“Time won’t leave me as I am,
But time won’t take the boy out of this man. ”
U2, “City of Blinding Lights”
It’s a good thing that Utah is so far behind the rest of the country when it comes to popular music; that may be the reason my love for U2 endured. I’d like to say that I was a fan since the very beginning, but I was merely a three-year-old lad when Boy was released. Back then I was listening to actual “stories for boys,” not the song. I had to be introduced to the early albums by my brother Chris and my uncle Alan, who are two and six years older than me, respectively. But I have grown up listening to U2, and I was there in the mid-eighties when the band became the worldwide sensation that it remains.
I can’t say that I recall listening to The Joshua Tree, arguably the greatest album ever produced, back in 1987. My formative U2 experience was a video rather than an album. The credit does not belong to MTV; I missed its first decade. Money was limited, and cable was a vague but ominous threat, something used by the Iran Contras, not decent God-fearing folk such as our family. In my mother’s house pay-per-view meant frequent trips to Main Street Video to rent repeatedly the same love-worn movies. One such movie which we actually owned was U2 Rattle and Hum, the Paramount Pictures film directed by Phil Joanou. I can’t be certain of the date we acquired this VHS cassette, but I doubt that we got it too soon after its 1988 release. I certainly cannot count the number of times Chris and I sat entranced in front of it.
The movie, which features some interviews interspersed between live performances of many of the tracks from The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum albums (there was no distinction between the two albums to me then), was an integral part of my adolescence. Its raw emotion and honesty powered me through puberty. Even today, when I watch it on DVD (the VHS cassette has been ascribed family heirloom status), I am overcome by its “human-soul-laid-bare” qualities. The only authentic U2 audio cassette I owned was the Rattle and Hum album, which I treasured for its songs and for the defiance it showed my father (Scott), who hated the album, with the lone exception of “When Love Comes to Town,” the track on which B.B. King collaborated. My father was not alone in his hatred of the album – although it sold 7.5 million copies, the critics hated it. They also hated the film, which did not fare well at the box office. Once again, I was safe inside the Utah bubble. I placed Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr. squarely in the pantheon of poet-prophets, and revered them accordingly.
1991 was a year of upheavals. President Bush initiated Operation Desert Storm. The Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended. That fall my best friend Ryan and I had begun studying Russian in the first year it was offered at Payson Junior High (Ryan is a self-taught guitar player and helicopter pilot in the US Navy, currently stationed as an instructor at Top Gun. He used the recording name Vertigo before U2’s song was released.).
I played on a freshman football team that went winless through a nine game season. I didn’t make the final cut for the freshman basketball team. My mother (Paula) and step-father became the parents of twin boys, Alex and Taylor (a sister, Mina, was born one month later to my father and step-mother; I have seven siblings: Chris, Meghan, Zachary, Alex, Taylor, Mina, and Roger). Taylor was the smaller of the two, but healthy. Alex was born with a heart defect and had surgery when he was just three months old. He did not survive. That same month U2 released Achtung Baby.
One might assume that a new album by a teen’s favorite group would be a great solace at a time of such trauma, but, as aforementioned, we were not entirely up to speed with the entertainment industry. I admit that I have excoriated Utah’s inherent buffer zone at times, but in this particular instance, it sheltered the unstable 14-year-old I was from a shock for which I was unprepared. As I recall, I always liked the music on the Achtung Baby album (and love it now – it is second only to The Joshua Tree); it was the spectacle of Zoo TV that I disliked. It struck me as a complete reversal of my beloved Rattle and Hum. Fortunately my exposure to it at the time was minimal so my devotion to the group remained.
In the summer of 1992, our extended family went on a cross-country trek. One night when the driving was done, Alan, Chris, and I sat in a parked car in Nebraska watching an exhilarating thunderstorm while listening to U2. “Big Al” informed us that a parked car, a thunderstorm, U2, and a pretty girl made up a perfect evening. At the time I thought he was sharing his love of U2’s music with us – later on I realized he was wishing he could have exchanged his two nephews for a pretty girl with which to share his love!
By the following summer the “Utah Bubble” had burst. I have a vivid recollection of shopping in New York City with my father and coming across a large table display of Zooropa, newly released in 1993. I was repulsed by the sight of it. Kitschy cartoons had overthrown the earnest black-and-white images with which I had communed. I considered the band a sell-out, which was almost incomprehensible, given their staunch roots. It was appalling. “Did I disappoint you/Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?” the band asked on Achtung Baby. With the release of Zooropa, my answer was an emphatic yes. I never gave the album a chance.
The odd thing about this abnegation of mine is that at the time, my musical preferences were mirroring my activities. For choir, I might listen to the King’s Singers. When playing football, it was hard rock. I played on the high school basketball team as a sophomore in 1992-93. The music of basketball is hip-hop, which I tried to embrace as a means of proving that I belonged on the team. I was listening to alternative music similar to “Numb” and “Babyface,” but I remained numb to Zooropa (which won the Grammy for best alternative album).
When Pop arrived in 1997, I ignored it (the title itself was abhorrent). I turned a deaf ear to the PopMart tour, even when it came to my neighborhood. I was a student at the University of Utah, living in the campus married housing, when PopMart came to Rice Stadium. My excuse for not going to the concert has always been that I was a poor, married college student without the means to buy such expensive tickets. There is truth in that rationalization, but the bottom line is that I wasn’t interested in going. I could have stood outside my apartment and listened to my childhood idols perform live for free, but I didn’t even go that far. I would have preferred to sit inside watching my hammered U2 Rattle and Hum tape instead. I had a static incarnation of the band and was unwilling to acknowledge any other versions. The only image from PopMart that I enjoyed was the band’s guest appearance on The Simpsons.
My collection of U2 audio cassettes continued to grow despite my disenchantment. I dubbed everything Chris owned (I suppose his age advantage also helped him understand the band’s development better than I did). Ryan brought me bootleg tapes from Russia. Later he burned cds of B-sides and alternate recordings for me. I also managed to acquire some older cds, like Wide Awake in America. The music of U2 was mixed and mingled with my own memories, and I knew I could never completely refute it. To deny one’s past is to render the present meaningless. U2 was something I couldn’t leave behind.
Still, when All That You Can’t Leave Behind hit the shelves in 2000, I wasn’t ready to embrace it. It wasn’t until I listened to it with Ryan that I rediscovered the U2 I cherished. The track that brought me back was “Elevation.” It doesn’t have the weight of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” or the profundity of “Running to Stand Still,” or the wit of “The Fly.” What it did have was a turn-up-the-volume beat and a request that I could have made of U2: “Love, lift me up out of these blues/Won’t you tell me something true/I believe in you.” My long, elliptical orbit around U2 had finally completed its revolution. If not for Chris and Ryan, I would have drifted off into the vacuum of static and old radio waves.
I tried to return the favor for Christmas 2004; of course they already owned How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, which was released earlier that year, so I bought both of them Niall Stokes’ book U2: Into the Heart, an exhaustive book that details the motivation and meaning of every U2 song up to the How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb album. That gift brought me many happy returns: for my birthday, Ryan sent me imported singles of “Vertigo” and “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” from the UK that he picked up in New York. I also took a trip to New York, courtesy of a most generous offer from Chris’s girlfriend Rachel. She purchased two tickets to a U2 concert as a surprise for Chris, but she offered me the second ticket prior to making the purchase! A chance to see U2 live with the brother who had helped keep U2 alive for me and all it would cost me was a round-trip plane ticket! I admit I checked my calendar first to confirm there were no conflicts, but I procured my plane tickets in short order.
It may have been “a cold and wet December day when [U2] touched down at JFK” but it was lovely weather when I got there in May 2005 (U2, “Angel of Harlem,” Rattle and Hum, 1988). Chris and Rachel had one of those nice-but-small apartments on the Upper West Side, which meant I wasted about three of my 48 hours in New York on cab rides to and from the airport, but at least 40 of those hours were put to good use.
The concert we attended was on a Wednesday evening in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the second consecutive performance in the same venue. Chris and I caught a bus from the Port Authority to Continental Arena in The Meadows. Traffic was uncanny that evening, and we made it across the Hudson River to the venue in twenty minutes. That gave us a full hour to purchase tour souvenirs and snacks, then work ourselves into a frenzy of anticipation before four shadows moved out onto the dark stage. Disappointment, thy name is Kings of Leon. The band played reasonably well for less than an hour, but the lead droner wasn’t capable of opening his own eyes or mouth, let alone a U2 concert. The Joint-Chiefs-of-Staff should consider attacking Leon next, whoever or wherever that may be.
Chris and I didn’t bother to speculate over the playlist – U2’s canon includes more than 100 songs. Throw in b-sides and covers, and the possibilities are practically exponential for a twenty song playlist. We did ponder a bit over what the opening number might be: “Vertigo” opens the album, but would it be the best choice to open a live performance? With all of our combined U2 knowledge, we did not predict the opening number, yet in hindsight it was an obvious choice. True to form, U2 opened with the anthem “City of Blinding Lights,” taking the arena from dark and subdued to brilliant and joyous just as they used to do with “Where the Streets Have No Name.” That primed the crowd for “Vertigo” next, but Bono added a twist at the end with corresponding lines from “Stories for Boys.” I jotted down the entire playlist as the concert progressed, but I will not innumerate it here. I offer this summary instead:
The playlist was flawless. Neither Chris nor I would have changed a single song. The technical design was amazing. It resembled the set used for the Elevation tour, remarkable in its simultaneous simplicity and extensive possibilities. A phenomenal melding of music and light effects was the result. We never doubted the level of showmanship of the old pros, but we were impressed with Bono’s voice, which is not what it used to be but still sounded great. U2 has set new standards for live performance in the aspects of bringing their own energy to the stage, incorporating the crowd’s energy, and making fresh renditions of time-tested hits. One way to accomplish those goals is through a provocative arrangement of the playlist, which they certainly did, with “The Ocean” clearing the way for “Beautiful Day” leading into “Miracle Drug.” They added a “Father Abraham” interlude to “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” One of the marks of the Edge’s guitar genius is the plethora of interpretations of “Bullet the Blue Sky” he has created over the years and continues to create. Larry used a headset to sing “Elevation” with Bono and the Edge, then set up a portable drum kit out on the walkway for a cool effect on “Love and Peace or Else.” No other band has successfully reinvented itself like U2 has. I understand this better now. I couldn’t have been more ecstatic than when they incorporated some Zoo TV into the first encore, which consisted only of songs from Achtung Baby. The spectacle only adds to the music in a synergistic effect, creating a euphoria that is best defined as “zooropa.”
To embrace a particular style of music is to increase its worth; to be embraced by that music is transcendental. Chris and I both exited the concert feeling uplifted in a way that not even the Rattle and Hum movie matched. It could stand alone as an once-in-a-lifetime experience (I told Chris I’d never see another concert unless it was U2), but I won’t rule out seizing another similar opportunity with Chris or Ryan (By sheer universal alignment, the concert happened the night before the release of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Chris and I were able to go directly from the concert back to Times Square for an early morning showing of the final Star Wars movie. That is a combination of lifelong adoration that will never be duplicated.). Before I left the following day Chris bought me a copy of Pop, thus completing my collection and connection.
U2 is not the only music in my collection, but U2 is the music in me. Other music is capable of eliciting strong emotions from me, but nothing else has the same meaning. U2 just means more to me. Attempting to put it into words is like going “Deeper into black/Deeper into white.” (U2, “Exit,” The Joshua Tree ,1987) Yet somehow U2 seems to have predicted back in 1991 that I would do this: “One day you’ll look back/And you’ll see/Where/You were held how/By this love/While/You could stand/There/And not move on this moment/Follow this feeling.” (U2, “Mysterious Ways,” Achtung Baby, 1991) I stood still for a number of years, but these days I am following the feeling anywhere it leads me.