As part of a benefit that featured performances by Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, Shawn Colvin, Ruben Blades, and Public Enemy, the Creative Coalition posthumously honored Billboard editor in chief Timothy White last night (Oct. 29) in New York with its 2002 Christopher Reeve First Amendment award. The accolade was presented to the late scribe’s wife, Judy Garlan, by Reeve himself.
Actor-turned-activist Reeve, speaking from a motorized wheelchair in front of the Hammerstein Ballroom stage, called White a champion of artists’ rights and the power of human expression. Billboard’s editor for more than a decade, White died suddenly June 27 from a heart attack suffered in an elevator at the magazine’s New York offices.
“He knew that music was something quite separate from the music business,” Reeve said. “He often confronted that business in print. He was known as ‘the artists’ writer.’ And he was not afraid of taking on tough issues, when the safer choice would have been to write about something else. Freedom of expression, musicians’ creative rights, exploitation — he dealt with all of these and more, often challenging the power, authority, and wealth of the industry.”
“[The award] would have meant so much to him, especially coming from you,” a choked-up Garlan said as she looked toward Reeve. She noted that her husband tried to provide a voice for artists who had none, and that as much as he believed in free speech in popular music, he believed in exercising the responsibility that comes with that freedom. Just because one has the right to yell “fire” in a public place, doesn’t mean they should do it, she noted. “He would say, ‘Don’t be an idiot.'”
In past years, the Creative Coalition — a nonprofit, nonpartisan social and public advocacy organization of the arts and entertainment community — has honored broadcaster Walter Cronkite, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, and others with the Reeve award. The gala event included freedom of speech-themed addresses from such actors and celebrities as Bebe Neuwirth, Bob Costas, Caroline Rhea, Cynthia Nixon, Danny Glover, Peter Boyle, and Hector Elizondo.
In between, Costello, Reed, Colvin, and Public Enemy each performed a pair of songs. Costello, who resides in Ireland, said it was a little strange for him to appear at the benefit, considering he lives in a country “that has given away its constitution.” Standing in front of an enormous American flag, used as a backdrop for much of the evening, Costello delivered solo acoustic versions of “Alibi,” from his latest album “When I Was Cruel” (Island/Def Jam) and the 1930s protest tune “Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.”
Alone onstage, Reed delivered “Heroin” and “Walk on the Wild Side,” and, like Costello, drew cheers from the smattering of fans in the venue’s upper balcony. Although the event, which included a dinner and silent auction, was billed as “sold out,” the majority of the Hammerstein’s balcony seats were empty.
Led by outspoken founder Chuck D, Public Enemy boasted two guitarists, a drummer, and a DJ, but not eccentric rapper Flavor Flav. The group delivered the new song “Gotta Give the Peeps What They Need.” Colvin, meanwhile, with the help of Jimmy Vivino and other members of the “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” house band, offered a pair of folk covers — Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene,” popularized by the Weavers, and the Phil Ochs protest classic, “I Ain’ta Marchin’ Anymore.”
Reed returned for “Nothing but the Truth,” a duet with Blades, who also performed “El Tiburon,” a tune critical of the local government in Miami.