Michael Jackson and Me: Strangers in Moscow
Travel Stories: Jeffrey Tayler recalls a cold night in 1993 when he took a break from writing his first book to see a performance by the "King of Pop"
06.26.09 | 2:35 PM ET
It was mid-September 1993. I had moved to Moscow a couple of months earlier, during the warm if somewhat gritty doldrums of summer. Now, as autumn set in, it was raining endlessly from low clouds, greasy blackish mud made sidewalks slippery, and streets at night, with few lit-up advertisements, were mostly dark. Moscow, in short, had a shabby, sooty, worn-out, still-Soviet look. I hadn’t yet gotten my Russian “sea legs.” Moscow was new and strange and even threatening to me. (It was strange and threatening for many Russians, too, of course, given the heightening political tension that would flare into armed revolt against President Yeltsin by the month’s end.) But when I found out Michael Jackson was scheduled to perform live at Luzhniki Stadium as part of his “Dangerous” world tour, I did what I’d never done before: I bought a ticket to his concert. It lifted my mood, and made bearable my days locked away writing my first book, Siberian Dawn, in my roach-riddled, noisy, one-room apartment in a crumbling cement-block Khrushchovka building.
This was before Michael’s sex scandals. His popularity then was far higher than it has been in recent years; he was the most famous American on the planet, one whose name aroused well-nigh universal admiration. He had been this famous for years, however. While I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Marrakech a couple of years before, Moroccans often asked me if, being American, I knew him. Russians weren’t so naïve, but it seemed everyone in Moscow back then had an opinion about Michael: Usually, they loved him. That such an American superstar was about to arrive in their capital meant something to them. Foreigners were still a novelty in Russia, times were hard and dark, and his promised appearance was shedding copious glittering light well in advance.
The centralized heating still hadn’t come on in my building. On the evening of the concert, I recall feeling damp and cold as I put on my raincoat, grabbed my umbrella, and readied myself to leave. I wasn’t yet quite in the mood. In my journal for that day I later wrote: “Seraya zhizn’ [the gray life]. I walked out into the drizzle and looked at the soupy gray sky and shabby gray concrete buildings and huge mucky puddles ... Being alone in this miserable flat ... living poor ... struggling with my book, my last chance.” I took the metro to Luzhniki. The crowd in the cars was mostly young and excited, and every now and then, between the roar of the train in the tunnels, I’d hear “Dzhekson ... Dzhekson ... Michael Dzhekson!”
Seventy thousand fans didn’t fill the huge stadium; there were empty seats, probably owing to the high price of the tickets and the terrible weather. I recall standing some 30 yards from the stage. The rain barreled down and I could see people’s breaths puffing; we got soaked, umbrellas or no, raincoats or no. He was one hour late, then two hours. Periodically, images of his catlike eyes would glow into view on a huge video screen above the stage, and people would start screaming. I didn’t scream, but I was certainly excited. The images would then fade. In the intervals, people were largely silent, as if by speaking they might scare him away. Breath puffed into the rain, the sky darkened, and there was no future: only a trembling expectation.
After two and a half hours, a light gradually illumined the center-stage and revealed Michael standing there, already posed, hand on hat, knee cocked. His breath puffed white in the now-frigid rain. (“He’s breathing!” a girl shouted next to me.) The crowd roared, people began jumping up and down. He launched into “Jam.” My journal notes don’t record more than this, but I remember his performance as stunning. I had somehow expected him to disappoint, as though careful editing of video clips might have made him out to be a better dancer than he was.
Soon someone in the management apparently decided that the rain posed a threat to Michael. Mop-wielding little old ladies (of the type once so common in Moscow) in headscarves shuffled out onto the stage, as he sang and gyrated and pranced, and wiped away the excess water, so he wouldn’t slip. He danced among them, around them, and never missed a step, never appeared to even notice them. He was soon into “Billie Jean,” and, by the time of his first moonwalk, I didn’t notice the rain or the little old ladies.
At some point, he took a break and the stage went dark. It seemed we all held our breath. No one spoke, everyone just stared at the stage. A few minutes later, the stage lights came on and we heard his voice, rather tender and feminine: “It’s cold as ice out there!” He felt the cold as we did, but he was able to perform and dazzle us all. This seemed simply incredible. I was already sore and stiff from standing there, yet he could dance. I had never thought of music stars as suffering from the cold on stage. (This was, after all, my first concert of any kind.) He returned and sang for another hour.
His brief stay in Moscow apparently hit him hard, making him feel lonely. At least we can gather as much from his later, soul-wrenching slow song, Stranger in Moscow. It contains the lines, “I was wandering in the rain/Sunny days seem far away ... Kremlin shadows belittling me/Stalin’s tomb won’t let me be ... KGB was doggin’ me ... stranger in Moscow.” The KGB surely did not dog him in 1993, but his words well expressed how lonely I often felt during my first year in the Russian capital.
Michael united me with the Russian audience in a visceral way. Better said, there were no Americans, no Russians in that audience; we were all just admirers of Michael.
I have never been to a concert since then. His performance, and what it meant for those who witnessed it on that long-ago, rainy September day, set a standard too high to match. Rest in peace, Michael. The people of Moscow, and I, will never forget you.