Feeling U2


Now that we have that out of the way. U2 was my band during the latter 80s and early 90s. I loved U2. I was first in line for their new albums. I was one of those people who slept overnight at the TicketMaster to get the best seats I could for U2 concerts. I loved that band.

The first time I saw U2 was in early 1983 at Barrymore’s – your typical small venue rock house. I was very much underage, and I had to bribe the doorman to let me in, and promise him I would pay for lots of Cokes, but no booze. You see, I discovered them in 1982 through their Boy and War albums, and was instantly enthralled by their music. At the Barrymore’s show, there was about 125 people, and I think I was the most freaked out of the bunch. I knew this band was going places. I discovered The Edge’s riffs and fell entranced by them. I loved that band.

I forced my friends to listen to U2. At the time, they weren’t very impressed. Then Unforgettable Fire came out, and all of a sudden, U2 hit big time. Next time in Ottawa they played the Civic Center, a 16,000 seat arena. In those days of general admission seating, I got to the arena early the morning of the concert, skipping school to do so. I managed to stake out a great place, and when my girlfriend showed up at around 7pm, we did the mad rush to the front of the stage. In these pre-mosh days, things were a little more calm at the stage, but not much. My girlfriend got pressed in, and had to be removed by the stage guards. I stayed. I was in a trance. I loved that band.

The Edge’s rapid fire guitar riffs, often copied but never really duplicated, were what did it for me. I wouldn’t go so far as to label him one of the world’s greatest guitarists, but he has to be credited with taking several guitar styles and incorporating them into a new one. A lot of the sounds you hear from lead guitarists these days come from The Edge’s experiments. It was U2 and their sound that made me want to learn guitar, something I’m still trying to do today.

Bono has a good range, and in those days, he was so damned concerned, so damned intense about his songs that he made them stand out. Because of U2, I learned about Irish history, and “the troubles”. Because of U2, I became aware of Apartheid in South Africa. Because of U2, I learned more about Martin Luther King. I learned about social issues and socially conscious people. A lot of flak was tossed toward U2 back then for their political stuff, but I for one appreciated it. Songs like Sunday Bloody Sunday taught me about issues that everyone should be concerned with. I really loved that band.

U2’s big year came when Joshua Tree was released. Joshua Tree with The Streets Have No Name. Joshua Tree with Running to Standstill. Joshua Tree with Exit. And Joshua Tree with With or Without You.

With or Without You was the obvious top 40 song on the disc. A lot of people are sick of this song, simply because of the massive airplay it got. Not me. With or Without You has two meanings for me, and every time I hear that song, they both come flooding back.

My happiest memory of With or Without You took place at a typical Friday night boozefest we held at our pseudo-frat house when I was in my first year of university. We were spinning various party tunes on Luigi’s stereo. Around 1am, when everyone was was happy, loose, drunk, and satisfied, Squige (we called him that) spun With or Without You. People started singing the song, as people often do at loud house parties, and then someone turned down (or off) all the lights in the house. It was a really weird, cool kind of moment. Everyone hugged, held hands, groped, and stood together.

And we sang the song, louder and louder. 75 people in the house all sang as one. By the time the song was over, we broke out into a new rendition of the song, our own private version. Once that was over, we all kind of stared at each other, and all realized that we shared a moment in our lives. This sounds weird, I know, but that moment in my life was special. I was with a lot of friends, some dear, some near, many casual, and I had a lump in my throat that night. I still get one when I think about that moment.

The other memory I have of With or Without You is a satisfying one that happened six months prior. When the song first came out, I just recently broke up with a long time girlfriend – my first real love. It wasn’t pretty, and I ruminated about it for months. One night, moping as usual, my friend Jeff sat me down and laid down the law with me. He was fed up with my attitude, fed up with my pity-seeking way. “Time to get over it, Mark” he said, and if I didn’t, it would ruin me forever. Just as he was saying these things to me, With or Without You was playing on the radio. We sat silent for a while, and then Jeff told me to listen to the lyrics.

I realize now that the song is actually about a guy that can’t live with or without his love, but at the time, the lyrics meant something quite different to me. When I heard that song, I realized for the first time that I would continue to live and grow, with our without her.

This second memory ties into the first one. Maybe the others at that party interpreted the song differently, or, more likely, didn’t interpret it at all – they just sang their hearts out. But that night, when we were all singing, I reflected back on how the past 6 months had gone since Jeff first told me to “get over it”, and my life was much better at that point. I had a new girlfriend, I was in University, and I was actually happy, something I didn’t think I could ever be again 6 months prior.

When U2 toured for the Joshua Tree album, again I was first in line for not one, but two concerts. I saw them in Toronto and in Montreal. This time they were playing stadiums, not arenas. The sound was terrible at both, more so at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, but at both shows, I was near the stage. Still in the pre-mosh pit era, people were generally calm near the stage, but damn, did it get hot. I didn’t care. I was treated to an extra long version of With or Without You, complete with new lyrics at these concerts. I was treated to old favourites, and new ones, some not even released yet. I loved the band.

Rattle and Hum came next. Cracks formed but I didn’t see them. When I saw the movie, I gushed. I got to relive my experiences from the Joshua tour. Sure, the band was showing it’s ego. Sure, the band was taking itself too seriously, but I didn’t mind because they were a serious band for me. Apparently, the rest of the world didn’t think so. Rattle and Hum the double CD was so-so, and Rattle and Hum the movie, was a bust. I didn’t care, because I loved this band.

Then came Achtung Baby. And ZooTV. U2 had changed.

ZooTV, for those who’ve seen it, was the definition for sensory overload. The band mugged, hijacked, and distorted the airwaves. They phoned George Bush. They phoned the Pope. They tied in nightly broadcasts of the carnage in Sarajevo. The fat, plastic, tacky Elvis was reborn. This band did the worst possible thing in my eyes – they stopped taking themselves seriously, but their egos still went ballistic. Talk about a paradox!

Not that I didn’t enjoy my two visits to ZooTV. I saw the first one, the smaller arena version, and the second one, the stadium version, in Vancouver. ZooTV exploded. It overwhelmed. It blew my mind. I loved it. But it was not U2.

Gone was the band that cared about things. Gone was the band that forced you to think. Gone was the band that was, in some ways, the voice of my generation. Instead, they swallowed up the 90s generation, the information age, and they became a caricature of their former selves. They made fun of the issues that they pretended to care about. Sarajevo was not a source of outrage, it was a source of revenue, of exploitation. U2 ceased to be U2 for me, and became a new band that I liked, but didn’t love.

ZooTV spawned Zooropa, which was a decent album, but didn’t have the impact on me that Unforgettable Fire or Joshua Tree had. Zooropa showed me that that band had been swallowed completely by it’s ego, and there was no way back.

Fast forward 3 years. As soon as I heard U2 went Disco, part of me died inside. Hearing the first song from the new CD, Pop, made me cringe. Discotheque is a disgusting song to me. I may be getting old, but it seemed that this band has fully sold out. I thought that The Edge’s machine gun riffs were gone for ever, replaced by techno pop dance music. I refused to buy the CD, the first U2 album I haven’t owned. Part of me died inside. I hated this band.

Then I heard Please. A friend had the CD, and after a lengthy discussion over the band, he played a few songs for me. In Please, a bit of the old U2 comes out. Edge’s guitar is there, bringing his riffs out slowly, calmly, but in the definitive U2 style. I listened a bit more. There were songs I hated, songs I skipped over, but a few in there that were U2 for me. I didn’t love the band anymore, but in some of the songs, they were still there. I don’t know if I’ll buy the CD still, but I don’t hate them.

I Will Follow will always be U2 for me. Sunday Bloody Sunday will always be U2 for me. So will Bullet the Blue Sky and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. With or Without You will forever be U2 for me. The U2 of today is the U2 for others. After all, 4.5 million sales of Pop in its first month is enough to prove that. Call me old, label me past, but Joshua Tree was the last U2 album for me.

I remember reading somewhere that the band got its name from the Irish version of a pink slip, what you’re given when you lose your job. I guess in a way I’ve been U2’ed as a fan.