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Commentary : 'ENDING HUNGER: NOW THAT WE CAN, WE MUST' : Despite the Social Consciousness and the Many Millions of Dollars Raised by Global Concert, Success Is Still an Uphill Battle

July 15, 1985|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

LONDON — The press here may be the most competitive in the world. Local papers strive so hard for fresh angles that they can't even agree on something as simple as the weather forecast.

So, Londoners were surely surprised Sunday to find the normally suspicious, cynical papers all declaring that Saturday's Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium was--literally--the Greatest Show on Earth.

"Rock's Night of Glory," proclaimed the Mirror in a front-page headline. "Rock's Finest Hour," agreed the Mail. "An unprecedented outbreak of human goodness," suggested the Sunday Times. And on and on.

These notices must have been heartwarming for Bob Geldof, the rock singer who worked for months corralling dozens of the world's leading pop acts into joining this campaign to help famine victims in Africa.

But Geldof is too sophisticated to believe that the final evaluation of the event has been made.

The Irish performer insisted from the day he announced the Live Aid concerts that the event's importance won't be measured by what happens on stage, but in the money--and, more importantly, the social consciousness--that will be raised. It'll be easy, eventually, to tally the money. Live Aid officials said Sunday they won't have an exact figure for weeks, but the amount raised will greatly exceed the cautious $10 million estimate offered earlier by Geldof. The issue of public consciousness is far harder to measure. Even more than money, Geldof's goal--"Ending hunger: Now that we can, we must"--was to arouse public concern over the horrors in Africa, and to mobilize that public opinion into convincing governments to do more to stop the deaths of millions of people.

One moment during Saturday's concert here underscored the difficulty of raising that consciousness and why it is too early to call the Live Aid shows a victory.

David Bowie, whose set drew one of the day's strongest responses, had been so moved earlier in the week by a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. video of Ethiopian famine victims that he cut his performance short so the video could be shown on the giant Diamond Vision screens at Wembley, and to millions more on television.

Before leaving the stage Bowie introduced the video and urged the audience to pay attention. The scenes were absolutely heart-wrenching: mothers and their infants, both without the strength even to move, and with nothing to look forward to except death. The video was so powerful that the BBC repeated it twice during the evening.

So what happened in Wembley Stadium? About a third of the audience did seem to watch the screens, and some around me were moved to tears. But considerably more took the break from the music as a sign of intermission, turning to their neighbors to talk about such things as whether the surviving Beatles were going to get together for the finale.

Perhaps 5,000 or more people--missing the awesome irony involved--got up from their seats and headed for the food stands.

In the glow of the proud moments these concerts represent in rock history, that reaction reminds us that Live Aid and the USA for Africa effort are still fighting an uphill battle. The dying continues.

In all the media discussion over whether Live Aid was another Woodstock, it is important to remember that Woodstock was looked upon as a socio-cultural turning point not because of the performers, but because of the attitude and size of the crowd.

The thousands of young people who gathered in Upstate New York in 1969 were part of a generation intent on declaring its independence from a society and government whose values were perceived as corrupt and obsolete.

Without that sociological undercurrent, Woodstock would not have made history. Remember Watkins Glen? The US Festival?

Reporters and television crews roamed through the crowd Saturday at Wembley trying to find a philosophical consensus among the 72,600 fans. Most certainly, individuals and organizations around England (and elsewhere) have been inspired by Geldof and Live Aid to initiate their own fund-raising drives.

And several of the dozens of fans I spoke with here mentioned the "cause" in response to my question about why they had come to Wembley.

A much more frequent response, however, was the name of a rock musician: U2, McCartney, Elton John. . . .

It's inviting to think of the turnout and the purchase of 25,000 T-shirts and 50,000 programs as signs of commitment.

But the talent lineup would have guaranteed a sellout regardless of the purpose of the day, and my suspicion is that the programs were bought more as souvenirs than as means of donating.

In the 15 minutes I waited in line to purchase a program, many people around me bought three or four T-shirts, a couple of posters and a program. That added up to $50 or $60. But even with the monetary transactions becoming cumbersome and time-consuming, and with all the money earmarked for famine victims, nobody said, "Keep the change."

Where rock 'n' roll gained integrity and television exhibited magnificent technology, the real winners Saturday were the people in Africa whose lives will be saved by this campaign.

In launching the rock famine campaign last year, Geldof acknowledged what he termed "selfish" motives: He said he wanted to act so he would be declared "not guilty" for his role in the shame and crime of what is happening in Africa.

On Saturday, he apparently earned that judgment. Now it's up to the rock audience to determine how it is going to be judged.

So how does Live Aid stack up next to Woodstock? If the public does react and extend the spirit, Live Aid will be far more significant. The answer is no longer in the hands of rock or television. The challenge has been passed on to all of us.

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