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Bernie Taupin on writing songs for Elton John, Rocketman, and his upcoming art exhibition in Atlanta

Bernie Taupin Bill Lowe Gallery
Taupin and Elton John

Photograph courtesy of Bill Lowe Gallery

In the blockbuster biopic Rocketman, Bernie Taupin’s character is the English wordsmith who met Elton John at a cafe in 1967 and became the stalwart friend who stood by his songwriting partner through decades of stardom and tumult. Atlantans also may recognize Taupin as the lyricist who wrote dozens of radio hits (from “Tiny Dancer” to “I’m Still Standing”) with John, including the album, Peachtree Road, which was recorded in our city and celebrated at a legendary concert at the Tabernacle in 2004. The pair continues to collaborate, but Taupin has spent the past few years focused primarily on his artwork, which he creates at his studio in California and labels as “musical archeology.” His paintings and assemblages reference Americana, country music, the U.S. flag, and found objects. Below, Taupin talks about his upcoming exhibition at Bill Lowe Gallery (which opens October 25), his writing process, and his friendship with John.

You’ve written lyrics for Elton John since you were 17 and have pursued painting since the 1990s. Do you remember creating art before you met Elton?
Not particularly, but I’ve had an appreciation of art since I was a child sitting on my mother’s knee, looking at a coffee table book of J.M.W. Turner’s nautical work and being fascinated by the colors and the storylines. My mother was a driving force in everything artistic in my life. She was very Bohemian. When I was growing up in the North of England during the 1950s, going to school was a catapult to put kids on the line in factories. Anybody with aspirations beyond the factory was sort of frowned upon. My mother said, “Go ahead and do what you feel you need to do.” So, I took my lead from her.

Your work is influenced by abstract expressionists including Anselm Kiefer, Jasper Johns, Hans Hofmann, and others. Is that partly a result of being exposed to art while going on tour [with Elton] in the early days?
That commenced from the time I moved to London in the 1960s during the onslaught of pop art, which had a huge effect on me then, and even more so when I wound up in New York later. We always seemed to be in New York City when it was cold, so I would seek refuge in places like MoMA and other art galleries. Those visits were the breeding ground for the art I’d eventually make after I stopped my transient lifestyle. I remember one huge Kiefer piece I’d stare at because of the storytelling in it. The beauty of art, for me, is that it’s up to the viewers to come up with their own interpretations.

One piece in your show is called “Evolution,” and it’s an assemblage of record sleeves, cassettes, and eight-track tapes featuring familiar faces from Frank Sinatra and Paul Simon to Alice Cooper and Michael Jackson. Are you contrasting tangible analog objects with the virtual realm or is this work a statement about how everything, including recorded music, is disposable?
My works are [not statements so much as] reactionary ideas, momentary ideas. I don’t necessarily pre-think things. Found objects are important for me; anything I feel could be useful becomes part of my own [art] smorgasbord. “Evolution” is not a cry for a simpler time, it’s about the way music has developed and is heard. This piece is about the arc of [physical] music from vinyl to CD and back to vinyl again. I only play vinyl at home, because it’s simply the best way of listening to music. A piece of art is like a lyric. I let people interpret it based upon what they feel. It’s not that important what I feel … Whether it’s songwriting, any form of writing, production, or art, [the purpose] is to wake up the mind. That’s why I’ve always loved abstract art because it made me think and instilled in me a desire to create.

Bernie Taupin Bill Lowe Gallery
Bernie Taupin’s piece “Evolution”

Photograph courtesy of Bill Lowe Gallery

Many of your paintings feature the American flag [sometimes deconstructed or burned], along with parts of musical instruments and bits of lyrics, including on the cover of the 2018 Restoration album, a compilation of yours and Elton’s hits performed by today’s top country artists. Was creating this piece a full-circle moment for you, since your earliest idols were American country singers such as Johnny Cash [who wrote the 1974 song, “Ragged Old Flag”], Marty Robbins, and Johnny Horton?
I’ve said before that I was a closeted country fan [when I was young] because country music was not cool. Back then, people [in England] were listening to American rock and roll, but Elvis didn’t tell me stories. Merle Haggard was my Beatles. I loved the Beatles, but at the same time, I was listening to American blues, country, and folk, people like Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter [Lead Belly], Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. It was like a history lesson. Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans,” “Sink the Bismarck,” “North to Alaska,” Cash singing about trains and the trials of [Native Americans], and Robbins’s trail songs—they were like movies to me. That’s what made me want to write sort of “mini-movies” in songs and tell stories through my art.

You turned your childhood dream of being a cowboy into reality by buying a ranch in California and becoming an American citizen in 1990. You also participated in charity projects for U.S. military veterans. Has America met your expectations?
Kids of my generation were incredibly influenced by American culture, music, television, movies, books, whatever. My contemporaries wanted to emulate it. I wanted to go further than that. I always felt I never belonged [in England], but that I belonged here [in America]. I came here in 1970 and never wanted to leave. So everything I do now, I think of myself as wholly American. I’m very passionate about that, and I think it comes across in my work.

Elton has said your writing appealed to him in the beginning because you didn’t structure songs in a typical verse/chorus/bridge format. Your phrases were wordier, which allowed him to sing more.
I think that’s simply because when I was younger I was flying by the seat of my pants [laughs]. I was really writing a sort of stream of consciousness. I wouldn’t call it poetry. If you want to get my hackles up, call me a poet, because that’s the last thing I am. I’m a lyricist. Back then I was not musically trained. I was just trying desperately to be cool and be in touch with the times . . . I had to write more in a pop vein because I knew that writing the kind of country stuff that I was listening to was not gonna fly. But luckily after releasing a couple of albums [with Elton] and hearing American rock bands like The Band doing songs based on country, gospel, and blues, and inventing what is now known as Americana music, that was a release to me. It was like, “Whoa, people can actually, we can actually do that?” So that was when I embraced my inner closeted country songwriter and we created [the 1970 Elton John album] Tumbleweed Connection.

In the Rocketman film, you [portrayed by Jamie Bell] try to take back a sheet of paper containing the “Border Song”  lyrics from Elton [Taron Egerton], but it’s too late because he says he’s already set the words to music. You actually wrote those words two years after you met Elton and the song was released on Elton’s eponymous first album in 1970. Aretha Franklin did her own version of the song in 1972, also blending those Americana genres of country, gospel, and blues you admired. Today, one could read a lot into those verses, from the struggle of refugees to border walls, racism, political division, and more. Am I overthinking it?
Yeah [laughs], I don’t know. I’d have to go back and look at it. I don’t spend a lot of time listening to our own music. I’m not David Crosby [laughs]. I’ve got way too much to do than to reconnect with old songs and try and figure out where, when, and why I wrote them.

Bernie Taupin Bill Lowe Gallery
Taupin works on his artwork.

Photograph courtesy of Bill Lowe Gallery

Your lyrics span decades and mark very specific moments in our lives. For a Gen-Xer like me, Elton and George Michael performing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” at Live Aid in 1985 and their reprisal of the song at the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation concert in 1992 brought cultural awareness about global poverty and the AIDS crisis. Elton’s performance of your re-worked “Candle in the Wind” at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997 is also an indelible memory. Do you have any career moments where you’re like, “Wow, we really got that right?”
No, I think you’re always waiting for the peak, you know? The minute you stop looking for the summit, you might as well close up your case and go home. I’m not nostalgic at all. I’m always looking for the next best thing. Trying to recollect is really not important to me. Down the road, around the corner, in my studio right now, that’s important. Connecting with Elton, the next concert I go to, or the next event I do . . . I’m always going forward.

In a recent New York Times review of Elton John’s new autobiography, Me, the critic wrote, “It’s a gift to finally hear from someone who has delivered so many of Bernie Taupin’s words and so few of his own.” In what ways does Elton singing your words tell the story of your life?
In the Middle Ages, he probably would have been the town crier. I don’t want to be gratuitous, but without him, I wouldn’t have a voice. It’s one thing to tell a story and write the story. But unless you embrace the story, melodically, with music that is interesting, tasteful, and appealing, it’s not gonna mean a thing, and it’s not going to reach the masses. You know, I could just publish lyrics in a pamphlet and put it out, but who’s going to read that? No one. So he’s the messenger. Without him, I wouldn’t have a voice. It’s a beautiful thing, not something I want to overthink. It just happened and it works.

If you go: Bernie Taupin: Lost & Found opens to the public on Friday, October 25th from 6-9 P.M., and runs through the end of November at Bill Lowe Gallery in Miami Circle.

Rock meets classical as Mike Mills, Chuck Leavell, and Robert McDuffie perform songs about Georgia, for Georgia

Chuck Leavell Mike Mills Robert McDuffie A Night of Georgia Music
Chuck Leavell, Mike Mills, and Robert McDuffie will perform together for A Night of Georgia Music.

Leavell: Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Mother Nature Network; Mills: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Unbridled Eve; McDuffie: Maury Phillips/Getty Images for The Broad Stage

Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer Mike Mills is a busy man. In addition to summer outings with acts such as the Minus 5 and the Baseball Project (including gigs in Cleveland, Ohio during MLB’s All-Star Weekend and for Braves fans at Atlanta’s Coca-Cola Roxy at SunTrust Park), the bassist joined two of his fellow R.E.M. cofounders, guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Bill Berry, onstage at the Fox Theatre September 13 for a benefit to preserve regional performing arts venues.

On September 29 at Atlanta Symphony Hall, Mills kicks off a mini-tour of A Night of Georgia Music, his latest venture with Rolling Stones keyboardist (and Allman Brothers Band alum) Chuck Leavell, world-renowned violinist Robert McDuffie, a full band, and players from the McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University. The program features fresh instrumental versions of classic Georgia-themed hits ranging from “Georgia on My Mind” and “Midnight Train to Georgia” to “Hey Ya!” and “One Way Out” and revisits the original six-movement Mike Mills Concerto for Violin, Rock Band, and String Orchestra (which debuted in 2016). Mills calls his new ensemble’s meshing of rock and classical elements a “Venn diagram” of musical textures.

Atlanta caught up with Mills, Leavell, and McDuffie to find out how this concert mashup came together.

Macon, Georgia is a nexus for the three of you. Mike, you and Bobby met at church there in the 1970s and Chuck, you left Birmingham, Alabama, to work with the Allman Brothers and the Capricorn Records label in Macon around that time, too. How did music bring y’all together?

Mike Mills: I’ve known Bobby since seventh grade, and it was always fascinating to me that we both had a connection to classical music. My connection was more through my father being a dramatic tenor and listening to a lot of classical music, and Bobby’s connection was obviously through playing classical violin. But my family would go to Bobby’s house after church on Sunday and we’d listen to the J. Geils band or whatever [pop and rock songs] came on the stereo. I recognized that music didn’t have to be one [genre] or the other. Bobby went off to Juilliard about halfway through high school, but our mothers kept in touch. Over the years, we had parallel arcs of music careers and we both became very successful at what we did.

Robert McDuffie: My mom was the organist and choir director at First Presbyterian Church, and Mike’s father was her tenor soloist, and they presented some awesome music—everything from Brahms’s A German Requiem to the Seven Last Words of Christ by Théodore Dubois. Mike and I were in youth and handbell choirs together. He was not yet the cool rock-and-roller he is today. He was a little nerdy [laughs], but so appealing and exceedingly kind. I left Macon at 16 and got a call from Mike several years after that [in NYC]; he was telling me about this new band called R.E.M. and asked if I would come hear them play. I think they went on at 1 or 2 A.M., so I just wished him luck. Later, I remember walking into LaGuardia and looking over at the newsstand, and there’s Mike and the guys on the cover of Rolling Stone with the headline, “R.E.M.: America’s Best Rock and Roll Band.” We reconnected around that time.

Chuck Leavell: Before R.E.M. was formed, Bill Berry was an office runner for Capricorn Records [in the Paragon Agency]. So I knew about Bill and later, as R.E.M. started to have success, the band and I would bump into each other. It hasn’t been until recent years that Mike and I have gotten to know each other better, and to a degree it’s been through [our mutual relationships] with Bobby and the agent Buck Williams. As far as working together, Mike has performed his concerto before [in 2016], but then came this idea of bringing me into the picture to celebrate music from Georgia, about Georgia, and written by Georgia writers and artists.

Chuck, when you first came to Georgia as a young musician, did you have a sense of the magnitude of the state’s musical history?

Leavell: I was definitely aware. You’ve got Little Richard, James Brown, Otis Redding—all had strong roots in Georgia. When the Allman Brothers Band became successful, that just added another dimension. But the history’s been here for a long time.

How did you narrow down the set list for A Night of Georgia Music?

Mills: A couple of the songs were obvious: “Midnight Train to Georgia” is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Gladys Knight [who had a Billboard number-one hit with the Jim Weatherly-penned tune in 1973] is from Atlanta and the song references Georgia. I wanted to make the list as [stylistically] diverse as possible. Of course, [Hoagy Carmichael’s] “Georgia On My Mind” has to be in there, because Ray Charles was from Albany. I had to extrapolate in my mind if each song could translate into an instrumental version with a rock band, orchestra, and violin.

Chuck, you’ve been a keyboardist for the Rolling Stones since 1982 and just got back from a summer tour that received rave reviews. How will this tour contrast with those experiences?  

Leavell: We were mighty glad not only to salvage the tour [after Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger’s heart surgery in April], but also to sell it out. It was a tremendous journey, and everybody wound up happy and healthy. [A Night of Georgia Music] is such a unique presentation of these [Georgia-themed] songs, and I love that. My last record was a 17-piece big band album with brass! This will be with an orchestra, and that’s what gets me excited. Is it great to play with the Rolling Stones? Of course, but to be able to slide into these other situations and do something creative with it, it’s a real joy. I’ve also had past opportunities with bands like Sea Level, the Allman Brothers, and Eric Clapton, but [this show] is a chance for Bobby and me to have a musical dialogue back and forth as featured performers. Let’s just say that [the combination of my] rock-and-roll piano and Bobby’s classical violin background is going to be an interesting musical conversation.

Bobby, switching gears to the Mike Mills Concerto, you’re the one who asked Mike to write it. You travel in the highest classical music circles and own a 1735 Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù violin once played by Nicolò Paganini. Tell us how the Concerto came together.

McDuffie: I still play classical music by dead European males [laughs], but I always felt I would find my voice in American music. I consider Philip Glass to be America’s Vivaldi, so I went to him about 10 years ago and asked him to write the American Four Seasons. He came through with this fabulous piece, and we’ve had a great run—we’re now up to like 95 performances in 50 cities. In the traditional sense, you go to a contemporary composer, you commission a piece, and you may get a handful of performances if you’re lucky. I don’t want to learn a piece just to play it three or four times. I want it to endure and be personal. Mike Mills is one of America’s greatest composers, and R.E.M. had just split, I think, in 2011. He wrote so beautifully for R.E.M. and, I thought, if we got the right arranger, why not have them enter the classical sphere and merge the two worlds? I had dinner with Mike and his manager [Bertis Downs] at the National in Athens and threw this idea out to them. There was silence from Mike after I brought it up, and I thought, oh no, this was a huge mistake. But then he said, ‘I’ve already got a tune!’ And he just dove in, embraced it, and came up with this fabulous piece. [The Mills Concerto premiered with the Toronto Symphony in 2016], and we’ve played it well over 20 times now.

Chuck Leavell Mike Mills Robert McDuffie A Night of Georgia Music
Chuck Leavell (left) and Mike Mills (far right) perform together during the White House Correspondents’ Jam II event in 2016.

Photograph by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Mother Nature Network

Mike, [R.E.M. frontman] Michael Stipe once said in an interview that your love of the Ramones is what brought “hyper-animated 16th and 32nd notes” to R.E.M.’s sound. That’s actually a perfect description of what I now hear in the energetic movements of your Concerto.

Mills: I have to give huge credit to our arranger David Mallamud. He helped me translate my ideas into violin and string orchestra music. I’m a melody guy, I always have been. But I’ve never written that deeply for string instruments. He and I sat in hotel rooms, and on the phone, and worked out the arrangements for the orchestra and for Bobby [on violin]. It’s fun to see my ideas go through his classical training and become the things they [are] onstage.

Are you fans of Paul McCartney’s classical works such as The Liverpool Oratorio or Ocean’s Kingdom?

Mills: To be honest, I’ve only given them a casual listen. That’s probably to my discredit, but I’m afraid I’d be daunted by it. His basslines and [The Beatles] are huge influences on me. There are some intrepid rockers out there who are trying to do different things. I know my friend John Paul Jones [Led Zeppelin] is writing an opera. He did the string writing and arranging for [R.E.M.’s 1992 album] Automatic for the People, which was brilliant.

McDuffie: Does Billy Joel count? He’s an amazing piano player and has written some really beautiful solo piano works. In his shows he brings out Itzhak Perlman and Lang Lang. He certainly loves and appreciates the classical part. McCartney probably has a tougher time than Mike Mills [in writing his works]. McCartney is an absolute genius, but he can’t read music. We share a Pilates teacher in New York, and Paul is the most kind individual. I feel blasphemous dissing him a little [laughs], but Mike actually reads music. What we’re doing with the Concerto and A Night of Georgia Music is creating something new [between the worlds of rock and classical]. At the end of the day, though, this [feels like] a rock show.

Mike, the final movement of your Concerto is called “You Can Go Home Again.” Is that a nod to Georgia?

Mills: That’s exactly right. It has some dual guitar lines in it a la the Allman Brothers. It has a little of that Georgia feel to it. I’m thinking about Bobby and I growing up together and then leaving town to go pursue our separate careers and then circling back to be friends again and creating this music together, a lot of which is connected to Macon. Bobby opened the McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University, and we’ll have some students and alumni from the center in our string orchestra [for this performance]. All of which speaks to the fact that you can go home again. I thought that was an appropriate title for the last movement.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity

If you go: A Night of Georgia Music will play at Atlanta Symphony Hall on Sunday, September 29 at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $29-$250 and are available on Ticketmaster and at the venue box office. The tour then moves on to the Lyric Theatre in Birmingham, Alabama, on October 2, to the Lucas Theatre for the Arts in Savannah on October 4, and to the Miller Theater in Augusta on October 5.

Why Ted Turner and Adrian Grenier hope your holiday stocking stuffers “suck”

Adrian Grenier Captain Planet Foundation Gala
Adrian Grenier at the Captain Planet Foundation Gala in Atlanta on December 7.

Photograph by Erik Meadows

Last Friday evening the Captain Planet Foundation held its annual gala at the Intercontinental Hotel in Buckhead, where attendees noticed unusual stems sticking out from the flower vases at their dining tables. The environmentally-focused charity (founded by Ted Turner and named after the TV superhero cartoon series he and Barbara Pyle created for TBS in the early 1990s) had sneakily planted stainless steel drinking straws into the centerpieces as a hint to quit sucking through the plastic ones, a shocking 500 million of which are used and discarded daily in the United States alone.

Anyone who has dined at Ted’s Montana Grill is familiar with Turner’s corn-starched to-go-cups and paper straws; the chain helped revive the paper straw industry and tries to avoid all plastics, which pollute beaches and fill the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” that is now three times the size of France. But you might not know that Entourage star Adrian Grenier has collaborated with CPF on the Ocean Heroes Bootcamp youth summit to curb marine litter. The actor and musician was honored recently at the United Nations in New York for his work as a UN Ambassador and at his own nonprofit, Lonely Whale, and before being honored as a “Superhero for Earth” at the CPF gala on December 7, he told Atlanta magazine how wary he is of being just “another celebrity activist.”

“There’s a top-down hierarchy [to celebrity activism] which can alienate people and make them disengage,” Grenier says. “We all have to participate a little bit to make the world a better place. A blob [floating around in the ocean] might feel foreign or outside of ourselves, but when we recognize that the world is genuinely connected to our individual lifestyles, we no longer have to look to celebrities to ‘save us’ or to other organizations to do all the work for us. We, on a daily and choice-to-choice basis in our lives, can affect the entire planet.”

Reusable straws Adrian GrenierGrenier says one of the easiest choices to make is to stop using plastic straws, and kids such as Atlanta’s Hannah Testa and 10-year-old Nevadan Robbie Bond, the latter of whom spoke at the CPF gala and attended the Bootcamp last summer, are approaching school districts, airlines, and businesses across the country to encourage the discontinuation of plastic products.

“Up until I went [to the Ocean Heroes Bootcamp], I had never met other people [my age] with the same goals as me,” says Bond, who founded Kids Speak For Parks and was scheduled to meet with his county’s entire school board this month about climate change and plastic reduction. “It’s where I learned about the five gyres, the currents underwater that spin around and trap garbage,” he says.

Cities and corporations are listening to kids’ concerns: Alaska Airlines got rid of straws after a request from a Girl Scout; Seattle and Miami Beach have banned plastic straws while Malibu encourages the use of boba noodles for sipping; Starbucks plans to phase out plastic straws nationwide by 2020; and McDonald’s will reportedly remove them from its stores in Ireland and the U.K. in 2019.

Adrian Grenier Ted Turner Captain Planet Foundation Gala
Adrian Grenier, Captain Planet, and Ted Turner

Photograph by Erik Meadows

From art to commerce, Atlantans and local businesses are also doing their part in the reduction of plastics. In addition to strides by Ted’s Montana Grill, Delta, Kroger, and the Georgia Restaurant Association, which pledges to reduce or replace plastic straws and grocery bags with reusable options, some intown and metro area restaurants such as Bon Ton and Meehan’s are already using paper, stainless steel, or silicone straws as replacements.

Grenier believes stainless steel straws could be a 21st-century status symbol—a far healthier version of the 1950s sterling silver cigarette holders which were glamorized in movies. When asked if Santa should bring kids paper straws this Christmas, Bond replies, “I already have them.”

Where to find straw alternatives in Atlanta
Straws make great stocking stuffers, and unique varieties such as hay, glass, enamel, pasta, and even copper are all the rage this holiday season at stores and websites ranging from Tiffany’s and Target to Swoozie’s. Many sets are under $15. Staples carries silver-foil paper straws with the Atlanta Falcons logo; Party City sells paper straws in more than a dozen colorways; and Bed, Bath, and Beyond, Walmart, Urban Outfitters, and REI are all good bets for affordable reusable straw finds.

Elton John’s lasting impact on Atlanta: turning the public’s fear of AIDS into action

Elton John
Elton John Performs during the Elton John: I’m Still Standing – A Grammy Salute at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on January 30

Photograph by Brad Barket/Getty Images

Many Atlantans are familiar with Sir Elton John’s local ties: his world-famous art collection that helped spark Atlanta’s obsession with photography; his hangouts at the Buckhead Diner and the former Tower Records; and his affinity for Georgia musicians—such as recording the 1986 AIDS charity single “That’s What Friends Are For” with Gladys Knight, collaborating on a 1993 duet “The Power” with Little Richard, producing his 2004 album Peachtree Road at Tree Studios, co-writing the musical Aida (which premiered as Elaborate Lives at the Alliance Theatre in 1998), and, lately, digging the sounds of 6lack and Young Thug. However, John’s fans may not appreciate that his most lasting gift to our city may be helping reverse the spread and stigma of AIDS.

With then-Mayor Maynard Jackson, John helped inaugurate Atlanta’s first AIDS Walk in 1991. He created the Elton John AIDS Foundation at a friend’s kitchen table here that same year. Since purchasing his Buckhead condo down the street from the Cathedral of St. Philip in 1991, John has raised as many or more dollars for AIDS-focused nonprofits as the number of records he’s sold (300 million) and has helped lift some of the disease’s stigma by supporting organizations on the frontlines of HIV prevention and education across the Southeast. Southern states have some of the highest rates of U.S. HIV diagnosis; and today approximately 50,000 Georgians, many from marginalized communities, live with the virus. Although EJAF is formally based in New York and London, the foundation’s contributions to Atlanta’s nonprofits, such as Jeffrey Kalinsky’s Fashion Cares, have helped pave the way for generations of activists determined to eradicate AIDS for good.

Elton John
Valerie Jackson, Elton John, and Maynard Jackson on the day of the 1991 AIDS Walk.

Photograph courtesy of Valerie Jackson

John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour is scheduled for a two-night stint at State Farm Arena tonight and tomorrow, December 1—a date which also marks the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day—and the pair of concerts brings the 71-year-old Oscar, Grammy, and Tony award winner and part-time Atlantan back to the city where he first earned his reputation as a leading humanitarian and fundraiser for HIV/AIDS charities. Riding a wave of nostalgia in a popular U.K. Christmas advert about his career, along with a big screen Rocket Man biopic set for release next May, and the finality of his latest promise to retire from the stage (this weekend’s gigs could be his last ever live performances in Atlanta), now is a good time to take stock of John’s global and local impact.

The rock star whom Billboard magazine lauded as its top male artist of all-time has been a musical torchbearer in combating HIV/AIDS for decades—writing poignant hits like 1992’s “The Last Song” about a father and his dying son, holding benefit concerts for his late friend Elizabeth Taylor’s AIDS fund, penning op-eds about Africa for the New York Times, and giving speeches at the International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam. However, Elton John’s advocacy on behalf of Atlanta’s LGBTQ community often receives less attention.

Valerie Jackson, an Atlanta business executive who was married to Maynard Jackson, remembers the spirit of the first AIDS Walk in Piedmont Park. In 2018, the ways in which HIV is and is not transmitted are clear to the general public, but in 1990, there was still widespread public panic and ignorance—”even about being around someone with AIDS, much less to eat and drink with those who might be infected,” Jackson says. While hosting a small reception before leading the march arm-in-arm with Mayor Jackson, John set a tone of inclusion. “Elton talked freely with us about the challenges our society faced with respect to HIV and AIDS. [In a room] of gay and straight people [at the height of the stigma], there was no hesitation on the part of anyone to eat food from the same platter or pour lemonade from the same pitcher. At that moment, I remember feeling so proud of Atlanta and that we were open-minded and compassionate enough to understand the reality of AIDS and its truths.”

Julie Rhoad, CEO of the NAMES Project/AIDS Memorial Quilt, which is based in Atlanta and has received grants from EJAF, says John helped flip the public narrative about AIDS by shifting the focus from fear to action. “From the Quilt’s perspective, our role since 1987 has been to help people find a personal connection to the disease,” she says. “That’s what Elton did when he appeared with Ryan White [the Indiana teen who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion] in the 1980s. He told America that this disease isn’t about other people—it’s about all of us. That was a turning point, and his support of White was a challenge to people who thought: HIV and AIDS can’t happen in my world.”

The demographics of HIV-positive people in Georgia today do not conform to the stereotypes of the 1980s and 1990s. They reflect national trends indicating that rural, underserved, and low-income populations are more vulnerable to infections and chronic illnesses. EJAF has responded to limited access to services by making grants to organizations such as Jerusalem House, a local nonprofit which provides permanent housing for low-income and homeless families affected by HIV, and Emory University’s Center for the Health of Incarcerated Persons project. Before performing a 2015 concert in Atlanta, John personally delivered meals to homebound H.I.V. patients served by former grant recipient Open Hand Atlanta.

Elton John
Elton John speaks onstage during the Elton John AIDS Foundation’s 17th Annual An Enduring Vision Benefit on November 5.

Photograph by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Jon Santos, Director of Fundraising and Events at AID Atlanta, which provides testing services, care, and education and also organizes the annual AIDS Walk, says John’s participation in local activities such as his special 2003 EJAF benefit concert at the Tabernacle has fostered a “sense of solidarity” among the city’s AIDS-focused organizations. He warns that stigma still exists around the disease. In fact, at a 2017 public hearing with the Georgia Department of Health, one lawmaker asked about quarantining citizens with HIV.

However, strides have been made toward making it easier for newly-diagnosed people to seek help openly, Santos says. “The same day that [the state rep asked the quarantine question], I was walking down the hall in our office and I saw a young man—a boy of probably about 18 or 19—who seemed lost and overwhelmed. I asked him, ‘Can I help you?’ And he said, ‘I’m looking for the client services lobby so I can get some help, and …’ he kind of swallowed and continued, ‘I’m positive.’ I took his arm and I said, ‘We are going to take really good care of you. You’re here now and you’re amongst family.’ Some people ask me, ‘Why do we still need an AIDS Walk?’ Right there is the answer—so we can give services to those who need them and educate people to break down the shame and stigma.”

EJAF is also funding programs that use the power of pop culture and technology to promote discussions about safe sex among young people. It has supported Atlanta-based Sister Love, a women-focused advocacy organization dedicated to reproductive justice and HIV/AIDS prevention and education. Sister Love’s Healthy Love Youth Network and social media campaigns for at-risk 13 to 24 year olds are aimed at reducing stigma and stopping sexually transmitted diseases, because sex education in schools is often limited by regional curricula that don’t provide opportunities for honest conversation.

Antoinette Jones is a 23-year-old AIDS activist who began working at Sister Love this past April as a peer navigator. Born with HIV transmitted to her by her mother, she remembers taking her liquid antiretroviral drug cocktail in her sippy cup as a child. Yesterday, she was part of the Sister Love team who met with EJAF representatives conducting a site visit. She admits to initially having had to research the singer’s activism online, but says she has always known his music. “I love the song, ‘Rocket Man,’” she says. Who doesn’t?

Editor’s note: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated Atlanta’s first AIDS Walk was in 1990. It was actually in 1991. The story has been updated to reflect this.

Commentary: Why Oprah’s appearances with Stacey Abrams resonated so loudly—especially with Georgia women

Oprah Winfrey Stacey Abrams Atlanta Election 2018
Oprah Winfrey (left) holds a town hall-style interview with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in Cobb County on Thursday.

Photograph by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Oprah Winfrey is no stranger to Atlanta. Recent visits have involved her role in Greenleaf (the Georgia-filmed OWN network mega-church drama in which she acts and produces), her business dealings with entertainment execs such as Will Packer and Tyler Perry, and debuting new content in front of popular local influencers including Imara Canady, Rose Scott, and Ray Cornelius. But when the media mogul made her way to the metro area this week, she arrived with one purpose: to boost the profile of Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in the final days before the election on November 6.

In two town hall-style meetings in Marietta and Decatur Thursday afternoon, Oprah brought international attention to the razor-thin poll margins between the Democrat Abrams and her Republican opponent, current Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp. The beloved TV host and Oscar winner switched focus away from this year’s divisive campaign ads and instead asked audience members to “vote your values” without regard to party affiliation. Oprah does not take campaigning lightly; she stumped for former President Barack Obama in 2008 but didn’t hit the road for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Her support can provide a big bump in votes, too: two University of Maryland researchers estimated her influence on Obama’s 2008 presidential primary race to be worth around one million votes. In Georgia, she primed the stage for an ebullient Abrams, who spoke confidently to the majority-female gathering about her agenda to expand Medicaid, protect rural hospitals, improve education statewide, and advocate for common-sense gun laws.

Publications as geographically and ideologically diverse as the Guardian, Fox News, Variety, the Hill, and others ran stories or segments about Oprah’s door-knocking and campaign appearances with Abrams; yet regardless of the depth of coverage, the two events held in auditoriums in the Atlanta suburbs likely impacted the local crowds (which together totaled approximately 1,000 attendees who’d received an email invitation) in a much deeper way than what could be conveyed to national viewers on the NBC Nightly News, for example.

Here’s why the exchange between the two women was so powerful: First, the place and setting mattered. I attended the day’s first event in Marietta, where Oprah and Abrams came to the suburbs to speak to voters like me on our own turf—and got a glimpse of the Georgia we live and work in every day. Cobb’s reputation could be better: it’s widely criticized for its rejection of the MARTA system in 1971, for being in what the New York Times in 1994 labeled as a “suburban Eden where the right rules,” and for luring the Atlanta Braves to the suburbs with hotly debated tax funding in 2013. Yet Cobb is also among the metro Atlanta’s most diverse counties, and the political demographics seem to be shifting—Hillary Clinton won more votes here than Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. In spite of how other parts of the country might view the suburban district, the hundreds of chatting women (ranging from college students and young moms with infants to women in business suits and an elderly lady in a wheelchair) who lined up at the Cobb County Civic Center to hear Oprah interview Abrams, who could become both the state’s first female governor and the country’s first black female governor, represented a reality of life in Georgia in which the statistics and headlines sometimes don’t capture.

Inside the event at the Jennie T. Anderson Theatre, an empty podium stood in the center of the stage, along with two poles bearing the Georgia and American flags respectively, flanked by a pair of faux brick warehouse facades and scaffolds in front of a backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge—part of an immovable set from the ongoing run of the Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s production of the musical Newsies. The irony was not lost on this journalist that a stage where the stories of child laborers who worked for sensationalist publishing giants Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were being told nightly was echoed, by proxy, during an optimistic political rally led by two women who have publicly denounced lies, deception, and media bias at a time when the president refers to the press as “the enemy of the people” and many newspapers around the country are gasping their last breaths.

Second, the Abrams team was clearly intentional about its omission of negative messages in the town hall format, from the moment the “preshow” started—with an emcee leading lighthearted cheers (“I say Stacey, you say Abrams”) and a rotating playlist of upbeat songs (a highlight for the Decatur crowd included audience member and U.S. Congressman John Lewis dancing to Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” and at both events the Aretha Franklin/Eurythmics duet of “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” served as the walk-on music for Oprah, who ranks among the world’s richest women)—to the fireside chat where Oprah asked Abrams about her financial debt, how she plans to build upon current Republican Governor Nathan Deal’s accomplishments with bipartisan support, and viewing healthcare and education through the lens of Georgians who in the era of #MeToo intend to represent all women (“Sisters, not just sistahs,” Oprah emphasized) at the ballot box on Tuesday. The dialogue felt particularly useful because only hours before, Kemp canceled his participation in the final planned televised gubernatorial debate scheduled for Sunday evening. (He’ll attend a Macon rally with President Trump instead. Both camps blamed the other for the debate’s cancellation, with the Abrams campaign calling out Kemp for pulling out of the debate, and the Kemp campaign pointing the finger at Abrams after she did not agree to a rescheduled debate on Monday, citing a prior commitment.)

Oprah Winfrey Stacey Abrams Atlanta Election 2018The world’s eyes were also watching Georgia on Friday, when former President Barack Obama spoke at a separate Abrams campaign rally at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Yet the Thursday chats between Oprah and Abrams seemed designed to strike a chord with the women in the audience, primarily because the discussions deliberately handled race with a frank and regionally-sensitive tone. Southerners do not like to read or hear about life in the South from outsiders. In this case, Oprah and Abrams were able to discuss their Mississippi childhoods in front of audiences that felt like family.

The flurry of media soundbites published immediately following the end of the Marietta event lauded Oprah’s powerful statements about her status as a registered Independent and her belief in a duty to honor ancestors who did not have the right to vote, whether they were deprived because of their gender or the color of their skin. Yet few reports expounded upon the significance of Abrams’s historic campaign in a state where the capital city served as a cradle for the civil rights movement. Most of the press likely noticed basketball star Charles Barkley taking selfies with audience members or Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Sarah Riggs Amico waving to the crowd before the event started, but some may have overlooked the presence of the curly-headed gentleman seated on the front row—C.T. Vivian, a civil rights activist who, like Lewis, was a close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. Newcomers to Atlanta quickly learn there is an unspoken code that requires every worthwhile political deliberation must begin and end with preserving the legacies of the city’s heroes. This event worked because Oprah understood this rule explicitly.

Outside the theater, the conversations held in line by groups of women—many of whom had arrived alone but quickly made friends as they waited for an hour or more to enter the venue—were not about the South as a place apart, or about women feeling like they’re inferior or limited by the complicated history of their geography. Instead the discussion revolved around how to move forward and do the best they can for their children, schools, hospitals, companies, and about reinserting common decency and hope for the future back into American discourse and politics. They agreed that a magnanimous celebrity like Oprah brings excitement and unity to any event. But right now in Georgia, Stacey Abrams is the only one who can bring their victory home.

Jimmy Carter’s human rights message resonates in Atlanta and globally

Jimmy Carter Human Rights Defenders Forum
Jimmy Carter speaks at the Human Rights Defenders Forum at the Carter Center.

Photograph by Michael Schwarz/The Carter Center

On July 24, inside the Carter Center’s Cecil B. Day chapel overlooking Freedom Parkway and the downtown skyline, Jimmy Carter’s earnest roundtable discussions with around 70 human rights defenders and religious leaders from 36 countries countered the divisive tone of Tuesday’s local election headlines. Carter spent the better portion of seven hours advocating repeatedly for the “equal treatment of all people” regardless of nationality, race, religion, or gender. The former U.S. president and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, hosted the “Restoring Faith in Freedom” event as part of an annual three-day human rights forum at the Carter Center.

This year’s forum emphasized Carter’s desire for a return to the directives of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a call for new strategies to stem rising global tides of authoritarianism and economic disparities. Notable speakers included the Carter Center’s leadership (the all-female trio of CEO Mary Ann Peters, human rights program director Laura Olson, and longtime Carter human rights adviser Karin Ryan), along with Auburn Seminary officer Traci Blackmon, Radhika Balakrishnan of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, and United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour. Carter, appearing cheerful but reflective, said the topics addressed in the forum help establish future priorities for the Carter Center, from which the 93-year-old said he and Rosalynn Carter, 90, will be “transitioning away from leadership soon, due to our ages.”

During the event, Carter often waxed philosophical about problem-solving using themes from his 2018 book, Faith, in which he wrote about the importance of clinging to hope in the midst of turmoil. “For the first time in my lifetime, we’ve lost hope in the future,” Carter told the private audience. “We’ve lost faith in some things that we always took for granted: Faith in each other, faith in the truth, faith not only in religions but in societal relationships . . . we need to go back to those principles.”

Musician Peter Gabriel, co-founder of global leadership group the Elders, appeared via prerecorded video to concur with Carter’s sentiments. Kicking off two of the forum’s sessions in which he recalled his decades of human rights work and tours with Amnesty International, the singer expressed disappointment with today’s lack of trust in elections and institutions and chided recent handling of immigrants and refugees as “flotsam and jetsam.” He also lauded Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter as the “father and mother” of a “global human rights family,” calling the pair “lights in a dark world.” Carter followed Gabriel’s introduction with a quip about his reputation as the first “rock-and-roll president” before returning to his serious concerns about current geopolitics he described as “a turning point in the history of the world.”

Jimmy Carter Human Rights Defenders Forum
A group photo from the Carter Center’s Human Rights Defenders Forum

Photograph by Michael Schwarz/The Carter Center

A recent GQ magazine profile labeled Jimmy Carter a “Yoda-like” purveyor of knowledge and hope, but as the normally fiery statesman took notes and listened to statements of gratitude and pleas for help from forum participants representing Vietnam, Nigeria, the Maldives, Guatemala, and others, he gently reminded the audience that the Carter Center has no official governmental authority, only influence and the successful track record of its programming such as monitoring elections, eradicating diseases like Guinea Worm, and bolstering women’s rights—all of which he hopes will continue to make a difference around the world. “I’m not an oracle, and I don’t have all the answers,” the Nobel Peace Laureate exclaimed with a wide smile at end of the question-and-answer period before issuing a parting call-to-action: “In every level of our life experiences, if we will just treat God’s people equally, collectively we can change the world for the better.”

U2 in Atlanta: An oral history of the band and the city’s shared journey

U2
They didn’t play there, but Edge, Bono, Mullen, and Clayton (left to right) posed for photos outside the long-shuttered Sans Souci lounge on West Peachtree in 1981.

Photograph by Adrian Boot

On a muggy May evening in 1981, a group of musicians pulled up to the curb across from the Fox Theatre and started lugging their instruments into a nightclub where the Georgian Terrace parking deck now stands. Until 1979, the venue had been known as Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom, and hosted Fleetwood Mac, Patti Smith, and Bruce Springsteen, among others. Its replacement, the Agora Ballroom, was a cavernous room where the four young men from the north side of Dublin—singer Paul “Bono” Hewson; bassist Adam Clayton; guitarist David “The Edge” Evans; and drummer Larry Mullen Jr., none older than 21—introduced Atlanta to their debut album, Boy, a collection of post-punk anthems that contrasted sharply with the New Wave dance beats, soft rock, and soul ballads crowding the Top 40 at the time.

Seven months later, the band was back for a second show. In a 1981 interview with Bono for Muzik! magazine, Atlanta journalist Tony Paris wrote about the frontman’s desire to be heard on mainstream radio and for fans to leave room for his lyrics—about defiance, God, the death of his mother—to “sink in.” British photographer Adrian Boot, who toured with the band that autumn, captured images of U2 members mugging along West Peachtree Street in front of the former Sans Souci club, a jukebox dealership, and an old-school filling station. The next night, the band shook the Agora rafters with the single “I Will Follow” twice during its 60-minute set. Today, listening to a YouTube bootleg of that concert from 37 years ago reveals just how little U2’s core sound and spiritual evocations have changed in almost four decades.

Atlanta, a forgettable stop to less perceptive musicians from across the pond, offered a complicated soul, divided by its Civil War past, civil rights present, and global aspirations. When U2 played the Agora on December 1, 1981, the city was coping with the aftermath of the Atlanta child murders. Later that same month, former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young celebrated his victory in the recent mayoral election runoff; Ted Turner’s fledgling CNN network was revolutionizing international news; the CDC developed the first definitions for a disease it would soon label AIDS; and the roar of jet blasts from the newly expanded Hartsfield airport, which would evolve into the world’s busiest, hummed in the distance. Atlanta went on to host the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, emerge as a center for global health initiatives, and grow a multibillion dollar film and music industry. For its part, U2 would become one of the biggest acts in rock history. On May 28, the band returns for its 15th concert here (at the Infinite Energy Center) in support of its 14th album, Songs of Experience, a mature counterpoint to the adolescent ruminations of Boy. Today, U2 writes and plays as if America is still there to be conquered, and at age 58, Bono’s lyrics about love and mortality also contemplate the fraught politics of the Trump era.

U2’s intersections with Atlanta over the years have gone beyond the city as a requisite tour stop. For a band from Europe intent on deconstructing the myth of America, Atlanta—its imperfect icons, its musicians, its leaders—has been a specific, if rarely noticed, part of U2’s journey, not only for the city’s social justice movements of the past but for the present, too. In anticipation of U2’s first Atlanta concert in nine years, two generations of Georgians talk about the band.

1981-1985
Early days, Unforgettable fire, and the reach of Live Aid

Between 1981 and 1983, U2 performed four times in Atlanta. In 1984, the band released its fourth studio album, The Unforgettable Fire. The recording contained two songs—“Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “MLK”—about Martin Luther King Jr., whose legacy fascinated Bono after a writer at Rolling Stone gifted him a copy of the King biography, Let the Trumpet Sound.

John Lewis was an Atlanta city councilmember at the time.

John Lewis (U.S. congressman; civil rights leader): I don’t remember the exact moment I heard “Pride (In the Name of Love),” but I’m sure it was right after the song came out. I identified with [U2’s songs] because of the similarities I recognized between [situations] in America and in Northern Ireland. They had a Bloody Sunday there, similar to the Bloody Sunday we had in Selma. The struggle for freedom and liberation is universal.

On April 29, 1985, when U2 rolled into the Omni on the Unforgettable Fire tour to play its biggest Atlanta show to date, the city had just hosted the inaugural International AIDS Conference. The band also made a visit to the King Center.

Tony Paris (Freelance writer and former editor of Creative Loafing): By the time U2 played the Omni, the band could command the money it needed to put on a well-conceived show using the latest technology. It was chilling to watch them play “Pride” with photographs of MLK projected behind them. But I had to laugh, remembering what Bono said to me only four years earlier: “Tony, U2 is not a political band.” Maybe not in governmental terms, I thought, but they (or, at least Bono, in his lyrics) were certainly now engaging in what French philosopher Michel Foucault might have called political spirituality.

In the 2005 book, U2 by U2, Bono recalled that he had flown his father, Bob Hewson, from Ireland for the Omni show. When Bono took a limousine to Hartsfield to fetch his father, Bob balked at the vehicle, so they switched to a taxi. Backstage after the show, Bono saw his father approach him. “This is a moment I’ve waited for all my life,” Bono wrote. “My father was going to tell me he loved me. He walked up, put his hand out, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘Son, you’re very professional!’”

Eight weeks after the Omni show, on June 22, 1985, U2 played on a bill with Athens band R.E.M. at the Longest Day music festival in Milton Keynes, U.K. Bono would recall meeting Michael Stipe for the first time as “that dance when two contemporaries kind of work around each other.” The friendship grew into what Bono labeled “one of the most important of my life.” On July 6-7, 1985, U2 and R.E.M. played at the Rock Torhout/Rock Werchter festivals in Belgium.

Mike Mills (bassist, R.E.M. cofounder): U2 was big before we were, so they were the festival headliner, and we were playing earlier in the day, but we rode in and out [of the festival site] with them on their bus. Everybody took turns singing songs and Irish folk ballads.

Less than a week later, U2 performed in London on July 13 to raise funds for Ethiopian famine relief as part of Live Aid, a televised concert broadcast which reached one-third of the world’s population and launched the band into super stardom.

Michelle Nunn (CEO and president of CARE; former CEO of Points of Light/Hands On Atlanta): In the summer of 1985, I had just finished high school and was preparing for college. The performances at Live Aid [including U2] fit the zeitgeist of the moment. The concert inspired my belief that collective action—literally joining hands—could help change the world. Seeing this activism prompted me to imagine how I could be a part of creating change.

1986-1992
Conspiracy of Hope Tour, Joshua Tree, Zoo TV at the Georgia Dome

U2 returned to Atlanta in 1986 as part of Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope Tour, which supported releasing prisoners of conscience worldwide. U2 was writing its fifth studio album, The Joshua Tree. The day before the show, Amnesty held a press conference at the King Center, attended by Coretta Scott King; that night, Bono and Larry Mullen, Jr. jammed with members of Lou Reed’s and Peter Gabriel’s bands in the hotel bar at the Ramada Plaza downtown.

U2 returned to the Omni in December 1987 for two shows in support of the Joshua Tree. The following year, the band paid homage to the American South as part of the Phil Joanou–directed documentary (and album of the same name), Rattle and Hum. By the time the Berlin-recorded stylistic departure called Achtung Baby was released in 1991 and the band hit the road in North America in 1992, the first Gulf War had come and gone, John Lewis was in his third term as a congressman, Maynard Jackson was Atlanta’s mayor once again, and Bono, behind thick shades and his new alter-egos The Fly, Mirror Ball Man, and MacPhisto, had begun prank calling the White House from the stage most nights during concerts on the “Zoo TV tour.” U2 played the Omni in March 1992 and returned that September to headline the first rock show at the newly built Georgia Dome with opening act Public Enemy and Big Audio Dynamite.

Peter Conlon (president of Live Nation Atlanta): Alex [Cooley] and I wanted to make sure that we booked the first show there, and we wanted it to be special, so we asked U2. 50,000 people. Maybe the biggest show ever in Atlanta at that time, because Fulton County Stadium couldn’t hold those kind of numbers, nor Grant Field. It sold out right away.

Thomas Wheatley (articles editor at Atlanta magazine): I was 12 years old. I was amazed at the stage: I remember cars on cranes, massive video screens, and platforms—all for a four-piece band. My mom let me buy a ridiculous amount of lighters on the off-chance everyone lit them during “One.” They did, so we did. The drunk woman standing in front of us had permed hair, and I accidentally lit a strand on fire. She didn’t notice. I don’t know why, but we left early—we must have had school the next day—while they played “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Walking through the basically empty corridors of the Georgia Dome made me feel like I was in the end credits of a movie.

Chuck D (cofounder of Public Enemy; member of Prophets of Rage): I knew what Bono had to say about King, and he knew what I had to say. We weren’t going to sit around and talk about it. Bono comes along with the crew from Dublin and visits [Dr. King’s] crypt, which was becoming part of the tapestry of Atlanta at that time and almost [an afterthought] for people who already lived there. Anything Bono decided to do, especially as an outsider traveling in the American South at that time, I appreciated his effort. That tour taught Public Enemy so much about how tours should be run, and it was our first engagement with gigantic venues. Plus, we will always get to say we were the first artists to play in the Georgia Dome.

U2 R.E.M
Bono performs with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. in 2002.

Photograph by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

1993-2001
PopMart, friendship with R.E.M., Elevation Tour

As R.E.M. became U2’s rival for the title of “biggest band in the world,” the relationship between the bands strengthened. In 1993, not long before U2 released Zooropa, members of both bands performed at an inaugural ball for Bill Clinton, forming a one-night-only group, Automatic Baby.

Bertis Downs (attorney and advisor to R.E.M.): There had been a late-night hotel bar session a couple of nights before—Michael Stipe really loved the U2 song, “One.” Michael and Mike [Mills] were up late singing it together, and the idea came up of perhaps playing it at the MTV Ball with the two U2 guys in town (bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr.). They thought, “We could do this.” The next day, calls were made and a rehearsal was arranged. We wanted to keep it a secret, which was possible before Facebook and Twitter. They performed it at the ball as Automatic Baby [referencing U2’s 1991 album, Achtung Baby, and R.E.M.’s 1992 album, Automatic for the People]. Four minutes, unannounced, and that was it.

In 1997, U2 performed its PopMart tour at the Georgia Dome, with Bono also devoting his time to Jubilee 2000, the campaign for wealthy countries to wipe clean old debts owed to them by poor countries. In its January 2000 issue, Newsweek asked, sarcastically, “Can Bono Save the Third World?” U2 released All That You Can’t Leave Behind that October, eight days before the election of George W. Bush.

U2 played two Elevation Tour shows at Philips Arena in 2001, one in March and one in November, bookending the terrorist attacks of September 11. An allotment of general admission floor tickets meant fans could get up close and personal with the band in a way they hadn’t been able to do since the early 1980s.

Tai Anderson (President of the Atlanta chapter of the Recording Academy; former bassist for Grammy-winning band Third Day): When U2 came to Atlanta in 2001, I camped out all day long with the other fans so I could get a good spot on the floor “inside the heart” (the stage featured a heart-shaped catwalk). It was ironic, because Third Day had already performed our own shows in front of thousands of people. We would later headline Philips Arena ourselves, but we were fans, too. A few months after their second Philips Arena show that year, U2 played the Super Bowl and scrolled the names of the lives lost on 9/11. In that moment, U2 showed us what America means to the rest of the world.

Mike Mills: U2 had come into town on their night off before the 2001 show. We had a dinner party at my house in Athens. I gave a toast about how great it was to have friends who had walked alongside us on a similar path for all of these years, because we could always look to each other for inspiration. I go see U2 shows, and it makes me want to write a better song or be a better musician. R.E.M. always thought being in a band was like being in your own little gang. Those are the friends you turn to in difficult times, and you always have each other’s backs. U2 and R.E.M. came from the same point of origin in terms of why we were in a band. It was really supportive to have them going through the world at the same time as we did.

U2 Coretta Scott King
Bono kisses Coretta Scott King during a 2004 news conference in Atlanta. Bono was honored by the King Center during their annual Salute to Greatness awards dinner.

Photograph by Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images

2002-2018
Salute To Greatness Award, ONE, Vertigo, 360 Tour

In January 2002, Bono and Bobby Shriver founded DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa), funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In March, Bono visited George W. Bush at the White House to discuss AIDS, and the following January, Bush announced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a health initiative that would also raise the profile of the Atlanta-based CDC. Bono’s charitable work increasingly intersected with Atlanta leaders.

Helene Gayle (CEO of Chicago Community Trust; former CEO of CARE): Lots of celebrities get involved with philanthropy, but Bono stands out because he goes deep on policy. He knows about storytelling. I talk in wonkish terms, but he taps into the human spirit.

On January 17, 2004, the King Center honored Bono with the Salute to Greatness Award. Bono, in his acceptance speech, spoke of how the Irish “despaired for the lack of vision of the kind Dr. King offered people in the South in their struggle. . . . I wrote ‘Pride (In the Name of Love),’ in a way out of that feeling.” Coretta Scott King died in 2006, but Bernice King, youngest child of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr. and CEO of the King Center, says her mother was especially fond of Bono.

Bernice King: There are few people in life [outside of our family] whom my mother took to and saw as a son of sorts. Bono is one of those. She found him fascinating. She was a little giddy. She must have picked something up in his spirit that attracted her.

The King Center hosted Bono, John Lewis, and Chris Tucker in a roundtable with AIDS activists, doctors, and scientists to discuss how to tackle the AIDS epidemic in Africa and rethink the impact of international aid.

David Ray (vice president for policy and advocacy of CARE): At that point, we were coming out of the post-9/11 era, which was a time when the U.S. was still looking inward and the world felt like a place in chaos. There was a group of about nine of us international humanitarian organizations who got together to discuss how the U.S. engages in the world and how to help with the AIDS crisis, poverty, and hunger. [Along with DATA and the Christian advocacy organization Bread for the World], we became part of the framework for Bono’s organization, ONE.

ONE is a nonpartisan organization cofounded by Bono in 2004 which lobbies governments to fund disease eradication and poverty reduction in poor countries. ONE and CARE advocates engaged both John Lewis and Georgia’s U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson in cosponsoring bipartisan legislation around food security and public-private partnerships in Africa. Third Day also became involved with ONE. Since 2004, U2 has released four albums, played two nights at Philips Arena on its 2005 “Vertigo tour” and returned to the Georgia Dome in 2009 with the “360 tour.” On December 1, 2011–thirty years after U2 played its second Atlanta show at the Agora–Coca-Cola announced a partnership with (RED), Bono’s product initiative to fight AIDS. That same day, Bono attended a World AIDS Day event in Washington, D.C. with President Obama alongside CARE’s Helene Gayle, CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, and Coca-Cola’s Muhtar Kent. In 2016, Bono met Jimmy Carter when both men were honored for their humanitarian work.

Tai Anderson: Bono and Jimmy Carter were two of my heroes growing up. Their faith drove them. As Christians, we believe that Jesus taught us to love God and to love our neighbor, and for both Carter and Bono, loving your neighbor has never been determined by lines on a map. Especially in the world we live in today, your neighbor is every human being. Jesus didn’t teach “God and Country,” he taught “God and Neighbor.”

This article appears in our May 2018 issue.

Mark Ruffalo honors Atlanta environmental activists as superheroes

Mark Ruffalo #ATL100
Mark Ruffalo talks about #ATL100 at the Plaza Theatre.

Photograph by Erik Voss

Mark Ruffalo is making the most out of his time in metro Atlanta, both on and off movie sets. While filming his roles as Bruce Banner and the Hulk for Avengers: Infinity War at Fayetteville’s Pinewood Studios (and on location in the Fairlie-Poplar Historic District) this summer, the Oscar-nominated actor, Bernie Sanders supporter, and longtime environmentalist has also been spotted hugging sea lions at the Georgia Aquarium, repping the Bravos, and clowning around with his costars Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Yet Ruffalo’s latest outing focuses on a different group of superheroes in ATL: local community leaders working toward a clean-energy future in one of the nation’s most car-congested and energy-dependent cities.

Last night in front of an intimate audience at the Plaza Theatre, Ruffalo launched #ATL100, a multi-week media campaign to bring awareness to the city’s recent commitment to achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. At the two-hour event sponsored by the Solutions Project, a nonprofit Ruffalo cofounded to encourage business and community partnerships for the use of wind, water, and solar energy, the organization’s executive director Sarah Shanley Hope joined Stephanie Stuckey (Chief Resilience Officer to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed) and others to honor local activists Shan Arora, Dr. Yomi Noibi, Amelia Shenstone, Becky Rafter, and Dr. Joyce Dorsey. Ruffalo surprised the five Atlanta leaders with superhero posters featuring their own faces, and revealed an animated ad about the #ATL100 campaign that will screen this fall alongside previews in select Atlanta movie theaters. While the City of Atlanta’s benchmarks for #ATL100 are forthcoming as the project takes shape, these initial ads solicit donations, social media participation, and activism through grassroots groups such as Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Sierra Club.

Ruffalo says he hopes #ATL100 will spark climate action and pay tribute to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of the Beloved Community by emphasizing equity at all levels of energy distribution, consumption, and conservation.

“This work is inspired by Dr. King’s words and teachings and actions,” Ruffalo says, backstage after the event. “I’ve always seen [environmental activism] as a continuation of the social justice movement. With the Solutions Project, we want to empower front-line communities to have freedom from energy dependence systems.” In most cities (and especially in Atlanta), that dependence might translate as a need to provide energy and transportation choices which do not marginalize populations who can’t afford gas-guzzling cars and yet have few clean-energy public options. That trap “can amount to a sort of environmental racism,” Ruffalo says.

Although he stays busy portraying complex Broadway leads, rugged comic book icons, and loveable everyman characters, Ruffalo isn’t a fly-by-night celebrity do-gooder. He recently participated in the “March to Confront White Supremacy” after the tragedy in Charlottesville, and has been active in the anti-fracking movement, political campaigns, and environmental issues for decades. Amid recent natural disasters and the announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, Ruffalo says other celebs—and additional cities—are coming out of the woodwork to join the cause. Atlanta is one of 27 cities that made the 100 percent renewable energy commitment earlier in 2017; now 150 cities are involved. The next step is taking the project from proclamations to actions.

“It’s happening here in Atlanta,” Ruffalo says, “Because this work takes rabble-rousers [such as the evening’s honorees] and other people who are willing to get outside their comfort zones and lead the way.”

Dean Roland finds a new way to shine

Atlanta’s music community is so vast an industry veteran can get lost in the mix. That’s not exactly what happened to Dean Roland, rhythm guitarist for the multiplatinum Stockbridge, Georgia band Collective Soul (and baby brother to its lead singer, Ed). But when Dean’s side project–the Britrock-influenced Magnets and Ghosts, a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Ryan Potesta–released its debut album, Mass, in 2011, few trumpets sounded up and down Peachtree.

Now, with Magnets and Ghosts in the midst of recording a second full-length album and on an extensive tour that finishes at The Earl in East Atlanta this Saturday, the real fanfare is set to begin.

Roland, 40, and Atlanta native Potesta, 29, met in 2006 during the recording of Collective Soul’s Afterwords and bonded over their mutual love for arty English bands Elbow and Doves. Casual jamming ensued, and “it was crazy how everything fell into place,” says Potesta, a Berklee College of Music vet who was working as a recording studio intern at the time. “The first night Dean and I played together, we had four or five songs rolling.”

One of those tunes was “Hearts of Everyone,” the hummable 4/4 single written and recorded in the duo’s Atlanta studio, along with the straight-ahead “Like a Sunday” and the crunching “Light My Flame.” Polished in all the right places, raw in others and brimming with melodic, sophisticated arrangements that recall influences such as Tears for Fears, Radiohead, Oasis, and Nirvana, Mass rocks with heart—yet most of it sounds nothing like Roland’s other band.

He swears, however, that Collective Soul isn’t an elephant in the room.

“There are roles to be played in every band, and I’ve had the good fortune of being on the inside of something really special with Collective Soul,” Roland says. “I consider [my brother] Ed to be one the best songwriters of the past couple decades. But Magnets and Ghosts is an outlet that gives me something CS can’t. I relish not having any preconceived ideas of what the music is suppose to be. It’s creatively liberating to discover new territory for myself.”

Arriving for the August 24 show at The Earl, fans should check all preconceptions at the door, the duo say. Case in point: this past January, during its first-ever large scale gig—at Terminal West—Magnets and Ghosts brought a string section onstage to enhance the already expansive, orchestral sounds of “Hold On” and spun the dark grooves of “Morning Rails” into an epic barnburner. Potesta switched effortlessly between piano and guitar, sharing lead vocal duties with Roland, whose vulnerable tenor feels like a revelation to those of us who have known him as a sideman for so many years.

“His chord knowledge is crazy and immense. I don’t think he realizes how much he knows,” Potesta says of modest songwriting partner Roland. “We are a two headed monster in some ways. It gives us the ability to tackle a song from many different angles.”

Roland, who’s still a member of Collective Soul, says juggling that band’s still-busy touring and recording schedule is “a bit tricky” (CS recently played a gig in Jakarta, Indonesia, and is also making a new album); however, he and Potesta are fully committed to Magnets and Ghosts–and to continuing the sonic diversity of Atlanta’s music scene.

“You can’t control the ups and downs of the success that comes from the music you create,” Roland says. “You can only control how you react. I’ve tried to maintain a healthy perspective of humility. It’s all about learning and still being curious about what’s next: next song, next show, next album, and next tour. Anticipating something great seems like a fun way to live to me.”

Notes from HBO movie ‘Mary and Martha’ premiere at the Carter Center

This spring, Atlantans are probably more concerned about shaving ice for our cocktails than making sure our fruit-scented insect repellant actually works. Yet, any Southerner who sees the new HBO film, Mary and Martha (which held its U.S. premiere at The Carter Center on Tuesday and debuts on the cable network Saturday), may never sip poma-tinis on the porch again without thanking our friends over at the CDC for killing malaria’s buzz way back when.

The film’s Mary, a fortyish suburbanite played by Hilary Swank, abandons her yoga class, silences her iPhone, and takes a summertime sojourn from Virginia to South Africa. One fateful mosquito bite later, she experiences the horrors of malaria before finding future BFF Martha (Brenda Blethyn) at a Mozambican orphanage and developing a new purpose as a political activist.

Mary and Martha’s depiction of children fighting the deadly parasitic illness in present-day Africa may seem a world away to Americans, but the images aren’t entirely foreign to Georgia’s past.

Like most chapters of modern Atlanta history, this one has a Coca-Cola connection. In the 1940s, the legendary Coke chief and philanthropist Robert Woodruff witnessed a worker on his plantation getaway Ichauway in the throes of malarial fever, and asked Emory experts for help eradicating malaria on his south Georgia retreat. Woodruff then used his influence—and a generous real-estate donation—to lure to Atlanta the federally funded Communicable Diseases Center, which evolved into today’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Files in the National Institutes of Health archives contain reports from a Dr. Justin Andrews, who moved to Atlanta to head the just-formed CDC in the 1940s and described malaria-ridden areas of pre-WWII Georgia as “pitiful.” Rural schools kept rows of “chilling” beds designated for students sick with malarial fevers. Thanks in part to the work of the CDC (and the controversial insecticide DDT), the disease was declared “eliminated” from the United States in 1951.

While malaria is rare in the U.S. today, it remains a global killer. The CDC reports that some 216 million people contracted malaria in 2010. Another Atlanta-based organization—the Carter Center—is heavily involved in the fight against malaria. Dr. Paul Emerson, co-director of the Carter Center’s Malaria Control Program and a speaker at the film premiere, says Atlanta’s role as a global health center is important in the history of the fight and that the disease is declining, “but the game’s not yet over.”

Mary and Martha tackles a tough subject, but you don’t have to be an epidemiologist to understand it. Screenwriter Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral) says years of charity campaigning and being a father to four kids are what motivated him to tell the evolving story of malaria. “There’s an autobiographical element in the film about the journey from knowing nothing to wanting to do something about it.”

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