I was never a big U2 fan when I was growing up. I was a Duran Duran kid, a Men at Work kid, and then, as 80s pop (in all its glory) gave way to hair metal (in all its… um..) and hair metal gave way to rap, I delved into all of it accordingly. The journey was not always pretty, but the destination was usually, I’d say, respectable. For instance, what began with a season dabbling in “hard rock” – Poison and Bon Jovi cassingles – eventually led me to Living Colour. What began with “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em” eventually led to “Fear of a Black Planet” and “The Low End Theory”. But throughout all of this, I never really got into U2, and I don’t know why. I have memories of the snowy scenes from the “New Years Day” video, and the sleeveless Bono carrying the white flag on stage at Red Rocks. I remember not getting what they were about, and, for some reason, they never captured my attention or imagination (which is sad, because “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” somehow did – but, to my defense, I was in middle school). I remember a weird period of time when I was convinced that U2 was somehow satanic – I think that came from a short-lived accusation from some pastor in Florida, I think, that I heard about on American Top 40 with Kasey Kasem. The pastor was convinced that the rhythm of songs like “Desire” were subliminally driving the youth to debauchery and satan worship. I remember proclaiming something about it in school, only to have my much more culturally refined classmate (who was wearing a Rattle and Hum shirt) correct me, explaining that, actually, their lyrics were quite spiritual, even Christian in content.
Enter the 1990′s, and college, and the first time I heard “Zooropa”. I was visiting Taylor University on a freshmen orientation weekend, or something like that – I know that it was not the beginning of the semester yet, but I was staying in a dorm, but not with the person who would be my roomate. The guy I was paired with for that weekend I don’t think ended up going to Taylor. I think he had some serious issues. All I remember was that night he put on Zooropa and fell asleep, leaving me with the music and my usual insomnia. It was a frightening evening. My roomate did a lot of shouting in the night, swearing about drugs, fights, confusion. The soundtrack, at least for the first 45 minutes, was U2′s weird little dystopian record, released during their polarizing (brilliant) Zoo TV Tour. If Achtung Baby made some die hard U2 fans scratch their heads, and others simply leave the fold, Zooropa took things one step further. The parallel “band” that U2 created on the tour, which came out at the encore, dressed in military style uniforms, fronted by a red-sequenced devil-horned wearing pop star “Mr. Macphisto” had actually made a record of their own. And this record, with its images of a world of disconnection, at once celebrating the brave new world and at the same time revealing that “God shaped hole” (which would literally be referenced in the follow up album “Pop”) that longed for real connection, real relationship, and finding its culmination in its final track, sung by Johnny Cash about a Wanderer with a Bible and a gun who still hadn’t found what he was looking for, this record was filling the anxious air of that dorm room.
But I didn’t hear the depth of the message yet – I still didn’t “get it”. I was still not compelled. By this time I was into Nirvana, and Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins. We were taking things back to the roots, we were about rejecting the mainstream (funny, as those were some of the top selling records at the time), sticking it to the man, and musically stripping things down to a primal expression (again, funny when you actually go back and listen to the grunge records of the time, which were totally slickly produced). Zooropa sounded to me like overproduced techno influenced pop. It was weird, it did have that going for it. But I was still not into U2. A few months later, a guy in my dorm was watching U2′s Zoo TV Live in Sydney concert video. I stopped in, it was the encore, and they were playing “Numb” from Zooropa. U2 purists may shun me for confessing this, but this was the moment that I became a U2 fan. Part of it was realizing that the sound I heard on the record a few months before, that I chalked up to studio trickery and layers of programmed synths was actually being played on stage. Of course, there was a great deal of effects and layers, but it was a craft. I would much later see this explained in the documentary “This Might Get Loud”, where The Edge’s genius, not so much as a traditional guitarist, but as a sound architect was shown. Part of it was seeing the whole presentation, the point they were trying to make, the soviet era imagery interspersed with consumer/advertising/technology images. This was their Sgt.Pepper era, but, as U2 has always done (and what I would then spend time retroactively learning about and appreciating) that the Beatles didn’t always do, was use their stage, their megaphone to speak truth, often to power – “Am I buggin’ you? Wouldn’t wanna bug ya”.
Indeed, U2 often has used their position and their (arguably decades long) stint as the biggest band in the land to comment, push, prod, agitate, and challenge something about the culture that was buying their records. I know a lot of people can’t stand U2, or, at least Bono for this. I get the weariness of hearing celebrities with their mansions and prada and personal jets preaching to the masses, most of whom are just struggling to get by, about the ills of the world and what they need to do. For what its worth, and as insufferable as Bono can sometimes be, I’m glad that what a band like U2 stands for is at least life-affirming and focused on the soul of man, the big questions and the need for healing. U2 has never been about sex, drugs and rock and roll – they have never been about destruction, of the person or of society. I can get with that. I can encourage my kids to listen to that. But strangely it took one of their deepest forays into the dark psyche of postmodern man, with images of falling angels (Far Away, So Close), of cyber-eros (Babyface, Lemon), and almost careless abandonment of faith (For the First Time) to draw me into U2′s overall message. When Bono sings “and I have no compass, and I have no map, and I have no reasons, no reasons to get back. And I have no religion, and I don’t know what’s what and I don’t know the limit, the limit of what we’ve got” in the opening track, over a bed of music that feels like the thrill of possibility, it is an entry point into that rudderless world of endless choice, virtual relationship, and restlessness. Lying just under the surface of this dazzling landscape is the lingering question of ultimate meaning, and perhaps vanity of modern pursuits. “And these are the days, when our work has come asunder, and these are the days, when we look for something other” (Lemon).
One of the most curious tracks on the album, which U2 released as the first single, is “Numb”. The Edge takes a rare lead vocal role, speaking in low monotone cadence rather than singing in his usual tenor, with a series of lyrics beginning with “Don’t…” It is the tyranny of the technocracy, of the world built upon squeaky clean possibility and self-betterment. The promised freedom becomes slavery to the human spirit. Bono chimes in on the chorus “I feel numb, too much is not enough.” The brilliance of this album is its prophetic but not preachy quality. There are no tidy answers at the end (there is Johnny Cash, wandering with one thing on his mind), but there are plenty of hints as to where the answers are. The picture of the world painted in Zooropa, recorded almost 20 years ago (!), resembles more closely today’s culture than it did back then, which is why it remains such an important album. I’ll always be haunted by that first night that I heard Zooropa. I’ll wonder how my roomate that evening turned out. I’ll be reminded to pray, for him, for all of us. Man, so many of us have been or are adrift with a lot of possibilities, sometimes struggling to remember the reason to get back, the need for a compass, the need to not be lulled to sleep but to stay awake in the midst of the temptation to become numb.