A friend offered me two free tickets to U2 at Madison Square Garden. So the girlfriend and I up and went.
Every artist has certain characteristic moments, when the mask slips and you say to yourself, “Ah. So that’s what they’re like.” For Emily Dickinson, it’s the last stanza of “What mystery pervades a well,” where she writes of nature, “To pity those that know her not/ Is helped by the regret/ That those that know her, know her less/ The nearer her they get.” For Woody Allen, the moment comes at the end of Manhattan, when Woody soliloquizes into the tape recorder about “what makes life worth living”: “Groucho Marx. Willie Mays. The second movement of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Louis Armstrong’s recording of ‘Potato Head Blues.'” Fortified by his list of approved experiences, he promptly runs across town to rekindle his romance with an adolescent Mariel Hemingway. For Quentin Tarantino, it’s “dead nigger storage,” a line that so pleased him that he assigned it to himself.
My first U2 moment is from the version of “Silver and Gold” off their live album Rattle and Hum, which Bono interrupts, before the bridge, with a monologue beginning, “Yup. Silver and gold.” He follows with an eloquent sigh that speaks louder than a hundred pairs of wrap-around sunglasses. After going on a bit about apartheid and “a man like Bishop Tutu” — this was when the whites, not the blacks, were wrecking South Africa — he winds up with, “Am I booggin’ yuh? [Yes.] Don’t mean to boog yuh. [As Robert Plant once asked: "Where's that confounded bridge?"] OK Edge, play the blues!” OK Edge. You do that little thing.
The second is from The Unforgettable Fire, song of the same name. Here we have two of the numerous biblical references with which Bono litters his songs: “And if the mountains should crumble or fall into the sea,” and, later on, “in a dry and waterless place.” Compare the originals, King James Version. “Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.” Psalms 46:2. “Who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint.” Deuteronomy 8:15. The striking imagery belongs to the Biblical authors; the bardic redundancy, to the modern prophet.
I own eight U2 records, which calls for an explanation.
The band simply cannot sound bad: if you woke them all from a dead sleep, held guns to their heads, and demanded that they immediately cover “Long Tall Sally,” it would probably sound terrific. A fanzine once headlined a U2 article “endless fire magic music,” which still strikes me as an apt description of Edge’s shimmery guitar and Larry Mullen’s imaginative drumming. Bono’s voice is a large reason there is a permanent ban in rock criticism on the word “plangent.” Rock music is populated with lucky men: U2’s bassist, Adam Clayton, who joined up by answering an ad and eventually learned how to play his instrument, is perhaps the luckiest.
They certainly sound great live. More than half the material was from their last two, rather weak records, All That You Can’t Leave Behind and the preposterously-titled How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (easy: play the blues). At some concerts this makes the audience restive, as it waits for the hits. Not here; the fans cheered as lustily for contemporary, third-rate material like “Elevation” as they did for classics like “One” or “I Will Follow.” The fact that most of them were fifteen to twenty years younger than I am may have had something to do with this.
Of Africa we heard a great deal, and saw considerably less. Even Rush and Metallica, not your big ethnic acts, draw a few blacks when they play the Garden. For U2 the only brothers in evidence were taking tickets and working concessions. The band, it turns out, is especially popular in Boston, which makes sense if you think about it, which I never had. Halfway through the show the background video began to show a checkerboard of random faces from the audience. Instead of the desired Benetton effect, we were treated to row upon row of shanty Irish. As Bono launched into “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” I whispered to the girlfriend, “Do you suppose they have any idea what this song is about?” and then the alarming thought hit me that they probably did.
Bono is not above tweaking his demographic. He introduced one song with a little story about his father, “a working-class man from Dublin” — he paused for the uproarious applause — “who loved opera” — and he paused again, this time for the puzzled silence. He rendered a line from “One” (“did you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head”) as “did you come to here to play Jesus (cuz I did).” A prophet needs a sense of humor.
Eventually, inevitably, prophecy obtains the upper hand. When Bono exhorts the audience to pull out their cellphones and send a message to whycantwealljustgetalong.org, “to show your support,” and everyone promptly does so, and waves his phone about in pride, and thousands of phones dot the darkness like fireflies, I can almost enjoy it, as anthropology. But human eyes should be spared certain sights. A little Vietnamese girl, aflame with napalm, running down a road, shrieking and alone. The Microsoft Windows source code. And Bono, crawling on stage, wearing over his eyes a bandana reading “COEXIST” spelled that irksome way you’ve seen, where the ex is a star of David and the tee is a cross, hands stretched out either in supplication to his audience or to find the mike stand. Behind this the video scrolled the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 5 of which clearly states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Too late.