Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Art of War:
U2 Goes to War

By Douglas McDaniel

We were late on the way to my first U2 concert and we still had a long way to go. My wife (back then) was pregnant with my son (he's 16 now). The Toyota Corolla charged hard down into the desert valley of metropolitan Phoenix, and then further south into the desert, toward the out-of-the-way Compton Terrace venue, a dusty outdoors amphitheater on an Indian reservation near Casa Grande. Then, the announcer on the radio gave the warning about the traffic jam for the U2 concert. I decided to go past the venue's off- ramp exit and further out into the desert, intending to outflank the sheep who didn't know any better.
So I pushed the engine. The little station wagon going into a starved whine. And then, the engine blew. White exhaust from the hood, an awful sound of deaccerlating tin and grease, the car now still, the motor a smoking ruin. A casualty of war.
Without much thought, we left it out there beside the tumbleweeds, where the streets really have no name. Turn away from life, from death, Yeats would have said: "Horseman, pass by." The wreck was our monument to our brand of fanaticism for U2, but also, our frailty. We got to the show in plenty of time, afterward hitching our way back to Phoenix in the back of a pickup truck, energized by the post-punk vibe of the show, a not-of-this rock'n'roll world sensibility that lasted longer than the ride home, maybe a decade or more.
Now I am in Ipswich, a harbor that usually seems far from the weary world. But no more. We are at war now against an invisible enemy and U2 is coming around again (Oct. 30, in Providence, R.I.). But in a time when such frivolities are plain to see, the show is still the only one worth the risk of another lost compact car. At no time, with the world at war with an invisible foe, has U2 seemed so worth the mere sacrifice of an engine that's only good for puttering around. Indeed, U2 is a call to embrace the world and swallow it whole, regardless of our petty concerns.
I just feel like I need the optimism, that's all.
But wait. This is a rock band. Not a religion. Even if it was frequently said during the 1980s that a U2 concert was what church should be like, the band is really just a highly potent form of social, political and spiritual information packaged for popular consumption. They were closer to "the War" in Irelance, and we just listened in from the suburbs to imagine what it felt like. But now it's here. Now we know.
With each tour, they got closer to this realization: Rock may not save the world, but a churchy riff that could set off earthquake alarms (something that actually happened, in Italy, during the 1980s) certainly might move it along. And by the 1990s, when the world wasn't saved, and their impact on pop culture had become diffuse, they melted into the stew, a mere self-parody of what they once were: "The Batman and Robin of rock'n'roll," as Bono once claimed.
Ah, Batman and Robin----in the guise of Bono and the Edge----were a wonder to behold 16 years go. Not so much for the portentous message of such agit-prop anthems as "Pride (in the Name of Love)," but more for the way the band's charismatic singer handled the audience, which in the early part of the show was out of control. Remember, in those days, if you didn't go to a concert wearing bleak chic black, well, you had no business banging your head in the valley of the punk. More than 25,000 people were surging toward the stage, pushing and shoving, because punk is an anxious music, and anger is just a part of the dance.
The crowd was so large, and the setting was so toxic, the band was reportedly floored by the suddeness of the event, and what it meant for the future of the band. The surly mob was just waiting to explode at the first chiming gong of "Sunday, Bloody Sunday." Instead, the band simmered rather than burned. Bono entreated the crowd to be cool, telling us, "Nobody gets hurt at a U2 concert." There was this sense of compassion for the crowd, and a fear for what the band was creating.
Two other things were worth remembering. The first was the way a fully realized "Bad" seemed to exorcize all of the angst out of the throng. The second was the way Bono tried to look 25,000 people in the eye.
Bono looked me in the eye for the first two shows of the "Joshua Tree" tour. Truly, a moment of arrival for the band, which made the cover of Time Magazine that week in the spring of 1987, but Bono lost his voice the first night of the tour after falling off a stage and injuring himself during rehearsals at the Arizona State University Activity Center. So, the first night of the tour begins, with the Edge firing off wristy chords on "Where the Streets Have No Name," Bono opens his mouth to the microphone and, ugh, nothing, not even a hoarse shout, just a sick, gasping sound, almost worse than the fearsome death wrattle of my poorly oiled Toyota.
Rather than retire backstage with an excuse, perhaps even a press release, that tickets can be reimbursed at the following locations ... the band pressed on while Bono simply allowed the audience to sing almost all of the songs for him. Once more, the potential of those anthems were more fully realized. U2 was a shared experience. We were in touch, through the ringing chimes of that guitar, the world-class bass and drums, of the earthquake building beneath our feet.
That gift for a kind of stripped-down charisma and apocalyptic poesy, set in a backdrop of the bone dry, creosote-soaked music inspired by Joshua Tree National Monument in Southern California, all connnecting, in a communal way with an audience who is right there with the band, is the best of what's left with me now in Ipswich.
My gas tank is not ready yet for the drive. In these times of war and increasing scarcity, a long haul for a concert seems silly, if not downright dangerous. But U2 tours have a way of filling the tank and pushing its fans along. Especially the Zoo TV tour, ahead of its time in terms of its multi-media message of technological convergence for pop's sake. Multiple screens big as houses. Quaint old cars, right off the autobahn, hanging from the top of the stage lights (now on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio). And more than that, the main event of each song, the Edge's axe as an earthquake alarm.
By then, Bono had declared himself to be an alternative guy who was not interested in cowing the masses. He covered his eyes with sunglasses, smoked cigarrettes on stage and sang about the thievery and anguish of the poet in "The Fly." He was seduced on stage by a belly dancer during "Mysterious Ways," since his jaded realism was telling him, perhaps, that the goddess was the mother of both love and battle. He crowed and croaked about lost love, despite it all, in "Until the End of the World." This was a band that was not only feeling its Batman and Robin, but also accepting its Joker and Mad Hatter.
Prior to the most recent tour, it had become an inevitable part of the pop process that the band would continue to conceal itself behind the pseudo-magical gloss of the pyrotechnical fluff. That was the 1990s, in a nutshell. Such was the case when they showed up at Foxboro Stadium, during the 1998 "Pop Mart" tour, beneath the shadow of a giant golden arches and a great big sequined lemon. Even it the tour attempted to approximate the work of Andy Warhol or Marshall McLuhan, U2's message within that medium was a colossal disappointment and more than enough proof they were mere rocker mortals, as opposed to revolutionary angels, after all.
But for the best bands, it's also a part of the pop process that once the dizzying aspects of success peters out with inane, ill-advised experiments in personal deconstruction, the good ones will once again return to the basics. They had been bad. Very bad. Even their accountant told them so. And now, after a couple of years of pennance, the band returned to the stage with a minimal stage setting and a reliance on music alone. With the new material of "All That You Can't Leave Behind," there's not necessarily a more venomous approach to the problem of getting heard these days. That is, they are not rocking harder than ever. Indeed, the band has mellowed into a kind of self-assurance of sonic simplicity, but that has allowed Bono to exist within that space to create some of his most profound and personal work.
After a decade of excess, U2 is going to war with messages of stripped-down efficiency in the music, and a confessional tone in the lyrics. Now the war has come home, I'm curious to know just how eye-to-eye Bono and I will be.
And my old Toyota, well, 16 years ago my dad and I returned to where the streets had no name, out in the desert. He just shook his head and cursed the culture that placed so much importance on a mere rock band. But with the ubiquitous quality of "It's a Beautiful Day," I got a feeling he gets it now. And here, take my car, I offer it in sacrifice to the rock'n'roll war lords of this world, or, any other.

Douglas McDaniel is a freelance writer, poet, playwright and philosopher based in Ipswich, Mass. His new collection of poetry, "The Road to Mythville: Poems 1990-2001," is available as a print on-demand book at He can be e-mailed at, or, visit his Web universe at