NEW YORK — Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Bob Seger and the four members of U2 were among a dozen rock stars who arrived at a sound stage on West 61st Street expecting only to have their photos taken. They had each contributed a track to "A Very Special Christmas," an album that benefits the Special Olympics--and the photos would help publicize the project.
Inside the nondescript brick building, however, the performers were being asked by a few reporters about the danger of a backlash after so many highly publicized pop crusades--"We Are the World," Live Aid and Farm Aid I, II and III.
Several of the musicians were a bit defensive, saying they have noticed rumbles of an "aid fatigue," but John Cougar Mellencamp wasn't apologetic.
"Yeah, there has been a backlash," said the Indiana songwriter, whose music has taken on an increasingly socially conscious edge in recent years. "At Farm Aid (last month), I looked over at Willie (Nelson) and asked, 'What the hell's the point? It's not even an event anymore. I'm not sure anyone even knows we're out here in Lincoln, Nebraska.' "
Still, Mellencamp feels musicians should continue to support social causes.
"I used to think you and I paid taxes so that we wouldn't have to do these things . . . that the elected officials were supposed to take care of starving people and the homeless, but that's not the case," he said.
"Instead of blaming the rock stars for asking for help, people should be asking why people are in such need and start examining who isn't doing their job."
However, record producer Jimmy Iovine shook his head when the matter of "aid fatigue" was brought up. Iovine, who masterminded what is easily the most star-studded recording since 1985's "We Are the World," doesn't see much connection between his album and U.S.A. for Africa or other leading symbols of pop altruism in the '80s.
In those cases, he said, the record (or concert) was a means for getting money for a charity. In the case of "A Very Special Christmas," Iovine's goal was to make a pop-star Christmas album, and the only way he could assemble a lineup like this was to turn over the money to charity.
Said Iovine: "The public awareness from (projects like Live Aid and Farm Aid) was important, but we didn't set out to invent a charity. That was one of the things maybe I learned from all that. I wanted to turn to an existing charity.
"The Special Olympics is a great organization and it is wonderful that we can help it, but the truth is, I wanted to make my dream Christmas album and I knew the only way I could (get everyone's cooperation) was if we gave the money away . . . get money totally out of the equation."
Everyone seemed in good spirits as the performers waited for the photo session to begin. Sting spoke about the nobility of the Special Olympics, Bob Seger mentioned the courage of handicapped people he has met, Run-D.M.C.'s Jam Master Jay (Mizell) cited the inspirational rewards of volunteer work.
But Mellencamp spoke with the most passion. One of rock's flashiest dancers, Mellencamp was born with a disease of the vertebrae and lives with the knowledge that he was only a delicate childhood operation away from spending his life as a "cripple."
About the operation, he added: "There was another girl who had the operation the same time I did. I made it and she didn't. I saw her again, like three years ago, and she's still in a wheelchair. That's the reason I did this."
But the musicians--also including Annie Lennox--seemed stiff once they got in front of the camera. It didn't even help when someone handed out bright-red Santa Claus hats to the three members of Run-D.M.C.
It wasn't until Iovine, the short, hyperactive producer who had been standing out of camera range during the initial shots, joined the scene that the mood loosened.
For one thing, Springsteen--a close friend of Iovine ever since the latter worked as an engineer on Springsteen's "Born to Run" album in 1975--began ribbing the producer. Springsteen had been half an hour late for the session because Iovine had given him the wrong address--a photo studio 40 blocks away.
"You sure throw a heck of a party, Iovine," Springsteen joked. "And you also make it hard to find."
But Iovine's presence in the photo also seemed to serve another function.
"I think the (stiffness) was because no one wanted to step forward," said one observer at the session. "There is a roomful of stars and no one felt it was really his show. The only one who could step forward was Jimmy because it really is his album."
If the session ended good-naturedly, the album itself was started by Iovine following a period of sadness. His father, a Brooklyn longshoreman, died Jan. 12, 1985, after a heart attack a month earlier.