Amnesty International: Caravan for Human Rights

The making of the anniversary concerts

Bono of U2 at the first Concert for Amnesty International in 1986 Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

As Jack Healey remembers it, the meeting didn't take much longer than 10 minutes. Healey, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, was on his way to an Amnesty powwow in Finland late last August when he made a brief detour to Dublin to meet with Paul McGuinness, manager of the Irish band U2. He had never met McGuinness before, and he'd only seen U2 once, at the group's December 1984 New York show, a benefit for the world human-rights organization.

In fact, Healey wasn't exactly sure what he wanted from McGuinness and U2 other than advice and, he hoped, some participation in Amnesty's upcoming 25th anniversary in 1986. But when he walked out of U2's office in Dublin's Windmill Lane studios that August day, Healey had the beginnings of a very special birthday party.

"They asked me, 'What do you need?'" Healey recalls, referring to McGuinness and U2 vocalist Bono, who happened to be at the studio that day. "I told them Amnesty was celebrating its 25 anniversary and that we have to get our message across to the American people. I said, 'We want to do it in an incredible, respectful, classy way, and you guys can help us break out into the open.'"

Healey made a vague proposal about a series of rock concerts to raise American awareness of Amnesty International's human-rights work. McGuinness asked, "How much time do you need?" and Healey said a week or two. McGuinness then scribbled out a very simple letter: "We're writing this letter to confirm that U2 will be at your disposal in the USA for a week at least during the 25th. . .year of Amnesty International. . .  . Please show this letter to anyone you wish as an indication of our total support for and commitment to this event. See you there!"

"I don't think we regarded it as quite a momentous occasion," McGuinness says, laughing in retrospect. But for Jack Healey, that letter was a major contribution to Amnesty's world-freedom effort, a potential ticket out of hell for torture victims and prisoners of conscience everywhere. The unconditional commitments by U2 and Sting, who signed up soon after, set in motion the biggest and certainly the most unique rock & roll benefit event since Live Aid — six major concerts staged across the U.S. and intended not just to raise money, but to raise the consciousness of young Americans about the basic human rights they take for granted.

Formally dubbed "A Conspiracy of Hope. Concerts for Amnesty International," the two-week tour is like a Rolling Thunder-meets-Arms convoy of socially aware rock stars. Joining U2 and Sting, who will be performing with his current road band, are Peter Gabriel, Bryan Adams, Lou Reed (all with their respective bands), top New Orleans R&B outfit the Neville Brothers and veteran folk activist Joan Baez. The tour opens June 4th at the Cow Palace in San Francisco and takes in Los Angeles (the Forum, June 6th), Denver (McNichols Sports Arena, June 8th), Atlanta (the Omni, June 11th) and Chicago (Rosemont Horizon, June 13th) before climaxing with a six- to eight-hour Live Aid-style blowout June 15th at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. That show will be broadcast live by MTV and the Westwood One radio networks, and there will be a special 800 phone number for call-in donations.

Other acts have agreed to show up and play at selective tour stops along the way. Jackson Browne will join the lineup in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Jersey; Pete Townshend, Carlos Santana and Ruben Blades, the Springsteen of salsa, are all on the New Jersey bill. Madonna and hubby Sean Penn, as well as Meryl Streep, Anjelica Huston and Mia Farrow are all confirmed as emcees at the Giants Stadium bash. And concert promoter Bill Graham, who is producing the entire tour, was negotiating with artists to join the final concert right up until May 14th, when press conferences announcing the tour were to have been held simultaneously in cities along the route.

"This is a birthday party," insists Bono, a fervent Amnesty supporter and a key figure in organizing the tour. "People like us who are, as the joke goes, undernourished and overpaid don't have time for our families or our friends or doing good work. But we have a chance to congratulate people who do. That's where my respect goes — to the people who do this work. "What's important about this event is, it's not a charity ball. And at the same time, it's not a lecture tour. It's a very prestigious thing to be asked to celebrate the 25th anniversary of this apolitical, very respected organization. Rock & roll must not be left out of that picture. And it isn't."

Hugo de Leon Palacios is a Guatemalan schoolteacher who was abducted in 1984 right in front of his students. Nguyen Chi Thien, a prominent Vietnamese poet currently being held in a Hanoi prison, has spent nearly half of his 53 years behind bars. He was arrested in 1961 for trying to "discredit the regime by writing romantic poetry" and sentenced to two years' hard labor. Lee Kwang-ung, a South Korean teacher, was arrested, tortured and then sentenced to seven years in prison for giving friends copies of a book by a poet living in North Korea.

Thozamile Gqweta is a black South African union leader who was arrested in February 1985 and charged with high treason. He had been arrested and detained by South African authorities seven times before. Riad al-Turk is a Syrian lawyer and a member of the Syrian Communist Party who was abducted in 1980 by, according to reports, 200 members of the security police. Al-Turk is still being held without charge and has not been permitted to see his family since his arrest. Tatyana Semyonova Osipova is currently serving a 12-year sentence in a Russian labor camp. She was, according to Amnesty International, convicted for her work in documenting Soviet human-rights violations.

These are just a few of the thousands of people Amnesty International believes have been tortured or imprisoned because of their beliefs. [Frequently, governments deny either the existence of cases like these, or the particulars cited.] Jack Healey, the head of Amnesty's American branch since 1981, is hoping that the rock & roll crowds who come to the concerts will literally set these six prisoners free.

Money certainly will help; Healey hopes to raise as much as $3 million from the shows. But more than dollars, what Healey really wants from this tour are bodies — at least 25,000 new members who would actively participate in the letter-writing campaigns Amnesty uses as leverage against dictators, secret-police chiefs and others in target countries. These "freedom writers," as Healey calls them, "commit to writing 12 letters a year, one a month. Every time we send out information on a selected prisoner of conscience, hopefully that government will get 25,000 letters from those people. We think that might get them out."

To get the freedom writers rolling, Amnesty will provide information on these six special prisoners of conscience to fans at the shows. The concert programs will also include a freedom-writer's kit with pre-addressed post cards for easy mailing.

"What I would like to see," says Bono, "is maybe the names of a few of these political prisoners, or their faces, at the end of the tour and hear of their release. It would be nice to see these people set free, to have people from schools in the area, after each concert, get together and say, 'Yeah, let's start writing letters.'"

The one thing we were told once we had U2 and Sting was 'Don't worry about the talent,'" Jack Healey recalls. "People kept saying, 'The rest will move right in. You'll have your choice of so many acts you won't believe it.'" As it turned out, that wasn't true. Paul McGuinness had an inkling of just how tough it might be to recruit acts for a two-week benefit tour when he wrote that letter for Healey last August. "I was telling him, 'You're going to need this letter, Jack. It's no good just telling people we're in. This is the kind of thing you're going to need to put under people's noses.'"

Waving U2 stationery in other managers' faces just wasn't enough in this situation. As Bill Graham explains, part of the problem was that this was not like Live Aid; he was asking acts to make a real commitment — two weeks for charity, at the height of the summer touring season — that some of them simply couldn't afford to make.

"June is a premium month," explains the veteran promoter. "There are tours going out that were set in January. Live Aid was truly a phenomenon that people felt they had to do. People were saying, 'No matter where I am, I'll leave Mozambique for one day to do this.' We're not asking you to leave Mozambique for one day. We're asking you to leave the road for two weeks. And with some acts, we came so close."

One of them, Bono says, was Van Morrison. "It would have been wonderful to have him there, because he's a soul singer of the highest caliber. His music has an ability to awaken, and just having one singer with that much soul could say more than any words could say. And he was prepared to do it. Ultimately, there were problems with logistics. But it was a great honor that he even wanted to do it."

Other acts, like Peter Gabriel, came through, though not without considerable hassle. "He had to blow out so many things to get involved," Bono explains. "There were tangles with his record label. They had arranged a trip to Japan for him. And when Amnesty asked him to do it, he rang me up and said, 'I'm not sure I can do this. But I have to.'"

Jack Healey and Amnesty International Usa's communications director, Mary Daly, drew the short straw when it came to making phone calls. "We went after the superstars — Stevie Wonder, Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Huey Lewis, Barbra Streisand, the unreachables," Healey says. "This is the hardest job I've ever had in my life. The rock & roll industry is a schmooze community. They like talking to each other a lot with very little paperwork. We're the opposite. We like a lot of paper and little talking."

Healey and Daly got a truckload of the usual excuses — "I don't have a band at the moment," "We're recording right now." They were also disappointed to find out how many top U.S. artists were unaware of Amnesty International altogether. But they didn't come away from all of their meetings empty-handed. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bob Geldof, Paul Simon, Joan Armatrading, Pet Shop Boys, Mr. Mister, John Taylor of Duran Duran and Carly Simon all consented to do prerecorded video messages for Amnesty.

In addition to sorting out the lineup, the tour's organizers faced other problems. For example, a June 9th show at the Reunion Hall in Dallas was originally announced as the third stop on the itinerary, but that was canceled when the hall's management subsequently booked another show for that date. The makeup concert June 8th at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver was also up in the air until the Denver Nuggets were eliminated from the National Basketball Association playoffs.

Scheduling difficulties also caused Bill Graham to push the simultaneous press conferences back a week from their original date of May 7th. That delay left only three weeks between the announcement of the tour and the first concerts. Graham had to scramble to make his mail-order ticket plan work, and for a while it looked as if he'd have to abandon selling tickets through the mail for the Giants Stadium show.

No one expected  to have any trouble getting an 800 phone number from AT&T for the June 15th telethon — until the phone company pointed out that June 15th was also Father's Day, the fifth-busiest calling day of the year. AT&T feared that the high volume of calls coming into Amnesty and to dads all across America would choke the company's lines, and for a time it hesitated to assign Amnesty an 800 number. Finally, though not without subtle coercion from some highly placed Amnesty board members, AT&T agreed to open an 800 line.

A lot has also gone right with this tour. The Hyatt Corporation is donating hotel rooms across the country. Amnesty is getting the Los Angeles Forum rent-free for the June 6th concert. Even in those venues charging rent, attempts have been made to whittle down costs as much as possible. John Scher, the local promoter working with Graham on the June 15th New Jersey show, says management officials at Giants Stadium "are prepared to work with us to make it less expensive. I'm going to sit down with the various union people that are represented there and see if we can get some breaks from them. Once all is said and done, everybody from a manpower and facility point of view will have tightened their belts and made it as financially attractive as possible."

Paul McGuinness does not know yet what this tour will cost U2. "The basic principle of funding this production is that anyone who incurs an extra expense as a result of doing these shows should have it covered. If we have to fly to America to do these shows, I have no embarrassment at charging these tickets to the show. But our crew is on salary anyway, so I wouldn't charge those costs to the show."

"We said early on that if we had to pay costs we would," Healey concedes. "We're not going to demand that same donation of services and things, as was done at Live Aid."

Still, Jack Healey and Mary Daly find it hard to disguise their disappointment at the superstars who, for one good reason or another, have not donated their time or talent. "I don't want it to sound like we're disappointed in them fundamentally," Daly insists, "because we knew this was going to be hard. But governments monitor everything we do. And you have to be able to put on an event like this and have it be the strongest, most potent attack. If it isn't, it can just be dismissed. There are countries where people are in prison and being tortured, and we know that they would be released if these artists went onstage for us."

About two and a half years ago, Jack Healey paid a visit to Denver concert promoter Barry Fey to discuss Amnesty International's accelerating campaign against torture. During the meeting, Fey came up with an unusual idea — a train that would go from one end of America to the other, flying the flags of all the countries where torture was allowed or condoned. Pictures of victims would also be displayed on the train, and Fey suggested staging a concert at every whistle stop, "even if it's just someone singing with a guitar," along with speeches from prominent politicians and authors about human-rights abuses.

"By the time you get to the end," Fey told Healey, "you'll have stopped torture in some countries because they'll be so damned embarrassed to have their flag up there."

"It was a great idea," Healey exclaims. It was so great that Healey used it as the model for his Amnesty rock & roll caravan. Initially, U2 and Amnesty had hoped that all the performers would travel together from show to show, creating a sort of communal feeling that would carry over into the concerts. At press time, however, Healey's attempts to acquire a free airplane from one of the major airlines to ferry the entire concert troupe had proven unsuccessful, and travel arrangements were still sketchy.

The format of the shows was also up in the air. At the time they were interviewed, Bono, Sting and Bryan Adams had no firm idea of exactly what they would play at the concerts. Sting, at least, was well rehearsed; he's been on the road with his current jazz-pop fusion band since last summer. "I have an idea of maybe performing with U2," he adds, "kind of a trade-off for the time Bono got onstage with the Police. It was at a festival in my home town, Newcastle. He got onstage and we sang 'Invisible Sun' together. It would be nice to return the favor."

Other than that, superjams are still a question mark. Set lengths for the main acts will probably be a maximum of 30 minutes for the arena shows, just enough time for most of the artists to run through a few big hits. "The concert is to make people aware of what Amnesty International is doing," Bryan Adams explains. "It's not necessarily important for everyone to have a song about Amnesty International. If they do, great. But the idea should be entertainment for the day, not preaching."

Nevertheless, Jack Healey feels the Amnesty tour is true to Barry Fey's anti-torture-train idea "because the whole teaching element is still there." Indeed, the lessons have already begun. When Sting asked his touring band if they would join him for the Amnesty benefit shows, they had no idea what Amnesty International was. So he handed out a few Amnesty pamphlets he carries on the road. "After five minutes of reading this stuff, they were convinced."

Aside from being Irish, Jack Healey and Bono have something in common — their belief in the power of rock & roll to inspire average people to do great things. A former Franciscan monk who worked for the Peace Corps in southern Africa for five years, Healey, 48, first got the rock & roll bug as a teenager in Pittsburgh. His brother-in-law operated a string of jukeboxes in local bars and gave Healey a lot of his used records. "When I heard Presley and Fats Domino, that was the first explosion in my brain."

He got a similar buzz from U2 when he saw the 1984 benefit at New York's Radio City Music Hall. "Bono sang with such driving strength and commitment. There was such a force to it that you had to figure it was either straight manipulation or true strength. And I decided it was true strength and that they really believed in what they were singing. As an Irishman myself, I wanted to believe in my own."

His faith has been well placed. The band and McGuinness have been aware of Amnesty for quite some time. Before managing U2, McGuinness had worked in an Irish film-production company run by Tiernan MacBride, son of Amnesty founding member Sean MacBride. Bono's introduction to the organization was Amnesty's 1979 London benefit show, the Secret Policeman's Ball. "So any criticism of this tour being ineffective in raising awareness is unfair," Bono notes. "I'm the perfect argument against that."

In U2, Healey has the perfect Amnesty band. Sting, too, is the ideal Amnesty representative — both popular and politically aware (he performed at the Secret Policeman's Other Ball in 1981). Peter Gabriel has written and recorded one of the strongest rock-music indictments of apartheid with "Biko," his 1980 song about South African martyr Steve Biko. But the question remains: will the nearly 200,000 fans who see the Amnesty shows, not to mention the enormous June 15th radio and television audience, go home with something more than memories of a great rock show?

"I don't underestimate our audience," says Bono. "They're a smart bunch, they're into the music and into what's behind it. They're going to be pretty effective. And I know it. Because I was part of that audience once. I saw The Secret Policeman's Other Ball [a film account of Amnesty benefit highlights], and it became a part of me. It sowed a seed."