From the pages of
"We've become the people our parents warned us about!" That quip by veteran singer Jimmy Buffet underscored the zeitgeist at Thursday night's major Democratic fundraiser at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Vice President Al Gore and running-mate Joe Lieberman, with respective spouses and Hillary Clinton for good (and local) measure were the front-row guests of honor through a three-hour concert which raised a very impressive $6.5 million for the DNC.
The 6,000 donors were treated to a concert featuring performances by nine musical acts embracing the last 35 years in contemporary music. But it was telling that the majority of the artists - and the audience - came of age in the baby-boomer generation's halcyon years - the 60's and 70's. Even the show's younger performers such as Lenny Kravitz and Sheryl Crow are aligned musically with the traditions of that era rather than the current trends of dance, hip-hop and lite-pop.
Psychologists say that we spend most of our adult life refighting the unresolved battles of our childhood. So it is with this election. And ergo the fundraiser concerts. Unlike 1992 and 1996 - when baby-boomer Clinton faced off against WW II veterans Bush Snr. and Dole - this election pits two kids of the sixties generation against each other. And their political differences are just a reflection of the cultural Civil War of that era.
For some - the sixties and seventies were a time of great idealism - as exemplified by the music of that era - much of which was represented at the show. For others it was the start of the Great Decline in the social fabric.
Acts who broke through in the 80's and 90's opened the show. A newly-blonde Sheryl Crow strutted her stuff in Victorian hippie garb followed by Hendrix aficionado Lenny Kravitz (playing rather louder than the comfort zone for most middle-aged Democrats), a soberly besuited Jon Bon Jovi and a beaming k.d. lang. The performers each contributed one or two of their hits - an astute choice for a benefit crowd that nuzzles more contentedly on familiarity than new terrain. When the artist roster first reached back into the 1970's it yielded the laid-back Buffet who revealed the "play one or two of your hits" strategy requested by the benefit organizers. "Fortunately, I've only had two hits..." he quipped. He also scored by incorporating impressions of George Bush stumbling over the word de jour "subliminal."
The audience responded enthusiastically to all the performances - but the appreciation became even more pronounced when a proudly svelte Bette Midler took the stage - and the audience - by storm. In addition to singing a hypnotic "The Rose" she brought on Spector chanteuse Darlene Love to duet with her on "He's A Rebel" and to powerhouse "River Deep Mountain High." If anyone had given Midler the new party line on safe humor - she had mislaid the instructions - and she interpolated her singing with her trademark Sophie Tucker-esque one-liners - a cascade of ribaldry uncontaminated by PC concerns. One sensed the audience straining to gauge the reactions of the Gores and Liebermans to the jokes - rather like the nervous glances young adults take at their elderly parents when risque material is unleashed in a family setting.
The final trio of acts were among the musical heavyweights of their generation. First came the improbable survivors of the 60's - Crosby, Stills & Nash. The harmonies may occasionally strain but the commitment and history of the three performers leant an air of Big Chill idealism to the proceedings. "Marrakesh Express" and "Helplessly Hoping" (the latter slyly dedicated to "Shrub" by Crosby) WERE the soundtrack to the giddy optimism of the late 60's.
A trio of Eagles - Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Timothy B. Schmit united to remind the audience how that 60's spirit became tempered by the sobering realities of the 70's and 80's. From "Desperado" and "Peaceful Easy Feelin'" to Henley's post-nostalgic "Boys Of Summer."
The final performer was the ever-restless Paul Simon. He was in his poly-rhythmic New York street-boy mode - placing percussive emphasis and new-agey world music arrangements on hits such as "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" and "Graceland."
Two musical highlights from the evening spotlighted the night's political purpose. The finale had Crosby, Stills & Nash leading all the performers (save Midler) chorusing on the presciently-themed "Teach Your Children" - a song that Graham Nash might have custom-composed for the Gore-Lieberman campaign (if he hadn't written it 32 years earlier.) The sentimental charm of the song seemed to capture the exuberant spirit of the audience.
But in an evening where musicians perform their own hits - the most telling statements come from the songs specially chosen for the occasion. Far and away the night's most unexpected choice (and most successful) was the collaboration by Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow and Lenny Kravitz. Bon Jovi, wryly acknowledging that Gore and Lieberman's favorite band was more likely the Beatles than his own Bon Jovi - announced their choice. The three teamed up on a powerful rendition of John Lennon's 1968 political proclamation "Revolution" Not the genteel doo-wop version from the 'white album' - but the full-blooded primal-scream 'single' arrangement. In its original (pre-Nike jingle) incarnation - the song had been a watershed - and defined which side of the barricades one stood on. Though Crow and Kravitz were still in toddler and pre-embryonic stage respectively in 1968 - they had absorbed its relevance - and the searing energy of the performance and the significance of the choice was not lost on the audience - which gave it the first - and biggest - standing ovation of the night.
As befitted an evening of heavyweight entertainment industry support for the Democrats - the musicians were introduced by a plethora of movie stars. Some such as Michael Douglas, Jessica Lange and Harrison Ford showed seasoned chops in blending introductions and political endorsements. Lange spoke to the need of women to protect Roe versus Wade, a downbeat Ford expressed his belief that Gore is committed to campaign finance reform - and that the exorbitant sums both parties raise could instead be channeled to the causes that really need and deserve such money.
Some of the younger actors were making their first forays into presidential politics and were effusive yet almost charmingly unprepared for the task of public endorsements. Julia Roberts explained her support for Democrats over Republicans by way of her study of the definition of those two words in the dictionary. Her line that she found "Republican" right between "reptile" and "repugnant" was a an easy crowd-pleaser - yet seemed oddly incongruous in the new Lieberman-era. Salma Hayek was so enthused with saying that "Al Gore rocks!" - that she walked offstage forgetting to introduce the next act - and had to dash back to announce Jon Bon Jovi. Perhaps the most enthusiastically received line of the night came from the boyish Matt Damon who equated George Bush with "Fredo" from the "Godfather" movies. "And they wouldn't even let him run the family business...."
Bette Midler was not the only performer who seemed oblivious to the codes of the New Model Democratic Army. Prior to introducing Midler, actor-comedian John Leguizamo unleashed a volley of jokes about Jews and Hispanics "licking Bush" that the audience sensed were causing great discomfort in the front-row - though his impression of Bush learning his Spanish by instructing 'the help' was on safer ground.
The evening started with a lengthy introduction by the three entertainment industry moguls who conceived and produced the event. Michael Douglas brought on what he called the "Three Divas" - VH1 chief John Sykes, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner and main instigator Harvey Weinstein - co-chairman of Miramax Films. The trio each spoke of their passionate commitment to the Democratic cause - before Weinstein brought on the Gores and Liebermans to start the evening.
After the curtain went down 3 hours later - the Gore-Lieberman ticket plus wives and Hillary Clinton trooped on stage to thank the performers. Gore's final words summarized the mood. He exulted that he was touched by having some of the finest performers of his generation performing in honor of the ticket. The fusion between candidates, performers and supporters was complete. The 60's generation is now in sole charge. Now the electorate must decide which side was in the right in that long-ago Sixties revolutionary war. Whether it wants to be led by the people our parents warned us about. Or by people who agreed with our parents. It's going to be like one of those deejay-fueled battle of the bands. But with much higher stakes.