Monday, December 23, 2019

"Do They Know It's Christmas?" Wonder and Woe

"I DON'T LIKE MONDAYS" was one fucked up piece of pop music. A bouncy 1979 ditty inspired by the true story of a teen-aged girl who opened fire on a San Diego school yard, killing two people and wounding nine just 'cause, its off-kilter sentiments have not aged well.

But a shot at redemption for its co-author, Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats, came just five years later in the form of perhaps the most impactful holiday song since Irving Berlin wrote White Christmas in 1942.

The sleeve for the Columbia Records single
As with Geldof's prior hit, Do They Know It's Christmas was inspired by a tragic situation with deadly consequences: famine in war-torn Ethiopia. Geldof's response to that disaster was epic, misguided, wonderful and misunderstood.

Recorded by some of the biggest stars of the era in U.K. and Irish pop under the moniker Band Aid and carried to the world by MTV at the peak of its influence, Do They Know It's Christmas reverberates to this day.

In their three-minute and fifty-second tune, Geldof and co-author Midge Ure of Ultravox shamed the Euro-American world for living in relative safety, security and plenty while those on the horn of Africa were starving to death, then urged people to open their hearts and their wallets to help.

Among those belting out their trenchant message were Sting, Bono, Phil Collins, Culture Club's Boy George, George Michael, Bananarama, Paul Young, Jody Watley, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. In artfully pieced together solos, duets, trios and quartets they sang:

... But say a prayer, pray for the other ones... At Christmastime it's hard, but when you're having fun... There's a world outside your window, and it's a world of dread and fear... Where the only water flowing, is the bitter sting of tears... And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom... Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you!

Then, pivoting to the thesis question:

And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime... The greatest gift they'll get this year is life... Where nothing ever grows... No rain nor rivers flow... Do they know it's Christmas time at all?

The obvious answer was yes, yes they knew it was Christmastime. Christianity had come to Ethiopia 1,600 years earlier, making it one of the oldest Christian nations on earth. Africa as a whole, was and is heavily -- even if not predominantly -- Christian. That didn't stop critics from calling the sentiment Eurocentric and condescending.

A side/B side
Whether it felt like Christmas time was the issue. Yuletide greetings and neatly wrapped gifts all seem rather beside the point when there's nothing to eat at all, which lead to the point carried home by the ensemble chorus:

Feed the world! Let them know it's Christmas time again... Feed the world! Let them know it's Christmas time again... Feed the World! Let them know it's Christmas time again...

But that's where the real problems began. 

Do They Know It's Christmas was released on Dec. 3, 1984. Almost immediately it zoomed to the top of the U.K. charts where it perched on Christmas Day and selling more than three million copies there before the year was out. It sold another 2.5 million in the U.S. and 12 million worldwide. It also made money, perhaps as much as $28 million, intended for Ethiopian famine relief.

We Are the World, an American counterpart single was recorded in 1985 by Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Lionel Richie and other big stars who wrapped it in an LP's worth of material under the banner USA for Africa. Then came the trans-Atlantic benefit concert, Live Aid. Surely all of that frenetic activity could contribute something positive.

Foreign aid at 45 rpm
And that's been a subject of some dispute.

While all this was going on, Ethiopia was ruled by a Soviet-backed dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam.  The famine, which killed an estimated 1.2 million people, happened on his watch and -- according to Human Rights Watch -- as a result of his policies, while the government he led fended off an insurgency.

Much of the money raised through all these efforts went not for food, but for weapons, according to a 1986 Spin Magazine expose. Over the ensuing four decades, Geldof has vehemently disputed this was the case.

While the cloud over his efforts and those of Ure and the performing artists has never truly dissipated, the song has endured, being remade in 1989, 2004 and yet again in 2014, the last time in service of raising money to combat an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.

Still, there was no time like that first time, 35 years ago this month.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Jets, the Pats and Death from the Sky at Halftime

FOR 60 YEARS, the New York Jets and New England Patriots have regarded one another with a wariness befitting Cold War superpowers, using whatever treacherous means necessary to gain competitive advantage. Executives have been pirated, head coaches coaxed away, star players persuaded to defect.

December 9, 1979, at
Shea Stadium in NYC
Largely led by Bill Belichick, New England has dominated on the field of play, rolling up a 67-54-1 all-time record with six Super Bowl championships to the Jets' measly one. Two times Belichick was named head coach of the Jets, only to be demoted in 1997 after the Bill Parcells ploy backfired and only to resign in evident disgust when tabbed again in 2000, all without ever actually coaching a game for them.

There's been the evil of Spygate, the embarrassment of The Butt Fumble.

Twice the Patriots/Jets convergence has had near fatal consequences and once, 40 years ago this weekend, it was actually, literally, deadly.

In 1969, just days after designing the offensive scheme for the Jets' Super Bowl III victory, Clive Rush was hired by the Patriots as their head coach. On Feb. 12, he was given the honor of introducing the team's new general manager, George Sauer Sr. (father of the champion Jets receiver George Jr.).

Rush stepped up to the podium, gripped the microphone and began screaming as electricity from a short circuit coursed through his body, according to the Boston Globe. Were it not for a Patriots board member ripping out the wires running to a wall socket, Rush's coaching career -- and indeed his life -- might have ended right there.

Then, on Sept. 23, 2001, early in Belichick's second season as the Pats' head honcho, Jets linebacker Mo Lewis slammed into New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe as he sought to escape New York's pass rush. Bledsoe suffered a torn blood vessel in his chest. Only a team doctor's prompt decision to rush him to the Mass General emergency room kept the quarterback from dying.

While the quick thinking saved his life, it couldn't save his job as backup QB Tom Brady stepped in to the starting role and hasn't relinquished it to this day.

But in between the Rush Electrocution and the Bledsoe Bleed there was a third incident, during halftime of a game at New York's Shea Stadium, that took the life of not a player or coach but of a Patriots fan. It was an accident so improbable, so tragically bizarre, that even the urban legend detectives at felt compelled to confirm it really did happen.

It happened on Dec. 9, 1979. I was there with my pal, Eddie, my dad and more than 45,000 other people.

Game day souvenir

It was the last home game of the season at the gusty multipurpose stadium near the shore of Flushing Bay, perhaps two miles southeast of LaGuardia Airport. The 6-8 Jets had gone into the locker room with a 17-12 lead over the 8-6 Pats.

Mid-game entertainment would be provided by the Electronic Eagles of The Radio Control Association of New York, an organization of gas-powered remote-controlled model plane enthusiasts. Only these weren't ordinary planes or even the hobby drones now popular across the U.S. They were flying contraptions, one of which was configured to look like a lawnmower.

As the innocent, if ill-conceived stunt flying exhibition got underway, my pal and I had headed off to the souvenir stand in search of swag, leaving my dad holding a pair of high-powered Bushnell binoculars I'd received as a bar-mitzvah gift a year earlier. Our seats were in the upper deck on what would be Shea's first-base side during baseball season.

Dad, now nearly 87, picks it up from there:

"The lawnmower plane was flying clockwise around the playing field at about the height of the top of the grandstand, with an occasional swoop downward and over the seating area. I was standing, following the show with the binoculars. 

After a swoop or two at the seating area across the field the plane swooped in and failed to swoop out again, as was expected. Instead, it crashed into several spectators, who went down. The crowd started to chant "Sue! Sue! Sue! It stopped when the injured party (or parties) didn't get up, when the crowd realized that the injury was more serious than originally thought. 

I don't think anyone anticipated a fatality."

The lawnmower plane crashed into field level seats behind the Patriots' bench, along what would be the third-base side of the stadium, and into a crowd of New England fans who'd made the trip to Queens for the game.

Game day program
Kevin Rourke, 25, of Lynn, Massachusetts sustained a concussion, according to a New York Times report. Another fan, John Bowen, 20, of Nashua, New Hampshire, died from his injuries four days later at a hospital in New York City.

The Queens County District Attorney's Office ruled the incident an accident and declined to bring charges against the pilot of the wayward craft, Brooklyn auto body repairman Philip Cushman.  Bowen's father later filed a $10 million federal lawsuit against the Jets, the Electronic Eagles and Cushman.

But from there the trail goes cold. I could find no official record of the case or how it ended.

In the third quarter, New England rallied for a brief 19-17 lead before the Jets added 10 more points. A late Patriots touchdown brought them to within one but New York held on to win, 27-26.

Just grown men playing a game.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive