The Fire and the Flame

For U2 fans feeling burned by the group's excesses, the band's latest album and tour is a soul-affirming revival

April 10, 1985, Hampton, Virginia: I'm sitting on a dressing-room sofa, somewhere within Hampton Coliseum, passing a bottle of red wine back and forth with Bono. A few hours earlier, U2 had flawlessly executed a show on the Unforgettable Fire tour; now, the singer is holding forth animatedly on the nature of fan worship. How he remembers what it felt like to be a devoted follower of Patti Smith, Television, the Ramones, the Beatles, Dylan, Hendrix.

"The thing about being a fan," Bono says between swigs, "is that when you're into a band, it can be the most important thing in the world to you. The only thing that matters is when you're in your room listening to the records, or waiting for the band to come out onstage."

He goes on to agree with me that, yes, U2's fame is growing exponentially and, no, he can't go back and talk with every fan one-on-one like he once did. The after-show crowds now sometimes get so big that all the pushing and jockeying for position to "pick off bits of Bono," as he puts it, can get dangerous.

U2: Pitching its tent again and drawing audiences inside.
Kevin Westenberg
U2: Pitching its tent again and drawing audiences inside.
Rattle and Hum: U2 portrayed as "regular people."
Anton Curbjin
Rattle and Hum: U2 portrayed as "regular people."


Scheduled to perform on Saturday, April 28, with P.J. Harvey. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.
America West Arena

Point of fact, however, tonight Bono was out by the loading dock again, chatting, signing autographs, and levying his own smooth brand of crowd control. I mention that it was fun watching the looks on the kids' faces when they got their turn with him, and --

"Don't call them kids -- they're young adults," he interrupts me sternly. "Part of my job is to let them know that they are important to me, to the band -- they're fans, they're regular people, just like you and me."

Well, of course Bono was right. And wrong. Fans are regular people. Only Bono's not; he's a pop star, and in April '85 he's headed on a collision course with superstardom. To date, U2's albums and tours have celebrated and reaffirmed the notion of musical salvation -- the purest expressions of rock 'n' roll tent revivalism since Dylan's "Rolling Thunder Revue," Darkness-era Springsteen, or Patti Smith broadcasting from the Radio Ethiopia jungle.

But if U2 is gonna take us higher every night, sooner or later there's gotta be a crash. This would come in a few years in the form of the sanctimonious Rattle and Hum album and documentary film, both of which disingenuously aimed to portray U2 as "regular people" who just happened to be staring into the maw of mass adulation. U2 chose to embrace that adulation just as surely as a televangelist covets his lucre, and if the group's so-called self-reinvention in the '90s resulted in at least one artistic masterpiece (Achtung Baby), it also yielded, claims to irony be damned, an unprecedented amount of bloated, giant lemon excess (the Pop Mart tour).

In any event, after the Hampton concert I wrote up the show and my interview with Bono for U2/USA, the unofficial U2 fanzine I published and co-edited at the time. One of the first American U2 'zines, we were well-regarded throughout the decade by fans and the inner ranks of U2 themselves, who routinely granted us interviews and full-access passes whenever the band toured the States. Soon enough I, too, would have my own strange crisis of faith as a result of U2's massive fame, eventually concluding that the tent had been dismantled and packed away.

2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind is neither a return-to-'80s-roots album, although it displays a telltale "U2ish" airy ambiance and economy of movement, nor a disavowal of U2's '90s dalliance with dance music, despite the tasteful deployment of electronics throughout. The pervasive vibe is a sonically spare, emotionally fluent soulfulness, from the inner-strength anthemism of "Walk On" to the falsetto-flecked love ballad "In a Little While" to the Sly Stone-ish psychedelic funk that drives "Elevation." Bono himself pointed out, in a SonicNet interview, that while in the recent past bigger may have meant better for U2 (particularly in the multimedia stage extravaganzas), for now, they just wanna take you higher with song and spirit: "To find something extraordinary within yourself . . . emotionally, we got to a place that was very raw. I think that's what you can call soul music . . . that place where you reveal rather than conceal."

And advance reports on "Elevation Tour 2001" corroborate his thesis. America got its first look at the kinder/gentler U2 last December when the group put on an intimate, 75-minute club gig at New York's Irving Plaza. Broadcast live over the radio, it spotlighted a handful of ATYCLB songs plus some vintage material (in particular a boisterous "I Will Follow" and the totally unexpected chestnut "11:00 Tick Tock") and a couple of surprising covers (a ballad take of the Ramones' "I Remember You"; an over-the-top encore with the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again"). The band was apparently still charged up a few nights later when it appeared as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Not only did Bono serve up impromptu tributes to John Lennon and the then-hospitalized Joey Ramone, in lieu of having a lighting scaffolding to ascend and teeter from, he bolted maniacally through the studio audience and deep into the backstage area, reviving his old break-down-the-band/audience-barrier work ethic in fine fashion.

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