Second Edition of Earth Song Now Out in Paperback!
I’m excited to let you know that the 2nd edition of Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus is now available at Amazon.com and other online retailers. Unlike Man in the Music, this book was published independently, meaning I had the freedom (and limitations) of not working with a traditional New York publisher. I won’t be doing much promo for it so I would appreciate if you helped spread the word. The story of “Earth Song” doesn’t offer any salacious commentary on plastic surgery, drugs, or sex, but it does offer a portrait of the artist in his element during a crucial time in his career (1988-1999). “Earth Song” meant a great deal to Michael. Hopefully the book makes a case for why it should matter to others as well.
Below I am offering some exclusive excerpts from the book. Enjoy!
When recording began on HIStory in January of 1994 at The Hit Factory in New York, Jackson was excited to finally get back to work on “Earth Song.” He felt confident it would find a home on the new record. The only questions were how to make it better and who to assist him in finalizing his vision.
As it turned out, Jackson was mostly satisfied with the demo he had worked out with Bottrell during the Dangerous sessions. The length, arrangement, and production remained almost exactly the same. Still, there were some crucial additions, most significantly in the climax of the song.
Jackson turned to renowned Canadian-born “hitmaker” David Foster to help finish the track. The winner of sixteen Grammy awards, Foster had worked with legends like Chicago, Barbara Streisand, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion (he had also worked briefly with Jackson in 1978 during the Off the Wall sessions). His specialty was the power ballad, though his work in this genre also gave him a reputation for affectation and hyper-glossy production. In 1985, Rolling Stone described him as the “master of…bombastic kitsch.” In production style, he was almost the exact opposite of Bill Bottrell. Jackson, however, knew what he needed and what skills Foster brought to the table. For Jackson, the role of a producer wasn’t to overtake the song; it was to help him achieve in very specific detail what he wanted. In the case of “Earth Song” he didn’t need an overhaul, just small brush strokes.
Foster brought in talented orchestrator Bill Ross to give the track a fuller, more powerful sound, most notably in the surging brass parts. “The orchestra added so much drama,” said assistant engineer, Rob Hoffman. “It made this beautiful song into an epic.”
Another important addition was Michael Thompson, a highly regarded session guitarist. Before Thompson, David Foster apparently offered the position to Eric Clapton, but either Clapton or Jackson (or both) passed on the idea. It is possible that Jackson remained concerned about Clapton’s racist past. Thompson, however (who had worked with David Foster and Quincy Jones), ended up being perfect for the job. His bluesy phrasings echo Jackson’s pained singing beautifully.
A new mix of “Earth Song” was completed at the Hit Factory in 1994. Most of Jackson’s engineers assumed at that point that the track was finished. Although Jackson was pleased with many of the improvements, however, he still wasn’t completely satisfied.
When recording moved back to Record One in Los Angeles in the spring of 1995, Jackson and his team focused in on the final details. Matt Forger estimated that around 40 multi-track tapes were used in total. “It crossed formats. It started on 24-track, switched to digital. The detail and work that went into it was staggering.”
Michael Jackson with recording engineers during the HIStory sessions, including Rob Hoffman, Brad Sundberg, Matt Forger, Bruce Swedien and Eddie Delena.
Jackson turned to sonic magician, Bruce Swedien, to re-record parts of his lead vocal. To capture the immediacy and intensity Jackson wanted, Swedien recorded with a Neumann M-49 tube mike (instead of his usual SM7) and had him get “as close as physically possible to the microphone, thereby eliminating almost all early reflections… I used no windscreen. I placed him as close as he could possibly get to this incredible old mike.” The results were subtle but palpable. “The real goal of music recording is to preserve the physical energy of the music and the musical statement itself,” explains Swedien.
Jackson saved the final ad libs for the last weekend of recording as he expected “to kill his voice” in the process. He told assistant engineers, Eddie Delena and Rob Hoffman, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think any of us are going to sleep this weekend. There’s a lot to get done, and we have to go to Bernie [Grundman for mastering] on Monday morning.”
Over the next few days, Jackson and a small crew of engineers ate, slept, and breathed the music. “He stayed at the studio the entire time,” recalled Hoffman, “singing and mixing. I got to spend a couple quiet moments with him during that time. We talked about John Lennon one night as he was gearing up to sing the last vocal of the record—the huge ad libs at the end of ‘Earth Song.’ I told him the story of John singing ‘Twist and Shout’ while being sick, and though most people think he was screaming for effect, it was actually his voice giving out. He loved it, and then went in to sing his heart out.”
As was his custom, Jackson sang that night with all the lights out. From the control room, Bruce Swedien and his crew of assistant engineers couldn’t see anything. Yet what they heard roaring out of the darkness was astonishing: it was as if Jackson was channeling from the lungs of the earth—a pained, fierce, prophetic voice, giving utterance to the suffering of the world.
Those who witnessed it could feel the hair standing up on the back of their necks…
Michael Jackson performed “Earth Song” to a live audience for the final time on June 27, 1999 in Munich, Germany.
The show was the second of two Jackson-organized benefit concerts (the first took place in Seoul, Korea) entitled “Michael Jackson & Friends – An Adventure of Humanity.” All the proceeds—an estimated $3.3 million dollars—were donated to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, the Red Cross, UNESCO, and Kosovo refugees.
The day of the concert in Munich was scorching hot. Fans were given water to prevent dehydration. In the early afternoon, the show got underway with performances by Luther Vandross, Ringo Starr, and Andrea Bocceli, among others.
As the sun faded and the air cooled, however, the anticipation began to build for Michael Jackson. Munich Olympic Stadium was now packed to the brim, a sea of humanity converged from all corners of the world.
Jackson hit the stage shortly after 11:00pm. As he stood motionless, David-like, amidst smoke and a flood of light, the excitement of the crowd was palpable. This was the moment they had been waiting for. Jackson proceeded into a high-octane lineup of songs, including a smooth, deftly choreographed medley of “Dangerous” and “Smooth Criminal.”
After finishing the set, Jackson ran back stage for a costume change and Gatorade while the elaborate backdrop was being built for his final number: “Earth Song.”
During the break, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” blared triumphantly through the warm summer air as lights surged through the crowd. Then, on the jumbotron, a spinning globe appeared. The ecstatic mood suddenly turned contemplative as the moody, cosmic opening to “Earth Song” emanated through the stadium, followed by the mournful piano chords.
Jackson walks back onto the stage to the distant screams of fans, but mentally, one can tell, he is now inside his song.
He is dressed in black pants and a tattered black and red overshirt. His face is pale. He looks fragile and somber. “What about sunrise…” The unmistakable tenor sends a frisson through the crowd.
His gestures are expressive, dramatic, intended to communicate to the furthest audience member. On the screen, scenes of destruction are projected while Jackson stalks the stage restlessly.
As the song progresses, the tension gradually builds. Jackson’s body crouches, pulses, and sways. He is “channeling” the painful emotions of the song. The chorus swells and releases like surging waves.
While Jackson sings, a huge steel bridge is erected on stage in three connecting parts. It was an addition to the number that had only been done once before, just a few days earlier in Seoul. The concept was intended as a sort of “Bridge of No Return”: refugees are seen crossing over to what they can only hope will be safety and freedom. After they pass, Jackson runs up the bridge himself. Pyrotechnics explode on both sides, simulating the attack of jets dropping bombs from overhead. Guitarist, Slash, meanwhile, plays a tempestuous guitar solo below, heightening the sense of chaos.
Engulfed in a cloud of smoke, Jackson stomps and shouts, “Someone tell me why!”
Then the unexpected happens. After a series of explosions, the middle part of the bridge Jackson is standing on suddenly dislodges, rises, and then drops nearly sixty feet.
“From my angle, I couldn’t see what happened, so I kept playing,” recalls music director, Brad Buxer. “I could sense something was kind of strange, but I still heard Michael singing. When the smoke cleared, I saw the bridge had collapsed.”
Jackson’s makeup artist, Karen Faye, said her “heart stopped beating” when she realized what happened. “Unlike rehearsals, and the last show [in Korea], [the bridge] didn’t pause at its pinnacle,” she remembers. “Instead it came careening down, gaining speed, with Michael tightly grasping the railings—still singing. I started screaming, but I could not even hear my own voice over the pyro, music, and the audience…From our vantage point we had lost sight of Michael…I could not imagine how [he] could have survived such a fall.”
The bridge landed with a thud in the orchestra pit in front of the stage. Amazingly, while Jackson was shaken by the fall, he continued performing. The crowd in the front was stunned, but most of the audience simply assumed it was part of the show. Techs quickly jumped down to check on Jackson, but before they reached him, he was crawling back up onto the stage.
“I saw one arm reach for the floor of the stage,” recalls Karen Faye, “then a long lean leg, another arm, another leg…He was up, center stage, finishing the end of ‘Earth Song’! My mouth dropped open in relieved amazement.”
Concert organizer Briton Rikki Patrick, later tried to offer an explanation for what happened. “We think a cable must have snapped or something. It was really frightening. People in the audience were screaming and crying. Security men were running everywhere. It must have been terrifying for Michael. But he managed to scramble back on stage. He staggered off to one side where I was standing and collapsed on to a chair. I could see he was in a lot of pain and bleeding at the back of his head.”
After the show, Jackson was rushed to Rechts Der Isar Hospital in Munich. He sustained a serious injury to his back and bruises. Yet before being whisked to the hospital, he insisted on not only finishing “Earth Song,” but also the encore, “You Are Not Alone.” The only thing he heard in his head, he later said, was his father’s voice saying, “Michael, don’t disappoint the audience!”
After climbing back onto the stage from the dismantled bridge, surrounded by clouds of smoke, Jackson lets out his final exclamations. Whoooo! Whoooo! Whoooo!
Finally, with a single spotlight shining down, he stretches out his arms and looks out at the audience, drenched in sweat and depleted.
This might have been the end. Yet during the HIStory Tour Jackson added a denouement. Just as the dust settles, a tank comes rumbling out onto the stage.
In the background, militant drums play over portentous strings. The tank is rolling toward the audience, but before it reaches them, Jackson jumps out in front, modeling the iconic imagery of Tiananmen Square. He is performing civil resistance—literally placing himself and his art against an imposing symbol of power and destruction. It beautifully emblemizes the meaning and purpose of “Earth Song.”
A soldier then arises from the machine and points a gun at the refugees and Jackson. The audience gasps. He points it directly at Jackson’s head as Jackson stares calmly back at him. The soldier has been trained to kill, but now, at the decisive moment he hesitates.
Unsettled, he nonetheless stands his ground, still aiming his gun at his unknown enemy. Then, from the side of the stage, a refugee child emerges. In tattered clothes, he walks toward the soldier carrying a flower. It is a symbol of life in all of its fragility, beauty and transience.
The soldier begins to come to his senses. He puts down his gun and takes off his helmet and goggles. As he looks into the boy’s eyes, he drops to his knees and weeps.
The soldier and boy embrace, as do Jackson and the soldier. It is a scene of redemption and healing. In the background, sublime piano flourishes cascade like sheets of summer rain. The world may be filled with untold suffering and horror, yet here, Jackson demonstrates, is proof that there are still pockets of love, beauty, and music.
Flanked by the soldier, the child, and a group of refugees, he turns to his audience one final time, stretches out his arms, and tilts his head toward the sky.