Published September 22, 2001
In a mostly flawless production, “America: A Tribute to Heroes” did some nearly impossible things: it brought Mariah Carey back after a nervous breakdown; featured Celine Dion, a Canadian, singing "God Bless America;" and proved that some of the world’s highest paid movie stars can’t read from a Teleprompter.
The show, produced by Joel Gallen and broadcast on an unprecedented 27 TV networks without commercial interruption, was full of good intentions. Some of it worked, some of it was weird. But the latter was certainly to be expected considering the few days Gallen and his crew had to pull together such a daring enterprise. They can only be commended.
Because the show was a telethon to raise money for victims of the World Trade Center disaster, it had a phone bank with celebrities manning the terminals. Salma Hayek, Andy Garcia, Adam Sandler, Jack Nicholson, Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Benicio del Toro, Brad Pitt, Jimmy Smits, Dennis Franz, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Sylvester Stallone, Meg Ryan, Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Sally Field, Cuba Gooding Jr., Michael Keaton, James Woods, and Mike Myers were just some of the boldfaced names who chatted away on said phones. Who were they talking to and what were they saying? Who knows? None of them had any paper or pens, and the phone lines were busy throughout the show. But it was fun to see them all. It was like the wall at Sardi’s come alive.
But the show’s real entertainment were the musical guests and straight-faced presenters, each of whom was so somber that if you weren’t already depressed before the show started, you sure are now. Bruce Springsteen, joined by Steve van Zandt, Clarence Clemons, and Patti Scialfa, opened the program with a song called “My City in Ruins.” So you knew there’d be little fun in the performances.
And yet there were some pointed moments. Neil Young sang John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a song banned by Clear Channel radio in the last week because of its lyrics. Good for him. Paul Simon performed his “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which was banned on the same list. Unfortunately the feeling of brotherhood didn’t extend to Simon including Art Garfunkel in the performance. And for some reason Simon dropped the line “I will ease your mind” from the song.
Billy Joel changed the lyrics to his “New York State of Mind” so that the line that refers to “The New York Times, the Daily News” was now “The New York Post, Newsday.” I don’t know why, but hey, the Post is our cousin here at Fox, so bravo.
And the most anticipated appearance, by Mariah Carey, came off without a hitch. Looking fine and much rested, Carey did what she does best: she sang. Of course, as noted here the other day, her song “Hero” has been the subject of a decade-long lawsuit. But it didn’t matter. Even with her movie getting the worst reviews in years, Mariah triumphed. And it couldn’t have been easy. The show was broadcast from Sony Recording Studios on West 54th St., a place that Carey always refused to go to when she made her records for Sony because she thought her ex-husband Tommy Mottola was having her watched. The irony could not have been lost on her.
I thought it was interesting that Tom Cruise was assigned to talk about New York Fire Department chaplain Rev. Mychal Judge, who was much beloved. Cruise himself could have wound up as chaplain; he studied to be a Franciscan monk before taking up acting and Scientology.
Some pairings seemed like plugs for upcoming movies: Will Smith and Muhammad Ali appeared together, no coincidence since Smith plays Ali in the movie of that name, due in November. During the tense sing-a-long at the end, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, and George Clooney all stood together on camera—they’re in Ocean’s 11, due also this winter.
Sting performed his song, “Fragile,” from London, which was no surprise. For a few minutes last week, the word was out in the New York music community that Sting wanted “Fragile” to be “the song of the tragedy.” This didn’t fly, thank goodness.
There were some odd looks, too, fashion-wise. The main offenders being Enrique Iglesias’ haircut, which was Julius Caesar meets Aqua Net; and Clint Eastwood’s strangely cut jacket that made him look as if he either had a broken hip or a holster under it.
Many of the actors had trouble reading the Teleprompter, too, but we have to let them off the hook. They are as untrained in this activity as the next person since they actually memorize their lines for movies. Even the flubs were handled with grace, and Julia Roberts’ tearing-up seemed genuine and unplanned.
Were there surprises? Outside of Mariah not breaking down, the biggest one was Bon Jovi pulling off the most intimate and spell-binding moment of the night. And that wasn’t easy considering that Alicia Keys was revelatory, and Wyclef Jean was necessary. But Bon Jovi rose to the occasion, and showed why they’ve managed to stay afloat a generation after all the acts who were their peers are gone.
Are there quibbles? Too few black acts (Stevie Wonder with Take 6, Alicia Keys, Wyclef, and Mariah, I suppose) reflected exactly how Hollywood sees the country, which may have been more interesting than anything else. How could a special devoted to pop music manage to be so homogeneous unless it was produced in Hollywood? And it would have been nice if Gallen had identified each performer with a discreet name tag. It was a little presumptuous to think that every viewer would know who these players were without a scorecard. The Goo Goo Dolls are talented, but come on. And I doubt most of the viewers figured out that was Eddie Vedder with Neil Young. But again, the arrogance of Hollywood is that fame overrides logic.
Still, Gallen did a good job and can only be praised in the end for the speed he employed in moving mountains. He’ll make a very good movie producer. (His movie Zoolander opens soon.) Now if only the money that was raised gets to the people who need it, and isn’t lost somewhere in the pipeline, then “America: A Tribute to Heroes” will have been a worthy endeavor and not just a night of back-slapping.
If you’re still interested in donating money to help the victims’ families, let me tell you about a fund started by the famous Jefferson Market grocery store in Greenwich Village. Here in the central part of the Village our fire station lost seven men in last week’s tragedy. The station has long been a major part of our neighborhood, and the feeling of grief is palpable all over the place. Locals have even fashioned a shrine in front of the cheerfully painted garage door. Jefferson Market, another Village institution, will match any contributions to its fund, and the money will go directly to the families of the seven firefighters. Call them or write to them with donations for Squad 18: Jefferson Market, 450 Avenue Of The Americas, New York, NY 10011-8426. Phone: (212) 533-3377.
In this mood of charitable giving, it's important to note that you can be a tax-free foundation but not really help anyone. You can simply raise money to throw a cool party and pay your president. Sounds like fun, no?
Last March this column reported that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which puts on a great annual show at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, fell into that category. Record companies pay $25,000 a table to attend the annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame show, and the Foundation operates as a charity. Its administrator, Suzan Evans-Hochberg, was paid $285,000 in 1998-99.
Now the new filing is out and it seems that Evans-Hochberg got a raise to $300,000. But last year, the Foundation, which claims $10 million in assets on its IRS form, donated nothing to the Rock Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. Nothing. Not a dime.
More surprising: The Foundation gave less than $3,000 to indigent rock musicians in the same year, meaning that Evans-Hochberg received 100 times the amount doled out to needy musicians. Additionally, the Foundation made only two other donations in 1999-2000: $25,000 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and $2,000 to an organization called Zero Population Growth.
According to the form, another $40,000 was paid out in miscellaneous salaries.
Evans-Hochberg told me yesterday that so far only nominees and inductees were eligible for the indigent awards. This group includes such multi-millionaires as Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, and Billy Joel. The first three have been inducted twice, as group members and solo performers. Evans-Hochberg said, "We are hoping to expand the scope of that program."
As for the Cleveland museum, which is considered a bastard cousin of the glittery annual Waldorf event, the Foundation donated only $77,000 to it in 1998-99. But the absence of any donation last year is even more troubling considering the Foundation's stated purpose on its tax return — "to establish and maintain all matters of historical significance in rock and roll." Evans Hochberg told me yesterday: "We are partners with the museum. We have allocated funds for its expansion and for educational programs. Our money is going to be used for the museum."
The Foundation's unpaid but better-known directors are Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, Sire Records president Seymour Stein and Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, who recently published his autobiography with a $75 suggested price. Wenner, who declined to answer questions about the Foundation last winter when this column first approached him, is considered the Foundation's defacto head. In fact, the Foundation's offices are in the process of moving into space at Rolling Stone headquarters this week after being moved from the Atlantic Records offices.
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