AIDS and Rock: Sound of Silence

Steve Hochman & Mary Herczog. Rolling Stone. Issue 629.  April 1992.

It took three years and Freddie Mercury’s death, but Guns n’ Roses are finally going to play a major benefit to raise funds and awareness for AIDS. The show, to be held at London’s Wembley Stadium on April 20th, was organized by the surviving members of Queen after singer Mercury died of AIDS last November 24th. Others on the bill include David Bowie, Roger Daltrey, Def Leppard, Extreme, Elton John, Annie Lennox, Metallica, George Michael, Robert Plant and Spinal Tap. Some acts will be performing their own sets; others will join Queen’s Roger Taylor, John Deacon and Brian May for versions of that band’s songs.

Organizers will not comment on how much money the show—which is being called A Concert for Life—is expected to raise. But ticket sales alone have brought in about L2.1 million (roughly $3.5 million), and merchandising and TV and radio rights will bring in even more. (Fox Broadcasting and MTV will air versions of the concert in the U.S.) And various AIDS organizations will benefit from what is certain to be the biggest rock-related AIDS-charity event ever.

That alone makes A Concert for Life significant. But just as important is the participation of Guns n’ Roses and other hard rockers. The genre—though practically synonymous with high-risk activities involving sex and drugs—has been largely absent from the AIDS fight.

Axl Rose and company were supposed to play an AIDS benefit in 1989, topping the bill of Rock and a Hard Place, organized by New York’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). But when some gay activists expressed anger over the line about “immigrants and faggots … spread some fuckin’ disease,” in the band’s song “One in a Million,” G n’ R were booted off the bill. The entire event was subsequently scrapped, and with it went what many AIDS activists now mourn as a lost opportunity to open the door of AIDS awareness in the rock world.

So when Guns n’ Roses take the stage at Wembley, they will show the world just how much things have changed in the last three years, right? Don’t bet on it. While some of the artists on the bill will no doubt be performing because of their heartfelt concern about the disease, many of the hard rockers are participating for one reason and one reason only: They loved the music of Mercury and Queen.

“I know for Guns n’ Roses and Metallica it’s because they liked Queen,” said Peter Mensch, who comanages Metallica and Def Leppard. “Nothing else came into it. It’s for Freddie’s sake.”

Still, it’s a start. “Before this, you couldn’t get a rock act to do an AIDS benefit,” said Barbara Hutson, U.S. managing director of Laister Dickson and Associates, the U.K. public-relations firm that helped organize the Wembley concert and that has been instrumental in such previous pop conclaves as Live Aid and the Nelson Mandela tribute. “Now they all want to do this one. I don’t know if it’s because of Freddie’s death or not. I don’t know who all of a sudden said it’s okay for bands to do AIDS benefits.”

There have been other signs that AIDS activism is on the rise among rockers. U2 is donating all of the royalties from its latest single, “One,” to AIDS-research groups. Entertainment mogul David Geffen, long one of the largest financial contributors to AIDS research and education, recently donated $1 million to AIDS Project Los Angeles. Neil Diamond gave $25,000 to the Magic Johnson Foundation during a recent concert stint at the Forum, the home arena of Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers. The Beastie Boys, Fishbone, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and others played an AIDS benefit in Hollywood in early April, the proceeds being split between the Johnson Foundation and ACT UP, the militant AIDS-activist group. And Madonna, whose activism has outclassed that of any other pop star, continues to contribute time and money toward the fight against AIDS.

“Now, I’m not HIV positive, but what if I were?” Madonna said last December as she accepted an award from the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) for her work in promoting AIDS awareness. “I would be more afraid of how society would treat me for having the disease than the actual disease itself. If this is what I have to deal with for my involvement in fighting this epidemic, then so be it.”

Madonna’s statement was unprecedented: a star—the star—denying she had a disease. Rumors had been swirling for months that Madonna was infected with the AIDS virus. Virtually the day after Magic Johnson stunned the world with his announcement of his HIV-positive status, Madonna’s publicist began receiving calls from journalists who insisted they had heard that the singer was going to hold her own press conference to make a similar announcement. Though not wanting to dignify the rumors, Madonna was ultimately backed into a corner where she had to make her indignant denial.

At least Madonna addressed the issue publicly. Mercury didn’t—or not until just hours before his death, when a statement was finally released, following more than a year and a half of speculation that the singer was ailing. Mercury’s reluctance to address his illness publicly is all too typical of how the rock world has dealt with AIDS.

It’s a world where silence is the rule, forthrightness—even reluctant like Madonna’s—the exception. And it’s a world where neither Madonna’s statement nor Mercury’s death seems to be having any dramatic long-range impact. Every day we hear of new AIDS casualties from other areas of the arts. A generation of talent from theater, dance, classical music, film and the fine arts has already been decimated. Why not rock & roll? Has anyone fooled himself into believing that rock & roll junkies never shared syringes and metalhead studs never shared groupies? Are rockers too macho to admit that they could be susceptible to a disease that many associate with homosexuality?

“I want to be blunt with you—I don’t like homosexuals, I don’t understand homosexuals, and I’m confused by homosexuality,” said Ted Nugent, who made macho his trademark. But Nugent goes on: “You may like to hump wild oak trees in the night. I don’t understand that, but it doesn’t predicate you losing your life. I know a lot of homosexuals and bi-sexuals, and they’re dying, and I’m further confused. Is it unnatural and wrong? Or is it we are uneducated? Am I ignorant, or am I normal? It’s confusing.”

Confusing, indeed. Hundreds of provocative, flesh-baring heterosexual fantasies are paraded daily on MTV. David Lee Roth once made publicity hay of supposedly needing a Lloyd’s of London insurance policy against paternity suits. The group Poison gleefully bragged of a computerized log of groupies from around the country. For all of its genderbender teasing—Bowie, Grace Jones, Boy George, even Poison, with its lavish use of cosmetics—rock has been aggressively straight. With Freddie Mercury, rock fans had no trouble accepting that he was “flamboyant.” Accepting him as gay was another matter, even following his tragic death. Remember, this is a world in which Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach proudly wore a T-shirt that bore the legend AIDS—KILLS FAGS DEAD.

Kate Pierson of the B-52’s said it took a year after the 1985 death of guitarist Ricky Wilson before the band felt it could admit publicly that he had died from AIDS. The climate, she said, has not changed much since: “There’s a fear among rock artists who have so much invested in their image and have a fear of being identified with AIDS or as gay.”

“The rock & roll business is closeted,” said one gay record executive, who asked that his name not be used. “It’s not an easy thing to be gay unless you’re in the dance business. At a certain level it doesn’t matter, though people snicker about them.”

“You cannot be gay in the music world,” said Jim Fouratt, the director of national publicity for Rhino Records, a syndicated music columnist and a co-founder of ACT UP. “The heavy-metal and rock communities do not allow there to be a gay hero. Homophobia is at the root of AIDS-phobia.”

And this attitude spills over into the area of fund-raising. “It has been relatively more difficult to get recording stars involved in AIDS benefits; they are less enthusiastic,” said David Eng, a spokesman for GMHC. “It’s just my assumption that the rock community has been very afraid of being associated with anything gay related. I always thought it was because of their business—it affects sales.”

Even Mercury’s death brought a dramatic backlash. Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant observed a dual reaction in England, where a specially issued single of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” shot straight to Number One before Christmas while some people had no sympathy at all for the fallen star. British media commentators and government officials took the opportunity to do a bit of verbal gay-bashing, much as some Americans used Magic Johnson’s condition as a platform for morality crusades. “I’ve always thought that a lot of people think that gays deserve to have this disease,” Tennant said. “I think with Freddie Mercury’s death, you have an excuse to say that the homosexual lifestyle is unacceptable, a feeling it serves these people right.”

That’s what troubles some AIDS activists. At least one group, ACT UP, is not taking Guns n’ Roses’ participation in the Mercury tribute as an opportunity to forgive and forget.

“We don’t want them on the bill,” said John Campbell of ACT UP/London. “We will accept them when they have a press conference and publicly denounce everything they said about AIDS and homophobia. We want the words ‘We were wrong, we’re sorry.’ Their homophobic attitude creates an atmosphere of ignorance and intolerance.”

ACT UP shouldn’t hold its breath. “We’re disgusted by ACT UP’s lack of sensitivity in trying to politicize this tribute,” said a G n’ R management representative. “We refuse to be their pawn.”

Campbell said that ACT UP would not make any attempts at a boycott of the concert. “The show is something we wholeheartedly support,” he said. “The only objection we have is to groups that are guilty of disinformation about AIDS.” So to that end, he has called for other performers on the tribute to shun G n’ R publicly and for the more than 70,000 people expected at Wembley to “boo the band off the stage.”

ACT UP’s position may be a bit extreme. As even Eng strongly pointed out: “I don’t want people to get the idea that Guns n’ Roses didn’t want to participate (in the original benefit). We called it off. They were the first ones to say yes. There are still problems with the song. But the group never said they didn’t want to be involved with a gay cause.”

The whole point of activist groups is education and awareness, and to that end even Guns n’ Roses are allowed a second chance. “They may well have changed their views,” said Daryl Upsawl, head of fund-raising for the London-based Terrence Higgins Trust, one of the largest U.K. AIDS organizations and a beneficiary of the Mercury concert. “I think we should give people the opportunity to recognize their previous errors and make them good. Hopefully, that’s happened to Guns n’ Roses.”

“It does seem odd for a community known for promiscuity and drug use that more people haven’t gotten sick,” said David Byrne, whose sister-in-law, Tina Chow, a model, designer and mainstay of the Manhattan art and fashion scene, succumbed to AIDS in January.

But the more you ask, the more you find that the impact of AIDS is growing. “You’d be surprised how many people have contracted HIV in the rock & roll community,” said Joey Ramone. “I know people who have died who had symptoms that are related to it. There are a lot of people around with HIV from shooting dope, shooting heroin.”

In fact, there have been some artists, if not big stars, who died long before Mercury. German avant-garde performer Klaus Nomi died in 1981, making him one of the first AIDS victims ever. Since then a number of others have fallen as well, including Ricky Wilson, disco diva Sylvester in 1988, Studio 54 impresario Steve Rubell in 1989 and, in just the past year, David Mankaba, guitarist for the African pop group the Bhundu Boys, Village People producer Jacques Morali, Los Angeles musician-journalist Craig Lee and former ROLLING STONE contributor and author Nicholas Schaffner.

“There’s clearly more infection than the industry’s acknowledging,” said Richard Rouilard, editor in chief of The Advocate, the world’s largest gay and lesbian magazine. “There’s more of it coming. Who it is I don’t know. But it’s coming. And the epidemic will hit rock music the way it hit the rock industry. The first big wave will hit rock soon. They don’t know how long precisely, but it seems ten to fifteen years is the outside period of asymptomatic condition.”

“The music business certainly has been hit by this very badly,” said Seymour Stein, president of Sire Records. “Maybe the names are not as big, but everyone is a person, and it’s a great, great loss. People are dying every day. It just may not be at that level, except in the case of Freddie, where it garners that much attention. But certainly among the rank-and-file workers, executives, junior and senior, we have been hit.”

One music-biz figure said: “I can name twenty-five people that I know in powerful places in the music business in L.A. alone who are grappling with immune disorders. Some are artists, most not.”

Pamela Des Barres, whose own backstage exploits among the rock elite were chronicled in her book I’m With the Band, sees an explosion of AIDS in the rock world as inevitable. “I’m sure we’re going to be stunned in the near future, and I’m sure (some stars) know they have it already,” she said. “Freddie Mercury was not that big of a surprise. Some of the old guys are going to surprise us by coming out with it.”

As it stands, the Centers for Disease Control, in Atlanta, estimates that there have been 200 to 500 music-industry AIDS deaths in the last ten years. And within the dance community, arguably a more gay-dominated segment of the business, there were nearly 100 AIDS deaths among artists, club DJs, engineers and remixers last year alone.

But as rock loses more of its people to the disease, it forces them to die without recognition or tribute. Reality is ignored; rumor is everywhere. Virtually anyone who has lost weight, decides not to tour, is rumored to be gay, coughs in public or is active in the AIDS battle becomes fair game for unsubstantiated gossip.

“I heard the next day after Madonna that next was Elton John,” The Advocate’s Rouilard said. “I’ve been involved in the Hollywood rumor mill myself, and it’s fun and silly. But this is ugly and mean, career screwing and homophobia at its worst.”

Sarah McMullen, John’s North American publicist, said she has been fielding calls about the singer’s health since it first became known that he was actively aiding Ryan White, the hemophilic Indianapolis boy who died from AIDS in 1990.

“It’s totally not true,” McMullen said of the AIDS rumors. “Every once in a while someone says, “Well, we know you know.’ I say, ‘What do you know?’ and they say they heard the rumor. It frustrates me to hear people say he must have tested positive because he’s so involved.”

The odd thing in all this is that John, who serves on the board of the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, is probably the best-known pop star to be candid about his homosexuality. As long ago as the mid-Seventies, John acknowledged he was bisexual, and in a recent Rolling Stone story he was open about his male lover. Despite his openness, John’s career has not suffered. So, McMullen said, he is incensed by the recent “obsession” with rumors that he has AIDS, because it puts renewed focus on his sexuality at the expense of attention to his music.

Among the other names most often mentioned by music-industry personnel is R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. Gossips point to his thin appearance and close-cropped hair and his band’s decision not to tour behind its latest album. “We hear seventy-five rumors a week,” Jefferson Holt, R.E.M.’s manager, said matter-of-factly. “Michael is as healthy as a horse.” Further, several friends and associates categorically state he is in fine health.

Another victim of the AIDS rumor mill has been George Michael, who appeared on the MTV Video Music Awards with newly sheared hair. “Fans called and said: ‘Is he okay? Is he having chemo?’ ” said Michael’s manager, Rob Kahane. “I said: ‘He’s fine. He just decided to get his hair cut.’ ”

Likewise, rumors abound about former Jane’s Addiction leader Perry Farrell, who has been outspoken about his heroin use and bisexual exploits. Farrell’s publicist, Heidi Robinson, said she tracked down the origin of the false gossip, which was apparently tied to people’s mistaking a positive pregnancy-test result that Farrell used as part of the artwork on the cover of the band’s Ritual de lo Habitual album for a positive HIV test.

It seems the bigger the name, the more outrageous the claims. “I got a call from a TV show—they said Slash used to see Jasmine Guy and she used to date Magic Johnson,” said Bryn Bridenthal, head of publicity for Geffen Records. “I’m not aware of Slash’s ever seeing her. People are doing connect the dots.”

Even expressions of seemingly legitimate concern can have a sleazy undercurrent. Fouratt said: “There is nothing more insidious than the well-meaning liberal inquiring, ‘Oh, I hope so-and-so’s okay.’ Ask him yourself.”

“I guess rock & roll demands a pure, monastic life,” said Keith Richards, the surviving all-time rock & roll lifestyle champion, with a sarcastic chuckle, commenting on the relatively few public rock & roll AIDS cases.

The irony is that rock & roll may demand monasticism now.

“AIDS has been my constant fear since it first came out,” said Ozzy Osbourne, once a leading partaker in rock excess. “I haven’t messed around for some time now, but it haunts me. I sound like a fucking prude, but it scares the fucking life out of me, man.”

Joey Ramone echoed that: “It should make you scared. It scares the shit out of me. But it’s not enough to be scared. You’ve got to be responsible. I would rather not go to bed with a woman if it means fearing for my life. I’ve slowed down a lot; I’m a lot more careful and don’t indulge the way I used to.”

But this message seems to come easier to the veterans who had their shot at the wild life before the plague struck. “Are people’s attitudes changing?” asked David Byrne. “My feeling is that for a lot of younger people, sadly it’s not. From what I can gather, they’re not being careful—raging hormones take over. People of my generation’s sexual habits have changed dramatically, but then we are at the stage where we are not being dragged around by our hormones as much anymore.”

Ramone agreed. “Younger bands and people and road crews just kind of brush it off,” he said. “You hope that everything’s gonna be cool. Road crews are wilder than bands.”

This isn’t news to those who work with the younger rockers. “These guys all fuck the same girls, so as soon as one goes down, they all will,” said Bridenthal. “They all think they’re going to live forever. I’ve heard some bands say, ‘Gee, it’s only head.’ But from my understanding, that will do it.”

Kasey Smith, who plays keyboards in the young hard-rock band Danger Danger, said: “I know the guys in the band have been practicing safe sex, but the (groupies) will do just about anything. There’s a lot more condoms on the bus and a lot more blow jobs going down.”

“When it comes down to it, I feel sorry for these young fuckers,” Ted Nugent said. “They missed out on what I consider one of the top two or three elements of rock & roll, and that’s the sexual fun and games. And I see that the sexual energy is going to have to be rechanneled.”

But the notion that rock & roll is going to have to change dramatically strikes some as ludicrous. “They’d have to change the lyrics of every single Guns n’ Roses tune,” said The Advocate’s Rouilard. “I don’t think rock musicians are required to sing safe-sex messages. I don’t want to hear that. I like my rock raunchy.”

The message from this camp is not sex negative, but sex responsible—both in practice and image. The MTV bimbo-on-every-corner mentality may have to go, but don’t take the essential sensuality of rock with it. “It’s important to be pro-sex, because if you’ve got to tell rock & roll audiences to be celibate, forget it,” said Jim Fouratt.

The last thing many want is pop lyrics addressing the issue. The Pet Shop Boys have recorded several songs that were tinted with the AIDS tragedy, but on a very personal level, such as “Being Boring,” an elegy for a friend who died of AIDS. “I always have a problem when a cause or issue becomes show-businessified, because to me it tends to take the meaning out of it,” Neil Tennant said. “I don’t think we’ve ever made a safe-sex statement. If it’s fashion one minute, the next it will be the opposite.”

Some are working messages into their acts. Rappers Salt-n-Pepa rewrote their song “Let’s Talk About Sex” as “Let’s Talk About AIDS”—with the line “It’s not a black, white or gay disease”—for an awareness video that also features Jodeci, PM Dawn, MC Lyte and Monie Love.

And Deee-Lite, which first established itself in the New York dance scene before reaching international stardom, has also made AIDS an explicit topic of its performances. “At our concerts we throw out rubbers at the audience, because we think they should practice safe sex—often,” said Deee-Lite’s Lady Miss Kier. The group’s upcoming single, “Rubber Lover,” even ex-tols the virtues of protected intercourse. “I think abstinence is not a reality. I don’t think it’s going to happen, though people will have less sex, but they won’t stop.”

Said Byrne: “You can’t just point your finger and say, ‘Just be good.’ It doesn’t work like that. You can’t tell people, ‘Okay, just be nice.’ Nice is boring.”

Even so, Richards warned would-be rockers: “You just gotta watch your ass. It’s another world now. If you’re out there on the road now thinking about it, it’s straight time. You can’t go into it now thinking about all the girls down front and having a hit record and walk away from anything you want to. It’s straight time, baby.”

While tongues are wagging over who is or isn’t, the serious voices are asking what the pop world is going to do about it. Bob Caviano is asking very loudly. He is a rarity in the pop-music world: a public PWA—person with AIDS, as the preferred term goes. Caviano is also another rarity in that he has made no attempt to soften the way he contracted AIDS: through homosexual contact. He was a visible figure during the disco years and on the New York dance-club scene, managing such acts as Grace Jones and Gwen Guthrie and working for Steve Rubell and other club owners. Caviano, with an uncertain prognosis about his future, recently wrote a commentary in Billboard magazine indicting the music industry for failing to provide support for PWAs in the ranks.

To him there was no question of AIDS being a pop-music epidemic long before he himself was diagnosed in 1990. “In the Eighties my friends were dying,” Caviano said. “In the urban dance world we really got hurt. Sylvester died, his manager died, his producer died. Then my doctor died, my dentist, my lover, my best friend, the kid who cleaned my house. It was my community, the gay, dance, black community.”

He praises such efforts as the album Red Hot + Blue, a compilation of Cole Porter standards interpreted by various pop figures, which raised more than $4 million for AIDS research and education. And in truth, there have been other similar efforts. Disney last year released For Our Children, an album of kids’ songs done by pop stars ranging from Bruce Springsteen and Sting to Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand that benefited the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. And one of the first AIDS-awareness projects was “That’s What Friends Are For,” the 1985 single by Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight.

But the bulk of charitable activities funds research and education. Though that’s important, Caviano said, it doesn’t address the needs of people who already suffer from the disease. As a result, he has founded an AIDS organization, LIFEbeat, and is currently organizing an AIDS benefit, tentatively scheduled for May 20th at the Paramount Theater, in New York. Caviano’s intent is to raise money to provide support for HIV-infected music-industry workers, particularly people like himself—self-employed producers, engineers, writers, promoters—who have no industry-funded insurance program. His longtime industry connections have enabled Caviano to team up with the likes of New York promoter Ron Delsener and Daniel Glass, executive vice-president and general manager of the EMI Record Group. (EMI has also donated office space for the organization.) Though the lineup was not final at press time, Deee-Lite, the Brand New Heavies, Salt-n-Pepa, Grace Jones and Tito Puente were all confirmed for the benefit.

“I think I’m embarrassing people into acting,” Caviano said. But the progress is slow. “We’re the only industry in the entertainment world that doesn’t take care of its own.”

Even many executives who are active in the AIDS fight with their checkbooks are reluctant to speak out publicly. The most prominent example is David Geffen. Though he has been a major donor to AIDS organizations, when attempts were made to contact him for this article, his representative said that he did not wish to be “seen as an AIDS spokesman.”

In fact, all through the pop world, getting people to speak about AIDS proved easier said than done. Elton John’s spokeswoman gave virtually the same response as the Geffen camp. Other artists were either “unavailable” or declined to comment on the matter for this story, choosing instead to let their publicists do the talking. And several performers who have flaunted rock’s wild life in their careers—David Lee Roth, Poison’s Brett Michaels, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, Guns n’ Roses’ Slash and others—did not want to be part of an AIDS-related article.

“It’s like ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ ” said B-52 Kate Pierson. “A lot of people would like to run up a hill and lock themselves in, and when they see someone sick, they want to run away. But what we need is compassion, and that needs to come from everybody.”

When and if a major rock figure goes public with an HIV-positive status, would the impact on the rock world be as profound as Magic Johnson’s revelation has been on the sports world? Byrne said: “It would be easy for someone to say: ‘No, his life was still very different from mine. He might be my idol, but he lives in the stratosphere, and I live on earth. This guy was out of control to begin with. God knows what his sexual habits were. He flew a little too high, and that’s why he’s sick.’ That kind of rationalization goes on all the time.”

Pierson added: “If people haven’t really gotten the picture now, I don’t think it should take celebrities to bring it home.”

But for now, even a figure as visible and brazen as Madonna must fight a stigma for being involved with AIDS activism. “I’m not afraid to be associated with people who are HIV positive,” she said at the AmFAR benefit. “And I’m not afraid to love people who are HIV positive. Because their ordeal is more important than mine, because their courage is larger than mine, because what they’re facing is real. And if we can learn to deal with real, and our fears, then I’m hopeful we can conquer this disease.”