Summer of ’85: When You Look Up…

you should see something brighter than stars

By Sean J Mahoney

1. “One headline why believe it?”

So Somalia was in the news recently and nothing reported had to do with pirates. It did instead have to do with drought and famine. And around the same time as the Somalia story, news broke of a garbage avalanche killing a bunch of people in Ethiopia. A garbage avalanche? As tragic as that is, and it is tragic as well as horrific, I must admit that just about every time I hear of Ethiopia I am transported to 1985.

2. “Well the dawn is howling and the mainframe shakes”

1985? Experimenting with drugs. And booze. The graveyard shift at a 7-11. Removing myself socially while I saved for my solo trip to Ireland (Summer of ’86 – different story altogether). Lots of music. Almost 20. Beginning to write and scribble:

i find solace in my notebook and in the moment

Yes, I was leafing through one of those old notebooks – and there are many – from the 80’s. If one was to look up the various permutations of ‘whiny bitch’ at Urban Dictionary – skipping the very first entry, which is gender specific and ridiculously sexist – one could easily asterisk most of my 1985 output as a footnote there. I don’t generally, as a wise and steadfast rule, go back to my notebooks for hints or clues. But for this piece, yes; I did swim those waters again.

I wanted to know who I was in the shadow of global events.

maybe i’ll travel the world, maybe i’ll fall in love
maybe i’ll be a rich drunk, i might stop dreaming
maybe i’ll start a cult, maybe i’ll be in politics
maybe i’m the garbage man, i might stop
maybe i’ll save them all, maybe we’ll save ourselves
maybe i’ll let them fall, i might

Ambitious right? Starting a cult…you know how much work that is? The robes alone…

3. “What have you got in that paper bag? Is it a dose of Vitamin C?”

Afraid of myself. Yes. A knack for disaster bound with quick strike success ability when absolutely needed (but only when absolutely needed and only if there were something in it tangentially for me because…even now it stings to say…I was/am a selfish little fucker).

By ’85 I had embraced college radio, had hugged punk and that oddly dressed amorphous being that finally became and un-became and became again ‘alternative’ music. AIDS continued to be ignored culturally and politically by predominantly white and God-mongering, fear-obsessed America. Terrorism. Zenophobia. MOVE was fire-bombed in Philly. Villanova beat Georgetown for the college hoops title. More militarized police. First mandatory seatbelt law goes into effect.

First sighting, for me, of Oprah. And Reagan 2.0 arrives chained to, among other things, a warped sense of mutant nationalism. Yeah, I know but I’m not going to bust out the tropes…death on a spit to the old tropes. These new days rising, these times, deserve new and unique tropes and colors.

But Somalia was in the news again alongside Ethiopia…

4. “I’ve packed my bags, I’ve cleaned the floor”

One day recently one of my online MS people posted a YouTube link for The Great Song of Indifference by Bob Geldof. A jaunty little number indeed with an equally charming and very self-aware accompanying video in which Sir Bob, some musicians and some dancers, cavort on a small stage while the song is played. The video is shot chronologically in reverse as Geldof goes from disheveled and unshaven by video end back to clean, neat, and rakish looking in the beginning.

Watching the vid made me think of the Boomtown Rats, which, odd as it is, still happens on occasion. I don’t like Mondays. That small part of me still spooning the 80’s and the early days of MTV.

And over on the right side of the screen there it was. So I clicked on that song next. Listening like it was comfort food. While it played I noticed a link for Live Aid Documentary (Pt.1), which I clicked once the song had finished.

How could I not? I lived through it. Biggest musical event of my life to that point (well, almost – I did get to see Cheap Trick when I was 10 and my brother was 9 and our friends were somewhere around that age as well, and that evening probably more than anything changed the nature of my relationship with my mom…for the better of course, as she vowed after that night never to attend another rock concert).

Sure, there was Woodstock when I was a wee baby but that was body hairy, druggy, and ephemeral phenomena. Upstate NY. America. A counter culture movement. Historic for sure. Important as well, but for different reasons. Too monstrous an event to get into here…so peace, out.

Live Aid was global. A righteous cause. An attempt by a largely white majority of musicians on two continents to reach out, open millions of eyes, and share privileged, western hospitality with the starving and dying peoples in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia specifically. Along the way expose a dictator: Mengistu, Director of the Ethiopian Red Terror. I had absolutely no idea who he was or what his relationship was to me…unless it was one of those 6 degrees things: Mengistu received Geldof — Geldof met U2 —  U2 met REM — REM met the Replacements — the Replacements played a show in Fresno and I bummed a smoke from a sloshed Paul Westerberg.

But we are far off from where we began…though even saying that undermines the principal of Universal Connection.

Mengistu. I did not even hear his name until sometime in the early 90’s, but his crimes became much more publicized as a result of Live Aid. After the fact of Live Aid. That much is true. Of that I’m sure.

5. “…if the government turn over it’ll be the only word that’s heard”

During ’85 I worked a few months for my mother’s boyfriend. A former bodybuilder with a taste for small speedy cars. And a good drink. Not a bad guy at all.

He rented and sold heavy equipment. Big dirt lot out on the west side of Fresno. He paid me in cash. He got a deal from a friend of a friend…or something like that…whereby he acquired a whole bunch of felled timber. I just had to split it, stack it in cords, and load up the truck when we needed to make a delivery.

Outdoors. Exercise. Cash….money for weed. It wasn’t great wood – some kind of cheap pine. But JB was advertising it as oak and selling it for $160 a cord. Which was fine; most people didn’t know the difference. I didn’t.

Until the one fella that did threatened to call the Better Business Bureau. That guy basically got two cords for free. Anyway…why do I bring this up now…here amidst music and famine and bloodshed and ego and country crushing debt? Sometimes one pays the devil in the details, other times you play straight into the clutch of the actual beast itself.

The firewood anecdote provided much appreciated clarity to the idiom ‘Better the devil you know…’ even for me at 19. Savvy and/or pissed off people can usually be calmed and made happy. Ameliorated. Dictators and/or the BBB are different and wildly unfamiliar beasts altogether, adhering to fixed codes and rigid order.

6. “………………………………………………………….”

“As long as we get the money I’ll shake hands with the Devil on my left and on my right
to get to the people we are meant to help.” – Bob Geldof (1985)

In 1985, Geldof organized music superstars of the day along with big time promoters and media after his visit to Ethiopia, which, in turn, was motivated by a 7 ½ minute news clip he had seen on the BBC. I had not seen the clip myself until I began writing this. There is a very brief mention of conflict in Eritrea and Tigre. No addressing of the geo-political issues steeping in the geography coming out of the very pragmatic mouth of a French humanitarian aid worker on the ground who is all too aware that much more death and suffering is coming to the people of Ethiopia.

Yes, Ethiopia struggles through a drought season every year. But in the early 80’s it had suffered consecutive extreme drought years compounded by ongoing conflict. Stir in one twitchy dictator, the well-greased hands of American agitprop and Russian guns holding up his pants, add a dash of Cuba, and you get a largely man-made disaster stew of epic Red Sea proportions.

Things got sticky…and not quickly either. Very methodically instead – in the way that successful propaganda campaigns are orchestrated. The U.S. and Russia and arms and napalm and resettlement camps and a ruthless, nationalist dictator.

Sounds magical right?

Now you can speculate and theorize about why Sir Bob actually went to all this trouble. You can rant against him. Call him woefully daft. Call him all the tasty, colorful names. And it is super easy to be critical in light of the career change that accompanied the mega festival. His subsequent knighting. Post-Rats success greater by magnitudes than that achieved prior while head Rat. He is a very comfortably numb multi-millionaire now.

But let’s talk about the event itself for a moment. Two continents. 2 major cities: London and Philadelphia. Loads of stars. A reunited Led Zeppelin. Phil Collins hopping an SST and soaring from London after playing at Wembley over to Philadelphia to drum for Zeppelin. U2, and therefore Bono, capitalizing on the cameras while defining what they would become for the next 20 years in the process. Half-clothed Tina Turner and Mick Jagger cavorting onstage together. And concordant events as well in Japan, West Germany, Austria, etc. Frickin’ David Bowie…

Here we are approximately mid-2017 and stories of starvation and famine persist around the Horn of Africa. Still. And now include Somalia. Is there need now for another large superstar laden mega-concert charity event like Live Aid, with the burden and the focus likely falling upon another well-intentioned and just as likely ill-informed troubadour with a knack for cajoling…

7. “Trust is the greatest human error”

‘85 the hard way. A friend of mine had a quarter pound of very good sticky green stinky bud he needed to unload (note: this is well before hybrid stains and the chemistry of mmj went mainstream). He asked me if I knew people who would buy. Of course I did.

But what I didn’t do was sell very much of it. A couple of joints at the Big Fresno Fair one night. Out of the men’s room. So seedy.

I did smoke most of it with my friends over the next couple of weeks. What I ended up having to do was forge my mother’s signature to get into the savings account my grandparents had created for my college fund and repeatedly go to the B of A where one of the tellers remembered me from high school to make withdrawals. I recall spending a bunch of that ill-gotten money too while smoking all this great bud. I did pay my friend back but have no recollection as to how exactly I did that. Some hand shaking went on somewhere I reckon.

So hold on. Back to legitimate forms of fund-raising. Much has changed in 32 years right? The way we communicate. The world is small now. We know what is going on in every inch of the great irregular circle at any given time. And we know who is pulling the strings, cutting them, or maniacally tying them into bloody knots.

I do not fault Sir Bob regardless of whether his intentions were fueled by sheer altruism or steroid-induced self-aggrandizement. What he, along with many hundreds of people around him, were able to set in motion and pull off was truly amazing. Did Simon le Bon go to Ethiopia? Did Madonna? The Cars or the Hooters? Sack Blabbath? Jagger or any Stone for that matter? Did anyone else (yes, besides Bono/U2) then or since ‘85 don their ‘I’m going to make the world a better place’ knit cap and walk the walk?

8. “The assault of holy noise”

Well, yes, now that you ask. Sort of.

20 years after Live Aid there was Live8. More bigger stars. More tenser political controversy and intrigue-y-ness.

Live8 served as the warm-up act for the G8 meetings held the following week in Scotland. More finger pointing. And yes, as if on cue, more Geldof – just when many of us thought we had seen the last of him. And still more finger pointing. But the G8 meetings themselves provided a good deal of salve atop third world suffering by promising to increase aid and erase debt accrued.

Did you know that the vast majority of food and medical supplies that arrived on Ethiopia’s Red Sea shores back in ‘85 also went to waste there? The military was busy trucking up Russian arms for use in the ongoing conflicts to the north. And the majority of food that did make onto trucks went to feed those soldiers. Total hand puppetry. Food, in a way, had become a type of ammunition. An irresistible lure.

But from my understanding much of G8 dealt with debt relief. The ‘burden debt’ that prevented many of these countries from investing in themselves, for themselves: in education and science and infrastructure. Livelihood stuff. And a new recording of the ‘song’, the Band Aid song which was the pin for the ‘85 Live Aid grenade, took place in 2014/15. Anyway…

9. “Your city lies in dust, my friend”

I think maybe you cannot fault people/organizations for where they start. But one can easily find irregularities along the road taken. And I think that if you are indeed going to shake hands with the devil, make sure you have a back-up plan written out for you & crammed into your pocket or tattooed on your chest because you will need it.

It is the world’s ability to settle for itself – it’s current currency – that fouls the waters. My opinion, of course. America pounded its ‘Broken Windows Theory’ into the hearts and minds of its elected officials and largely placid citizenry as justification for its own unique brand of famine and the tremors are still propagating themselves out today.

Just as the echoes of the Southern Strategy continue. It’s this crazy system of checks but no balances. Man made crisis + man made response + mutual admiration society = more of the same. What really changes?

10. “They stay at the carnival, but they’ll never win you back”

I find it more than a little odd that, in 1985 America, we seemed more drawn, and much more passionate about, global acts of sanity and altruism. We looked outside of our borders rather than devoting our time and money and energy to the multitude of problems at home. The crack business was booming in 1985: many people in the major U.S. cities, and many people of color especially, were sucking the lives out of themselves. Cocaine was being arguably ‘allowed’ into the country while it helped fund wars abroad…and decimate certain populations at home.

Where was the sing-a-long for crack babies and pipe-addled dads? Who volunteered to provide care for the missing moms? America looked elsewhere. A place more noble for our collective good will. Our balm. Here we still hold our bags closer to our chest, walk a little faster or further to the outside of the walks but in Africa, among the poorest of the poor, we would walk regally among the tatters of people unafraid.

bonus track: “Can’t do anything, just watch them swing with the wind out to sea”

And the fact that we, that is we Americans, live in a country that has a social safety net, makes a huge fucking difference. People need help. Not all the time and not everybody.

But there will always be exceptions. In Ethiopia could that exception have been made for millions and millions of people who had nothing, were provided with nothing, were packed into planes and shuffled about for nothing, and were left to die with nothing.

Did Live Aid change the world? No. But it did give the world pause for a moment, a tiny heart murmur before business returned to business in hand.

1. Tears for Fears – Everybody Wants to Rule the World – from Songs From The Big Chair
2. The Waterboys – Be My Enemy – from This is the Sea
3. The Fall – I am Damo Suzuki – from This Nation’s Saving Grace
4. Eurythmics – Would I Lie to You – from Be Yourself Tonight
5. Prince – America – from Around the World in a Day
6. Cocteau Twins – Rococo (instrumental) – from Aikea-Guinea
7. 10,000 Maniacs – Scorpio Rising – from The Wishing Chair
8. Sonic Youth – Society is a Hole – from Bad Moon Rising
9. Siouxsie & the Banshees – Cities in Dust – from Tinderbox
10. Tom Waits – Downtown Train – from Rain Dogs
bonus track – Kate Bush – Hello Earth – from Hounds of Love



Sean J Mahoney works in geophysics. Sean helped create to the Disability Literature Consortium , which made its physical debut at AWP16 in Los Angeles. He co-edited the 3 existing volumes of the MS benefit anthology Something On Our Minds, and works as an assistant editor for His work has been published at Occupoetry, Breath & Shadow, Nine Mile Magazine, OTV Magazine, Catamaran Literary Reader, Your Impossible Voice, and the Antithesis Journal, among others.



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