August 21, 2012
At the top of another semester as an instructor of writing and literature, I was meeting with some students that I mentor in our living/learning village (formerly or pejoratively known as “the dorm”) where I work as a “faculty head.” Our village vice-president is a music fan, and he showed up in the epic “Fish Can Fly” t-shirt with Bono’s artwork that we for sale at the Hard Rock café.
I couldn’t help confess my Bono fandom, the number of shows I’ve seen, that I essentially dropped out of a college to follow the Joshua Tree tour in 1987. In fact, I even had a coffee-stained manila folder over on the bookshelf with some ticket stubs and photos of me in U2 gear and climbing-up an actual Joshua tree.
Sometimes I forget the extent to which U2 were the band of “my generation,” of how U2 along with REM helped us make sense of growing up. And despite the critical controversies that surrounded Rattle and Hum and eventually prompted Achtung Baby, these records sound so good in retrospect that the sympathetic Rattle and Hum reclamation and historical revision I’ve advocated before still seem timely and necessary.
Just a few hours after sharing some meeting Bono stories with my students, an article popped up in my Facebook news feed from the popular NPR Music site. Visually tagged with the epic Edge image from Rattle, the piece was titled “What Was The Most Important Band Of Your College Years?” Turns out for blogger Robin Hilton, U2 was it.
In all honesty, U2 was more my high school band. I did drop-out of school the fall after my Joshua Tree jaunt—and had been exploring DIY punk rock, folk, and psychedelia more than U2 when I finally got back in school in the early 1990s. Even though my brother insisted on taking me to the Zoo TV show in Detroit, I kind of sipped-my-90s-U2-from-the-sidelines, not revisiting my U2 fandom full force until the early 00s (or “the oughts”) as part of a mid-life crisis.
But Hilton has an experience I think many people who came of age in the 80s can relate to. He recalls, “But when I really put my mind to it, I realized there was one band poster that hung on every wall of every place I lived those years. It was U2. It was one of those huge posters, too — about six feet high — and featured a crouching Bono, with the rest of the band, looking to be deep in thought, with the words ‘In God’s Country’ written above them.”
No doubt those black-and-white Anton Corbijn shots from the desert most likely adorned many a young-man’s wall in the late-Reagan, early-Bush years. Hilton continues, “That was a reference to a cut from the band’s 1987 masterpiece, The Joshua Tree. It’s probably my favorite U2 album. But the song that always slays me — and the one that seems to perfectly capture the wistfulness with which I now regard my college years — is ‘All I Want Is You,’ the bawl-my-eyes-out closing cut to 1988′s Rattle And Hum.”
What is it about “All I Want Is You”? It remains a U2 live staple after all these years. I was definitely bawling my eyes to it the summer of 2011 when it closed the Nashville show, and I was staring into the sunshine of my fiancé’s smile. A friend interpreted it for us as a centerpiece of our wedding in January 2012.
Hilton reflects, “‘All I Want Is You’ offered me the heartbreakingly beautiful belief that everything could be alright with the right person to love. Nothing else mattered.”
Was U2 your college band? Was U2 your college band in a later period? What U2 songs give you that “nothing else mattered” solace amid the chaos of the world? - Andrew William Smith, Editor
May 10, 2012
You rocked into my life when I was only 15, when “New Year’s Day” invaded my television and a new hope invaded my heart. Until I listened to you, I longed for the ’60s, for my parents’ Beatles records, and for the resurrection of Lennon, who died when I was 12.
Then one early summer day, I found an article in Rolling Stone called “Blessed Are the Peacemakers,” and you stared directly at me (and a million others) with your devastating eyes, decorated with your unapologetic mullet, black denim and leather coat.
You said it then, and I don’t think it’s gone out of style in the last 22 years: “I think there is nothing more radical than two people’s loving each other.”
You sang a new song and I decided to sing with you because you reminded me that the revolution wasn’t about bricks, bats, bullets, and bottles broken under children’s feet, but about the love in our hearts that could open up three sunrises over a dead end street. You “talked story” about the big story in such a way that made your records required listening for every spiritually-motivated social justice activist in America.
Back then, my mates considered me mad when I took you at your word about being the biggest in the world. But soon you went from filling theaters to packing stadiums. And through sheer ambition (or is it God’s strange grace or even sorcerer’s magic?), you exceeded even your own brash and impetuous boastfulness.
After about six years of living every day with you in my heart and headphones, I tried over a decade of trying to live without you. Occasionally, I’d turn the channel to ZooTV just to see what you were doing. You never stopped raising the stakes as you chewed up the spectacle and spit it back out as strangely redemptive and postmodern art.
Then you got bigger and badder, and I found other songs to sing. But sometime in the new century, some of your latest noises climbed into my stereo to remind me what I always knew but had forgotten. With jubilation, you gave me “Elevation.” Taking me higher, I say that’s pretty soulful and funky for a white brother. With the poetic patience, biblical proportion, and enduring resilience of a Blake or Rumi (poets both known for their spiritual explorations), your voice announced a “Beautiful Day.”
Your songs sustain me, even when your pomposity and politics get annoying. You dare to dream out loud, even when you dream in slogans, press releases and prepackaged aphorisms best-suited for a bumper sticker. You remind us that it’s still acceptable to wear your heart on your sleeve, even when the shirt’s a mass-produced and over-priced jersey being hawked at your over-priced concerts.
You don’t want us to be fanatics and sycophants: you call us your “audience,” wax eloquent about our intelligence and admit that you owe your good life to our good graces. Some would say such solemn sermonizing about how smart we are is all part of your pose, but I sense that what pisses the cynics off so much is that they know you are sincere. If the rich will be with us always, then why can’t they all be like you? You are the least offensive globe-trotting gazillionaire I can conjure in my mind.
You get over 5 million Google hits in a tenth of second (and not that many were about the late Sonny Bono or congressperson Mary Bono), and the poetry engine Googlism writes a poem for you with about fifty lines; these are some of my favorites:
Bono is a tight what?
Bono is talking about Springsteen
Bono is real
Bono is everywhere at economic forum
Bono is boring
Bono is Jesus
Bono is still idealistic but he’s also grounded and relaxed
Bono is a poet of this generation
Bono is a Pentecostal snake handler
Bono is writing about the multiple lives he lives
Bono is such a Bob Marley fan
With the people I run with, it’s never been that “cool” to be into Bono but, as you remind us in the new book with Michka, you would rather be “hot.” Why should I care that it isn’t it considered “rad” for me to cry every time I listen to “Bad”? With that song, it’s almost like Live Aid every time, like every one of us–guys included–wants to be the one dancing with you.
Why did I take it so personally when the critics began bashing you after Rattle and Hum? Do you know that many of us loved your most earnest and evangelical phases? Why do you hit that heart muscle in me (and so many others) in a manner that other writers can only imagine?
Honestly, I can’t envision dealing with the death of a friend or with truly understanding the mythic pull of God, lover, family and tribe without your songs. Your life is so stitched with our lives that this lifetime of listening to you has been an unforgettable fire burning eternal in our hearts.
So on your 52nd birthday, I join all those others who’ll raise a toast to the bold Bono Hewson, husband, father, preacher man, crusader for justice, cigar-chomping singer, and delectable rock ‘n’ roll daddy.
Whether it’s in the car with the speakers straining, on the DVD player watching the Slane Castle concert, with the headphones on when the rest of the family sleeps, or blasting the doors open when no one else is home, whenever I listen to you sing, the spirit is, as you say, in the house.
Happy Birthday, Bono.
–Andrew William Smith, Editor (originally posted in 2005, updated for 2012)
March 15, 2012
Before there was the deservedly beloved Achtung Baby, there was The Joshua Tree. Before U2 were reinventing themselves, they were creating everlasting greatness. Before there was post-modern kitsch and contradiction to wrestle with, there was spiritual unrest and personal relationship uncertainty to wrestle with. Before U2 even had a notion of assembling their greatest hits, they were creating that canon with an album of greatest hits.
For those of us that were there, this was a sublime time. This was the Beatles getting off of the plane in the States. Oh sure, U2 wasn’t new to us or to the US at this time, but this U2, this upped the ante. This was a collection of songs and songwriting that was consistently magnificent and transcendent throughout the entire album. This was rock ‘n roll of the highest order. One listen to this album and you knew – this was Revolver for the Beatles, Beggars Banquet for the Stones, Bringing It All Back Home by Dylan, Tommy for The Who, Born to Run, Purple Rain…
Long gone was the naivety and innocence of the band members’ late teen years and the mullets of their early to mid-twenties. Gone was the style and fashion of post-punk and New Wave. Gone was big hair (only to be replaced by all-one-length, shoulder-length hair, sans the hair products).
Once “With or Without You” (the video as well as their first single from this album) hit the airwaves, the pop culture style of such acts as The Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, Duran Duran and The Smiths was replaced by the ponytail, denim jeans, cool patterned, long-sleeved, untucked, collared shirts with leather vests draped over them and headwear and footwear that looked lived-in and straight out of the Old West.
U2 had steeped themselves in the imagery of the American Southwest during this period and Bono and The Edge in particular looked as indigenous to the deserts of Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico as much as any native son from those regions. If Achtung Baby was the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree, The Joshua Tree was the sound of four men burying New Wave.
For those who have felt the excitement of anticipating a new U2 release for a decade or two now, there was nothing like that feeling of anticipation in the Spring of 1987, a quarter of a century ago this month.
I was just a teen, well into my second semester of my junior year in high school and hating the social scene at my school, feeling very detached. Music—U2’s music especially—was my solace, my escape. A classmate and I were big fans of the band and neither of us could wait for this one to be released. I remember that my friend went out and bought the album a day before I did, a day prior than I thought it was to be released. All these years later, I can still recall his first words to me that next day at school.
“Bono is Dylan on this thing. He’s playing harmonica on this album.”
Harmonica? From Boy to now The Joshua Tree, where the hell did the harmonica fit in their music? I had to get this album. Immediately.
I purchased it, and for the next eighteen months or so, this CD took me on a journey unlike any other album before or since. It consumed me and of course I consumed it. Daily. With vigor. And so did the world. U2 was quickly catapulted into the stratosphere. The band that was always arriving had arrived. Pop culture was no longer shaping them, they were shaping it.
They became a household name with this album and no longer just keen dwellers of college charts on back pages of rock magazines. Indoor arenas were no longer large enough for them and their fans.
The harmonica was there, indeed. But the anticipatory refrain of the opening organ on “Streets” set the tone. That was followed by the flickering guitar sound of The Edge which was followed by the pulsating bass line from Adam and the crescendo of drums from Larry, all culminating with the first that we hear of Bono’s voice on this album (fully mature at this point, if it wasn’t already) pronouncing his restlessness and the journey began—a yearning, searching, joyful, raucous, heartwrenching, thrilling, pulsating and, at times, somber journey that wouldn’t end until we heard the haunting, fading sounds of “Mothers of the Disappeared.”
The desert imagery throughout this album was so damn cohesive. There were the desert plains, the desert skies, the howling winds and stinging rains, rivers running and then soon running dry. There was the heat and the dust, the rust and the waterless wells, throats that were dry, sunlight on my face, caverns in the night and desert roses that called out like sirens to you and me.
The imagery was desolate and yet things grew, just like in the desert itself, as Bono has pointed out. And of course there was that damn tree – standing there majestically for the band to pose in front of, remaining there for years for us fans to figuratively, metaphorically (and sometimes literally) bow down to and relish. If Joshua pointed to the promised land, fans of the band were having none of it. This, THIS was the promised land—this album, this tree.
The Edge stated later in life that he dearly recalled how much music meant to him at the age of seventeen, and so he could relate to the feeling that his music gave his teenage fans. I know the feeling. I was weeks away from turning seventeen when this album, one of rock’s greatest, most unified albums of all time, was released.
U2 successfully chopped down The Joshua Tree a few years after its release, and I don’t blame them at all. They had to go dream it all up again and I’m glad that they did. But if you listen closely to the howling wind, in the caverns of the night, through the stinging rain, I believe you can hear her haunting melodies, flickering notes and pulsating rhythms. I can. For like a siren she calls to me. –Greg Melton
March 6, 2012
Some can do no wrong. And no one can do any wrong quite like Bono and The Edge.
Criticism of theater, opera, and film director Julie Taymor by the overly biased U2 fan community: is this the primary reason that Bono and Edge are allowed to delude themselves with the notion that they did no wrong in the ugly divorce from the Spider-Man ex-Director?
Do we as fans sell the false narrative because it fuels and justifies our disdain for anyone who dares to go against the unblemished perfection of the U2 lead singer and guitarist? Overly protective U2 fans don’t want their heroes’ anywhere near human or even mere celebrity status—where sometimes ego, pride, and ambition take over. Taymor is Judas in the haters’ mind, the woman who betrayed Bono and The Edge.
New reports and published e-mails both claim Julie Taymor accused Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark producers including Bono and The Edge of making her a scapegoat to appease investors anxious about poor reviews and lack of financial success during the play’s previews. Taymor was booted when the budget soared and delays escalated fears of investors. Now, reports are out in which Bono is described as attending a crucial meeting drunk on beer with a bevy of supermodels. This meeting came a few days before Taymor was ousted by Bono and Edge themselves before using her firing as a launching pad for a second chance with the press and the Broadway public.
I don’t hate Bono or The Edge. I love U2. I’ve seen them in every tour since Elevation and have accumulated more air miles seeing them live than one can imagine. But to say that Bono and The Edge weren’t graceful in tough times and didn’t act according to what they sometimes preach needs to be said by fans—and seen as true by superfans.
In theatrical terms, Julie Taymor is a Michael Jordan. Taymor has received many accolades including two Tony Awards, and Emmy and even an Academy Award nomination. Her biggest mainstream hit, The Lion King is Broadway’s seventh longest-running show in history. Unfortunately, people forget that the play almost never reached the six month mark after a slow start in attendance compared with expectations from Disney. Sound familiar?
Bono and Edge more than anyone else, should know that art sometimes takes time to grow into its potential. They have no excuse to let an original artistic piece reach its climax. After all, aren’t these the same guys who gave time and air to their struggles in 1991 to eventually make Achtung Baby?
By not only not sticking to Taymor’s vision, but then using their public voice and goodwill to chastise her in the public arena, the U2 leaders showed an ugly side to their personality: a side one doesn’t usually see in Bono’s documentaries in Africa or while The Edge is helping save New Orleans. The side where manipulation and reputation mean more than everything. Even loyalty.
And sure, Spider-Man is now an economic success. But at what cost? The unique artistic vision of Taymor was sabotaged for a kid’s friendly, popcorn-style family musical about as artistic as an episode of The Jersey Shore. Maybe if Bono and Edge follow through on their artistic instincts, we will see another Joshua Tree, but don’t let your super fandom convince you otherwise: Bono and Edge didn’t act the way they taught us: with honor. –Jaime Rodriguez, Contributing Writer Follow Jaime on Twitter: @Jaimearodriguez
February 5, 2012
Ten years ago, I didn’t watch U2’s halftime set at the Super Bowl. I’ve had to watch it on YouTube in the intervening years to digest in simulation its seamless power and spiritual potency. What I did see at the time was Bono flashing his flag jacket on the cover of Time magazine, and I cringed, fearing that Bono had become a pawn in the war-fervor of the Bush and Blair years.
I tentatively agreed then with a critic who wrote, “If rock is symbolic of rebellion, Bono is blasphemous to its spirit.” Having loved All That You Can’t Leave Behind, having wrestled with my Super Bowl show feelings until the release of How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb in late 2004 (how many peace marches I went on after the start of the wars and how sad I was after the re-election of Bush), I can now look back at the Super Bowl set with a kind of dynamic distance and appreciative awe.
U2 at the Super Bowl in 2002 blended eulogy with euphoria: basking in a “Beautiful Day,” but mourning 9/11 loss with “MLK,” yet turning our eyes and hearts to a world without war or hate or even Super Bowls—a world where streets have no name. While the flamboyance of the flag jacket culture-jammed for weeks after the game, he only flashed it briefly, only at the end of the set. The names of 9/11 victims—streaming to the sky and across our screens—or even the heart-shaped stage softening the 50-yard line or even Edge’s butterfly-with-skull t-shirt: these are as much the transcendent motifs from that day as the flag jacket.
Whenever I hear about the split with Julie Taymor over the Spiderman debacle, or Bono’s Facebook billions, or the band’s manager’s views on music-sharing and the internet in perhaps too simplistic or too corporate of terms—U2 can still make me cringe. But this Super Bowl performance from 2002, viewed in retrospect, may be one of their most-moving moments, shattering the boundaries between spirituality, community, and pop culture yet again. It really stirs my heart, flag fashion and all. –Andrew William Smith, Editor