Telethon a moving tribute to all
Event probably one of the greatest moments in television history
September 23, 2001
Steamboat Springs — If you watched Friday night’s telethon and you made it through the entire two hours without shedding a tear, you may not weep again for a very long time. I go years between certifiable crying bouts. But I couldn’t hold back the tears Friday night, so I just let it happen.
The telethon was held to raise money intended to relieve the victims of this month’s terrorists attacks. If you missed it, you missed what was probably one of the greatest moments in television history. Not great just in terms of entertainment value, although the musical performances were stunning. But great in terms of demonstrating the power of a particular medium.
I knew I was in trouble the moment the first performer, Bruce Springsteen, sang the lines, “my city’s in ruins, my city’s in ruins” in a voice so convincing, you knew his heart was breaking.
Springsteen’s song of a decade ago, “Born in the USA” is widely misunderstood and misused as a statement of nationalistic pride, when instead it is a bitter lament of the way Vietnam vets have been forgotten.
Was “Born in the USA” a patriotic song? Yes, but not in the way many perceived it to be.
Springsteen has transitioned from ’70s rocker to the Woody Guthrie of our generation. Over the weekend, he and other artists rewrote the definition of the word telethon.
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If “telethon” conjures up images of Jerry Lewis laying it on thick, you’ve got the wrong picture. Friday night’s event interspersed world-class live musical performances with solemn television and movie stars reading poignant anecdotes of courage and heroism off the TelePrompTer. It was classy for a solid 120 minutes. OK, maybe the hundreds of candles flickering on each soundstage were meant to play to the emotions, but the lack of commercial messages, the lack of applause and the way each entertainer bowed their head in sorrow after their performance got to me like noting I’ve ever witnessed before.
Springsteen was followed by Stevie Wonder supported by a stirring group of gospel-style singers. Then came one of my musical heroes, Tom Petty, defiantly singing “I Won’t Back Down,” a song that was recorded more than five years ago, but seemed tailor made for the occasion.
The song that really undid me was John Lennon’s “Imagine.” As the lights gradually came up, I didn’t recognize Neil Young at the piano, but there’s no mistaking Neil’s voice, and he nailed Lennon’s anthem to peace and understanding.
That’s when I got up from the couch to retrieve a box of tissues from on top of the refrigerator.
The music wasn’t dominated only by artists who were ushered into prominence by the Woodstock generation. MTV Music Video Award winner and “best new artist” Alicia Keyes would have made Mahalia Jackson and Ella Fitzgerald gasp in awe as she poured her heart out at the piano. One of the highlights of the evening was provided by Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit and John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls performing a duet of the Pink Floyd classic “Wish You Were Here.”
The night would not have been complete without Billy Joel singing a melancholy version of “New York State of Mind.” And Paul Simon found a way to bring new meaning to “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
I slept well Friday night, as deeply as I have since Sept. 11. But when I awoke, Springsteen’s voice was in my ear, reminding me of the healing power that music has and its ability to add punctuation to the landmarks events of our lives.
There were other memorable musical performances last week and there are more to come. Among the strangest for me was seeing Crosby, Stills and Nash singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” on the “Tonight Show.”
If you were paying attention in the late ’60s when CSN transformed acoustic rock music with their magical first album, then you probably also remember them joining with Young to perform his angry song, “Ohio.”
It was a bitter scream in the night expressing outrage over the shooting of four Kent State University students by National Guardsmen during a protest of the Vietnam War.
So, it took me off guard to hear CSN work their three-part harmony on the chorus, “Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
Then I thought, “Why not?” Defending our right to criticize our government when we feel the need, as well as our right to come together as patriots when events call for it, is what the coming struggle is all about.
Don’t fear, you’ll get another chance to watch this special television broadcast. I predict Americans will watch it over and over. Don’t pass it up.
Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.