city of blinding lights

Madison Square Garden
11 October 2005

Nick Hornby has a wonderful essay about the life-changing power (or not) of rock and roll. His point is, essentially, that most people’s lives actually largely go on the same despite having witness of of those so-called life-changing gigs.

I couldn’t quite agree. Even if all a rock show does is temporarily pick you up and set you down somewhere else, sometimes that’s all you need. Or, sometimes, the change isn’t immediate. People talk of being influenced at age 7 by seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, just a glimpse of something you barely understood can lay the groundwork for who you will or want to become.

For me, one of those moments was a glorious night at Wembley Stadium during the Zooropa tour, one of those fabulous big loud large moments U2 have mastered pulling off so well, with majesty and flash and zero irony, utterly and completely fabulous. Back then, there was almost no one I would have been caught dead seeing in a stadium – hell, I even skipped Springsteen on the stadium run for Born In The USA – but I cheerfully went off to Wembley because I knew U2 would pull it off.

It was Wembley, which of course had its own inherent magic, and yes it was a blimp nest and yes it was cavernous but none of that mattered. When the band went into “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and the lights came up and the Trabants came down and it all exploded and came to a screeching halt all at once, it felt like you were onstage with them or at least in the front row, it was bigger than life and twice as bright. BOOM! In a flash, things changed. Not immediately, not overnight, but I wasn’t the same woman walking out of that show that I was walking in.

It doesn’t even need to be as dramatic as that. Sometimes it’s just for a moment that it feels like the klieg lights are illuminating the insides of your heart, and that can be enough to give you hope or make it all seem easier. It can make you even temporarily feel bigger and stronger and part of something, you can feel less alone. As Bono said in an interview about this tour, the reason they were keeping “Where The Streets Have No Name” in the setlist was because it was the one moment that they would be guaranteed that God would walk through the room when they played it.

Now, if you don’t like U2 much, think Bono’s a bit over the top, and don’t know rock and roll as salvation, that statement will seem utterly ludicrous. But if you’ve seen them, and you’ve been there, then, well you know. There are moments where it can feel like God is walking through the room, even if you’re not entirely sure the gentleman exists.

I was lucky enough to catch the infamous Brooklyn Bridge show (although I’m still sorry that the tradeoff for that was missing them driving through Manhattan), and I kind of felt lucky and sated, in a way. And then there was the Propaganda fiasco and the ticket price lunacy and I was going to sit this one out…until I got a phone call around 5 p.m. Tuesday.

“Would you like a GA ticket to U2 tonight?”


Two hours later, I’m standing in the Edge’s corner on the outside of the ellipse, heart beating just a little bit faster. Aside from the Bridge gig, I hadn’t seen them since Pop at the Kingdome (Elevation came to Tacoma on a Thursday. Feh). I can remember gigs at the Mudd Club and the Palladium with Echo and the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes, one at Toad’s Place during October, and of course, one of the few dozen gigs I can still close my eyes and see clearly, the Palladium during the War tour. I feel like a casual fan with U2 but, um, not.

Sure, it is different now, different even than Wembley Stadium, everyone knows who Bono is and he’s become the guy you go to see when he’s in town. People around me were talking about how “he” was coming back in November; no sea of camera phones was held aloft when any band member that wasn’t Bono came down the runway; and there was zero crowd recognition for “Out Of Control”. It’s like there is the side that goes on Oprah and then there is the side that is playing “Miss Sarajevo” to Madison Square Garden, where at least 3/4 of the audience probably had zero idea what they were hearing. Did the band care? Probably not.

It amazes me that it is still the four of them onstage, no keyboards or violinists or multi-instrumental percussionists in a corner somewhere. It would probably so much easier for them if they did, but I love and respect the pure unadulterated rock that leaving all that out means. Even if there are mistakes and garbled lyrics or a few clams (okay, more than a few).

The setlist was not exactly what I had hoped for or expected for night five of a six night stand; not that I exactly expected to get “Ultraviolet” in the encore, but even the diehards were muttering something about a standard setlist. And of course, they broke out the one song I would have killed or died to hear — “Party Girl” (hi, Sharon) if you are wondering — on Friday night. And “Fast Cars” is a rarity, absolutely, but I’m not sure it’s one that anyone quite cares about hearing all that much.

But in the end, no one does the big rock and roll gesture, the unabashed theatrics like this band. The lights and the runway and starting the show with confetti and blinding lights (pun intended). It draws you in and catches you hard and sharp and if you are smart, you will just let them take you where they want to go.