It was just something that I could do and maybe
get a little more sleep at night. And just know that I had done
all that I was able to do. The more you do, the more you're able
to do. And the more you're able to do, the better you feel.
- Jackson Browne,
MUSE board member
Sure we're in over our heads. When we walked
onto the Seabrook site with 180 people, we were definitely out
of our depth. We've always been. We're treading water as fast
as we can, but we're keeping our heads up there. To me, MUSE is
just another form of occupation. We're occupying Madison Square
Garden for five nights
- Harvey Wasserman,
cofounder, Clamshell Alliance;
MUSE foundation board member
By Daisann McLane
The first thing you notice is the pallor. That woman stretched out on the concrete floor in front of a dressing-room door, her head resting on a pillow of ticket receipts, has it. James Taylor, who at this moment is staring into the lens of cinematographer Haskell Wexler's motion-picture camera as if it were the eye of an extraterrestrial creature, has it. Jackson Browne, who has just lured a beefy Madison Square Garden backstage security officer from his nightly round of five-card draw to lecture him on the dangers of nuclear power, has it worst of all. The color of his pallor falls roughly between the shades of Kaopectate and cocoa butter; it resembles the bloodless complexion of a rock & roller in the final stages of tour madness, but with a difference. These skins glow with consumption; they radiate with exhaustion like the faces of saints contemplating the reward beyond the burning stake. Yes, these faces say, I have not slept in five days. But-for once-there is a good reason why!
The second thing you notice is that nothing backstage makes the usual sense, at least in rock & roll terms. There is a native American man, his hair in long, dark braids, standing over in the wings; he is introduced to me as a singer friend of Jackson Browne's. "Oh? Will you be performing together? I ask. "Perhaps," the man says without a trace of self-consciousness. "If he can learn the harmony part to one of my songs." A man in a red plaid kilt with and electric guitar slung over his shoulders sails through, trailed by a crew of film people. Nobody bats an eye. (It is Hamish Stewart of the Average White Band.) Two antinuclear activists are standing in the hallway outside Bruce Springsteen's dressing room, discussing organizing tactics. Springsteen is nervous, for this will be his first night on-stage in over a year; he walks out toward the wings to go on, hesitates, goes back inside, then repeats the ritual. "What do you know about this Springsteen guy?" one pol asks the other, watching Bruce return for a third time. "Do you think he's on, uh, drugs?"
No, none of this makes sense in rock & roll terms, because this is not a rock & roll event - not exactly. Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) was originally the brainchild of four performers (John Hall, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Graham Nash) and four antinuclear activists (Sam Lovejoy, Howard Kohn, Tom Campbell and David Fenton). Several months ago, they began planning a series of all-star anti-nuclear benefits in Madison Square Garden in late September (the Garden was chosen for its media impact). The politicians knew little, if anything, about the music business; the musicians had rudimentary - if that - knowledge about concert production. Together they set out to organize a series of fund-raisers that would have boggled the resources of the most experienced rock promoter: five nights of music featuring twenty different acts at one of the largest indoor rock arenas in the United States.
"We have a merger of musicians and movement people here, a merger of styles," Harvey Wasserman, one of the political organizers on the MUSE Foundation board, tells me. Wasserman has the pallor; like many of the MUSE principals, he also tends to speak in short, excited bursts. "The rock scene is extremely hierarchial, and they're used to operating in that fashion. The movement people are used to operating in a communal fashion. So what we have here is a merger of communities. It's wild."
What this "merger of communities"
has produced is an organization that is at once chaotic, adaptable,
quirky and efficient. Nobody is the "leader" of MUSE:
everybody has areas of responsibility, but the areas overlap.
The guiding principle seems to be: if there is anything that needs
to be done, and you're nearby, do it. Hence the pallid faces and
glassy eyes. Try to walk down a corridor alongside Graham Nash
or John Hall, as I tried to do, and you are liable never to reach
the end, because there is always someone interrupting: there's
a set-change problem, a last-minute addiction to Sunday's billing
or a recording slip-up. Decisions of major importance are hashed
out at meetings of the MUSE production board; earlier this evening,
it held one of its umpteenth impromptu caucuses in a dressing-room
vestibule, the members sitting cross-legged on the floor. There
is a joke floating around backstage among the MUSE workers:
"What time is it?"
"It's 7:30. That means it's probably past ten. I'm on MUSE time."
This joint effort of musicians and politicians has nothing to do with the relation music and politics shared ten years ago. Back then, the symbiosis was implicit; if you dug Hendrix and the Doors, chances were you felt a certain way about the Vietnam War, about lifestyles, about the government. MUSE isn't a symbosis - it's more like a collaboration, in which the music people learn a little about politics, and the activists learn what it's like to wrestle with promoters, unions and road managers. Each group behaves a little uncertainly, like country bumpkins suddenly plunked in the middle of the big city. for example:
David Bowie visits backstage. He sits on a table in the middle of the common area, clad in a red, Fiorucci-style outfit, and swings his legs back and forth while chatting about the photography to a woman with a British accent. Typical backstage rock stuff. Until Graham Nash and John Hall spot him a swoop in, MUSE programs in hand. "We're the receiving committee," Hall jokes good-naturedly, while Nash turns the subject of discussion around to nuclear power and the still tentative lineup of performers for the final night. It is all very polite and friendly - but startling, like running into the pastor when you are trying to slip out of church early. Bowie listens attentively, and smiles and smiles. He does not perform that night, or the night after.
Somehow this unlikely organization manages to pull off five moneymaking concerts. By the end of "MUSE week," September 19th through 23rd, at least $300,000 (somewhat less than originally predicted) will be ready for distribution to various antinuclear groups. Several million dollars are expected to be added when the receipts start coming in from a record (a live set on elektra/Asylum, planned for release before Christmas) and a film (codirected by Barbara Kopple and Haskel Wexler, Academy Award winners) scheduled for completion sometime next spring. From a fundraising point of view, MUSE was a success.
But the musicians and politicians wanted the MUSE concerts to be more than that. "It's not only the money that's important," Graham Nash stressed at a press conference earlier in the week. "It's the feeling we're trying to create here." Later, in a hurried conversation, he compared the MUSE spirit to his experience at Woodstock: "It's even better." MUSE wasn't just after cash, it was after vibes - that elusive moment when artist, audience and Important Cause are in sync.
The concerts came off like clockwork. The vibes? That's another story.
Look for the center of something long enough, and it will find you. Since the beginning of MUSE week, I have been trying to figure out how an organization that can play havoc with the simplest ticket order is able to coordinate the logistics of set changes, equipment allocation, light direction and stage management for twenty groups, some of which have never played a hall as large as the Garden. The answer is sitting behind a desk inside a small room in the bowels of the arena.
Tim Sexton is listed on the program as "associate producer" - he is, actually, in charge of the nuts and bolts of the MUSE concerts. Three times during the forty-five minutes that I wait in his office, Sexton gets up and tries to leave so we can go someplace quieter to talk; three times we have to turn back. Sexton, a bearded, thoughtful fellow, with the frame of an ex-football player, unravels travel plans for one group, arranges an equipment change for another and diplomatically unruffles the feathers of an angry road manager who has stormed in to complain about his allotment of backstage passes. "This is where the buck stops," he smiles ruefully.
"I first got involved with MUSE last June," he explains over dinner. Nash and Browne approached him, figuring they'd need a professional production manager to help them put the concerts together. Sexton, a thirty-year old veteran of Ice Follies tours and rock shows from Poco to Diana Ross, immediately set to work, bringing in four of the best production managers he could find. "We operate according to the 'deep bench' principle," he says. Two of his managers were New York-based and familiar with the tricky negotiations with unions that can make or break a promoter. A third was from the West Coast and a fourth had worked with Bruce Springsteen. Sexton hired his staff - which eventually totaled thirty-five - at competitive salaries. "At first the musicians were against that. They didn't realize that, while they could afford to donate their time, the guy who carries their guitars or moves their equipment probably has a wife and kids and can't afford to be so generous."
Early in the summer, Sexton and his staff laid the groundwork that kept MUSE running smoothly in September. "The cooperation of the bands was incredible," Sexton says. "We got bass players, for example to agree to play through the same amps! That's what the spirit of this thing has been like.
Most of the performers were coming from Los Angeles, and more than 150 rooms in six different hotels had to be reserved at the peak of the New York convention season. "Minimodules" were set up in each hotel to arrange travel and ground transportation. A fleet of fifteen station wagons was hired to ferry the performers to and from rehearsals and sound checks; two rehearsal studios were reserved for an entire week.
"Security was also a very important consideration," Sexton says gravely. "These concerts have the potential to make a lot of money for the antinuclear lobby, and there arecertain influential forcesthat would like to see these concerts be a failure." He mentions the possibility of a drug setup - or worse - and says that the musicians were made aware of the potential danger (there were no incidents of that kind). Backstage, drugs are not in evident use. Bottles of liquor are banned outside of individual dressing rooms.
Sexton looks at his watch and gets up to leave. "The feeling of this whole thing - that's the best part. I haven't been involved in politics since the Sixties. Now I finally feel like I'm doing something that really means something." He smiles, and chuckles to himself. "Yesterday, I had to go out and buy a tube of Poli-Grip. Thirty years old, and I'm using Poli-Grip! You see, my caps are all loose. I've been grinding my teeth since last June."
The first night's concert begins promptly at 7:30 with John Hall and his band. Outside, the $18.50 tickets are being scalped for a modest twenty-five dollars; there are still empty seats in the orchestra (a MUSE official explains later that these seats were set aside for $100 contributors - and MUSE didn't sell them all). Hall performs a short, pleasant set. After about twenty minutes, Bonnie Raitt joins him for his last number, "Good Enough." Then Hall and his band leave the stage, and Raitt's band replaces them - a smooth change, much like those between acts at the Lowell George memorial benefit in August. One band weaves into the next. Most of the people on tonight/s bill - Raitt, Hall, Browne, Taylor - have played with each other, anyway.
There are no overt political statements from the stage throughout the evening, but Graham Nash comes close. During his set, he says things like, "It still is true - we still have the power to change the world, y'know." And during the longest set change (James Taylor to the Doobie Brothers), a short film about the dangers of nuclear power is projected on a screen suspended over the stage. But somehow the political and musical aspects don't mesh. When the music has an antinuclear theme (as in Hall's "Power" and "Plutonium Is Forever"), it seems heavy-handed, forced. When the music has no political content - which is most of the time - it seems like just another rock concert, and a slow one at that. Until the Doobie Brothers play a short, spirited set of their greates hits, things drag. The highest moment in the first half comes when Carly Simon leaps onstage in a form-fitting taffeta jump suit to join husband James Taylor in a duet of "Mockingbird" - a moment of pure unadulterated sex.
The concert runs long - five hours. Because of union overtime rules, MUSE will have to pay an extra $12,000 an hour for every hour and fraction thereof past midnight. Thursday night's concert is a near repeat of the first night's except for one difference. The set changes are faster, and the show ends sooner.
The CBS Newsman is slightly upset.
What do you say to people who say that musicians are getting too powerful, or too pushy?" he asks.
It is the first difficult question of this MUSE press conference in the Statler Hilton, Up on the dais, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Graham Nash and John Hall appear to be taken aback.
"I believe," Nash begins quickly "that when the nuclear-power companies are threatening my life personally, I'm gonna get up and scream as loud as I can, no matter what I do for a job."
The newsman addresses the question to Raitt.
"Artists traditionally have been in a position to get public attention. Now, if the media had reported accurately about the dangers of nuclear power . . . if they hadn't consistently mis-estimated crowd sizes at antinuclear demonstrations . . ."
She is irritated now, and wraps up her answer quickly.
". . . Our responsibility is to focus media attention. If just the movement people had been here today, you probably wouldn't have even covered this!"
The newsman sits down, but he is not satisfied; the question he raised has not really been answered fully. What will happen when the success of the MUSE concerts demonstrates that musicians organized on a grand scale can raise large amounts of money for a political cause? Will they then be courted by politicians, religious leaders, cultists? And - most importantly - can we trust them to make responsible decisions?
The concerts Friday and Saturday night are different, and the reason is Bruce Springsteen. The Friday show was one of the faster sellouts in the history of the Garden. The crows is younger, and crazier; for the first time, I spot a few bloodied casualties being dragged down the aisles by security people. This is a Springsteen crowd, too, with little patience for preliminaries. On Friday, Jesse Colin Young and Jackson Browne do short sets but fail to capture the allegiance of this revved-up bunch. Saturday, Peter Tosh, who exuberantly performs twenty minutes of reggae, lopes back and forth across the stage in a burnoose and fares better, as does Tom Petty, who rocks hard but seems a little taken aback by the size of the stadium. This is a tough audience to crack. On Friday, Chaka Khan leaves the stage in a huff. Seems she thought the audience was booing her; what she really heard was the sound of thousands of voices chanting Bruuuce! Bruuuce!
What's Springsteen doing here? One condition that he set before agreeing to perform was that no politicians be on the program. Springsteen is the only musician who did not outline his reasons for joining the antinuclear movement in a short statement for publication in the MUSE program. "Bruce felt that a statement wasn't appropriate - the music was enough," his manager, Jon Landau, explains logically. He adds that Bruce agreed to play this show after learning the money would not go to any political candidate.
In effect, Springsteen's presence serves to dilute the political tone of this event, and he represents the main dilemma facing MUSE. The reason these concerts will be so successful financially is Bruce Springsteen: he has the kind of drawing power in the New York area that will pack a house for two nights in a row (Friday's Springsteen show is the only sell-out). But with Springsteen on the program, the political nature of the concerts is lost; his crown doesn't particularly notice the antinuclear theme. As evidence:
"How're ya doing with those program sales tonight, Joe?"
"We're selling like hot cakes. See, I told all my vendors to hold the books open to the Springsteen page, like this. Then to say, 'Bruce Springsteen programs here!' Like I said - they're movin' 'em."
It takes more than an hour to prepare the stage for Springsteen and his band; when he finally takes the stage, the moment is tense. It is his first performance in over a year, but as the set unfolds (it is a short one for Springsteen - about eight-five minutes), he loosens up, giving a classic, polished show. The crowd is his; fans are on their feet, standing on chairs from the first note, mouthing the words to every song. For the first time all week, it feels like something special is happening at Madison Square Garden. "Magic," I write in my notebook as Springsteen encores on a duet with Jackson Browne ("Stay"), transcendence." Wht irony. The MUSE principals have been searching all week for the vibe, the feeling. Springsteen doesn't have to search for it; he walks onstage and it's there.
The hand-lettered sign reads: SURF NAZIS (the go-fuck-yourself room).
Jackson Browne opens the dressing-room door. We are looking for a place to sit and talk for a few moments. This is not it. Inside, ten roadies are huddled in a circle. When they spot Browne, they roar. He says something like, "Heyyyyy." The Surf Nazis have nailed a turkey-and-rye sandwich, knife, spoon and napkin to the right-hand wall. Browne looks at it and laughs. The Surf Nazis laugh. We find another dressing room.
Browne, I've been told is the real guiding force behind MUSE - its spiritual center. "Before the Deluge" is the first real antinuke song, several MUSE activists have said. Browne does seem to have a grasp of the metaphor of the event. He had the idea to make a MUSE film, and he is getting the cameras to record everything - even Graham Nash's impassioned phone call to Stephen Stills to come and reunite. CS&N for the MUSE finale. Browne has also forged an alliance with the native American activists who are backstage in increasing numbers. Browne has visited the Lakota (Sioux) in the South Dakota Black Hills, which are being threatened by uranium strip-mine interests. He has studied the legends of the Hopi.
We sit down, and he makes sure my tape machine is running. I ask him about his involvement with the Indians. He talks rapidly, about the threatened nations, about the lies and tricks of the American government. He mentions the FBI and the CIA. He continues his stories for fifteen minutes before I have a chance to ask another question. I ask him about musicians and politics. Now that musicians are learning they have the power, can we depend on them to use it properly?
It's not very much power compared to what they have! But what we have on our side . . . the threat is real, being victimized is real, the need for change is real, and these things amount to something that is true. The need for nuclear power is not true, and their success lies in the fact that it takes so much money and energy to perpetrate. Their thing is based on selling something to somebody that they don't need. That's Madison Avenue. That's Jiffy Pop. That's hair dryers. New and more expensive ways of using up power for the aggrandizement of oneself. It's been sold like a drug. Like a mirror that will lie to you!"
He is agitated. He stands up, and speaks more loudly.
"If we get a million dollars, a half-million dollars from tickets or a million from the record . . . the important thing is that we will have plugged people into something."
Browne walks over to the buffet table and slaps a piece of turkey against a piece of rye bread. The he excuses himself, and leaves the room.
The sun is shining Sunday and 200,000 people have shown up for a MUSE related antinuclear rally in Battery Park City - a sandy landfill in lower Manhattan "in view of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, mammoth symbols of urban energy abuse," is how it has been described by one of the rally's organizer. Bonnie Raitt has just been onstage with her band. Jackson Browne, John Hall and Graham Nash will be here later. Ralph Nader will be here. Jane Fonda will be here with her husband, Tom Hayden. She will personally thank all four musicians for their help and tell the audience that we must all be "Paul and Pauline Reveres, warning Americans of the dangers of nuclear power." But right now, activist Barry Commoner is speaking about the sun:
"The sun! . . . Exxon doesn't like it because it's free!"
He pauses. About fifty rows back in the crowd, several groups are waving banners painted with golden discs.
"The sun! It's abundant!" The crowd cheers. I remember something Harvey Wasserman said to me backstage several nights ago. "You know, there is going to be a big change in society when we switch to solar energy. I think that the character of power obtained from photovoltaic cells is different from the character of power obtained from oil or gas or nukes." He smiled the smile of someone who knows he has just said something improbable. The grin of the mystic, the true believer.
"You mean," I asked him, "that solar energy will produce, uh, better vibes?"
"Exactly. That's just it. Better vibes."
That afternoon at the rally, 5000 tickets are sold for that night's concerty featuring Crosby, Stills and Nash. The organizers have been worried about this last night; it was added late, and the final lineup of artists wasn't officially determined until two nights before the show. Sunday night has been a major topic of backstage buzz all week. Who will show? Ronstadt? The Clash? Debbie Harry and Chris Stein? Aerosmith?
By Saturday, only 9000 seats (out of 19,600) were sold. If we'd announced Crosby, Stills, Nash sooner," Sexton told me, "we'd have sold out easily. But six days before the concert?" He shook his head.
But tonight, the audience has been swelled
by the additional 5000 people still hight from the rally. Spontaneous
chants of "No nukes! No nukes! Break out between sets. Ralph
Nader is here with two official-looking companions in dark gray suits, watching the music from the wings.
The evening gets off to a shaky start - Raydio, a black pop group, plays a short, largely ignored set. Things pick up with the arrival of Poco, who seem to have quite a few longtime fans in this audience - mostly white, well-groomed people in their mid-twenties. Then after a short set change, the "MUSE All-Stars" are announced. The All-Stars are a last-minute collection of performers from the other nights - plus a few special guests. This part of the set was put together the night before, in an eleventh-hour rehearsal, and there's uncertainty about just how this performance will come off. Backstage, John Hall has been running around with a tattered slip of paper - it's the set list, and it's getting changed on the average of once every ninety seconds.
Perhaps that's why the All-Stars set has so many electric moments: Jesse Colin Young, leading the audience in a singalong of "Get Together"; Jackson Browne and a picup band of Waddy Wachtel, Rick Marotta, Bob Glaub and Bill Payne, playing a sloppy yet inspired version of Dylan's "All along the Watchtower"; Paul Simon, accompanied only by his own guitar, transfixing the audience with "Slip Slidin' Away," "Sounds of Silence" and "Me and Julio down by the Schoolyard." When Crosby, Stills and Nash take the stage for an hour and a half, the electricity is replaced by nostalgia for the late Sixties, but that doesn't really matter. Tonight, MUSE comes as close as it ever will to achieveing that elusive combination of music, politics and feeling.
The "Woodstock of the Eighties" ends in a fashionable gay discotheque somewhere in Manhattan's warehouse district. It is a dark, labyrinthine arrangement of rooms, bars, lights and mirrors that's been rented out for tonight's postconcert party. I spot Harvey Wasserman in T-shirt and jeans, slumped in a pillow couch; his eyes are closed, and he's smiling. Strobe lights play across the dance floor, where Carly Simon, once again wearing her jump suit, is circling in a free-form ballet to an Elvis Costello record. Several of the native American people watch her from the bar. What can they be thinking? Are they reminded of the sun dance of the Lakota nation.
Later in the week, MUSE organizer Howard Kohn will tell me that MUSE almost certainly will hold more concerts. He won't divulge any names of performers, but he says the MUSE board will meet in early November to discuss more projects. "This is not the end."
That will be happening later. But right now, the MUSE people are celebrating. Political workers in Pacific Alliance T-shirts are po-going with road managers and session musicians. Record business executives are drinking at the bar with organic farmers. Old-left radicals are dancing alongside rock & roll singers.
The dancing, I'm told, goes on well past sunrise.
The MUSE Concerts were a high-water mark of inspiration and optimism about the ability of musicians, their audiences and persevering activists to do good.
The basic pattern for rock & roll fund-raising concerts was established by the San Francisco groups in the Sixties. They set an example that led directly to George Harrison's Concert for Bangla Desh and other benefits.
The MUSE concerts were unique because they were organized and presented by the musicians themselves (not their agents, managers, record companies or lawyers) in partnership with hard-working, low-profile activists. The concerts were among the most smoothly run I've ever seen, and the audience was friendly and enthralled.
Jackson Browne, more than any other person, put his reputation, friendships and artistic integrity on the line. He brought in many of the major performers through his own preeminence, dedication and sincerity, which has been demonstrated by doing other, smaller benefits.
Like - Jackson, Bonnie Raitt, John Hall and Graham Nash performed tirelessly and selflessly - organizing and energizing the day-to-day drudgery without which no great enterprise takes place. The Doobie Brothers, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Ry Cooder, Tom Petty, Gil Scott-Heron, Peter Tosh, Jesse Colin Young and Bruce Springsteen, among many others, devoted their efforst and sacrificed commercial opportunities.
Sam Lovejoy, probably the original antinuke organizer (he toppled a weather tower in 1974 to protest a proposed nuclear-power plant), did his part without benefit of book contracts or publicity. Tom Campbell, producer of a score of smaller benefits over the past three years, made his experience and around-the-clock efforts work in New York. Howard Kohn, the Rolling Stone reporter who for four and a half years pursued the Karen Silkwood investigation and persuaded me out of many thousands of dollars, editorial space and staff for the antinuclear movement, quietly saw this all through.
It took a year to put the MUSE concerts together; to sustain such an effort is a real test of belief in and dedication to long-term goals.
In the end, it was the largest, most impressive
gathering of musicians ever assembled for a non-profit event,
and it was a stunning testimony to the depth of the shared beliefs
of the generation that came of age in the Sixties.