The annual Commitment to Life benefit concerts may be the only time of the year in pop when you care more about the size of an artist's heart than the depth of that artist's talent.
Despite one or two songs each Thursday night at the Universal Amphitheatre by such current and future members of the rock and country halls of fame as Garth Brooks, Don Henley, Little Richard and Tammy Wynette, it wasn't just a night of music.
It was a night of deeds--starting with the raising of approximately $3.5 million for AIDS Project Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization that helps serve more than 4,000 people affected by HIV or AIDS.
More even than the star-studded musical lineup, however, the evening's true stars were the individuals honored by APLA for their contributions in the fight against AIDS: Elton John, Tom Hanks and Ron Meyer.
In saluting Meyer, actor Michael Douglas lauded the president of Creative Artists Agency as a man of modesty and commitment.
"In a business where taking credit is an art form, no one has ever achieved such heights (or) given so much and taken credit for so little," Douglas said.
Later, actress Mary Steenburgen, who appeared with Hanks in the film "Philadelphia," stressed the ability of art to educate and liberate.
"We fear what we don't know and (Hanks) may only be an actor . . . and 'Philadelphia' may only be a movie, but everyone who saw it . . . knew and cared about someone with AIDS and (they) valued life a bit more as a result."
In perhaps the evening's most eloquent remarks, Hanks expressed his belief in the "healing power" of the human spirit:
"Our disposition to kindness and mercy is something that can be passed along through avenues of influence that are both unique and common--through movies that play in our shopping malls, through examples we set for our children, through songs that play on the car radio to the respect that we extend to our neighbors."
Bernie Taupin, the lyricist who has written with Elton John for a quarter century, saluted his partner's role as the most active pop world supporter of AIDS projects, including the establishment of the singer's own foundation.
"When this epidemic is wiped from the face of the planet, we'll all look back and have our heroes," he said. "And (Elton) is mine."
Standing at the podium in a flashy silver lame suit, John injected some levity into the proceedings by declaring that he was the evening's "official gay recipient."
One of the first rock stars to acknowledge being gay, John credited the late Ryan White with helping him regain his values and self-respect in the early '90s after years of drug abuse and other personal problems.
"It's my job to repay that debt," he said, referring to the lessons learned watching the courage of White, the Indiana teen-ager whose battle against AIDS made headlines around the world. "As long as I live, I will help fight this cause."
John then turned to the piano to sing "Believe," a new ballad about the power of love, and the rousing "I'm Still Standing," which served as a salute to everyone in the AIDS campaign. The number was a fitting end to a classy evening of music in which the tone ranged from warm to witty, from celebratory to tender.
The musical sequences of the three-hour-plus event were produced by Taupin and featured a large supporting cast of singers, dancers and John's touring band.
Things began with a tip of the hat to the humorous use of cross-dressing in the various arts over the years. While clips from such movies as "Some Like It Hot" to "Mrs. Doubtfire" were shown on video screens, RuPaul strutted through a flashy, disco-accented version of Aerosmith's "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)," followed by Julie Andrews, slicked-back hair and all, reprising musical numbers from "Victor/Victoria." Sandra Bernhard then offered a wonderfully energetic romp through the transvestite world of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
Changing tone, Marianne Faithfull delivered an intimate rendition of the old Gloria Gaynor hit "I Will Survive." Because singer-songwriter George Michael has maintained such a low profile in recent years, his duet with Elton John on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" late in the show was another of the evening's musical highlights.
As other artists, including Nona Hendryx, a blond Terence Trent D'arby, Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge, Clint Black, Joni Mitchell and Salt-N-Pepa, took their brief turns on stage, you felt more sense of a generous spirit than if they had simply turned over the proceeds from one of their regular concerts. At one's own concerts, the cynic might say, you are in the spotlight alone--amply repaid in exposure and good will. By being part of a parade on Thursday, their contributions become more anonymous.
In that sense, Garth Brooks seemed especially generous. Here is arguably the top pop draw in the country these days, showing up for just a single song. It is doubly commendable because there were signs of a slight backlash in the conservative world of country music the last time Brooks made a social statement--1992's "We Shall Be Free," which spoke about gay and religious tolerance.
Except for some bite from host Whoopi Goldberg, there was little reference to politics Thursday, despite fears in the AIDS support community that some federal funds for services may be cut following last fall's Republican sweep.
Dana Miller, head of the APLA board of directors, expressed this concern in his remarks, noting that some "of our elected friends" have lost committee chairmanships. In retrospect, he added, it was a "big, big mistake" not to have treated AIDS as a bipartisan issue and "at least attempted to enlist Republicans in our fight."
Mostly, however, Commitment to Life VIII was a night of celebration and giving--a time of renewal for both artists and audience.