Live Aid: 31 Years Later, The Gift That Keeps On Giving

It happened 31 years ago today. Actually, several “its” happened and all were of immeasurable import:

  • A conscious awakening to the reality of the Ethiopian famine
  • The massive staging of a simultaneous music event on two continents (Wembley Stadium in London & JFK Stadium in Philadelphia)
  • A shit ton of legends and legends-to-be played for FREE
  • I turned 16 and music became my best friend

Freddie Mercury – Live Aid (AP Photo/Mark Allan)

Back in the day when basic cable opened us up to televangelists, constant news, sports, and late night semi-soft porn, there was MTV in the mix doing it’s weird music programming thing and, for that, I was appreciative. From the Average White, Band, Chic and Air Supply; Kenny Rogers, Prince and Donna Summer; Nancy Wilson, Crystal Gale and the Village People, I was into sound and those who made it and here was this easily accessible, concentrated space for music-ish shows and videos.

And then came Live Aid: Bob Geldof’s herculean undertaking to prove that music could change lives and change the world.

He succeeded. In the many obvious ways such as the millions raised for relief and the subsequent efforts to serve humanity, but also in a not-so-obvious one. So hey, Bob: If I’ve never offered an actual “thank you,” here you go.

July 13, 1985. Summer in Brooklyn, NY, school’s out and it was my birthday. As the youngest of three and the only girl-child, my perspective on a “good time” was different. I’m a Cancer: a notorious homebody with a world that largely existed in my imagination. As a female and the youngest child being raised by a single mom in Brooklyn (aka “Crooklyn”), life was somewhat on lockdown. It was understandable: my growing up years were marked by the real world horrors of the Son of Sam/.44 Caliber Killer, Etan Patz, Ted Bundy and the Atlanta Child Murders.

Unlike most freshly minted 16 year olds (especially the female variety), I had no qualms with such a seemingly momentous occasion being marked by doing very little at all, introvert that I am. No, I don’t hate birthdays: I’m just indifferent to them…unless they’re someone else’s. Your day of life: awesome. Mine: meh.

Planted on the living room floor in our apartment with the television on was a fine way as any to spend the day, particularly because it would be nothing but wall to wall music from out of this world artists that I’d probably never see live. Going to shows wasn’t a thing/an option for me. But this would stoke my love for Billy Ocean, Men At Work and Queen. David Bowie: fine as fuck. And you’ve gotta love Cyndi Lauper and that cheeky upstart, Madonna, but legendary was also on the bill like Elton John and the Beach Boys, with interviews and commentary spliced in.

Bono – Live Aid

I don’t remember every artist that performed, every nuance of the each performance or aspect of the broadcast (for some reason I remember Marilyn McCoo talking), but the day would become a watershed moment: The day marked my heart’s shift from loving music to being in love with music.

Before some 74,000 people on the ground at Wembley Stadium plus 1.4 billion watching around the world, Queen give what is arguably the greatest live performance in history. Rock had never looked so universal, so grand, so majestic….to me. So powerful, yet so graceful and profound…to me. Damn you, Freddie Mercury, and your ungodly vocal range and glorious peacock strut. No one could shove their fist in the air quite like you did during “Radio Ga Ga.”

Before some 74,000 people on the ground at Wembley Stadium plus 1.4 billion watching around the world, a leather pants clad, expertly and feathery mulleted Bono left the biggest stage of his band’s career to wander into the audience and slow dance with a stranger during a song about heroin addiction called “Bad” while the band behind him improvised their asses off. It was the instant that U2 became U2 and practically the whole world saw it.

It was also the moment I was able to get past how Bono’s voice genuinely annoyed me because it always sounded so goddamned yelpy like a wounded puppy on fire. But now I could hear past that: I could hear who U2 were (having no inkling who they would become) and that was everything. It must’ve been because I wound a paying member of their fan club, proudly calling myself a “Zootopian”, the album that “Bad” is on – The Unforgettable Fire – is still my favorite U2 album and despite any albums of theirs over the years that may have left me rolling my eyes in frustration, they are – and always will be – the band of my heart. As is Queen.

What role music plays in my life today is quite obvious, but the “why”? Perhaps, not so much. If you subscribe to the wisdom of Nietzsche’s, “Without music, life would be a mistake,” then we’re probably cut from some very similar cloth, as I couldn’t imagine an existence without it. Lyrics and guitar chords and vocal harmonies and drum patterns and piano notes: it’s the pictures they create behind our eyes and how they make blood rush to the surface of our skin and those feeling were full on as I watched Live Aid. As for those of you who make this stuff, you are constant givers of what – for me – has become a need on a soul level. Because, yes, music is what our complicated, loving, messy, beautiful, painful and insane feelings sound like. I’m a professional music fan and use what minimal power I have to shine a light on you music makers because, as an introverted, often alone, sheltered only girl-child, music has always been that friend in the room, my comfort. And it still is today because I’m still that that introverted girl watching the magic of Live Aid play out in front of her eyes at 16 . So the goal is to be as good a friend to music as it’s been to me.

So again, thank you Sir Bob Geldof: I really should address you properly. In addition to serving up an obscene amount of talent to digest in one day, Live Aid illuminated and communicated – very specifically to me – the great that music could do on, both, an intimate and a global scale. After having flipped through your Rolodex of close, personal and quite extraordinary friends, there you were with U2, Queen, The Cars, Tina Turner, Sting, Phil Collins, Mick Jagger and so many more changing and saving many lives of an entire country…

…and that of a girl on her living room floor in Brooklyn.