Pop and Circumstance: Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World

Have you ever seen the music video for Daft Punk’s “One More Time?” It’s a good one. It takes place in a futuristic cartoon city, where futuristic cartoon space aliens are having a huge dance party. The aliens are blue and happy and drawn in Japanimation style, and they are getting their intergalactic freak onto Daft Punk’s ultra-cheesy house anthem. But there’s a twist. You see, the happy blue alien space city is minutes away from being completely blown up and conquered by the evil grayish aliens in spaceships. The video ends just as the evil grayish aliens beam down into the city. Even in the face of imminent danger, the happy blue aliens don’t refrain from rocking the proverbial casbah – which brings us to Saturday night, when the “Concert for New York” dropped on Madison Square Garden.

At a time when savage fear and paranoia reign, when New York City is critically wounded, when America’s allies warn that new terrorist attacks are on their way, a crowd of 20,000 strong came to MSG to have a VH1-televised good time and celebrate the brave men and women of the NYPD and FDNY. This was Paul McCartney’s baby; he arranged the benefit and got just about everyone on the entertainment industry’s A-list to show up and pay their respects. There were short films by Martin Scorcese and Woody Allen, speeches by Bill Clinton, Susan Sarandon, Harrison Ford and Billy Crystal and performances by the Backstreet Boys, Destiny’s Child and Jay-Z. But the real attraction was the lineup of rock ’n’ roll deities that McCartney booked to play. And just look at this list. My God. The Who, the Stones, David Bowie, John Mellencamp, U2, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel and, of course, the Walrus himself, Mr. Paul McCartney. All got their turn to make some music. Incredible. I would have sold my brother into slavery to see this show live.

The interesting thing was watching the groups dig into their back catalogues to find songs that were appropriate for the benefit. Bon Jovi failed miserably –– the band played “Dead or Alive,” presumably because George W. Bush used the title phrase in reference to Osama Bin Laden a couple weeks ago. That was pretty rotten, boys. But then again, Bon Jovi is a pretty rotten band. David Bowie, who opened the show, played Paul Simon’s classic “America” and his own “Heroes.” It was an awesome performance and really set the tone for the night. The Stones played “Salt of the Earth,” which is an excellent tune for commemorating the rescue and relief efforts. But then they played “Miss You,” which I guess was semi-appropriate, but is a disgustingly bad song from the Stones’ short-lived disco period. There has to be a better Stones song that would have fit the occasion. “Sympathy for the Devil”? No way. “Brown Sugar”? I doubt songs about master-slave sexual relations in the Old South would have been appropriate. “Honky Tonk Women”? No. “Paint it Black”? OK, I see where this is heading. . .

The highlight of the show was clearly the Who, who gave it everything they had. They burned through four of five classics, including “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and the show-stopping “Baba O’Riley.” The Who really stole the show, as they’ve been doing for almost 40 years.

It was great to see the police and firefighters in the crowd singing every word and pumping their fists to the music –– although it wasn’t quite as awesome a spectacle as the 50-year-old woman furiously grinding to Jay-Z’s set.

Benefits of this sort have been subject to much criticism from in the press, where they have been portrayed as bloated galas that turn attention away from the relief efforts and toward the celebrities themselves. But let’s face it, Jon Bon Jovi can’t really do anything else but play music. It’s not like that hairbag can go clean up rubble on the streets. McCartney’s “Concert for New York” is expected to generate almost $200 million for the relief fund. In a crisis, everyone’s got to do his or her part, and so far the celebrity support has been great.

Saturday’s concert was really a breath of fresh air. Whereas previous tributes have been solemn and kind of depressing, this show was as much about having a rockin’ good time as it was about paying respect to the men and women of the NYC police and fire departments. There were heavier moments, as expected, but lighter ones as well, and the audience appeared to be having a great time.

Times, they are bad. And the near future will test our strength as a nation and as a people. But it’s nice to know that we are able leave all of our anxieties alone for a little bit and rock out like we mean it.

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