U2 is a band that is unique in many ways, and that may be the secret to their success and the reason behind their large and loyal fan base. The qualities that make them unique are their faith, sincerity and continued enthusiasm, even after almost thirty years of playing together, qualities that are visible during their performances.
In 2001, after taking a break, Bono said the band was “reapplying for the job,” that of best band in the world, and they got it back, and with good reason. They are a band that has heart, gives hope and always remembers to demonstrate generosity, something rare in the world of celebrity and rock and roll.
I first discovered U2 when I was about 17 years old, right around the time that All That You Can’t Leave Behind came out. I then realized I had already been a fan, just without knowing it. I already loved songs like “Pride (In the Name of Love),” and “With or Without You,” “One” and all the other songs someone who regularly listened to music might be familiar with. From there my journey with U2 goes backwards and then forwards again.
The discovery of U2 couldn’t have come at a better time, as I was going through a rough period, and the band was a great source of joy in multiple ways, through both their music and them personally. As I listened to All That You Can’t Leave Behind, “Walk On” and “Stuck In a Moment” had particular resonance with me. “Elevation” was great for lifting my mood. Then, over the summer of 2001, I met Bono. It was a very brief meeting, outside the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston, but he was incredibly kind and gracious to everyone. Meeting your favorite singer at 17 leaves an impression, and in this case it was an amazingly good one. And that was all before September 11.
After September 11, it was an entirely different level. I was supposed to fly that day. My flight was leaving JFK for London, but it was still an eerie feeling. After that day, New York was in shock, but U2 were still playing their tour, with the first New York area show at Madison Square Garden. Bono has said a lot of bands were cancelling their shows and they were one of only a few, if not the only band, to play so soon afterwards, though that I can’t confirm. It was only my second time ever seeing U2, after the show in Boston. I remember arriving at Madison Square Garden and standing amongst the immense security, a process we have all become used to in the more than a decade since, but it was brand new at the time. I had a general admission ticket, and the parts of the show that stand out most in my mind were the parts in support of the collective mourning the city was going through. Bono had the leather jacket everyone remembers, with the American flag sewn into the lining. When they performed New York, he changed the lyrics to reflect what everyone felt: “political fanatics don’t belong/In New York.”
However, it was “Walk On” that was the paramount moment. It still makes me tear up to think about the scene, with the projection of the names of all the people who had died on the planes and in the towers scrolling by. Everyone around me was in tears, possibly the first moment of catharsis any of us had had since that day. Instead of the endless interviews on the news and rehashing of the events, and replays of the falling towers, a scene that still feels painful today, even when it’s used in the main theme of Homeland, the names were intended as a tribute, a remembrance and a gesture of sympathy and empathy. I saw two of the three shows in Madison Square Garden and the show in New Jersey at what was then Continental Airlines Arena, and the feeling carried over at each show, and at each show, a fan would bring an American flag to put up on stage, which Bono would hold up as a symbol of everything: the loss, the survival, the irrevocable change in all of our lives that is still reflected in the many little things we have to go through to this day that we had never had to before, such as taking our shoes off to go through airport security, another result of one of those political fanatics. I don’t the flag was anything pre-planned, but it’s demonstrative of the way the band interacts with and understands their fans that it just became a thing, and it was done at every show.
The show I missed at Madison Square Garden was the one where the band brought firefighters on stage and one of them talked about their brother. The way the band incorporated everything that had happened into the Elevation tour reflected a level of humanity that is infrequently seen from rock bands. Even if other bands played after September 11, I can’t think of any that would have put that much effort into such a show of community and a supportive sense of spirit, especially for a city that is not their hometown, a place that isn’t even their country. It just became part of the camaraderie the band has always talked about having with America.
Around that same time, I had been reading up on U2, and it opened me up to many different artists and ideas that I may not have found on my own. A short and incomplete list of artists I learned about through U2: the Clash, the Ramones, Elbow, Gavin Friday, the Pixies, Clannad, Patti Smith, the National and Johnny Cash. That isn’t to say I hadn’t heard any of their names before, but through U2, I took a closer look, or listen as the case may be. There are also a great many books I was unfamiliar with, but that I picked up after a recommendation from an interview with a band member, especially as I learned their taste, and found that it was generally good and made their recommendations worth checking out.
How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb came out in 2004, the same year my uncle was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He received the diagnosed in the Spring and died the following year, in August 2005. It was a terrible period, and being able to listen to the album, especially “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” and “One Step Closer,” both songs about Bono experiencing the death of his father, were immeasurably helpful in not feeling like my family was alone. Some of the lyrics of SYCMIOYO are heartbreakingly accurate. I remember a moment driving in my car the day my uncle died when I was listening to “One Step Closer” and it was so appropriate that I just started crying alone in my car. The song made it feel like it was okay on so many levels, okay that my uncle was dead because he was one step closer and okay that I felt so sad, because he had suffered for such a prolonged period of time that it seemed selfish that any of us would have wanted him to keep going rather than be at peace. For someone with shaky religious beliefs, it was especially comforting.
That album also has great memories as well because it has such a connection to New York for me. Before the album came out, the band played a show under the Brooklyn Bridge. This was before Twitter and one of the U2 email lists knew about a secret show that had free tickets, but no one knew for sure who the band was, but it was thought to be U2. No even sure, I got a ticket and found an illegal copy of the new album on the internet, which wouldn’t be out until the following week and I got on the train to Brooklyn with my iPod and spent the entire train ride listening to the album so I would know the songs before the show. When I got there, a bunch of people were already there and we found out it was definitely U2 and I was with a bunch of people near the stage, waiting for the band to show up. I remember them driving across the bridge, playing on the back of a semi-truck before getting to the stage, where they began the show with “All Because of You.” It was a great show, one of my favorites of their performances, and it ended with the same song. I didn’t realize at the time that they were recording it for television. I think it aired on MTV, and it was so strange when I saw it on television, because I realized how huge the crowd had been. From my place near the stage, I thought it was a small show, and when I later saw the aerial view, I saw it was anything but. As per usual, though, U2 made a massive show feel like a small and intimate performance.
When I read an interview and found out that “City of Blinding Lights” was about the shows in New York in October 2001, it made the album feel that much more special. I spent about five years living in Los Angeles, and during that time, How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb always took me back home to New York. To this day, those two songs, in particular, bring me back to those shows in my mind, putting me in a New York state of mind much more than Billy Joel ever could.
Another thing I learned through U2, more so from Bono, but they are all involved, is about the issues facing the African continent, something that became a major interest for me, actually becoming the basis of my thesis, which was on education in Africa as a method of addressing health, including HIV/AIDS, and poverty. I think it’s relatively safe to say that whether it should be the case that it’s through a celebrity or not (it shouldn’t), it is the reality that many people learned about the severity of the problems faced by many African countries through Bono and U2 and his work through the ONE Campaign, and prior to that, Jubilee, Drop the Debt and DATA. It is something that will become part of his legacy.
U2 are masters of performance. During the period of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Bono spent a lot of time practicing the “fish eye” camera view, singing directly into moving cameras, sometimes looking a little silly, but always giving the audience, even if it was millions of people watching on television, the idea that the band was playing for them, all of them.
Some standout television performances are in the band’s archives. The biggest might be their performance on “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” where they played live from Dublin at 4 a.m. to participate in the benefit to help the victims of 9/11, a performance I still can’t listen to without crying, and it’s not even from the song itself, but from what Bono and the band add to this specific performance of the song. They add backing vocals singing a chorus of “Hallelujahs” and Bono sings, “I’ll see you when I get home,” referring to seeing those that are gone someday, something a person has to take or not on faith, something the band has in abundance that always comes through in their songs and lyrics. It’s enough sincerity and faith that it sustains their fans, too, even when they may be on the verge of losing whatever faith they may have.
As someone who isn’t particularly religious, going to a U2 concert is something that feels like a religious experience, not implying that the band are gods or anything outlandish like that, but actually the opposite, that they are just people, and the community of like-minded people at a concert, especially when Bono can get everyone singing together on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” a moment Bono called the “church of the sacred heart at Madison Square Garden,” at one performance. It’s that feeling of a large group of people feeling something positive at the same time. You go into the concert as separate people with separate lives and experiences, and you leave the show have been through a shared experience together, bonding you through that experience.
Many musicians face questions about lip-syncing performances during their careers, even singers with voices like Beyoncé, but that is something U2 will never have to deal with. As any fan knows, Bono wouldn’t be able to keep his mouth closed long enough to lip sync a pre-recorded performance if he tried. He is always too involved in the song and the audience, throwing in little moments that play to the audience and make them feel part of the show, even when they play something like Saturday Night Live. Val Kilmer was hosting, and because he had played Jim Morrison in a movie, The Doors, Bono sang “Come on baby, light my fire” as he walked past him during the performance.
U2 are the only band I have ever heard thank their fans for giving them a great life during their shows. It’s moments like these, the earnestness, the spontaneity in their performances, that demonstrate that sincerity and enthusiasm that the band have for their music and their sincerity and dedication to their audience, things that fans should keep in mind through all the recent rumors about the new album being delayed, especially when no official word has come from the band itself. Fans should have a little faith in the band that always has faith in them.
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