Play That Funky Music, White Girl
One year ago today, Michael Jackson announced his 'This Is It' concert run at London's O2 arena. To mark the anniversary, Charles Thomson sat down with the star's long-serving guitarist Jennifer Batten, who revealed what it was really like behind the scenes on a Michael Jackson tour.
March 2010 , Sawf News
Jennifer Batten... It might not ring any bells at first, but you’d probably recognise her if you saw her. She’s not really a household name but she’s an icon nonetheless. Throughout the eighties and nineties she played in sold out stadiums all around the world. Her image was beamed into sitting rooms to audiences totalling several billion. Young girls everywhere wanted to be Jennifer Batten.
If you ever went to a Michael Jackson concert, watched his performances on TV or bought a ticket for Moonwalker then you’ll know Jennifer Batten. She’s Jackson’s tall, slender, arresting guitarist, perhaps best known for her enormous mane of bright white hair. “It was Michael’s idea to have my hair turned snow white and big,” Batten once said. “Often all you can see in the photos is Michael Jackson and my hair!”
Batten was Jackson’s lead guitarist for a decade, accompanying the star on all three of his record-breaking world tours. At 29 years old she was plucked by the King of Pop from complete obscurity. Despite announcing to her mother at age 12 that she would become a professional guitarist, before Batten joined Jackson her touring experience was limited almost exclusively to a brief spell with an Elvis impersonator. “We played down in American Samoa of all places,” she laughs. “He had a brother that was a missionary on the island, so he set up the gig. Then we did another stint in Colorado because he had a brother there too. That was it.”
Inspired by blues legends like BB King and Brownie McGee, Batten began playing guitar at the tender age of eight. As a young woman she attended the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. “I was the only woman with 60 guys,” she says. “I didn’t have a problem with it. I could go practice in the bathroom because you get the natural reverb in there and I knew I wouldn’t be bothered.”
After the Elvis gigs she lived for several years in San Diego, playing in cover bands. But soon she grew restless so she upped sticks and moved to Los Angeles in search of success on the music scene. It wasn’t long before she fell into teaching at her former school, the Musicians Institute, and it was there – on one fateful day in 1987 – that Michael Jackson’s representatives called asking for musicians to attend tour auditions.
“They were auditioning about a hundred people so it was pretty intense,” she recalls. “When I went, there was just a video camera, no band. The only guidance I was given was to play some funk rhythm stuff so I did that, then I finished off with the Beat It solo because I had been playing that for years in cover bands. I think ultimately that’s what got me the gig.”
Winning her place on Jackson’s Bad Tour in 1987 changed her life, she says. “It was like a paid vacation. I had been teaching and gigging pretty much seven nights a week and all of a sudden I’m on the biggest tour in the world making ten times the money and only working two or three days a week!”
Rehearsals began almost immediately and they were punishing; seven days a week for two solid months. For the first month the band, singers and dancers rehearsed separately. For the second they converged in a production studio, where every element of the show came together. It was here that Batten first met Michael Jackson.
“We heard that if he liked the music he’d start dancing and he did as soon as he walked through the door. We stopped and people who hadn’t met him before were introduced to him. I remember seeing his manager Frank Dileo come in with the ponytail and the cigar. It was kind of surreal seeing the two of them together. I just remember Michael looked gorgeous close up. He was just beautiful.
“He was very much hands on and he was an extremely hard worker. By the end of rehearsals we were running the show a minimum of once a day, sometimes twice. I would say that’s the number one thing I learned from him: the value of rehearsing that much and that intensely, because by the time we hit the stage everybody was relaxed.”
Opening night in Tokyo, she says, was ‘very, very exciting’.
“I’d never played for that many people before. On the road Michael took it up another notch. I mean, he was pretty full out at the last rehearsals anyway but that extra excitement of knowing there are people going nuts watching you... There’s an extra amount of fire that you can feel onstage with everybody doing their best and trying to give 110 per cent.”
But soon after hitting the road, Batten discovered a more sinister side to working with Michael Jackson. “I was approached in the beginning by somebody who said I could make a lot of money by talking to the National Enquirer,” she reveals. “I was just appalled. I thought ‘that is just sick’, you know? I just got this great gig. Why would I sabotage it like that? It seemed like a really evil thing to do.”
Batten grew to feel sorry for Jackson, who she says was trapped by his celebrity. “If he wanted to go anywhere he had to alert the security and he had to really have it planned in advance. If he wanted to go to a store they would have to be called and shut it down for him. He was a prisoner of the hotel room, really.”
Jackson compensated for this, she says, by treating himself and his entourage to special excursions. Sometimes he had theme parks closed to the public so that he and his team could enjoy them without being hounded. “He did it first at the Tokyo Disneyland. That was just unbelievable. We would go on the rollercoaster rides and when we were done they would just ask us, ‘Do you want to go around again?’ We were very, very spoiled.”
The Bad Tour wound up in January 1989 and the group disbanded. In later years Sheryl Crow, a backing singer on the tour, would make several disparaging remarks about Jackson during interviews publicising her own material. She said he was a diva, never bothering to learn people’s names. Batten refutes this. “I think singers in general are just nuts and ultra-sensitive. One night Michael called Sheryl ‘Jennifer’,” she giggles, “and I know that pissed her off. But it’s like, so what? I mean, you got the biggest gig in the world and it’s not like Michael was unaware of who was onstage with him. We were with him for a friggin’ year and a half.”
When the Bad Tour ended, Jackson retreated to the studio to begin work on the Dangerous album. Batten used this time to capitalise on the exposure that Jackson had given her, beginning work on her debut album. Produced by Stevie Wonder alumnus Michael Sembello, ‘Above, Below and Beyond’ was released in 1992. In the same year, Batten was called back to work on Jackson’s Dangerous Tour, giving her a perfect platform to market her solo work.
Despite widespread debate about his appearance and wellbeing, Batten says Jackson seemed like ‘the same Michael’, if slightly more fatigued. “I noticed that he was busier and I remember that one time he came to rehearsals and just apologised for not having been there the last few days. He said, ‘I was just showered with meetings’ and he just repeated it with emotion, ‘meeting after meeting after meeting’.”
Jackson’s heavy schedule dictated that he was ‘limited in his rehearsal time’, meaning that much of the set list was simply carried over from the Bad Tour. This was ‘kind of disappointing’ says Batten, because ‘we all wanted to play the new stuff’. One of the few new tracks – Remember The Time – was cut from the show after a wardrobe malfunction. “They had Egyptian costumes and the male dancers had these skirt kind of things. The first time we did it one of the dancers’ costumes fell off,” she cackles. “That was a little disturbing to Michael.”
The wardrobe malfunctions weren’t limited to rehearsals, either. On tour Batten would appear every night wearing an enormous fibre-optic headdress. “At the end of Beat It everybody would run out on the stage,” she remembers. “Invariably, I would be running at full force and somebody would step on my fibre-optic cable – it would pretty much knock my head off. That was kind of a drag.”
At the end of each show, Jackson would exit the stage on a jet pack, floating over the audience’s heads. “He wanted to come out with the biggest show on earth,” says Batten. “He wanted it to be like Christmas for people. His imagination was like a creative tornado. He would come up with his wildest dreams and then hire people to carry it out. It was really amazing to be a part of that.”
In January 1993 Batten accompanied Jackson for his legendary Super Bowl performance, which was watched by 1.5billion people. “I’ll tell you, it was the only time I ever saw Michael nervous. It’s live and there’s only the time of a couple of potato chip commercials to get the stage out into the field. There’s one scene where I’m on the corner of the stage with Michael and there’s so much fog coming out that we both get lost for a second, but that’s the beauty of live gigs. You never know what’s going to happen. That was one of my favourite times because it was a one-off special thing that will never be repeated.”
After the Super Bowl there was a long break before the second leg of the Dangerous Tour. Batten got antsy and left to pursue personal projects. It was during the second leg that allegations of child abuse were levelled at Jackson. “I figured it was an extortion case, which I still figure it is,” she says matter-of-factly. “Everybody was concerned about him. I think it pains all of us that he was so attacked and so unfairly. Most artists are sensitive and he was talented times ten, so ultra sensitive, and to be slung that kind of stuff... I mean, you can hear it in his lyrics. It’s a real drag because you wonder what kind of music he would have come up with if people weren’t attacking him like that.”
The media, says Batten, has a lot to answer for over its coverage of the 1993 allegations. “Honestly, I think it would have been considered uncool amongst the press to take Michael’s side. I think it would take a brave soul to do that, which is really sad. Really pathetic. Even at the 2005 trial... I know people who were inside the courtroom and then they would watch the news at night and it was complete lies.”
The case was settled in January 1994 and Jackson began work on his HIStory album. In 1996 Batten was brought back onboard for the accompanying HIStory Tour, although she recalls that it was ‘very last minute’: “I got hired a week before I was supposed to start rehearsals, which was a real scramble. It was just nuts. I had to cancel some work.”
The tour brought with it more costume problems for Batten, who describes her black latex get-up as ‘just dreadful’. “That mask I had to wear was just ugh... ghastly. Somebody had shown Michael an art book that was kind of S&M based and all the paintings looked really beautiful. So he had that in mind but when it came to real life it wasn’t too beautiful anymore,” she laughs. “I just had to remind myself that it was all about the theatre, you know? It’s not just about the music.”
Indeed, the tour provoked criticism from some fans who said that there was too much emphasis on theatre and not enough on the music, with much of each concert appearing to be lip-synced. Fans’ explanations have ranged from nodules to laryngitis, but while she won’t be drawn on the subject of miming, Batten says she never heard anything about Jackson suffering from any throat problems. “In fact,” she adds, “every night he’d be warming up with his vocal coach. You could hear him doing arpeggios from his dressing room.”
Batten says that initially she was alarmed by Jackson’s decision to end each concert flanked on either side by young children. “At the end of the show he would disappear down an elevator in the stage with a little boy and a little girl. At first I thought, ‘God, because of the allegations you’d think he wouldn’t do that’. But then I thought, ‘You know what, he hasn’t done anything wrong so why the hell should he change his life?’ I think that was a little bit of giving a finger to his critics.”
The HIStory Tour lasted into the Summer of 1997 and would mark the end of the pair’s working relationship, but Batten says she never felt disappointed that he didn’t bring her back. “I would just go off and work on my own career. If he calls, great, and if he doesn’t, great. It’s been a great ride with him anyway.”
Batten says she was out driving on June 25th 2009 when an acquaintance called to tell her about rumours of Jackson’s death. “I didn’t really believe it when he told me because I had heard so many rumours about Michael over the years, false alarms about everything. I thought, ‘Yea, right’. I saw it was true when I got home and I had mixed feelings. I was sad but in a way I thought power to him for going to the other side, because of all the torture that had come at him. I just can’t imagine living with that.”
In the weeks after Jackson’s death Batten says she was unable to watch the media coverage, knowing how much of it was false. “They were respectful for about two or three hours and then they turned it into a tabloid festival,” she laments. “I just couldn’t watch it. There were a lot of specials on about him and once in a while I would turn one on and it was just shit. I guess it makes money to just bring up negativity and stir up controversy but it’s pathetic and I just can’t watch it. It’s all about money now, not about truth. People can be very cold.”
But unlike some of Jackson’s friends, Batten says she was able to bring herself to watch This Is It, even if she did have mixed feelings about it. “I hadn’t seen any video of him for years and just to see his talent, even when he wasn’t going full out, the way he sang Human Nature was just chilling. The way his body moves – there was just no other dancer in the world that was like that. So I enjoyed it.”
But thanks to a close friendship with Jackson’s make-up artist Karen Faye, who worked with the star during his This Is It rehearsals, Batten says she’s able to see the other side of the coin. Since Jackson’s death Faye has written on her facebook page that Jackson was frail, cold to the touch and losing weight rapidly.
“She was closer to Michael than anyone,” says Batten, “She warned people that he was not well but everybody ignored her. You didn’t see it on the screen because they took every day that he rehearsed and pieced together the best bits. You didn’t see him when he was struggling up a ramp because he didn’t have any energy and he hadn’t eaten for two days. They’re not going to put that in the film. I mean, one of the songs he was wearing four different costumes. That just tells me that he never sang the song fully through.”
Nowadays Batten is focusing on her own career. As well as writing new music (“I’m getting into acoustic stuff, which I haven’t done since I was 14”) she has spent much of 2010 touring the world with her pioneering one-woman multimedia show. Last month she performed all over the UK and she’s currently on the road in Japan.
“I’ve been doing a multimedia tour for a couple of years now where all of my tracks are cut to film,” she explains. “I thought about what it would take to get a band together and the expense involved. I thought, ‘Well, there’s got to be a way I can do this myself’. So I came up with the idea of film. If people want to just watch my fingers then fine but it’s not all that entertaining for 90 minutes.
“I had four filmmakers contribute films and that’s it. One of them showed me how to do it myself and now most of the films are ones that I’ve made. So I’ve been really obsessed with that part of it as well.”
When she’s not overseas Batten has taken to exploring territory closer to home. “I bought a motor home so I can travel around America doing my show,” she says. “I’ve got 40,000 miles on it already and it’s kind of cool to see my own country for a change.
“I’m just taking things into my own hands and not waiting for the phone to ring. I’m having a ball!”
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