Column: off the record …, vol. 13-576

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off the record, from @U2

I don't remember U2's Live Aid set, 28 years ago on July 13th. I was at JFK Stadium that day -- on the Philadelphia side of the event -- and I remember Jack Nicholson introducing the band, who were appearing from London via satellite. But I have no recollection of the performance itself, of the brief but powerful two-song set that culminated in Bono leaping over a barricade to reach a single young woman in the crowd and thus forge a connection with pretty much the entire world.

Nor do I recall seeking out video of U2's historic set in the decades that followed, either on videotape in the pre-digital days or more recently on YouTube or DVD. I think on some level I felt I'd missed out on the moment and there was no point in trying to return to it.

For some reason, though, I decided to finally watch the performance last week. And you know what? It was awesome. I mean, I knew exactly what was going to happen, but my heart still jumped when Bono went over the barricade. And I breathed a deep sigh of relief when he reached the young woman and embraced her. Even 28 years later, it was totally exhilarating.


I've read a bit about Live Aid in the past few weeks. I'd almost forgotten that, while U2 was the biggest story coming out the event, Phil Collins was perhaps the biggest story in the weeks leading up to it. For those who weren't around then: At some point during the planning of Live Aid, Collins decided he would play both the London and the Philadelphia sides of the show, performing a set with Sting and Branford Marsalis in the UK and then hopping the Concorde to the US, where he would join Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin (separately) as well as playing a solo set.

It was quite the logistical challenge, requiring helicopters delivering him to and from the airports (according to Bob Geldof's book Is That It? he touched down at JFK Airport in New York 28 minutes before he was to go on stage in Philadelphia) and a phone call from Buckingham Palace to the authorities at Heathrow Airport, requesting that the helicopter be able to land on the runway next to the Concorde -- this had never been allowed before. In the end, though, it went off without a hitch (unless you count the shambolic Led Zep reunion as a hitch).

People responded to Collins' trans-Atlantic performances in much the same way they responded to U2's set -- and for similar reasons, I think. Both brought millions of people around the world together, making them feel part of the same community -- the same tribe – responsible for one another in a way they had never felt before. The only difference: One involved a supersonic jet and the intervention of the Palace. The other, only a very simple gesture.


Among those touched by this gesture: Joan Baez, the '60s folkie who opened the Philadelphia portion of Live Aid. Back in her hotel room after she finished her set, she watched other acts on TV, including a young Irish band she'd never heard before. She was moved by the performance, and wrote about it eloquently and at length the same day. "[H]e is a superb showman," she said of Bono, "but there is something more going on. And I would like to know what it is."


And finally … Quick, Bono doesn't have a microphone!

(c) @U2, 2013.

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