“I’ll never say anything nice again — how can I?”

Years ago I joined David Bowie’s fan club in order to get tickets to see him in a small venue, and every year since that membership has auto-renewed, and once in a while I go in and check the site out and read the news and listen to Bowie Radio and so on. Last week they were giving away tickets to see him at a benefit performance tonight at the Hammerstein Ballroom, so I entered. And I won. I never win anything!

The show was a benefit for Keep a Child Alive, an organization founded to provide AIDS drugs to help stem the dreadful tide of that disease in Africa, which has killed more than ten million and left many more children orphaned. Alicia keys puts this event together every year, and tonight simply increased my already considerable respect for her.

Tonight’s show was outstanding, and though Bowie performed “only” three songs, they were gems, well chosen for the evening and beautifully sung. His set was the cap to a night of excellent performances which, I hope, left everyone thinking hard about how lucky we are and what we owe to the children in Africa who were the real point of the evening.

Bowie opened the set with “Wild Is the Wind,” performing it alone with Mike Garson on piano. If there is a recording of the show, this performance would be the highlight. Garson’s piano was transcendent and Bowie sang the song more gently and intimately than I’ve ever heard it sung before. No lush strings or drum rolls, the magnificent gestures muted, just a gorgeous vocal performance.

Next up was “Fantastic Voyage,” an extraordinarily appropriate song for the evening. “Think of us as fatherless scum / It won’t be forgotten,” he sang, to a crowd ostensibly there to raise money to care for African orphans and to provide antiretroviral drugs so that perhaps some children will not become orphans.

Then he brought Alicia keys back out to sing “Changes,” stepping back so she could sing the second verse:

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

His performance followed keys’ own set, which built to a stunning pair of covers: a smoking version of “Piece Of My Heart,” made famous by Janis Joplin, and an impassioned version of Bob Marley’s “War.” She did duets with Damian Marley and Angelique Kidjo as well, so the evening was just full of great collaborations and great spirits.

But the real stars of the night were the award nominees and the African teenagers, now raising their families after the deaths of their parents, that keys brought onstage. She’d asked each one of them what they wanted. One wanted to meet Elijah Wood, and out he came, to her delight. Another said he wanted to be the best father possible (at the age of 21, with no children of his own yet). Russell Simmons came out and hugged him. And the third wanted to give a vacation to “Mum” Carol Dyantyl of Ikageng Ministries in Soweto, South Africa, one of the honorees, who’s dedicated her life to caring for orphaned children.

The other honoree was Dr. Paul Farmer of Partners In Health, the subject of Tracy Kidder’s 2003 book, Mountains Beyond Mountains. He spoke passionately, if not angrily, about the need for developed nations to provide decent health care around the world, rather than allowing people to suffer and die in conditions that would horrify any of us.

David Bowie and Alicia keys David Bowie and Alicia keys
Singing “Changes.”
David Bowie and Alicia keys David Bowie and Alicia keys
Singing “Changes.”
David Bowie David Bowie
Singing “Fantastic Voyage.”
Alicia keys Alicia keys
Alicia keys Alicia keys
Singing “Piece Of My Heart.”
Alicia keys and Angelique Kidjo Alicia keys and Angelique Kidjo
Mum Carol Mum Carol
A South African teenager hugging “Mum” Carol Dyantyl.
Russell Simmons Russell Simmons
He comes out to honor the teenagers now heading households.
Elijah Wood Elijah Wood
One of the teens said she’d like to meet, him.
Iman and Wanda Sykes Iman and Wanda Sykes
“We’re twins,” Sykes said.
Dr. Phil Farmer Dr. Paul Farmer
Of Partners In Health, an international aid organization.
Bowie and Mike Garson during “Wild Is the Wind”

It was a wonderful, inspiring and sobering evening, and while I was thrilled to see Bowie perform, he was not the highlight of the evening. It left me feeling like I should take much more seriously my obligation to help save some lives in a truly horrifying and preventable crisis. Put it this way: the deaths in Africa from AIDS — deaths from a treatable disease — amount to a 9/11 every day for more than a decade.



Edit: Just uploaded a video clip from “Changes” to YouTube.

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