Let Me in the Sound

U2 recording the Where The Streets Have No Name video

On March 9, 1987, TJT was released and sold over 300,000 copies in two days in the United Kingdom. By March 21 it debuted at number one on the UK Albums Chart. Less than a month later, across the pond, the album debuted at number seven on the United States’ Billboard charts. Three weeks later it rose to number one and stayed there for nine weeks in a row. The album was met with the same kind of demand around the world. This was not short-lived either, as it remained on dozens of charts for years. It was an unquestionable success.

Looking back at it now, it is no surprise. The music is extraordinary.

What I found interesting was that the band wanted to go into a new direction after the The Unforgettable Fire Tour (summer ’84 through summer ’85). It shouldn’t have come as a surprise because they have always done that. Fresh of their most successful album and tour, they felt they were now at a stage in their career to take bigger risks and explore new sounds. I’ve always admired them for doing that because it takes courage to not go with something that was tried and true.

So how different was TJT than previous albums? In one word: completely. This was the culmination of the band’s growth and it had not been so clearly—and beautifully—expressed before. Granted, it took a lot of hard work with producers Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno and Flood. Reading through some of their interviews in U2 by U2, I learned how difficult the album was to produce. There were conflicting opinions about every song. Although they had a lot of developed material, no one was happy with the current state as they continued to write and record. There was a near-loss of the only full recording of WTSHNN. And in usual fashion, they were in danger of missing the release deadline.

The key ingredient

One of the elements that the band was exploring was soundscapes. Edge explained in Classic Albums – U2 The Joshua Tree DVD, they were trying to create a sound that would place the listener. The idea was to musically recreate some of their experiences in traveling across America. This is a difficult thing to do and something my unsophisticated ears did not pick up for many years. As I began to listening different types of music I realized that there were influences of blues, country and gospel—and not just in the lyrics but the melody. These elements were blended and then illustrated from an Irish perspective, which gave these songs such a distinctive sound. The new sound reflected the band’s love affair with the U.S.

On the same DVD, Bono said that the album is not Irish in the obvious sense, but in a more mysterious sense it is very Irish. The ache and melancholy is something that they identify with very strongly. It was also something that I was in tune with at the time, although I didn’t have the words.

He also added even though the album was huge, they felt they were out of step with what was going on at the time. With much of contemporary music using synthesizers, keyboards and drum machines, they deliberately stuck with traditional instruments. But, I believe it is precisely for that reason that it was so successful. In era of synth-pop coolness, these guys weren’t cool.

Rediscovering the music

Recently, one of the speakers in my car began to distort. After trying to endure the sound for two weeks, I realized I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down and bought a new set of speakers. The key was to be as economical as possible. I don’t listen to music the way that I used to and haven’t in a long time. So, when I bought my first new car I opted for the basic audio system. It has performed well enough over the years and I was content with it, even though I toyed with the idea of installing a premium sound system. But, I’m a guy on a budget and couldn’t justify spending all that money on something like that.

However, the hellish scratchy noise coming out of my right speaker made the decision much easier. After speaking with the sales manager at the mobile audio store near me, I went for it. He suggested a set that was within my budget.

Consequently, I have been listening to the remastered version of TJT like I used to when I was a teenager—in my car, with the volume cranked to eleven. It is music nirvana.

And the point of my little speaker story is this: it feels like I am reliving the first few times I listened to the album and not just remembering it. It had been a very long time since I really paid attention and even longer since I’ve had a decent audio system.

The best thing about the album is the big-sound, arena-rock anthems that made me wear out the tape in the cassette deck in my first car. These songs are good. I’m talking about drum your hands on the steering wheel good. I’m talking about air-guitar at the traffic light good. Driving down the highway and singing unconsciously I’m transported back to 1987. My car is a time machine and I’m hearing Where The Streets Have No Name like I used to hear it, like when it was new. The way that the beginning just builds and builds and builds, it feels like I am fully immersed in it—like I am literally inside the song. I am way too old to be rocking out so hard, but I love it.

It’s kind of amazing to think that these songs can still make me feel this way—after hearing them so many times. I guess that’s what makes them so good. But it took new speakers to really set the Wayback Machine to the eighties.

In my next post, I will do a deeper dive on the songs and talk about those awesome videos.

Advertisements

A really, really big album

u2_the_joshua_tree_death_valley

Happy Birthday, TJT! You have brought so much happiness to us for the last three decades.

It is embarrassing with what has happened to my memory in the past thirty years. I had forgotten how big The Joshua Tree truly was. It was huge. Following The Unforgettable Fire Tour (’84 – ’85) and The Conspiracy of Hope Tour (’86) droves of fans and the media were anticipating what the band had in store for its next album.

I’ve been rereading some of my U2 books about that time and I had simply forgotten how much buzz there was about their new album. This was before social media or even the Internet. Where fans and music lovers alike got their news was from…the news. Rolling Stone magazine provided news about the band. MTV had a news segment. Radio stations would talk about where the band was in recording process.

In The Joshua Tree section of my copy of The Best of Propaganda, the band’s official magazine, they were interviewed in the weeks before the album’s release. It has been nearly fifteen years since I read the book and I forgot that the original name of the album was The Two Americas. The band had spent several months touring the United States for their last album and seen much more of the country than ever before. The title was a reflection on their experiences with the sharp differences between the rich and the poor.

While that would have been a great title for the album, there is no doubt that The Joshua Tree was and still is the better choice. What I didn’t know at the time was that their photographer Anton Corbijn had suggested that they travel to Joshua Tree National Park in southeastern California to shoot some pictures for the album cover and sleeve. Corbijn drew his inspiration from the new music. His idea was that the stark landscape of the desert matched the sound the band had been writing and recording.

A critical time

This was also the when the United States and the Soviet Union were building up their nuclear arsenals and the rest of the world watched nervous anticipation as our two countries were careening towards an all-out conflict. The tensions that were so high between our two countries have slowly subsided since the eighties, but have recently surged.

Bono was critical of the Reagan Administration and its involvement in Central America. In fact, Bullet in the Blue Sky, Mothers of the Disappeared and Exit were all commentaries about U.S. action in the region.

I was in high school and did not know it at the time. We had kids in my class who were politically inclined and knew about all of this. I was not one of them. In fact, I wasn’t really aware of anything going on in the world, either politically or socially. I have a vague memory us talking about the arms race in my U.S. History class, but as I mentioned in a previous post, I was failing early every class.

It was a time when Bono began speaking more about this during their shows. I was too naïve back to fully understand why he was doing it. It turned out that it had much to do with growing up in Dublin and watching as tensions between Northern Ireland and Britain were increasing. I realize now that when you are around the anger, hostility and outright violence in your hometown, you become more sensitive to it when you are traveling around the world.

So there were all these conflicts between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., in Latin America and the Middle East. The whole world seemed eager to fight itself. It was during these times when the album came out.

Suspense, intrigue and burning the midnight oil

The anticipation was huge and it was one of the first albums that went on sale one minute after midnight at record stores. For me that was astonishing. Did the labels and stores seriously think that they would attract anyone at that time? And would it have been better than simply opening at the normal time? This is the reason why I am not in the music business; I do not know anything.

The fact of the matter was the midnight-release of the new album was pure genius. To have the media show fans waiting in long lines to be the first the get their hands on one is a brilliant marketing move. First, it shows that there are thousands of people all around the world willing to stay up late and stand “in the queue”. This coverage did not cost the label. All they had to do was put out a press release the public. The media would cover this for free.

Second, it also planted in fans minds that, Hey the store near me might run out of records before tomorrow morning, so maybe I should get in line, too, which only made the lines longer. As I mentioned earlier, this was pure genius. Once again this was before smartphones, social media, the Internet and even personal computers (yeah, PCs were around, nothing like today). Yet still, during those primitive times, people found out. MTV, Rolling Stone Magazine, local radio stations were where we learned about the band. For those who were too young to remember or not even born, this was more than enough. It might be hard to imagine (to those younger than me) how they were able to reach so many so quickly, I would simply say what has always been said about this kind of information: good news travels fast.

In a way those days were better. There was something special about buying a record album, cassette tape or compact disc. The album was big and had large images of the band. Sliding the record out of its sleeve and seeing that black, grooved slice of vinyl was like discovering an artifact.   As great as it is to download an album onto the computer from the comfort of home, it’s just not the same thing. I love technology, but it can’t always replace the joy of certain things.

Getting back to the album, for the hardy folks who stood out in the chilly—and sometimes rainy—weather and were willing to lose sleep to be able to listen to the album, I commend you. I didn’t. As I mentioned in previous posts (When I Became a Fan) I didn’t buy it immediately. I discovered it only after it was receiving heavy airplay. And it was because if that, that I bought my first U2 album. But I did know about the big midnight release and I did sense that something was happening to the band, something big. The buzz was everywhere and it got louder with each passing week. Even with my very limited teenaged awareness, I realized that they were a band on the run.

Taking into consideration all the hype, rumors and prognostications, how could it ever live to up that kind of expectation? History tells us that it did, of course. But how did the band capture lightning in a bottle?

In my next post, I will attempt to break down the success of The Joshua Tree.

Stay tuned.

Songs of Brilliance

u2-time-magazine

I was talking with a buddy at my gym and gushing about the upcoming Joshua Tree 2017 Tour. He is not a fan but knew that I was. In addition, he is nearly ten years younger than me. I mentioned that that album propelled them into the ionosphere. Songs like Where the Streets Have No Name and With or Without You and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For were what produced the album’s huge success. I finished my spiel by stating that these songs were classics. To which he replied, are they or are they just old?

There times when I have been myopic about the band’s music, mostly when I was younger. And I admit that I bristle whenever someone criticizes the band, but less now than before. Yet I was still surprised that he asked that. My response was, of course they are. But was that just the fan in me talking?

I was fully prepared to launch into a dissertation on why those songs are, but did not have the time to explain in the gym setting. But it got me thinking about what made me believe that they were.

Classic songs or not?

There are many ways to define a classic and folks far more knowledgeable than me may have a better set of criteria, but here goes.

First and foremost, the songs had to have stood the test of time. They have to be listened to and enjoyed by the original generation—in this case Gen X—and the generations that followed. And they have to be remembered. There are many songs that were big hits of a particular time, but literally forgotten in the years that followed. The songs that I mentioned have stayed in the public’s memory banks. Longevity is what helps a song achieve classic status.

Second is impact. The songs had to have an influence culturally and critically and it had to have been widespread. The success of the album in sales, airplay, music awards and tour attendance clearly demonstrated its appeal around the world. They are still recognized today for their effect on the original generation of fans, artists, critics and the ones that followed.

Third is representation. The songs must be illustrative of the time, like the eighties. There are so many songs that are classic eighties songs, and these are definitely at the top. Major music publications such as Rolling Stone Magazine, Spin Magazine and Q Magazine have attested to album’s relevance, so this is not just my opinion.

Fourth is quality. Simply put, how good are these songs? I would say that they are great and so have music fans, successful musicians and respected critics. It is difficult to get so many to agree on something. So, an achievement like that can only result from that thing being good.

Combined, these elements are what warrant giving a song (or songs) classic status. These helped solidify than band’s place in the rock pantheon.

Regarding my buddy at the gym, I simply supported my opinion by turning to a couple other gym buddies and asked if these songs were classic, to which each responded yes. I told him if he asked around he would get more yeses than nos. It wasn’t convincing win, but I could see he was thinking about it.

The Soundtrack of My Youth

00002

Now that the band has launched its Joshua Tree 2017 Tour, it is astonishing to believe that is has been nearly thirty years since their original tour.

I’ve been feeling a little nostalgic lately. If you have read my previous posts (When I Became a Fan) you will know that I have been looking back through the long lens of time and reminiscing about days long gone.

The origination of the word nostalgia is from the Greek nostos, meaning pain, grief or distress and algos, meaning homecoming. And it is true that when I think about when the album first released, there is a tug on the heartstrings that feels like pain, although not unpleasant.

If I could turn back time

For a little while now, I have been feeling a strong desire to return home—not a place but a time. The eighties seem so cheesy now, but it was a heady age filled with video games, hair gel and lots of MTV, although I had to go over friends’ homes to watch MTV. No cable for this guy back then.

I remember how truly wonderful it was to discover the band for the first time. Their music was new and different and came at a time when my life was in constant flux. High school was tough enough, but losing a parent made even the simplest things, like going to class, a much greater effort than I could have imagined. There were times when it felt like I had a tornado inside me and I really wasn’t equipped to handle it. As a matter of fact, I handled it badly and was failing at nearly everything in life.

Listening to The Joshua Tree made me happy and going to the concert helped me realize that things were not as bad as I thought. The best part of that time was that I learned that things get better—I got better. As they did, the music from that album took on greater meaning. Listening with my unsophisticated ears as Bono’s words went into my brain I slowly realized that there was so much poetry in their songs.

Lots of popular songs from the eighties had lame lyrics if you just saw them on the page. I never felt that with U2’s songs. There was something much more abstruse and challenging about their words and I liked that, even though I couldn’t discern the meaning some of the time.

But what a great time it was. That album changed the way I dressed. I abandoned sportswear and sneakers and started wearing a lot of black. Much to my mom’s chagrin, I grew out my hair and pierced my ears. After the music video With or Without You aired, I started wearing my hair in a ponytail. I also bought a black trench coat from a secondhand store and a pair of Dr. Martens boots. For me, it was somewhat transformative. There was something particularly enjoyable about it, like I was changing my identity.

There was also another change in me. It awakened the creative part of me that had fallen asleep during the time of my father’s illness. I learned that it was difficult to be imaginative when I was unhappy. The album made me want to write. And I did again.

I find myself wishing that I could go back and discover their music again—if only briefly—just to have the feeling again.

A really big album

It’s been nearly three decades since the release of The Joshua Tree and there are times when it doesn’t feel like it and there are times when it does. With the album approaching thirty, I wondered if the album is as huge as I remembered.

img_2815

Here are a few facts that I gathered:

  • Over 25 million albums sold
  • Ranked number 3 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Albums of the 80s.
  • Winner for 4 Grammy awards and numerous international awards.

That is quite a feat considering that there were so many great bands that were in the eighties. The ones that I remember were Van Halen, Motley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses and Metallica, but there were many others. In my high school those bands were all bigger and more popular than U2. But there was something cool about liking a band that was not as popular. And I did know that U2 was already big prior to Joshua Tree.

So here we are nearly three decades later celebrating an incredible album that marked the band’s rise into superstardom. What better way than to see them live? My only wish is that they perform the songs like they did during their first tour. For me, it’s how I remember those songs the best. It will be exciting to hear the whole album—live—just like we did way back when. For some of us, it will be A Sort of Homecoming (and you see what I did there?).

For all of us it will be a reminder that we are all still young, where it counts.

When I became a fan (pt. III)

The Afternoon of the Show

I showed my mom how grateful I was by actually helping her clean the house. It was one of those rare occasions where I actually did something without being asked several times. I already mentioned that I wasn’t doing well in school; I also wasn’t so great around the house. But she let me help without pointing that fact out. Moms can be cool like that, sometimes.

RJ swung by my house around one o’clock (I was the last to be picked up) and we headed over to Oakland. Joshua Tree was playing on the tape deck in his car.   It was a warm, cloudless afternoon with no wind as we drove across the Bay Bridge. Our friends Cecca and Julie were sitting in the back seat and singing along and I kept thinking, I can’t believe I’m going to a U2 concert. Perfect moments. There aren’t enough of them in life, are there?

1987-11-15-Oakland-Oakland-Front

Although we had reserved seating, RJ wanted to get there early so that we had enough time to buy a concert tee shirt. Back then, certain bands would do this cool thing with their concert tees. You could only get the real tee at the concert. The real tee had all of the tour stops on the back. I remember seeing a Joshua Tree Tour ’87-’88 tee in Tower Records long after the tour ended. There was no itinerary on the back.

Back to the show. We pulled into the parking lot of Oakland Coliseum about a half-hour later and five dollars for parking (yeah, that’s right). We all chipped so RJ didn’t have to pay. I had never been to the Coliseum before and had no idea what to expect. I did not expect to see so many vendors selling all kinds of merchandise. Concert tees were ten dollars and the lines were very long. I was determined to have a memento of the show and told our group that I wanted to get one before it started. They were all in agreement and waited with me; RJ got one as well.

The Stadium

What surprised me the most was to see so many people smoking regular cigarettes, clove cigarettes and marijuana. It’s not that I was strait-laced, but there were so many cops around. It didn’t seem like the ones smoking weed were even concerned about getting caught. I kept thinking they were all so daring. How can you not be worried about being caught?

To continue, RJ and I bought our shirts and we headed to our seats. We were in the very Upper Reserve section. There is another term for that: The Nosebleed Section. For those who have never heard of that term, the thought was that the air was so thin up there your nose would bleed. It didn’t matter because I would have gladly listened from the men’s room. The show was sold out and we had seats.

As we made our way to our section, I could hear some stagehands doing sound checks on the equipment. Let me state that The BoDeans opened for U2 (followed by The Pretenders) and it was The BoDeans equipment that was being tested. When one of them began strumming on a bass guitar, it reverberated throughout the Coliseum. The sound was literally booming. I was surprised at how loud it was.

We got to our seats and sat down, watching the crowd stream in from all around. Since we arrived early there was no one seated around us, but we also knew that would change very quickly. RJ lit a cigarette and held out the pack so each of us could take one. I looked around for the security guards, who were everywhere, but didn’t seem to notice or care that so many were smoking. Cecca and Julie didn’t seem to be too worried either. I was the only one who was concerned that four teenagers were going to get caught smoking in a non-smoking event and get kicked out. Again, this was my first rock show and I didn’t know anything.

RJ finished his cigarette and stood up, “Dude, let’s go.”

He wanted to buy four 7-Ups. My friend Cecca brought a hairspray bottle filled with whiskey she took from her dad’s liquor cabinet. She snuck it her purse and I was sure the guards who were checking people’s bags were going to confiscate it. All they had to do was smell what was in the bottle. But they didn’t. At this point it was probably safe to assume that the security staff really weren’t anything to brag about. The plan was to be sipping on Seagram’s Seven Crown and 7-Up (Seven and Seven for the unenlightened) at our seats. Mission accomplished.

I am going to skip talking about The BoDeans and The Pretenders. Both put on a great show and I was surprised how good Chrissie Hynde sounded live.

However, it was U2 we came to see and they did not disappoint. Everyone leapt to their feet as soon as the house lights dimmed. The band took the stage to roaring crowd. It was so loud that it sounded like one continuous tone. The show hadn’t even started and I felt like I was going to pop from the sensory overload.

Bono stepped to the microphone shouted, “San Francisco!” Everyone threw their hands in the air and howled as the Edge began to strum the beginning of Where The Streets Have No Name. I cheered at the top of my lungs. Suddenly lights as bright as the sun shined from the stage and Bono launched into song. All sights, sounds, even the pounding of Larry’s drums in my chest was nearly too much and wonderful at the same time.

For me, there is no better U2 song heard live than Where The Streets Have No Name. I think the long beginning gives you a sense of ascent and by time Edge’s guitar comes in, followed by the rhythm section, you are flying. Add to that the flashing lights above and around the stage and the experience was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

I sang aloud and didn’t care that I was off-key. Cecca wrapped her arms around my waist and held me so tight. The past few days were a surge towards this song and I just let it fill me up. It was like a waterfall of sound that poured right into me. I closed my eyes and let it wash the grief and sadness out of me, even if it was only for a short time. It felt like I was being purified of all of the melancholy in my body.

I have heard people say that going to a particular concert was a “religious experience”. I think what they meant was that they encountered some kind of epiphany and that I understood. That show was a baptism, although I feel a little guilty saying that as a lapsed-Catholic. But it did feel like I was being admitted into a body that shared a common interest. That night I became fan.

To be perfectly candid, it wasn’t as though I recovered completely overnight. I still had my bad days, but there were good ones, too.

In addition, it wasn’t the music that saved me from a foreseeable decline; my family and friends did that. Instead, it was the music that I turned to when I was alone and wanted to feel better. There were days when the pain and loneliness were more than I could have ever imagined. And there were days when the joy and comfort from loved ones were more than I deserved.

Over time, I got over it. I grew up and learned how to deal with loss. The happy days eventually outnumbered the sad ones. U2’s music stayed with me from that time on.

Finally, I am thankful for the things that I learned from that time. That solace can come from simple things like listening to a record album. Happiness can be singing along to it with friends as I drove down a stretch of open highway. The best of all, I was surrounded by people who loved me.

And during those tough few years when I was young and still innocent, The Joshua Tree was the soundtrack of my life.

When I became a fan (pt. II)

Even after listening to The Joshua Tree dozens of times, I still didn’t consider myself a “true” fan. Back then I believed a real fan had to attend a concert.

For me, going to a show was a big deal. First, I had to be able to afford to buy a ticket. Second, I had to have permission from my mom. Now that I think about it, I needed to get my mom’s permission first. I wouldn’t be going anywhere if she said no. Truth be told, I was failing a few of my classes and getting into trouble outside of school. She was frustrated with me but gave me room to deal with it myself.

I always tried to mollify her concerns by telling her I was okay, but I really wasn’t. I wasn’t ready to tell her how unhappy I was or how much I missed Dad.

When I learned that that they would be coming to San Francisco (technically Oakland Stadium) I knew I this was my chance. My best friend RJ also wanted to go and had already decided to buy tickets when they went on sale. These were the days before the Internet so if you wanted to buy them, you had to go to a ticket broker or the venue itself. In the Bay Area, music stores like Tower Records and The Wherehouse had outlets inside where you could buy them. But, you needed to get there early if the group or artist was popular. You could always tell when there was going to be a big event because people lined up the night before. Thankfully, RJ already said he would do it. He had more lenient parents because there was no way my mom would have let me stay in a parking lot in the city overnight.

The Hurdle

With the ticket problem solved, the big challenge was my mom. The concert was on Sunday, November 14, 1987. I had school the next day and it was in Oakland, California. I prepared this whole argument about how the stadium was right off the freeway and we wouldn’t be going into any of the rougher parts of town. I had a list of reasons why this would be my only opportunity to see them. I had a back-up plan of simply begging. So one night after dinner, and after doing the dishes and taking out the garbage I was ready for my pitch. I decided to simply ask her if I could go and was ready to be upset if she said no. I was worried that I hadn’t earned the right to go. With a list of rebuttals in my mind, I was like a lawyer trying a case. But all that was unnecessary, because she said I could.

Years later she admitted to me she didn’t want to say yes, but when she saw how happy I was, it made her happy. She said that I had been sad and quiet for so long.

Three Days Before the Show

My phone rang at five o’clock on that Wednesday morning and I almost didn’t answer it. But, I got up to yell at the idiot calling at 5 am. As it turned out, it was my buddy RJ.

“Dude,” he said, “U2 is going to play a free show in the City today, before the real concert, do you wanna go?

I was barely awake, but still coherent enough to say yes. He said he would pick me up in thirty minutes. I was ready in fifteen.

Only in San Francisco

RJ picked me up and we drove into the city. He explained on the way that they would be playing a free concert at Justin Herman Plaza at Embarcadero Center. He also said that we would have a prime location at his mom’s office building, which overlooked the plaza. We would have a bird’s eye view of the show and not have worry about being crammed together with thousands of other people. I still have no idea how his mom got approval for us to be there, but I was glad she did.

We arrived at the office and met her at her desk. She then led us to an outside stairwell where we had a fantastic view.

There were thousands of people already waiting and I was so glad we weren’t in the throng. A flatbed truck was parked in front of the water structure. There was a drum kit, a stack of amplifiers and three microphone stands positioned on the bed. I remember thinking how simple and stripped-down it looked. It seemed plain compared to their other concerts that I had seen on MTV, but ultimately I had no idea because I had never been to one.

There was an electric excitement in the air and everyone around buzzed with patient enthusiasm. The band’s staff was walking the area, talking into their crackling radios and seemingly oblivious to the crowd as they were going through their sound and video checks. And because a big rock band was giving a free performance, there was a heavy police presence as well.

1024x1024

Rather than detail the awesomeness of this show, let me just say that their show was captured brilliantly in the band’s film Rattle & Hum. My words cannot do it justice and I’m sure fans—especially ones of my generation—have seen the performance. So to state the obvious: it freakin’ rocked. Seeing the band play and watching Bono sing for the first time in my life was momentous. It was literally one of the best days of my life. I l kept thinking, that’s really them. There is something magical about seeing them live, like all your senses have been enhanced.

Towards the end of the show, Bono picked up a can of spray-paint and wrote, “Rock ‘n Roll Stops the Traffic” on the water structure. The crowd roared its agreement and he ran back to the stage to finish “Helter Skelter” and I wondered if he would get into trouble. He did.

The time after the free concert was surreal. It was strange that everything felt slightly different that day. We left the city and thought about where to eat. Our friends Cecca and Julie met us in the afternoon to hear how it went. While at McDonalds I couldn’t stop gabbing about how awesome the show was. I felt like a lightning rod after a storm.

As special as that was, it was only a prologue of what was to come.

When I became a fan (pt I)

I was recently asked how long had I been a fan. I replied, almost thirty years.

That got me thinking. Timing was an important factor in affecting which music would responate with me. The Joshua Tree was the album that came at a pivotal time in my life. We all have stories about life-changing experiences through music.

U2 Joshua Tree

I was in high school and like most teenagers, spent much of my time listening to music. My parents were divorced and my younger sister and I lived with our father.

One day my father came home from work and told me he had to tell me something. He liked to read the afternoon paper spread out while the sitting on our living room floor. With very little emotion, he told me that his nagging cough turned out to be lung cancer. It was also at an advanced stage and the doctors said he had about a year and a half.

I sat on the floor next to him not knowing what to say and then started crying. I didn’t make a sound but my tears began to fall on the newspaper. He patted my back and said, “Don’t worry son, I’m gonna beat this thing. Why don’t you make me a cup of coffee?” I think he did that because he wanted to give me something to do, which I did.

I was never more worried that day in my life. My father was a tough old guy and I thought that if anyone could beat it, it would be him. His treatment was aggressive requiring chemotherapy and surgery. His oncologist was optimistic and we all were relieved when he told us they got it all out.

We cared for him during his illness and I really and truly believed he was going to recover. I thought, he’s going to get better and I can go back to being a kid again. But he didn’t; he actually got sicker. The doctors gave him a year and a half, and he died in nine months.

Afterwards, I struggled for a long time and nearly bottomed out. When Joshua Tree came out a year later, it stuck a chord with me. I remember hearing With Or Without You for the first time on the radio. It sounded so different than other rock songs at the time. The beginning was so gentle and quiet and distinctive, but most of all, peaceful. It didn’t start like any other song. Whenever I heard Larry’s soft drumbeat followed by Adam’s muted bassline I knew within the first couple seconds that it was With Or With You.

Those days I primarily listened to was hip-hop, pop and soul. I didn’t listen to rock much; I just wasn’t into it. But there was something very different about U2’s music, especially Joshua Tree. I found myself not changing the station when their songs aired. They didn’t sound like other bands and I liked that. By the time I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For debuted, I decided to buy the album. As a lower-income kid living in San Francisco, I had to get a part-time job if I wanted to have any money. My mother didn’t earn much and couldn’t afford to give me an allowance. So, I got a job as a baker’s assistant at the local French bakery (which isn’t as romantic as it sounds) making $3.25 an hour. These were the late-eighties, but even then it was considered a low wage. The work was hard but it gave me an income, so I could buy things like music.

A New World

It was the first rock album that I had ever purchased. I had to wait until the weekend because my mom wouldn’t let me drive to Tower Records on a school night. So on a sunny Saturday afternoon I drove to the Tower Records in North Beach and bought my first U2 record. I remember marveling at the nearly all-black album with the band members looking so serious against a stark desert landscape. I remember thinking these guys are cool. Not wanting to wear out the record, I bought some chrome-metal analog cassette tapes to make a good recording. Metal tapes were all the rage back then and I was willing to spend the extra money to have the best tapes for my car and boom box. I spent the rest of the weekend listening to the album and thought that if more bands would sound like them, then I’d be a rock-music guy. It was a whole different realm to me.

Yes, I have still have the album

Yes, I have still have the album

But it was the third song on their album that really grabbed me. I was still grieving from the loss my dad and when I heard Where The Streets Have No Name it felt like the person in that song was thinking and feeling the same things I was thinking and feeling. In the first stanza when Bono sings, “I want to run, I want to hide. I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside.” I kept thinking, that’s me. I did not know it at the time, but I was actually suffering from depression. With all of the wisdom of a teenager, I assumed depression was something adults got, not kids. That depression was like walls all around me slowly closing in until it crushed me. I just wanted to tear it down and break free, but I didn’t know how.

During that summer of 1987 U2 was playing everywhere, which was okay by me because I loved that album. Whether it was Where The Streets Have No Name or I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (and so many others) those songs captured my mood during a difficult time in my life. The longer I listened the more I realized that Bono was a bona fide poet. His lyrics were transcendent. Listening to the album made me feel less sad and at times, happy. I would lie on my bed with my Sony Walkman playing at full volume and imagine that I was the voice in those songs. It was in those moments I would think: Maybe I’m going to be okay, because I feel okay right now.

I was still a long way from recovery, but I was getting there. And what happened next turned out to be exactly what I needed.

 

Technology and U2 tours

I had a thought recently: has technology made going to a show better? My initial answer would be yes. From our ability to buy tickets to recording a live performance, everything has been improved upon with the advent of technology. So, that must be a yes, right?

IMG_0237

My own history has shown that the answer is not that simple. No one can deny how much easier it is today to learn about an upcoming tour, a new album or directly connect with band member. It’s absolutely great.

The band itself has been on the leading edge of it for decades. From its use of multimedia during the ZOO TV Tour (’92-’93) to its relationship with Apple, they embraced it instead on shunning it. So where’s the problem?

With the emergence of social media it now has become important for us to record so much of our lives and to receive approval (in the form of likes, comments and/or emojis) for it. And, when did that happen? When did it become so important to let others know what we are doing at any given moment? Sure, a U2 show is a special occasion so it would justify documenting that moment of our lives. But, that is not what happens. We tend to document both the momentous and prosaic in equal measure. Obviously, technology has much to do with that. If it were harder to do, we would most likely do less.

The sad part is that I spent so much time recording the moment, that I missed a substantial part of it. That didn’t used to happen. I can remember the tours of Joshua Tree, Zoo TV, PopMart and Elevation with great detail, all because I didn’t have a camera (no camera phones existed during these tours as well) and I simply watched the show. Beginning with Vertigo and through i+e, camera phones continued to improve and my focus shifted to capturing the event. I’m glad that I did, but it is a little different now and I can’t say it is all for the better.

Bono & Edge City

U2’s shows are fantastic now. They have harmonized skill, practical knowledge, technology and artistry to create a truly enriching spectacle. The thing is, it is so good I can’t just sit back and observe; I have to record. The very thing that makes it worth watching makes me want to do something else in addition to that.

The worst part of that is that my friends are also doing the same thing. At any given moment they’re trying to get that great shot, record a particular song or post something in real-time that it has become a less shared experience than in the past even though we’re standing right next to each other.  I can remember in older tours feeling so connected to my friends and the band at the same time when my favorite songs were being performed. There was this whole cool dynamic of completely being in the moment, surrounded by friends and fans and totally immersed in the music that it almost felt like floating.

This is not to say that I don’t feel that anymore; I do. And I don’t want it sound like I’m lamenting for days before social media and mobile phones. I’m just saying that it was a little simpler back then. I did less. As a result, I experienced more.

I remember seeing a clip on YouTube from a recent show (I can’t remember which) where Bono invited a bunch of people on stage, as he has done so many times. But during this time, many of them were concentrating on taking selfies that it seemed like they had forgotten they were on stage with one of the biggest bands on the planet. Bono did what he could to bring them back, saying, “Live in the moment. Be in the moment.” However, it was strange that he had to say that. It was strange that he had to compete for their attention. And it is even stranger that this will likely be the new normal.

I tell myself that if I were ever lucky enough to be pulled on stage, I definitely would not be taking selfies. I don’t really fault the people that do. But, I just don’t want my memory of that unique point in my life being of me trying to frame the shot with me in the foreground and the band and audience in the background, while Bono waited.

IMG_0275

So, does that mean will I leave my smartphone and camera at home when the next tour comes to town? No. I will be bringing them with me. My hope is that I can find the balance of capturing key points of the show and simply enjoying the rest. I want to be more present for their future shows, not less.

In a way, I just want to be the guy who went to the show and marveled at what the band had in store.

U2 i+e Live in Paris coming to Blu-Ray & DVD

U2 Paris.i+e

As if you didn’t know already. U2’s latest concert in Paris will arrive on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 10th, so mark your calendar. Or, you can just pre-order it.

U2 i+e

If you missed this concert that aired on HBO last December, you now have the opportunity to own it. This was a fantastic show that must be seen. Our lads from Dublin put on something a little extra for this event given the ordeal Parisians experienced. These versions will also contain behind-the-scenes extras that were not shown on television.

U2 i+e Super Deluxe

For the hardcore fans, there is a super-deluxe version includes the Blu-Ray and DVD, plus a trove of memorabilia (postcards, book, buttons, even a USB light bulb like the one suspended above the stage). It isn’t cheap at $119.88 on Amazon. It might mean saving up, but it looks to be well worth it.

U2 lights up the City of Light

U2 in Paris

Our boys returned as promised and brought with them a little something extra to an audience yearning for an escape. It is amazing how a good show can make you forget about all of the tribulations in your life for a little while. That was evident on fans’ faces as soon as the band took the stage. For a city that was marred by tragedy and paralyzed with fear only weeks before, this was still a rock show and it was treated like one.

What I find admirable is the fact that they always pay homage to the city that they are performing in. There was a certain gravitas to this show and they definitely connected with the audience when Bono declared, “We are all Parisians tonight”. Having grown up in Dublin during the British Occupation, they were all too familiar with acts of terror and violence. He was not simply blowing smoke when he offered his commiseration.

However, they knew their responsibilities well and the reason that they were there was to lift house to the rafters. The bar is always set high—sometimes impossibly so—and they always clear it. Given the temperament of Paris at the time, the bar must have been on the moon. Yet, our intrepid Irishmen confronted this challenge like seasoned athletes and played like pros. It never ceases to amaze me that after all of this time, they never, ever phone it in.

For me, U2 show is always about uplift. Their sets are arranged to start at the ground level and slowly climb over the course of two hours. The whole idea is elevation—and you see what I did there—to ascend the entire crowd into the stratosphere. It should be easy, right? You’ve got fans who paid to see your show, so they’re gonna like it no matter what, right? Wrong. I’ve been to shows where it seemed like the crowd all took Sominex. Even worse, it looked the band didn’t even notice.

The jeopardy was high because taking a too-serious tone would probably bum everyone out. But, being too happy can seem disrespectful. It’s less about taking the middle road and more a high-wire act, which is where our boys go to work.

In their favor it did seem like the crowd needed to know everything was going to be all right and getting their wish. It’s strange to think that something as simple as a concert can do that given the depth of adversity that Paris was suffering. I’m guessing it isn’t that simple. When Bono exclaims the French motto, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” (liberty, equality, fraternity) he knows that those words speak to the core values of all its citizens, especially now.

During City of Blinding Lights, he brought this French kid on the stage. I like it when Bono brings someone on the stage with him. I never know what they’re going to do. Some are nervous and stand around waiting for direction from him. Some take to the spotlight like a fish to water. But all of them are happy and I can see myself on the stage alongside him. When he gave that kid his sunglasses and sport coat you would have thought the kid was part of the band.  There was nothing but attitude and swagger in the way he performed with the B-Man.

At the end of the night, Bono said that the band heard that Eagles of Death Metal lost their stage, so they lent them theirs.  EoDM hugged their gracious benefactors and then rocked out like a troop on a mission.

U2 could have easily kept the spotlight on themselves and share some of their own tragedies with the crowd.  Instead, they chose to share it another band who desperately needed it.

Class act all the way.