Thirty years ago last week, a touchstone event of my adolesence occurred, one of those happenings where pretty much everyone my age or thereabouts can tell you where they were and what they were doing when it happened. Relatively speaking, there wasn’t a lot of coverage of the anniversary… It didn’t command the front page of CNN.com or anything, but I did see a few blog posts about it my music and pop culture chroniclers. At the time, however, Live Aid dominated the summer of 1985 as much as any other story.
As a teenager, I was pretty locked into my twin all-consuming interests of sports and comic books, and didn’t really pay too much attention to the rest of the world. I’d vaguely heard about the “Do They Know It’s Christmas” recording that’d been made to benefit African famine victims, and maybe I’d heard the song once or twice, but it didn’t make much of an impression on me, and neither did the cause. I wasn’t a huge radio listener, and the few cassettes I played on my single-speaker boom box tended toward the classic rock of Bob Seger, Billy Joel and the Eagles. Nor was I a big consumer of MTV at that point. My family didn’t have cable, so I only saw the hottest cultural craze of the moment was when I visited friends who did. It was a curiosity to me, like messages from another planet.
My hometown of Phoenix did have a UHF video channel, Channel 61, which showed videos smothered in the snow and static of a weak signal. The first video I remember seeing was Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” I’d never seen anything like Boy George, and I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to again. Few of the videos the channel aired were by the top artists of the day, though some introduced me to niche artists I’d become a fan of later, such as Graham Parker.
I think I started tuning in to the music community’s movement to help Africa’s famine victims with the release of “We Are the World” in the spring of 1985. I wasn’t very interested in the song itself as I was with the historical significance of the artists coming together – even if I didn’t really know much about many of them. Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson in the same room? Crazy! Lionel Richie and Bruce Springsteen sharing the same microphone? Unbelievable! Cyndi Lauper and Kenny Rogers in the same sentence? Bizarre! I did my part and bought the cassette of the all-star song, but musically, I was more interested in the Huey Lewis and the News single on the flip side.
As “We Are the World” took over the charts and the air waves, Live Aid coalesced, and everyone started to get excited about the lineup as the artists were confirmed. Anticipation started to build. Would Phil Collins really be able to perform in England and then catch a Concord flight to Philadelphia that would allow him to participate in the concert from the American side as well? Were Dire Straits and Sting, two of the acts of the era, really going to share the same stage? Could Mick Jagger and Tina Turner duet without blowing up televisions across the world? And who the hell was this Udo Lindenberg who’d be performing in London between Crosby, Stills and Nash and Judas Priest (Answer: A German drummer – I had to look him up just now)?
In the summer of 1985, I took my sheltered self to Evanston, Illinois for the National High School Institute at Northwestern University. Several dozen high school juniors from around the country (“Cherubs,” in NHSI parlance), joined me for six weeks of intensive instruction in the art of journalism (There were other programs at the Institute at the same time, focusing on theater, engineering, and other disciplines). Like any gathering of teenagers, there were nerds, jocks, cool kids, and party animals. We all found our smaller groups to hang out with, but everyone got along, as we were all sharing in the same NHSI experience. It was great exposure to kids my own age of different backgrounds from all over America, and it opened up my world a good deal.
As July 13th, and the Live Aid concert, approached, I geared myself up, which mostly amounted to making sure I had extra batteries for my Walkman. I assumed that, on the day, most of my classmates would be doing what I’d be doing: planting myself in front of a television or listening to the radio for as much of the event as possible. But, perhaps for no other reason than teenagers generally have short attention spans, interest in Live Aid seemed pretty tepid. My peers came and went during the day, regarding the concert with light curiosity. I didn’t have to worry about anyone stealing my chair. I watched as much of the concert as my waking hours allowed me, starting in the lounge in our dorm, then wandering around campus while listening to the radio, watching more of the show in the student union, then coming back to the dorm for the finale. The lineup wasn’t the most diverse, shall we say. There were few black artists, particularly on the American side. Tina Turner and Run-DMC participated, but Prince, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson did not. Country music wasn’t really represented, and but there were nods to Blues (BB King) and heavy metal (Black Sabbath and a shockingly bad Led Zeppelin reunion).
Not that I cared who was there and who wasn’t. Most of the acts were new to me, in that I was hearing or seeing them for the first time, or I was having a chance to experience their music for the first time in a way that wasn’t an occasional radio spot. I can remember watching Spandau Ballet and finding them as unlikable as their music (I’ve since revised my opinion – slightly). I remember Elvis Costello (who to that point I thought was a weirdo) singing “All You Need Is Love,” and I remember becoming a devoted fan after the first verse. I remember newly-solo Sting performing with just his bass and Branford Marsalis on the saxophone, holding me transfixed through “Message In a Bottle,” while it seemed the crowd only wanted to see Phil Collins (he came on two artists later, after Rick Springfield). I vividly remember U2’s set, and their epic performance of “Bad,” during which Bono pulled a young woman from the crowd to dance with him. I’d never seen a band make a performance so personal and emotional. I hadn’t been to many concerts in my life, and I didn’t know they could be more than just an evening in a building singing along to blaringly loud versions of favorite radio songs. At Live Aid, U2 showed me there were possibilities in live performance I didn’t know existed. Queen confirmed that for me shortly thereafter. I’d always considered them kind of transgressive, but it was impossible to resist Freddy Mercury’s charisma and ability to command an audience. Their power blew me away, and their performance was the highlight of the concert, as far as I was concerned.
But there were still hours to go. I remember thinking lead singer Jim Kerr of Simple Minds was extremely odd in his mannerisms on stage, but that the band as a whole was crazy good musically. I remember Madonna joking away her scandalous recent appearance in adult magazines. I remember Phil Collins making it to Philadelphia safely (thank God) for his second performance. I remember Jagger and Turner being not exactly as scandalous as they were later credited with being. And I remember being happily exhausted when the concert finally ended… and I had a list of artists whose music I was determined to explore further.
A week or so later, I went to the mailbox at the dorm and found something unexpected: An issue of Rolling Stone addressed to the student that had occupied my room during the previous school year. He’d evidently not canceled or forwarded it. On the cover were photos of some of the biggest Live Aid names, and the headline, “The Day the World Rocked.” Inside were pages of coverage of the event, much of it behind the scenes, the logistics of how it all worked, and how the performers interacted. I read it six times before the end of the summer program, and I’ve read it countless times since. I think it spurred in me an interest for all things “behind the scenes,” whether about sports, films, music or historical events. When I returned home, I subscribed to the magazine immediately, and I haven’t missed an issue since. Obviously, Rolling Stone is (now) about as mainstream as it gets, so it’s not like I was discovering a secret trove of underground knowledge. But it broadened my horizons nonetheless, expanding me creatively, culturally, socially and politically. And all because, during a formative summer, there was Live Aid.
It gave me the world.