I didn’t see Live Aid. It took place on July 13, 1985 from London and Philadelphia, and I was at my cottage where we had no television, so I missed the whole thing. I remember reading about it in the newspaper, and then hearing about it later, but I’d never seen any of it.
These are the things that I knew about it for the past thirty years:
- Joan Baez called it the Woodstock of my generation
- Mick Jagger ripped off Tina Turner’s skirt
- Bob Dylan ruined the whole thing
Fortunately, YouTube exists.
I don’t think that I knew until today, for instance, that Bob Dylan was actually the final act. It obviously makes sense, but I didn’t actually know it. Introduced by Jack Nicholson, Dylan took the stage with Ron Wood and Keith Richards, and the three of them played a trio of early Dylan songs on acoustic guitars. That performance is not as good as that sounds.
I have read today that their monitors were out and that they really couldn’t hear themselves playing. Could well be. Dylan does ask the crowd how it sounds before “Blowing in the Wind”, which seems to indicate that he wasn’t sure himself. He also tosses Wood a knowing glance when Richards does his solo, which I read as saying that he doesn’t think that the set is going very well. Bob Geldof, in his autobiography, notes that a curtain might have fallen on their monitors and that Quincy Jones was not paying attention to the set as he was getting the encore in order backstage. Also, it is clear that, at the very least, the Stones were inebriated.
It is an inexplicable set in many ways. Dylan does two songs from his 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin’, neither of which would have been expected. He opens with “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”, the doom-laden song of a starving farmer in South Dakota who murders his family and himself. The song is a major downer, and would have been foreign to almost everyone in the multiple audiences watching. There is a bootleg of the trio rehearsing the night before the show (and also the day of) and on that Dylan notes that “no one” will know this song. Richards says that some will, and Dylan corrects him by noting that the few who would are not the type of people who would rush to stand in line to get tickets for an event like this. Given how very few performers attempted to tie their material into the event (It’s not like Madonna and Duran Duran and were playing songs that spoke to the gravity of the situation. Madonna did “Holiday”, for God’s sake), Dylan’s song selection is notable, though it doesn’t come off well on stage (on the rehearsals it sounds good).
His second song, “When the Ship Comes In”, is more celebratory and uplifting, but just as obscure. Dylan seems to be telling a tale with his song selection, but that goes unnoticed. This was only the third ever time that Dylan had performed this song live, so he was clearly making a point by playing it. A large problem is that the song is a bit mysterious, and in this context it was even more so.
Finally, the trio concludes with a rather unconvincing rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind”, before ceding the stage to the whole cast of performers for “We Are the World”. It is muddied and dour. A massive disappointment right at the conclusion of the show.
The most famous part of the whole set, actually, is Dylan’s comments at the end of “Hollis Brown”, where he suggests that some of the money raised, “a million or two”, might be saved for American farmers struggling to pay their mortgages. Geldof, in his autobiography, is furious about this remark (“it was a crass, stupid, nationalistic thing to say”). I think that the first rule of charitable concerts is that you don’t suggest that there may be better places to give the money. This comment did inspire Neil Young to start Farm Aid, about which more later this week. Geldof, by the way, should never listen to the bootleg of the rehearsals where Richards questions why they’re even playing this show, since none of the money is actually likely to go to Ethiopia anyway!
Given his placement in the concert, given his wide range of songs to choose from, given the enormity of the stage, this could have been the great Dylan comeback moment. All he really had to do was go out there with a band and blow people away with a rollicking “Like a Rolling Stone” with Wood and Richards and everyone would have been thrilled. Instead, Dylan followed his own muse, as he always does, and left people unhappy. As he so often does.
I guess I didn’t miss much…