New York, September 7, 2001: Who would have thought. Who would have thought in a few days the world was about to witness one of the greatest tragedies in history. Who would have thought Michael Jackson was about to perform his last concert ever.
Everything began for me in April 2001 when Michael’s then assistant, Evvy Tavasci, told me she could reserve for me and a couple of people from our staff, first-row tickets for a still unannounced concert Michael Jackson was planning for that september. When I learned about how big the whole project was, and after realising I was being offered unique tickets in premium style, I didn’t think twice and accepted the proposal. In few weeks I got my ticket to attend the opening night of the Michael Jackson 30th Anniversary Special Show at the Madison Square Garden in New York, an event to celebrate Michael’s solo career that saw the re-union on stage of The Jacksons in their original line-up and other artists to perform Michael’s hits. I had been missing Michael, I had met him just one year earlier, but I hadn’t seen him performing live since 1999, when I had attended the Michael Jackson & Friends concert in Munich.
My experience (and not only mine) with his concerts till then had been quite like a military camp training: wake up early (and when I say early I mean 4 am) to make sure you would be the first in the queue, wait outside the venue under the sun, the rain, the snow until, after 14 hours of exhausting awaiting, the gates would open and you’d find yourself having to fight for your own life more than for the first row. If you were lucky and strong enough to survive the fans’ madness, you’d finally earn your own – very very little – spot, grab the front barriers and never let go until death do you apart. If death wouldn’t do you apart, the 30.000 people behind you would probably try to and eventually maybe succeed.
So yes, going to a Michael Jackson concert was an out-of-the-world experience, in every sense.
Now, there I was, holding a ticket in my hand that spoke of a dream I had always dreamt of: being able to enjoy at least a concert of his from the first row without having to fight, hit, run or risk my life. It was happening, I couldn’t believe it. And what actually happened exceeded all expectations: not only the seats were first central row, but the stage was so close that I was going to see Michael performing in front of me few feet away. A second dream come true in less than two years (for the first one read how I met him).
The gates opened at 7 pm so we arrived (I was with our collaborator Alessandro Capuano) in time for the opening. There was a reserved entrance for our tickets, so it was quite fast and hassle-free for us to reach our seats. Once there, we enjoyed glasses of champagne on the house and also managed to have a quick chat with Dionne Warwick and Gina Lollobrigida who were seating 4 rows behind us.
After a while, the legendary Madison Square Garden was already packed, everyone waiting for the irreplaceable King of Pop. When the lights went off, I realised I was going to see Michael Jackson, The Jacksons, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Whitney Houston, Al Jarreau, Yoko Ono and Liza Minnelli (to name some) all on the same stage on the same night. A part of the history of American entertainment all there, so close to us. I asked Alessandro to pinch me.When actor Samuel L. Jackson walked on stage and announced Whitney Houston, Usher and Mya to perform “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” the crowd went mental, for a moment I thought the venue was about to explode. The performance was amazing, Whitney Houston appeared very thin and weak, she wasn’t in her best shape that day, but vocally and artistically she delivered a perfect performance, one I’ll always remember in my life.
During the other artists’ performance Michael was sitting with part of his family, Maculay Culkin and Elizabeth Taylor in a booth on the right of the stage. After the first performance, Marlon Brando’s humanitarian speech on stage marked a pivotal moment of the show. There he was, a true legend, talking to us. I asked Alessandro to pinch me again, you never know.Then a series of good performances followed: the touching tune “Ben” (one of Michael’s favourites) performed by Billy Gilman, Gloria Estefan and James Ingram’s duet on “I just can’t stop loving you”, Marc Anthony’s super-melodic version of “She’s out of my life”, Al Jarreau performing “Ease on down the road” with Jill Scott, Monica and Deborah Cox, who also performed “Heal The World” with Mya, Tamia and The Brooklyn Youth Choir. The more we heard Michael’s songs live the more we wanted him on stage, but we had to wait as there were at least 3 or 4 more unforgettable moments waiting for us. The first one was Liza Minnelli walking on stage and performing her very own version of “You are not alone”, followed by one of the most beautiful songs in history, “Over the rainbow”. My body was covered with shivers and it was quite warm in there. Time for more pinching.
Another remarkable performance was “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child. Wearing white shiny short skirts and tops, single white sequinned gloves and white hats, they danced and sang to the notes of their hit mixed with “Billie Jean”. At that point I looked at Michael in the booth and I have to say he seemed amazed by such beauty and talent; believe me friends, he was enjoying the view A LOT.
Then it was time for Ray Charles, yes ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ray Charles, to take the piano and deliver a monumental performance of “Crying time”, with Cassandra Wilson.
When Elizabeth Taylor walked on stage, we knew that was it. Michael was about to walk on stage… (another small, tiny pinch, please). You could hardly hear what Elizabeth was saying because it was one of those moments when the audience is out of control.
When she finally said the words, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Michael Jackson and The Jacksons” and the explosion of the fireworks rumbled the venue, time stopped, the rest of the world didn’t exist anymore. We were on another planet.
There he was, standing still, his back turned. The alien fallen from another planet: dressed in total white, with a golden helmet, his presence on stage was enough to drive every single living being in the venue crazy at least. The quiet, shy man sitting in the booth at the right of the stage had completely disappeared. Few seconds and he takes off his gloves and helmet, turns his back to face us in the audience, my heart starts beating so fast I think I’m about to have an after-life experience. His brothers join him from the back of the stage, then all of them, including Michael, take off their jackets. Kathrine Jackson smiles, happy, from the booth. Michael moves into one of his famous poses (left hand on his crotch, right arm up), the music starts: the groove of “Can You feel it” thunders all over. Randy starts singing, interacting with the audience, but when Michael walks into the song it’s heaven to our ears. He’s a tiger full of energy, running from one side to the other, his voice sounds harsh. He’s the scene-stealing, stage animal we’ve come to know so well. And we are witnessing all of this at such a close distance that pinching wouldn’t be needed anymore: I knew I was living a dream come true.
For the song “Dancing Machine” Michael and his brothers were joined on stage by then biggest boy band around ‘N Sync, whose member Justin Timberlake tried to match Michael’s moves. While the fact that for the first time since the Victory tour in 1984 Michael had been reunited on stage with his brothers was exciting enough, the best was yet to come. And it came. After a duet with Britney Spears on “The way you make me feel” where the beautiful blonde singer delivered very poorly in terms of voice (but we had eyes and ears only for Michael, so never mind), it was time for “Billie Jean”. I think this was definitely one of his best ever performances of this song. Ever. The energy and some suppressed rage in his moves made it unique, made it magic, made it unreachable. As if it wasn’t enough, Guns ‘N Roses legendary guitar player Slash joined him on stage for an electrifyingly rock performance of “Black or White” and “Beat it”, followed by “You rock my world” – it was the first and last time this song was performed live – which brought the occasion for a fresh choreography and a mind blowing dance “challenge” between Michael and Usher, joined by actor/comedian Chris Tucker.
Just when we thought Michael had left the stage, it was time for the last big surprise: an all-star performance of “We are the world” directed by Quincy Jones. They were all on stage: Michael, Quincy, Ray, Dionne, Kenny, Al, Yoko… During the song, Michael hugged Quincy Jones and Yoko Ono, and shook hands with all the artists on stage, gently caressing Ray Charles’ face in his unmistakable sweetness. “We Are The World” was the last song goodbye. We saw him leaving the stage. Never in the world we would have thought that – apart from the following show date of september 10 – that would have been the last concert of his life. Who would have thought.
So, pardon me if, after witnessing live such an unearthly talent in my life, I find it hard to be impressed by the likes of Bruno Mars or J. Timberlake.
Just like the Twin Towers, that were brought down 4 days later, will never fill the Manhattan skyline anymore, there will be no star as shiny as Michael filling the pop scene anymore. No matter how hard they try, there will always be something missing on the horizon.