It didn't take Michael Jackson long to learn how he'd be received in his first U.S. concert appearances since he was accused in 1993 of sexually molesting a teenage boy.
Despite intermittent rain, fans packed the 35,000-seat open-air Aloha Stadium both Friday and Saturday nights to see the pop star in a flashy show that began with him kicking open the door to his personal rocket ship on stage.
As he then peeled off his metallic spacesuit and broke into a scathing rendition of "Scream," a hit from 1995 that lashes back at his critics, the audience responded with screams of their own.
"He is great, great, great, great!" said an apparently awe-struck Zenda Martinez, 30, shaking her body in mock shivers as she left the stadium after Friday's show. A single parent who works two jobs, Martinez flew from Maui to Honolulu for the concert. "I'm going to be a little late for work tomorrow," she said, "but too bad--I saw Michael! If they fire me for this, so be it."
Before he'd even uttered a note, the self-proclaimed King of Pop made history in Hawaii: No other musical act ever had sold out Aloha Stadium. Tickets to the Friday concert--Jackson's first appearance here since his days with the Jackson 5--were snapped up in four hours, so the promoter immediately added the second show, which also sold out quickly. They are the only U.S. stops on Jackson's current itinerary.
"I've never seen anything like it, and I've been doing these things since Elvis," said the promoter, Tom Moffatt. "There's been nothing even close to this--the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Julio Iglesias, the Eagles. . . . "
Some observers have suggested that Jackson, 38, though still beloved overseas, may have lost his luster in the United States after being dogged by the molestation controversy. But there was no sign of that here. Asked about the allegations against Jackson, concert-goers said they either don't believe them or don't care one way or the other.
Jackson--who has not toured in the United States since his "Bad" tour in 1989--was leaving on an international tour in August 1993 when he was accused of having sexually molested a 13-year-old boy.
Three months later, he cut short the series of shows, asserting that negative publicity had caused him to become addicted to painkillers. He later reached a multimillion dollar settlement out of court with his accuser. Jackson admitted no wrongdoing and no legal charges were filed by authorities. He subsequently denied on a TV show that he had molested the boy.
"You have to be able to disassociate his image from his talent," said Albert Bediones, who spent $1,000 for four VIP concert passes for himself and family. "We're here for his music. Whatever is in his private life, that's his business."
Promoter Moffatt had anticipated some flak for booking Jackson. "I thought we'd be getting letters from church groups, hate mail," he said. "All we got was one call at 2 a.m. on the answering machine at work."
Many concert-goers said they regarded Jackson's appearance in Honolulu as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a legend. Few entertainers of his stature make it to the islands. The most recent big-name act was the Eagles, last year.
"It's an honor for him to pick Hawaii as his U.S. stop," said Uilani Watkins, a thirtysomething devotee. "He's an icon."
Some of those who flocked to the stadium said they aren't even bona-fide fans.
"I don't own a single Michael Jackson album," said Jack Law, a nightclub owner. "I'm here for the spectacle." He was seated near basketball star Magic Johnson, who flew in to catch the concert and who triggered his own chorus of squeals as he entered.
The audience, clad in rain ponchos, was as diverse as Hawaii itself. People brought their entire families, from toddlers to grandparents. Many seemed to be in their 20s and 30s, people who had grown up with Jackson's music.
Tour publicist Darlene Donloe offered no explanation as to why Jackson chose Honolulu for his U.S. return. But the city may have been seen as offering a gentle homecoming for the star, who has been on the road in Europe and Asia for four months.
Residents of the Aloha State tend to be "less aggressively judgmental" and more respectful of celebrities and their private lives, said John Berger, a free-lance music critic here.
"People are a little more laid-back here," agreed Khy Kimura, 30, an airline pilot who attended Friday's concert. "They're not out to cause trouble. On the mainland, there would have been more controversy."
Jackson's appearance made front-page news here, and one radio station played his music 'round the clock. Hundreds on Waikiki beach chanted "Michael, Michael" upon his arrival Thursday at the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel.
The Hawaii stopover is the last on this leg of Jackson's HIStory tour, which was launched in Prague in September and has included stops in Poland, Russia, India and South Korea. Jackson plans some time off before heading to South Africa for concerts in the spring, the tour publicist said.
Upon arriving in Australia in November, Jackson shocked observers by marrying Debbie Rowe, a nurse from Van Nuys who is expecting his child early this year. Jackson split from his first wife, Lisa Marie Presley, a year ago and their divorce was made final in August. There was no sign of Rowe in Honolulu. Donloe had no comment on her whereabouts.
The precisely choreographed Honolulu show, set off with fireworks and punctuated throughout with stunning flares and explosives, took the audience on a journey through history. Video montages projected on two sides of the massive, 70-foot-high stage featured a kaleidoscope of historic moments and faces from Neil Armstrong to Mother Teresa.
Jackson led off with his newer material, which challenges his accusers, then moved into a medley of Jackson 5 hits before belting out such crowd-pleasers as "Billie Jean" and "Beat It." The audience seemed mesmerized by his searing vocals and his dancing--at times robotic, at times fluid. Jackson focused on performing and said little to the audience other than "I love you" several times.
Theatrical vignettes included werewolves and mobsters mowing down party-goers with machine guns. At one point, Jackson climbed into a mummy-shaped coffin, which then was pierced with a bed of 2-foot-long nails and burned to a crisp. He survived.
Later, a tank blasted onto the stage--only to be halted, Tiananmen-style, by the pop star. The performance concluded on a theme of world peace with Jackson singing "Heal the World," surrounded by children in international dress.
"People were looking at him in shock, like, 'Wow, this is Michael Jackson,' " said Louie Ferreira, who was working crowd control Friday. "Even we felt that way, and we see a lot of performers. This guy is a perfectionist, really polished."