Man in the mirror

(a chapter of Koen’s autobiography about his life in 1988)

Finding the spark to ignite the change


I’m gonna make a change

for once in my life

It’s gonna feel real good

gonna make it right…

I’m starting with the man in the mirror

I’m asking him to change his ways

And no message could have been any clearer

If you wanna make the world a better place

Take a look at yourself, and then make a change

(Man in the mirror – Michael Jackson (written by Seidah Garrett and Glen Ballard)

The urge to break out of my shell grew in strength. But I needed something that could be a source of inspiration and strength during such challenging moments, because the road was going to be long. A lucky charm that I could hang around my neck wasn’t going to suffice. It had to go deeper, it had to penetrate through my skull and reach my brain …and plant a long-lasting spark that could keep igniting a source of energy.

I couldn’t find it in my immediate environment. I couldn’t find it in religion. It turned out, that I found it in art, more particularly in music and dance.

From my childhood onwards, I had been very interested in listening to music, because music was powerful. Good music was able to directly go to one’s deepest portions of one’s innerself, or what some would call, the soul. From 5th standard onwards, I had become a fervent listener of pop music – by groups such as Boney M and Abba in the 2nd half of the 1970s, and then in the early 1980 the British music revolution (the Human League, Culture Club).

Most of the time when I was studying, I would have pop music playing in my room, as I felt that it helped to increase my productivity. It was almost as if many of the facts I had to memorize, the intellectual skills I had to develop, could ride the wave of music to enter my brain and get processed or stored.

Whenever I didn’t have to study or work, I would enjoy just closing myself off from the outside worl, closing my eyes, and listen to music.  Certain music was able to touch me, to be a gateway that could transiently move my mental state to another place. Or as Ludwig van Beethoven once said ““Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.”.

I was aware that music could  change the brain. I’ve always been a very vivid dreamer. During my childhood and youth, whenever I had fever and would fall asleep, I would undergo a recurring dream, that would start with the visuals of a panther crossing a thick forest, and that would be followed by an abstract scene of several circular currents of energy, like vortexes or tornados, that would be moving according to a particular rhythm, regularly moving towards and away from eachother, but never touching or fusing eachother. It always evoked an immediate intense feeling of discomfort, a nightmare I would only be able to escape when I would suddenly wake up in sweat, but not remembering enough what had happened to control it. However, in my early 20’s, I was once taking a break from studying. I put in my favorite cassette of “Dare” (by the Human League), pressed the “play” button, turned up the volume, and lied down on the bed and closed my eyes. At the start of the 2nd song, an underbeat of the song sounded very familiar….but I couldn’t place it until suddenly it evoked the images of the vortexes in me, and I realized that the underlying beat of the song tune and the rhythm in my dream were a match.

From then on, I never had that dream anymore. Thanks to  music, my brain had conquered it

In 1988, the spark to ignite change came to me from an unexpected corner, but in the form of…..Michael Jackson.  It was a spark that had started to smolder slowly near the end of the previous summer (1987), when he had released his “BAD” album. This had been highly anticipated, not just by the world, but also at our house. My sister An was a big Michael Jackson fan during his Thriller period, so much that my siblings and I didn’t have to bother buying or playing the music or decorating the walls with his posters, as my sister took care of all, being the local fan-club in our family. Once “BAD” was released, I immediately liked the music and the videoclips. I never managed to Moonwalk, though. But through his music, MJ impersonated for me the energy and opportunities that were lurking in the USA.

Then, early 1988, as my plans to study abroad and to get high grades were in their infant shoes, it was announced that Michael Jackson would take his Bad tour on the road through Europe, and actually come to Belgium! Our first reaction was “What, did we hear that correctly? Am I dreaming?” No, it was true…he would come to Belgium. This was hard to believe, because during previous years we Belgians had grown accustomed, or I should say, unwillingly surrendered to the hard reality that big artists would usually skip Belgium, probably because our stadiums lack the grandiosity of those in our other European counterparts. But he didn’t come to a stadium in Belgium, but instead to a large field in the rural village of Werchter, a field that in the past was known for its annual music festival, and that could hold 55,000 people. My sisters and I deliberated in their bedroom….we really wanted to go, and tickets would go on sale a few weeks later…so we had some time first to get permission from our parents to buy tickets. I was almost 23, but my sisters were only 19 and 16, and in those days, especially in our family, it was the normal procedure that we would have to get permission from our parents. And the truth was that except for some small music shows of local artists on the local market place with our parents standing behind us, I had never been to a pop concert! We figured they wouldn’t allow us to go, but then, it was worth giving it a try, and we hypothesized that even though our chances for success were small, they were perhaps still the best if I was the one who asked for it. So slowly followed by my sisters, we descended the stairs, and I found my mom in the kitchen. “Mom, Michael Jackson is coming to Belgium. Especially An would really enjoy it, but she thinks she wouldn’t be allowed to go, so if Kristel and I go with her, can we?” After we reduced some of her doubts with “No, mom, this is not a concert where people do drugs and alcohol and fight, this is Michael Jackson, so there will be a lot of kids. So can we please go? Please?”, she replied “you should go and ask your father”. So we walked into the living room, where my father was sitting on his regular spot on the couch in front of the television. “Dad, we like to go to a Michael Jackson concert, and if you allow us, then mom’s okay with it?”.  After some hesitation, and with the assurance that I would be accompanying my sisters, we got the approval! Yes, we were half there! Only one step left: getting the tickets!

On the day when the tickets went on sale via the phone (Saturday Feb. 27, 1988), my sister An had the portable phone on her desk in the other room, and so while doing some studying, she kept redialing. The first day she always got the busy signal, so we felt our chances were getting slim. But then the following day, I suddenly heard from my bedroom that she was talking on the phone! As soon as she then put down the phone and had a smile on her face, we all jumped up, did a victory dance and screamed “Yes, yes, yes, we’re going to see Michael Jackson!!” Now we just had to wait until August 23!

During the following months, it nearly became a routine for me every evening, when after having spent many hours in class or in my dorm room studying, I would remove the pressure of the studies by listening, for 10-15 minutes, to Michael Jackson music before going to sleep, and thinking “soon I’ll be seeing him life in concert!”  Serving as a sort of valve to release stress and refill my mind with hope and peace, I have little doubt that MJ’s music and the anticipation of his concert, helped me to focus my mind extremely well on my exams, and contributed to my “highest distinction” achievement in my 5th year of Veterinary Medicine in June 1988.

Two months later, August 23 approached. In the final week, a Michael Jackson slogan contest by Nissan (one of the sponsors of the tour) in which, to my own big surprise, I won one of the top prizes, had delivered us a VIP parking ticket, and 2 guest passes to the VIP tribune. Because most concert-goers would be standing as one big crowd on a plain field, which would be a big disadvantage to smaller people, I felt it was the right thing that my smaller sisters would use those tickets. Me, and Kim, one of of my sister’s friends who also joined us, were therefore determined to try to get the best available spots. Accordingly, we all showed up at the entrance of the concert venue approximately 10 hours before the show was going to start, where already more than 100 people had already gathered. After patiently enduring the sun for many hours, the gates opened, which led to quick “see you after the concert” to my sisters, then a frantic rush through the security and ticket checking, followed by an attempt to set a new world record to run to the other side of the large field to get a spot as close to the stage as possible. During the run, Kim and I inevitably lost eachother.  But as the people in front of me gradually slowed down and halted, I looked up and saw that I was positioned approximately 20 meters from the front of the stage, so not bad at all. Now I just had to keep this position, which was easier said than done, because everyone got compressed together as sardines in a can, and one had little control over the movement of the crowd as dictated by forces along the edges. “My feet aren’t even touching the ground”, mentioned one girl who was pressed into this mass body next to me. Fortunately my height was above average, so I could still feel some tiny breeze sooth my head once in a while, and allowed me to keep breathing cool air, as I knew that lack of oxygen, dehydration or overheating were real concerns. I felt partially relieved that my sisters didn’t have to go through all of this, and was hoping that Kim was somewhere safe, because within an hour of this mass compaction, the first victims fell, mostly small girls/women, or the men who had been consuming too much alcohol earlier during the day, who fainted and were then passed above the heads by everyone’s pair of hands, towards the front of the crowd and then transferred to the first aid tent. I tried to keep my mind focused on surviving, and continuing to maintain the balance of being hydrated enough not to faint, but limiting drinking water enough so that I wouldn’t need to leave the crowd to go to the restrooms and then losing one’s spot.

While the openings acts (one of them being Taylor Dayne) already brought partial reward, the subsequent silence became the final battle of patience of determination.  Then, suddenly, the back screen of the stage, consisting of many light bulbs, lit up, and depicted MJ’s shoes walking across the screen, followed by his trademarked tip-toe, when a loud roar, as if the engines of a boeing were starting, and smoke made it clear that this was it, this was the big anticipated moment!

Although I had planned to carefully focus all my attention on his performance, the moment of his appearance turned out to be too much to handle for many fans; the number who fainted (or pretended to faint) and required being passed to the front of the pack suddenly peaked during the first few songs, which led to a lot of obstruction of the view and uncontrollable waves of movement through the packed crowd that made it difficult to follow the show. Once some relative peace was restored, I stared, probably both mesmerized and -headed due to dehydration, at the artist and performer Michael Jackson… who, despite the reputation of being rather shy in his private life, managed to overcome this on stage, as he put up the most amazing spectacle of songs, dance, choreography and special effects. Here was a man who, although now adored by many as a god, was made of flesh and blood, was born in a regular family, grew in a poor neighborhood, where most kids would have few chances. And he managed to transcend, to transform, to escape. He did it! He did it, somehow. Although he was obviously born with a big talent and determination, I doubt that such a talent could have been nourished into such an amazing act if he had grown up in Belgium. He grew up in the USA, and found the nurturing environment of support there to realize his dreams. The USA made it possible for him…

As the last song of the evening, he performed “Man in the mirror”, and was repeating “no message could have been any clearer, if you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change…… make that change”. As I walked through the darkness and the crowds back towards the parking lot, I knew that although a lot of thoughts and emotions were flashing through my exhausted mind, this had been a special evening, one of hope…hope for the future, hope of change.