The Back Page

SONGS FOR THE SUFFERING

PAUL WELLS January 17 2005
The Back Page

SONGS FOR THE SUFFERING

PAUL WELLS January 17 2005

SONGS FOR THE SUFFERING

The benefit concert has become an automatic response to disaster

The Back Page

PAUL WELLS

THERE ARE DISCRETE stages in the response to any great global tragedy. Shock, first, then grief. Then a feeling of helplessness, which, in Canada, is usually expressed as indignation at the government. (In Canada, any strong feeling is expressed as indignation at the government, even when, as in the current instance, the government was simply doing its job properly. It’s a weird catharsis, but we make it work for us. The indignation is followed, usually at not too great an interval, by the re-election of the government.)

There is an outpouring of sympathy and philanthropic donation. This makes Canadi-

ans more or less the same as people around the world and is, therefore, widely interpreted as proof of our nation’s unique virtue. There is an extended series of photo opportunities featuring the prime minister and assorted children.

Before very long, the response reaches its most public and ecstatic expression: the relief concert. Onjan. 29, Sarah McLachlan, Avril Lavigne and Barenaked Ladies will rock Vancouver’s General Motors Place in aid of Asian tsunami relief. Two days later, some of the same artists will be at Calgary’s Saddledome.

In some ways, the big Canadian shows will be bringing up the rear: in the U.S., the NBC television network will showcase Christina Aguilera, Sheryl Crow and other pop artists in a tsunami-relief concert broadcast onjan. 15. And by the time you read this, a host of smaller local benefits will be history: Skydiggers in Winnipeg, Chicks with Picks at Whistler, Mir and Crush in Halifax.

It’s not the most intuitively appropriate response to catastrophe—the party of disaster, the festival of mourning—especially because, if you’ve ever been at a relief benefit, you’ll recall that the mood is hardly one of quiet introspection. Yet the benefit concert has become such an automatic response to a certain kind of disaster that these shows sprung up spontaneously, chaotically, even producing an unintended environment of competition.

(Not incidentally, and again quite by acci-

dent, the benefit concerts also put the lie to the cheap accusation that governments were “behind the people” in their response to the tsunami. It’s true that ordinary citizens, or at least a few of them, managed to write cheques before the Martin government could deploy a field hospital. But when ordinary people decide to organize something more complex—rent a hall, book a band, put up posters—they find it takes about as long for them to respond in complex ways as it takes their governments.)

Coincidentally, this Christmas season offered a reminder of the moment when compassion irrevocably acquired the format of rockers and big crowds. The 1985 Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia were hardly the first case of celebrity fundraising. The comedy-variety shows that evolved into the Secret Policeman’s Ball fundraisers for Amnesty International date back to 1976. But Live Aid was a striking

attempt to produce a spectacle as big as the tragedy at hand: the African famine centred in Ethiopia. Every big fundraiser since then has been a more or less conscious echo of Live Aid.

And right on cue, a four-DVD compilation of Live Aid performances arrived at the end of2004. It reminds me of what I first noticed on that July day in 1985 when the concerts were first broadcast: most famous pop bands are really bad.

Remember Ultravox? Adam Ant? Spandau Ballet? You don’t? There’s a reason. On the Live Aid DVDs, they’re an endless succession of improbable hairdos and shaky voices. Other acts fare better—Sting, Bryan Adams, David Bowie—but only twice in the space of four DVDs does a band completely dominate the moment. The bands that manage the trick are Queen and U2.

When Freddy Mercury gets the Wembley Stadium crowd clapping to Radio Gaga (ordinarily a negligible tune), the force of his personality is obvious. Thousands of arms move with his, and the crowd is so huge you can see the delay as the sound races from the stage to the back of the stadium.

Bono’s performance makes even clearer in retrospect that U2 is a band for the ages. The Irish singer—resplendent in pirate shirt, leather pants and Peter Pan getaway boots— so completely fascinates the immense crowd that it never really recovers after his band’s set is over. On Sunday Bloody Sunday, he perches at the rim of the stage, down on one knee, singing over and over: “Wipe your tears away.”

Since 1985, of course, Bono has clearly become ambivalent about the potential of compassion concerts. These days he is as likely to be spotted in meetings with heads of state or in the op-ed pages of great newspapers as onstage. As a rule of thumb, you can’t change the world with a song. That doesn’t mean it hurts to try. U]

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