35 Years Ago Today

To diverge a bit from the subject matter that has been consuming my attention lately, I feel like I have to mark an important anniversary today. Admittedly, this impulse came about when a younger work friend said, in all innocence, “what’s Live Aid,” when I brought it up in conversation.

Children.

After I turned into ancient dust and blew away on a gust of 80’s wind, I revisited some of the performances of that day through the myriad posts I was seeing that presented the individual memories of other oldsters like me.

Once upon a time Bob Geldof was a songwriter and singer in a band from Dublin.  The Boomtown Rats spent a fair chunk of a couple of decades in the ‘all time favourite’ spot on my personal list, and even today I get a little overwhelmed when I hear songs like

or

(likely their best known song – and one of the first popular songs I learned to play on the piano).  ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ was about school violence in the US, specifically a school shooting in California.  The song hit number 1 in the UK, but was denied airplay in the US as radio stations feared lawsuits and negative reaction from the religious right (interesting that those things are still major concerns – backlash from the gun lobby and the religious right – and still dictate too many things in that country).

They appeared in a fantastic ‘To Sir With Love’ spoof on SCTV:

I can remember madly searching for a blank VHS tape when it popped up on my television.  I still have the tape.

Their songs were largely ‘story songs’ – telling tales of people and places, slices of life in particular environments at particular times.  It’s interesting that they hardly seem dated or out of comprehensible context, despite the fact that they were mainly referring to characters in places like Dublin or London in the 1970’s and 19080’s.

The songs had elements of social criticism wrapped up in the lyrics – often about the lousy lot of the working class in the ‘Banana Republic’ that was Ireland at the time.  A ‘septic isle’ under the thumb of politicians, police and priests.  A place that was rapidly losing its young people to emigration – or the ongoing conflicts in the North.  It was a place that had banned the band from performances due to their outspoken critique of the nationalism, influence of the church and corrupt politicians that they felt were destroying their native land (again, the fact that this is still a thing should be concerning).

‘Banana Republic’ is a fantastic example of how social commentary can be voiced in an articulate yet entertaining manner.  Bob’s lyrics were often biting, but they demonstrated an incredibly clever mastery of language and turn of phrase.  The songs of the Rats always said something, and they said it in a tuneful, and often playful, way.

“The purple and the pinstripe mutely shake their heads

A silence shrieking volumes, a violence worse than they condemn

Stab you in the back yeah, laughing in your face

Glad to see the place again – it’s a pity nothing’s changed.’

There’s something entirely Irish about the lyrics.

In 1984 Bob saw a BBC news report about the drought and famine in Ethiopia.  Out of his horror at the images he saw came this:

He and Midge Ure wrote a song and started a movement to raise money as a response to perceived inaction on the part of world leaders to intervene in the tragedy that was unfolding in Africa.  It was the impetus for other musicians to take up the battle cry, and it brought extensive coverage to the issue.

Bob visited Ethiopia to see the extent of the tragedy for himself and realized that a large part of the reason that African nations were in such states of emergency was due to the repayments of loans to Western banks.  The song wasn’t going to be enough to even scratch the surface. Even when Americans and Canadians came up with their own songs, in response.

So he and Midge got back to work and planned and executed an unprecedented stage show that would join the world together for one day in a desperate and despairing plea for action in the face of incredible need.  By July 13, Bob was exhausted and in pain with a back injury, but his intensity over the course of the day and through the entirety of the live broadcast is palpable.

He continually reminded the audience why we were all there.  It wasn’t just the greatest rock show ever staged, there was an underlying purpose that made the trappings and egos of popular music irrelevant and ridiculous (the day that ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas’ was recorded he famously admonished all the participants to ‘leave egos at the door’).

The recordings from that day demonstrate just how far we’ve come – technology- and communications-wise, anyway.  These days a simple electronic money transfer in support of hurricane victims can be completed in a matter of seconds.  In 1985 there was more involved, and Bob knew that he had to drive the message home and maintain the intensity of the purpose so that people would get off  their butts and DO something to help.

It was a day of spectacle and excess (Phil Collins hopping the Concorde to play both Wembley and Philadelphia, comes to mind) – and, in addition to the incredible performances (check out Queen. Freddie held that crowd in his hands and revivified Queen in the hearts of many. The DVD highlights the contributions from other countries – INXS’s concert from Australia is still one of my favourites among their live performances), musicians found that their voices – raised together – could impact world events in a positive way.

Over the course of that day, the way we thought about popular music and its ability to affect social change was forever altered and a new standard was set.

A lot of people have done similar things since then.  They have used their celebrity in ways that benefit others (Bono started on his path to real political involvement after Live Aid) and raised money and petitioned governments on behalf of many people in need of aid and intervention.  But Bob was the first to see the worldwide possibilities that could come with the exploitation of love of music.  No one has used music and story as a means of communication as earth-shatteringly as did Sir Bob Geldof.

He has continued his charitable movements for Africa and global peace, achieving success – and his share of critics – over the subsequent decades.  His caustic straightforwardness has earned him derision and some enemies.  He can be an insufferable jerk. He has amassed a fairly vast personal fortune – and may or may not have paid taxes on some of it.  His personal life has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs and negative publicity.  He is an unlikely hero in many ways.

That said, Bob used the tools that he had to hand – his background as a songwriter/musician, his connections in the music and music journalism industries, and a seemingly endless supply of energy and passion – to start a worldwide movement that is still resonating in our popular culture.  He was recognized, at 34, with an honorary knighthood by the Queen, yet refused to sit on his laurels.  He continues to fight for social justice and reform in a number of spheres.

The Rats’ new album is really good (although its exposure has been hampered, as has the great output of so many artists, in the times as they are, right now) – and is reflective of that same drive, even after the passage of the ensuing decades.

On this, the 35th anniversary of the day that changed me – as I learned that those things I love best can help to change those things that needs changing – please remember that there are many contemporary artists who are doing their part to make manifest the lesson I learned 35 years ago today. Art, when wielded well, can do more than bring pleasure and comfort – it can change the world. Listen to what they have to say – and support them however you can.

P.S. If you didn’t get to experience it when it happened, definitely take the time to watch Live Aid in its entirety.  Over and above the significance of the day, it featured some incredible – and some never-to-be-repeated – performances.  It was truly a day of wonder. 

‘We watch in reverence’

You know that thing?  That thing that happens when something- a word, a person, a concept- comes into your immediate frame of reference and then seems to be everywhere?

You do.  You know what I’m talking about.

Way back when (it’s only been a few months, but somehow it seems like eons ago) I wrote a little bit of a thing about our selfie culture and what larger meaning and impact that whole mindset is having on us, communally-speaking.  I also wrote something- even longer ago- about our current sorta mayor and his particularly heinous form of self-aggrandizing.  I don’t want to think/talk/write about him right now.

I also noted, much more recently, there are (at least) two great bloggers out there writing about narcissistic personality disorder, who have seen fit to acknowledge my own humble scribblings hereabouts.  As I said, I know little about clinical narcissism, myself.  From a psychological and/or diagnostic perspective, anyway.

But the subject keeps popping up…

Just today, for example, it appeared in my Facebook feed in a HuffPost article.

There’s a double-edged sword to all the potentiality for wonder and discovery in this world of ‘information sharing’ that we have happening.  There are SO many great sites- fiction, non-fiction, poetry, music, essays, opinions… there are myriad variations on endless themes out there.  But, as I’ve also mentioned, the lack of editorial control sometimes means that there is content out there that requires that we look at it quite critically  (certainly with a keener eye than is our general practice) to ensure that the material is coming from more than a troll-ish imagination that seeks attention and cares little for source checking or anything like documented support to ideas and statements.

There are also those sites that are devoted to pure vitriolic hatred- but they are easy enough to spot and avoid.  The pages of those with narcissistic leanings can be a little more insidious (like narcissism itself), since, needing attention, they have learned to disguise their manipulative ways by claiming to be talking about something else.

One such page was brought to my attention recently.  Generally I would have had a look and then dismissed it from my mind never to visit again.  But this page… In addition to the fact that it is poorly written (the grammatical and spelling errors are almost physically painful) the blatant pandering for attention is out of control.  Again, not normally my concern.  Except that such poorly-written blogs can be a little like a train wreck- and it can be hard to stop looking out of sheer amazement and morbid curiousity.  They often remind me of some of the more classic (using the word loosely) assignments I received while I was teaching, and so provide an element of nostalgia alongside the horror.

This one has stuck with me since it seems to be an exemplar of specific narcissistic tendencies- in particular the pathological drive to maintain contact and receive attention (if the ship of positive attention has sailed, then, evidently, negative attention will suffice) from those who have terminated relationships with the narcissist.

It’s such an inexplicable response that I can’t even wrap my head around it.

Ursula, at An Upturned Soul, wrote a post that helped me understand this propensity, at least a little bit.  She also noted that narcissism, as a theme/buzzword, appears to be the newest popular ‘trend’ in pop psychology.  For those who have experienced life with someone with narcissistic personally disorder this must be met with mixed emotions.  Everyone may be jumping on the bandwagon of late, but, as Ursula notes, overexposure and then boredom with the subject (side effects of our limited attention spans) will happen and something new will fill the void of topical psychological diagnoses.

I have had little personal experience (thankfully) with NPD.  But the other day a colleague asked me to define ‘narcissism’, so I inquired about the context of the question.  A mutual friend described the person she is involved with as a narcissist- and, not having even basic internet search skills, she didn’t know where to begin to look to discover what such a designation might entail.  I explained that there is a significant difference between narcissism as a character trait and narcissistic personality disorder as a pathology, though both terms come from the same source (it turned out that the person in question, while something of a ‘vain peacock’ does not, likely, have NPD).

You know I love words- and I’m all about the myths from which some of them originated…

Narcissus was the son of a river god and a nymph.  Something more than human, and, by all accounts, quite something to behold as far as physical beauty is concerned anyway.  He was also a jerk.  He delighted in the effect that he had on those foolish enough to think that a pretty face meant that he might have a heart/soul to match.

The version of the story that most know comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  The mountain nymph, Echo, sees and loves Narcissus, who spurns her advances and leaves her lonely and existing as little more than a remnant of her true self- a hollow reverberation that is the source of our word for the (partial) repetition of a sound or thought.

The goddess in charge of revenge- Nemesis- is unimpressed by this behaviour and causes Narcissus to fall deeply in love with his own reflection- his exterior love mirroring his interior love of himself.  Since this love would forever remain unrequited, Narcissus died alone and in agony that it could never be fully realized or properly addressed.  He pined and wasted away because his self-centredness was so encompassing- both before and after Nemesis played her little trick-  it never allowed for the presence of another person in his life.

Other versions of the story- both contemporary with and earlier than Ovid’s- end even more bleakly, with Narcissus actively killing himself when he realized that no one would ever live up to his self-idealization and replace himself as the centre of his own universe.

The takeaway from all versions of this story is that extreme selfishness/self-involvement/self-love- whether stemming from pathology or personality- is never going to end well.  As one of my blogging buds said a while back (I’m pretty sure it was Beth Byrnes- check out her post that I reblogged earlier today- awesome stuff, always), the historical pendulum- that has seen our societies move from a norm that was community-centric to one that highlights the importance of the individual- has swung too far.

We need a happy medium.  Yes, one must pay attention to the needs of oneself in order to effectively contribute to the addressing of the needs of the many.  Definitely.  No argument at all there.  A little selfish hedonism every once in a while is certainly acceptable and to be encouraged- provided it is done without completely ignoring our responsibilities to those with whom we share the planet.

Our systemic self-interest is directly connected to our lack of historical awareness and engagement with the lessons that have come before- those that are recorded in our collective myths and the events of significance that we can all access, should we be bothered to stop thinking only about ourselves and take the time to actually and actively LEARN something.

I know.  I’m lecturing.

It isn’t all about ‘ME’.  It CAN’T be all about the individual.  Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, our societal structure is in real danger of crumbling beneath this misperception- that the things we do need benefit us and us alone.  We are encouraged in this belief by our leaders- mainly through the lies rhetoric that speaks about people looking for ‘handouts’ or a ‘free ride’- at the expense of ‘the rest of us’.

Systemic selfishness is NOT an acceptable way of approaching the world.

Back in the Dark Ages (or the 1970’s), a band called Genesis (which then included Mr. Peter Gabriel) recorded and regularly performed an epic song that is both a work of musical genius and employs lyrical imagery that alludes to our shared histories and mythologies over the course of its 23 minutes.  It’s a commentary about- among other things- religion/spirituality, society and personal journeys.

Section IV- entitled ‘How Dare I be So Beautiful?’– references a solitary person, seemingly obsessed by his own image and evokes the story of our friend, Narcissus.  The heroes of the song witness his transmutation into a flower and are, themselves, pulled into their own reflections in the water.

The next section- ‘Willow Farm’– sees them emerge from the water and find themselves in a new reality- where everything moves and changes quickly and everyone seems mindlessly busy.  With each random blast of a whistle, everything changes into something else.  (Keep in mind that this was written in 1972.  Holy prescient view of the technological future in which we now find ourselves, Batman!)

After passing through the Apocalypse (there’s that apocalypticism creeping in- societal discord seems to make that happen), Magog is ultimately defeated by the forces of good.

It’s a powerful piece- made even more so by its employment of the imagery and archetypes that are drawn from our shared mythologies.  Its length (given the shortness of attention spans these days) and the fact that it alludes to all kinds of cool stuff, likely renders it unapproachable- to too many people- these days.  Like so much else of value.

Part of understanding the value of the Humanities is the necessary comprehension that we NEED to look outward- as well as inward- to really manifest our connection with this world of ours.  The fact that narcissism- with all its meanings- is such a topical term of late seems to be profoundly illustrative of the fact that this reality has been neglected- to our extreme and dangerous detriment.

And the fact that our putative leaders encourage and lead us by example into these behaviours?

Sing it, Pete.

So we’ll end with a whistle and end with a bang

And all of us fit in our places

With the guards of Magog swarming around

The Pied Piper takes his children underground

Dragons coming out of the sea

Shimmering silver head of wisdom looking at me

He brings down the fire from the skies

You can tell he’s doing well by the look in human eyes

Better not compromise, it won’t be easy

666 is no longer alone

He’s getting out the marrow in your back bone

And the seven trumpets blowing sweet rock and roll

Gonna blow right down inside your soul

Pythagoras with the looking glass reflects the full moon

In blood, he’s writing the lyrics of a brand new tune