Shooting Craps

When it comes to Las Vegas, the gambling and the naked showgirls and the 99-cent shrimp cocktails aren't really what make it seem so different from the real world. It's the bizarre architecture: Huge public buildings the size of Versailles or Blenheim Castle or the Kremlin abound--while outside is America, the place U2 has been obsessed with for years.

What these Irishmen like about America are Elvis, neon and the Delta blues, but a glance down Nevada's Boulder Highway toward Sam Boyd Stadium on April 26, the night of U2's first concert in three years, showed a glimpse of another America--one that has been laid waste by consumer culture, one full of L-shaped shopping malls and Mac Frugal's and Home Depot stores. It's a place where even the luxury condos look like the worst kind of Russian gulag.

This is the unbeautiful, unromantic America of the '90s, and it's up to U2 to imbue this horrible landscape with glamour and significance. That, after all, is the self-appointed task of rock 'n' roll and all pop culture: to make the mundane seem meaningful and bright so we, the people, can take some sort of pride in our era.

U2 has always taken this responsibility seriously, whether by waving a white flag and shouting freedom from atop a speaker stack, as the band did on Under a Blood Red Sky, or by launching the pointed Zoo TV tour, which aped and magnified the conventions of television in order to expose its evil machinations. And now with the POPMart tour, U2 aims to explore consumer culture and its part in it--a somewhat disheartening theme, however cleverly done.

U2 has done it by inflating familiar corporate images into fiber-glass icons, spending lavishly on special effects and opening the tour in Vegas, the spiritual home of crass commodification. The result: Instead of commenting on the commodification of American culture, U2 now seems to be competing with it. The tour was launched in a K mart and is symbolized by a giant golden arch that will top every arena on the tour. U2, the Los Angeles Times and the ABC television network--whose prime-time one-hour special called U2: A Year in Pop broke basement records last week for low ratings--all have proclaimed the tour the biggest and most costly blah blah blah ever.

In addition to the 100-foot-high fiber-glass arch, the 110-foot-high fiber-glass olive on a toothpick and the 35-foot-high spinning disco ball disguised as a lemon, there's a 150-foot state-of-the-art video screen that uses 22 miles of cable, 120,000 connectors and 150,000 pixels made up of one million colored LEDs.

The tour also uses a traveling crew of 200, plus about 250 local workers on each site. Like ELO's 1978 tour (in which the band played from inside a glowing spaceship), Pink Floyd's The Wall tour of 1980 and the Rolling Stones' 1991 Steel Wheels tour, U2's POPMart is more about spectacle than it is about music. But because it's U2, there is a sense--or perhaps it's just a hope--that the spectacle itself will be imbued with meaning.

In theory, at least, U2 is trying to contextualize the loss of passion, commitment and intimacy that growing older (not to mention playing stadiums) engenders in rock stars, and starting the tour in a consumer heaven such as Vegas--under the shadow of a 110-foot fiber-glass olive, a 35-foot lemon and a golden arch--is all part of this recontextualization. But starting in Las Vegas has other implications as well: Since its release on March 4, the band's latest album, POP, has undergone the same surprising sales slump that has afflicted other name-brand groups (Pearl Jam and R.E.M.), dropping out of Billboard's Top 10 in a mere three weeks.

Moreover, many of the 62 stadium shows the band has booked through December have yet to sell out, including the Friday, May 9, show at Sun Devil Stadium. The POPMart tour is the first American-stadium tour by a rock band since the phat-rock year 1994, when the coliseums of the Earth were filled by such bands as the Eagles, Pink Floyd, and the Dead. U2 had hoped to net $400 million, but it's costing the band $1.5 million per week to keep the tour on the road. Good initial press is essential to the success of this phenomenally costly tour, and U2 has done all it could to get it.

Thus, tonight--April 26, 1997--is D-day for U2. The band has spent the past two weeks in Vegas rehearsing, counting down to this opening. People have been tailgating in the stadium parking lot since 5 p.m., entertained by the Blue Angels practicing aerial maneuvers. The atmosphere is happy and mellow, by Vegas standards, a church picnic.

Maria and Tony are two people who came to party and stayed to listen, and now they're having a run of luck. A bubbly Hispanic couple in their mid-30s, they drove here from Palm Springs--about four hours--without tickets just to party outside the stadium and listen to U2. To their delight, 500 tickets have just been put on sale at face value ($54), augmenting the 500 put on sale two days ago.

The gesture--announced on every local radio station--has caused the scalpers who have been lining the Boulder Highway since 2 p.m. to take a huge bath, though it has made Maria and Tony's weekend. "We would have been happy to be outside just to feel the emotions of everyone here," says Maria, as Tony forks over $108.

Tony is incoherent with delight. He says he saw U2's Zoo TV tour in '93 and has been a fan ever since. "But I don't want to talk about it," he says, waving his ticket emphatically. "Man, I can't even discuss it, it was so good."

Maria has never seen U2. "And look what a beautiful night it is!" she says with enthusiasm. "It was crappy in L.A., but it's beautiful here, like, because U2 is here!"

Maria and Tony are symptomatic of why, from a practical point of view, Vegas is a good place to begin a tour. It has a finite metropolitan area, a relatively intimate 37,000-seat stadium and hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms. More important, Vegas is a beacon for writers and celebrities, few of whom can resist its vulgar lure. And few have, judging by the rows of press in section 130. Besides an international contingent, there are representatives from Seattle, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, San Jose, Newark, Los Angeles, USA Today and more.

The fact that tickets remain unsold seems to suggest the public may not consider this event a significant one in the annals of rock, and that the legions of journalists on hand have been caught up in a sort of group hysteria. "They've done a great job of exciting our curiosity about the tour," says Jon Pareles of the New York Times with a shrug when asked why he's covering the show a month before the poorly selling New York dates. "My paper has a national audience; that's why I'm here," he adds.

Other critics around him agree that it's a newsworthy event, but their opinions must be taken with a grain of salt, since going to Vegas is such fun. One critic, from Salt Lake City, says her paper insists she file three stories from here: She has chosen to cover the David Cassidy show at a casino, the evergreen drive-through-wedding-chapel story and this.

Robert Hilburn of the L.A. Times, one of U2's biggest cheerleaders, is the most adamant about the magnitude of the event. "This is the most important band in 15 years, and this is an important tour," he says. "I think the amount of press here is just an indication of the stature of the band."

Hilburn has already done three stories on U2 since the release of POP, including one filed from Dublin and one previewing the tour from Vegas the week before, yet the L.A. show, slated for June 21, is nowhere near sold out.

"I think this tour is making us ask ourselves a question regarding rock's future," Hilburn insists. "So few bands these days are selling, which shows a dissatisfaction with conventional rock. So to see a band go out [on the road] with this kind of confidence is great. It asks us, as journalists, to see whether this is just a cycle we're going through or if there is something fundamentally wrong with rock as we know it. Can rock still be a mass phenomenon that means something to people again? And if this doesn't work, what will?"

At 8 p.m., the stadium stands are still not filled because of traffic on the Boulder Highway, the sole route leading to the venue. But the spacious sky is flaming, the air is big and balmy, and just over the stadium walls one can see the desert, harsh and empty. It's a gorgeous night--and a fitting background for opening act Rage Against the Machine and its impassioned litany of songs expressing dissatisfaction with the hypocrisy of capitalism and American society.

Rage is currently the acceptable face of rock revolution--exactly what U2 was 13 years ago, when it launched the tour that spawned the Under a Blood Red Sky album and video. But those days are gone forever, and the blood-red sky has gone magenta. In place of the flag, there is now a giant disco ball disguised as a lemon, which will, later in the show, move to the middle of the arena and burst open, revealing the members of U2 dressed in campy Devo outfits. But that's all yet to come.

The band marches onstage at 9:15, escorted through the very heart of the crowd onto a catwalk. It opens with "Mofo"--a song whose chorus goes, "Mother mother, sucking rock 'n' roll/Bubble-poppin' sugar-dropping rock 'n' roll"--followed by "I Will Follow," while behind U2, a giant screen broadcasts giant color images that have been pixelized. Onscreen, the band members look like cartoon figures.

For the next 90 minutes, the screen is the show, hypnotizing the viewer through music that ranges from the incredibly familiar--"(Pride) in the Name of Love," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "Mysterious Ways" and "Daydream Believer," the latter as rendered by the Edge--to the nine new songs from the album POP. Visually, the show is breathtaking. From the graphics inspired by Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring to more abstract images exploding onscreen, there are moments when the images on the video screen are so absorbing and so beautiful they leave you stunned, breathless.

But, musically, there is many a dull moment--the ballad "Please," the long intro to "Discotheque," and the false start on "Staring at the Sun" (which can probably be blamed on first-night jitters). When the Edge sings "Daydream Believer," it feels like a time-waster, easy kitsch. Yet such older songs as "One," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and--especially--"Bullet the Blue Sky" are spectacular.

But was it worth going to? It depends what you want from U2 these days--a band, something more, or something far less. As visual art, the tour succeeds brilliantly, but as a mere rock concert, I'm not so sure that, if stripped of the visual power, it wouldn't have been just mediocre. U2's techno-disco fails on the same level that all dance music fails: It works as body music, but as an intellectual statement, it's stagnant.

The vast scale of the video screen makes U2 completely anonymous--which may well be the point. After all, irony and distance are easier to act out than passion; by relying on themes as detached as those of alienation and consumer culture, the band members have found a way to rationalize the waning of their own commitment to rock. And, really, who can blame them? In the past few years, the public has seen others copping techniques that superstars have perennially used in the face of aging--remaking their images, turning to drugs, committing suicide. In comparison, U2's reaction--to subsume itself in soulless technological artistry--is by far the best one yet.

Still, it's hard to feel entirely good about what the POPMart tour says about the state of rock. I'm going to miss the Bono who waved that white flag--and I don't think Zack De La Rocha (or Liam Gallagher, whose band Oasis will be opening some U2 dates this summer) can cut it in comparison. Frankly, for rock to succeed, it has to have a message--and, even more important, a sentient message-bearer.

At least there's something kind of heartening in knowing that however complex and fabulous technology gets, a listener is still thrown back on the bare bones of music and its ever-so-mysterious ways; that was true of ELO in 1978, and it's true now. I never thought I'd say that what I liked best about a U2 show was its special effects. But, then, I never thought I'd see the day when I'd walk into a Hard Rock Cafe--site of the tour's official after-show party--and see a sign that reads, "The only notes that matter come in wads," signed by the Sex Pistols. Somehow, that seemed a fitting statement to end the evening--detached, ironic and utterly conflicted.

U2 is scheduled to perform on Friday, May 9, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, with Rage Against the Machine. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.


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