Critic Nick Tosches once wrote a piece called "The Heartbeats Never Did Benefits," not long after George Harrison organized a 1971 concert for Bangladesh's starving masses. Noted Tosches of that night's sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd: "Da people didn't give a fuck about Bangla Desh."
Tosches then posed a question that, 30 years on, is just as relevant to another benefit at the same venue organized by Harrison's former band mate Paul McCartney -- "The Concert for NYC," broadcast live on VH1 on Saturday night.
"Does rock 'n' roll have anything to do with anything?" Tosches asked. "Once it adopts pretensions of meaningfulness outside of that of a self-contained expression, matrical and flashing, doesn't it become art or pop/kitsch?"
Yes, it does -- though it's hard to complain when it reaches the level of the former. "America: A Tribute to Heroes," the Sept. 22 televised concert organized with lightning speed by veteran MTV producer Joel Gallen and the vile music impresario Jimmy Iovine just days after Sept. 11's terrorist attacks, was presented with a striking spareness and taste and included a surprising number of performances that rivaled Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock for their urgency and emotional wallop -- that did, indeed, smell a lot like art.
The highlights of that night included Paul Simon delivering a hymnlike reading of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," Wyclef Jean singing a heartbreaking version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," the ever-crotchety Neil Young envisioning the utopia of John Lennon's "Imagine" and Bruce Springsteen investing "My City of Ruins" with the same immediacy he'd brought to the cop-critical Amadou Diallo tribute, "41 Shots."
Although it was three times as long (clocking in at a marathon six hours), much more heavily hyped and fat with corporate underwriting, McCartney's "Concert for NYC" produced nowhere near as much memorable music. In place of its predecessor's understated dignity, it substituted annoying telethon glad-handing, unbearable bathos and disturbing outbursts of unrestrained blood lust and blatant jingosim, mostly from the procession of New York public safety workers who were trotted out like props to stand beside the celebrity emcees. (It was also unbelievably weird to see Sen. Tom Daschle dressed and talking like Phil Donohue, and Bill Clinton saying he hoped Osama bin Laden was watching on TV. Do evildoers have VH1 in those caves that we're trying to smoke them out of? Can't we ask their cable providers for their address?)
The performances that were not just imminently forgettable pop stars doing their usual awards-show shtick (Five for Fighting, Jay-Z, the Backstreet Boys, Bon Jovi, the Goo-Goo Dolls and Janet Jackson) were mostly just incredibly lame (Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy's bluesy shucking and jiving, or David Bowie's weak rendition of the obvious "Heroes," both of which were driven by the ubiquitous Paul Shaffer and his bland band of Musician's Union hacks).
Then there were the tunes that were astoundingly wrong-headed, given the ostensible cause of the event. Melissa Etheridge emoted solo-acoustic through Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run," a song about desperately wanting to escape from a city that has become "a death trap," while the rock band formerly known as the Who rotely thundered through "Baba O'Reilly," urging a crowd that included thousands of young rescuers still mourning the loss of their peers to sing along in homage to a "teenage wasteland."
That the crowd cheerfully complied was irrelevant -- it would have been hard to find a rowdier, drunker or whiter group anywhere on television, outside of a monster-truck or pro-wrestling match. While the cameo superstars continually told us that this night "was about so much more than what was happening onstage," it was quite obvious to everybody else that it was just entertainment as usual, and pass me another beer.
Whether the genuinely entertaining moments were worth the grueling endurance fest was debatable. It depended on how big a Stones fan you were (Mick Jagger showed uncharacteristic selflessness by eschewing the opportunity to hype his forthcoming solo album in favor of bringing out his ol' pal Keith Richards to croon on the seldom-heard "Salt of the Earth" and join him on the classically New Yawk anthem "Miss You"), how much you're amused by Macy Gray's gonzo grooviness and how intrigued you are by the prospect of John Mellencamp and Kid Rock dueting on "Little Pink Houses."
As for Macca, he did not deliver the reunion with George Harrison and Ringo Starr that many had hoped for, appearing instead with a band of faceless young mooks a third his age. He started out promisingly enough with a fiery run through "I'm Down," but quickly devolved into pure pop schlock, including a strings-laced version of "Yesterday," two songs from his new album and two runs through a cheesy would-be anthem "Freedom," which he wrote in the wake of Sept. 11. Plus the obligatory superstar singalong on "Let It Be," of course.
Setting aside the question of how much real help "The Concert for NYC" will bring to anyone -- and let us not forget that reporters subsequently proved that "The Concert for Bangla Desh" and Bob Geldof's 1985 "Live Aid" did very little indeed to help the people of India or Africa -- what was the purpose of all of this ballyhoo?
Why, to make the strong and the surviving feel good about themselves! (In stark contrast to the first benefit, which was essentially a plea for peace under the then-gathering ominous war clouds.)
Like the food we're dropping on Afghanistan along with our bunker-busting bombs, "The Concert for NYC" was a pointless gesture that is only likely to backfire in time. "Great indebtedness does not make men grateful, but vengeful, and if a little charity is not forgotten, it turns into a gnawing worm," Nietzsche warned. And it was certainly easy to dislike those heroic cops and firemen as they bum-rushed the stage to pay tribute to fallen comrades without once mentioning the thousands of dead office workers at the World Trade Center, much less the innocents who are being killed along with the guilty as we wage war in Central Asia.
The most depressing thought is that we're likely to see even worse before all of this is done. Not to be outdone by his former "Say Say Say" buddy, the King of Pop turned Elephant Man freak Michael Jackson hosted his "United We Stand: What More Can I Give?" concert on Sunday night at RFK Stadium in Washington. Featuring, among others, Mariah Carey and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, highlights will air in a two-hour special on ABC a week from Thursday. Mark your calendars now.