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U2 Really Means It


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from http://sdrury.wordpress.com/2009/10/05/u2-really-means-it/

U2 should be my favorite band. But unlike Springsteen, Wilco, Dylan or even Radiohead, I’ve never been able to fully embrace them. When I took in their recent live show outside Washington, DC (in a circle of Hell known as FedEx field-More on that in a later post) I wondered if that finally might change.

I used to tell myself that I first noticed U2 when they performed at the first Live Aid. But I know now it had to have been sooner. In the year previous, the band had its first US hit with “Pride (In the Name of Love).†and Bono had appeared on the Band Aid song to benefit Ethiopian famine, 

From the start U2 has made little secret of their ambition. Early on, the band was known as The Hype. Their two lead members, quite pretentiously, are known by their single, self-appointed names. The collection of four very earnest Dubliners really seemed to think that rock and roll could change the world and thought they were just the group to do it. And in pursuit of this goal they would, undoubtedly,  become the world’s biggest rock band. What’s never really been clear is whether they preferred to save the world or rock it into perfect harmony. Thirty years after the band’s formation that’s still an open question.

In their infancy, U2 concerned itself with more parochial matters such as their Irish upbringing. Undoubtedly, this was one of the things that drew me to the band as I’m half-Irish, which really means that I care about all things Eire but not enough that I can call it the home country. I’ve only been there for a total of two days, one of which was spent in an old pub in Dublin whose name I’ve long since forgotten. I drank pint after pint and asked the locals about ancient traditions and James Joyce. I don’t remember what they said. 

These days most Americans have a fairly Romantic view of Ireland, fostered in no small part by notable authors and travel agents. But, when U2 took the stage that July day in 1985, before 80,000 fans at Wembley Stadium (and millions more on TV-back when MTV was in the music business) for many  people, Ireland was looked at as a country perpetually torn apart by

, poverty and religious strife. U2 seemed like messengers from a Third World country. Bono’s songs chronicled
 tumult, and his booming voice was backed by soaring, percussive guitar chords and pounding drumbeats that suggested an imminent escape and a verdant optimism that something better was just around the corner.

In other words there was nothing small about U2. They were never too interested in

, writing
  or chirping about the good old days. Instead, they wrote universal songs that were both beautiful and
 with alarming ease. Their songs were inherently political while—and this is U2’s true gift—still being anthemic and stadium-ready.  In retrospect, their
from Live Aid has an air of inevitability. They were ideally suited for the venue, the occasion and the cause. I suspect a lot of other people besides me also became U2 fans that day.

They had been together for eight years by the time of Live Aid, but having been properly introduced to the world they set their sights on the United States, which is a requisite for any band considering world domination. From early in their career America was a source of wonder. They wrote songs about Elvis and not

 but two songs about Martin Luther King that were inspirational if not necessarily factual.  Their best album of the 80s, was named after a rather unremarkable tree native to the desert Southwest. It was hard to tell whether the obsession with all things American was genuine. They toured extensively in support of “The Joshua Tree†and released a live album and a documentary, both called “Rattle and Hum“, that was meant to pay tribute to musical ancestors like B.B. King and Billie Holiday. Rising out of the British post-punk movement, their connection to such artists, American artists, was tenuous at best. The fact that they were roundly criticized as being disingenuous or opportunistic by critics did nothing to deter their popularity.

They returned with “Achtung Baby!†an album filled with songs of existential sadness and loss. At the end of the subsequent tour in 1993 it could be fairly argued that U2 was, in fact, the best rock and roll band on the planet. At a minimum, they were a major force in popular music.

But, the band faltered in the rest of the 90s, struggling to find a message while singing about the trappings of fame, the media landscape and coping with pre-millennial madness. Their experiments with electronica, glam rock and club music were failures. They rarely include songs from this era in their live shows, which is a pretty solid indicator of the band’s own feelings about the “Pop†and “Zooropa†albums. But they still sold millions of records and performed sold-out shows. Perhaps, they felt, with peace in Ireland and prosperity in much of the industrialized world they had nothing worthy of their angst. Then again, other bands

better, or had a
message, or both

Chastened, (well, chastened as much as a band whose lead singer regularly wears tinted sunglasses can be) U2 released “All That You Can’t Leave Behind†in 2000. The fact that the band had endured critical, if not commercial, failure had humbled them and Bono admitted as much in interviews.  The record combined the rollicking anthems of their earlier work with solemn, reflective ballads.  I would argue that it is the band’s most complete album from start to finish. Its best songs might not hold up to earlier classics but it is a cohesive, cogent piece of work.  Whatever confidence that the band lost had been regained in spades. When U2 released “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb†to wide praise in 2004 Bono and the boys were further emboldened. Indeed, Bono became even more voluble for causes near to his and the band’s heart. His platform was no longer limited to stadiums or concert venues. He wrote editorials in newspapers, met with high-ranking officials, spoke at the UN. All unchartered ground for a rock star.

Their newest album, “No Line on the Horizon†has garnered mostly positive reviews and yielded a pair of catchy singles, but it has neither the sustained quality of the last two albums nor the urgency of their finer songs. Receiving far more attention than their music was their massive tour. 


The last time I saw U2 in concert was on the remarkable Elevation Tour which followed “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.†It’s one of the five best concerts I’ve ever attended.  Upon hearing a

with deep personal resonance I wept unashamedly.  It was only about six weeks after the terrorist attacks and emotions were particularly high and, to their credit, the band understood this. I was comforted by my companion but also by complete strangers who were undoubtedly still grieving about more recent loss. We sang and bounced along, drank Guinness, waved the Irish flag, and tried to smile a little. Somehow, Bono connected with over 20,000 people on a personal level. Just

I could tell the moment I walked into FedEx Field that that feeling would not be replicated. I saw very few Irish flags. Although there were 90,000 or so on hand, it felt more like 20,000 groups of four or five. There was no sense of community. I thought everything, including the band, would be overshadowed by the Orwellian claw that was the stage and video screens. There would be no personal connection with the audience.

And it is precisely this type of overkill that has kept me from fully committing to U2. As a person deeply concerned with preserving and conserving the natural environment attending the concert of a band that will lug 200 trucks worth of equipment around for the next two years presents more than a little bit of a conflict. Then there’s the fact that while Bono is talking about eradicating poverty and debt forgiveness he’s leading a tour that is more than a little ostentatious.  Furthermore, tickets were not cheap; some were as high as $250. Adding to the hypocrisy dilemma, is that this is standard operating procedure for the band. This level of extravagance is only marginally bigger than the last tour. What’s next, a performance in a rocket above the earth’s atmosphere that’s beamed to neighboring galaxies?

As enamored as U2 appears to be with the excesses of fame and fortune there are no tales of philandering, drunken rages, destroyed hotel rooms or drug abuse. Quite the opposite actually. Bono has been married for over 25 years. Larry Mullen, Jr. is similarly committed. The Edge is deeply religious and once thought of forming a Christian band.

So, U2 came out and for about two hours played several songs from the new album and many of their most popular hits. They should not be criticized for this because this is what established bands do; to play all of their favorites would require a concert of marathon proportions.

As always, politics was on the tip of Bono’s tongue. He made sure to acknowledge the presence (in a luxury box, no doubt) of the Speaker of the House, a Senator, a Bishop and a former Chief of Staff.  In contrast, on the Elevation Tour he made a point of calling out Dee Dee Ramone, whose bandmate Joey had recently passed away. On the video screens that created a huge silver beehive of multi-media, the crowd was implored by the Bishop Desmond Tutu and urged to support the emerging democratic movement in Iran. In the least subtle (and most obviously staged) sequence of the evening, Bono pulled a Sikh, who just happened to be sitting in the front row, and just happened to be waving a US flag, onto the stage to join him in song. Even if it was spontaneous and the man was the biggest U2 fan in the building, it seemed a bit much. It’s these sorts of demonstrations that make me and other people cringe.

The knee-jerk reaction is to tell Bono and his mates to just shut up and play. Indeed, there are times when watching U2 feels like you’re attending one of those 1/2 credit continuing education courses mandated by your employer. But, it’s not as though U2 are staking out particularly controversial positions. Who is against democracy? Or against Desmond Tutu? Really, who is against the poor? Ok, besides crazy right-wingers who are opposed to universal health care. Nobody. And Bono did, in fact, bring attention to a rather obscure issue like debt forgiveness for African nations. This is not a front page issue. Perhaps I should be grateful that Bono is so engaged with the world when so many other musicians are not. Try to imagine say, John Mayer, talking about say, the importance of providing healthy school lunches. Yeah. That ain’t happening.

Maybe Bono would be better served if he actually went to Tehran and marched in the streets. Or maybe if he had stood with the protestors in Bali to demand action on climate change. But he hasn’t. Maybe we should be thankful. He could turn into


It’s entirely possible that the Starbucks-drinking, Barnes and Noble book-clubbing, overwhelmingly white, upper middle class people that were in attendance in Washington cared only about seeing a good show. They, even in a recession, would gladly right out a check or two for their favorite progressive causes anyway, so why not allow Bono to give them a nudge? That’s all the vast majority of people can do because, really, there’s only so much time in a day. They have jobs and families.  And, yes, I too have fallen prey to this thinking on several occasions. It is a lot easier to just write the check than doing the day by day dirty work that is necessary to affect some sort of change. But I still feel guilty about it.

And yet, you know what? U2 delivered an energetic, often magical show. Just as they always do. The huge stage and giant video screens were awesome and trying to ignore them was a pointless exercise. They actually enhanced the experience rather than obscuring it as I initially feared. The songs were soul-stirring;  you don’t need to be Irish to get a chill hearing “Sunday Bloody Sunday†live. It strikes at something very basic to the human existence. And yet. And yet the experience left me feeling remote.

When they first arrived on the scene, nobody sounded like U2, now a lot of bands do. Because of their powerful music U2 is able to pull off stuff that no other band would even attempt. They know how to use the media and shape their image for a 24-hour news cycle. The quintessential 21st Century band, U2 gives us exactly what we want and deserve. Even their name is perfect for our shorthand, text-messaging culture. 

There’s something preposterous about thousands of people showing up at a particular place at a particular time to listen to a band play music and maybe, sing along. Most bands deal with this absurdity by being loud, ironic or eccentric. U2 approaches it with complete honesty. They want to be the greatest band in the world so they can spread their message of peace and love. Or is it the other way around? That’s the thing with U2, it’s never just about the music.

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