Favorite band, part I: It was 20 years ago today …

I have a confession to make.

Twenty years ago, when I was in the middle of my senior year in high school, I built a shrine to my favorite band, right there in my bedroom. I had concert posters, magazine cut-outs, liner notes, record store promo album covers, handwritten lyrics, all pinned up on the wall over my bed. I drew their logos and album icons on my notebooks and Chuck Taylor hightops (the robin egg blue ones, the ones that folded over at the top and showed their yellow insides because they were so high). I had their sheet music, to play on the piano. Good nerd that I was, I used the Reader’s Guide to Periodicals to interlibrary-loan every article that had ever been published on them in an American magazine or newspaper. Their concert T-shirt presented me with a dilemma: It was, without a doubt, my prized possession. It advertised my affinity with this greatest of bands. Yet if I wore it too often, I would wear it thin, diminish it. I wore it anyway.

I had a favorite record, too, their newest one, on LP and cassette, and I listened to it every night to fall asleep. If I listened on LP, it would shut itself off after one side had played, the automatic arm raising itself with a click and returning to its little holder. I might have to get out of bed to turn it over if I weren’t asleep yet. But if I played it on cassette, the auto-reverse would keep it on all night, and I might eventually have to get out of bed to turn it off. That danger notwithstanding, I wore out that damn cassette, the only one I ever played so thoroughly thin that the music started to fade and I had to buy another copy.

austere and twentysomething in the desert

I feel the need to frame this post as a confession, of course, because in the twenty years since then the band has become something like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon version of the earnest young chaps I fell in love with. It’s hard for me to listen to their music without cringing, though an isolated track here and there will still pull at my gut. I admit I’ve listened to — but don’t actually own — everything they’ve released since, but from Pop on I haven’t been able to listen to Bono’s voice with anything like real pleasure, sort of the way Stephen Malkmus, once the leader of a subsequent Favorite Band, has since come to rub me the wrong way. When Bono waxes earnest now, his earnestness can’t help but seem self-parodic, the same way Malkmus’s irony seems thoroughly exhausted. But in 1987, holed up in my desert Arizona hometown, I needed rock and roll salvation from without, and I was earnest too, just as earnest as U2 — I suffered from their same brand of righteous indignation, identifying with the voice of the oppressed, with this long-haired Irish frontman, neither Protestant nor Catholic, singing for the mothers of the disappeared in some South American country.

All those Anton Corbijn photos told me that these folks cared about me, that they were coming to find me in the desert and take me home.

I had planned to write, this week, about the fact that I actually have a favorite band, for the first time in years. Grizzly Bear. They make me want to write their name on my shoes, like a teenager. But all week I’ve been haunted by these posters around town advertising a 20th anniversary edition of The Joshua Tree. It’s remastered and comes with a bonus disc of b-sides, the sort of thing we used to collect piece by piece on vinyl and tape onto one cassette we would dub and redub and distribute among friends. It also comes with a concert DVD and documentary, the sort of thing we couldn’t even have imagined in 1987. And the sad fact is there weren’t that many kids in my town who even listened to U2. “That ‘With or Without You’ video kind of scares me,” one girl told me on a school bus one day.

I was going to write about Grizzly Bear. Then I realized (thanks to some preliminary googling) that Ed Droste, at 29, is two years older than Bono was when The Joshua Tree was released. And I — ten years younger than Bono is now — am ten years older than he was when the record came out. And I remember how important it was to me then that my rock and roll saviors, the outsiders who walked away with the Grammy that year, weren’t yet 30. Twenty years before the Joshua Tree tour expanded from small arenas to football stadiums, Sgt. Pepper was released. In 1987 it enjoyed all sorts of 20th anniversary hoopla. That means, in a way, that U2 was to the Beatles what someone else is to U2. It’s not Grizzly Bear, certainly; they’re still too indie and will probably always be too hazy for stadium anthems (though Radiohead eventually made it work). And Radiohead, now a bunch of old codgers, seem already to have passed their Joshua Tree moment. Who, then, would it be? The Arcade Fire? Can they pack Giants Stadium yet? Lord knows they want to.

When U2 arrived in my life, my favorite band was the Police, but my allegiance transferred, just as easily as the Police surrendered their guitars to U2 at that Amnesty International concert, folded up shop and went home, flowy white linens and all. They shared with the Police certain things — intelligent lyrics that made you feel smart just for being a Fan, for one thing — but there were a lot of differences. We were sure that the Amnesty guitar handoff was one of the Greatest Moments of Rock History to Occur in Our Lifetimes, the passing of the mantle of the Biggest Band in the World, and the new guys wore black leather. Bono swapped Sting’s buzz cut for long curly hair, a frosted mullet that eventually transformed into a sensitive ponytail. Unleashed, his hair fell like a waterfall, cascading over his nodded head when he genuflected towards the audience, his forearm and the mic forming a cross.

How many times did I imitate that move in my bedroom? For how many of the next 10 years did I wear my hair long with him as an ideal?

I watched Rattle and Hum fourteen times in the theater within the first few months of its release in the fall of 1988, my freshman year of college.

I feel compelled to frame this post as a confession because it’s so hard to associate U2 now with moral and aesthetic purity, the perfect blend of form and content The Joshua Tree represented in 1987. It was so clean. Just four guys and their instruments. Three chords and the truth. And a couple dozen foot pedals for the Edge, of course. But the Brian Eno sonics were as spare as the Corbijn landscapes, and all in all the whole package made me feel sanctified.

You get a sense of what it was like to listen to it for the first time from the NME review, conveniently archived in authentic .pdf form at U2.com, phrases like “digital holiness,” “yearning and despair,” “a burning, biblical, and intensely personal faith.” Yes, their Christianity was part of their appeal to me, but it was maverick Christianity, designed to end religious bloodshed in Ireland, calculated to call on the heroes of the American Civil Rights movement. It was an album about America that forced you to confront the Americas, plural: what was Reagan doing, after all, selling arms to the Contras? Bullet the blue sky, indeed.

If I ultimately owe U2 anything, to tell you the truth, it has less to do with musical tastes than politics. Sure, I’ve patiently listened to the band’s musical successors — Radiohead, first and foremost (I said at the time that OK Computer was the best U2 album since Joshua Tree), and even the post-emo melodrama known as The Arcade Fire. With increasing frequency, new bands crop up today packing vintage U2 in their sonic toolboxes: Foreign Born is only the most recent. But seriously, what I owe them for most is their withering critique of Reagan’s America, which hit me at the high point of my personal disillusionment with Republican Arizona and its right-wing dictator governor, Evan Mecham. When my brother and Dad and I found ourselves lucky enough to be in Phoenix when U2 sold tickets — for $5! — to the shows at Sun Devil Stadium that would become Rattle and Hum, the state’s new governor was still bathed in controversy after announcing he would revoke Arizona’s recognition of the MLK holiday. And so anti-Mecham groups passed out Mecham masks at the concert and Bono gave a fiery speech about it on stage. U2 had already made headlines by refusing to share a stage with Ronald Reagan! And now they were moving for the ouster of our little right-wing dictator in my own Republican state. When we left the stadium, still singing the chorus to “40,” we got more propaganda from the Recall Mecham folks (who were eventually successful) and were encouraged to join Amnesty. Maybe I would have voted for Dukakis without U2 having been involved, but they certainly helped secure me in my convictions.

Or maybe they just provided me with an imagined community that could redeem what I imagined as the injustice and inadequacy of my smalltown existence. Nothing leading to that December 1987 night in a stadium in Tempe, Arizona, could have matched the sense of community that came with singing righteous songs in unison with 75,000 other people. Bret Easton Ellis inserted a late-80s U2 stadium show into his 1991 novel American Psycho; the acid of his satire protects me from my own 18-year-old earnestness, in part because of the scene’s ambivalence. The psychotic, murderous Wall Street broker/narrator attends a U2 concert at the Meadowlands on free VIP tickets originally intended for his firm’s Japanese clients. He doesn’t want to be there:

But when I sit down something strange on the stage catches my eye. Bono has moved across the stage, following me to my seat, and he’s staring into my eyes, kneeling at the edge of the stage, wearing black jeans (maybe Gitano), sandals, a leather vest with no shirt beneath it. His body is white, covered with sweat, and it’s not worked out enough, there’s no muscle tone and what definition there might be is covered beneath a paltry amount of chest hair. He has a cowboy hat on and his hair is pulled back into a ponytail and he’s moaning some dirge — I catch the lyric “A hero is in insect in this world” — and he has a faint, barely noticeable but nonetheless intense smirk on his face and it grows, spreading across it confidently, and while his eyes blaze, the backdrop of the stage turns red and suddenly I get this tremendous surge of feeling, this rush of knowledge, and I can see into Bono’s heart and my own beats faster because of this and I realize that I’m receiving a message of some kind from the singer. It hits me that we have something in common, that we share a bond, and it’s not impossible to believe that an invisible cord attached to Bono has now encircled me and now the audience disappears and the music slows down, gets softer, and it’s just Bono onstage — the stadium’s deserted, the band fades away — and the message, his message, once vague, now gets more powerful and he’s nodding at me and I’m nodding back, everything getting clearer, my body alive and burning, on fire, and from nowhere a flash of white and blinding light envelopes me and I hear it, can actually feel, can even make out the letters of the message hovering above Bono’s head in orange wavy letters: “I … am … the … devil … and I am … just … like … you …”

The message gives the psychopathic narrator an “aching erection,” but we’re left wondering: Is this a passed chance at salvation? Are we to understand U2 in this scene as opposed to the other bands — Phil Collins’s Genesis, most of all — the novel savages via its psychopathic narrator’s adoring criticism of them? Or is his erotic/spiritual identification with Bono-as-Satan a harbinger of Bono’s fly-shaded, cartoonish days to come, something Bono himself prefigured in 1988-89 in interviews when he expressed discomfort about the fact that he could lift a fist and a stadium full of people would follow, or whip out his dick on stage and it would be taken as a political statement? (I’m paraphrasing his own boasts/complaints as I recall them.)

There’s something about the Bret Easton Ellis passage that zeroes in on my own experience, on the narcissistic — even pathological — holiness that surrounded me at that age and brought me into communion with a packed stadium twenty years ago: the sort of thing that could only be framed in terms of religious experience. The orgasmic, breath-held wave that settled over the crowd, raising goosebumps on 150,000 arms, when the band played “MLK”; the way that right when Bono sang the line “The thundercloud passes rain / so let it rain” the skies opened, a mist of desert rain came down, and then, just as quickly as the chords died away, the heavens were sealed and we went on with our lives.

63 responses to “Favorite band, part I: It was 20 years ago today …”

  1. Scotty says:

    Jesus hell, this is a great post.

    I used to say that my favorite thing about rock music is that it can give you the same feeling whether you’re listening to your favorite song through a really great stereo or by overhearing it on someone else’s car stereo as they drive by. I don’t know if I still feel this way.

    It seems to me that the most important component of your post is that you grew up somewhere that you were ready to escape from. That was my experience too, and I’ve often wondered if rock music can have the same effect on a teenager who likes where they live, or who is satisfied with other aspects of their lives. It probably makes for a much healthier brand of fandom — no offense; I was a mega music nut too.

  2. Dave says:

    Loved this post, and will have more to say later.

    But for now, speaking of favorite bands, Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo is guest-DJing on WFMU (that’s wfmu.org on your radio dial, kids, or 91.1 FM for the blessed who live within line of sight of Jersey City) today from 11 am to 2 pm Eastern.

  3. celia says:

    You know, our home town was just a bit behind in music as well as fashion. By the time I was in Jr. High and High School ( 12 years after you?), they were playing U2. haha.

  4. ks says:

    Bryan, your posts so often bring forth such wonderful nostalgia in me. Instead of prepping for class, I’ve been sitting at my desk daydreaming about the emotional charge I used to get from favorite bands, which included U2, The Police, and REM (we’re basically the same age). I still love music but not with the same abandon I did back in the eighties.

    Ironically, while walking to campus this morning I saw on a billboard of a small local music venue that The Knitters (for those not in the know, they are a sort of pre-alt. country version of the great band, X) will be playing next week. All I could think was, “Damn, on a MOnday, and I have to teach on Tuesday, and plus I don’t think I could take the smoke OR stay up till the band starts playing at somewhere in the range of 10p.m. on a school night.” How did I get so old? The eighteen-year-old me would be so ashamed and would never have believed I’d become this stodgy in twenty years.

    I do intend to check into Grizzly Bear though. Thanks for another fun trip.

  5. Marleyfan says:

    One of your best yet!

    Despite the issues which have transpired since The Joshua Tree, I still regard the album of one if not “the” best album of all time. I vividly remember when I took my girlfriend (who later became my wife), to Rattle and Hum for our second date. I had already seen it twice with a good friend, and told her before going “now, listen to the bass lines throughout this movie, it is so cool”.

    Regarding Radiohead, a friend just gave me a couple of recordings, Kid A and In Rainbows, since I’ve never really listened to them much before. In fact, she gave them to me after I mentioned liking Wilco, and she said “Wilco? They’re followers of Radiohead”. Lately I’ve been listening to M. Ward (from Portland).

    Ok Edge, play the blues…

  6. Jeremy says:

    Wow, yeah, this does bring up some memories. I can remember listening to “With or Without You” over and over and over again, as a 9th grader in Hawaii after my first girlfriend (who was way out of my league anyhow) dumped me… As much as I still love music now, I can’t imagine songs having the same intense effect on me that they had then, back when all of these new emotions and feelings were, for the first time, being wedded to a soundtrack of my choosing… lovely post, Bryan.

  7. Dave says:

    Bryan, your claim about OK Computer could only have been made by a delusional U2 fan. Does U2 get to claim any spacious rock album from 1985 until the end of time, regardless of the album’s other qualities?

  8. Rachel says:

    Bryan, your 1987 world is a parallel universe that I wish I had inhabited. In 1987, everyone in my high school was into Guns n’ Roses and the new Boston album (!). I kept my love for Depeche Mode a secret because I feared it would clue everyone in to the fact that I was gay–because it was unanimously labeled “fag music” (!!). It took me until college to discover U2 and R.E.M. (and, more importantly for me, Throwing Muses and the Pixies–God bless 4AD).

    Is it blasphemy to say that I much prefer The Unforgettable Fire to The Joshua Tree?

  9. WW says:

    I also locate myself in the space of Joshua Tree — the sheer desertness of it — how that record places me back in the desert, in God’s country, where I grew up — no other record puts notes to that big sky time of life. U2 had a gravitational pull on me and my friends, and the day they came to play in an arena south of town, the high school population dipped as everyone either stole a ride with a newly-licensed driver or loaded up their own cars and headed south to commune and pray and be 17 for what we then thought was forever.

    Great post!

  10. Mike N. says:

    From Joshua Tree, Red Hill Mining Town was always one of my faves, but its a song they never play live. Rumor has it Bono couldn’t hit the high notes live.

    Are there any bands that have kept anyone hooked for 20, 25 years + (ignoring the occasional stinker or two that everyone produces)? I figure with changing tastes, both from the listener and the musicians that it would prove to be almost impossible. I usually love at least one REM song per album, but really don’t care for the majority of their music for the past 10 years.

  11. Ruben Mancillas says:

    bryan, your comments at the end of the post really got to me. is the kind of identification/all encompassing rush a band can provide you tied to our youth or theirs? and is there something special about music or have you all experienced this with other cultural products? I already owned up to my youthful Kerouac thing but my one-time “all-time” favorite movie just doesn’t pack the same twisted punch for me that it once did. achtung baby is the U2 disc that holds more memories for me but upon reflection the unforgettable fire is probably more special in many ways. scott, a teenager who is satisfied with their lives (hopefully) only exists as the villain in a john hughes movie. jeremy, that girl wasn’t out of your league. that was just a lie she tells her friends…

  12. 1. scotty — the connection btwn rock and roll and the need to get away also produces the trope of teenager as space alien, which i’ve written about before on TGW. i love those stories. and songs certainly did carry the power to take you away from whatever reality you were inhabiting. i think people (like jeremy in #6) are mostly right about music not quite doing that for us anymore, but there are still some albums that produce a set of associations that become very meaningful to me — often music i associate with stephanie, for instance.

    3. celia — there were a few other people in my high school who listened to U2, but for the most part, the music i listened to (including U2 and most of the bands rachel listened to) were dubbed “fag music” in rural AZ just as they were in rural NH. but that was just proof that what we were listening to mattered — that it threatened local orthodoxies. i had a cousin i used to joke around with. he’d look at my echo and the bunnymen “bring on the dancing horses” shirt and ask if it was from a gay club; i’d look at his anthrax shirt and ask if it came from a bovine disease convention. that was good natured, but not all such encounters were.

    4. — thanks, ks, for kind words. we don’t have to worry about smoke in shows any more. i don’t get out as much as i used to, but i still try to hit things here and there. i run into students occasionally, which can be fun.

    5. marleyfan, i wish i had your immunity to being jaded. you are one of the most pleasant people i know, open and unapologetic about wanting to enjoy what you like. i think your friend’s wrong about wilco following radiohead, though.

    7. your insistent denial of the similarities between post-pablo honey radiohead and eno-era U2 only goes to show that you don’t think of the same thing i do when i think of U2. (did you ever experience them pre-cartoon Bono?) maybe the similarities i hear have more to do with the long shadow of brian eno over the best music from 1970 forward, but thom yorke clearly fashioned his vocal style on bono’s falsetto and the edge runs through jonny greenwood’s guitarlines too. don’t forget, U2 through Unforgettable Fire was much more impressionistic than they were after Joshua Tree, in a way that also anticipated radiohead. They just push it a little further toward abstraction. even through Achtung Baby, U2 has a template you can hear all over radiohead from OK forward. From In Rainbows, for example, listen to “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and then go listen to The Unforgettable Fire. “House of Cards” could have been from Achtung or Pop. i can’t believe i’m arguing about this. it’s like i’m still a fan even though i can’t bring myself to listen to the albums any more.

    9. ww — now *that’s* the high school rachel and i wish we had gone to.

    10. mike — no, i’ve never stuck with a band for 20 years listening to everything they put out without fail. I lasted about the same amount of time with REM and U2, but eventually other music was simply more interesting and i moved on. But that’s almost a different issue from the question of whether you can still go back and listen to your old music. I’ve never grown tired of early Cure, for instance. It ages really well. Even though they put out a lot of stuff from around 93 forward that i could never bring myself to listen to. Sting is so horrifying now that my brother nathan was shocked a few years ago to realize how fantastic the police were (and still are live, i’ve heard).

    11 — it was music for me more than anything else, ruben.

    another question, though, which stephanie raised this morning in response to my question about who now stands in relation to U2 in the same position they stood in relation to the Beatles (Biggest Band in the World, members under 30). Is there one? or is the industry too polluted and/or fragmented? Or with their next album will Arcade Fire hit the home run that takes them on a stadium tour? I can’t imagine watching a show in a stadium now — i don’t like shows with more than a couple hundred people there, really — and can’t imagine what it would take to get me out to one. THAT may be the true sign of age, though I hear people my age or older talk about stadium shows all the time lately — springsteen, police, etc. They don’t tend to be people who listen to a lot of new music, though.

    [end of marathon comment; we return to our regular program in progress.]

  13. a couple questions about the “aging” question that drives so many of my posts of late …

    i expected more people to say, “holy cow! it’s been 20 years!” or does it really seem to people like it’s been 20 years?

    i expected others to say, “holy cow! bono was only 27 when that album was released?!?” (the punctuation wasn’t mandatory.) doesn’t that seem young now (at least to those of us older than 30)?

    and i wondered, based on ruben’s and jeremy’s and scott’s comments, what the deal is with bands who are 27 appealing to kids who are 17. is there anything to this ten-year interval thing that runs through this post?

  14. Rachel says:

    Maybe the more shocking thing, Bryan, is that U2 as a band had already made so much terrific music by the time Bono was 27.

    I think the short answer to Steph’s question about “today’s Beatles” is no–there is no such band. I think that’s in part because the nature of pop music has changed, and the art form has matured, as to accomodate such outfits as Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Radiohead, and Wilco, that last well into the members’ 30s and beyond. I also think the indie/mainstream split has made it a different industry, and made it more unlikely that a truly great band like U2 will be on a major label and/or break through to be truly huge–after all, most indie bands these days don’t want to be The World’s Biggest Band (Arcade Fire notwithstanding).

    Sleater-Kinney was the first band I ever loved (loved!) that was younger than I was (Carrie and Corin were, anyway), and in my perfect universe they’d have been those under-30 stadium heroes.

  15. Dave says:

    Rach, have you seen Carrie’s blog? At NPR, of all places. I also heard she’s working at a fancy ad agency in Portland.

  16. Kate the Great says:

    I have no idea if a band like the Beatles exists today– I’d have to ask a few of my friends who love music much more than I.

    #1: Every teenager wants to escape from the town they live in. If you’ve met one who loves the town they live in, I say you’re lying. Hey, even some adults hate the current town they live in until they’ve moved away from it.

  17. LT says:

    we are both so born in 1970.

    in 1983, incidentally, i stood on the KMET scaffolding at the “US” festival while a little baby Bono performed “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to the crowd. I had no idea who they were at the time. The best part of the “US” festival was the Van Halen helicopter.

    Later, my dad took me to see U2 with Lone Justice (remember?) and a few years, on the Joshua Tree tour, I played hooky from school and went with friends to see them with the Pretenders. I have some serious love for U2.

  18. Scotty says:

    Kate, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Imagine if you grew up in Paris or London or New York, would you be dying to escape to the suburbs? In southern California there are plenty of kids who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else (which is partially what freaks me out about living here).

    I think Ruben is right about the volatility that existed in all of us when we were teens. For those who grew up in places they liked, I’m sure there was other shit to hate on and rebel against.

    Anyone out there who liked their home town?

  19. Jeremy says:

    What’s a “home town”?

  20. Bryan says:

    #17: wonder twin powers, activate!

    you reminded me too of another thing i wanted to say to dave, and that was that radiohead early on used to cover U2 in concert. once upon a time i had an mp3 of an acoustic version of thom singing “sunday bloody sunday.”

  21. LT says:

    #18: i am a little embarassed to say that i liked my hometown (and am curious if steph does as well), which is in southern ca.

  22. LP says:

    I liked my hometown well enough, though I knew I wanted to leave it for college and wouldn’t ever come back to live. But I remember thinking, “This is a decent enough place to be young.”

    But then, I was a pretty happy kid anyway, which may or may not explain why I don’t have the same music compulsion some people do (re: #1). I really like cheesy 70s music, but mostly because it reminds me how much fun I had then.

    All of which reminds me of my favorite New Yorker cartoon. Is this where ghostwriters come from?

  23. Scotty says:

    LT: So what did that mean to your relationship to music? What were the things if any you were hoping to escape to/from through music, movies, books or whatever?

    For me it was easy; I just wanted to get the hell out of suburban NJ.

  24. Scotty says:

    That’s some funny stuff, LP.

  25. Marleyfan says:

    Hometown- It’s often ironic how those who were dying to get out, often do so for a few years, only to return…

  26. Marleyfan says:

    Yet others, never do (return), and don’t have the desire. Probably many factors involved in both.

  27. stephanie wells says:

    LT knows me well. I *loved* my hometown so much that I couldn’t imagine moving away, until I did, and after that I never wanted to move back. I also was a music fanatic from a very young age, writing obsessive lists of top-40 songs, cataloguing which ones I knew and which ones I owned, writing out lyrics anywhere and everywhere, becoming a full-blown freak about certain bands (mostly the Beatles and the Who, among others)–yet I can’t say it was for the reasons of rebelling against my life or my hometown. High school was fun–sorry. Throw all the tomatoes you want. Music only made it more fun, but it didn’t offer an escape for me. I did see the Unforgettable Fire tour at the Cow Palace in SF and feel totally transported (as with most rock shows then!), but definitely not because I was living somewhere I wanted to be transported from.

  28. stephanie wells says:

    p.s. now that the ban is lifted, I just have to gush: I LOVE this post–its confessionalism, its truth, its complexity, its memories. And I was watching it live from right up close when Bono sprayed “Rock-n-Roll Stops Traffic” on that fountain in downtown SF in “Rattle and Hum.”

  29. Scotty says:

    Steph, you’re so fucking rock!

  30. Bryan says:

    You *are* a rock! An island! You are Island Records!

    Swells, you’ve made my day with such a sweet set of comments.

    Rachel — he was 24 when they released Unforgettable Fire. Oy veh. This whole day I’ve been itching to get out old CDs and actually give them a listen. (A few years ago — when UF turned 20 in 1984, actually) I did get that record out and wound up putting “Wire” on my summer mix that year. Before Tower REcords closed they were selling all these U2 CDs for cheap. Because I had owned most of them only on vinyl or cassette I felt obligated to buy them all. They remain shrinkwrapped in my closet. I’m trying to resist getting them out.

    Listening to The Blow. Anyone else listen to that record this year?

  31. Beth W says:

    I really enjoyed this post even though I don’t recall ever being fanatic about a band. I do remember when U2 came to my hometown (Eugene, OR) in 1997 on the pop tour. I had little awareness of who they were. I was more focused on Debussy piano pieces than popular music. However I remember it was big deal in town and the night of the concert, standing on my parents deck, 5 miles from the stadium I could hear the music.

    I liked my hometown but did become frustrated with the fanaticism of many residents. Maybe that’s partly why I played classical piano and read 19th century literature, focusing on when people were civilized, anarchists didn’t jump on your car and hippies didn’t judge you for wearing new clothes.

  32. bacon says:


    None of us can credibly deny that U2 peaked at Unforgetable Fire. Sure, Joshua Tree was competent, even a “serviceable” imitation of the Stones’ inarguably more genuine Exile on Main Street exploration-of-american-roots-music, but the album cover art alone was enough to warn all that U2 had become too big for their newly-purchased custom made Tony Lama cowboy boots.

  33. LT says:

    Scotty, I was a U2 fanatic, of course! I can absolutely confirm that they were my #1 band for years and years. My “relationship with music” overall, though was an intense and private affair. I wore out my cassette tapes of: MJ’s “Thriller,” Wham’s “Make it BIg,” DP’s “Speak and Spell,” everything Prince did, and later, all the classic rock you can handle (Rush!). I know you hate the song, but “Hotel California” has a special place in my heart.

    Please see SWells’ comment #27, though, since Steph and I were maybe the same extra-tan adolescent, just with a few years (and therefore bands) between us. Unoriginal, I know, but we really do share eerily similar SoCal 80s pasts (I still have a peechee folder that’s full of song lyrics– I know for certain that it’s got all the words to “Don’t You Forget About Me,” for instance). And, yes, highschool was fun.

  34. Jeremy says:

    #20: conversely, i used to have an mp3 of U2 covering radiohead’s “creep” in concert.

  35. stephanie wells says:

    Maybe it’s my nontraumatic teen years that make me love the lush production and big cheese of “Achtung Baby” the most (or as my little sister queried bewilderedly when she saw the album on my floor, “A-CHUNG Baby????”). I loved them, though I always loved REM more. And I don’t want to be all “at least Brangelina and Oprah are doing SOMEthing!” about it, but I just have to add that at least Bono uses his garish, grotesque, cartoonish nanostardom to affect global politics!

  36. lane says:


    Exile on Mainstreet is not THAT great, even Mick is surprised at how much attention it contiunes to get.

    Josuha Tree was not really that kind of record anyway. That was the Rattle and Hum fiasco.

    Joshua Tree is their second best record.

    Right after . . .


  37. Joele says:

    I loved going to that concert with you, your brother, and your dad. Being my first concert I was so glad to have been able to go to U2 and with one of my best friends. I still can’t believe it was 20 years ago. Loved this post by the way!

  38. dave owen says:

    steph pointed me toward this in the a.m. and i enjoyed it thoroughly…

    So although I must confess to have loved U2 pre-JT and significantly post-JT, Bryan’s confession made me consider that I could have made the parallel entry (minus the quality) by substituting Led Zeppelin for U2 and perhaps ‘Houses of the Holy’ for ‘Joshua Tree.’ By the time I had gotten out of college I had almost ditched Zep completely and embraced U2. It’s funny – I think I started liking U2 at a time when I no longer cared about how the music or musicians (god help me!) I listened to reflected on me personally. So now I can unabashedly love Polly Jean Harvey or Radiohead or Wilco without trying to rationalize why I like them. Led Zep, however – whew, there’s a lot of teenage insecurity wrapped up in that one.

    Nevertheless, I’m spending my Tuesday night listening to the remastered and expanded ‘Song Remains the Same’ soundtrack and it’s actually a lot of fun. Bryan – it’s time to pull the shrink-wrap off of Unforgettable Fire…

  39. stephanie wells says:

    Look at Bono’s hair on the album cover, though. JT: Bringing sexy back? I’m not sure.

  40. Tim Wager says:

    i’m so sad i haven’t had a moment today to take part in this great conversation. i’ve just managed now to get through the post and all the comments — long work day.

    i have a sort of hollow, unfulfilled relationship to u2. i listened to boy quite a bit when it came out, prompted by a high school friend who was a rabid christian convert. i think that because of this i was always suspicious of the band and their designs on me as a potential ‘follower’. after war i stopped listening; the political posturing was too much for me (yes, swells, at least they’re trying to change the world, but it always seemed to me this on-the-bus-or-off-the-bus thing that i couldn’t quite truck).

    strangely (very), achtung baby was the first record of theirs after war that i really gave any time. i remember loving it and being disturbed by that. it was unnerving to like a record by a band i had dismissed over 15 years prior. there was just too much to catch up on, so i never went back and listened to jt or uf or . . . whatever else. (of course i know many of the songs, in that they were unavoidable on the radio or at parties for a few years, but i couldn’t tell you titles or what records they’re on.)

    i can certainly identify with this kind of obsession, though. talking heads (pre little creatures) were my favorite band as a teen. i pretty much wore out 77, more songs, fear of music, remain in light, and the live one. wow. them’s memories.

    and lp, i very much identify with realizing that my hometown was a great place to grow up and an even better place to leave behind forever at 18.

    in re: grizzly bear. i like that record from last year a great deal. we saw them open for feist, though, and i wasn’t really impressed by the show. could have been an off night or something. i’m jealous of your having a favorite band, bw. i don’t know that i ever will again. it could happen, but . . .

  41. Tim Wager says:

    it was unnerving to like a record by a band i had dismissed over 15 years prior.

    oops and duh. make that 8 years. when you’re that age, though, 8 years can seem like 15. now 15 years seem like 5, and 5 like 1.

  42. Josh says:

    Since we are apparently allowed to say so, wow, what a great post!
    9. Strange to hear you say this. My recollection of JT is tainted by its being the music that the “cool kids” listened to. I was aware of the disc due to airplay and conversations in the hallways, but never identified with it on a personal, political or what you describe as “big sky” level, mostly because I felt so alienated from/by the people listening to it.
    18. I’m with Kate on this one. Independent of how hip a place may actually be, I think that it’s healthy for a teen to despise his/her hometown. On the other hand, it’s possible that the music that “breaks” in big cities speaks to different needs that the personal soundtrack of small town teens. I can’t imagine the whole CBGB’s scene in Albuquerque.
    40. I haven’t listened to the Talking Heads in donkey years. Now that was music! Maybe it’s time to dig into the furthest reaches of the CD collection and do a nostalgia session.

  43. bryan says:

    josh — for a couple years i’ve had “the name of this band is talking heads” (the remastered version) on my ipod. it’s a great way to keep those songs alive, in part because they’re live versions, often longer and weirder than the album cuts. even “psycho killer” sounds fresh on that disc. it might not work the same if you listened to that album a lot when you were a kid, but i didn’t have it for whatever reason.

  44. Josh says:

    Bryan, actually, I don’t have that album either. I may just have to swing by my neighborhood record store this afternoon and see if they have a copy. Thanks for the suggestion.

  45. Ruben Mancillas says:

    does the age of the band members matter at all? i think the age of the listener is the key but do we want to start nominating best “young” band or best (shudder) “old” band? it’s a slippery slope to doing the whole mozart and schubert were only x years old when they wrote this or that but i’ll nominate alex chilton/big star as a great band for this discussion. chilton was chronologically young but his teen prodigy status gives a jaded edge to #1 record/radio city that is hard to beat. check out the way the song thirteen works on so many levels in regards to this post.

    thirteen: that was when music probably mattered more to me than in high school. cue westerberg’s sixteen blue. my high school was so ruthlessly conformist that i remember listening to stuff just to fit in or know what everybody was talking about (but adriean honey, that wham cassette in your cabriolet that i thought i was tolerating turned out to be a lifetime favorite so you win that one). the music you listened to, as your comments attest, could define you so you either listened to what you had to or listened to something just to prove that you were somehow “other” but for true pop culture goosebumps i have to go back to my kiss, clash, alice cooper, bowie, or knack vinyl of elementary or junior high.

    later on i wanted to convince everyone of how great reed, ferry, or dylan were but U2 was a band that almost had to be admired rather than loved. they were just so big, you know? that they were also so good is to their credit but i think that is what turned me off of jt as an album (or clear cassette in my case)-it had the breakthrough hits that my friends who didn’t like rock music would suddenly play in their car.

    we did go to the concert though and i wore my already paper thin t-shirt to school the next day-i wasn’t cool enough to keep it on the down low but had to advertise that i was part of the club too.

    last thing-U2 deserves credit for doing the whole “biggest/best” band in the world well. don’t know what it’s worth but they’ve aged about as well as a band can. think of all of the other pretenders to the throne over the years and how many good albums they’ve come up with and i think they deserve a haircut mulligan or two. i actually like their limousine liberal politics a bit more than i did their somewhat the earnest quasi messianic poses of their youth. wait i’m talking about myself again…

  46. Bryan says:

    37: joele, notice i didn’t mention the final fate of that carefully ILLed archive of U2 magzine articles …

    but i promise, i don’t hold a grudge!

  47. Marleyfan says:

    My seventeen year old son thinks that it won’t be long until we’re totally out of the “big” bands, and that with the internet, music will be alot more localized. It certainly seems like the music industry is floundering…

    If ya’ll haven’t listened to it lately, drop everything listen to Going to California by Led Zeppelin… That is music!

  48. James says:

    Hey Bryan –

    1) Reader’s Guide to Periodicals = Google for old guys. I did the same thing with comics.

    2) Your shrine, and U2 fixation, was the reason I knew who Eno was when I met him.

    3) I just went and looked: I have an old tape of THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE. It has “Bryan Waterman” written on it.

    Thanks, man. Great post.

  49. Thanks, James — now the U2 police (not to be confused with The Police) will hunt me down for piracy. Do you think there’s a statute of limitations?

  50. James says:

    Nope. It’s an original. I think it was a birthday present.

    Same with my (formerly your) cassettes of NEW ORDER -Substance and OMD.

    Uh, sorry if I just outed you with the OMD thing.

  51. no way — omd is so cool, especially the first couple albums.

  52. Joele says:


    I’m drawing a blank on the articles. Did you give them to me? I still have a box full of magazines and articles (can’t seem to get mysef to throw them out) but I don’t remember having any of yours. Am i mistaken? Oh the memories!! Just to throw in my two cents I do think that The Unforgettable Fire was by far their best. Just my opinion though.

  53. joele — if you don’t remember i won’t get into details. but it involved a loan for a research paper and some accidental discards at the end of the school year. but hey — it was 20 yrs ago!

  54. Rogan says:

    Bryan — your music posts turned me on to Broken Social Scene and Feist (before she became the iPod lady), so I immediately logged onto E-Music and did a search for Grizzly Bear. A couple of things came up, and without looking too closely, I opened the top album and clicked the ‘Download All’ button. Turned out to be a collection of ‘Negro Prison Camp Work Songs’ from the Smithsonian Folkways collection. After an hour of amazing call and response prison camp music, I went back to E-Music and picked up Horn of Plenty. Thanks as always for the rec, and the ‘Negro Prison Camp Work Songs’ are pretty cool too. Cheers!

  55. Joele says:

    Okay now I’m starting to remember somewhat. Gee, if you don’t hold a grudge then how come 20 years later you bring it up?! Am I to assume you are still a little bitter? I am sorry about that. You know you could probably find them online:) I hope you find it in your heart to forgive me. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

  56. Bryan says:

    no worries — i live in NY — no room for old files of things that wouldn’t have been read in 20 years anyway! no bitterness here.

  57. Joele says:

    Thanks for that because I am truly feeling so horrible about that. Just remember 20 years ago, right? Hope you and your family are well.

  58. Tim Wager says:

    James, you met Eno? Holy shit.

  59. James says:

    Tim: Yeah, I had the good luck to have some mutual acquaintances. He and my friend Alan Moore interviewed each other, and I got invited on a couple of things with one of Alan’s publishers, and boom, there he was. Then I worked on an art thing with Bowie for a literary mag, and missed meeting Bowie completely – but Eno was there, and remembered me from the Moore thing.

  60. Tim Wager says:

    Okay, this is all a bit much for me. My fanboy head is swimming — meeting Eno, collaborating with Bowie, and friends with Moore? Jeepers.

  61. James says:

    Tim: sorry about the swimming!

    I worked with Alan on a short comics project about ten years ago (which was about ten years or so after Bryan and I first discovered his work), and we ended up talking a few times a year. Then more recently I did this illo…


    …as a present for him for his fiftieth birthday a few years back. Running in those circles is how I got to meet Eno.

    As for Bowie, I was the editorial director/senior designer of a lit mag, and we’d just gotten a budget boost to do a full color issue. I knew some people who dealt with Bowie’s art, and they talked to him about my stuff, and he wanted to get involved. But his tour took so long that season we went ahead with the Secret Art of Dr. Seuss instead.

  62. […] since I announced last week that, though I’ve officially moved into my late 30s, I have a new favorite band, one that […]

  63. Amy says:

    “And the sad fact is there weren’t that many kids in my town who even listened to U2. ‘That ‘With or Without You’ video kind of scares me,’ one girl told me on a school bus one day.”

    Bryan, was that me (the girl on the bus)? I DO remember you practically forcing me to listen to U2 on a van ride back from an orchestra trip to the valley (why does axl rose come to mind as apart of that trip?). If it WAS me, gees, how far I have come, my dear. I LOVE ‘With or Without You’ (uh, now. heh.) …incredible lyrics and hypnotic bass guitar.

    (catching up on your posts, btw.)