Telethon's music packs emotional wallop


September 24, 2001


None of the arts can match the healing power of music, and music has rarely witnessed an evening with the extraordinary poignancy of Friday's "America: A Tribute to Heroes," the telethon broadcast live from New York, Los Angeles and London via all of the TV networks, major cable stations, and hundreds of radio outlets.

Pulled together with unprecedented speed by veteran MTV producer Joel Gallen, music impresario Jimmy Iovine, and others in the wake of Sept. 11's terrorist attacks, the musical contributions--and the show was 90 percent music, in between Hollywood stars' pleas for assistance--included a handful that rivaled Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" at Woodstock for their urgency and emotional wallop. And they may prove to have the same staying power as cultural touchstones.

The artists all performed on spartan, candle-lit stages, and they let the music and their choice of songs do their talking. Among the most powerful moments: Paul Simon, sporting a New York Fire Department cap, delivering a hymnlike reading of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and Wyclef Jean, wearing an American flag jacket, singing a heartbreaking version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," injecting the words "New York!" before the chorus, and segueing into a coda of "America the Beautiful."

Ever the daring visionary, Neil Young sat at a grand piano and poured his soul into the utopian vision of John Lennon's "Imagine," a song that the radio giant Clear Channel Communications ignorantly advised its many stations to ban in the wake of the attacks. (Memo to the corporate dunderheads: "Imagine there's no country" is not an anti-American statement, but a plea for peace across national boundaries.)

Some of the musicians played to their strengths: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers showed the dignified defiance of the American South in "I Won't Back Down"; the Dixie Chicks underscored the spiritual roots of country while Stevie Wonder did the same for R&B, and Bruce Springsteen unveiled a new song called "My City of Ruins," proving again as he did with "41 Shots" that he and the E-Street Band are never as inspired as when they draw from current events.

Others such as Alicia Keys, Dave Matthews, Sheryl Crow, Sting, and Eddie Vedder (backed by Young on pipe organ) played in a more stripped-down mode, performing with understated passion. Meanwhile, the divas embodied the best of that tradition, emoting as never before. Celine Dion interrupted her three-year retirement to present a version of "America the Beautiful" that stood out even among the many recent memorable renditions, and Mariah Carey took a break from her breakdown to belt out a strong, self-assured, and touching reading of "Hero."

To be sure, there were some missteps: Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit and Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls slaughtered Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," adding a maudlin and dopey new verse; Enrique Iglesias seemed like a Latin-pop lightweight, and Bon Jovi's lite-metal cowboy posing was just plain silly.

But the overall result was an evening in which music carried a message of peace and healing that has otherwise been sorely lacking on the airwaves, even among the most eloquent and thoughtful of commentators. To quote the moving introduction of U2's "Walk On":

"I'm sick of sorrow/Sick of pain/Sick of hearing again and again/That there's never gonna be peace on earth."