I joined the U2 fanbase just after the release of Achtung Baby. I was 13 and mired in a two-year monogamous relationship with early 90s hip-hop. And then as night follows day I made my way through Joshua Tree, War, and Boy like a fat kid at the McDonald’s dollar menu. By the time I began high school I’d acquired every album except October (what was wrong with October, I have no idea) including Wide Awake in America EP and the Live at Red Rocks Under a Blood Red Sky.
My first show came in 1997. The PopMart Tour at Three Rivers Stadium. Three members of Rusted Root sat just to our left and we all basked in the glow of the 40′ lemon. They opened with “Mofo” – a song they have since disowned. More about this is a moment.
I heard a bit not too long ago about U2 being the best U2 cover band in the world. I forget who said it. Props to whoever that was: I’ve used it in conversation thrice and at least peripherally taken it to heart. While I was pretty excited to be attending my first U2 show in ten years this past Tuesday, I was also acknowledging that there was some truth behind the jest. But as I watched this show in all its lavish overabundance, I couldn’t get this thought out of my head. Had this band, a longtime favorite artist, a staple on my desert island record list (Achtung Baby, FYI) become so self-aware that it had ceased to be itself? Let’s ponder this together for a moment while I rattle off a few thoughts from the show.
Some things I learned on Tuesday night:
There is no better way to kill a raucous, stadium rattling crowd stirred by “I Will Follow” than to play “Get On Your Boots”. The song is such a tease. Opens with a gut thumping Adam Clayton bass groove before it succumbs under the weight of its inane, repetitive chorus and schizophrenic tempo. Sure a few innocents wooed when the song began, clearly caught up in the moment. But then I stood in awe of how a single song could stop a show dead. Stone cold. No Line on the Horizon isn’t a terrible record. It boasts a subtlety that How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb lacked. But that song, for the love of all that is holy, just absolutely cannot be the record’s ambassador. I didn’t even bother putting it on my iPod. Which is a shame.
I like the Pop album a lot. I listen to it with regularity. There. It’s out there. I said it. And therefore I find the disownership of the record disappointing. During the show, we got a whiff of “Discotheque” in a reverb-laden medley among other snippets from “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones, “I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” (a much better cut from No Line on the Horizon) and “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads. I consider this even more disappointing than when Bono and the Edge played it as an acoustic breaktime for Adam and Larry. It’s called goddamn “Discotheque” and you play beneath a disco ball on top of a 30′ spire above the stage. Now you consider this remedial 90’s pop-tronica too embarrassing? Play “Mofo.” Play “Discotheque.” These are great arena- and stadium-thumping songs. Embrace the chaos. Own up to the album. And I’d bet these tracks would get a bigger reaction than anything from Zooropa, No Line or Atomic Bomb (save “Vertigo”). Pop just isn’t as bad as everyone remembers. I promise. It’s not perfect but there’s something innocent and infectious about its imperfect birth into this world. If you have any nostalgia for those killer (and sometimes not so killer) electro-grooves of the late 90’s, give it another shot.
Confession: I have an enormous man-crush on the Edge. Confession: I have developed a secondary man-crush on Larry Mullen which has displaced my former secondary man-crush on Bono. Mostly because I kind of feel for Larry and even Adam (though he’s become too sparkly) because they almost always seem like the third and fourth wheel at a kickass party.
Speaking of Zooropa… this is a solid, subtle album that was never embraced by the U2 fanbase. Why doesn’t anyone listen to it? If “Boots” killed the buzz on Tuesday, “Stay (Faraway, So Close)” just left everyone confused because they lumped it into a marathon of songs produced during the Achtung Baby era (which it was). Later they played “Zooropa” from behind a honeycomb of monitors and everyone just fell into their seats. Granted it’s a chill song and there are better tracks from the album… soooo… during “Zooropa” I stopped paying attention to the music and instead considered who would play each of the band members in a U2 movie. Here are my thoughts: Okay, I didn’t really have any profound thoughts except that Anton Yelchin (from Star Trek) is Larry Mullen. Spot on. I’m inking Colin Ferrell for Bono. It’s the attitude. Plus we need star-power to headline a solid ensemble cast and nobody’s more bloody Irish in Hollywood than Colin Ferrell.
But back to the rumble…
I write about Music because it moves me. If this music didn’t still affect me I wouldn’t be compelled to spend free time writing this rumble for this bl-g. As someone that writes about music I feel that I’m expected to write through a veil of cynicism, like Vaseline on a camera lens. And because of this expectation I find it difficult to write anything about U2. If I gush, I’m docked cred points for being a fanboy. If I’m negative, I’m disingenuous. I thought about the quip again. U2 is the best U2 cover band. And while I believe that there is some truth to that in that there are similar truths about any band that has been around long enough to reinvent itself three or four times over. After a decade or more we are no more the same people as they are the same band. We become covers of ourselves going through some of the motions established by our more successful, more handsome, younger selves. My friends expect me to be Jay, to live up to their perception of Jay. Sarcastic and full of useless knowledge about music and movies. I talk baseball and hockey whenever possible but don’t ask me about work because my work is my writing and it doesn’t pay any bills. And I oblige them. A band must experience a similar identity crisis each time they step on stage to play songs that they could no longer have written. Consider U2’s origin. Consider where they are now. Our environment shapes our creative output. Our muses and motivations come as much from external stimuli as they do internal.
I cannot lambaste U2 nor praise without reservation. I admire. I reflect. I grovel at the feet of the Edge for just a sample of his swag. Was the fourth show as thrilling as the first? In some ways yes. In others I can’t help but be disappointed. I found myself a little overcome when they played a snipped of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” which segued seamlessly into “Where the Streets Have No Name.” I immediately felt guilty about calling U2 a U2 cover band. Were they the same band? Of course not, but they, like us, still feel that connection to their music and to their fans (who, let me tell you, haven’t nearly aged as gracefully). They weren’t merely going through the motions, fawning over their fans for coos and playing old favorites for applause. This could be argued (because it really is all perception), but Bono engaged and conversed with the fans, talking Pittsburgh-centric matters with a unique ease and candor, name dropping Perry Como, Andy Warhol and Bo the White House dog (this in particular caused a stir — Bono knowing more about Pittsburgh in some small way than the Pittsburghers themselves). He talked about their first performance in Pittsburgh in 1981 and called down to the crowd for the name of the club. It came as no surprise that a sizable portion of the crowd cried out “The Decade” without hesitation. I could only remark to my wife how amazing that must have been. She seemed shocked that I bothered to state something so obvious. I’d just never thought about U2 like that, a small intimate club — a short, by necessity set list, Bono and his old Euro mullet commanding a crowd with only the 11 songs from Boy and a few from the forthcoming October. Where would the 40’ lemon go? How could Bono grapple onto a glowing microphone hanging from the rafters and swing out over the crowd during “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me?”
And there it is. There’s the problem inherent to calling U2 a cover band.
This is my perception of U2. I’m just as guilty as the next asshole complaining that they don’t play such and such song and don’t write songs like they used to or play them exactly the same way they played them in 1984 (or in my case 1992). I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band play Phillips Arena in Atlanta nearly ten years ago now. I knew the songs on his Greatest Hits CD. I went with my (to-be) wife and her mother and couldn’t help but admire that I probably knew less than 50% of the songs he played. I didn’t have the history with Bruce that I have with U2. With Bruce I could just sit back and admire the spectacle rather than complain that U2 didn’t $%#$ing play “New Years Day” or how they insist on massacring “Discotheque.”
Being part hipster, I understand the underlying criticism. Widespread popularity has made them fodder for Top 40 radio rather than rebel music. It’s uncool to love U2 – even if you own all of their early records on vinyl. It’s like trying to use an expired passport to cross the border. There will always be people out there more excited to hear a song by the Au Pairs than anything by Bono and Co. The Au Pairs have been largely forgotten, relegated to the collections of 80’s Post-Punk enthusiasts. U2 survived. And they just keep going, for better or worse. But that doesn’t lessen our attachment to that music with which we originally fell in love (whether it was in 1981 or 1991 or 2001. If we love, we forgive. I will forgive “Get On Your Boots.” Others will forgive Pop or everything after Rattle and Hum. Others can’t forgive and give up entirely. They go back to listening to the Au Pairs because, other than completely disappearing, they never had the opportunity to disappoint their fans. The rest of us will continue to pay $100 per ticket to be conflicted, exhilarated and in constant awe.