By Cheryl Mc Call and Steven Fine
Updated October 08, 1979 12:00 PM

Short of the much-rumored Beatles reunion, it was the most potent spectacle the ’70s pop culture could bring forth—a mustering of more than 300,000 people willing to lend an ear to the burgeoning antinuclear protest movement. In five nights of concerts at Madison Square Garden—and one huge outdoor rally at Manhattan’s Battery Park landfill—a cluster of rock’s brightest stars came out to raise money as MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy). It was the greatest conglomeration of fee-waiving heavyweights since George Harrison’s benefit for Bangladesh in 1971. Even Crosby, Stills and Nash were prevailed upon to patch up their chronic differences and come aboard (though Graham Nash’s manager and record company advised against it). “No amount of money could have gotten us all together—it was nuclear power that did it,” says David Crosby. “You couldn’t have bought this list of groups for the national debt.”

Talent that money can’t buy has given the no-nukes crusade about 70 smaller benefits in the last five years. But the MUSE concerts seemed to open up a new era in the politics of music. The organizers wisely kept the series free of partisan political overtones—Linda Ronstadt, for example, was banned from the stage lest her presence imply an endorsement of Jerry Brown—and the operation was brutally streamlined to maximize the take. “Even Bruce Springsteen’s mother had to buy her own ticket,” exulted one of MUSE’s logisticians. Ticket sales should net about $500,000, with another $1 to $3 million expected from a film and double album of the week’s events. That kind of money talks. Already, MUSE president Sam Lovejoy claims, there has been “a thundering at the door” from politicians seeking support in next year’s elections, and Lovejoy makes no secret of his delight. “They call the 1970s the ‘Me’ generation,” he observes. “Well, we’re going to insist that the 1980s are the ‘We’ generation—and that’s the way we’re going to organize.”

The scene at MUSE’s final rally was a tableau as much of the ’60s as the ’80s: a sprawling mass of humanity chanting on cue (“No Nukes, No Nukes”), joining Pete Seeger in We Shall Not Be Moved, happily united in a cause on a sunny autumn afternoon. At times it seemed almost like Woodstock redux; organizers had to interrupt the rally at one point to announce that a dangerous LSD-spiked beverage was making the rounds. Still, there seemed to be as much beer as grass among the crowd, and the sound was surely different—a tough, new protest rock with more edge and volume than the folky antiwar repertoire. At each of the concerts, the audience sang Power, John Hall’s anthem of the anti-nuke movement (“Please take all of your atomic poison power away”). Jackson Browne wrote Chain Reaction for the occasion, James Taylor composed Stand Up and Fight, and Graham Nash offered a ballad to nuclear waste called Barrels of Pain. “It’s about the low-level nuclear waste lying in barrels off the coast of San Francisco,” he says. “There are 60,000 barrels, and 20 percent of them are leaking. It’s also about giant mutant sponges that scientists have found growing among the waste.”

All of the musicians did their best to give nuclear politics center stage, sharing the rally’s spotlight with such movement eminences as Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, Ralph Nader, Gray Panther Maggie Kuhn and ecologist Barry Commoner. Commoner proclaimed the death of the two major parties and the birth of his own pro-solar Citizens’ Party. The 200 MUSE performers deferred to these speakers in a spirit of self-conscious seriousness, forsaking the usual backstage mania and vices of the road, using station wagons instead of limos to get around town, expensing only their hotel rooms and taking an unthinkable $30 per diem. From some, the talk was unabashedly political. “This is an election year,” said James Taylor, “and we want to see our politicians give a specific commitment to a safe energy future.” Others felt out-of-depth and faintly embarrassed as partisans. “I don’t think musicians should go out seeking causes,” David Crosby said. “I don’t think politics and music mesh too well. But this is legit—I’m here because I’m scared. These reactors depend on people, and people always screw up.” Why shouldn’t scientists be speaking out then instead of musicians? “Scientists,” Crosby acknowledged, “just don’t draw well.”

The MUSE phenomenon promises to get bigger. Jackson Browne, whose past enthusiasms have been parks, redwoods and whales, has reportedly donated all of his concert income this year to the antinuclear cause. Many of the country’s major rock groups—notably the Eagles, the Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac, Jefferson Star-ship and Stevie Wonder—are said to be at the ready for MUSE’s call. For fans, the prospect is of some truly memorable jams, and if the cost to the performers in time, work and money will be high, they plainly feel the cause is worth it. “We really have no choice but to fight,” as Jackson Browne puts it. “If we don’t, maybe we don’t deserve to be here. We can just go ahead and let the mutant sponges inherit the earth.”