Another Time, Another Place

My buddy’s daughter commented on the fact that TJT doesn’t sound like an eighties album. I found this strange because it is firmly rooted in that decade for me. I replied saying that it was because she was young (mid-twenties). But she said no, there were a lot of albums that had the eighties sound and TJT didn’t have it. Evidently that sound has been very popular with Millenials, but what do I know? I’m about as Millenial as a VCR (what?).

However, her comment did get me thinking about what the band was trying to do at the time. I’ve been rereading old Rolling Stone magazines and there is an interview with Bono where he grouses about eighties music—rock stars in particular. He saw the coolness by fellow musicians as a kind of detachment and something he and his band mates loathed. For all the criticism they received, detachment was not one of them. Their earnestness and seriousness was what drove much of their music. And it was what connected them with their fans. These guys believed in things very strongly and weren’t afraid to let the world know.

Bono also complained about the commercialism of music.  He felt that there are record companies “who treat music like a tin of beans—a product to be sold.” It could be said that this was ironic coming from the lead singer of one of the biggest bands in the world at the time. But what I think he as getting at was that U2 endeavored mightily against the notion of being mediocre, though commercially prosperous. They were not content with treading over familiar ground—even though it was lucrative and praiseworthy—simply because it successful.

In the interview, there is a sense that the band’s superstardom is not necessarily something to reject but to understand that with that position comes a responsibility to the music and the fans. And this is where I think they took the road not taken.

I can’t think of another band from that time that sang more about social and political issues than them (although I did not understand much if it). Songs like Sunday Bloody Sunday and Pride (In the Name of Love) had gravitas. The Police had gravitas, but I always felt they were more literary than political. Sting was political. But it was the subject matter of U2’s songs combined with their music that made them so different.

In the DVD Classic Albums – The Joshua Tree, Edge recalls that they felt very disconnected with what was going on in music at the time, even their music videos were “so different, like they were from some other place”. And though I relate all those songs with the eighties, it is because I listened to them so much during that time. But to someone like my buddy’s daughter, she doesn’t get that eighties-feel like she does from Def Leppard, INXS or Bon Jovi.

No blind alleys for Streets

I remember the first time I saw the Where The Streets Have No Name music video on television. The band set up on the rooftop of a liquor store in downtown Los Angeles and played to a captivated and growing crowd. The part that really struck me was there was a moment when the crowd was still respectful and stayed on the sidewalk while the police tried to keep order. And then—all of a sudden—they run into the street seemingly oblivious to the traffic. I thought how cool would it have been to be there. And in my new-to-rock naiveté, I realized this band was going to be huge. Even watching the video now, there is this sense that this very event was marking a significant change in the growth of the band. They were going to be megastars from that moment on.

After all of the hype surrounding the new album and immense anticipation, the band launched the release with the force of a supernova. Streets raced up charts all around the planet. For a moment, everyone was playing U2 on the radio. They were, as the April 27th issue of Time Magazine stated on the cover, “Rock’s Hottest Ticket”.

Into the arms of America

What nearly all of us can agree on is the sound. The moment I hear the beginning of Where The Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and With Or Without You, I know what it is. These songs are recognizable for their towering vocals and soaring guitars. They are the gold standard for bringing-the-house-down noise that only the best bands can produce.

When I first listened to the album what knocked me off my feet was the open, ambient nature of the songs. There was something sweeping and spacious about them. I visualized the band playing atop a barren mesa beneath a domed night sky. But there was also this strangeness that was a part of every song. It was a little hard to express other than the album felt otherworldly and unlike the times.

If that is what my buddy’s daughter meant, I agree. I have so many memories from that time it is hard to separate the album from the decade. I needed to step out of my own experience to see her point.

1987 was such a momentous time for the band. The culmination of their efforts was put to test to the country that held their fascination. It was a big album by a big band on a very big stage. And we here in the United States ate it up.

It was the album of the eighties that didn’t sound like it came from there.

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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?

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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.

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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.