(Photo Credit: B51 Photography
/ Mark Brown
You've never lived until you've waited fifteen minutes for a bus during a blizzard while it's still dark outside and the only thing you have to comfort you is whatever CD you have popped into your discman cause you're sure as shit not going to take your gloves off so you can reach into your backpack, pull out your CD carrying case, and change the discs to something else. The sun begins to peak over that little patch of the Appalachian hillside that you call your own. The trees are blanketed in snow, and the morning sun casts explosions in miniature off the snow's still falling brethren. And then the tom-tom drums hit.
I can't believe the news today
I can't close my eyes and make it go away
Your cousin pops over the hill. He lives at your grandmother's house while you and your dad share the cramped apartment next door that you've called home since your parents got divorced and that you can only afford cause your grandmother isn't charging you rent. He asks who you're listening to. You say U2. He says, "Who?" You roll your eyes and remember he doesn't listen to anything that isn't country or rap. He tries to talk to you about the Steelers playoff game, but you drone out cause your favorite song is on, and besides, who gives a shit about the Steelers?
Broken bottles under children's feet
Bodies strewn across the dead end street
The bus ploughs along through the rural routes you call him. The sun is up. The trees are sagging beneath the weight of the trees. West Virginia roads go up and down and left and right and curve and snake through one hill pass after another. The usual collection of old abandoned cars that dot the yards on your bus's usual path to school have disappeared in foothills of pure white. The bus is a little more full. Your cousin's best friend gets on the bus. He calls you a "queer f*****" and punches you as hard as he can in the shoulder. You turn up your Discman. It's finally a different song. You love "Sunday Bloody Sunday" but there are only so many times you can blast it on repeat.
I wanna run, I want to hide
I wanna tear down the walls
That hold me inside
A beat down pick-up truck is spun out of control in a ditch on the right hand-side of the road. You recognize the car. It's a kid in your trig class. He was less than 500 yards from the school. One of the football coaches is trying to help the kid push his car out but it doesn't look like they're getting anywhere. Your headphones are still at full blast. You're probably causing yourself permanent hearing damage, but you're "stuck in a moment you can't get out of" and when you're 16 and Bono's titanic wail and the Edge's wall of sound punk chord riffage envelop you, there are worse things than a ride to school in the snow.
There are two primary reasons that I love music the way I do: my dad let my sister and I have free reign to his CD collection (he is a considerable music lover himself though not necessarily to the obsessive degrees that came to consume my sister and I) and I had a forty minute bus ride through the West Virginia countryside. Back in those days, Spotify wasn't a thing. Napster was but I had dial-up internet so stealing music wasn't an option. And when you grow up in relative rural poverty, you don't spend all your money on new music, and I had to listen to the CDs I did have until I knew them all by heart. One of those CDs was U2's Greatest Hits compilation for the years 1980-1990 (I wouldn't hear a post-1990 U2 song that wasn't "Vertigo" til I was in college).
It's not easy to admit to being a U2 fan nowadays. People really don't like Bono. I get it, but I also think those people are wrong. And, it's hard to explain to hipsters the appeal of an Irish rock band that combines 1960s Phil Spector wall-of-sound production with punk. But, when you're 16 and you haven't had a lifetime's worth of South Park
Bono jokes, you can listen to "Pride (In the Name of Love)" or "With Or Without You" with the sort of fresh and unburdened ears that people who were first hearing U2 in the 1980s had. And for a kid who had ambitions for miles and a curiosity and sense of wonder for the world that never stopped, the immensity of U2's sound was just about the most inviting thing in the world. I couldn't articulate this as a teenager, but U2 represented a change of pace from the psychedelic rock of the 1960s (which I loved but needed something new) by making their music direct and immediately accessible without embracing the worst masculine posturing and shallowness of 1970s/80s hard rock/corporate rock. U2 sang about the Troubles in Northern Ireland; the Eagles sang bland platitudes about a "Heartache Tonight." Who do you think I chose?
And when I caught U2 on the Innocence + Experience tour at Madison Square Garden Saturday night, I became that kid who was 16 and riding the bus for forty minutes (an hour and twenty minutes total when you count the ride home) and dealing with all of the shit you have to deal with when you're a teenager and the only escape I had was my Discman (and later my iPod). On those interminable commutes, I played that U2 album constantly. There was something about Bono's voice and the Edge's guitars that made me feel like I could get through the constant dread of "high school is a total f***ing nightmare" that I still feel pangs of if I spend more than five minutes thinking about what high school was really like (and not the handful of good memories you wrest from those institutions while repressing all the others so you don't lose your mind and/or feel incredibly guilty knowing there's a high chance you'll eventually foist that experience on your own offspring). Bono's raw emotion and the immense sonic uplift of the Edge's guitars made anything seem possible. And Saturday at MSG, they proved those feelings right.
Last year's Songs of Innocence
-- of "given to everyone on iTunes for free" infamy -- was a return to form for U2. After some of the disappointment with How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
and No Line on the Horizon
, the record proved that much like Bruce Springsteen, U2 was still capable of putting out great records this late in their career. And much of the evening was dedicated to playing these songs. And while I enjoyed Songs of Innocence
quite a bit, I'd only been able to listen to the record a few times, but the tracks live ("Raised By Wolves" in particular) showcased a band that was revitalized...a band that was more in touch with their punk rock roots than they had been since Boy
(which makes sense when Boy
standard "I Will Follow" was given the propulsive "three chords and the truth" treatment that evening).
I think the notion that (outside of maybe the Dead) seeing bands live is the only way to really experience their music is pretentious (and even slightly classist) bullshit. But after U2's set, I'm not so sure. U2 is a band that's always been defined by scale. Their music evokes images and emotions at the grandest scale. U2 doesn't deal in subtlety or understatement. They are the rare band deserving of the phrase "epic" but on their best records, they don't let that immensity get in the way of genuine human emotion and experiences. And Saturday, even with U2 tracks I've historically disliked (*cough*"Vertigo"*cough*), the sense that songs like "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "Beautiful Day" were meant to be played in a massive arena with amps causing everyone permanent hearing loss was impossible to deny. It was like being rushed away on a wave of the overwhelming textures of the Edge's guitar work and the pleading intensity of Bono's voice.
A U2 show is something every rock fan needs to see. Even if you aren't a fan (and I think U2 haters just need to listen to Joshua Tree
and Achtung Baby
a couple times and get over themselves), the energy and sheer force of a U2 performance is impossible to ignore. And this particular tour is marking itself as a treat already for the band's most dedicated fans. The Edge rocked out the piano so that he and Bono could perform "October" for the first time since the year I was born (1989). They brought a random fan to dance on stage for "Mysterious Ways" and she didn't miss a beat (and they even let her Meerkat the performance of their next track). You can decide to dislike Bono all you want, but I've been to more than my fair share of classic rock shows, and few of them have still had "it" they way that U2 does.
If I had a TARDIS and I could time-travel back to 16 year old Don who was suffering quietly on the schoolbus and he only had U2 and Zeppelin and the Beatles and Dylan and the Stones for comfort and told him that someday it would get to be his job to see these bands that shaped his entire childhood and his entire ideation of music live, he'd probably tell me to f*** off if the whole time traveling thing didn't convince past me that I was having some sort of mental break. But that life-long connection to U2 existed for everyone at the show. I ran into a photographer friend I met at Bonnaroo and she was with a guy who learned how to play drums by listening to Boy
. I was sitting next to two girls from Brazil who wanted to hear "Miss Sarajevo" more than anything in the world. And then there was me, whose pretense of the cool and distant rock critic went away the second the tom-tom drums in "Sunday Bloody Sunday" hit.