Last night was the night of the big “Concert for Sandy Relief” benefit at Madison Square Garden, which was broadcast live at 4:30 p.m. (Pacific time; it actually started on site at 7:30) on Michael Bloomberg’s network and one other, and then aired on a three-hour tape delay on about 35-plus cable channels (I watched on what’s left of American Movie Classics), with some blips that were apparently intended to remove obscenities but often fell later than the four-letter words they were trying to silence: I clearly heard Roger Daltrey sing “Who the fuck are you?” in the Who’s opening song, “Who Are You?” and Pete Townshend, doing a pun on the “have a tea” line in the last song the Who performed, “Have a fucking beer, really.” The concert opened with Bruce Springsteen — a mistake, since he’s always been virtually unfollowable; while it seemed odd to see him working with an entire horn section (a measure of how much the loss of his great sax player, Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, meant to him — Clemons’ son was featured but it seemed as if the music needed a whole horn section to bolster it when once Clemons, Sr. had been enough) and it was even odder than he didn’t do “We Take Care of Our Own,” a song that could have been written for Hurricane Sandy (especially with its Katrina references — “From the shotgun shack to the Superdome”), or his beautiful post-9/11 song “The Rising,” the four songs he did perform (“Land of Hope and Dreams,” “Wrecking Ball,” “My City of Ruins” and “Born to Run”) were properly inspirational and powerful despite the rather lame presence of Jon Bon Jovi, of all people, as a duet partner on “Born to Run.” After Springsteen one had the impression that the rest of the evening was going to be left to mere mortals, though the next person up was Roger Waters, ex-Pink Floyd and the principal songwriter during their glory years, the years of The Dark Side of the Moon (an album I’m rather ashamed to say I’ve never actually heard straight through, start to finish!) and The Wall (which I have heard straight through, though I’ve never been that impressed with it aside from the two singles, “Another Brick in the Wall” and “Comfortably Numb”). Waters brought on Eddie Vedder as a guest artist but did almost nothing with him — Vedder literally just got to sing a note here and there — and he did perform “Another Brick in the Wall” and “Comfortably Numb,” much to my amusement: I remember that in the last big all-star benefit concert, Net Aid from 2005, Pink Floyd reunited for the occasion but guitarist David Gilmour vetoed performing “Another Brick in the Wall” on the ground that an event meant to build awareness of world hunger was not the place to be performing a song whose most famous line is, “We don’t need no education.” So, without Gilmour to put up with, Waters got both his big songs from The Wall into this program — and he also performed “Money” from Dark Side, an odd selection indeed to include in a program designed as a fundraiser for a worthy cause.
The whole event was interspersed with interviews and speeches from various celebrities, some of them trying to be funny, most of them failing (though a few who tried and succeeded included the reliable Billy Crystal, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert), and one parody song, a weird revision of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” by Adam Sandler and Late Night with David Letterman musical director Paul Shaffer. (After that was over I joked, “The call center just got a call from the Canadian consulate demanding their song back.”) Then Bon Jovi came out for a set of four songs, including a hit of theirs called “It’s My Life” whose “borrowing” of the title from the Eric Burdon and the Animals’ hit only underscored its inferiority. The other three songs Bon Jovi did were “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?” and “Hold On to What You Got,” and though Jon Bon Jovi himself is a surprisingly well-preserved and not bad-looking man his music still sucks and the set came to life only when Bruce Springsteen came out, returning Bon Jovi’s appearance (I can’t really call it a “favor” since he added nothing to the song) on “Born to Run,” and sang a duet part on “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?” that added energy and power. After that Eric Clapton came out for three songs, two of them classic blues covers — Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues” (I still love the story of Robert Johnson’s grandson, who’s still alive, lives in the Mississippi Delta region his granddad almost never left — the farthest Robert Johnson ever got from the Delta was San Antonio and Dallas, Texas, where he made his records, which explains the geographical ignorance that led him to put Chicago in California — and tells blues tourists, “I’ll tell you anything you want to know about him; just don’t ask me about the crossroads!”) — plus an electric number called “Got to Get Better in a Little While” that was appealing; no one listening to the Clapton of today would dream that people in the late 1960’s were seriously debating whether Clapton or Jimi Hendrix was the greater guitarist (but then, as I’ve noted before, Hendrix “won” that competition — quotes definitely intended — by dying young and thereby putting himself beyond criticism), but he’s still got quite a few of his chops left and his voice is as it’s always been, not great but serviceable and with a deep feeling for the blues.
After Clapton’s three songs the Rolling Stones — or what’s left of them (basically Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and drummer Charlie Watts of the original lineup, plus second guitarist Ron Wood, who was made a full member of the band even though none of the bassists who’ve replaced founder Bill Wyman, who retired, have been anything more than salaried hired hands) — came out but just did two numbers, “You Got Me Rockin’” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” (Ironically, a few days before Charles and I had been joking about the advanced ages of the Stones; I’d recalled the jibe from the 1980’s that it wouldn’t be as much fun when Jagger started coming out with a walker, and Charles joked, “I’m Doddering Jack Flash, I’ve got gas, gas, gas.”) Jagger’s voice has actually held up quite well but his face looks like a relief map of the Grand Canyon and he seems to have been one of those people — like Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Paul McCartney — who held on to his boyish good looks for decades but then lost them all at once, while Keith Richards really does look like a real-life vampire and would be perfect casting for a remake of the Murnau Nosferatu, though his skills as a musician seem to have made at least a partial recovery (he was in much better form last night than he was during the 1981 tour, when I saw them and he was so far out of it that on the older songs the other Stones had to noodle for almost a minute at the beginning of each number while Keith found his way, while on the newer ones Ron Wood was playing the leads). After the Stones did their two songs — apparently they’d already given a concert in Brooklyn and are scheduled for a big appearance in Manhattan in a few days, so they were probably keeping themselves in reserve for the paying gigs — Alicia Keys came out for two predictably boring numbers (one of which seemed to have been composed on the spot as an excuse to call out to the audience to light up their cell phones and hold them to the air — remember when performers used to ask the audience to hold up cigarette lighters, back when you were still allowed to smoke at concerts?), and then The Who came out.
I hadn’t expected much from The Who — or at least the half of them that are left, lead guitarist and principal songwriter Pete Townshend (who now looks like a middle-aged British banker) and singer (and, at least last night, second guitarist) Roger Daltrey, whose looks have held up much better than Jagger’s but whose voice has shown more audible decline — but they performed the most exalting music of the night, mixing well-known hits (“Pinball Wizard,” “Baba O’Riley” and “Who Are You?”) with obscurities (“One of Us” and two songs from Quadrophenia, “Bad Boy” and “Love, Reign O’er Me”). I can still remember picking up a used copy of Quadrophenia in the late 1970’s, listening to it with my then-girlfriend Cat, and us both coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t so much that all the songs on Quadrophenia sounded the same as that the entire album sounded like one 80-minute long song. I had joked during their opening last night, “Who Are You?” — the title song from their last album with their original drummer, Keith Moon — that the Who had really died when Moon did, and on the second song, “Bell Boy,” Townshend and Daltrey seemed to have agreed with me because they incorporated film clips of Moon doing his original vocal on part of the song — but despite Daltrey’s voice having got lower, deeper and less flexible than it was when these songs were originally recorded (and despite the pseudo-psychedelic lighting effects that afflicted, and distracted from, a lot of the performances), the Who delivered some of the most exalting music we heard all night, with Townshend still doing his trademark “windmill” guitar strokes and the music holding up vividly and beautifully. (I’ve commented that in virtually every decade since the 1960’s there’s been one rock band fans of classical music have had permission to like: in the 1960’s it was the Beatles, in the 1970’s the Who, in the 1980’s U2, in the 1990’s R.E.M. and in the 2000’s Radiohead.)
Alas, after the Who’s exalting set the evening took a major nosedive with Kanye West, the utterly untalented rapper whose garbage is typical of the breed — all about slapping his “bitches” and displaying his affluence. Just why this awful performer has acquired a critical following is utterly beyond me — I once wrote a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times (which they didn’t publish, alas) saying that their then-pop music critic, Robert Hilburn, seemed so enthralled with West that any day now I expected him to write a column saying that he had personally witnessed Kanye West walk on water. I have really no idea what he performed last night since he ran all his songs together and mostly barked out his lyrics — other rappers have incorporated singing (their own as well as other live people’s) and instruments into their acts, but West appeared to have a keyboard player doing fills but otherwise was strictly an old-school rapper backed only by a D.J. with two turntables and no microphone. His set lasted almost 40 minutes and was utterly infuriating — I’ll admit that I have almost no use whatsoever for rap, especially as a main course (and I’ve long been amused that this seems to be the only genre of music that actually has two names, depending on whether or not you like it: it’s “hip-hop” if you like it and “rap” if you don’t), and though I’ve heard dim legends about politically and socially progressive rappers, I can’t say I’ve heard any (aside from local boy Alfred Howard, who not surprisingly didn’t stay in rap long; his current musical acts involve actual singing of genuinely melodic songs): too much of rap celebrates raping women, beating up Queers, committing street crimes (including murder) and buying flashy cars and clothes and the grotesquely tasteless jewelry known as “bling.” West’s “music” was followed by something even more repulsive, but blessedly shorter: a “comedy” sketch featuring a heavy-set character called “Drunk Uncle” who apparently is part of the current dramatis personae of Saturday Night Live. (It’s time to give that appalling show a blessedly deserving burial: as I used to joke, “Nostalgia means being able to remember when Saturday Night Live was still funny and Michael Jackson was still Black.”) Afterwards Billy Joel came on and did some of his best-known songs, including at least two from his album The Stranger — “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Only the Good Die Young” — as well as “New York State of Mind” (which he introduced, movingly, with a bit of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), “In the Middle of the Night,” “You May Be Right (I May Be Crazy)” from Glass Houses and his set-opener, a song apparently called “Lights Out on Broadway” that seemed so appropriate for a post-Sandy benefit that I wondered if Joel had written it especially for the occasion.
Charles and I crashed at this point but I was recording the show and caught up with the rest of it this morning — a three-song acoustic set from Chris Martin of Coldplay (the highlight of which was the guest appearance of Michael Stipe from R.E.M. on a duet on the R.E.M. hit “Losing My Religion”) and an eight-song set from Paul McCartney, who boasted that he was performing with Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear — the surviving members of Nirvana. Of all the people who might have conceivably fronted a Nirvana reunion and taken Kurt Cobain’s place, Paul McCartney was about the last one I would have imagined (especially given Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love’s, attitude that no one over 30 could understand him), but the mix worked surprisingly well. McCartney also performed “Valentine’s Day,” a song to his new (third) wife Debbie, but mostly he showcased Beatles’ songs (“Helter Skelter” — I joked, “U2 stole this song from Charles Manson, who stole it from me; I’m stealing it back!” — “Blackbird,” which he said he’d intended as a song to support the 1960’s African-American civil-rights movement; and “I’ve Got a Feeling,” in which Grohl played and sang John Lennon’s part; he doesn’t sound a bit like Lennon but it was moving nonetheless) and post-Beatles songs (“1985” from Band on the Run and his Bond theme, “Live and Let Die”), though after McCartney’s appearance (not anywhere nearly as explosive as Springsteen’s or the Who’s, but let’s face it, the man is a living legend, he was one of the two principal songwriters for the most important rock band of all time, and he still performs this material as if he cares about it) the show, instead of going for a big sing-along finale featuring all the cast members, ended quietly with Alicia Keys returning for a soft ode to the city where it was taking place, “New York.”
The show lasted nearly six hours (the most recent big all-star benefits, the one after 9/11 and the one after Katrina, ran 2 ¼ to three hours) and, when one of the celebrity speakers who got sandwiched in between the musical acts mentioned the devastation in Connecticut, Charles noted that that was the first clue we’d had all night that Sandy wreaked destruction and havoc in places other than New York and New Jersey. (“Jamaica and Cuba — right out! Even Washington, D.C. — never heard of it!” Charles joked.) The show had the usual hucksterism for an official cause celeb (to use Helen Fielding’s marvelous pun) and it stuck in some of the actual Sandy rescue workers and first responders, including a group of firefighters called the “Greybeards” even though only two of them actually had beards, and neither were grey, though they were given the “Next!” treatment and there were only hints of film clips showing just how dangerous the work they were doing was and how much they had helped. After 9/11 I remember thinking that one of the things it proved was that the world could get by a lot better without stockbrokers than it could without firefighters, and the disasters since then — Sandy, Katrina, the Fukushima tsunami and others — have only reinforced that point. The Sandy relief concert was a lumbering affair, and there was the usual obeisance to the corporate sponsors — Chase Bank, Samsung, General Electric, State Farm Insurance and other typically rotten modern corporations — thanking them for their patronage (which seemed to have meant that they covered the overhead so all the money actually donated during the night could go to the Robin Hood Relief Fund, which doesn’t do relief work itself but passes through money to other organizations that actually do the work) — but it was a welcome event, I hope it did well and raised a lot of money to help Sandy victims and cover rebuilding costs (though, let’s face it, the rebuilding costs are likely to be so great only government will be able to cover them) and the music was mostly fun and some of it (Springsteen, the Who and Michael Stipe’s one-song surprise appearance in particular) was quite moving.