Friday night’s America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon to raise money for victims and families of the September 11th terrorist attacks was among the most star-studded programs in TV history, yet none of the names were familiar. The stars of the show were not Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts and Chris Rock, but the people whose stories they told — like John Parry, a police officer who gave his life on the day he was to file his retirement papers; Shannon Greenfield, a schoolteacher who risked her own life to carry a pupil away from one of the falling World Trade Towers; Michael Judge, a priest killed while administering last rites to a dying firefighter; and Tim Brown, another firefighter who, as you read this, is digging through rubble in search of his friends.
Tom Hanks was the first of many unidentified speakers, and he delivered the night’s mission statement: “Those of us here tonight are not heroes . . . We are merely artists and entertainers here to raise spirits and, we hope, a great deal of money. We appear tonight as a simple show of unity to honor the real heroes and to do whatever we can to ensure that their families are supported by our larger American family.” The phone number and Web site for viewers to use to donate appeared on the screen throughout, and other unidentified celebrities — from Jack Nicholson to Whoopi Goldberg to Brad Pitt — manned the phones.
Bruce Springsteen, the first of the many musical performers, opened the show on a candlelit New York City sound stage with an eerily appropriate recent composition called “My City of Ruins.” Before leading his backup singers — who included E Street Band members Steve Van Zant, Clarence Clemons and wife Patti Scialfa — through the gospel-inspired refrain of “Rise up!,” the black-clad Springsteen, accompanied by his own black guitar and harmonica, sang about spilt blood, boarded up windows and a “brother down on his knees.”
Before he began his healing Seventies ballad “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” Stevie Wonder, live from a sound stage in Los Angeles, had a few words for the men who hijacked four planes and used them for to take the lives of thousands of Americans: “When you kill in the name of God, or in the name of Allah, you are truly cursing God.”
Others — with the exception of Sting, who dedicated an acoustic version of “Fragile” from London to a friend he lost in the attacks, and Mariah Carey, who courageously took the stage for the first time since her recent well-publicized emotional breakdown to rededicate her song “Hero” — let their music do all of their talking. They dressed drably (most in all black), and — with the exception of Carey’s vocal-accentuating finger-pokes and Neil Young’s concluding guitar gyrations — they stood motionless. It was indeed a stunning contrast to the usual hyper-talky, super-glitzy affairs that music television specials have become.
Echoing Springsteen’s “Rise up!” sentiment, Bono lead U2 and a group of female backup singers through “Walk On,” with a coda of “Halle – Halle – lujah!” Other healing moments included Paul Simon — as always in a baseball cap, but this time in a FDNY baseball cap — performing “Bridge of Troubled Water”; the Dixie Chicks’ premiere of their gorgeous new ballad “I Believe in Love”; Dave Matthews’ gentle, acoustic rendition of “Everyday,” his song that borrows the Beatles’ “All you need is love” refrain; and Billy Joel’s now-triumphant anthem “New York State of Mind,” sung with a fire helmet resting on his piano.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were the only artists who didn’t overtly evoke peace and love. Covered in his thick beard, Petty’s stare occasionally turned menacing and he sang lines like “You can stand me up at the gates of hell but I won’t back down” (from “I Won’t Back Down”).
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Just as the show saluted both living and dead heroes, a few of those responsible with the uplifting of spirits had also passed on. Bob Marley was present through a-red-white-and-blue-clad Wyclef Jean’s version of his “Redemption Song”; Alicia Keys showed how beautiful a piano and vocals can still sound on late soul man Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free”; and the unlikely figure of a cowboy-hatted Neil Young undertook the task of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Unlike Keys, Young hardly hit every note — with his voice or on the piano — but his passion for the material and the moment produced the night’s most inspired few minutes.
After French Canadian diva Celine Dion showed her solidarity with a boisterous run through “God Bless America,” Willie Nelson lead Petty, Carey, Young and others through a sing-along of “America the Beautiful.” No closing words, no incredible fanfare — just musicians helping out by doing what they do best — playing music.