15 Years Ago: Stars Unite at ‘The Concert for New York City’
In the wake of the attacks on Sept.11, 2001, a bunch of big charity concerts and telethons were planned. At these events, celebrities and politicians showed up, but mostly musicians performed to raise money for victims and their families, while the songs provided attempted to salve a country that was badly shaken.
While America: A Tribute to Heroes was a somber affair that took place only 10 days after 9/11, the tone of The Concert for New York City was celebratory. Part of that was due to time (39 days after the Twin Towers fell), place (Madison Square Garden) and attendance (hordes of New York policemen, firefighters and other first responders). Admission – and beer – was free to those in uniform. A writer called the concert, which took place on Oct. 20, 2001, “the biggest Irish wake in history.”
Paul McCartney spearheaded the benefit show, inviting the participation of his famous friends, many of them Brits who lived in New York (at least part of the time): Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, the Who, Eric Clapton and Elton John. But there were American artists, too: Billy Joel, Bon Jovi, James Taylor, John Mellencamp, Buddy Guy, Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child and the Backstreet Boys.
What The Concert for New York City didn’t contain was a wealth of contemporary rock acts. The Strokes had released a song mocking “NYC Cops” earlier that year, the White Stripes hadn’t broken through at this point and McCartney wasn’t yet buddy-buddy with Dave Grohl. It might be just as well, because it was a night ill-suited to nuance or some of the more conflicted emotions prevalent in alt. rock. This was a concert at which Richard Gere was booed for being a pacifist and a police officer famously announced from the stage that Osama Bin Laden could kiss his “royal Irish ass.”
It was an event for bold strokes, including filmed tributes to New York (by natives Spike Lee, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, among others) and comedy bits (performed by Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon and Adam Sandler as “Operaman”). There was a sprinkling of contemporary pop along with lots of classic rock anthems.
Even some of the artists who hadn’t been around for decades reached back to perform classic covers. Melissa Etheridge pulled out Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” the Goo Goo Dolls ran through Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and Kid Rock dueted with Mellencamp on “Pink Houses.”
David Bowie played a cover song, too, although his performance was a little different. Bowie, who seems to belong to every generation, resurrected the old Simon & Garfunkel chestnut, “America,” to open the epic show. In contrast to much of the cathartic bombast that was to follow, the Thin White Duke sat cross-legged on stage before an Omnichord, which pumped out a spare, carousel-like backing. His voice was gentle but strong, imbuing the lyrics with the sense of wonder and affection that Bowie must have felt for his adopted homeland.
He then stood up and greeted the crowd: “Hi friend. Hi fellow New Yorkers. I’d particularly like to say hello to the folks from my local ladder. You know where you are. I must say it’s an absolute privilege to play for you tonight.” Bowie and his band then launched into “Heroes.” Back in 1977, the single had been released with quotation marks, but there was nothing ironic about the song’s inclusion here.
The Concert for New York City lasted for more than five hours, all of which were broadcast live on VH1. Between tickets, auctions and CD/DVD sales, the event raised more than $35 million for New York’s Robin Hood Foundation, which coordinated disaster relief.
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