The easiest thing would be to dismiss today's Amnesty International megaconcert at New Jersey's Meadowlands Sports Complex as this year's Live Aid.
After all, it has some of the same central characters (U2; Sting, reuniting with the Police; Bryan Adams; producer Bill Graham), some of the same media process (full ca ble coverage on MTV; partial broadcast on WFTY, Channel 50, from 8 to 11 p.m.; radio syndication on WWDC-FM), celebrity endorsements, an 800 number for pledges and a shared purpose -- raising consciousness, in this case, about human rights.
And given possible cynicism about compassion fatigue and charity burnout, the idea of one more "conspiracy of hope" emanating Cfrom the rock 'n' roll community could further diminish its impact.
"That's why we didn't make this a fundraiser," says Jack Healey, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "We're going to make money, and we're pleased about that. But we went after awareness in a very serious way. We've got to get across what's happening in the world, what human rights is about, what Amnesty can do."
If money and supplies are effective instruments in battling hunger in Africa, public awareness is the key to stopping human rights abuses. That's what today's concert, the cap of a six-city "rock and roll caravan for human rights," is all about.
"If the politicians are not brave enough to take on these issues, then somebody must," says Bono, the lead singer for the Irish band U2. "And we can afford to.
"We are generously rewarded for the work we do, and unlike politicians, we don't need the vote every four years. We've already got the vote. Politicians by their very nature cannot take on the more abstract issues, things like world hunger or human rights in another part of the world, because it doesn't get them the vote in their home town.
"This is where we come in."
In fact, the 11-hour concert is the culmination of a decade-long effort to heighten the profile, particularly in the United States, of Amnesty International, the international human rights organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with half a million members in 160 countries.
Back in 1976, then about to celebrate its 15th anniversary in England, Amnesty International was on the verge of bankruptcy. Looking to raise its profile and some funds, organization officials approached comedian John Cleese and asked him to organize a London benefit, which he did with his fellow Monty Pythons and members of Beyond the Fringe. "A Poke in the Eye With a Sharp Stick" evolved into an album and a television special, raised some $40,000 for Amnesty International and started not only a slew of spinoffs but a process that reaches its zenith with today's concert.
"Amnesty International was a terribly polite, middle-class, liberal organization," recalls Martin Lewis, a London record company publicist who was called in to help with the first benefit and ended up producing the concerts, records, television specials and movies that have followed. "There was a gentility, almost a self-congratulatory air about it, as if people wrote their letter and then thought they'd done their thing."
The first benefits were comedy, but by 1979 music had become a major focus, with the Who's Pete Townshend making his first solo appearance at "The Secret Policeman's Ball." Two years later, at "The Secret Policeman's Other Ball," the solo format attracted some of England's emerging rock stars -- Sting, Phil Collins and a young Irishman named Bob Geldof.
"By then, the biggest change was that Amnesty International was preceded by a definite article rather than an indefinite one," says Lewis. "People stopped saying 'Amnesty International, a human rights organization' and started saying 'Amnesty International, the human rights organization.'"
The concerts and what followed them not only tripled membership in England and raised several million dollars -- "not in league with world telethons, but pretty good," says Lewis -- but broadened its base, making it less a middle-class, middle-age preoccupation.
A similar process is sought with today's concert as rock performers, previously content to ask for financial response from their fans, are now recruiting their energies.
"There is an overpowering sense of impotence in the generation I belong to," Bono says. "People say Americans don't have a great record for social commitment these days. In the '60s you did, though a certain amount of it was diluted by drugs and the psychedelics. But in the generation that I'm a part of, there is numbness, a sense of impotence -- 'what can I do?'
"But there's an awful lot Amnesty International can do, so we all do it through them."
"In the '60s there was an idealism, but it wasn't anchored or very practical," says Peter Gabriel, whose song about the South African martyr Steve Biko has been a show stopper on the caravan's route. "In the '80s it's very different, particularly after Live Aid, when suddenly Bob Geldof showed that an individual could motivate large numbers of individuals who could, by sheer weight of numbers, bypass the huge inadequacies of governments and actually make a difference . . .
"Even if only one person in 10 is moved, that's still 10 percent that weren't involved at the beginning. A certain amount of burnout and switch-off is inevitable, but if there is a hard, active core left behind that didn't exist before, then it will have achieved a great deal."
*To get across the idea that concern for human rights transcends national and ideological boundaries, and to reach a new, young, American constituency, Amnesty International discovered what Madison Avenue and philanthropic groups have known for a while -- that rock musicians are perhaps the most effective social pitchmen today. "For all the respect I have for the Robert Redfords, the Alan Aldas, the Elizabeth Taylors, they can't walk on the stage at Yankee Stadium and raise a million dollars the way the rock 'n' rollers can," says Bill Graham.
But it's not the money that's the focus of today's concert, though the rock caravan's eventual gross from ticket sales, merchandising and other sources, estimated at between $3 million and $5 million, is close to Amnesty International's annual budget of $6 million.
What Amnesty International wants is letter writers.
"The goal is 25,000 new signees out of a country that holds 250 million," says Graham, explaining that Amnesty International is built on the persistence of "freedom writers" who send letters to government officials inquiring about what the organization calls "prisoners of conscience" -- people detained for the nonviolent expression of their beliefs, religion, color, sex, language or ethnic origin.
In fact, the caravan has "adopted" six prisoners, from Guatemala, the Soviet Union, Syria, Vietnam, South Korea and South Africa. Their pictures are displayed on stage, and concert-goers are encouraged to get involved in their cases with a bit of clever sloganeering: "Write. Get One Free."
"Amnesty International is not trying to prove that they can do something -- they have done something for 25 years," says Graham, who fled with his family from Poland in 1941. "One thing that we all wish to preserve is the right to stand on the street corner and speak our minds. That's basically what Amnesty International is all about -- your right to speak out."
"In a funny way, we're protecting ourselves," says Bono, "in that these people face the death squads for the rights we as songwriters take for granted. They're imprisoned for the very things that we do every day, and indeed get paid for. They are often poets or songwriters, not bank robbers or terrorists. They purely are people who have a point of view." (Amnesty won't sponsor any prisoner who uses or advocates the use of violence.)
"And as Sting has said, there's an element of fun to this, making some fascist dictator your pen pal," Bono adds. "The guys that run these dodgy governments all over the world that are suppressing human rights, they don't know who Bono is, or who Sting is -- when we write in a post card we're just the same as anybody else out there. That's why it's very interesting as an organization. And they are successful, getting a thousand prisoners or more out every year."
Among the most recent is Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian pop musician whose release last month was effected in part by pressure from Amnesty International. Fela will be a part of today's concert.
"It's good for those of us who come from free countries," Bono says, "to focus on the unfree."
In the last six months, he notes, there had been the suggestion that "rock 'n' roll can go back to sleep, to being as redundant as it was in the '70s. And there are those within the music industry who would really prefer it that way, so they can get back to turning us into tins of beans and making their perfume commercials to sell the music.
"But I like the idea that just at that period in time when people are saying that's over, now we can just get back to selling the product -- just at the moment when they were about to dam the stream, it's broken its banks again. And that's good. I think it would be wrong for music to become politicized and to become all preaching and soapbox . . . we don't need that, either. It's just that I would like to see this a part and parcel of rock 'n' roll music as much as the rebellion . . .
"The politics of love is the only politics we preach," Bono says. "We're not left, we're not right, we're not even middle of the road . . . we're all over the road. We're just musicians making music, but we are not deaf dumb and blind to what's going on around us."
If the caravan for human rights has brought some sudden focus to Amnesty International, it hasn't been easy. It was U2 that started the ball rolling by offering Amnesty International two weeks of "unconditional commitment." Soon after, Sting joined up. Although there are some major American acts involved -- Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, Joan Baez -- the absence of corollaries to Sting and Bono is apparent. Today's concert involves a broad cultural spectrum -- Rube'n Blades, Miles Davis, Third World -- but it won't be beamed worldwide, because some acts refused to be "overexposed." For similar reasons, a documentary was scrapped.
"Maybe this will kindle soul-searching by American musicians as to why it takes these limeys and Paddies to come around and teach us about human rights," says Martin Lewis. "Maybe we ought to get involved. I'd like to think that some Americans will pick up from what the British have been doing and organize some more shows. But they don't all have to be mega-events -- they can be on a smaller scale, or taking one or more concerts a year and donating the proceeds to Amnesty International. If 50 top artists did that over a year, that would make a great impact."
In fact, it's already being done -- by the Scottish band Simple Minds, who are not only donating a number of concerts but putting literature on every seat at their shows, explaining Amnesty International's work and the band's support of it. The group has also adopted two prisoners (in Indonesia and Ethiopia), and provide addressed post cards aimed at their release, an example of what Jack Healey calls making the connection between "compassion and effective action."
"The burning, key issue is, will the MTV generation's support be skin-deep?" asks Lewis. "Will it just be the fashionable thing for the moment, will it be this year's Live Aid, or can it be translated into something more substantial that demands continued commitment rather than donations?"
As to the potential impact of the Amnesty rock caravan, Bono needs only to look in the mirror. "U2 are an Amnesty International success story," he says. "We didn't know what the hell Amnesty was about until we went to see 'The Secret Policeman's Ball.' We went to see it because we were fans of Monty Python, and when John Cleese introduced 'String,' we laughed and there was good music made.
"And that made me curious about Amnesty International. They're not their own greatest publicist, and that's why they need film people and rock 'n' roll people -- this makes people think, 'if all these people are aware of them, then why aren't we aware of them?' And that's exactly what it was for me."
And for some, like Peter Gabriel, it becomes personal.
"As we meet some of the political prisoners who have been inside prison and tortured for many months, and you have their hand in your hand and you see tears in their eyes," he says, "suddenly the thing seems to have a whole lot more purpose."