City Talk

May 10, 2001

By Joel Reese

Once, the Irish quartet lit an unforgettable fire inside the writer. Now, he finds he can live with or without them.

The five of us — each hungover, pasty, and glum — sat in the cramped rental car wending our way through the Scottish highlands. It was October 1987, and we were typical dunder-headed college chumps who had spent the previous night trying to teach drinking American games to unamused old men in an Edinburgh pub.

Now, the next morning, we had barely decided (by a 3-2 vote) to drive up to Loch Ness rather than surrender to our hangovers and head back south to our school in London. But after two hours in the thick, dank air of the clammy car, we were having big regrets. “Maybe,” the driver Greg said, “we should head south.”

Then I popped U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire” into the tape deck. Somehow, the majestic music made us feel almost human and we looked outside ourselves and out the window. As singer Bono wailed about one man in the name of love and sang words like “and if the mountains should crumble, or disappear into the sea/not a tear, no not I,” we overlooked our coated tongues and pounding heads, and slowly the fog lifted. The Scottish hills went from tall annoyances to magnificent promontories dotted with white sheep. The gunmetal grey clouds shifted and spun dramatically above us. We awakened and arrived at Loch Ness breathless with wonder.

That day was just one of the many reasons U2 was so close to my heart. Some people’s eyes were opened by The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”; for others it was The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.” For me, it was U2’s early canon: The confused rage of “Boy,” the furious catharsis of “War,” the poetic depth of “The Unforgettable Fire,” the epic vision of “The Joshua Tree.” I listened to these albums on my cheap turntable, my heavy Walkman, my car stereo, then finally my CD player. I paid more than double face-value to see them in concert and welled-up when they walked offstage to the strains of their anthemic closer “40,” the entire audience still singing as we walked out of the arena.

I sat in my room (first at my parents’ house, then my dorm) and stared rapt at the covers of their albums (and the heavy color program I bought at one of the many U2 concerts I saw), trying to decipher the thoughts of these four working-class blokes from Ireland who had transcended the kiddy-pool depth of the shlock on the mid-1980’s radio (Poison? Quiet Riot? Kajagoogoo?) and penetrated my soul. I was young and I loved this band so much it ached

Then slowly things changed. I didn’t mind so much the concert film “Rattle and Hum,” although I thought it was a tad ponderous. I tolerated, and was almost won over by, the techno edge of “Achtung Baby.”

Then U2 completely went off the deep end.

The band went on tour and Bono, U2’s singer and ostensible leader, donned shiny black leather pants and wraparound shades. He called himself “The Fly” and gyrated like Elvis doing the lambada with Charo. I saw a couple of these shows and stared in bewildered confusion as Bono hammed it up, pointing a TV camera — which broadcast its image to the massive screens that dwarfed the stage — at his leering mouth and thrusting crotch. From the stage, Bono would call pizza places and order 10,000 pies or try to get President George Bush on the phone. Who the hell were these guys? Was this a band or some stoned 14-year-olds cracking each other up?

By the time the next tour came around, I had to completely abandon the band that had affected me so profoundly. They announced their upcoming tour at K-Mart. The endlessly satirizable video for “Numb” featured an overly-theatrical Bono wrapping guitarist The Edge in rope. Bono replaced The Fly with “Mr. MacPhisto,” a devil-esque character complete with horns or “Mirrorball Man,” a quasi-TV evangelist. They contributed an atrocious song (“Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”) to the “Batman Forever” soundtrack. Their tour, which became so huge it threatened to bankrupt the band, featured the quartet stepping out of a gigantic lemon. Fittingly, at one concert, said citrus fruit didn’t open properly, temporarily trapping the group inside — a la bassist Derek Smalls in “This Is Spinal Tap.”

I felt fiercely betrayed by my heroes. They were no longer visionaries, they were pop-culture clowns. They had abandoned their uplifting passion in favor of an ironic je suis un rock star image that I simply couldn’t understand. I heard Bono’s rationale for the change: “I just decided to become everything they said I was,” he said. But I didn’t buy it. It wasn’t that they had changed, it was they had changed so drastically in a way that was such a disavowal of their past — into something so lame.

But now they’re back. They’re playing four nights at the Allstate Arena in support of their three-Grammy winning album, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” For the most part, they’ve dropped the electronica sound and come back closer to the big sound of their earlier albums. They’ve jettisoned the post-modern irony and cultural criticism. And, as a fawning “60 Minutes” story recently showed, they’re still the same old blokes they always were. Bono has spent a lot of time trying — and succeeding — to get the U.S. to forgive millions of dollars of third-world debt. And the band, as the reporter repeatedly pointed out, still lives in their old neighborhood in Dublin.

All of this is great. Really, it is. But it’s too late for me. Maybe I want them to return me to a time when music mattered so much to me, and I blame them because they can’t. I’m no longer 19 and naive — well, as naive as I was then, anyway. I’m 33, married, with mortgage payments and a job in the suburbs. Music has, sadly, become mostly something I listen to while trapped on the Kennedy.

And I realize that I’m holding the band to an impossibly high standard. No one can meet the level I held them to. They’re only people, not profound prophets dispensing wisdom through their music like Moses with the stone tablets from Mt. Sinai. They’re simply performers with bottom-line concerns, just like everyone else. And that’s what I couldn’t accept, that they were just like everyone else.

That point was brought home to me in an e-mail conversation I had with singer/songwriter Joe Henry about image and musical integrity. I wrote about U2 and how disillusioned I was with their transition from earnest rockers waving the white flag to ironic, electronica-playing uber-stars. I wrote: “Maybe their staring into the distance, standing in the desert photographs were just as marketing-conscious as anything by Shania Twain, but hey, I bought into what they were doing. In retrospect, their whole shtick was painfully somber and earnest, but I was young and it worked for me. If I had heard Bono say, ‘We’re just pushing an image — we feel this will help us sell albums,’ I would have been devastated.”

Henry replied: “Rest assured: Bono, holding a flag and staring off into the endless American desert, was easily as calculated as the image of Ms. Twain. It was just an image that you were willing to embrace. A writer once said of Bob Dylan, ‘A lot of people hate Dylan because they hate being fooled.’ Personally, it’s all theatre and I love being fooled. And personally, I can’t stand the picture of artists broke, sitting on a rock, contemplating how important their work will be once their obscurity is discovered and their suffering rewarded.”

And of course he’s right. It was all just artifice, as preconceived and over-manipulated as Britney Spears’ wardrobe. I guess it may have all been bullshit. But it was bullshit that I believed in. U2 may have been incredibly earnest and lacking in the now-obligatory irony, but to me the band rang of utter, profound, unalterable T-R-U-T-H.

So now I look back and see that I simply fell for some nice pictures and a cool guitar sound. Essentially, I got hoodwinked — or I hoodwinked myself. And I listen to some of U2’s older albums and I hear a singer who absolutely hijacks songs with his over-emoting (see the last minute and a half or so of “One Tree Hill” for starters.) And many people say their last album is really good. So maybe I should just lighten up and give them another shot.

But then today, I saw that U2 is doing the music for the film, “Tomb Raider,” a movie based on a popular computer shoot-em-up game featuring Angelina Jolie as a buxom Schwarzenegger. And I realize that it was a nice ride that U2 took me on, but now it’s over. No matter where U2 goes now, I will not follow.