In The Studio with MJ: Brad Sundberg’s seminar in Saint Petersburg

A small but cozy room inside the underground-style Fish Fabrique club in St. Petersburg is almost dark. The only light is coming from a laptop screen. The beat-up walls are decorated with the portraits of the most famous man on the planet, and there’s his cardboard lifesize silhouette standing in the corner near the stage. The room is filled with the achingly beautiful clear tenor supported by nothing but a guitar and a drum machine. It floods the room up to the roof, and the walls seem to disappear leaving everybody one on one with this voice and the sparkling magic granted to the singer by Mother Nature. Sixty people from all corners of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine greedily hang on every sound coming from large powerful speakers. Tears are running down the girls’ cheeks, some cover their faces with their hands to muff their sobs a little. Twenty four years later, we’re witnessing the birth of a masterpiece. This is just one of many special moments happening at In the Studio with MJ, a Brad Sundberg seminar, and the voice coming from the speakers belongs to Michael Jackson.

I’ve dreamt about attending this seminar since the very first day I heard about it. Partly it was because of rare demos and videos, and partly because I always wanted to talk to the person who worked with Michael so close for so long. So, when Elena Zelikova announced that Brad Sundberg was coming to St. Petersburg, I knew I could not miss the chance. What I did not know then was that the heavens prepared another surprise for me – I would not just be a guest of the seminar. I would be Brad’s translator.

I’m not going to dwell on all the difficulties and fears which I had to overcome to be there, that’s of no interest to anyone. I would only like to say that, with the revolutionary situation in Ukraine and its relations with Russia, I simply knew I had to be at the seminar, it was important because people from all over Russia and Ukraine would be coming, and Michael’s music is incredibly powerful in making people come together regardless of their beliefs, nationalities, race and age. So after a flight from Ukraine to Russia, on April 24 I found myself being a part of a small company of people who met Brad Sundberg in St. Petersburg airport. I think Brad wasn’t expecting so many of us there. His graceful wife Deb and sweet little daughter Olivia conquered our hearts at once. Brad told us that they hadn’t had much sleep in the past twenty four hours, traveling and all, and I felt a bit embarrassed that we were taking him not to his hotel but to a radio interview. However, we never heard any complaints from him. He was very friendly, chatting with us casually and trying to memorize strange Russian names.

I was nervous as hell. I had too little time to get prepared and I had no idea what questions the radio host would ask, but then she just showed me the list, and I sighed with relief. All of them were the kind of questions I could easily answer myself, being an MJ fan for 20 years. What the Neverland Ranch looked like? What was Michael like at work? How did he record his vocals? What were the things which modern performers could learn from him? And so on. Later that night, watching the video of the interview, I felt a bit surprised – Brad performed a miracle, and ten minutes into the interview we were all relaxed and chatting between questions, and laughing at the stories he told us about Michael.

Fontanka-radio-interviewWe spent some more time together after the interview, talking about non-MJ related stuff – our countries, music, his work, plans for the future. It was nice just to be there. Brad was even kind enough to let Elena and me listen to some MJ material which he had in his laptop and brought specifically for the fans in Russia. Lucky us! The next day, we had a sightseeing tour around the city, visiting the Peter and Paul Fortress, going on a boat ride along the channels and walking along the main streets. We also had a local guide, Victoria, helping us find our ways around. I had strange feelings sometimes when we talked about Michael, Brad and Deb would recall some of their experiences with him, and I kept thinking, “Wow, these people actually knew him. They saw him often, he played with their kids and came visiting at their house.” The way they sounded and the look in their eyes, it was clear that they loved Michael very much. As a person, as a friend, although they say they were not his best friends. They spoke about him with the kind of affection that melted my heart. Brad would tell me that Michael was the only person who would always meet him with a hug, every day, and then say goodbye with another hug. We exchanged our observations and stories, and the atmosphere was very warm.

At one point, I told them the story about Michael’s first visit to Moscow. The concert was practically sabotaged, poor ticket sales due to some local schemes aimed against the concert promoter, and a heavy rain to top it all. But he still got onstage and performed. The crew was crawling around him on the floor, wiping it with towels because the stage was so wet. And he did not take the money for this show, only asking for his travel costs to be covered. Brad looked astonished and said he had never heard that story, and then he started making fun of me, like, “Yeah, I got it, you know lots of MJ stories, even those I told at my seminars. So why should I bother? I’ll say – okay, and now Scared of the Moon! You will tell them all about it, and I’ll just sit back, relax, have my coffee, whatever.” We had a good laugh. Brad is a funny guy, with a great sense of humor. I think, we kept laughing at something most of the time. He would make up a story about Michael and watch me try to figure out if it was true or not. I did that to him as well a couple of times. We had a really great time.

DSC_6934On April 26, the day of the first seminar (there would be two), we arrived at the club so early that it was still closed. The girls brought lots of decorations and ornaments for the walls, beautiful Michael Jackson portraits painted by Lyudmila Zimnika, two gigantic posters with pictures of Neverland Ranch and cardboard figurines. While we were waiting for the club owner to show up, we started the preparations right there in the club yard, making props and frames for the pictures. I should say a few words about the yard. All of the walls inside it are covered with all kinds of graffiti and inscriptions from fans of various rock artists. A great Beatles fan known all over St. Petersburg lives nearby, so there’s the Yellow Submarine painted in the corner and a bass-relief of the Beatles above the archway. The place certainly looked rebellious. Like a breath of fresh air in the midst of stiff atmosphere of a big city. When the club opened, we rushed inside to get everything ready by 8:30 am when Brad would come for sound checking. Several of our VIP guests arrived early as well, so we all worked inside, setting chairs and hanging pictures, arranging things to clear passages to the catering area etc. After the sound check with Brad and a local sound engineer, Eric (a fantastic guy who knew his job well), the VIP guests sat down, and Brad went to shake their hands and say hello. One of the girls was pregnant, and it was funny to watch Brad smile and tell her, “So there are two of you here? Did you have to buy two tickets?” All of this was so sweet and warm. Then I took my place at his side, we sat on the edge of the little stage, and the guests started asking questions. I think Brad was a little surprised by them, because people would dig deep and ask questions about Michael’s spirituality, how he felt about religion, and faith, and astrology and things like that. Brad would joke, “Oh wow, and I expected questions about his favorite food!” Naturally, as soon as he said that, the food question came, and things went back to “normal”. They also asked about Michael’s clothes and what he would wear during his vocal sessions. As Michael was always cold, he kept wearing long-sleeved shirts (red or green) and corduroy pants, and sometimes even jackets on top of his shirts, although everyone else in the studio would walk around in T-shirts and shorts.

VIP-26.04.2014After the question part we got down to the virtual walk around Neverland. Brad told us about his work at the ranch, setting up all the sound equipment and Michael’s reaction to some of that. He also showed us some pictures of the ranch back from the times when many of the rides were still under construction. It was a bit unusual to watch because all of us got used to the images of well-groomed territory with lots of flowerbeds, lights and so on. There were some funny stories about Michael’s pranks with his visitors. He would take someone in his golf cart and drive out into the park at night, with all the lights gone. Pitch black. Then he would hit a button in his golf cart, and everything would burst with light and noise. The guests were taken aback, and Michael would laugh because he thought their reaction was funny. So typical of him!

After this virtual trip, the main group of guests started to arrive, and Brad went out to them once again to shake everybody’s hand, say hello and give some hugs. It was very pleasant to see that he did not forget anyone, he would go to each and every guest, say a few words of welcome, and the atmosphere was very cordial, like a meeting of old friends, topped with this feeling of love for Michael. Then Brad got back to his desk and laptop, and we started the seminar.

Brad began with “opening our ears” a little bit by playing two tracks, so that we got used to the lavish sounds and details. He played a Quincy Jones track, Places You Find Love – beautiful, rich and complicated. Although this was not Michael Jackson (which is what everybody came for), the guests were pretty impressed by the song. It sounded big. Then Brad said that Quincy Jones had a principle: sometimes less is more. And he demonstrated this with the second track, the early version of I Can’t Help It from Off the Wall album. There were only three instruments (drums, bass and piano) accompanying Michael’s voice, but the way it sounded simply blew our minds! His voice soared like a bird flying in the morning sun. Everyone clapped their hands in appraisal. We gave MJ a round of applause every time after each song ended, till the end of the event.

I won’t give too many details about every track that was played because it would take me forever to write, and forever to read as well. After a brief story of meeting Michael back in the eighties, we started with The Way You Make Me Feel. The slightly slower version of the song sounds much better than the album version. This incredible powerful macho-macho vocal part took my breath away. Many critics like to write that Michael sang like a girl. Oh well, if they listened to this track they would never doubt again that Michael Jackson is MALE to the bone! Period. They sped it up just a little bit because Quincy wanted it to have a dancing groove, catchy for radio stations. Too bad. The original sounded like the real thing. I finally got to understand why I could never determine the key, the album version sounded between keys, and the live versions would always be in a lower key. Awesome. We also listened to the TWYMMF intro recorded specifically for the Grammy Awards in 1988. Recorded in a hotel room, and still sounding so fantastic. This man will never stop surprising me.

After that we got a good taste of Bad. Brad showed us the multi-track screen and started playing with it, turning on and off various instruments and effects, until there were just the back and lead vocal tracks left. Bad bad really really bad! I noted that my ears hadn’t failed me – there was only Michael singing the back vocals, 16 tracks in total. The harmonies are incredible. Instead of inviting some back vocal singers and nailing it all together, he did all the tracks himself, singing all of his back vocals note by note from the beginning till the end of the song. When you see the multi-track screen and hear these backing vocals, your jaw will be on the floor. And that goes not only for Bad. He did all of his backing vocals himself, almost everywhere. The thing which has never been done by anyone else in the industry, with all the copy-pasting methods. Brad said, “Isn’t that cool? Give Justin Bieber a hundred million dollars, and he still would never be able to record that!” I agree.

We also had a great laugh with Brad’s attempts to learn some Russian words. At one point, while translating his words, I said “chut-chut”, which means “just a little” in Russian. Brad enjoyed the word so much that I started using it every time I needed to convey that meaning, just for the fun of it, although there were a number of available synonyms for the expression. People laughed when he repeated it after me. A good thing to remember. Now, every time we say that word, we always recall Brad.

Then an ugly plastic head was shown on the screen. “Does anyone know what this is?”, Brad asked. Many of our guests already knew the story from the Internet and had seen the picture, but still sat quietly, listening. The story of the unfortunate intro to I Just Can’t Stop Loving You is pretty funny, as everyone is trying to imagine Michael in that bed in the studio, whispering tender words into that horrible piece of plastic. Brad put the record on, leaving the picture on the screen. All romance was gone. People were hysterical, laughing at the sight of it, definitely imagining all kinds of things. Someone asked, “Why didn’t you take anything nicer? How could he whisper such beautiful words to that awful thing?” Still, as the majority of our guests were women, we still liked the intro.

bradThe story of battle between Streetwalker and Another Part of Me followed. Michael stood for Streetwalker, and Quincy wanted Another Part of Me as the last song chosen for the album. Quincy won. Perhaps that was the last straw for Michael who wanted more control over his music and albums, and so after that Quincy would no longer work with Michael. Brad played three different versions of Streetwalker. Now, I never really enjoyed that song, there were some parts in the released version which ruined everything for me, but when I heard the earlier demo – WOW! It sounds so much better than the released version. You just can’t sit still. Everybody was grooving, bobbing their heads to the rhythm and dancing in their chairs a little. Brad asked the guests to vote for the best song among the two, and, naturally, Streetwalker won. People clapped their hands in approval.

The Bad era part ended with Scared of the Moon, and although everyone knew the story, we still laughed. Never give anything to Michael Jackson, he’ll immediately lose whatever he holds in his hands. Even his own master tape. The magic of the song is not in the background story (which is great), but in the fact that there was no way for it to sound so good after being copied to a cassette and then back to the master tape. Still, it sounds perfect. Makes me wonder if there was anything Michael could not do when it came to his art.

We had a little coffee break, and we were slow to get back on track because Brad just couldn’t say no to anyone who came up to him for an autograph or a hug, and there were so many people. Finally, we managed to get back to our seats and set off for the Dangerous era. Brad arranged the tale nicely by dividing the tracks into “production rooms”. So here’s the Bill Bottrell room, and here’s the Bruce Swedien room, and all kinds of wonders going on inside. Actually, there was the third room which was ruled by Bryan Loren for a short period and then taken over by Teddy Riley, but we didn’t get to listen to anything from there because Brad had hardly worked with these guys. The Bottrell room was quite casual, lava lamps and all, people walking around barefoot and even drinking some Corona beer, although Michael never joined them in that. I knew which song was produced by whom, but still it was incredible to listen to them combined like this. It felt like another MJ revelation. The man was brilliant, he knew what he wanted and how he wanted it, and he knew how to make people he chose to do the job give their best. Bottrell created amazing tracks, so different in style that it left you surprised. How could one person create so many different songs? Black or White, Monkey Business, If You Don’t Love Me and Who Is It came out of Bottrell’s room. He also did the first Dangerous track, later handed over to Teddy Riley. We had a great time listening to all of them, and while the music played, Brad and me kept whispering to each other, exchanging opinions. He would ask me whether the fans knew this or that demo, whether we liked this one or that one. Just like Michael. He cared about these things, he wanted to be sure we liked the music. I also had a chance to ask some questions about the tracks while everybody enjoyed the music. We also heard the story about Michael and the acoustic gobo wall which fell onto his head during the vocal sessions of Dangerous. Michael would always ruin the studio during his vocal sessions, he’d overturn his note stand, his heater and his hot water because he always danced. The microphone would always pick up his finger snaps, sounds of his stomping feet and the instrumental track leaking from his headphones. All these sounds were recorded in his vocal tracks, and we can still hear most of them in his songs.

tumblr_mko1f0cT0J1qcqvito3_1280It was here, in the Bottrell room, where the mystery of creation unfolded completely. This was what the most of our seminar guests came for – the track recorded during the Give In To Me jam sessions. It was still hard for Brad to listen to the records where Michael spoke to him, so he put on the record for us and left the room to grab a snack. “Imagine that you’re the fourth person in the room”, he said. And we did. It wasn’t hard. It was dark, the only light coming from the laptop screen in front of me. Brad left me sitting at the desk so I could watch the laptop, although I was sure that nobody would dare do something that broke the rules (no recording equipment, no cameras, no phones, no tablet computers – all of that was left at the door, and two security people checked everyone’s pockets before letting everybody in). On that day, three of them sat in the Bottrell room (Brad, Bill Bottrell and Michael) and just talked about music which Brad and Bill listened to in their younger years. Mostly it was rock music – Pink Floyd, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin etc., and Michael wanted to listen to it too, so they had someone bring them a bunch of CDs from the music shop and just listened to it. Then Michael suddenly had this idea, to get a microphone, have Bottrell play guitar to a drum machine and just see where it would take them. So Brad puts the record on and tells us to close our eyes, and we are left one on one with the sacrament. The drum machine kicks in. The beat is slightly faster at first, but it’s already recognizable. Bill Bottrell starts playing his guitar, searching for the melody, finding his way around. Michael makes some rustling noise, clearly unwrapping a chewing gum, because the sounds of his chewing would accompany the whole record, and that’s always fun for us fans to hear. Now and then he would give some instructions to Bottrell, saying he liked the particular harmony. But then he takes the microphone – and I’m dying. You just can’t listen to it and stay calm. Even without the lyrics, when he’s singing – you’re spellbound. So much power, so much sincerity, so much heart poured into every sound he makes. I can’t remember how or when I started crying. At one point I just felt that my face was wet, and tears were running down, falling into my lap. He would take those neat musical phrases out of nowhere, playing with them, tossing them around looking for the right sequences. Playing with words, tasting them, and singing some parts of the now-famous chorus. Love is a feeling… talk to me woman… His voice fills up the room, pushing the walls, soaring into the sky, and you’re not here. You’re there with him, in the deepest abyss of his talent, in the deepest space where he receives all his masterpieces from God. He’s retrieving the song note by note, word by word, making you see it the way he sees it. My heart was beating so hard that it was painful for me to breathe. You can’t fight this. And there are no words which would describe this record. You just have to hear it yourself and feel it. A 14-minute long catharsis.

Michael is the greatest performer and magician of all times. Yes, lots of musicians do the same to write music, every day around the world, just sitting and jamming, improvising. But how many performers can you name who would make a whole room of grown-up people weep after listening to his voice?

Brad came back, saw our wet faces and asked, “Everybody okay?” Oh well… I was a mess. Brad added that the whole record was about three hours long, but he cut it to 14 minutes by picking the most interesting parts, because we did not have time to listen to all of it. He also said that, as far as he remembered, they did this only once. Perhaps Michael did some experiments with other producers, but not in the Bottrell room. People don’t seem to hear that. Everyone is still back there, immersed in the sounds of Michael’s voice, so Brad is trying to cheer us up a little bit, “Hey guys, I don’t want you to be sad. Michael left us loads of great music, so let’s enjoy it.” And so we moved to the Bruce Swedien room.

The atmosphere is different here. Swedien is more like a scientist, and he’s got all things in strict order. “Together, we created this,” Brad says, putting another track on (sorry Brad, I just looked at your laptop screen, so I know that it was called Time Marches On). “And then,” he goes on, “Bruce slowed it down a little bit, added all kinds of things to it, and it turned into this.” I could hardly believe it, it was Jam coming out of the speakers! Wow! I swear the demo was so different. The two tracks sounded so different that nobody would guess the first one was the early version of the second. That’s outstanding work. Listening to this, you understand how right Michael was in choosing his studio collaborators. He felt them. He knew why they were there, he chose them himself, and together they created masterpiece after masterpiece. They created things which would still sound fresh even in a hundred years.

After Jam, we get a perfect taste of For All Time. Written by Steve Porcaro, this song was initially dedicated to Porcaro’s little daughter. Brad, who is a father of four beautiful daughters, said he always had a soft spot for anyone’s daughter, and this story clearly touched his heart. Michael liked the song so much that he nailed his vocals right then and there. Brad played two versions of the song, one sang by Porcaro, the other by Michael. Should I say that there is nothing more beautiful than this song? The production is amazingly light. Airy vocals, a breath of fresh air, filling the room with moonlight. Can you paint air with sounds? Or the moonlight? Or the scent of the ocean? Michael’s voice can. Less is more. And although Michael did not have Paris at that time, the song is a perfect father-to-daughter confession. A warm and loving consolation. Like wiping her tears away with his palms. A wonderful, wonderful song. Sheer grace and elegance in sound. I really hope Paris heard this song. It’s meant for her and her alone.

The Dangerous era ends with two more songs, the first is Keep the Faith. I always get very emotional when I listen to it because this is the song which actually saved my life twenty years ago. The song which made me an MJ fan in the first place. The background story is pretty amazing too. Michael went to great troubles during his vocal recording sessions, and they proved to have been worth it. So all of us should thank those guys who helped him nail it. My deepest bow and respect. If it wasn’t for all this trouble, I would not have been alive today.  Michael’s team knew how to do their job. Their work on the music demonstrates refined intuition and absolute loyalty to their art. And Michael, too.

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April 27 group

We had another short break, and then we got down to the HIStory era. The album should have been initially recorded in Los Angeles, but then the production was moved to New York after the 1994 earthquake which scared Michael to death. Brad was full of surprises. He looked at Elena Zelikova who was sitting near the stage, and said that he had brought a very special track for the Russian community and he was sure that we were going to like it. “I know Elena had a birthday two days ago,” he added, “so this song is for you, Elena.” And he played the new Stranger in Moscow mix, which had only some light percussion, keyboards and Michael’s vocals. Beautiful. All the pain and loneliness he felt in Moscow during his first visit in 1993 come alive when you listen to it. He painted such a vivid picture with his voice that you can’t help but feel you’re standing there with him under that pouring rain. I think, everybody recalled the rain, the slippery wet stage, people crawling around with towels and Michael’s perplexed face while he was trying to figure out how to perform under that downpour and not break his legs. While we were still deep in our memories, Brad wrenched us out by displaying the Blood on the Dance Floor multi-track screen. Another great experience with the back vocal tracks and this great booming sound made by the kick drum, echoing somewhere in your solar plexus. The lead vocals are just as powerful, the low rough tone coming from somewhere beneath the earth. That’s no boy, but a real man singing!

Before starting the video section, Brad also treated us to several demos of Earth Song. The earliest version dating back to 1988 is just a piano and Michael’s voice with scratch lyrics. But the way he sings the chorus is breathtaking. Brad mentioned that even Joe Vogel hadn’t known about this early demo and was just as surprised to hear it. While we listened to the second version of 1990, which already sounded familiar, with all the nature sounds in the intro and the Andrae Crouch Choir in the chorus, Brad said that the song reminded him of The Little Train that Could. It would puff and struggle and fight its way to the mountain top and roll back down until it finally made it. I think that the little train finally turned into a gigantic locomotive which nearly swept us all off our feet when it started rolling down the other side. The final version of the song is larger than life. Larger than universe. And if it took Michael six years to polish it to perfection, so be it.

The videos included some great footage from the studio, the Andrae Crouch Choir warming up before their recording sessions for They Don’t Care About Us and Earth Song. Michael was there with them, smiling, enjoying the music. “They brought the church to the studio!”, Brad said. These guys are amazing. Each of them is a worthy solo performer, but when they come together, it’s mind-blowing. Another funny video shows Michael and Sean Lennon playing with a theremin. Michael is fun to watch, doing all kinds of things with the instrument, trying to figure out how it works. Later that evening, when I got to my computer, I read some materials about the theremin, and one of the articles said that it could be played only by people born with perfect pitch, because there is no manual control of the sound, like in piano or guitar, you need to have a very sharp ear to find your way around the sounds the instrument makes. When I told Brad about that the next day, he laughed, “I went back to my hotel after the seminar, had some wine and went to bed, and you were doing your homework!” And he added that Michael, indeed, had a very-very good ear.

After several more videos, including the Christmas song session and a Friday family dinner in the studio (Michael is really cute holding his food plate in his lap), you could just feel the tension accumulating in the room. Everybody knew what was coming. The second treasure. Before playing it, Brad played one more video made from studio footage, including practically everyone who worked with Michael. “These are my friends”, he said, and I saw that his eyes were wet. He was getting emotional, and I wanted to comfort him somehow. “He was my best friend,” he continued, “I wasn’t his best friend, but he was mine. He’s the best and the kindest guy on this planet… After my father.” It’s hard to stay calm after that. You see these people on the screen, this big family of professionals and friends – all of them left orphan after his passing. Everybody just felt lost. Like the light went out. “I love these seminars and I hate them”, Brad said. “I expected this to become easier with the time, but it’s not getting better. We all had something to wait for, a new project, a new album, a new tour. And now you know that there’s nothing to wait for. Nothing is coming.”

The Childhood vocal session. I have heard a lot about this video, and I’ve read lots of reviews from others, so I believed I was prepared for what was coming. Yeah right. What I saw on the screen did not match any of my expectations. All the power of the universe concentrated in one human body. Angels singing through him. And it feels scary after a moment or two because he’s so exposed, so open, and you want to cover him and shield him from the eyes of strangers. It’s like witnessing a private confession, and it makes you feel a bit embarrassed because you don’t deserve listening to this. You don’t deserve seeing this. Nobody deserves it. It’s a very private and powerful piece. I was astounded by the fact that Michael let them film him. I would not be able to do it. I would just have dropped the camera. You see him smile as he’s listening to the instrumental track played live by the orchestra in the back room, encouraging them to go on, then he clears his voice with a little cough to the side and leads his part again, with even more power. And you’re hanging on his every note, every breath he takes, unable to move or even breathe. A unique experience. On one hand, seeing this makes you want to share this with everyone. On the other hand, you’re reluctant to show it to anyone because this feels so personal. Still, I wish this footage was released, and I could watch it again.

An incredible talent. An incredible performer. An incredible man.

“I don’t want you to leave in tears,” says Brad after the video ends, and people in the room are crying openly. I was crying so hard I could barely control myself, but I knew I had to help Brad because it wasn’t over yet, so I pulled myself together somehow. “I want you to remember this amazing talent. And enjoy his music. We don’t say goodbye, we say – see you soon. And thank you for having me here.”

DSC_7029People gave him a standing ovation. There was one more thing to take care of. We prepared a gift for Elena for putting all of this together and making it possible for Brad to come to St. Petersburg. Alena Galayko, a talented artist and a long-time MJ fan, painted a portrait of Michael, which we kept hidden from Elena during breaks so that everyone could sign it before she saw it. So now we pulled it out, and while Elena was making her way to the stage, surprised and happy, Brad also signed it and handed it to her to the sounds of thunderous applause.

Brad spent another couple of hours in the room and then in the yard of the club, signing autographs and posing for pictures with everyone. I stood at his side, using my own camera when he asked me to, and helping people communicate with him (sadly, there are not many people in Russia and Ukraine who speak good English). Finally, we took him back to his hotel with loads and loads of gifts. I should note that Brad was slightly horrified by the number of gifts people brought him. Everybody had something to give him – postcards, portraits of Michael, photo books, some handmade souvenirs, and even a balalaika with a picture of Michael from Stranger in Moscow. And so Brad was worried how he was going to pack all this and take it home. He would surely need to buy another suitcase to carry all that! Still, it was clear he enjoyed the attention, thanking everyone for the gifts, kissing and hugging people left right and center.

Elena and me spent the evening in the company of other MJ fans who attended the seminar, talking and exchanging our impressions. Everybody was delighted, some even bought tickets to the following day to enjoy the experience for the second time.

The second seminar on April 27 was practically the same, although there were only about thirty people, compared to sixty+ the other day. The VIP section was just as democratic, lots of questions asked and lots of funny stories told. We talked about Sheryl Crow singing I Just Can’t Stop Loving You live on tours with Michael, and someone asked Brad whether he attended any of Michael’s concerts. “Lots of them”, he said. And how close would he be to the stage? Brad looked around, took the cardboard figurine of Michael standing in the corner and placed it in the center of the stage, then told me to stand next to it and walked back to the side, about 3 or 4 feet away. “About this close”, he noted. I could not help it and sang a few lines of the song chorus to cardboard MJ, and everybody cheered. Unlike the day before, I felt more relaxed this time because I already knew Brad’s pace and all of the stories, so I could concentrate on my own feelings as well. Brad would start with short phrases, making pauses for me to translate, but they he would get caught up in the moment and talk non-stop. My brain nearly burst with all the information. I tried very hard to memorize every detail and was pretty worried I would miss something important, but people told me I did well. I constantly made little notes to myself in my notepad to keep up with the story, writing key words and phrases not to leave out anything. Brad would make fun of me again. While I translated some of his lengthy monologues, he would act as if he fell asleep and started snoring because it took me a bit too long to render all his words. Every time he did that, everybody laughed. I wasn’t angry with him and happily laughed along. For the whole seminar, I clearly felt Michael standing behind my back. The feeling was so strong that at one point I shared it with Brad. He nodded and gave me a hug. I thought that maybe it would be easier for me to listen to the Give In To Me session and watch the Childhood video, now that I had already seen it the day before, but no. I still cried hard over them. There’s no cure.

DSC_7040The track list of the second seminar was pretty much the same, with two little additions. While we talked about Michael playing percussion, Brad played a demo of Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, where Michael is playing a percussion part on Perrier bottles. This track is also included in the album version, but the demo is much clearer, and wow, the precision! His rhythm never failed. The second addition was We Are Here To Change The World, the track made for the dancers in the Captain Eo film. They used it to learn their dance sequences. We also had a professional musician among our guests. He was in awe. And he had lots and lots of questions, too. Whatever Brad said or played, that guy’s hand shot right up into the air because he had another question. He was especially surprised to hear that drum machines were used a lot in Michael Jackson’s studios. Brad noted that they did use drum machines most of the time, but they usually recorded the samples for it themselves, creating sounds that “a human ear never heard”.

In the end, Brad shared a personal story, how he bought a chapstick on his way to Neverland Ranch one day as a little gift for Michael. The chapstick had cherry flavor, Michael’s favorite, and cost a couple of dollars, but when Brad gave it to Michael, he looked at it and said, “Brad, this is the best gift I’ve ever had!” And he gave him a big hug.

Well, that’s Michael.

After the second seminar we went to a restaurant to celebrate. Olivia and Deb also joined us, and we had a nice evening with the whole team who worked to make the St. Petersburg event come true. Brad and Deb would ask more questions about the Soviet Union times, and we spoke a lot about Michael as well. Nobody really wanted to leave in the end, that’s how good we felt, although, naturally, all of us were very tired. We also gave the Sundbergs a gift from our team – a beautiful porcelain set of little ornamented cups and saucers for three. It was made at the famous St. Petersburg porcelain factory which used to make things for Emperor Romanov and the royal family. Deb was delighted.

Next day – more sightseeing. We went to the “Russia Model” museum – a huge display of various parts of Russia, complete with landscapes, houses, railroads, moving trains, cars and boats. A great thing to wake up a child in everyone! Makes you want to grab a train and see what makes it move. I told them the story of Michael and his love for toy trains, how he always wanted one when he was little but his family could not afford such an expensive toy. As we know, he finally got all of his dream trains in Neverland when he grew up. Deb said that the story was lovely, but sad. And Brad would make fun of me again, saying that I was probably a bigger MJ fan than he was, because he never heard most of those stories. After the museum, we had lunch at the Stolle café, a nice place serving incredibly tasty pies with a great variety of fillings, and we had another walk around the center of St. Petersburg, looking at cathedrals and buying souvenirs. At one point we were in a big luxurious grocery shop with all kinds of sweets, wine, cheese etc., Brad bought some Turkish Delight and handed each of us a piece of that. “Candy for my best women!”, he said. We were astonished. I was eating it and thinking of Michael with all his candy counters. It warmed my heart. Michael did have this amazing influence upon those who were close to him. All of them are so kind-hearted, so friendly. Brad is just like that. He likes hugging his friends. He talks about Michael without any pathos, and he’s very open and sincere about it. He likes joking and good old rock’n’roll. And he loves children very much. I enjoyed my time with the Sundberg family immensely.

Our last stop before turning in was the St. Isaacs Cathedral. It has an observation deck encircling the central dome, and it takes to walk up 262 spiral steps to get there. Deb looked up and said that there was no way we could lure her into this, so she told us to have fun and went back to the hotel. The girls and me tried to wriggle out of that one, saying that we weren’t of much help up there because there was nothing to show or translate, so Brad and Olivia could climb the stairs on their own. But Brad was adamant about it. He said that these were our last hours together, and he had lots of good Russian food and beer, so now was a good chance to start losing a bit of weight. And so he practically pulled us all up there with him. We did not have any regrets about that because the view was splendid. Back at the hotel, we spent another couple of hours in the hotel bar, talking. We also exchanged some last-minute little gifts, and then Brad said, “I just hate saying goodbye! I hate it! I already miss you guys!”

We don’t say goodbye. We say – see you soon.
Thank you, Brad. Thank you, Deb and Olivia.
Thank you, Michael.

April 26-27, 2014

Text by: Julia Sirosh aka justice_rainger

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Brad Sundberg and Michael Jackson were here, 26-27/04/2014.

 

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