conversation started.
Willa: Our goal is to have a substantive discussion where we can all share ideas and even disagree sometimes, but in a respectful way that leads to a deeper understanding of his work. If you would like to contact us with questions or future blog topics, our email address is email@example.com.
Joie: And you can also check us out on Facebook and give us your own take on our discussion. Tell us what you think. We want to hear it!