January 1st, 2002

Tribute To Heroes

The Tribute To Heroes benefit concert, thrown together in the wake of the September 11 tragedy, was certainly unique in its eeriness. The superstars on parade felt momentarily like men and women in the grip of the same mortal peril as the rest of us, staring up nervously and reflexively at every plane passing overhead, their very bones rattled by a sense of vulnerability they’d never experienced before. The concert felt like it was taking place in a building whose roof had blown off, much as America’s had – a chilly draft of uncertainty ran through the air. This sense of fazedness was most evident in an enfeebled and bumbling version, featured here, of “America The Beautiful”, led by Willie Nelson and the assembled celebs – the sound of a nation quietly shitting itself.

At the time, you could forgive the aesthetic aberrations of A Tribute To Heroes, understand the nation wanting to go into a huddle, allow for the shakiness of some of the performances. In places it was genuinely touching. Bruce Springsteen’s version of “My City Of Ruins” is the best thing on this collection, even if his Grapes Of Wrath-style paean to recession-wracked Ashbury NJ was awkwardly commandeered for the grim occasion. Ditto Limp Bizkit/John Rzeznick’s hoarse co-option of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, with Syd Barrett replaced by the WTC victims. And it’s always good to hear Stevie Wonder perform material from his golden period, although “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” is clumsily didactic and over-lacquered here with the gospel tones of Take 6. U2 manage not to offend with the subdued and sighing “Walk-On.” And Billy Joel’s little slice of Broadway pastiche provides a welcome morsel of nostalgia to New Yorkers who, months on, are still under the pall of September 11, long after most of us have just about returned to “normal”. Fine then, this, for its moment.

However, a few months on, the emotional totalitarianism grates somewhat, especially in the context of the present mood of post-Taliban triumphalism, with, at the time of writing, George Bush peering around the world’s poorest nations effectively asking if anyone else wants some. That bellicose note is implied in the bar-room belligerence of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”. Enduring the honeyed splurge of Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, of helping after helping of MOR comfort pudding, like Enrique Iglesias’s “Heroes” you want to gag as you sense all dissent gagged.

Remember how Moby felt obliged to apologise for daring to make the not unreasonable point, on September 12, that the CIA might just have fucked up on this one? Such was, such is, the national mood. Alicia Keys sings “Someday We’ll All Be Free” – but, for the time being, it seems, the rock and pop establishment must toe the chorus line. You look to Neil Young for a note of scepticism – but he shelters behind a reedy and vaguely pointless version of Lennon’s “Imagine”. Wyclef Jean wore a Stars And Stripes jacket during his rendition of Marley’s “Redemption Song”, an unsubtle gesture which reflects the all-American self-absorption which has, if anything, been intensified by September 11. It’s the inadvertent solipsism of “We Are The World” all over again.

The Tribute To Heroes telethon raised some $150 million and this release will raise millions more for relatives of victims of September 11. Many of these artists are still engaged in raising money for the cause. Dare one suggest, however, that the much greater humanitarian crisis facing the world is in Afghanistan and to wonder if it’s high time pop and rock stars re-directed their charitable efforts to that crisis? Or to take advantage of the hole in the American roof to encourage Americans to tear themselves away from CNN’s state-of-the-art drivel, peer out, forget all this “God Bless America” bullshit and realise that America is part of a larger world and that they have responsibilities to that world? Or are such considerations subordinate to their responsibilities to their own careers? Or is the language of pop and rock too limited to take on board the new complexities of the post-September 11 new “new world order”?

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