MORE

The Fire and the Flame

U2: Pitching its tent again and drawing audiences inside.
Kevin Westenberg

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.

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.

 

The tour proper kicked off on March 24 and 26 in Fort Lauderdale, quickly moving through the South, then up toward the Northwest and Canada, followed by a sweep down into California en route to Phoenix. (From there the mostly sold-out tour sweeps through the Midwest and to the East Coast for a four-night stand in June in the NY-NJ area; Leg II will take place in Europe.)

U2's stage design is consistent with the themes suggested above, its elongated, heart-shaped runway allowing the band to stroll unencumbered into the middle of the audience (general admission on the floor, with concertgoers both flanking and in the middle of the "heart") and minimalist lighting motifs (silhouettes upon translucent screens; four black-and-white overhead video panels) ensuring the focus remains squarely on the music. From anthemic readings of ATYCLB tunes -- "Elevation" is played in-your-face style, full arena lights blazing; "Beautiful Day" is transcendently psychedelic -- to vigorous reprises of old-school classics -- "Sunday Bloody Sunday" gets the full, stomping Red Rocks-style treatment; a blazing "Bullet the Blue Sky" finds Bono prowling the stage with a hand-held spotlight, casting beams into the crowd -- U2 is willing to risk those return-to-basics accusations if in the process it gets to pitch its tent again and draw the audience inside.

Wrote a New Times reviewer, of the March 26 Fort Lauderdale concert, "This ain't no disco. This ain't no laser show. The seasoned musicians conjured the spirit -- and social conscience -- of rock 'n' roll. Call U2's renewed search for meaning a midlife crisis, but it's more a symptom of a band that's found a way to keep making plainspoken, plaintive rock music important -- for themselves and for others."

To date, set lists for the two-hour-plus shows have remained fairly consistent: "Elevation," "Beautiful Day," "Until the End of the World," "New Year's Day," "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of," "Gone," "Discotheque"/"Staring at the Sun," "New York," "I Will Follow," "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "The Sweetest Thing," "In a Little While," "Desire," "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," "Bad," "Where the Streets Have No Name," "Mysterious Ways," "The Fly," (encores) "Bullet the Blue Sky," "With or Without You," "Pride," "One," "Walk On." Snippets of covers (Bob Marley, R.E.M., INXS, the Stones, Bowie) also pepper the set, and following Joey Ramone's death 11 days ago, a tender "I Remember You" began appearing as the next-to-last song.

And it's entirely possible that other surprises will turn up by the time U2 hits the Valley. In the current issue of Rolling Stone, Bono notes that the band-audience empathy levels are running high: "The first night we were just kind of floored by the feeling in the room. I woke up after the first night just dreaming of the second night -- that has never happened before."


I abruptly wake up from my own dreams early one mid-1988 morning. On the phone is a female calling long distance, sweet and friendly but with a note of urgency in her voice that I recognize: Over the years, while doing U2/USA, I've grown accustomed to taking calls from overly earnest readers desperate for some sense of "contact" with their rock heroes no matter how many steps removed that contact might be. Still, my growing role as surrogate Bono isn't my idea of journalism, and U2 went mega last year on the Joshua Tree tour, ensuring that new waves of anxious, and sometimes disturbed, fans will continue to come out of the woodwork.

"I want to play you a tape," the girl announces, suggesting that she has some newsworthy information for U2/USA. She sketches out a few preliminaries: It's from the answering machine of a young lady, described as a student and part-time model, from a rich family and attending college in Louisiana; on the eight-minute tape I'll hear a male voice professing his devotion to the lady; the voice will be Bono's.

Wondering if someone's trying to play a practical joke on ye olde 'zine editor using edited/doctored interview tapes, I listen to the recording.

Well, it's Bono, that's for sure; I recognize his distinctive Irish drawl right away. He's voicing terms of endearment, phrases like "I feel so far away from you," "I can't wait to see you," "When we meet . . ." -- general expressions of loneliness and desire, with the occasional aside concerning books or films.

 

I'm fascinated, but repelled, too. This isn't why I started doing U2/USA, which never delved into gossip and personal lives, only the music (well, we did interview The Edge's mum once). Married or not, Bono's life at home or on the road is none of my business.

My caller tells me she can let me hear more at our next conversation, and while deliberately vague on certain details (for starters, why and how did she get the tape?), she doesn't seem like a prankster. I tell her I'll get back to her. But I don't, nor do I return her subsequent calls.

Not long afterward I turn over the reins of the magazine to my fellow editors. Rattle and Hum comes out, but it leaves me cold, and besides, my heart's just not into dealing with U2 fans full-time anymore.

A decade or so later I'm at a newsstand when an article called "The Miranda Obsession" in the December '99 issue of Vanity Fair stops me cold. It's a complicated yarn about a woman, supposedly named Miranda Grosvenor, who for about 15 years starting in the late '70s managed to charm and fascinate some of the pop and film world's heaviest hitters. Names like Billy Joel. Quincy Jones. Peter Wolf. Bob Dylan. Art Garfunkel. Robert De Niro. Director Paul Schrader. Writer Buck Henry. Super-producer Richard Perry (who fell hard for Miranda). There's a twist: The woman never actually met her would-be paramours, instead engaging them in protracted games of phone seduction, somehow keeping them at bay with a mixture of sophistication and intrigue -- and the tantalizing suggestion that she was a very rich, very gorgeous young model-student attending Tulane University in New Orleans. Oh, and before she finally dropped out of, um, earshot, "Miranda" (her actual name was Whitney Walton) would also entertain her own friends with tapes of the male voices that crowded her answering machine -- long, passionate, often pleading for a face-to-face rendezvous that would never come.

While the U2 vocalist is never mentioned in the Vanity Fair article, I have to wonder: Did I cross paths myself with "Miranda" back during U2/USA days, a girl who dedicated herself to blurring the lines between "fan" and "fantasy" and was able to pluck her own personal "bits of Bono" from the telephone lines? And did I, at the service of some vague code of integrity, unwittingly deep-six a career in celebrity journalism (scandal-sheet division)?

Of course, had I done the "journalistic" thing back then, I probably wouldn't be sitting here writing about rock 'n' soul salvation, about crises of faith, and about what it means to be a fan. Upon reflection, I'm pretty happy just to be back under the tent again with U2. Welcome home, guys -- Bono, Edge, Larry, Adam. Look outside, it's America.


Sponsor Content