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- July 23, 1984
- Vol. 22
- No. 4
The Jackson Fireworks
The Heartland Turned Out All Dressed Up for a Church Social, and Michael Put On a Supernatural Display
The Jacksons' sixth-floor enclave—where "Do Not Disturb" signs hung on the doorknobs—was absolutely still. Inside Michael's suite the Man himself was running through vocal exercises. In a room nearby, brothers Randy, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon—minus Jackie, sidelined by a knee operation—were rehearsing harmonies and bracing themselves for the start of the $50 million, 13-plus city tour that could mark the farewell of the family act that debuted in 1965. Little brother Randy was psyching himself up, trying to sear away the pain in his left leg caused by an auto accident in 1980. "You know how a boxer feels before a fight?" he asked. "That's how I feel. I want to knock them out."
"Pain pills," added Marlon. "We tell the audience to bring pain pills when they come to see us. We want to be so good, so strong, it makes 'em hurt."
Gluttons for the sort of punishment Marlon had in mind found it—and then some. The Jacksons packed Arrowhead Stadium for three nights running, and the chief complaints among the 135,000 who witnessed their spectacle was that the brothers hadn't given them enough licks. "I'd like to see twice as much," said 19-year-old Donna Slonaker, from Lydon, Kans., "but I'd pay $30 to see it again."
After months of controversy, suspense and confusion, the Jackson Victory tour—named in honor of the newly released album that has already sold nearly two and a half million copies—was finally on the road, bound next for Dallas, Jacksonville, New York and points beyond. All told the five Jacksons expected to play 47 dates in 16 weeks to the tune of $50-$60 million in ticket sales—and a possible $8 million profit.
When they weren't fielding criticism about the tour's exorbitant mail-order ticket policy (which has been changed) and promoter Chuck Sullivan's demands for reduced hotel rates and free newspaper ad space, the close-knit clan had spent its pre-V-Days polishing the act. There was none of the ambitious partying that once characterized rock tours: Meals prepared by the Jacksons' two cooks were taken in the privacy of the brothers' rooms. Idle moments were devoted to playing riffs and (in Michael's case) autographing photos. The Gloved One slipped out of the hotel (via an elevator leading to the garage) to see Ghostbusters and to announce publicly that he would donate his share of the concert proceeds to charity. On Friday afternoon he accompanied Tito to a local hotel to accept an NAACP award. After that outing, the Jacksons remained en famine until Friday evening, when dressers came to help them into the opening-number costumes. At 9 p.m. the five hopped into a van for the 30-minute ride to the stadium, where the frenzy was cresting.
The audience that awaited them was a Whitman's sampler of Middle America. They arrived in muddy pickups and customized vans and sporty coupes—not just squealing adolescents in T-shirts emblazoned with Michael's likeness, but old people as well, and mothers with toddlers, and a rainbow coalition that only these Jacksons could bring together: young people with their parents. Said Andrea Gilliand of Stanley, Kans., speaking from the promontory of 30, "You're never too old to see Michael Jackson. It's the best concert I've ever been to, and I've seen the Stones and the Beatles. But why didn't he play 'Thriller'?"
Well probably because he wanted to make his fans privy to the movie that screens daily behind his eyes. The script, for which the androgynous idol did the storyboards, is Arthurian legend as if spruced up by Star Wars creator George Lucas, with an assist from Muppeteer Jim Henson. At the show's opening, towering animated monsters thunder onstage, to be challenged by Randy (Michael's creative heir apparent), done up in glittering armor. Randy pulls a laser-lit sword out of a prop rock, slays one of the creatures and commands, "Behold the Kingdom." Belching smoke shot with green and blue and purple, the set elevates and out come the brothers, who make a dramatic descent down a set of newly revealed stairs into a deafening wave of screams.
Although Jermaine sings lead on three of his own songs and the other Jacksons have their moments, Michael seizes center stage and holds it. Resplendent in a silver sequined jacket with a red-and-white sash (one of his four costumes), he leaps into the air, freezes, whips about, drops to one knee and curls into a fetal position. He's arrogant on Beat It, tender on She's Out of My Life, triumphant on Billie Jean. His Heartbreak Hotel is so full of pops, stops, bangs and breaks that by the time he's done the crowd is inspecting its arms for imaginary bruises.
The Jackson tour is a spectacular production, and it comes with a spectacular price tag: in the neighborhood, says promoter Sullivan, of $15 million. The 375-ton stage, itself a costly proposition, is five stories high, 160 feet wide and 90 feet deep. It has seven computers and five elevators that require 22 men to operate. What with the 120 speakers, 2,200 lights, and the trestles and cables, the Jacksons' baggage adds up to some 65,000 pounds. The crew numbers 1,500, including those recruited locally to stage the finale—a sky-splitting fireworks show.
At Arrowhead more than 170 officers from area police departments kept the peace. They were abetted by 375 security guards hired by the stadium management, nine paramedics, two doctors and six nurses. A helicopter and four ambulances idled at the ready, and the crowd was frisked at the entrances by nearly 70 hand-held metal detectors. In fact security was so tight that Sullivan himself was denied backstage access on opening night when he forgot his pass.
Happily, the Jackson tour brain trust—which had prepared for a disaster on the order of the Stones' 1969 concert at Altamont—was confronted instead with the docility of a church social, a decorous reflection of Michael Jackson himself. Only nine arrests were made at Arrowhead, says a stadium spokesman, most for disorderly conduct. The only real high jinks came from Don King, the fright-wigged boxing czar and erstwhile tour promoter. Supplanted by Sullivan in June he nevertheless continued to hold forth as if he were running the show. "We're traveling virgin territory," he announced as he held court in the Alameda Plaza lobby. "There are no boundaries. If Michael had time to work as hard as Wayne Newton, 150 dates a year, he could make $200 million. But who wants to work that hard?"
The Jacksons worked hard enough as it was. But the threat of exhaustion seemed irrelevant to Randy, who elatedly hopped about on hotel chairs Saturday as he relived the electrifying opener. "It was great to be back up there," he said. "My leg was killing me, but I know it was the best opening show we've ever done. Afterward I couldn't sleep. My mother called just to say 'I love you and thought you were good.' My mother's all about love."
Meanwhile, down in Jacksonville, Mayor Jake Godbold was also falling in love. "It's time we reached for the stars," he said. Godbold had calculated that the Jacksons' three-day stint in his fair city would cost the local government $445,000 in salaries and promotions—a piddling sum compared to what visitors would spend for lodgings, meals, gas and Michael Jackson geegaws. "Seventy million dollars," he told the City Council, lingering over the last word. "Seventy million dollars."
- James McBride.
March 30, 2015
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