Roll Over, Elvis—the Latest Jailhouse Rock Was An All-Star Benefit for Political Prisoners

updated 06/30/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/30/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Halfway through its marathon 11 hours, Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope concert at New Jersey's Giants Stadium developed a split personality. In front of the curtain, it was a classic summertime rockfest; backstage, it seemed like the last day at summer camp. After two weeks of barnstorming the country in a Boeing 707, the concert's core performers—Sting, U2, Peter Gabriel, Bryan Adams, Joan Baez, the Neville Brothers and Lou Reed—had grown darn close to sentimental about the tour. Adams called the experience an education; Sting said he planned to become more active on Amnesty's behalf; Reed rated it "an extraordinary experience." Summed up U2's lead singer, Bono Hewson: "Rock 'n' roll has woken up a lot of people."

The concerts were the brainchild of Amnesty International's executive director for the U.S., Jack Healey, who felt the organization was "a too-well-kept secret in the United States." The nonpartisan, London-based group, which has 500,000 members in 150 countries, monitors the fate of some 5,000 political prisoners around the world. Amnesty's most potent tool, when trying to free prisoners, is public awareness, which can lead to political pressure. "We will be unhappy if we don't double our members in the U.S.," says Healey, 48, who claims that Amnesty now has 130,000 Americans on its roster. Although the tour expects to raise $3 million, Healey says his principal goal is to sign up people to write letters and circulate petitions. "What we want are activists, not just money." As Sting, a member for five years, noted, "It's great to have a fascist dictator as a pen pal."

The tour began to take shape last year, when Bono, after donating the proceeds from a U2 concert, asked if there was anything else the group could do to help Amnesty. "I need you for a week or two," Healey replied. Ten minutes later they signed an agreement, and Bono began contacting friends to fill the bill.

Gabriel, who hadn't performed live in three years, was hesitant when Bono first came courting. "I explained that I was nervous, not having performed for a while," Gabriel says. "But I wanted to get involved somehow. I thought I'd be a lot happier if I made at least some effort toward helping other people." Reed heard about the show and called to enlist. Baez, who helped start an Amnesty International chapter in California 13 years ago, was a pushover. For those of more modest means, the tour was a sacrifice. "This is putting us in the red," says Cyril Neville, whose fraternal band, the Neville Brothers, canceled other dates to perform, like everyone else, for free. "We couldn't afford financially to be part of this, but we couldn't afford morally not to be a part."

At some of the tour's six stops—San Francisco, L.A., Denver, Atlanta, Chicago and New Jersey—celebs padded the bill, and the audience. In Los Angeles, Madonna and Sean Penn, Rosanna Arquette, Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and the Band's Robbie Robertson shmoozed backstage while Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Dave Stewart and Bob Geldof added to the musical buffet. Geldof, who was recently knighted for his work with Band Aid and Live Aid, donned dark glasses and sang Bob Marley's reggae anthem, Get Up Stand Up. He later allowed that he hopes to be "the first knight on the charts."

Perhaps the tour's biggest surprise was the reunion of the Police, Sting's dormant super group, who hadn't played together since 1983. When Healey first broached the subject, Sting told him, "Well, since you asked me so nicely, I'll seriously consider it, if you don't tell anybody else you asked." Healey didn't, and Sting regrouped with fellow Policemen Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland for three shows. "For me the reunion was quite a shock," says Sting, who for the past two years has been backed by an all-star jazz band. "When brothers get up they play and dance differently than honkies." Summers and Copeland, who reportedly had been miffed at Sting for going solo, didn't talk about the reunion.

Between concerts, the mood on the moveable fest was convivial. On one intercity hop, Gabriel instigated a pillow fight at 30,000 feet. When ticket sales lagged in Denver, Adams corralled Baez, Bono and Gabriel and marched them to a local radio station, where they managed to drum up an extra 2,000 sales. After the show in Atlanta, the conspirators overran the bar at the airport Ramada Inn and sang most of the songs recorded since the beginning of time, until the bartender bounced them after last call. Undeterred, the group serpentined through the lobby in a conga line and sang '60s protest songs.

On the subjects of rock and responsibility, the musicians were, for the most part, more sober. Gabriel ventured that "rock musicians have a worldwide audience that transcends race and nationality in a way that's quite unique in history." At the same time, said Bono, "Rock 'n' roll is one of the most selfish, self-centered industries. We surround ourselves with people who agree with us, and we are too generously rewarded for the things we do. It's clear that I've already gotten far more than I've given."

Disparity was obvious backstage, where, at some stops, the pop stars met with former prisoners, many of whom had been freed with Amnesty's help. Baez cried as lawyer Lee Shin Bom, 36, described how she had been tortured during seven years in South Korean prisons. Gabriel wrapped his arm around physician Irene Martinez, 32, of Argentina, who had been jailed for two years, four months of which she spent blindfolded. Even Sting, one of rock's more articulate practitioners, found himself uncustomarily tongue-tied when meeting people whose experiences contrasted so markedly with the tour's festival atmosphere. "I don't know what to say to these people," he later told Healey, "except 'I'm so very glad you're here.' "

Share this story:

Your reaction:

advertisement

From Our Partners

From Our Partners