Woodstock in the Studio
January 28: 8:00 p.m. After an all-day deluge, the night turns cool and dry. As the crowd spills out of the American Music Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles, last-second preparations are underway at the A & M Studio complex off Sunset Boulevard. Humberto Gatica is in a cold sweat in Control Room A because some technical problems have cropped up with his 32-track Mitsubishi digital tape recorder. He’ll need both that and a 24-track Studer analog machine to capture all the voices tonight. He’s working feverishly. But everything else is ready: seven microphones on booms to capture the chorus (two near, three far, and two in-between) have been placed and secured, five special amplifiers for the solo mikes are up and humming. Studio B has been turned into an artists’ lounge; a jolly group in Studio C await makeup and hair detail; Mix 1 and Mix 3 will be dressing rooms for Boy and Girl artists.
Thirty security guards ring the perimeter of the complex and police the corridors. Some have their hands full already, defending the front gate. A local NBC camera crew has been camped there since 6:00. A leak from a good source, they say. They’ve been joined by a curious though hardly dangerous group of maybe a dozen neighborhood residents and “fans” clutching Instamatics and praying that the first limos to arrive do not sport smoked-black “privacy” glass, which is big on the celebrity circuit these days. Ron Oberman, Vice-President of A & R for CBS Records, patrols an empty parking lot, readying for his assignment: volunteer parking-lot attendant to the stars.
The sound stage is where friends, managers, main squeezes, bodyguards, husbands and wives, and non-recording stars will be led. Each artist is allotted five guests, but the list keeps growing, as such lists will, and will be transformed into a crowd of five hundred that includes Jane Fonda, Dyan Cannon, Shari Belafonte, Booker T. Jones, Lynn Swann, Penny Marshall, Ali McGraw, Jane Seymour, Dick Clark, Jesse Colter, Rockwell, Lola Falana, Jack Wagner, and Sidney Poitier. Last night the floor was painted jet black, and tonight the normal home of Soul Train and countless pop-video tapings features couches, rugs, more than twenty-five tables with seatings of eight, two bars serving wine and beer, three catering stations laden with mountains of food, 125 folding chairs strategically placed before five video monitors and two huge movie screens, kentia palms and ficus benjamina plus two dozen flowering plants (azaleas and cyclamen), nine video games, and a pool table for those who get bored. The feast, donated by a local caterer, Someone’s in the Kitchen, includes of several kinds of pasta salad, tortellini, lasagna, baron of beef, potato skins, parmesan chicken, fruit, 1200 pounds of ice, twin twelve-foot dessert buffets, and breakfast at 3:00 a.m. for those who hold out that long.
9:00 p.m. “God is with us,” cries Quincy Jones on being told Michael Jackson has pulled into the heavily guarded parking lot, the second artist to arrive, after Steve Perry of Journey. Humberto looks like he’s just been poked with a cattle prod. The digital recorder is not yet ready. “Look guys,” he shouts to his assistants, “We got to get the machine quick, Michael’s here. Analog city, guys!”
Michael is preceded out of his white stretch limo by his bodyguard and by his manager, Frank DiLeo, who in turn is preceded by his cigar. Michael has come early to record a vocal chorus by himself, another “guide” for the rest of the choir. Michael arrives in the control room. “How you doing, Smelly?” calls Quincy. Q is bubbling, “This will be a space-age Woodstock, a technological Woodstock!” Michael walks into the studio and begins singing, sunglassed and solitary, thumbs in his jeans’ front pockets. Steve Perry walks into the control room, peers through the glass at Michael. He asks, “Am I dreaming? Am I on drugs, or what?”
Arriving soon are James Ingram, Anita and Ruth Pointer, and Bob Geldof with his wife Paula. Geldof strolls out of the soundstage gathering, where the screens are showing a broadcast of tonight’s Awards—currently Sheila E. is strutting about the stage in full-length fur-coat. Walking through the parking lot, he glances at the bristling security and pronounces, “I’ve never recorded in Stalag 5 before!” Just a few days out of Ethiopia, Geldof finds the whole scene both attractive and repulsive. He’s spoken to Kragen a number of times these past weeks, offering his advice and encouragement. But the glamorous life of Hollywood—the diamonds and furs—proves a bit hard to stomach when he encounters it face-to-face. “I’ve never seen more millionaires in one room,” he repeats a number of times tonight.
As Michael stands alone in the center of the studio, stacking (repeating) choruses, the socializing has begun in the control room. Q asks everyone to hold it down. He calls to Michael over the intercom, “Stackarooni? Sounds great, Smelly! We have to do six. Step back from the mike on the next two stacks.” Bob Giraldi, director of the “Beat It” video, the Jacksons’ Pepsi ad, and many others, arrives in his white limo and is met in the lot by Kragen. Giraldi’s here to watch, not to work. Jeffrey Osborne arrives, hot on the heels of Waylon Jennings. By 9:30, LaToya Jackson shows up, as do Billy Joel, June Pointer, and Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen dispenses with the limo ritual by renting a car at the airport (after a Sunday-night concert, he flew all day from Syracuse to get here), driving to the studio, parking across the street, and walking through the gate, no bodyguard, no retinue.
By 10:00, the official starting time, Dan Aykroyd, Dionne Warwick, Paul Simon, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Ray Charles, Lindsey Buckingham, Kim Carnes, Sheila E., Al Jarreau, Stevie Wonder, and Huey Lewis and the News are on site. Kenny Rogers pulls up in his Dodge van, and Willie Nelson attempts busting into the cramped lot of fifty limos in his tour bus. His driver, Pearly Gates, is told to move that “thing” back on the road again and swing it into the back lot. He obliges.
Meanwhile, back in Studio A Michael continues cutting his “guide” chorus. One by one, artists filter into the control room. The Pointers sit on a row of chairs in front of the board, waving at Michael and singing along. He notices them and waves back. Bob Dylan enters, seeming shy, awed, and uncomfortable and sits down in the seat closest to the door. Billy Joel comes in, wearing a leather jacket and a beard and a case of the flu. When Ray Charles comes through the door, Joel is amazed. “That’s like the Statue of Liberty walking in.” Quincy raps with Ray awhile— they were boyhood friends in Seattle, Ray called Q “66” and Q called Ray “69”—and then Q introduces Joel. “Ray, this is the guy who wrote ‘New York State of Mind.'” Joel is trembling, meeting his hero.
James Ingram walks in. Jeffrey Osborne walks into the studio. Bruce Springsteen enters the control room, where he’s smothered in giggles and hugs by The Pointer Sisters. (He once gave them a hit song, “Fire.”) Bruce hugs Dylan. Dylan hugs Joel. Joel hugs Quincy, who worked with him on a Donna Summer album, whispering, “The song’s nice too.” Everyone looks like himself, but Springsteen somehow more so: blue shirt hanging out of black jeans, open black leather jacket, black high-top boots with green-canvas trim and laces cinched four eyelets from the top, black leather fingerless gloves, which he won’t take off all night, a face of five-o’clock shadow. They all sit in front of the board, watching Michael. Bob Geldof sits down next to Dylan and talks to him, a young Angry Young Man to an old Angry Young Man.
After a take Michael slides back into the control room, where he bumps into Osborne and tells him, “You are so incredible.” At this point, Diana Ross makes a grand entrance, screaming, “I love this song!” Hugs are administered. From a dramatic, dipping hug with Quincy (Q hugs everyone; the man is a hugging machine), Diana jumps onto “Bobby” Dylan’s lap for a few minutes. “I like that!” she gushes. Q comes over to Dylan, perhaps to make him feel more at home, and says, “Man, we got a line for you in there! Just before the modulation.” He sings the line and finishes, ”Just do your thing, man. That’s something nobody can do better than you.” “Oh, thank you,” Dylan manages. Diana jumps up from his lap after a playback of Michael’s chorus, claiming, “I can sing all the parts!” She’s wild-eyed, bursting with energy.
Soon Diana’s calling “Hi!” to Dionne Warwick. “Whose voice is that?” Dionne bluffs, knowing full well. Diana and Dionne talk some girl talk. “Boy, you smell so good,” says Diana. “What is that?” Dionne is just in from Las Vegas, where Steve Wynn of the Golden Nugget (the guy you see in those cozy “towel” commercials with Sinatra) was nice enough to give her the night off. She’ll take up the slack for a flu-ridden Linda Ronstadt, whose doctor wouldn’t let her fly. Thrilled to be here, she says, “When I heard about Band Aid, I immediately ordered a thousand copies of the single and sent them out as Christmas cards. And when Quincy called me last night and said, ‘I know you’re gonna be here,’ I said, ‘Yes, sir!'”
Kenny Rogers comes through the door, asking James Ingram if they should be wearing their “USA for Africa” sweatshirts. Stevie Wonder is led in, trailing a beautiful tangle of braids, which Diana comes over to stroke. Paul Simon sneaks in and meekly inquires, like any late arrival at any party, “Is there somewhere I can put my coat?” In a few minutes, the small control room is in the throes of perhaps the world’s first documented case of starlock: no one can move in any direction. It’s hot and happy and chaotic, a din of famous voices, but no work is getting done. Quincy yells, “Let’s move this into the studio, please.”
10:30 p.m. As the artists filter into the high-ceilinged, parquet-floored studio, they find that each one’s name is on a piece of silver gaffer’s tape on the risers from which the chorus will sing. Certain names are also arranged in a semicircle around the center of the room, and some artists are already trying to figure out what this means. All of them are wandering around looking for their spot. The last time they did something like this, they were probably in fifth grade in a year-end assembly sing for their parents.
Dan Aykroyd, here representing the film industry and one half of the infamous Blues Brothers, bumps into Smokey Robinson and shakes his hand. “A big, big moment in my life,” gloats Dan. One of Quincy’s assistants, Mark Ross, sees Smokey, and says to his other assistant, Steve Ray, “Hey, Smokey’s here! I don’t have Smokey on the list.” Neither of them is about to go over and tap Smokey on the shoulder and ask him to please explain this gross irregularity or leave the premises at once; the man is an institution.
Ross is racing around, trying to put out the next fire. “And we’re ready for the chorus, and Willie is still in his truck with Ray. Hey, someone bring them in quick.”
“Someone” runs out to fetch Willie Nelson and Ray Charles, who are sharing a private moment in the bus. (They’re also sharing a spot on the country charts with their duet, “Seven Spanish Angels.”) Late arrivals Daryl Hall and John Oates walk in and find their spots. Cyndi Lauper, a Betty Boop, street-urchin, fashion-tramp with canary and tomato-soup hair, scampers in behind them. When Lionel Richie rushes in, almost all the artists are in their places. Springsteen tells him, “I’m ready.” Ken Kragen welcomes him, “Your timing is perfect. You’re gonna have the time of your life. Smokey’s here too!” Lionel just finished having the time of his life—not only did he host the American Music Awards—dancing, singing, reading cue cards—but he won six himself. Lionel’s wearing a shimmering gold jacket with matching slacks and an iridescent purple shirt. His own reflection is probably the only thing keeping him conscious right now. He’s on automatic pilot until he can catch his breath. Bette Midler comes up to greet him.
Bette: “You were great on the awards.”
Lionel: “You look great!”
Bette: “Marriage does that to a girl . . .”
Lionel: “Whoooooo! Don’t start, I’ll tell you all about it.”
Ken Kragen steps onto Quincy’s podium in front of the risers and grabs everyone’s attention. He tells the assembled artists, “We want to thank all of you for coming. Some of you made sacrifices to get here. Quincy will run down the order of things, but first I’d like you to meet Bob Geldof, who is really the inspiration for this whole thing. This is the man who put Band Aid together. [Much applause] And he just came back from Ethiopia, and he’d like to talk to you.”
Geldof steps onto Quincy’s podium to address the group, some of whom he tried to recruit (unsuccessfully) for Band Aid. He speaks with fire in his voice:
“Well, maybe to put you in the mood of the song you’re about to sing, which hopefully will save millions of lives, I think it’s best to remember that the price of a life this year is a piece of plastic seven inches wide with a hole in the middle. And that, I think, is an indictment of us. And I think what’s happening in Africa is a crime of historic proportions.
“And the crime is that the Western world has billions of tons of grain bursting in its silos, and we’re not releasing it to people who are dying of hunger. And I don’t know if we in particular can conceive of nothing, but nothing is not having a cardboard box to sleep under in minus ten degrees; nothing is not having any drink to get drunk on; not having water. Nothing is seeing a child squatting in its own diarrhea, and having nothing left to shit except its own stomach.
“And after a while you see so much of that that you become inured to it. And you walk into one of the corrugated iron huts and you see meningitis and malaria and typhoid buzzing about the air. And you see dead bodies side by side with the live ones. And on a good day you might only see 120 people die slowly in front of you.
“In some of the camps you see fifteen bags of flour for 27,500 people. And it’s that that we’re here for. And when the history of this crime is being written up, I want to be one of the ones who can say: Not Guilty. And I assume that’s why we’re all here tonight. I don’t want to bring anybody down, but maybe it’s the best way of making what you really feel, and why you’re really here tonight, come out through this song. So thanks a lot everybody, and let’s hope that it works.”
The artists have been riveted by Geldof. When they stop applauding, Ken Kragen explains to them how the money will be spent (35 percent for immediate relief, 35 percent for continuing development, 20 percent for long-term, self-reliant development, and 10 percent to the hungry and homeless of America). Kragen provides them with some details of the concerns of the foundation: they want to cut through red tape, keep overhead below 5 percent. “We’ll get a plane and fly the food and medicine over there ourselves,” if it comes to that, he tells them.
There is a discussion about what more the artists can do for the cause. He tells them that they will put together an album of “unreleased superstar tracks” to release behind the single. Kragen already has eight or ten commitments from artists he’s spoken to and is hoping to make it a double album. He tells them that if they sell ten to fifteen million copies of a double album at fifteen to eighteen dollars apiece, it “puts us on the level of a small country, makes us as significant a private enterprise for good as there’s ever been. So I urge you to consider a track. We must have it in February. Particularly those of you—you know who you are—whose sales are so significant a part of this.”
“Stevie said he had two tracks . . .,” Quincy interjects. The artists roar with laughter: Stevie has an industry-wide reputation for being very, very slow to release material.
After Kragen relates the specifics, he switches gears: “I’ll tell you something else. You’ve all worked a long time to be as successful as you are. You have incredible power, and banded together this way, it increases logarithmically. Your making this commitment has power. And what’s going to come from this night is a lot more than just money. It’s a commitment and the ability to move people. To show the way. To stay on the case. You create a power where we can go forward and inspire people. What we’re doing is far more significant than just a song, or raising money. We’re making a statement.”
“How much is this whole production costing?” Cyndi Lauper asks.
Kragen answers, “We haven’t spent one penny on this. We had an estimated budget of $200,000 but we’ve had over a million donated in goods and services. No one’s gonna make any money on this.”
Stevie suggests, “This is going to be part of the cure. I recommend that we make this part of an ongoing thing, like every two or three or five years.” Geldof indicates that he has an “ongoing thing” presently in the works. “What I’m working on right now,” he teases, “is Wembley Stadium [in London] and Shea Stadium [in New York] on the same day in July—for free. Lights, staffs, everything. I’d like to telecast the world’s biggest concert. Think about it. It would be brilliant.”
Geldof has been thinking on a global scale. He announces that there are German, Australian, and Canadian versions of Band Aid in the works. He turns his attention to America. “If this one country—the most powerful, the healthiest, the richest, the strongest country the world has ever seen—is seen to reach out a hand to the very poorest, and say, ‘Let me help you up,’ and if it’s seen without any government interference, then that message is worth fifty times whatever you generate tonight.”
Kenny Rogers, standing in the third row of the chorus, has something to add. On every stop of his most recent tour, he’s led a coordinated effort with the local food bank. He explains to his peers, “One thing I’ve found is that in the concert situation, if you ask people to contribute a can of food—and we’ve raised two million pounds of food this year—then when you start your show there’s a different attitude in the audience. The audience is part of something other than just a professional exchange. And that’s something you might pursue on your own.”
Sensing that it’s time to stop talking and start singing, Kragen leaves the chorus with these rather uncorporate words, “So . . . let’s kick this thing in the butt!” It’s as if the school bell rang for recess. All the artists are screaming and shaking hands and rubbing elbows, kissing, and signing autographs. Everyone who was expected is here—except Prince, who never formally committed to the project. Eddie Murphy is tied up in Europe and could not break away. David Byrne of Talking Heads, David Lee Roth of Van Halen, and James Brown of his own bad self were desired guests, but could not be directly reached. (Byrne would have been the new-wave representative, Roth the heavy-metal ambassador.) But late additions help pick up the slack: The Pointer Sisters, Al Jarreau, Jeffrey Osborne, Dionne Warwick, and Smokey Robinson all slip in under the wire. All folks known as voices.
Quincy struggles to regain control of the group. “Hold it, hold it, hold it.” He runs through the recording agenda, “We have to do some stacking and I know how much you love that, so we want to get that out of the way now. We’ll sing with Michael’s guide on the chorus. Everything we do in the room will be unison, so we don’t have to struggle with harmony. Sing up with Michael on this. Anyone who can’t sing up that high, just lay out on this one. I don’t want octaves, ’cause we’ll do low octaves later. Okay, let’s start chopping wood.” As Michael’s guide chorus fills their headphones, they begin rehearsing. Many of the men, who can’t sing that high, stand silently and listen, but no one leaves. Geldof whips out his pocket camera and starts taking pictures, until Q and Kragen tell him to join the chorus. He’s thrilled.
In the natural breaks of the line, Q cheerleads and directs the forty-five voices: “Excuse me! . . . All right! . . . No octaves! . . . Let’s put it on tape! . . . Sounds incredible! . . . No octaves!!! . . . Take it to church.” He conducts from the podium, smiling, frowning, beaming, joking, scratching a note on his music. Diana joins hands with Stevie and Michael, Smokey puts his arm on Ray Charles’s shoulder, Geldof and Belafonte sway together in the back row.
On a pause between takes, Tom Bahler calls to the chorus from the control room, “If everybody could groove from their knees instead of their feet, because we’re getting an awful lot of feet pounding on those risers. One more time.” Slipping into the control room and taking a seat behind Bahler is Garry Trudeau, creator of Doonesbury. Soon he’s scribbling notes into a small spiral notebook, preparing for a two-week-long strip on this event, which will bring Doonesbury rock star Jimmy Thudpucker out of retirement. Billy Joel steps off his spot on the riser between Tina Turner and Cyndi Lauper, and walks over to the piano. He hammers out the chords to the third part of the chorus with his right hand, as if he were teaching a bunch of schoolkids “The Streets of Laredo,” He returns to his spot between the two average suburban housewives. Tina is in striped blue pants tucked into cowboy boots, brown blazer, maroon scarf, fire-engine-red lipstick, Mixmaster hair. When she sings, she closes her eyes, throws back her head, rocks back and forth. Two years ago she was playing Holiday Inns. Today she is on the top of the planet. The other artists are overjoyed for her.
12:00 a.m. After a number of takes, a break is called. Billy Joel hustles over to the guest party, finds fiancée Christie Brinkley in the crowd. He manages to squeeze her past the guards and into the studio, introducing her to Dylan and Paul Simon. Christie looks starstruck. By the time she leaves the room, though, she’s talking about mobilizing the fashion industry for a similar effort.
Michael Jackson moves from the rear of the studio, where he’s been keeping a low profile, and approaches Willie Nelson. “Are you the one with the little baby deer? I saw your picture in Life magazine,” Michael whispers to Willie, adding, “My mother listens to you all the time—and so do I.” Willie responds, “My two teenage girls are just dying now to be in here. They love you.” Michael whispers, “Oh, I’m so embarrassed,” and he is. They sit together on the risers and chat for a few minutes. Lionel and Willie then spend a little time admiring each other’s work: for Lionel, it’s Willie’s voices; for Willie, it’s Lionel’s songwriting.
Stevie Wonder calls over to Ray Charles, “Ray, I want to show you something.” He guides Ray’s fingers over his Kurzweil reading machine. Soon, Ray’s offering a down-home piano interpretation of the chorus they’ve all been singing, as he improvises off the playback that’s now filling the studio monitors. Willie Nelson stands by his shoulder, listening. Cyndi Lauper talks with Springsteen and Warwick, and then meets Steve Perry for the first time. Perry jokes with her about how her “Time After Time” crowded his “Oh Sherrie” out of first place on the singles chart last summer.
Cyndi begins talking about how she feels tonight: “I’m a little blown away. Can you believe you’re sitting in a room with Ray Charles playing the piano? I mean, just start off with that.” (Charles ranks as the favorite among the other artists, as far as whom they are most excited about singing with. Springsteen ranks a close second.) Lauper: “It’s good to get everybody off their rumps. Because a lot of people have so much and some people have nothing. So it makes you think every time you eat something and don’t finish it. I struggled. I starved. I was in the hospital twice for malnutrition—once for malnutrition and dehydration. Because I had no food to eat. Just this year I thought about where I came from, and I can’t believe it. It’s a very real thing, to be hungry. I think how hungry I was, but I would maybe get to eat something during the day. If I didn’t eat one day, I’d eat the next day. But these people, they ain’t eaten for weeks.”
When Ray stops playing, everyone applauds, and he disclaims, “Sorry about that!” Ray sits at the piano for a spell, straddling the bench, and talks of his visits to Africa: “I’ve put my hands on these children, and their skin feels like cellophane on bone. You have to feel that man, that’s unreal stuff. I ain’t talkin’ ’bout skin, I’m talkin’ ’bout cellophane on bone.” Ray resumes his conversation with the piano, a painfully blue version of “Wichita Lineman.”
“It’s like seeing the Washington Monument walk in the room,” says Springsteen of Uncle Ray. “And you’re standing there in the chorus and Diana is standing here, Smokey over there, Stevie there and Michael there and Bob Dylan there. It’s what I dreamed about as a kid.” The breaks in recording give the artists a little room to get a grip on themselves—to find a balance between the overwhelming joy they feel being in each other’s company (most are now busy autographing each other’s sheet music) and the sadness of knowing thousands will die of starvation even as they sing tonight. Springsteen, who’s been involved in the anti-hunger cause for some time, elaborates on the sadness. “Even hunger in the United States is very distant to most people, so it’s hard to get them emotionally involved. People see those pictures all the time and they switch the channel or maybe watch it for five minutes. It’s a kind of slow realization that there’s all this senseless suffering in the world. Either you’re tearing something down or building something up. I want to be part of that building process. Holding back the flood a little bit.”
1:00 a.m. As the chorus reconvenes, Stevie Wonder suggests that everyone sing a particular line in Swahili. (It’s the part Michael and Lionel sang as “sha-lum sha-lingay” on the guide vocal.) Stevie holds up a small ghetto blaster to let everyone hear a tape recording of an African woman giving him the correct pronunciation over the phone. It sounds like “willie-mongo wa-tu-tu” and it means “We are the children, we are the world,” No one is thrilled by the lyric, and those trying to sing it with Stevie stimulate only laughter and raised eyebrows from the others. Before long everyone in the room is involved in deciding whether or not to sing in Swahili.
Geldof: Ethiopians do not speak Swahili.
Stevie: It’s Swahili and also Amharic.
Jarreau: It might be an embarrassment if we’re not right.
Lauper: It’s like singing to the English in German.
Geldof: I think there’s no point in singing to the people who are starving. You’re singing to the people who’ve got money to give. If it turns on one person, it may turn off two . . .
Quincy: That’s fantastic, Bob, but what words do we use?
Someone: What are they saying, Stevie? What does it mean?
Stevie: They’re saying, “We are the children, we are the world.”
Quincy: What would you say in English? Playing with a language is dangerous. What do you think, Smelly?
Michael: [sings] Sha-lum, sha-lingay.
Quincy: Yes, it’s already there. Sha-lum, sha-lingay, ’cause that’s what we’re giving.”
Everyone is beginning to get restless. All of a sudden it’s hot in the studio. Lauper yells, “Either mix ice cubes or turn the heat down!” Another artist, with the tone of the bored boy in the back of Dad’s station wagon during a long trip, asks, “Can we sing nowwww?“ Another chimes to the melody, “So let’s start sing–ing.” Michael Jackson sings his favored chorus, and the others begin rehearsing with him. But just when things seem to be going smoothly, there is a hitch:
Stevie: Doesn’t it sound like we’re “giving” sha-lingay?
Jarreau: What is sha-lingay?
James Ingram: [ironically] Hey man, it’s spiritual. We’re singing in tongues.
Quincy: It’s a phonetical sound, that’s all.
Stevie: How ’bout, “So let’s start giving.”
Quietly, a far-right coalition has formed among Lauper, Jarreau, and Paul Simon—who favor finding something meaningful to sing in English—while the rest of the group favors the phonetic phrase or just doesn’t care, but would rather sing than fight. Jarreau in particular worries that the phonetic “sha-lum” might be misconstrued as an African phrase, and what if, good God, it actually did mean something in an African dialect, and something inappropriate.?
Jarreau: Would you consider another possibility? [groans from chorus] [He sings] We are the world, one world, we are the children, our world. . .
Lauper: That’s right, and that’s the right concept. Ain’t what we doin’ tryin’ to unite the world?
Jarreau: We can make a meaning, make one.
Someone: Who wrote the song? Lionel, Lionel.
Lionel: Can we all agree on “sha-lum, sha-lingay,” and we should do it, and while we’re working on the other part someone can do the research to find out if that’s the wrong thing, and if it is the wrong thing, then we can change it at the end . . .
Jarreau: We should not be saying “big booty” if we can help it . . .
Lionel: Let’s just keep moving on.
Quincy: [pushing gently] Can everyone agree on “one world”?
Lauper: Yeah! One world!
Geldof: It can mean nothing at all—what did “Sha-la bop-a-loo-bop sha-lop bam-boom” mean? [recalling Little Richard’s famous riff]
Ingram: [sings] “Up, and oh-we-ay!” [from his Grammy-winning song, “Yah Mo B There.”
Quincy: Let’s try, “One world, our children, so let’s start giving.”
Jarreau: [victorious] And the next time around we can say “Sha-lum.”
Stevie is a bit bummed, but game. Tina Turner, eyes closed from fatigue, says to no one, “I like ‘sha-lum’ better, who cares what it means?” But most of the group acquiesce. Ray Charles says, “Okay, but please don’t change it ’cause my hearing is getting bad!” Everyone cracks up. “I hear you, 69,” affirms Quincy, 66. They begin rehearsing the new part. It sounds beautiful, fitting.
When this part of the chorus is finished, Jarreau and Stevie join forces in leading an impromptu sing-along of “The Banana Boat Song,” quite an honor for a blushing Harry Belafonte in the back row. It’s not every day you find Michael Jackson singing “Day-O!” Harry points out that the significance of the song on this night is that it is about “a boat that carries food.” He wishes, “I’d love to see the first load of food delivered that’s a result of this.” When he steps back from the group for a moment he utters a strange thought, “If a bomb hit this place, the business would have a lot of catching up to do.”
2:00 a.m. The last bits of the chorus are finished, and now Quincy can joke about having thirty producers in the room, during the Great Swahili Debate. The artists disperse to primp for the album cover and poster shot, hang out among themselves, or check out the soundstage party, where the guests recently decided to get up on the chairs and tables and sing along with the chorus. Cyndi Lauper bops out of the room. Ray Charles strolls out behind her, claiming he’s had no good lovin’ since January. (Of course, it is January.) Michael Jackson and Paul Simon huddle behind a potted plant to discuss songwriting. At the piano sits Stevie Wonder, noddling.
About Stevie’s improvised rhapsody, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson stand next to the piano, discussing Nashville in the old days. “Nashville’s just like Hollywood now,” grunts Dylan. Out of the blue, Willie asks Dylan if he plays golf. Dylan seems slightly amused, replies, “No, I’ve heard you had to study it.” Huey Lewis, who’s been hovering on the edges of the conversations, takes this opportunity to plunge in with his ode to the links. He enthusiastically tells Mr. Bob Dylan, “There’s nothing to do on the road, but there’s always a great golf course. In Ohio, there’s hundreds of great golf courses. I just start whacking it around. I’m still awful, but it gets to be great fun. We throw a bunch of clubs in the bottom of the bus. You walk. You get outdoors.” Dylan, who doesn’t seem the outdoors type, follows up sincerely, “It’s relaxing?”
Huey: It’s as deep as you like.
Willie: You can’t think of hardly anything else.
Huey: [laughing] I heard a story where Willie came out and said the first hole of his golf course was a par 44, and said, “Well, I birdied it yesterday.” [laughing harder, Dylan doesn’t quite get it]
Willie: We play a lot of best ball, scramble.
Huey: That’s great . . .
Willie: [explaining to Dylan] Three of us play against another three, and if he hits the best ball, well we go play his ball . . .
Dylan: It’s real noncompetitive then?
Willie: It is, and yet in a way it’s more competitive, because you got a team against a team, so you really start trying hard. [Mind you, Stevie continues to play romantically behind all this, and across the room Bob Geldof is drawing a map of northeast Africa for Bruce Springsteen on a piece of sheet music, explaining the logistical difficulties of famine relief.]
Hanger-on: Ah, Willie Nelson on the metaphysics of golf . . .
Willie: Golf is my life . . .
Huey: [to Willie] Have you read Golf in the Kingdom?
Willie: Yes, I have. What a book.
Huey: Wow, isn’t it. “You are the ball.” It’s really true. Some shots man, you can just see them. They happen for you. And some, in the middle of the swing, you know it won’t work.
The moral of this golfing tale is that Dylan and Willie exchange private phone numbers and agree to do an album together. They tentatively plan to go to Hawaii during school spring break with the kids and begin working on the material.
3:00 a.m. The picture is taken for the album cover and poster, and it’s time for the solos. Lionel and Quincy call the artists over to the piano, where Stevie cycles repeatedly through the melody, and each artist learns the few words to sing alone, as well as the short duets that will serve as transitions between the solo lines. Stevie will harmonize with Lionel, Kenny Rogers with Paul Simon, Tina with Billy Joel, Willie with Dionne, and so on. Cyndi Lauper pulls Quincy away from the group, and shyly asks him, “Is it all right if I impwovise?” Quincy sounds thrilled. “Absolutely. This is not the Rite of Spring.” Some struggle, some goof, some feel comfortable with their lines right away. Tina and Billy are the first to say “We’re ready.” But it’s not till half an hour later that everyone makes a successful round at the piano and Q declares, “Happy New Year!” Lionel excitedly tells Bahler, who looks like he’s about to give birth, “What I love is that everyone’s personality comes through.”
4:00 a.m. Bahler arranges the soloists in a semicircle in the middle of the room. The mood is lighthearted. Everyone’s telling lies and joking around. The artists have caught their second wind. Just as they’re ready to record, two Ethiopian women, guests of Stevie Wonder, walk into the room. One woman says, tearily, “Thank you on behalf of everyone from our country.” The artists are stunned. No one speaks: a deep, penetrating silence. The women cry, the artists cry. It’s the moment when the stars come crashing down to earth. It’s the moment no one will forget. It’s a moment of no photographs. The women, Chrissie Kinyanjui and Zemtah Alemayo, shaken, are led from the room. Quincy breaks the silence, saying softly, “It’s time to sing.” But the feeling in the room remains. Whatever show business pretension remained in the room after Geldof’s initial speech five hours ago is vanquished for good. “Here we are, having a good time,” says Lionel, “and reality walks in the door.”
Not that everything is serious. When Dionne hears “ghosts” in her headphones (voices on a different track that are not supposed to be there), Kenny Rogers is the first to inquire, “Who ya gonna call?” Everyone else supplies a groan of weary laughter. Unfortunately, Dan Aykroyd cannot be found at the moment. When Rogers attempts a little ghost-busting himself, giving engineer Humberto Gatica a technical (but obvious) hint as to the root of the problem, Humberto shoots back from the control room, “Kenny, if I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.” Another technical problem stymies the group when excess noise is continually found on Cyndi Lauper’s track. Frustrated, she sits on the floor, barefoot and spaced out, as Lionel calls across the semicircle, “Lionel to Cyndi, Lionel to Cyndi, stay with us, Cyndi.” It turns out the noise is coming from Lauper herself. As she makes a running start and jumps up to the mike for each take, all her bracelets and necklaces and earrings are rattling. “There goes the whole outfit,” laughs Quincy, as Cyndi sheds part of tonight’s couture.
Technical problems behind them, the soloists continue working. They sing their lines from left to right around the semicircle, with the duets as links, like a bucket brigade of famous voices. Beginning with Lionel, and then to Stevie, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, James Ingram, Tina, Billy, Diana, Dionne, Al Jarreau, Willie, Bruce, Kenny Loggins, Steve Perry, Daryl Hall, Michael, Huey, Cyndi, and Kim Carnes. Some of them vary their phrasing with each take (Dionne, Perry, Jarreau, Stevie, Cyndi), while others sing their line consistently (Daryl, Diana, Huey, Paul). At one point, Lauper cries, “Hey everybody, stop laughing when I’m singing! You can laugh when I talk but not when I sing.” Everyone laughs. Huey Lewis is particularly animated for 5:00 in the morning, excusing himself after a couple of so-so takes with, “I sang a couple of them out of tune just to see if anybody would notice.” Huey also wonders out loud if old Paul Simon isn’t singing his line improperly. Paul sings, “And it’s time we lend a hand,” and Huey thinks he should be singing, “And it’s time we understand.” Paul tells him politely that the words were changed. Amid much laughter (Huey playing up his embarrassment, looking for a hole in the floor to crawl into), Paul remarks, “Hey, our side of the room is together.”
After a second complete pass around the room, a splendid take, Lionel says, “Over and out.” Immediately, Quincy is asking, “Where’s Bobby Dylan? Let’s get Bobby in here.” But Cyndi complains in a sort of good-natured, put-on fashion to Quincy that “they got to go nineteen times!”—”they” being the “verse” people as opposed to her singing partners, Lewis and Carnes, whom she called “the bridge people.” Quincy remarks, “Well I wish they could have done it in one take, like you guys.”
Cyndi: “Did you keep the first take?”
Quincy: “You want Humberto to play it for you?”
Cyndi: “Yeah. Yo Al, Yo Al.”
Lauper is off to the control room to check her takes. Humberto tells her that she nailed the first one, and Cyndi replies, “I just want all of us to sound good.” Cyndi returns to the studio, calling, “Hey guys, good night and good-bye!” She hangs around for ten minutes of hugs, and Lionel teases her, “See now, you can’t leave the family.” Bereft of shoes and jewelry, she’s out the door at 5:20. Tina exits, yawning, behind her.
5:30 a.m. Stevie rehearses Dylan at the piano for a solo version of the chorus. This is an instantly mythic scene. Dylan is tentative, insecure. Stevie is doing a better “Dylan” than Dylan—more whining exaggeration—and tells Bob to do it “more like this.” Diana is offering encouragement, and Quincy tells him that he can “talk” the melody as much as sing it, if it feels better that way. Over and over, he reads: “There’s a choice we’re making / We’re saving our own lives / It’s true, we’ll make a better day / Just you and me.” After twenty minutes of coaching from Stevie, Dylan approaches the microphone. But on the first few passes of the chorus, he barely manages a mumble. He looks terribly self-conscious. There are four video cameras trained on him, three still photographers, some thirty-five people in the room. Lionel clears almost everyone out of the room with a nod of his head. Even Quincy ducks behind his podium.
With each successive take, Dylan gets stronger—more like “Dylan.” He asks Stevie to play the piano behind him. With artists—like Lionel—who grew up idolizing him, cheering him on, Dylan nails the chorus. Lionel falls onto his back on the risers and kicks his feet in the air. Quincy rushes out to him after the take. “That’s it, that’s it, that’s the statement.” Dylan, however, is unconvinced. He mutters, “That wasn’t any good.” Lionel tells him, “Trust me.” As Quincy gives him a bear hug and whispers, “It’s great,” Dylan finally cracks a smile, “Well . . . if you say so.”
Soon after, Jarreau corners Dylan by the piano. He’s choked up. “Bobby,” Jarreau says holding back tears, “in my own stupid way I just want to tell you I love you.” Dylan is mortified. He slinks away without even looking at him. Jarreau walks to the door of the studio, looks back at Dylan, cries, “My idol,” bursts into tears, and leaves the room.
Enter Bruce Springsteen for his solo chorus, slightly after 6:00. “You sounded fantastic, Dylan,” he calls to Bob as he steps to the mike. Dylan leans against the studio wall, behind Bruce, to watch him work. It’s the changing of the guard. Bruce asks Quincy for some direction. “Just react to what the thing is about,” Q tells him. That certainly clears that up. Bruce asks again for some help. “Gimme an idea . . .” Q is more specific this time: “It’s like being the cheerleader of the chorus.” Bruce: “I’ll give it a shot, I’ll give it a shot.” Springsteen rolls up his sheet music and sticks it in the back pocket of his jeans. His voice is rough, pained, gone—reduced to essence, perfect for this part. When he sings, his veins jump out of his hands, two character lines cut across the bridge of his nose, and he exhales twice, hard, after each phrase. After a nearly flawless first take, he humbly asks Quincy, “Something like that?” And Quincy can only laugh, “Exactly like that.”
Bette Midler hugs Dylan, tells him, “Good night, dearest.” Springsteen listens to a playback on the studio monitors and says “Yeah, all right,” giving it his approval. He gives Lionel his autograph, after which Lionel declares to all present, “He’s now officially on vacation.” Bruce says, “That sounds gooooood. I want to get a soda.” And then Bruce walks out of the studio, past six waiting limos left in the parking lot, across the street to his rent-a-car and is gone, off into the morning.
6:45 a.m. Quincy wants a few more vocal fills. The “serious fills.” Stevie says, “Q, just point to me when it’s my turn, okay?” It’s getting to be that time.
After 7:00 Michael and Stevie are still signing posters, and Lionel and Quincy lie down on the now-abandoned risers for video interviews. There are still thirty-four people in the room at 7:30, and Quincy is ranting and raving, joking: “Let’s party! Let’s go out for smothered chicken and waffles!” Before he steps out into the bright sunlight of the parking lot, the question is put to Quincy on videotape, “Is this an impossible project or a dream project?” Without a thought, he answers, “It’s an impossible dream.”