Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Farm Aid Anniversary

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the original Farm Aid concert in Champaign Urbana. I spent yesterday conducting a futile search, because somewhere deep in my pile of radio shows I have a tape of myself working as the backstage anchor for the exclusive local radio broadcast. It was an honor (and a great time) because I got to meet all of the acts, including people like Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Randy Newman, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Don Henley, and more. (It seems like everyone was there that day).

30 years have fuzzied my memories a bit, but here are a few things I recall from that day...

*One rock star (I won't say who...but it's one of the guys listed above) was totally bombed--and I met him there well before noon. Another one (also on this list) was accompanied by a very young lady...she was younger than me, and I was 22 at the time. She was not his daughter.

*During one live report, the anchors back in the studio asked me who was on stage at that moment, and I made a joke about the star power and charisma of country singer Vern Gosdin. Got a hate letter for that one. The only hate letter I ever received during my twenty-plus year radio career. Learned a valuable lesson that day. Know your audience. We were working in tandem with the Nashville Network--who had exclusive television rights to the concert--and those people loved Vern Gosdin.

*This was the first time that Sammy Hagar and Eddie Van Halen ever played together on stage. Sammy had not yet joined the band. And when he introduced his song "I can't drive 55", he said..."This is for all you tractor-pullin MFers". I thought the farmers would be insulted, but they loved it.

*The most surprising performance came from John Denver. When he sang "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the place was up for grabs. I don't know if you can tell from this video, but Memorial Stadium was literally rocking and shaking during this song because people were stomping their feet and clapping their hands. I remember thinking..."Am I really doing this to John Denver?"

*But the most moving performance came from Neil Young. It was dark by the time he got on stage, and the crowd hushed when he pulled out his accoustic guitar. Lighters lit the stadium as he sang "Old Man". Everyone swayed back and forth holding their lighters, singing along to the song. I swear I had goosebumps on my arms. What a moment. What a performer. Every time I hear that song to this day, I think about that night in Champaign.

The most important memory for me, though, has nothing to do with the concert, really. I scored tickets to the show for my Uncle Marty who came down from Chicago to see it with a buddy of his. He was excited to hear me on the radio. It was the only time he ever heard me, because Marty passed away from a heart condition the following year at the age of 36.

His son Derek was only 4 years old at the time. Derek is a dad himself now, and is struggling with another horrible medical issue--his two-year-old boy has an incredibly aggressive form of cancer. Just as I felt helpless to help Derek when he was a little boy (I was over there a lot during those first few years--but I know it wasn't enough), I feel helpless now because I don't know what I can do to help his son Caleb (or Derek for that matter--I can't even imagine what he's going through).

So, yesterday was sort of a weird journey for me. It began with fond memories, continued with lots of smiles as I watched the performances on YouTube (Johnny Cash was there? How did I miss that?), and it ended with a sense of melancholy. I'll be saying a prayer for Uncle Marty and little Caleb again today.

(Thanks to Farm Aid for retweeting my tweet)...