The message was clear in song after song: U2 leading 60,000 voices in the Beatles' "Help"; the Police, reunited after almost three years, promising a "Message in a Bottle"; Joan Baez singing Tears for Fears' "Shout"; Bob Geldof reciting the message of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song."
It came through most clearly, however, on the all-star finale of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." For the 18 recently released prisoners of conscience lined up across the front of the stage at Giants Stadium last night, it was not prayer, but testament. Hands were linked, voices raised, and the chorus evolved from the desperate prayer of "Any day now, any day now, I shall be released" to the promise of "Any day now, they shall be released."
The occasion was yesterday's "Conspiracy of Hope" concert at the Meadowlands sports complex in northern New Jersey. Unlike the series of five smaller concerts in other cities preceding it, the all-day concert benefiting Amnesty International was as much a television event as a consciousness raiser. And while "Conspiracy of Hope" was decidedly a musical event, it was also the most explicit of the various "Aid" concerts of the past year, suggesting a subtle shift in the relationship between pop and politics.
In a day with several notable performances, the Police and U2 clearly ruled the roost, but Peter Gabriel's "Biko," written in memory of the South African activist, was the single transcendent moment that left the audience mesmerized. South Africa, so much in the news in recent days, was a frequent point of focus yesterday, with U2 ending its set with Little Steven Van Zandt's "Sun City." There was much borrowing and communality evident throughout the concert.
Although the Police reunion was the last act on the 11-hour telethon, the night's energies rested with U2, the Irish band whose initial involvement was the base for the six-concert series. U2 was able to whip up the crowd from the moment the curtain was drawn, its spirit of commitment evident in rousing rock anthems like "In the Name of Love" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday." "How long must we sing this song?" Bono asked in the latter, adding "Tonight we can be as one." Bono later joined the Police on "Invisible Sun," one of several songs addressing the injustice of political imprisonment.
Whether the crowd's ecstatic response was to the cause or to the rock 'n' roll remains to be seen. Although most of the performers made their position known -- either by speaking to the crowd or by their choice of songs -- much of the audience seemed responsive only to their presence, not their motivation. The connections made to human rights abuses in South Africa, Central America and elsewhere in the world, including the United States, as well as Amnesty International's positions against torture and capital punishment, were clear enough, but the audience -- mostly white male teen-agers and young adults -- has traditionally been out of touch with those particular tunes.
And whether the TV and radio audience watching on TV (tuning in to MTV or over an ad hoc network) will be significantly different from the live audience remains to be seen in terms of new members and support for the human rights organization.
*There was an intriguing range in the music offered during the first half of the concert, which included the hard-hitting political commentary of Jackson Browne and Little Steven Van Zandt, the swirling Third World rhythms of the reggae band Third World and salsa star Rube'n Blades, the insistent New Orleans funk of the Neville Brothers, the raucous jazz of Miles Davis (with Carlos Santana) and the surprisingly placid folk protest of Peter, Paul & Mary (finally getting their shot after being bumped at the last minute from last July's Live Aid event).
The most politically charged moments during the afternoon concert came courtesy of Browne and Van Zandt.Concentrating on songs from his current album, Browne lashed out at interventionist politics in "Lives in the Balance," while examining the dichotomy between dissolving idealism and persistent optimism in "For America." He dedicated Van Zandt's "I Am a Patriot" to Leonard Peltier, an imprisoned leader of the American Indian Movement.
Van Zandt was even more absolute in his stance, singing about the "disappeared" in Central and South America, the Sanctuary Movement in the United States, relocation of American Indians and, with Bob Geldof, the disaster of acid rain. And though he was not there in person, Bob Dylan, the voice of an earlier generation of commitment, proved a familiar point of reference by proxy, via Peter, Paul & Mary's "Blowin' in the Wind," Baez's "The Times They Are a-Changin'," U2's "Maggie's Farm" and "I Shall Be Released," which has become Amnesty International's unofficial anthem.
Although much of the music performed was absent of political sensibility, the participation of so many artists reflected the sentiment expressed by Rube'n Blades in "Muevete (Move On)":
"From the Caribbean to Soweto in Africa/ Our song goes saluting those who defend freedom/ And use truth as a shield/ There's not a bullet that can kill truth when reason defends it." That Blades, one of the top salsa stars in the world, is also a lawyer who has been involved with human rights cases only reinforced the song's power.
MTV carried the event in its entirety, reminding us all too often that it's a novice in the business of live television. The choice of Elliott Gould, Mr. Lumpenproletariat, to host the coverage was just one of many awful MTV decisions, but the live radio coverage over the Westwood One network was almost as bad in its gushiness.
In fact, the "Conspiracy of Hope" was most effective absent the trappings of its "eventness," in little moments such as Van Zandt's bringing Bob Geldof on by saying, "This is one of my favorite days, and this is one of my favorite knights" (Geldof recently was given an honorary knighthood in England for his humanitarian efforts), or Amnesty International Director Jack Healey admitting that "sometimes it's easier to deal with rock stars than dictators." Even Yoko Ono got into the spirit: After some caterwauling choruses of "Walking on Thin Ice," she told the audience, "Okay, you can take your earmuffs off."
With most of the announced headliners, including the reunited Police and U2, lumped into the evening portion of the concert, the opening segment included a number of surprises, including little-known New Jersey rocker John Eddie, inheriting the role of kickoff band that the Hooters held at Live Aid; this time the Hooters were bona fide stars. Other late additions included Joan Armatrading, Howard Jones and Joni Mitchell, whose introspective set left the crowd restless, particularly since it came after the high-energy rock of Bryan Adams.
The public service announcements, mostly "Reds"-like testimonials shot by adman Bill Fertig, were mostly low-key and effective, though the line "You'll never forget the first prisoner you set free" left something to be desired.