Bands That Don’t Suck: U2
This month marks the 20th anniversary of U2′s Achtung Baby (a.k.a. the greatest album known to man). To mark this occasion, I’ve decided to start an ongoing series dedicated to bands who dare to not suck. And who better to start with than my favorite band of all time. This is not intended to be a history of the band nor a detailed analysis of their music; there are plenty of other sources that do that better than I ever could. This series is strictly a view of bands/artists from my perspective and my relationship to their music….with some bad jokes thrown in for good measure.
U2 saved my life. I don’t mean they pulled me out of some kind of addiction or anything like that. I mean they kept me from rolling down the window and jumping out of a moving vehicle in an effort to escape my body in order to escape Oklahoma. I was tagging along with a friend of mine’s family on a trip to visit some of their friends at a rural outpost in the land that time forgot. I’m 97% sure I saw a Stegosaurus somewhere around the Texas/Oklahoma border. The year was either 1995 or 1996. That’s right, pre any kind of a keep-you-from-slitting-your-wrists-from-boredom-while-you’re-stuck-in-the-backseat-of-a-Crown-Victoria-on-an-endless-drive-to-Oklahoma device. There were no televisions in the backs of headrests. No portable DVD players. No….DVDs. The iPad wasn’t even a seedling in the Apple orchard. Oh, sure, there was the Gameboy, but Tetris is only going to get you so far before you crack and murder everyone in the car. All I had was a borrowed personal CD player that went through batteries like Shamu goes through herring. The situation was dire.
Somewhere along the way, we stopped at a Wal-Mart and I ventured over to the music section, as was my habit. I had just started to take more than a passing interest in music and was looking for something to latch onto. Something to help me channel my inner rock star and, more importantly, get me through the endless hours on the road, murder free. All I knew of U2 at the time was the few videos I had seen on MTV (Yes, kids, MTV used to show actual music) and what I had read in a few magazines. On one hand, I knew that they were Irish (well, two of them, anyway) and heavily influenced by their faith — both pluses. On the other hand, I had seen pictures of Bono dressed up as the devil and had heard him drop an F-bomb on national television and piss off my dad, which I always thought was interesting considering how I had heard my dad curse a million times. Parents are funny like that. Anyway, to my young, black-and-white teenage mind, it didn’t seem to compute. What’s this? A band who can talk about their faith one minute and have my dad yelling at the TV the next. I didn’t quite know what to make of it at the time, but I knew it was interesting. One thing I did know for sure, though: If the police have to shut you down, you must be awesome.
Looking over the inventory in the store, I decided that if I was going to start exploring the band’s music, I should start with what I knew. And what I knew was that I was one of about twelve people who didn’t own The Joshua Tree or hadn’t heard it in it’s entirety. Plus, with all the desert imagery in the artwork, I figured it would make the perfect soundtrack for my time in the land of dirt and tornadoes. And I was right. Staring out the window at a lot of nothing isn’t so bad when the soundtrack kicks ass. And I’m also happy to report that there was no murder and that I am still here, obviously. U2: 1. Oklahoma: 0. And that’s where it started for me. What began with a simple purchase turned into a lifelong relationship with four men from Dublin who I will probably never meet, but have impacted my life and my faith just as tangibly as if they were my roommates. You know, the good kind. The kind that listen to you and accept you, not the kind that eat your food and listen to Nickelback.
Not long after that trip, I discovered this monster called Achtung Baby and Zoo TV (which totally explains that whole devil thing, by the way) that I had largely overlooked when it came out because I was ten at the time and more interested in my dirt bike and Super Mario Bros. Stupid ten-year-old decision making skills. If I ever procure a DeLorean and a flux capacitor, my first stop is a Zoo TV show. My second stop is to buy lots and lots of stock in Apple. My third is to go to another Zoo TV show. But what’s interesting about Zoo TV is that U2′s arguably most spectacular stage show was in support of such a dark album. I’ve heard Achtung Baby described as a concept album about the dark night of the soul. I agree. What starts out in “Zoo Station” with a man wanting to see and do it all ends in “Love Is Blindness” with him lamenting, “I don’t want to see/Won’t you wrap the night around me.” It’s the best and worst night out ever. It’s sensory overload. It’s love fracturing and coming apart at the seems. It’s the brokenness and hypocrisy in us all. And there are no easy answers. No “All You Need Is Love.”
But as desperate as it gets, it is not without hope. There’s this Spirit that moves, one could say, in mysterious ways, prodding, wooing and calling out to us the way we should go. And that’s what I love about U2. They are not afraid to take you to the depths of despair and confusion, but they never leave you there. There is always hope. And that’s what reaches me. A lot of spiritual songs that I hear nowadays are very sanitized and distant and leave me unaffected. U2 aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. They mix hope, despair, faith, doubt, sexuality, spirituality, the personal, the universal and the political all together. They are, in a word, human. They also had flying Trabants and a belly dancer at their concerts. My fourth stop would be another Zoo TV show.
This is probably where I should mention that I actually passed up the chance to see U2 on the Elevation Tour in Germany while I was studying abroad in London. You see, what had happened was….Seriously, I would have had to bail on my previously scheduled, and possibly only, trip to Paris, so I’m giving myself a pass on that one. Fortunately, I’ve been able to see them a couple times Stateside on the Vertigo and U2360 Tours. I even braved Houston traffic both times to do it. Seriously, guys, we have an arena and a stadium here in New Orleans. You are allowed to play here. I’ve seen you do it….twice. Only I had to watch those on TV because tickets were impossible to get. I’m still bitter.
As far as the concerts that I was fortunate enough to attend, they were both well worth the wait and the cost. I vividly remember singing along to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” at the Vertigo concert and knowing exactly what Bono meant when he said that God occasionally walks through the room during a show. I will never forget it. Although, I think my brain did overload and shut down from too much awesomeness when they played “Where The Streets Have No Name” because I have little to no recollection of it. All I know is that I walked out of that arena a different person than when I walked in. My wife, who was only a moderate U2 fan before the concert, was fully converted by the show’s end. She immediately bought some Converse shoes like the Edge, which made me love her even more. She also informed me that the drummer was hot. Watch your back, Mullen…
In addition to those particular shows, I’ve been able to have a few other memorable experiences that have centered around my music obsessions. I’ve walked across Abbey Road (barefoot, mind you), I’ve held Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, I’ve tried to pretend I wasn’t tearing up while Bruce Springsteen sang “My City Of Ruins” at the first Jazz Fest following Hurricane Katrina. All good stuff. But I think my favorite might be the hour I took out of my do-over honeymoon (That’s right, honeymoon) in Ireland to sojourn to Hanover Quay Studios in Dublin. It was a do-over because Hurricane Katrina washed out the plans for our first one. Long story for another day. Anyway, on our first day in Dublin I asked our tour guide where Hanover “Kway” was. He informed me it was pronounced “Key” and that I was an idiot. Fair enough. (Ok, he didn’t actually call me an idiot, but he definitely had a chuckle at my ignorance. Can’t blame him.) When he was done correcting my Gaelic, he pointed me in the right direction and the missus and I headed off. U2 weren’t home at the time, but that didn’t stop me from getting my freak on. (Click each photo to enlarge)
The Promised Land Gangsta lean, son I can feel the power Nope, not U-2
When all else fails… Fine, I’ll worship here I stole a rock. Shh… Best. Wall. Ever.
Hello, hello… My wife is awesome We look good Graffiti skills. We got ‘em
In the intervening years since that first purchase, I’ve spent somewhere in the neighborhood of a “crap-ton” of money on U2 albums, singles, bootlegs, DVDs, books, tickets….. “do-over honeymoons” scheduled around a trip to U2′s studio. You know, the usual. And I don’t regret a cent of it. In fact, I’ll be doing it again this year on the Super Deluxe re-issue of Achtung Baby. What can I say? These dudes are my heroes. And I know it may sound a little weird to say that four musicians are your heroes, but I know how much they’ve influenced my life and I know I’m not alone in that. I only hope that I can have the kind impact on someone else that they’ve had on me. I don’t think I could fully explain it if I tried. In fact, if you’ve noticed, I’ve largely tap danced around getting into what their music means to me. And that’s because I don’t think I could do it justice and would probably come off sounding cliched and overly simplistic. Also, delving into every album would take forever.
So I’ve decided that the best way to wrap this up is to just get out of the way and let someone else do the talking for me. I’ve heard it said that a picture is worth a thousand words (Dammit! I knew I wouldn’t make it without a cliche!). Well, if that’s true, then this video is worth more than all the rambling I could do in a lifetime. It’s the essence of what U2 is to me. The darkness and the light. The despair, the prayer and the salvation. It’s my favorite piece of live music. It hits me in the gut and touches my soul every time. I am never unaffected when I hear it. And that’s what I love about music. It is mysterious and powerful. It can tear down walls and heal the broken places. It can change the temperature of a room and put a derailing train back on the tracks. And, on occasion, it can also prevent a road trip murder/suicide, which is always nice.
(Update: The Bad/40/Streets video I originally linked to was removed from YouTube and I couldn’t find another one with just those parts. This is the same performance, but with the inclusion of Stay (Faraway, So Close!) at the beginning. Sure, it’s 17 minutes long, but it will more than likely be the best 17 minutes of your day.)
Thank you, Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry.