Posted on Friday, March 05, 2010 (EST)
Michael Jackson's lead guitarist Jennifer Batten gives an exclusive
and rare insight into the world's biggest pop act who exactly
one year ago announced his return to music.
March 05, 2010, (Sawf News) - One year ago today Michael Jackson
announced his 'This Is It' concert run in a press conference
at London's O2 arena. To mark the anniversary, Charles
Thomson sat down with Jackson's long-serving guitarist Jennifer
Batten, who told us what it was really like behind the scenes
on a Michael Jackson tour.
Jennifer Batten... It might not ring any bells at first, but
you'd probably recognize 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 totaling 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
Audition for Bad Tour
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
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!"
Bad Tour Rehearsal
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
"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%."
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."
Michael Jackson's Isolation
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."
Post Bad Tour
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
publicizing 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
capitalize 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
Despite widespread debate about his appearance and wellbeing,
Batten says Jackson seemed like 'the same Michael', if slightly
"I noticed that he was busier and I remember that one time
he came to rehearsals and just apologized 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."
Super Bowl performance
In January 1993 Batten accompanied Jackson for his legendary
Super Bowl performance, which was watched by 1.5 billion 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 favorite times
because it was a one-off special thing that will never be repeated."
Child Molestation Allegations
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 leveled 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
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
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
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-synched.
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
"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."
Michael's on stage appearances with children
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
Batten says she was out driving on June 25, 2009 when an acquaintance
called to tell her about rumors of Jackson's death.
"I didn't really believe it when he told me because I had
heard so many rumors 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 sh*t. 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
This Is It movie
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.