When CBS broadcasts That’s What Friends Are For on April 17 (9-11 p.m. Eastern time), viewers will see two hours of sweet music and good thoughts. The TV special, taped during an AIDS fund-raising concert held a month earlier at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, presents the caring face of pop music: In the closing number Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston, and about 40 other performers sing ”That’s What Friends Are For,” the 1985 No. 1 hit that has become the unofficial anthem of those trying to stamp out AIDS. At the song’s end, Houston and Warwick join in a hug.
The concert, organized by Arista Records, was the first national AIDS fund-raising effort by the pop music community. It was a smashing success, collecting about $1.5 million for AIDS groups. Even though the show had a troubled two-year evolution, raising questions about the attitudes of the pop music community toward gays and AIDS, that night the musicians at Radio City formed a united front.
At the March 17 concert, Arista President Clive Davis declared the event to be ”a party with a purpose.” The party was to celebrate Arista’s 15th anniversary; the purpose was to fight AIDS by raising money and consciousness.
The serious side of the evening was evident in scattered moments. Outside Radio City before the show, members of the AIDS-activist group ACT UP handed out fliers. In the lobby, a New York City group, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), dispensed brochures and safe-sex packets with condoms. During the concert, the actors who hosted the show (Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Michael Douglas, Whoopi Goldberg, and Melanie Griffith) gave short speeches about AIDS. One of the chairmen of the benefit, Loews Hotels CEO and President Jonathan Tisch, told the audience, ”We must do everything in our power to end this plague.”
Two of the performances reflected the problem that had brought everyone together. Whoopi Goldberg did a bittersweet skit about a girl with AIDS, and Jennifer Holliday dedicated a song from the musical Dreamgirls to that show’s director, Michael Bennett, who died of complications from AIDS in 1987. The rest of the show concentrated, as it was supposed to, on entertainment. Twenty-two current and past Arista acts performed, including Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester, Patti Smith, Milli Vanilli, Daryl Hall and John Oates, and Taylor Dayne. Some of the live concert music won’t be seen on the TV special, but the notoriously audience-shy Carly Simon will appear in a segment taped before the concert started.
As much as the show reflected the somewhat conservative musical tastes of Clive Davis, it also demonstrated his relentless charitable determination. After volunteering to use his label’s anniversary as the foundation for the benefit, Davis gained the cooperation of nearly every artist he wanted. Everyone agreed to appear for just expense money; none of the artists performed extended sets, and many of them sang with the house orchestra rather than with their own backup musicians. Plus, CBS agreed to air the show in prime time. To accomplish all this took considerable clout. ”Clive Davis is a hero here,” says Katharine DeShaw, director of development at GMHC. ”He was willing to put himself on the line.”
Why did Davis do it? ”The cause,” he says. ”It’s the most urgent health problem facing us in this country. Nobody can remain immune from the effects of this terrible plague.” Davis prefers to give credit to the musicians who performed at the benefit: ”This wasn’t a command performance for Clive Davis. The artists responded openly that this was something they wanted to do.”
And yet it seems puzzling that it has taken this long for the pop music community to stage a major national AIDS benefit. At a time when a wide variety of causes is being embraced by musicians, from the environment to human rights to the ethical treatment of animals, these activists haven’t done very much to fight this major health problem.
There have been exceptions. Royalties from the song ”That’s What Friends Are For” have raised more than $1.5 million for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AMFAR). Madonna donated seats at her Madison Square Garden concert in 1987 and raised $250,000 for AMFAR. In Oakland Coliseum last June, the Grateful Dead headlined a 9 1/2-hour concert that raised $500,000 despite selling only two-thirds of the seats available. Various artists, such as the B-52’s and Los Lobos, have done public-service TV ads. But, according to fund-raisers at AMFAR (the most prominent nationwide group raising money to fight AIDS), musicians haven’t done as much as people in movies, TV, or the fine arts. ”Other areas of entertainment have done more, much more,” says a fund-raiser at AMFAR, who asked not to be named. ”I would like to see more support. I’d like to see [artists like] Bono and Sting get up on stage for us. I’d like to see Live-Aid for AIDS.”
As successful as the Arista benefit was, it followed two frustrating years that included a major controversy and one planned event that fell through. Back in 1988, Loews Hotels executive Jonathan Tisch was in the audience for the Grammy Awards at Radio City. Tisch, who headed the committee that brought the Grammys to New York, was chatting with his mother, Joan, a volunteer at GMHC. ”She said that, to her knowledge, there hadn’t been a major rock event to benefit AIDS,” Tisch recalls. ”I asked, ‘Who are you going to have do it?’ She said, ‘You.”’ So Tisch put together a group to chair the event, including two record company presidents, Clive Davis of Arista and David Geffen of Geffen Records.
By early 1989, the organizers had decided to produce a superstar concert the following summer to be called ”Rock and a Hard Place,” featuring six or so multi-platinum artists. In February, the heavy metal band Guns N’ Roses, from Geffen’s label, was the first band announced for the June 8 concert. Shortly thereafter, staffers at GMHC, the concert’s major beneficiary, discovered that the band had recorded a song, ”One in a Million,” that includes this homophobic observation:
Immigrants and faggots, they make no sense to me They come to our country, and think they’ll do as they please Like start a mini-Iran, or spread some f—in disease
By mid-March, GMHC asked Guns N’ Roses to withdraw. ”We felt that the group would be in total conflict with what we were trying to accomplish,” GMHC’s DeShaw remembers. ”It was an extremely difficult decision. David Geffen is an important person, and you never want to offend a major donor.”
Geffen is still angry about that decision, feeling that Guns N’ Roses would have raised a lot of money. ”I don’t care what their record was,” he says. ”If you need a blood donor and the only person who can give you a transfusion is Adolf Hitler, you take the blood.”