Blame George Harrison. This is all his fault.
In 1971, the Concert for Bangladesh was something unlike the world had ever seen. George organized the shows the request of his friend Ravi Shankar to help provide relief to refugees of the Bangladesh Liberation War–many of whom were also victims of the 1970 Bhola cyclone. The concert alone–two nights at Madison Square Garden–raised over $240,000. Although funds from subsequent film and album and DVD sales have been in dispute, The New York Times reported in 1985 that more than $12 million was sent to Bangladesh, and sales continue to support the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF.
It was an amazing humanitarian effort. But it was also a great show.
The Concert for Bangladesh was George’s first live solo appearance since the breakup of the Beatles. It included the first live performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” It was Eric Clapton’s first appearance since the previous December and Bob Dylan’s first appearance in nearly two years. Ringo made a half-Beatles reunion.
Since the Concert for Bangladesh, rock stars have banded together hundreds of times to do good in the world. Think of Farm Aid, Live Aid, We Are The World, the Red Hot benefits to fight HIV/AIDS, The Secret Policeman’s Ball, Live 8, the concerts after 9/11. Rock and roll brings out the fans, and fans bring their money.
In 2002, I had my George Harrison moment.
I figured I’d spent enough of my life taking and was ready to spend the rest of it giving. And I had an idea. So I convened a group of friends and started a little event called Tonic Ball to raise money for the greatest cause I could imagine: helping people who are hungry. We found a club owner willing to donate his room. We twisted the arms of all our friends to ask their friends in bands. We covered Gram Parsons songs and raised $4,600 to support the work of Second Helpings to gather surplus food from restaurants, wholesalers, grocers, and others and use it to feed nearly 3,000 of our hungriest neighbors every day. At the cost of about 50 cents a meal, that meant that our little operation covered just about three days of food operations.
How cool was that? Too cool. Kind of intoxicating, actually.
So cool that this year, we’re doing Tonic Ball 8. We’re playing Led Zeppelin songs at Radio Radio and Bob Dylan songs at the Fountain Square Theatre. (The show got so big, we had to add a second stage in 2006). We have almost 40 bands volunteering their time and talent to entertain the fans. We’ll see somewhere upwards of 1,000 people, who will have more fun than should be legal. Tonic Ball has truly become a Thanksgiving tradition–a last-night-out celebration before the holidays begin.
And I haven’t even mentioned Tonic Gallery–the associated art event we’ve done every year since 2003. Tonic Gallery alone will raise more than Tonic Ball raised that first year. In all, we’ll net over $30,000. The total keeps going up.
Why does it work? Partly because everybody wants to be part of doing something good. Second Helpings is a great cause. Feeding people and supporting Second Helpings’ job training programs makes you feel great.
But it also works because people love music and are happy to help save the world in exchange for something they love. Coming to Tonic Ball is no hardship. It’s two rooms full of music and love and good work.
Can rock and roll save the world? It’s already saved a lot of it. It’s helped lift up refugees, the homeless, the hungry, the people with nowhere to turn. It’s saved animals and rainforest and hurricane victims.
And tonight in a little corner of downtown Indianapolis, rock and roll is going to raise enough money to feed our hungriest neighbors for almost a month. Again, I ask: how cool is that?