‘Stranger in Moscow’: two decades of memorable anguish

Some songs reveal their timeless beauty as time progresses. One composition that fits this description is Michael Jackson’s ‘Stranger in Moscow’. Jackson’s beatboxing, the ominous sound of whistling and the lyric melody make the ballad as haunting today as it was exactly two decades ago when it was first released. Despite the dire circumstances in which the song was written, ‘Stranger in Moscow’ is a testimony to Jackson’s courage and will to overcome adversity.

Stranger in Moscow
Stranger in Moscow (photo: single sleeve detail)

Standing out

What is it that makes ‘Stranger in Moscow’ stand out from other memorable ballads Jackson wrote? Is it the slow hypnotizing rhythm? Or the complete lack of Jackson’s distinctive ‘hee hees’ and ‘ooohs’? Or could it be the Cold War imagery in the lyrics that creates suspense and a feeling of discomfort? Undeniably, ‘Stranger in Moscow’ has a je ne sais quoi that makes it a song to remember.

Although quite a few critics have called it one of Jackson’s finest achievements, the narrative of ‘Stranger in Moscow’ indicates that Jackson was far from ‘fine’ when he wrote the lyrics. “How does it feel, when you’re alone and cold inside?” – “like a stranger in Moscow”. And that’s exactly what Jackson was at the time: a stranger abroad, desperate, and extremely lonely.

Off to Russia

It was 1993 and Jackson was on the third leg of his Dangerous World Tour. For fifteen months, on and off, he’d been travelling the world from Europe to Asia. On September 12, he left Japan to fly to Moscow where he would become the first international superstar to perform in post-glasnost Russia – a remarkable and historic accomplishment in itself.

Moscow was gloomy and gritty in the nineties. Following the country’s political and economic landslide, the city was in transit, chaotically and often violently moving from the Soviet era towards democracy and capitalism. Not knowing what tomorrow would bring, many Muscovites lived from day to day, scraping by and trying to adapt to the many changes, while others made a fortune through illegal trade or crime.

Amidst the flux, plans were announced to bring Jackson’s Dangerous Tour to Moscow. As such an event had never been done before in Russia, Jackson’s team looked around for a local promotor who could do the job. Eventually, they chose Dessa, a small company that was more into film making than music entertainment. Immediately, Dessa was faced with the challenge of selling out Luzhniki Stadium, an open air arena that could potentially hold 100,000 spectators.

luzhniki-stadium
Luzhniki Olympic Arena before its renovation in 1996 (photo credit: unknown)

Sales and sabotage

As Jackson wasn’t as well-known in Russia as elsewhere in the world – his music had been illegal under Soviet rule – the goal to sell out Luzhniki Stadium seemed unrealistic. So were the ticket prices. In those days, the average Russian salary equalled 50,000 roubles, which was the price set for the cheapest tickets. That in itself made it unfeasible for the average Muscovite to attend.

Besides financial issues, Dessa had to deal with the antics of saboteurs who – for reasons only Russia knows – opposed to Jackson’s visit to the country. Logistics were frequently obstructed and newspapers were bribed to report that the show was a hoax and wouldn’t happen at all, or that Jackson was ill and planned on sending an impersonator to lip sync. As a result, ticket sales were excruciatingly slow.

This, in short, was the surreal landscape in which Jackson’s plane touched down at Sheremetyevo Airport on the evening of September 12. After briefly waving to his fans at the airport, Jackson was whisked off to the Metropol Hotel in downtown Moscow. He spent the following days on a busy schedule that included meetings with promotors and officials, visits to a few cultural sights, some shopping, and preparing for his concert.

Allegations

Yet dark clouds continued to gather over Jackson’s head. On September 14, the day before the concert, his world  shattered. Back in the US, the family of Jordan Chandler, a 13-year old boy that Jackson had spent considerable time with in the past, filed a civil law suit, accusing Jackson of sexual abuse. Stuck in the presidential suite of the Metropol Hotel, Jackson was left to process the message and struggle with his inner demons.

The allegations hit Jackson hard. At the 2015 Cologne event ‘In the Studio With MJ’, Jackson’s musical director of the tour, Brad Buxer, recalled what the effect on Jackson was while touring: “He was in a fog. He was so depressed. He just wanted to hear music. He had nothing in his head, but he was trying to keep his head together.”

Stranger in Moscow

One of the ways in which Jackson tried to keep himself from falling apart was by creating music. He asked Buxer to come to his hotel room and play a melody that they had created for a Sega video game called Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Jackson and Buxer discussed the various sections and then continued with the chords and melody of what was to become ‘Stranger in Moscow’.

According to Frank Cascio, who travelled with Jackson during parts of the tour, Jackson “had been sitting on the closet floor in his hotel room, crying, when the song came to him.” Jackson himself, when asked about it in 1994, told Ebony Magazine: “I was on tour and it seemed like I was in Armageddon – Armageddon in the brains… All these horrible stories were going around about me. None was true. It was unbelievable.”

One year later, in an audio recording, Jackson added: “‘Stranger in Moscow’ was written when I was in Moscow on the Dangerous Tour. And it was just a strange, eerie, lonely time for me. Outside my hotel was just a sea of faces of… of fans chanting and screaming. But I was inside my room and I felt so all alone, like I was the last person on the planet. And in the song I say ‘How does it feel when you’re alone and you’re cold inside?’ I say: ‘It’s like a stranger in Moscow’, and that’s pretty much how I felt.”

Michael Jackson in Moscow
Michael Jackson at the Red Square in Moscow, 1993 (photo: video still from ‘Michael Jackson The Moscow Case’)

The show must go on

Regardless of how Jackson felt, the show had to go on. Jackson had to go on stage despite the media frenzy. But it was hard. “I have the whole world thinking I’m a child molester. You don’t know what it feels like to be falsely accused, to be called ‘Wacko Jacko.’ Day in and day out, I have to get up on that stage and perform, pretending everything is perfect. I give everything I have, I give the performance that everyone wants to see. Meanwhile, my character and reputation are under constant attack. When I step off that stage, people look at me as if I were a criminal,” Jackson told Cascio.

Chandler’s accusations were not the only thing Jackson had to face. On the day of the show, only 8,000 tickets had been sold. Ticket prices dropped to 6,000 roubles, and at the end of the day tickets were given away for free. In order to help fill up the stadium 3,000 tickets were distributed to soldiers. On top of it all, the weather was foul and temperatures dropped to 7 degrees Celsius.

It kept raining all day. With the open air venue half empty, the question was if Jackson was going to perform at all. The downpour lasted for hours, to the despair of the local promotors. Eventually, the stadium began to fill up. Hours after the show was scheduled to start, the rain changed into a drizzle. Still, there was no sign of Jackson and no way of knowing if the concert would ever happen.

Like a pro

But then something stirred. Although the stage was far too wet to dance on, Jackson was seen climbing the platform on which he would perform. Heaters were put up to keep him warm while Jackson burst into song and danced as if nothing could stop him. Encouraged by his energy, Jackson’s assistants crawled on stage, using towels in a desperate effort to dry the stage floor while Jackson kept the crowds entertained.

That evening in Moscow, Jackson showed what it meant to be a pro. The Muscovites saw things they had never seen before: lasers, special effects, an overload of amplifiers, and a freezing King of Pop sliding around on a wet stage. Despite his personal ordeals and the financial fiasco that his Russian adventure turned out to be, Jackson gave his best. After the concert, he waived his performer’s fee in order to help Dessa recover some of their expenses.

In conclusion

Does that conclude Jackson’s story in Moscow? No, it doesn’t. The day after the concert, Jackson did what few others would do when faced with the same problems. Instead of packing his bags and keeping a low profile, Jackson defied all accusations of child abuse and visited an orphanage for handicapped children.

Katya Sazonova, who lived at the orphanage, remembered his visit well and shared some of her memories in the documentary Michael Jackson – Moscow Case 1993: When The King Of Pop Met The Soviets: “Michael Jackson went down to group seven and there he took a little boy in his arms to cuddle him, and the boy really enjoyed it. Of course the little child didn’t understand what was going on, but Michael Jackson was also very happy.”

Here, at last, Jackson could do what he loved most and forget about his sorrows for a while. Bringing toys and bed linen, Jackson spent time with the children, listened to their songs, and signed autographs. As a thank you, he received a family jar of black currant jam made by the children. Jackson accepted the gift graciously before leaving. Afterwards he made a financial donation to the orphanage and continued to do so in later years.

How does it feel?

It takes a strong man to ride out the storm that Jackson endured in Russia. In the middle of the cyclone that hit his life – in the centre of the storm, the quiet eye – Jackson held on to the two things that kept him going throughout his life: his music and his compassion. That’s what makes ‘Stranger in Moscow’, besides its haunting musical quality, a song worth celebrating. After two decades, it hasn’t lost any of its poignancy. Perhaps, that’s how it feels.

“Here abandoned in my fame
Armageddon of the brain
KGB was doggin’ me
Take my name and just let me be
Then a beggar boy called my name
Happy days will drown the pain
On and on and on it came
And again, and again, and again…

© Annemarie Latour

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6 thoughts on “‘Stranger in Moscow’: two decades of memorable anguish”

  1. I heard Brad B tell that story too… at Thriller Villa in Las Vegas in October last year. The song that emerged from that terrible time is an absolute masterpiece in my opinion. It should be as well known as some of the tracks thrashed on the airwaves (not that I’m upset about any of those, of course!) But the deeper, personal music of Michael’s, like his message music, deserves to receive due recognition beyond us fans and academics. It is simply ‘awesome’ and goes beyond ‘entertainment’. Thanks for another wonderful article! ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Kerry, it’s absolutely true that ‘Stranger in Moscow’ deserves more airplay and recognition. Its 20th anniversary today may help just do that. Knowing how the song came about adds a new level of understanding what MJ’s music was about. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

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