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July 31, 2014

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Michael Jackson at the end: Thin, but showing energy

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Itsuo Inouye / AP

Pop star Michael Jackson waves to fans as he leaves for U.S. army base in Zama, near Tokyo, for a friendly visit from a downtown Tokyo U.S. army heliport on March. 10, 2007.

Michael Jackson Comeback Show

Rehearsals were well underway for King of Pop Michael Jackson's 50-date concert run at London's 02 Arena that was set to begin on July 8.

Michael Jackson tribute

A video tribute to fallen pop icon Michael Jackson plays across the canopy of the Fremont Street Experience on Thursday night. Launch slideshow »

Jackson remembered

A sign-in book next to a wax figure of Michael Jackson is displayed outside of Madame Tussauds in Las Vegas on Thursday. Launch slideshow »
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Michael Jackson flashes the "V sign" to the crowd as he exits the courthouse in Santa Maria, Calif., on Jan. 16, 2004, for his arraignment on child molestation charges. Jackson's sister Janet hugs a supporter at bottom.

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Michael Jackson arrives at the Santa Barbara County courthouse in this April 27, 2005, file photo in Santa Maria, Calif.

As Michael Jackson is remembered today with a public tribute event at Staples Center in Los Angeles, we’re getting a pretty clear idea of what sort of performing condition he was in during the final days of his life. As URL (Ubiquitous Robin Leach) reported on Vegas DeLuxe yesterday, Jackson was reportedly healthy enough only to perform a single, boffo concert, but not the full set of 50 dates scheduled in London’s 02 Arena. He was remarkably thin, but could still impress in spurts by performing his familiar steps with the 02 band and dancers.

Since his death, I’ve been in contact with someone I know who has been involved with the production of the shows, glumly and ironically titled “This Is It.” Following is an account of Jackson’s condition and demeanor on June 23, two days before he died at age 50 at his rented estate in L.A. The person is remaining anonymous, as the confidentiality agreement signed by everyone involved with the show might still be in place if the footage recorded during rehearsals is released as a documentary about the creation of the show:

“After weeks wading through hours of archive footage and Jackson’s short films, we were at Staples Center on the afternoon of Tuesday, June 23, to meet with director Kenny Ortega and Michael himself, who was very hands-on with every detail of the concert. While there, I had an extensive behind-the-scenes look at the show. What they had created and planned for this concert tour was going to be unprecedented: a video montage of Michael’s videos and short films spanning the full width of the stage, 3D displays, costumes, puppets and magic illusions –- it was going to be incredible.

“The band gathered onstage and began to casually rehearse. The musicians assembled for these concerts were all top-notch. There was a new young female guitarist named Orianthi Pangaris, who can’t be older than 24 (she is 23), and as you will see from the rehearsal footage that has been released, she can play. Hearing the band rehearsing songs, instrumentally, that are so iconic was amazing in itself. As you can imagine, hearing the raw grooves to “Human Nature,” “Beat It” and “Thriller,” with its deep, synth notes, was amazing, and I couldn’t help but to start singing the lyrics to myself.

“I waited outside the dressing room as two members of the production team met with Michael. When one who had known Michael for years came out, he remarked about how thin Michael was, saying he was “thinner than I’ve ever seen him.”

“Back out in Staples Center main hall, out onstage, the band unceremoniously gathered as the dancers were working on choreography. Tables and chairs were lined up in front of the stage for the director and crew, so I knew that rehearsal was going to happen soon. They started playing “Wanna Be Startin' Somethin’, ” and the dancers started going through the choreography. It was mid-song when Michael casually appeared onstage and jumped right into the choreography, wearing a microphone headset. It was an amazing moment. Nothing was compromised or left raw for this rehearsal, as the sound, the lights, the screen -- everything was operating as if it were in London in front of 30,000 fans. Michael was experiencing issues with his in-ear monitors, saying something like, “It feels like fists punching my eardrums,” often pulling the plugs out from his ears and letting them dangle on his shoulders.

“Although Michael did look quite thin, his dancing was not suffering. As the rehearsal progressed, he showed off many of his signature, iconic moves on “Beat It,” “Dirty Diana” and my favorite, “Smooth Criminal,” with the iconic leaning move that seems to defy gravity -- moves we’ve all come to know through his short films. The following numbers were simply amazing, and Michael kept up high energy level. In all, I saw 12 songs -- about three-quarters of the set list.

“The last time I saw Michael with in-person eyes, rather than on a video monitor offstage, it was from a distance backstage as he was waiting to make his entrance, with his back toward me. Standing next to him was someone who appeared to be a roadie or a stage manager. As Michael stood there, I could see this person talking to him. It looked like he could have been saying something like “Michael, I worked for you on the Bad Tour in 1993 …”

I have seen many artists who could have rolled their eyes at this type of person in this situation, or put up their hand and say, “Don’t bother me, I’m trying to rehearse,” but I watched Michael graciously shake this person’s hand with both of his hands and bow his head (when I noticed how long his hair was), probably saying the words “thank you” or “nice to meet you.” As I watched this, I thought, “This is the Michael the media doesn’t portray.” He looked so gracious. Shortly after that, the rehearsal ended, around midnight.”

Jackson appeared once more onstage, on Wednesday, June 24. That would be his last rehearsal.

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