Sunday, May 16, 2010

My Favorite Musician: Bono

Like Casablanca, this is another favorite of mine that also happens to be a favorite of most of the rest of the world. I would've chosen the entire band, but the item on the list I'm working from said "musician" and I interpret that as being a single person. It's hard not to also include the Edge, Larry, and Adam, but if I have to pick one, Bono's an easy choice.

I discovered U2 in 1984 or 1985 after The Unforgettable Fire came out, but that wasn't the album that did it for me. My brother brought home a copy of Under a Blood Red Sky and between the two of us we wore that thing out. It was a cassette tape, so we literally wore it out, having to rebuy it at least once. Rather than sending us to U2's back catalog though, Under a Blood Red Sky led us to The Unforgettable Fire, which I didn't like quite as much except for "Pride" and the title track. I especially liked the video for "The Unforgettable Fire" with the band walking through the snow (a common theme for them, I guess) and a carousel that turns into a mushroom cloud at a particularly dramatic musical moment.

I don't know exactly what it was about them that I connected to. I was into New Wave and the Poppier side of Punk at the time, so I guess they fit into that niche. I do know that at the time my interest in them was entirely musical. I just loved those damn songs. By 1987, I was watering at the mouth for a new album from them and The Joshua Tree didn't disappoint.

I go on far too long about all this after the break.

I remember a girl I was dating at the time. We'd only had two dates up to then. Our first was to see Sid and Nancy at the theater. The next was for her to introduce me to A Clockwork Orange at my house. Our third was to take my boom box and The Joshua Tree (purchased that day, the day it came out) and go sit in a cemetery to listen to it. Yes, I'm afraid that that's exactly the kind of kid I was. (I also saw The Lost Boys 182 times in the theater.)

By the time U2 went on tour that year, they had plenty of other fans for me to talk to and relate with. I was working in a video store and remember this one guy that used to come in all the time and we'd just talk about the band and Bono in particular. I remember one particular conversation when we were talking about their performance at Live Aid and the huge jam at the end where Bono joined all the other singers for a song (probably "Do They Know It's Christmas," but I don't recall). My friend had noticed that Bono was at the front of the crowd and could barely contain himself from stepping out in front of them all and taking over. We loved that. That was the kind of passion he had for what he was doing and to us it made him the coolest person on the planet.

I also admired the band's honesty. As they got more popular, there was no shortage of interviews and the more I learned about U2, the more I liked them. At a time when most of my favorite musicians were flashy performers with notorious rock-and-roll lifestyles, I found it incredibly refreshing that these guys only seemed to care about making awesome music. They were also really spiritual guys (most of them) and I also appreciated that.

When they toured, the closest they got to Tallahassee was Tampa Stadium, home of the Buccaneers at the time. I borrowed the money for three tickets (for which I camped outside of a record store overnight): one for myself, another for a girl I liked, and a third for a friend with a car who could drive us down. We had a friend who lived in Tampa and were able to crash at his place after the show, so I didn't have to spend much more than that.

The show was a religious experience. Even the opening acts were like nothing I'd ever seen (and I'd been to a lot of concerts by then). All the bands I'd seen had openers with musical styles similar to the headliners. I saw the Bangles open for the Go-Gos, for example. And Flock of Seagulls opened for Cyndi Lauper. U2 opened with Buckwheat Zydeco and Los Lobos. The crowd loved Buckwheat Zydeco, but got impatient during Los Lobos. I say that somewhat shamedly because I didn't appreciate Los Lobos at the time. All I - and the rest of the audience - wanted to hear was "La Bamba" so we could get to what we came for. We cheered when Bono took the stage during one of Los Lobos' numbers and sang with them. Right after that, they played "La Bamba" and then they were done. I felt bad for them, but really two opening bands was a bit much to ask us to sit through. (Or stand through, rather. The stadium field was general admission with no chairs. Still my favorite way to watch a concert.)

I can't adequately describe what it was like watching my heroes perform live. I owned a VHS copy of U2: Live at Red Rocks and knew that concert by heart. To my extreme pleasure, they followed much of the same format. Of course they inserted songs from The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, but also came onstage to Clannad's "Harry's Game," led into "New Years Day" with "October," and closed the show with "40." Just like at Red Rocks, we all sang that last song long after the band left the stage. It was spiritual and magical.

When Rattle and Hum came out, I was in college in Arkansas without a car, so I walked the mile from campus to the movie theater on opening night. I was disappointed by the new songs though. They weren't bad, but they weren't as memorable as the earlier stuff. My favorite part of the movie was the color section in the middle when I finally got to see them perform songs from The Joshua Tree. It was like being in Tampa again.

I liked Achtung Baby when it first came out, but started to sour on it when I read interviews with the band. They were obviously re-inventing themselves, just as they'd done between War and The Unforgettable Fire, but it wasn't the new musical style that I objected to. It was the rock-and-roll attitude they'd adopted. A huge part of what I'd loved about them was their honesty and integrity about the music. I couldn't find that in the '90s U2 and it frustrated me. The Zoo TV tour was an amazing spectacle, but it left me cold. They didn't even end the show with "40."

Which is much more about me than it is about them. They weren't "my" U2 anymore. Nor did they have the responsibility to stay that same band and offer the same experience that I'd fallen in love with. They brought some of that back with All That You Can't Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, but man I struggled with Zooropa and Pop. I like a lot of Zooropa now, but my attitude about the band was extremely poor at the time it came out. Still can't stand Pop though.

And I still haven't bought No Line on the Horizon. I don't know if "Get Your Boots On" is representative of the rest of the album, but man that's a boring song. It reminds me of how I felt when I first heard "Discothèque" from Pop, so I'm a bit gun shy about the new album.

Still, I haven't forgotten those early days and the band's regained a lot of credibility for me by considerably toning down the sparkle and glitter in their public personas. And of course there's Bono's continued heart for fighting poverty and hunger. But mostly, my fondness for the band is that they played such an integral role in defining who I was for several, very formative years. I still value honesty and integrity in artists and that's all because of U2.

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