Live Aid and the End of Civilization
Will digital mobs overwhelm us?
Thirty-seven years ago it was a dark but funny story. Today my experience at the global super concert Live Aid in July of 1985 is a dystopian metaphor for our self-destructive behavior.
For the youngin’s in the audience, Live Aid was an 18 hour concert, broadcast around the world from two stages in London and Philadelphia, featuring dozens of mega stars to raise money for famine relief in Africa. When I rolled into the since demolished JFK Stadium in Philly at 6 am, the pre-concert party was in full swing, with thousands of teens and twenty-somethings engaging in the traditions of youth. Fortunately, my concert ritual involved more organic and less dehydrating practices than these concert-goers. Given it was already 80 degrees, on the way to 95 degrees, pacing for a marathon seemed like a good idea. So, my friends and I first sat in the end zone opposite the stage.
As Joan Baez opened with “Amazing Grace” around 9:00 am, people mingled in front of us under garden hoses that were strung up and supported by a series of wooden poles. The hoses were punctured every foot or so, with water spraying downward for people to drink or cool off. There were about ten rows of hoses, each row roughly 100 feet long. By the time the Four Tops sang, “Reach Out-I’ll Be There” around 9:30 am, people were joyously dancing under what was then a giant shower, doing the conga and drinking the water from above.
By Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” thirty minutes later, the mood changed. No more dancing as the crowd grew thicker and more determined to fill their bottles, jugs and—eventually--coolers with water. By the time Run-D.M.C’s finished their set and Rick Springfield took the stage at 10:30 am, the only source of cooling water had people elbow to elbow, fifteen rows deep from all sides, waiting their turn for relief.
Soon the truth was self-evident, the water structures were not going to survive. My friend stated the obvious, “How can we end world hunger, when we can’t save our own water?”
Sure enough, by the time Crosby, Stills and Nash started “Teach Your Children” around 11:30, the crushing force of the crowd created competing waves of humanity pressing against the other. This forced the makeshift poles and water hoses to sway tenuously toward collapse. As the 80,000-plus stadium sung the peace anthem’s chorus (“And know they love you…”), the hypnotic sway of the crowd ignored the impending collapse of our drinking water supply.
By the time the Beach Boys completed “Good Vibrations” by 1pm, nothing remained of the cooling station, with nine more hours left under a cloud of humidity that hung inside the open air stadium. Around 2pm I made my move, walking around the outer concourse when I heard the opening guitar riff of the Pretender’s “In the Middle of the Road”. I couldn’t help myself and ran (bopped?) to the nearest entrance. Rounding the corner to run up the entrance ramp into the stadium, I was stopped cold by at least 100 lifeless bodies stacked two deep on the floor in the pedestrian tunnel. After a second of fright, I realized they were NOT dead, but just the folks whose partying peaked six hours earlier.
I spent the next few hours listening to Santana, Madonna, Tom Petty, Neil Young and Eric Clapton, slowly moving forward as people carried out friends from the front, all the while tripping over bodies I could not see. The last three hours I was in the 20th row range, enjoying Led Zeppelin (sans Bonham), Neil Young joining CSN and others. Eventually I was second row for some serious Rock and Roll history with Tina Turner and Mick Jagger performing “It’s Only Rock and Roll, But I Like It”.
Many people at the time, and some today, will see this story as a testament to the virtues of individual responsibly and the just rewards for personal initiative. Maybe. But was also an example of people following the conventional wisdom (of getting wasted before a concert) and ignoring basic commonsense that this was an 18 hour concert.
The obvious lesson this story has for today is that even as we try to save humanity, our behavior is killing humanity. But then the story was an ironic quip that hardly reflected the reality of the time. That’s because it was an era when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill fought using the Marquess of Queensberry Rules of politics and, for better or worse, public voices were limited to an elite few with access to TV networks or newspapers.
Less than forty years later, the whole dynamic has changed. Now our political conflicts are compared to the Civil War era and we have a new media ecosystem that has made us uniquely stupid. One only has to look at the current water crisis in Western US today and the continue impact of climate change worldwide, or FEEL the level of mistrust most Americans have of our institutions, to understand how prescient this Live Aid story became.
So the central question of our time is: how do we convince people to not start drinking at 6 am and not destroy the very things we need to survive. If we can’t, these are not the early days of the Digital Age, rather the early days of an Idiocracy. Which path will humanity take?