Hunger Strike

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"We would have been like Live Aid if the attacks hadn't happened," Healey says. "There was nothing else slated for those months, and our shows were really good. Melanie had done a great job. Her sister was involved. All the pieces were there. We had backing. We weren't scrambling for day-to-day bucks. We were ready, and it hurt the country and hurt us, too. You get more out of courage than you do out of fear, and I just hope Americans don't give in to fear. We were moving forward until this tremendous hit on New York and Washington. People were looking out into the world, and I hope this fear factor after September 11 doesn't bring people back into isolation."

Their disc must also compete with the dozens of benefit albums released after the attacks, compilations as diverse as The Concert for New York City (from the October 20 Madison Square Garden concert that featured, among so many others, The Who, Elton John, Billy Joel, David Bowie and Paul McCartney), the flag-waving God Bless America CD, the star-studded EP redo of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," new-age pianist George Winston's Remembrance--A Memorial Benefit and other collections. This week, Interscope is also releasing America: A Tribute to Heroes--one more double-disc fund-raiser, just in time for the holidays.

Upon its release a few weeks ago, Sony's God Bless America, with Celine Dion crooning "God Bless America" and Bob Dylan croaking "Blowin' in the Wind" and Mariah Carey moaning "Hero," debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts; to date, it has sold more than 700,000 copies--though not all the money goes to the Twin Towers Fund. (The back of the disc says that only "a substantial portion of the proceeds" goes to relief efforts.) And the "What's Going On" disc, which features the likes of Bono and Michael Stipe and 'N Sync and P. Diddy spread out over nine versions, was originally meant to be a benefit for Artists Against AIDS Worldwide; after the terrorist attacks, it was decided to split the proceeds with the United Way's September 11 Fund.

How can Groundwork compete for dollars and airtime in such an environment? How can it hope to make any noise amid so many benefit concerts and fund-raising albums meant to assist victims on the home front? On October 20, VH1 gave six hours to The Concert for New York City; on December 14, the network will air but a single hour from the Groundwork concerts, featuring only performers who fit its demographic--meaning no Femi Kuti, but plenty of Dave Matthews and Alanis Morissette and R.E.M. Ciccone says that a longer broadcast will be available through the organization's Web site (, which is also selling the CD), but there are no plans to release an album culled from the shows.

"We had hoped we'd get a little more network time, but it's hard to compete," says Ciccone, who had worked in the barrios of South America while studying international economics in college. "There are 800 million people starving, and I'm just afraid people are getting burned out on benefits. I think we all ought to be afraid of that. In a way, yeah, September 11 was an awakening, but it also caused a certain amount of myopia."

"That's why our broadcast is important at this time," Healey adds. "It says to the world, "We're not just concerned about ourselves. We're still concerned about the world,' and that's the right message to send to the world. I'm deathly afraid of the drive toward automatic isolationism...For us who have traveled the world and luckily have had good jobs that have allowed us to do wonderful things, when you see a million people on the move in Rwanda and another half-million killed, you get a sense of proportion to the evils that occur in the world. All evils are wrong and heinous, but when you lose 5,000, it's not like losing 500,000...and I think we Americans sometimes lose sight of that."

But Healey is undaunted. No matter the hurdles, Healey, speaking with an evangelist's fervor, imagines utopia nonetheless--a world in which American farmers advise and instruct their Third World counterparts via e-mail, a world in which American families send money directly to the needy and keep in touch over the Internet. "That's the world that brought me back," he says. But Healey's Eden is a far-off dream: Right now, the impoverished in Afghanistan and elsewhere devour their seeds before they're ever planted, so frightened are they of not living till the next rain, much less the next harvest.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky