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The Truth About Michael and Lip Syncing: A Rare Soundboard Recording May Hold The Key

 

Michael-Jackson-history-world-tour-1996-1997-38122915-640-462As a Michael Jackson fan and researcher, one issue I hear debated quite frequently, and sometimes passionately, is why Michael lip synced so many of his performances during the HIStory tour and later. I have heard everything from the put downs of his work ethic by detractors (and even some “fans”) who insist it was out of laziness, to the excuses by fans that it was due to health issues. Closely on the heels of the latter defense are those who say that it simply isn’t possible to dance and sing at the same time-at least, not on the kind of intense and sustained level that was expected of a Michael Jackson concert. And therein may lie at least some of the truth, but I think it is a little more complex than that. Certainly, Michael had both sang and danced live throughout most of his career, up through the Dangerous era, at least, when lip syncing began to become a more prominent and noticeable part of his act. But let’s not forget that, by the time of the HIStory tour, Michael was in his late thirties, and it simply wasn’t as easy to pull off this feat with the same kind of sustained energy and intensity that he had been able to do in years past.

I am not entirely ruling out the health issues, either. We know, for example, that he suffered from chronic bronchitis throughout much of the HIStory tour, rendering vocally demanding pieces like “Earth Song” near impossible to do live on a nightly basis.

However, one reason that the “he couldn’t dance and sing at the same time” argument doesn’t entirely hold up is because it still doesn’t explain why he would lip sync a ballad like “You Are Not Alone”-which required relatively little physical exertion-while going all out live on some higher intensity dance numbers like “Wanna Be Starting Something.”

On the flip side of this argument, however, the accusations of laziness simply do not jibe with everything we know about this man’s work ethic. It never ceases to amaze me that some of the very same people who will go on and on about how Michael was such a perfectionist with his art will still turn around and perpetuate the argument that Michael simply chose to lip sync out of laziness. We have all heard the stories of how he drove engineers and fellow musicians to frustration with his insistence on perfection, often performing take after take of a track, long past the point when most would have been satisfied and called it a wrap. We know it was not unusual for him to spend years polishing a track or an album to perfection.  The sheer number of outtakes, the hundreds of songs written for every album, the endless hours of slaving away in recording studios just to get one perfect note. the countless hours often spent alone and rehearsing (even to the extent of refusing invitations to parties and other leisure activities) are all testaments to an unquestionable work ethic. This was the same performer who even climbed back onstage to finish a performance after being slammed fifty feet to the ground when a bridge collapsed during a performance of “Earth Song.” It simply doesn’t make sense to think that the same artist who gave so much to his art; who extended such effort into every aspect of his craft, would then choose to conscionably  snooker the public and his fans just because he didn’t feel up to putting forth the effort of singing live on a nightly basis.14402276646e5f6d (1)

But if we can’t chalk it up to mere laziness, as some would love to do, and if excuses about health issues do not entirely satisfy, either, then might there be another, even more plausible explanation?

To answer that question, we have to go back to the accusation of laziness and examine the very root opposition to it. If indeed Michael was such a perfectionist, it makes sense that this same compulsive obsession with detail, perfectionism, and craftsmanship would carry over to his live performances. It may be no coincidence that we actually begin to see and hear more lip syncing infiltrating his live performances at the very same time that he embarked on his own artistic emancipation with Dangerous. And, just as this artistic emancipation begins with Dangerous and peaks with HIstory, so, also, do we begin to see a certain solidification of his live performances. Simply put, it may seem that the most logical explanation for the increased reliance on backup tracking during the HIStory tour had more to do with Michael’s obsession to deliver perfection and, also, in a sense, to use live performance as illusion. Let’s note, however, that there is a huge difference between illusion in performance vs. deception in performance.

In short, the simple truth is that Michael was obviously making no attempt to deceive anyone. If he had been, then the lip synced numbers wouldn’t have been nearly so obvious. (In short, do these people really think that Michael was stupid enough to think that his fans were that stupid? The same fans who knew every word, every note, every inflection and spontaneous “Hee hee” and “Woo hoo” of his records by heart? Gimme a break!). Also, as with many pop performers who routinely utilize dance as part of their live show, Michael had been relying on pre-recorded live backing tracks for years. A pre-recorded live backing track basically performs the same function, although because it isn’t as glaringly obvious, it doesn’t carry quite the same stigma as lip syncing to a studio track. But my point is that if Michael had wanted those songs to sound live (in a way that would truly fool any unsuspecting concert goer) he could have used pre-recorded live backing tracks and easily accomplished that feat.

But, again, we’re talking deception as opposed to illusion. Often when music fans think of lip syncing, they automatically conjure up images of Milli Vanilli or 50 Cent’s disastrous BET performance. Yet lip syncing, certainly  as a staple of “live” television performances, has been around for years. If you grew up with The Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand, and all of the great musical variety shows of television’s golden era, you knew that no live performance could ever sound that much like the record. Clearly, all of those classic performances from TV-yes, even those early, much beloved Beatles performances-were lip synced. But what’s more, everyone knew it. There was no attempt being made to actively deceive. Rather, it was all about the illusion and a certain amount of suspended belief. In those days, when early technology made the logistics of capturing live performances on TV a near impossibility, lip syncing became the norm. And after such disastrous live incidents as Jim Morrison blurting out “higher” during an Ed Sullivan performance of “Light My Fire,” it was also a way of guaranteeing that there would be no unpleasant surprises during the performance to keep the censors busy. The reality was that such performances were for one purpose only, and that was promoting the single. We were also expected to simply enjoy, without question, seeing our favorite artists “up there” on the screen. Some years later, the music video industry operated on the same principle. Of course, we knew artists were lip syncing in their videos, even when they “appeared” to be performing live. Some of the best videos of the era were tongue-in-cheek spoofs like Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” which playfully and creatively acknowledged what everyone obviously knew-that all “performance” videos were simply cleverly crafted illusions of performers lip syncing their greatest hits.

Robert Palmer's "Addicted To Love" Playfully Satirized Video Lip Syncing
Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” Playfully Satirized Video Lip Syncing

But that was okay; videos were, after all, intended as promotional films, and no one was really expecting that they be performed live. When it comes to a show that fans have actually purchased money to see, however, it often becomes a different story.

But what many don’t realize is that there are essentially two schools of lip syncing, just as there are essentially two aesthetic schools of live music performance. There is, of course, lip syncing with intent to deceive, which is why acts like Milli Vanelli were rightfully brought down. In this case, we had two “artists” who never even sang a note on their studio recordings, let alone in live performance! At least, most acts are lip syncing to their own, recorded voices. In the case of Milli Vanelli, their entire act was a sham.

But while artists like Milli Vanelli are obvious exceptions, most live performances of rock and pop acts fall into one of the two aesthetics mentioned above. They are two aesthetics of performing art which are both very much grounded in the aesthetics of “rockism” on the one hand vs. “popism” on the other. And by the way, for a really great discussion on “rockism” I urge you to check out this post on the Dancing With the Elephant blog.

Rock purists, for example, believe that every concert performance should be a totally live experience. They will argue that this, after all, is what they are paying for. “Rockism” purists value the idea of a musician or singer who can deliver live, warts and all. And therein lies a huge difference. They don’t mind the warts; they embrace them (provided, of course, the musicians aren’t so wasted that they totally blow). For those who value the live aesthetic, believing that every concert should be a totally raw, stripped down, live experience, they don’t mind the occasional flat note; the scratchy rawness of a singer’s throat that is giving out from strained vocal chords; the occasional off note from the lead guitarist, or the excruciating feedback that comes because a musician has stepped too close to the amplifiers. These kinds of “hits and misses” are all part of the thrill of experiencing a live performance; the telltale signs that what one is getting is, indeed, “the real deal,” as purists like to say. Those who are steeped in the “rockism” school of live performance will say, quite earnestly, “If I wanted to hear it just like the album, then I would just stay home and listen to the record.”

And I agree, there is a certain logical validity to that idea. But then, what about those who will go to a concert and then actually complain because what they heard didn’t sound anything at all like the record? My husband has told me the story over and over of going to a Duran Duran concert back in the 80’s, and actually walking out because instead of hearing all of the great radio hits he expected to hear-“Union of the Snake,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Girls on Film,” etc-they only played forty-five minutes of “garbage I’d never heard.” Or the horrors of going to a Foreigner concert where, instead of hearing a pristine version of “Feels Like the First Time” he got, instead, a rather spacey Lou Gramm who improvised an endless variation of “Ooh baby” because he most likely couldn’t remember the lyrics (granted, this was right before his brain tumor was diagnosed).

In truth, most concert goers really want a balance between the perfection and familiarity of the studio recordings, and the risks and rawness that come with a live performance. Michael was keenly aware of the need for this balance in order to please most fans, and worked hard to achieve and perfect it-in fact, I daresay, harder than most. However, it’s important to note that Michael’s own aesthetic of live performance was not necessarily one grounded in rockism or its perpetuated belief that live performance exists simply as a means to itself. This brings us to the other school of live musical performance, which is the idea of performance as illusion and as spectacle.

In short, the main reason both schools are at odds is because the rockism aesthetic values the idea of live performance as a kind of purist art, whereas the school of illusion and spectacle places the premium on entertainment. It’s the difference between, say, going to an AC/DC concert, where all one expects is to get all sweaty moshing in the pit, and on the other hand, attending a David Copperfirld show, a Cirque du Soleil performance, or any other theatrical spectacle  where one knows that illusion, suspension of belief, and magic are going to be central aspects of the show. When looked at in this context, we see that neither aesthetic is “right” or “wrong”-they are simply two very different types of performances, intended to elicit a very different aesthetic experience for the audience. With the former, we don’t expect much more than a bunch of sweaty guys onstage, playing their instruments and giving a show. With the latter, however, we expect a certain element of sensory illusion and suspension of belief-in short, we want to be awed. In fact, the topic of how audience expectations vary from one type of performance to another is the subject of this very interesting article from Clyde Fitch.

It seems ironic then that Michael Jackson, an artist who was very much steeped in the aesthetic of live performance as a theatrical experience, is often most harshly judged and criticized by those who are steeped in the rockism aesthetic of live performance, and are thus judging him by a standard that he, himself, never exactly advocated. Just as with Prince, Madonna, and many other big name pop stars who evolved the stage performance into huge extravaganzas, Michael believed that the live concert was-or should be-a theatrical experience. Today, that tradition is continued with stars like Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and other heavily choreographed shows that rely on a clever mixture of live vocals and backing tracks, at strategic moments, to create an atmosphere that is more theatrical illusion than, strictly speaking, a concert of raw, live performance.  By the time of HIStory, Michael Jackson’s concerts had indeed become theatrical spectacles-he arrived in a spaceship, came out as an alien, rode on cherry pickers, had a stage setup replete with trap doors where he could disappear at will, or reemerge as some disguised alter ego. He used lighting and back drops to create shadow effects, and had begun to incorporate both visual and audio multi media effects, in which the entire performance often became a seamless blending between illusion and reality.

Michael Was Paving The Way For Theatrical Pop Performers Like Lady Gaga
Michael Was Paving The Way For Theatrical Pop Performers Like Lady Gaga

For such performances, where the visual becomes just as important as what is heard (in some cases, even moreso) the idea of a lip synced track was not viewed as some kind of sacrilege, but rather, an essential element of the full aesthetic experience of the performance, whereby the warm familiarity of the track could be usurped by the surprise element of the visual. This was especially important for tracks that were acting out a story or strong visual narrative onstage (the tracks most apt to be lip synced).  In short, the fact that the audience never heard a missed word of “You Are Not Alone” even when he was being jounced around by an exuberant YANA girl, or that they could clearly hear every word of “Earth Song” even when he was miles above their heads in a cherry picker, had nothing to do with deception, but everything to do with cleverly crafted illusion-and the willingness of the audience to suspend belief in favor of the spectacle.  It is no secret that Michael demanded and expected that when fans came to his shows, they would hear the same perfection and careful craftsmanship that he put into his studio recordings. “I want it to sound just like the record,” he famously quipped to Michael Bearden in This Is It, when he became somewhat irritated at being asked how he wanted his songs to sound. “Whatever the record’s doing, that’s what I want.”

"Whatever The Record's Doing, That's What I Want"-Michael Jackson
“Whatever The Record’s Doing, That’s What I Want”-Michael Jackson

The more I have studied Michael’s live concerts from this era, the more it has occurred to me that what he was essentially melding together was all part of a grand concept-or at least, his grand concept-of what a live musical performance should be. It was a unique concept but, nevertheless, one steeped in postmodern ideas of both visual and musical art. In literary postmodern art, concepts such as the pastiche, intertextuality, and temporal distortion were all changing the way stories were being told, and perceived. These concepts were likewise being carried over to other art forms, including both visual and musical. Let’s not forget that it was these postmodern concepts, after all, which gave us a whole new musical art form known as sampling, whereby the idea of building on something familiar (i.e, a familiar hook from a well known song) is used to create something entirely new. In the case of sampling, it’s usually a given that the artist isn’t attempting to pull anything over on the public-quite the contrary, they know that a familiar riff or hook is going to be instantly recognized. That familiarity becomes a kind of foundation or groundwork from which the artist then expands with a new vision. Modern sampling is very much the musical equivalent of pastiche, in which several styles may be blended to form a new, cohesive whole, and also intertextuality, in which a previous work is acknowledged and built into the new text. In live concert, Michael was using his own studio recordings in much the same way, to create a kind of visual and auditory temporal distortion. Rather than viewing the live concert as merely a string of performances tied together, Michael was creating a series of connective narratives, both visual and musically, in which the familiar studio recordings were very much an integral part of the process. Today, these types of theatrical narratives are often very much a part of the modern concert experience. We may rest assured that Michael’s incorporation of pre-recorded tracks into his performances had nothing to do with a slacker mentality, but rather, everything to do with being a visionary artist who was ushering in a whole new, postmodern concept of live performance.

But this still leaves a burning question. Just how much of these latter performances were, indeed, illusion and how much actual, live vocals? And is it possible to always tell? The answer may surprise you, Many make the mistake of simply trusting their ears to tell them when a performance is “live”; conversely, many rely on techniques for spotting a lip synced performance that are not always entirely accurate, either. The truth is that the engineers behind live performances are privy to many industry tricks of the trade. What the audience actually “hears” (via the soundboard output) can be manipulated many ways. “Live” vocals can be spliced with “studio” vocals, or even previously recorded “live” vocals, so that what we may get-rather than a purely live or purely lip synced performance-can, in fact, be a hybrid of both. A performer’s mike can be turned “off” or “on” at any given time throughout a performance-and, if turned “off” can be instantly turned “on” to allow a live vocal to take over from a tracked vocal.

Michael had, by the time of the HIStory tour, become a master of all the tricks and illusions of the trade. He knew when he needed to “save” his voice and when it was absolutely essential that he “sing out”; he knew what parts could safely be lip synced without loss of quality or integrity and what numbers-or what part of a number-absolutely had to be live. And I will stress again, this was not by any means the work of a slacker, but rather, the work of a perfectionist craftsman who knew, instinctively, how to give the best theatrical experience possible to an audience.

So...Which Performances Were Lip Synced, And Which Were Totally Live?
So…Which Performances Were Lip Synced, And Which Were Totally Live?

However, for those of us who are still, admittedly, more steeped in the purist tradition of rockism, I thought it would be interesting to take a hard look at some of Michael’s performances during the HIStory era and actually analyze how many were performed absolutely live. Again, the results may surprise.  It turns out that at least one well known  performance that has been generally thought of as a mostly lip synced performance was, in fact, completely and genuinely live-and we have the hard evidence to prove it! However, obtaining that “evidence” requires much more than just listening to the concerts or downloading videos of twenty year old performances off of Youtube. As I stated previously, it isn’t always a matter of trusting the ear, and certainly not of trusting the ear on  twenty year old audios that had already been filtered through the sound board output before even reaching the audience! No, this is the kind of evidence that requires going to the actual source, and these are extremely rare-the soundboard mixes! Only there can we get the “real” story of what was unfolding behind the microphone. And, as stated, the results will surprise many, and hopefully, will put to rest some long standing debates regarding Michael’s use of lip syncing vs. singing live. At any rate, the soundboard mix for one of Michael’s most well known late 90’s performances-the 1996 Brunei performance of “Earth Song”-not only provides those answers, but offers some interesting insights into the whole process.

Michael With The Sultan of Brunei's Family
Michael With The Sultan of Brunei’s Family

The private concert at Brunei in July of 1996 was performed for the Sultan and his family, but what many do not know is that the Sultan had specifically requested to hear Michael sing “Earth Song” live.  However, the video that eventually surfaced of that performance led many to believe that this was simply one more lip synced version of “Earth Song,” a less than pure hybrid, with  the improvised “Tell me what about it” ad lib at the end being the only true, undisputed “live” segment of the performance.

But did people really expect that Michael was going to insult the Sultan by giving a lip synced performance of a song he had specifically requested to hear live?  The soundboard audio of that performance certainly tells a different story! So then, why do so many people believe it is lip synced when they watch the version commonly available on Youtube? Those answers become more clear when the soundboard audio is thoroughly analyzed, and compared to the performance version on Youtube. It is the same performance, note for note. But the subtle differences between the soundboard audio (which is most likely what the Sultan heard) vs. what was filtered and pumped to the crowd are enough to cue us to some of the “tricks” of the trade.

My husband and I were fortunate enough to acquire this rare soundboard audio of Michael’s Brunei “Earth Song” performance about six years ago, right after Michael died. I remember my husband saying that this audio proves beyond a doubt that this performance of “Earth Song” was indeed live, and after listening to it a few times, I reached the same conclusion. The vocals here, even on the chorus, are much grittier and do not have the clear, pristine tone of his studio version. You can hear the occasional fluctuations in breath and volume, as he moves either too far back or to close in on the microphone. You can hear the occasional flatness of some of the notes. Also, there are  times when his voice dips into the lower registers of his vocal range, something he often did naturally when singing live, but which was usually “cleaned up” in final takes. But the real giveaway is during the shouted call-and-response breakdown, when the very real strain he was putting on his vocal chords is quite evident (not to mention, his enunciation of the lyrics during this segment are much more clearly audible than what we would normally hear in the studio version).

Over time, I had somewhat put these findings out of mind, although I would occasionally debate with some fans that the Brunei “Earth Song” vocals were indeed live, and not just the ad libs at the end. But since this audio was not exactly something I could just “link” to and prove the debate for once and all, it was not an easy debate to win. It wasn’t until recently, when I saw the issue of Michael’s lip syncing again being raised among some fans from opposing factions on social media, that it occurred to me to revisit the “Earth Song” Brunei soundboard mix and give it a fresh listen. Imagine my horror when I discovered that we no longer had the file! Thus began another earnest search to find it again, which was not easy after six years (much of the deluge of MJ bootleg and rare audio versions of performances that were available six years ago have since pretty much disappeared). It took a lot of work, but eventually we were able to track down another copy of this audio.

Here you can compare the soundboard audio side-by-side with the performance clip.

Brunei “Earth Song” Performance:

Brunei soundboard recording of Earth Song:

Of particular note is his pronunciation of words like “war,” which has a much deeper intonation here than on the studio version, where it is pronounced very pristinely. Notice, also, how much deeper and breathier is his pronunciation of the line, “Now I don’t know where we are.” As mentioned previously, the entire call-and-response section is much raspier than what we hear on the studio track, and certain phrases are far more clearly enunciated. Note, for example, how clearly the phrase “what about animals” is enunciated, as well as the following questions “What about elephants/Have we lost their trust?” None of these phrases are pronounced that clearly on the studio track. When he sings shortly after, “This is what I believe” we can hear from the slightly ragged enunciation of “believe” that his vocal chords are indeed being pushed to the max; he even sounds as though he could be experiencing a bit of “throat bleed” here, a common condition when singers are exerting their vocal chords beyond range for a sustained amount of time. Moving into the latter segment of this breakdown, there is also a different emphasis on the word “holy” when he sings the line “What about the holy land/torn apart by creed” and again, a much clearer pronunciation of the line “What about children dying?”

The only difference between what we hear here, on the soundboard audio, and what was actually pumped out to the crowd (the audio we “hear” on the video version) is that much of the raspiness has been cleaned up, especially during the call-and-response segment, but clearly, note for note, it is the same performance. It proves unequivocally that Michael absolutely did perform this piece 100% live, from start to finish. What we are hearing on the soundboard audio is exactly what was being picked up by Michael’s microphone!

And here is the real clincher, if you’re still not convinced. Since no one has ever disputed the authenticity of the live ad libs at the end, give a close listen to his “Tell me what about it” ad libs in both the soundboard and video versions. They sound exactly the same, don’t they? Now go back and compare them to, first, the call-and-response shouts heard on the video version, and then the call-and-response shouts of the soundboard version. Notice anything? On the soundboard version, the ad libbed segment is being sung in the exact same, raspy tone as what we just heard during the call-and-response segment. This was purely Michael, whose vocal chords had just come out of the grueling, near three minute ordeal of that breakdown segment. As he makes the transition from that segment to the ad libs, it is clearly the same voice! But when we listen to the video version, there is a clear shift which seems to occur right about the time of his series of shouted “woos” that bridge the close-out of the apocalyptic call-and-response section with the “Tell me what about it” ad libs. It is a very subtle shift, but it is this minor illusion  which, for many years, has led some to falsely believe that this was a hybrid performance. In other words, it would have been somewhere in here that the audio output was switched “on” so that what was pumped out to the crowd would have been the pure, live vocal. If all this sounds a bit confusing, think of it as the same process of water passing through a filter. It’s the same water coming out as going in, except that a lot of the impurities have been removed or “cleaned up.” What we learn from analyzing this performance is that Michael was not lip syncing. He was delivering a live vocal, at full capacity. But the backstage technology simply allowed some of the rougher aspects to be cleaned up and smoothed out.

It is certainly easy to understand why Michael uncharacteristically opted to have “Earth Song” be the closing song of this particular concert, another telltale sign that he intended this to be a purely live performance.

It also really serves to cast a whole, new light on many of Michael’s other 90’s era performances and beyond. There is no doubt that Michael did begin to rely on backing tracks quite extensively during the late 90’s (though I think I have been able to make a fairly good argument as to why). Although I believe that it was with the Dangerous and HIStory tours that Michael most closely fulfilled and solidified the concept of a Michael Jackson concert, it did sometimes seem that he had sacrificed the joyous spontaneity of early live performances in favor of a theatrical extravaganza that, over time (due to the proliferation of video and social media, which allowed for viewings and comparisons of multiple performances) became predictable; even a little formulaic. We could predict that he would ride the cherry picker during the climactic moment of Earth Song” (though we did get the occasional surprises, such as Jarvis Cocker’s impromptu mooning of the audience, or the impassioned Korean fan who leaped onto the cherry picker with Michael, or the awful bridge collapse in Munich); we knew that the “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” duet would segue inevitably into either “She’s Out of My Life” or “You Are Not Alone” and that a “random” girl who was not really random at all would be brought onstage for the obligatory dance-and-grope session; that a Jackson 5 medley would always culminate in a rousing performance of “I’ll Be There” (usually performed live, by the way) and that, inevitably, every show would end with “Man in the Mirror.” It was a well oiled machine that worked,and though there would occasionally be some slight variations and tweakings of the formula, it was clear that Michael knew what his fans expected and wanted. Michael’s performances were always, ultimately, a blend of audience expectation coupled with his own determined, driving need to deliver perfection.

It may be somewhat ironic, then, that many of his most acclaimed performances, from Motown 25 to the Brunei performance of “Earth Song” to the rehearsal clips from This Is It, are also some of his most stripped down and rawest. Give Michael Jackson his complete bag of tricks and wizardry, and yes, he could create magic. But when those things were most stripped away was where his true artistry shined.

If it proves anything, the soundboard audio of Michael’s “Earth Song” performance goes to show that he was still more than capable of delivering live, and what’s more, of delivering live at full capacity. It also proves beyond doubt that he may, in fact, have been performing live throughout the HIStory era much moreso than has often been credited to him, and that it may be high time we started analyzing a lot more of these performances beyond just the commonly available video versions.

The truth is in what the microphone “hears” and picks up. The sound board preserves it. In this case, it stands as indisputable evidence that at least one of Michael’s most heatedly debated 90’s performances was, in fact, a totally live vocal performance.

UPDATE: 11/27/15

To further test the theory, we synchronized the mp3 and video using Adobe Premier Probe CS6. The frame rates of the mp3 and youtube are slightly different, making it very difficult to synch the audio with the video for anything over 20 seconds – however it is possible to synch segments of the audio/video perfectly.  This could be done throughout the entire clip – but that would be cheating.  This difference also makes it fairly impossible for anybody to look at the video and compare it to the audio and say that he is lip syncing.  The dead giveaway is as subtle as three breaths. This is very early in both the video and audio, during the song’s first verse. There are three very audible intakes of breath, which the microphone picks up. The audio of those breaths synchronizes exactly with those moments in the clip when we can visibly see him do those breath intakes. What this tells us is that this recording is, indeed most likely a genuine microphone feed.

Michael and Chakra: A Culinary Love Affair

I Joked And Said, "Man, That Was A Lot Of Jacksons Packed Into One Place!"
I Joked And Said, “Man, That Was A Lot Of Jacksons Packed Into One Place!”

From time to time on this blog, I’ve done features on some of Michael’s favorite foods and eating establishments. Occasionally I receive promotional requests from some of his favorite (or even rumored) favorite dining establishments. While I do not, as a rule, like to use this site to engage in any sort of promotional advertising or endorsements, I couldn’t help but be intrigued when I received a request from Chakra Indian restaurant in Beverly Hills, largely because Michael’s relationship with this particular establishment already has somewhat legendary status. It’s mostly known as the site of the last Jackson family gathering which Michael attended, in May of 2009 on the occasion of Joe and Katherine’s 60th wedding anniversary. Out of that particular event came the last known photo of Michael with the Jackson family. But in actuality, it’s a relationship that goes back much further.

When we talk about Michael Jackson and his favorite foods, most fans immediately think of KFC. But along with his weakness for the Colonel’s secret recipe of eleven herbs and spices, other favorites high on the list were sushi, Mexican food, and even the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish which he once proclaimed as “pretty good” though he wasn’t overly impressed with the rest of the menu (but as with so many parents, an at least somewhat acquired taste for Mickey D’s had to come with the territory!). But what about when it came to fine dining, or just wanting a place where he could actually sit down at a table and order a meal without being bothered? Or a place where he could arrange private family celebrations and intimate dinners with friends? For those times, only one restaurant fit the bill: Chakra of Beverly Hills. According to many reports, Chakra is a rather unassuming restaurant from the outside, one that blends so seamlessly with other similarly ethnic themed shops and restaurants on Wilshire Boulevard and Doheny Drive that it’s rumored to be easy to miss if one isn’t specifically watching out for it.

chakra 2

This is, as we say, one of those “well kept” secrets that, nevertheless, everyone in the know, well, “knows.” And that just might be the first clue, as one of the first indicators of true greatness is that the “best” doesn’t usually have to boast. When Michael Jackson says you have the best food in Beverly Hills, why would you need to, right?

The initial request that I received from Chakra’s was for a restaurant review. However, I informed them that I don’t live in the Los Angeles area and have no plans to be in the area in the immediate future. Instead, I offered something else: How about an exclusive interview of what it was like serving and waiting on Michael Jackson? Much to my delight, the offer was accepted and below are the answers I received.

The first, and obvious, question had to be about the food. What specific menu items were Michael’s favorite? According to Vadivel, Michael loved the “Potato Samosa, Garlic Naan, Channa Masala, Jack Fruit, and fresh berries. ” For those who don’t know, a samosa is a deep-fried pastry usually filled with spiced potatoes, peas, and other various fillings, which can be dipped.

Potato Samosas, Chakra-Style. I'm With Michael On These...Yummy!
Potato Samosas, Chakra-Style. I’m With Michael On These…Yummy!

Garlic naan is a traditional Indian garlic bread that has a reputation as being delicious but-beware!-quite loud, as raw garlic is the principle ingredient. Let’s hope Michael kept plenty of breath mints on hand for afterward! Channa Masala is a very spicy dish of chick peas, which, accompanied with the naan, would have made for quite a kick!

Tatiana Gushed Over Michael's Minty Fresh Breath...Obviously, She Never Worked With Him After A Trip To Chakra's! Garlic Naan Is Said To Pack a Potent Punch!
Tatiana Gushed Over Michael’s Minty Fresh Breath…Obviously, She Never Worked With Him After A Trip To Chakra’s! Garlic Naan Is Said To Pack a Potent Punch!

Jack fruit is native to Southeast Asia and is reputed to be a food that can provide a great spiritual boost to one’s system. For someone like me whose palate revolts against anything too raw, rubbery or crunchy, these things frankly look like a mutha to bite through, but according to most sources, they are exotically aromatic and wildly sweet and savory to the taste-no doubt, the perfect cap to such a spicy meal.

Jack Fruit. Tough On The Outside; Wildly Sweet and Aromatic On The Inside. Michael Loved These!
Jack Fruit. Tough On The Outside; Wildly Sweet and Aromatic On The Inside. Michael Loved These!

Of course, Michael wasn’t always dining alone. Chakra’s was also a place where he often dined with the kids, Prince, Paris and Blanket. I asked about some of their favorite menu items. The Malai Chicken was a favorite. along with Tandoori Salmon. They also shared their dad’s love for the samosas and garlic naan.

And what about Michael’s oft reported tendency to leave behind a messy place? These stories have apparently been somewhat exaggerated through the years. Vadivel reports that Michael “didn’t leave a messy place” and “did a good job” cleaning up after himself and his-or, at least, as much as any ordinary patron in a restaurant would do.

Vadivel also recalls that Michael actually didn’t interact much with the wait staff (the contact between them was kept minimal) but when he was served, he was always polite, smiled, and said “thank you.”

Michael With Prince, Paris, Blanket and Nephews At Chakra
Michael With Prince, Paris, Blanket and Nephews At Chakra

Before Michael’s death, when he was still a frequent customer, his patronage had to be kept extremely low-key. Since his passing, however, the restaurant has been a lot more open in promoting themselves as “Michael Jackson’s Favorite Restaurant in L.A”. The menu now features a special “King of Pop” dish which combines many of his favorite dishes for one price, and the “Smooth Criminal” is rumored to be a drink as smooth as its namesake but with a vicious kick!

Fans on their “Michael-ing” tours of Los Angeles often make Chakra’s one of their “have to” places to visit, and yes, Michael’s favorite booth is even available with a reservation.

But, frankly, this is the kind of cashing in on Michael’s name that I don’t mind. After all, one can’t go to Memphis without encountering at least a dozen greasy spoons claiming to be Elvis’s favorite place to grab a cheeseburger. Even Penn’s Hamburgers, a local favorite in Decatur, Alabama where I grew up, has the distinction of being a place that Elvis loved to send his peeps on secret runs. There’s just something about being able to sit where a legend once sat, smelling the same aromas and ingesting the same cuisine, that packs a vicarious thrill. We all like to feel a little closer to our idols; what turned them on, what sensory pleasures did they enjoy; what flavors suited their palates and excited their taste buds? There may be something slightly voyeuristic in requesting a celebrity’s favorite booth and ordering his favorite dishes; we know it won’t transform our lives, or make us musical geniuses. But it does bring us a little closer to their humanity, and therein lies the thrill.

Michael and Katrina, August 29th, 2005: When a Birthday and a Tragedy Intersected

Photo Released During The Recording Of "From The Bottom of My Heart," Michael's Song For Katrina Relief
Photo Released During The Recording Of “From The Bottom of My Heart,” Michael’s Song For Katrina Relief

Michael Jackson wasn’t exactly celebrating his 47th birthday on August 29th, 2005. Not only had he just undergone the horrific ordeal of the Arvizo trial during the first half of the year, but it also happened that August 29th, 2005, was the day that Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, precipitating one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. The death toll was in the thousands (though to this day, there remains no official, accurate count of just how many died in Louisiana alone), and no one can forget those horrific images of flooded New Orleans and those hundreds of stranded residents who couldn’t or wouldn’t flee. Many of Katrina’s victims were from the poor areas around the Ninth Ward, which not only received the worst flooding but also, where there were many residents who didn’t have transportation or money to evacuate.

I was aware that Katrina had hit on the same date as Michael’s birthday, though in past years I had never really given much thought to the connection. However, with this year being the tenth anniversary of Katrina, I had been thinking a lot more lately about this coincidence, and wondering, if anything, what Michael’s reaction had been. I also wondered if he had planned any kind of relief effort, as he had done with so many past tragedies, from the famine in Ethiopia, to 9/11, to the tsunami disaster in 2004.

I didn’t have to search very long or hard to find that answer. Even though Michael’s spirit had been crushed by a humiliating trial; even though he certainly had plenty of his own woes to think about, and even though he had by then turned very bitter against the U.S. and was living in Bahrain, his immediate reaction to the news of Katrina was how to help the people of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. And apparently, he was giving no thought to the court of American public opinion, or even if such a relief effort could fly in the wake of his name having been so tarnished the previous spring. It isn’t hard to imagine that Michael must have spent his 47th birthday like so many of the rest of us that day, glued to those terrible reports and images coming out of New Orleans. And he responded in the only way a musician truly can. He wrote a song. And apparently, must have done so pretty quickly, because by September 7th, only a little over a week after Katrina hit, the press was announcing his intended charity relief single, “From the Bottom of My Heart.”

Here is the story that appeared on CNN:

Jackson plans Katrina victims song

Wednesday, September 7, 2005; Posted: 5:53 a.m. EDT (09:53 GMT)
Jackson has been staying in Bahrain since his acquittal in June.

SPECIAL REPORT

LOS ANGELES, California (Reuters) — Pop star Michael Jackson, who has been in seclusion since his acquittal on sex abuse charges, has written a song that he will record to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina, according to his publicist.

Jackson will record the single, “From the Bottom of My Heart,” within two weeks, and he plans to enlist other entertainers for the project, spokeswoman Raymone Bain said.

“It pains me to watch the human suffering taking place in the Gulf region of my country,” Jackson, 47, said in a written statement released Tuesday.

“My heart and prayers go out to every individual who has had to endure the pain and suffering caused by this tragedy.”

He added: “I will be reaching out to others within the music industry to join me in helping bring relief and hope to these resilient people who have lost everything.”

Jackson, who left his Neverland Valley Ranch in California for Bahrain after his acquittal on child molestation charges in June, will record the song on a label owned by Bahrain’s crown prince, Bain said, and donate the proceeds to hurricane victims.

Bain said Jackson was hoping to repeat the success he had with “We Are the World,” a 1985 charity single with dozens of the era’s top recording stars that raised more than $60 million for Africa. Jackson wrote the song with singer Lionel Richie.

http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Music/09/07/katrina.jackson/index.html?iref=mpstoryview

In reading this article from 2005, there were a couple of things of interest that I noted. One was Michael’s statement about Katrina’s victims and his emphasis on the fact that this tragedy had taken place in “my country.” I’m guessing he was playing it nice in wording it thus for the media, but I’m sure he must have shared the impotent rage that many African-American citizens were feeling, not only due to the fact that many of the victims hardest hit were poor African-Americans, but as the days had passed, the mounting frustration with the government’s handling of the situation. I think it also shows something else, however. It shows that, when pinch came to shove, his great faith in humanity and that eternal optimism that he could still strive to heal the world had not been tarnished, even in the aftermath of his own greatest, personal tragedy. He apparently still had faith that he could rally celebrities to this cause, and that some good would come from it.

No One Who Lived Through It Can Forget These Horrific Images Of Ten Years Ago:

katrina3

 

katrina

However, within two weeks, “From the Bottom of My Heart” had still not emerged, and it appeared that he was getting very little in the way of celebrity support:

Michael Jackson Working On Katrina Song — But With Whom?

No artists have yet confirmed participation in the benefit single.
by 9/19/2005

 

In his first interview since being cleared of child-molestation charges, Michael Jackson said he’s hard at work on his Hurricane Katrina benefit song, “From the Bottom of My Heart,” and that he’s feeling well after several health scares during the trial.

Jackson told The Associated Press during the brief interview that he’s “moving full speed ahead” on the single.

But unlike “We Are the World” — the 1985 charity hit co-written by Jackson that quickly drew participation from such heavy hitters as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Willie Nelson, Billy Joel and Paul Simon — so far, no artists have confirmed participation in the recording of the single to aid victims of the August 29 disaster.

“I’m constantly working on it,” Jackson said of the song, which he first announced on September 6. At the time, Jackson said in a statement that he had written the song and intended to contact artists within days and record it within two weeks.

While Babyface’s spokesperson confirmed that the singer is down to record with Jackson, representatives for R. Kelly, Jay-Z, Ciara, Wyclef Jean, Mariah Carey and Lauryn Hill said those artists have been contacted but have not yet agreed to participate. Missy Elliott’s rep said she and Jackson are in discussions about the song but have not yet reached any agreement. Spokespeople for Lenny Kravitz, James Brown, Yolanda Adams and the O’Jays could not be reached by press time.

Jackson’s spokesperson, Raymone Bain — who last week confirmed the participation of Brown, Jay-Z, Blige, Elliott, Kravitz, Kelly, Snoop and Ciara — could not be reached for comment.

Four years ago, Jackson announced plans for a benefit song for the victims of the September 11 terror attacks. “What More Can I Give” featured vocals by Ricky Martin, Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan and Reba McEntire.The song was shelved and never officially saw the light of day.

Following his child-molestation trial — which he described as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” in his recent AP interview — Jackson and his children left the United States to take up residence in the Middle Eastern country of Bahrain, where the singer is still “resting and recovering.” Jackson is there as the guest of Prince Abdullah, the son of the country’s king. “From the Bottom of My Heart” is scheduled to be released on Abdullah’s 2 Seas Records.

Jackson, who has not appeared in public since being acquitted in June (see“Michael Jackson Not Guilty On All Charges” ), said “I’m feeling good,” after looking dangerously frail and suffering from various maladies during the trial, including a bad back and the flu.

http://www.mtv.com/news/1509834/michael-jackson-working-on-katrina-song-but-with-whom/

So it appears that Raymone Bain-in yet another of her nefarious blunders-had prematurely released to the media a whole host of celebrity names that hadn’t even been confirmed. Sadly, it seems Michael was trying hard, but no one at that time was jumping to partner up with him to make it happen. However, it’s very possible this wasn’t the only reason for the delay. Michael’s own touted perfectionism could have also been a contributing factor. In interview after interview, he would always assure that he was working “full speed ahead on it.” But obviously, it had not come together in two weeks as originally hoped. What we can gather is that the song was probably still in a very raw state when the first announcement was made on Sept 7; hence, the rather inferior and weak title.

And it is also quite possible that, as usual, the media was jumping to put its own negative spin on the project. Lionel Ritchie was among those whom Michael had reached out to, and Ritchie was quoted in a late 2005  interview as saying the interest was definitely there but the logistics of getting so many celebrities together had not been properly worked out. In other words, it may have simply come down to poor planning and organization.

But according to this Billboard article from February of 2006, the project had finally come together. Not only did the song now have a new and improved title-“I Have This Dream”-but was actually recorded in London on November 1, 2005!

Jackson’s Katrina Song Said To Be Ready

Eight days after Hurricane Katrina hit, Michael Jackson announced he would release an all-star charity single within two weeks.

Eight days after Hurricane Katrina hit, Michael Jackson announced he would release an all-star charity single within two weeks. Nearly six months later, after questions about exactly who would be participating, the prince who has been hosting Jackson during his self-imposed exile in Bahrain says the song will come out by the end of this month.

In a telephone interview from Dubai last week, Sheik Abdullah bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the son of Bahrain’s king, said, “The record is coming along great. We’ve been taking our time to perfect it and mix it.”

The song is currently titled “I Have This Dream,” and it includes Snoop Dogg, R. Kelly, Ciara, Keyisha Cole, James Ingram, Jackson’s brother Jermaine, Shanice, the Rev. Shirley Caesar and the O’Jays, the prince said.

Missing are James Brown, Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliott and Lenny Kravitz, who Jackson spokeswoman Raymone Bain said in September had agreed to participate.

“We were wondering whether or not it was ever coming out,” O’Jays co-manager Andy Gibson said. “They recorded their part of it two or three months ago.”

The prince said the release has been delayed because additional artists wanted to contribute. But he declined to name those artists — “I’d like to keep that as a surprise” — or to name the company he claimed to have secured to sell the song via CDs and the Internet.

Prince Abdullah, 30, plans to release the song on his own 2 Seas label. “Michael did a wonderful track,” he said. “His voice was phenomenal.” He said the song, which Jackson wrote, “is a message of peace and help and caring. It’s a song of total oneness.”

Jackson has been living in Bahrain since his acquittal in a harrowing molestation trial last year, and now has a house there, the prince said. He didn’t know if Jackson plans to settle in the country permanently.

Several of the participating artists recorded their portions of the song Nov. 1, gathering at a Los Angeles studio, Bain said.

“James Ingram, Ciara, Snoop Dogg and Shirley Caesar were all there,” said O’Jays lead singer Eddie Levert. “Michael produced it on the phone from Bahrain. He talked to Shirley Caesar, he talked to James Ingram. He talked to everyone except me.”

“Overall, it came out very well,” Levert said. “It had a strong gospel feel. I think it’s really a great song. If radio plays it, it could do very well.”

Asked if the song’s release was a harbinger of a new Jackson album, Prince Abdullah laughed and said, “I will just say we’ve been very busy.”

“This is a raindrop before the thunderstorm,” he said. “He’s getting ready to come out with a lot of bells and whistles. He’s so energized. It’s explosive.”

http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/59643/jacksons-katrina-song-said-to-be-ready

 

So, from  Prince Abdullah’s comments, we do get a few choice hints of what the song might have sounded like:

Michael did a wonderful track,” he said. “His voice was phenomenal.” He said the song, which Jackson wrote, “is a message of peace and help and caring. It’s a song of total oneness.”

And this from Eddie Levert: “It had a strong gospel feel. I think it’s really a great song. If radio plays it, it could do very well.”

 

This Photo, Long A Favorite of Mine, Was Apparently Snapped During The London Sessions For "From The Bottom Of My Heart." Working Again and Having A Cause To Believe In Was Evidently Doing Him A World Of Good
This Photo, Long A Favorite of Mine, Was Apparently Snapped During The London Sessions For “From The Bottom Of My Heart.” Working Again and Having A Cause To Believe In Was Evidently Doing Him A World Of Good

Even though never released, the song apparently received sufficient notoriety to be placed among Wikipedia’s listing of charity songs for Katrina relief, where it is listed as having been recorded by “Michael Jackson and All Stars”:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_charity_songs_for_Hurricane_Katrina_relief

But sadly, the fate of “From the Bottom of My Heart”/I Have This Dream” seemed to have gone the way of so many planned projects during this phase. I can only guess that Michael’s soured relations with Prince Abdullah, resulting in an eventual court settlement, was probably a major contributing factor. To this day, the Prince is said to be sitting on a goldmine of unreleased stuff, including recordings for a CD that never materialized and a reportedly (but unconfirmed) massive, 600 page manuscript that was alleged to be an autobiography in progress. That these items do exist is, at least, proof that some of the snarkier media reports of the time (which accused Michael of being lazy and completely reneging on his promises by delivering nothing) were unwarranted. Apparently, Michael was not only working and working hard, but delivering, too-at least to a point. It’s just that not much was ever finished, and what was, apparently became the property of Prince Abdullah after the settlement.

Increasingly, Failed Friendships, Litigation, and Greed Seemed To Stymie Much of Michael's Creative Output-Not To Mention Many of His Best Intentions
Increasingly, Failed Friendships, Litigation, and Greed Seemed To Stymie Much of Michael’s Creative Output-Not To Mention Many of His Best Intentions

Whatever the circumstances, it is tragic indeed that not one, but two of Michael’s planned charity relief singles, both for two of the U.S.’s most tragic events in recent history-“What More Can I Give” for 9/11 victims and “From the Bottom of My Heart” for Katrina victims- ended up being sacrificed to greed and litigation red tape. Imagine how much money could have been raised for victims; how much good these songs could have accomplished!

Recording Snippet Said To Be A Demo of “From the Bottom of My Heart”-But Unfortunately, Minus The “Phenomenal” Vocal: 

It could probably be safely said that August 29th, 2005 was far from Michael’s happiest birthday, as he witnessed the images of the terrible devastation being wrought in his homeland. As I was watching documentaries on Katrina’s 10th anniversary the other night, I was also struck by something they said; the fact that one reason the hurricanes of the last decade have been so especially numerous and devastating has been due to the increased ocean temperatures. I couldn’t help but think that it had been exactly ten years prior to Katrina that Michael had prophesied many of these events to come in “Earth Song.” As David Nordahl and I had once discussed, Michael was well aware that we were in the time of the Earth Changes.

But if the devastation and tragedy of Hurricane Katrina did one bit of infinitesimal good, it was the fact that it shook Michael out of the apathy that had gripped him since the trial, and ignited in him the spark to once again, as he had said, “give a damn.” It reminded him that, personal tragedies aside, there was much worse suffering in the world, and that his work to heal the world-his real life’s mission- was far from over. There was still much work to be done. One can only imagine how the failure of this project, at a time when it was so desperately needed, must have chaffed him. But in reading about his enthusiasm for it, I am reminded again of that eternal optimism he had for humanity. When times were darkest, it was where he drew his strength.

On this August 29th, as we, the fandom, celebrate Michael’s birthday, let’s also not forget the terrible tragedy of Katrina and what happened ten years ago on this date. Ten years later, there is still no healing for many. I know that Michael would agree with me 100%-from the bottom of his heart.