It’s been thirty years since the age of the modern benefit concert was launched by Bob Geldof’s seminal, trans-Atlantic “Live Aid” extravaganza, and reminiscences are popping up all over the place. This wasn’t the first rock concert for a cause, of course – George Harrison’s “Concert for Bangladesh” in 1971 claims that honor. And of course we had had celebrity-studded fund-raising telethons for years before that, but Live Aid was the first such event to be broadcast live around the planet.
I remember it a little differently than some folks, though – I remember it more as a spiritual battle, one where the good guys generally came up short.
We have to keep in mind that Live Aid took place in the middle of the reign of Ronald Reagan, who had won re-election the previous fall in a stunning nationwide landslide over the hapless Walter Mondale. Reagan’s brand of conservatism was in full ascendancy. These were the days when greed was good and ostentatious materialism held sway in America, the days of the Yuppie and the cocaine spoon.
As I recall, there was some hope that Live Aid might bring about some kind of reawakening of the Woodstock spirit, to counter the dominance of crassness and cynicism, but it was not to be.
I remember Joan Baez trying to start things off on a spiritual note by getting everyone to sing “Amazing Grace” together… but after two verses, you could see her reading the crowd and thinking “This isn’t working…” So she shifts on the fly into the day’s anthem, “We Are The World,” but you can tell from her face that it wasn’t what she had had in mind.
I remember U2, broadcasting from Margaret Thatcher’s London, also trying to awaken the conscience of the party-minded crowd. But just like Baez, Bono sees something else lurking there instead – that’s why he launches into “Sympathy for the Devil.”
I remember Bob Dylan performing, flanked by Keith Richards and Ron Wood from the Stones, looking for all the world like he’s under guard lest he try anything too revolutionary — and I remember Keith upstaging Bob by fiddling with mounting his cigarette on his guitar properly.
I remember Paul McCartney sitting at his piano, performing “Let It Be” – even though his vocals didn’t seem to make it through to the broadcast for some reason.
I remember the crowning moment being, not the final performances of “We Are the World,” but the hip-grinding duet between the oversized egos of Tina Turner and Mick Jagger.
Not everything was bleak; there were some more optimistic points. I enjoyed the pleasant surprise of seeing Madonna singing backup on “Revolution” with the Thompson Twins. She was clearly enjoying herself, and I imagined that being part of an event where the point was something bigger than herself might have done her some good.
But the key experience of the day for me didn’t take place on stage. As it happened, we were in Columbus, Ohio that day, visiting our Indian friends Shashi and Rainu. As we were watching the performance together, the phone rang, and Rainu answered. It was some of their kinfolk calling from Delhi.
They chatted for a while, and then Rainu asked what they were doing. “Oh really?” said Rainu. “We are watching it too!”
For one brief second, I felt the connection in my gut: for a fleeting moment, the phrase “We Are The World” made visceral sense.