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.
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.