Two Nights With U2 In Berlin, 9-24 & 9-25-15

Everything you know is wrong, auf deutsch #u2ietour #u2berlin

Wanting to see U2 in an arena in Europe managed to connect nicely with wanting to spend time in Berlin, so we traveled to see two of the four shows at the Mercedes-Benz Arena at the end of September. The queue outside was very international, with Poles, Finns and Russians (and their vodka bottles) heavily dominating the line.

The first night’s queue was a hot mess, with security deciding to hand out wristbands by standing outside the queue pen and yelling at people in German that they needed to come have their tickets scanned. Despite our tickets designating us for the South Side, we were placed North Side. The Red Zone got let in ahead of general GA; we arrived around 4pm so weren’t expecting much but happily grabbed our favored spots with the Red Zone to our back.

Ticket time said 7:30, which I thought would be 8:10-8:15, but it wasn’t until 8:35 that we heard “People Have the Power” and a newly-coiffed Bono strutted down the catwalk to the I stage. (Newly-coiffed to me, but the pompadour was definitely tighter and higher than it was in NYC.) I expected a lot from a Berlin audience, and they were definitely with the band from the first note, even if the crowd sat down for the first part of the show.

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Bono was definitely operating on high gear for the initial part of the show. I’ve been listening to the shows via Mixlr each night, so it’s tough for me to call out any differences in approach, energy or performance; but they’ve definitely reached that part of the tour where they are just cruising, and I mean that in a good way. It’s a high-powered energy vehicle that they can tweak one way or the other depending on the night.

I really wanted to head back to the E stage when the time came, but then realized that I didn’t want to bolt at the end of “Until The End of The World” because if there was ever a place where I wanted to soak that song in, it would be the first time hearing it in Berlin, and also because I wanted to be able to take in the audience’s reaction to the Berlin Wall imagery coming down at intermission.

There was a huge swell of energy and emotion at the start of UTEOTW; I am sure that some of that came from me, but I would stand and assert that at least part of it was universal. It is a song that generally picks up the whole audience, and tonight was no different. Berliners know where that song came from. And then, when the screen switched to the wall and the banners came down, there was a gentle but definite gasp of recognition—you could feel the energy in the room heighten—and then of course everyone took out their phones. That was when we scurried to the back of the floor. The slogans were in German; there was also a live subtitle scroll at the bottom of the large screen tonight when Bono was talking between songs. (I do not envy that person their job.)

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In Berlin, the back quarter of the E stage was cordoned off. But there was plenty of room at the very back along the dividing barrier, and we could see just fine. There was a group of very drunk Germans sending a woman in their party to dispose of their empty beer cups and acquire more beer, and luckily they decided they were more interested in drinking more than watching the show at the end of “Invisible” (which I still actively dislike for the exact same ways I did in July at MSG) when Bono announced, “Please welcome to the E stage…” at the end of “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and out of the screen came Larry, Adam and Edge.

Bono was breathing heavy into the mic and I’m kind of ashamed I didn’t recognize the synth drone. But as soon as the first car-crash-chords emanated out of Edge’s guitar, the hair on my arms stood straight up and there was a collective OH MY FUCKING GOD as we and the people in front of us (some great South American fans) absolutely exploded. Like, Zoo Station? In BERLIN? On the FIRST NIGHT? It hasn’t been played ALL TOUR? And then the initial rhythm of the intro, the band finding their groove and neatly slotting into it, before those shimmering chords come in from the Edge and carry the song to the first line.

I am levitating. I am praying for time to stand still. I am singing in my best Fly intonation because I don’t know any other way to sing it. “I’m ready to duck / I’m ready to dive, I’m ready to say I’m glad to be alive / I’m ready, ready for the — PUSH,” and if your pelvis didn’t move a little bit like Bono’s vinyl-clad ass used to towards the camera, I will tell you that you are lying.

Bono was feeling it. Larry and Edge were DRIVING it. It was unpredictable and rough and gorgeous and emotional and enormous, huge for the fans who knew that this hadn’t happened yet, for everyone who knew why it was happening now. It was beyond wonderful. When it was done, I was absolutely numb. I did not know how I was going to get through the rest of the night.

This is the one you want to watch:

It wasn’t that I didn’t care about Mysterious Ways, it was that I was still floating somewhere above the lighting rig, not ready to come down yet. So I tried to focus on the mundane. Not having been back there before, I was fascinated by exactly how much work and crew-frantic-scurrying it takes to get the E stage set up, and was glad I didn’t care about watching “Invisible” to pay attention to it happening.

I also understand why people fight for spots back there, even those who aren’t trying to get a free guitar or dance with Bono; you are that much closer to them all, surrounding them on all sides in what is a very tiny space. We had a great side view of the rhythm section, which was particularly enjoyable as Bono repeatedly fucked up the intro to “Elevation.” Repeatedly. As in, more than once. And it’s amazing how many people sprung to his vivid defense every time I brought this up the next day: you don’t understandit’s hard to hearhis ear monitorsif you don’t get the rhythm of the song exactly right. GUYS. It’s ELEVATION, not “Salome,” and the looks on Larry and Adam’s faces while this was going on was all I needed to see to know that I was right, and was alone well worth the price of admission.

My favorite line from Mr. B: “This is very exciting— for OTHER people.”

Larry and Adam vacate the stage. Edge points at the stage and waves his hands—presto-chango!—and the piano comes out of the stage. “Every Breaking Wave” and “October” have the same problem that they do everywhere else on the planet, in that the quiet nature of the performance is the universal signal for EVERYONE TALK LOUDLY NOW. But at least I’m hearing their chatter in other languages, which is slightly less distracting, and have the bonus of being able to observe Edge’s facial expressions while he’s playing the piano.

We head back to the center of the floor in time to the opening riffs of “Bullet the Blue Sky.” It was a relief to be on a less-crowded floor after Madison Square Garden. The venue marked off aisles along the edges of the floor that they policed and kept clear, which made it possible to migrate from front to back without being a total dick to the people around you. Bono has an EU-flag megaphone to match his stars and stripes one; I wonder where one acquires these.

The crowd got to their feet at the end of Zooropa, cheering the “#refugees welcome” message on the screen, and stayed there as soon as they recognized the chords of “Streets”. There were two German bro-dudes standing behind us with their large beers, uncharacteristically close for two German dudes. That lasted exactly one second after the lights came on for “Streets,” and it wasn’t just us; the older serious bearded dudes to my left were jumping up and down as much as we were. It was amazing, amazing energy.

The audience loved ‘Pride” more than I have seen a lot of audience love “Pride,” and it was heart-swelling and beautiful. I ran out during WOWY to hit the bathroom and get water (we knocked over the cup of water–why venues won’t even give you a lid and a straw is just ridiculous –we had been saving for the show about one song before People Have The Power and it was incredibly hot in there), and it was amazing that the hallways and food stands and internal lobby of the venue were a ghost town. No one was standing out there chatting; at the Garden there is always someone outside talking or bored or waiting or doing something that’s not watching the concert.

We were exhausted by the end, “City of Blinding Lights” and “Beautiful Day” and, to be honest, too many political issues jammed into the end of a show that was floating on air. Not because I have a problem with Political Bono, but because it was literally too much and killing the vibe. He can’t talk about the refugees (which got the crowd on its feet) and AIDS and the Global Whateveritwas 2030 (see, I pay attention to stuff and I couldn’t even get it). And I wish he would sing “One,” or at least more of it than he does; I still love that song, and the end, when the band come in and do play, when Larry plays this majestic fill and Edge works the counter harmonies on the guitar, is stunning. I just want that for the whole song.

We were on the edge of the floor and out the door like a couple of pros as Larry came out from behind the drum kit, and walked across an amazing bridge with castle turrets, huge moon above us, on our way to get dinner. (I would find out later that this was Oberbaumbrücke, which used to be a border checkpoint between East and West Berlin.)

We just saw U2 in Berlin. They played “Zoo Station.” I go to sleep on a happy little cloud.

Our line position was significantly improved night two. We got there half an hour earlier because that’s how the day fell out, and there were less people in the queue. This time, they scanned the tickets and handed out wristbands before we were sorted into the queue pens, and we were sorted by side.

Not long after we sat down, Glenn leaned over and whispered into my ear: “Macphisto has arrived.”

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Sure enough, at the front of the queue, Mr. Macphisto was there, in full drag. It would be easy to laugh (and we did laugh), but on the other hand, that getup took a lot of planning, and after “Zoo Station” the previous night, I was happy for any additional reminders to inspire the band.

Once inside, we grabbed two spots on the rail at the catwalk, right at Larry Mullen Jr. position for “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and right at Lord of the Flies. It was pretty much the only place in the venue we hadn’t watched the show from at this point, so it felt like a good spot for our last I&E show for 2015.

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I was pleased to observe that Macphisto had managed to get himself onto the South Side of the E Stage, where he was busy touching up his makeup. (I will also note that I thought it was hilarious that his horns were AC/DC horns, which he wore backwards so the logo faced the back.)

This show had the absolute best audience energy of the 7 shows we saw on this tour, coming very close to topping that last night at the Garden (and in some places, they absolutely did). It was a Friday night in Berlin, and people were ready to party. It was also the 39th anniversary of the day that the band met in Larry’s kitchen and decided to start a band, a fact noted by Bono right before “Electric Co.”

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I didn’t have central stage or a screen, but I did get to watch the staging of my favorite parts of the show, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” into “Raised By Wolves” into “Until The End of the World.” There is so much that goes on during RBW that you absolutely do not see unless you are right there on the catwalk, and I remain astonished that they pull this off every night. I didn’t get hit by a book (or catch one as it went into the crowd), but I was glad to finally be able to watch this particular piece of theater happen right in front of me.

The catwalk spot would prove to be great for the E stage, with fantastic views of everyone, and Bono out under the mirror balls before “Mysterious Ways” started. And then, in the middle of the song, you see him gesture to a fan, and to my delight, there is Macphisto, his gold lame suit glittering in the spotlight, stalking Bono around the stage. Bono loved it. The rest of the band loved it. Mr. Macphisto himself was having the time of his life (as he should be), as Bono sent him down the catwalk, where he posed and preened and strutted, before posing one last time as the lighting guys sent a bright red spot on him, up at the end of the catwalk, before he left the stage. “I’d like to thank Mr. Macphisto,” Bono said, “Haven’t seem him in–quite a while.”

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I’m not sure Bono meant for him to disappear, and it’s not like his presence would have changed the set from “Desire” and “Angel of Harlem” into “Ultraviolet” (BUT IT SHOULD HAVE). At least we didn’t get any amateur guitar players, despite massive signs at the E stage again (they were there the first night too, and that’s the band’s fault at this point) and that is a good thing because this crowd sang the hell out of “Desire.” I literally have never heard a crowd sing that song so hard, and so loud. Bono took one of his in-ear monitors out so he could hear it better. It was one of those times where a crowd sing-a-long didn’t take the guts out of a song and turn it into some kind of campfire melody (which is one of my main complaints about allowing “One” to be just that).

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The end of the show was a bullet train, the band on 11, the audience right there alongside them. And we kept thinking, okay, whatever special Friday night Berlin surprise the band has planned, we didn’t get it on the E stage, we’ll get it on the I stage — remember, Bruce showed up there, and not on the E stage, is what we kept telling ourselves. And no doubt that the back end of the show was performed with strength and emotion and energy, but it was missing that special something that the previous night had — plus, got derailed by what felt like a lengthy explanation about how Bono was going to New York on the weekend to hold the politicians accountable.

Tonight it was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” that closed down the night, with the band walking down the runway, Bono singing the chorus to “People Have The Power” as he headed for the stairs. Outside, the moon was still full, and the energy high as we headed out across the castle bridge one last time.

The next day, we’d drive a Trabant around Berlin while listening to “One,” and blatantly trying to model Anton Corbijn photos.

[Photoset is here]

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FIVE NIGHTS WITH U2 AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, 2015

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U2’s Innocence and Experience Tour arrived in New York at the end of July for an eight-show run, the longest run the band had ever done in one place before. I’d opted in to four of the eight nights, justifying it by saying that eight shows in my own city would allow me to forgo the time and expense of traveling elsewhere in order to see more than one show. Some of you reading this will think I am insane; others will think me lightweight.

(Also, please keep in mind that originally, when the tickets went on sale, the band insisted that shows that fell on back-to-back nights would feature two completely different set lists, a statement at which you should in fact be congratulating me for my restraint.)

JULY 18, 2015
GA Floor, South Side

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I’d been planning to queue early in order to get a good spot on the general admission floor, but a chronic, awful cough that’s haunted me for weeks meant I couldn’t manage more than to show up when doors open, and hope for the best. This ended up being about center ice, with my back against the railing around the (Red) Zone enclosure (the premium area for those who paid more as a donation to the band’s HIV/AIDS prevention charity). But what would have been an average position at a standard concert turns out to be a very good one for Songs of Innocence and Experience. It’s such an enormous and non-traditional setup that there are a lot of great places to watch the show from that aren’t the traditional first 20 rows on the floor.

The show is split between a core setlist that begins with four songs on the traditional, end-of-arena main stage, six songs utilizing the full length runway that splits the floor in half, and five songs at the “E stage,” the round, b-stage platform at the opposite end of the arena and connected by the full floor runway, before the band heads back to the main stage for the encore. My location tonight ends up being perfect for the main stage, the runway, and the video screen. It’s not quite as good for the E stage, but that’s supplemented by video footage on the main screen. The end sum result is that there isn’t a moment of the evening where I don’t feel fully immersed in the show. (Okay, the moments where obnoxious (Red) Zone jerks think they can order a drink at the bar in the enclosure behind me by trying to shove into my shoulder and bark an order weren’t fun.)

I’ve followed the tour’s progression closely since it opened in Vancouver back in May. The miracle of 2015 technology means that I can watch and/or listen to as much of it as I want to. The flurry of opening night Periscope feeds dissolved away, as really, no one wants to hold their phone up all night. But they’re replaced by an app I’d never heard of before, called Mixlr, which every South American fan seems to have on their phone. It’s a live audio streaming software that’s incredibly solid and easy to use, and I’ve listened to just about every night’s show up until the end of the E stage. And while I know a lot about the production, it is so genuinely coplex that all this advance work has done is give a trainspotter type like me a head start.

I am still not expecting Bono to enter the arena from the back, coming in from the dressing rooms on stage left mid-court, climbing onto the E stage, and then walking down the runway singing the infectious opening to “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” acapella, several times, holding the mic up for the audience to answer back. It’s a well-staged piece of theater. I’m not terribly in love with the song, or with the song as an opener, but I understand why they’re using it, and the way it’s staged brings the audience into the story and the performance like a magnetic force.

Slot #2 is the oldies roulette, and tonight we get “Electric Co.” (Red) zone idiots want beer, but I want to pogo so they’ll have to find another place to do it. “Vertigo” in the 3-hole is a gimme, and I wish they’d mix that slot up a bit more, but it’s fun and energetic and participatory, and bolts on nicely to “I Will Follow.” The top four songs serve two main purposes: the setting of the emotional space of the early days of U2, and an auditory sugar rush of the loud and familiar that will hopefully sate the audience long enough to let themselves be brought into the space of the next three songs: “Iris,” “Cedarwood Road” and “Song For Someone.”

Bono sits down at the front of the stage, and has a rap about his childhood, and their childhood, and how the next few songs are going to take you back to the “north side of the city of Dublin,” and how they’re going to show you where he came from. And then he talks about his mother, and her death, and how he never talked to her after she collapsed at her father’s funeral, but how he’s been singing to her ever since. To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, writing a song about your mother is a risky thing if you’re in the business of rock and roll, and these are not subjects that an arena audience on a Saturday night is going to have a lot of patience for, but he miraculously knows when to stop talking and start singing, and the audience, equally miraculously, comes right along with him.

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“Can Edge come out to play?” The call of “Cedarwood Road,” the song where Bono disappears into the screen and becomes part of the video. The thing I’m struck most by is how the show doesn’t feel overly staged or choreographed, even though there are definite cues and marks that obviously have had to be hit. The moment at which Edge and Bono are lined up above and below the other feels genuinely organic. And then “Song For Someone,” of the cartoon of young Paul Hewson sitting in his room with the Clash and the Kraftwerk posters on the wall and a familiar lightbulb hanging on the ceiling, Bono telling the story of writing a song to impress the woman who would be his wife, and how he’s still trying to impress her. Or how she would tell him, “It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be.” These are big, open-hearted confessions to give 15,000 people, to give 15,000 cynical New Yorkers every night. But somehow it works.

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The E stage is, as more than one diehard described it to me, the one place where something genuine or unpredictable can happen, which is why so many of them queue to position themselves down there, even if it’s just five songs. Sometimes “unpredictable” is what transpired in Toronto, where a fan in full belly dancing regalia is brought up to dance for “Mysterious Ways,” or a U2 cover band being allowed to take over while their real life doppelgängers watch approvingly from the edge of the stage. It’s also the place for band’s response to those dozens of Periscope feeds night one, where a fan gets to handle a Meerkat-enabled phone for one of the b-stage songs. Some fans have better camerawork skills than others; I joked that if I got up there, I’d just stand in front of Larry Mullen, Jr. the entire time and wait to see what Bono would do.

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But the environment does genuinely add spontaneity, for good and bad. There were a few too many “Let’s pull a fan up who says they can play guitar” moments along the way, resulting in, Bono refusing a “Mysterious Ways” dancer’s request to pull her brother onstage, noting that the band give him a hard time about those incidents. (That didn’t stop him from doing it twice in the 8-show run, both times the guitar player got to leave with the guitar.)

The good—no, amazing— though, was “October,” performed live for the first time since 1989, Bono and Edge on piano. And sure, it’s a beer run for a lot of people, but there’s enough audience paying attention, and enough magic being generated, that some kind of cone of silence hangs over the place and it’s an unbelievable moment.

The back 8 of the set, including the encore, are the parade o’ hits, the songs that most of the audience showed up for. But there is legitimate, tangible energy and movement powering them and the performances feel fresh and powerful, and not like a parade of warhorses marching stately down the avenue. (Even if I could live a happy life if I never had to hear “With Or Without You” again. To be fair, I never liked it, not even back in the day.) “City of Blinding Lights,” “With or Without You,” “Bullet The Blue Sky,” “Pride,” “Beautiful Day,” “Where The Streets Have No Name,” boom, boom, BOOM.

Night one is a good night, with great moments. But we just got started.

JULY 19, 2015
GA Floor, North Side

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I arrived a little bit earlier tonight, and between it being a Sunday and the oppressive heat, the line is shorter so I get a better standing location, this time stage left, Adam’s side, or “North Side,” in SOI tour parlance. I still have the (Red) Zone rail at my back, to keep an old lady propped up, but I’m not anywhere near the bar area. So instead of socialites who are there as a status symbol and demanding drinks over my shoulder all night, I’m surrounded by actual fans.  

The energy night two is different immediately; it is sharper, crisper, the audience is more focused on the band. This is brought home with “Gloria” in the wildcard slot and its instant roar it generates from the crowd. We’re on Adam’s side, and I’m always conscious of those moments where I think, “I am listening to ‘I Will Follow’ and watching the Edge play THOSE guitar chords, Adam Clayton is right there and those are his actual fingers you are watching run up the fretboard in ‘Gloria.’  The band have locked in and found a rhythm, which continues through the entire set. “October” appears at the E stage again, and so does Songs of Innocence deep cut “Volcano.”  Again, the SOI songs just sound so much better, have more life and substance, performed live. “Volcano” is fun and poppy and enjoyable. “Stuck In A Moment” gets subbed for “Ordinary Love” as the Edge/Bono duet/piano number on the E stage and the solidity of its performance brings home how there are these U2 songs hanging around this year—“Invisible” is the other one—that feel like they get put on the setlist because they are recent and the band thinks they should play them, but the reality is that there are better songs, and better choices, that would also fit contextually.

The Edge is playing with a physicality and muscularity I am not accustomed to. Adam has embodied a true Entwistleian presence onstage, calmly overseeing everything and reacting to none of it, except for the smiles at the front row in front of him. (And the hair is magnificent.) Larry Mullen, Jr. is the rock and the foundation, and is my generation’s Charlie Watts in his power and stoicism and lack of showmanship. And Bono’s voice is absolutely on form tonight, soaring into the rafters, rich and warm, notable on “Iris” and “Song For Someone” and “Stuck In A Moment.” They are all still capable—okay, excellent—musicians. They are all still healthy. There is eye contact and there is an energy created up there between them that remains unmistakable.

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Being a SOI tour veteran after one night, I like knowing where to look on screen and on stage, knowing what’s going to happen next, and making mental notes about what I want to pay more attention to next time around. I love the moments in “Until the End of the World” where Bono embodies a Macphisto-like energy, holding Edge on the palm of his hand, spitting water at him and the audience. I love the character Bono assumes in Raised By Wolves, and the physical conflict and parry between him and the Edge in the middle of the runway. I’m not entirely sold on the connection between UTEOTW and “Raised By Wolves;” my interpretation is that they’re both about dramatic losses of faith, and falls from grace, the latter echoed by the shower of book pages that fall from the ceiling, pages from Dante’s Inferno, Alice in Wonderland, and the book of Psalms, which fans posited has another direct tie to photographs of the streets of Dublin after the bombing referenced in RBW, but in fact have their origins in what happened after the library in Sarajevo was firebombed (this from a fascinating interview with creative director Willie Williams, which is well worth reading if you like this kind of detail).

This show is layered and complex; you could see it 10 times before you’d get it all. You would think that the screens would dictate an interpretation, but they are so massive and there is so much going on that there is no way that they can. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that’s how the video worked on ZooTV and Pop, but it is because of how tightly controlled media is in this day and age. The only disconnect is if you don’t choose to follow Bono around the arena and watch the other three on the main stage; you’ll notice that you’re surrounded by people who are facing the back of the floor, while you’re facing the front.

The back eight are played just about as well as they are ever going to be played; the Garden is bouncing, the room is moving, and just when you think how wonderful it all is, Bono starts singing the words to “Moment of Surrender” from the last album, but the background is something else, and then Edge plays the opening riff to “Bad,” and the hair on my arms stands up, and I am utterly speechless. The last time I heard this song was at Wembley Stadium in 1993, and there is no way you are a fan of this band and do not have indelible memories of the song. It is their “Jungleland,” it is this moment of enormous emotional resonance that is never the same, but is always familiar. I am not a U2 super-fan, by any means, but they are a band I have been with since almost as early as I could have been here in the states, they have always been with me, and they are still here, all four of them, right now.

I finish up my internal moment with “Bad” just in time to get my bounce on to “Streets,” feeling the entire building move with me. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” plays us out, shimmering up to the rafters. It’s an absolutely fantastic show, and I compare the difference between night one and night two to the difference between Opening Day of the baseball season, and the game the next day, which is generally thought of the game for the real fans.

JULY 26, 2015
Section 220, Row 10

Friends of mine arrive from Florida, get on the ticket drop line at the MSG box office, and promptly pick up $35 tickets marked ‘obstructed view’. A few hours later, I get a text from them asking if we want a pair of these tickets, from other fans who bought them as insurance against not getting anything better. Do we want them???

“I’ll go pick up the laundry,” says the boyfriend, running out of the apartment. “View these as Crystal Ballroom insurance tickets.”

Sure, U2 have jettisoned the concept of pairs of shows, but that doesn’t mean you still don’t end up chasing certain songs over the course of eight nights. I was worried that the appearance of “Angel of Harlem” with the Roots the previous Wednesday would mean I missed my chance; I was sad to have missed the Terminator meets Duane Eddy vibe of “Lucifer’s Hands” the next night. But either you go to all of them, or you face the fact that you are going to miss songs you want to hear, because otherwise all you will do is drive yourself crazy.

As noted, our tickets are marked “Obstructed view” but I don’t know what MSG classified as an obstruction, exactly; they were high up but they were also hard stage right, and gave me a perfect view of every element of the production. It was good to be able to see the screen with some distance; it was good to be able to observe the entire production as a whole; and it would end up being the best E stage view I’d have out of all five nights. For $35, these tickets were the well-kept secret of this run.

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I’d used the time in between my shows and the weekend to re-acquaint myself with the new record. I decide that the new songs hold up better live because there is less polish, less smoothing out, less electronic trickery. I do not like Ryan Tedder in particular, at least I do not like him as a producer for a rock and roll band (and Dangermouse aside, this is still a rock and roll band); I do not like the sonic quality of the album as a whole, although I do like the lyrics and I do like the music and I do like the actual songs. I also do not like how the record was released; someone in their organization or Apple gave them very bad advice about how people like to consume music these days, and instead of people being excited about the record, the art and the music were overshadowed by awful jokes and uproar from people who were never going to care about U2 anyway.

On an interview on Sirius XM broadcast at the beginning of August, Larry said that the band viewed what they refer to as ‘The Apple Experiment’ as successful, because he can see younger fans who know all the words to the new songs, but don’t seem to know any of the words to the older songs. In a day and age where you can listen to pretty much every note of music that’s ever existed for free, and don’t have to rely on friends or having enough money to buy everything, I do not understand how they can view that as a success, but that is another subject for another day.

There’s a quote Adam gave Grantland about how for their next record, they might choose to stop caring about what everybody else thinks, and only care about their fans; I think it would be an exceedingly interesting experiment, mostly because I am genuinely curious what they would do, and what that would sound like. You might assume that U2 are irrelevant or hokey or boring (although I don’t think you would have read this far if you did), but the tremendous strength of the fan base in places like South America is astonishing, and overwhelming, and certainly sufficiently profitable for the people in their organization who require money to be made. Just like I discovered when I was in Europe seeing Bruce Springsteen [gratuitous book plug], there are still plenty of places in the world where blues-based traditional rock and roll is still popular, and valued. (Or maybe they’d go all John Cage and Steve Reich on us, but I’d still argue that would be worth listening to.)

Tonight I’m focused on watching the transition from the early songs played under the lightbulb meant to signify the room the band used to rehearse in (as Bono points out, it could have been Adam’s room, or Larry’s room; he’s just the one with the microphone), into the journey through childhood reflected in the “Iris”/“Cedarwood Road”/“Song For Someone,” and then into the intrusion of the outside world as a child growing up in Ireland, specifically, with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and then “Raised By Wolves.” The distance from the floor up in section 220 provides a wider, more holistic perspective to the multimedia and allows you a different appreciation of the careful thematic continuity: with the backstory to RBW being projected on the screen at the end of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” backstory without heavy explanation, a radio broadcast, a single car on the screen, the screen goes dark with the explosion sounding through the arena.

It’s critical to the album and to the performance, but if it was the kind of thing that Bono would have had to verbally explain every night, it would start to feel tired and it would drag the show out. This execution is powerful, moving, and emotional. It’s the answer to the child who confronts Bono later in the show, during “Bullet The Blue Sky”: “Have you forgotten who you are? Have you forgotten where you came from?” Davos or not, this isn’t false emotion or theatrical crocodile tears: this is all coming from a very deep place. They did an uncharacteristically poor job of expressing all of that to the press, but that was probably because they spent entirely too much time apologizing for the album showing up on everyone’s iTunes.

The sound: I am up in the top left-hand corner of the Garden and I can hear absolutely everything, crystal clear, sharp as a bell. U2 sound engineer Joe O’Herlihy created an immersive sound experience for this show, to accompany the unconventional staging, and the sound was fantastic absolutely everywhere I sat. I sat one section over for 12-12-12 (they were the cheap seats) and the sound was not half as good as it was for U2. (The only location I struggled to hear spoken vocals would be the last show, when I was right up against the stage.) I know the media has written glowingly about this but, like the screen and overall production, is a thing that I think they are still not getting enough credit for, because every journalist has to waste column inches reminding the world that U2 put SOI on everyone’s iPhone without permission.

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I gratefully collapsed into my seat at the end of UTEOTW, only for the kid in front of me to solicitously ask if I could see, since he was standing up. I thanked him, but also pointed out that it was intermission and there was nothing to see. I know there’s an intermission because I listen to the damn show every night on Mixlr,  and because I’ve seen annotated set lists and understand the production needs, but I’m reasonably certain that your average civilian at the show does not, and not indicating it in some explicit manner is not helpful to the continuity of the show—especially since the next song is “Invisible,” and not just “Invisible,” it’s “Invisible” being played inside the screen by all four band members. The light show around it is well-executed, but it’s not a particularly good song, and I think it’s a pretty weak way to kick off the second part of the show.

I realize “Invisible” is in the setlist because of the “there is no them, there’s only us” theme that Bono wants to espouse as one of the touchstones of the show, but I didn’t hear him invoke it once at five shows out of eight, and to be honest, there are enough keystones and themes in the show that we don’t need another one. I would have much rather seen “California” in that spot, which would have given us another song from the new record and kept the main emotional plot line moving forward with “there is no end to love.” Fans who saw “California” say it wasn’t performed well, but that just means more rehearsal, not ‘let’s exclude it from the set forever.” If you listen to the acoustic version included in the SOI CD, it’s clear that they are more than capable of performing a rearranged version of the song.

I also was not a fan of “Even Better Than The Real Thing” being performed inside the screen. It’s a big noisy song that generates a huge amount of energy, and instead, it felt trapped and constrained. In terms of staging and presentation, I would have rather had it back on the main stage, and then have the band move down the runway to the E stage than emerge out of the screen, it would have had just as much  impact.

This was the night Lady Gaga showed up for “Ordinary Love” on the E stage, and this now makes it twice I have seen Lady Gaga with U2. I respect her as an artist but I just do not care, and I think she over-sang, to be honest. I also could have made a list of 60 other musicians I would have rather seen as guests, and will remain heartbroken that the extended “Miss You” snippet introduced at the end of “Crystal Ballroom” in Toronto wasn’t preparation for Jagger and Richards showing up in New York.

During the parade o’ hits, it’s fun to observe the large percentage of the Garden that are on their feet; it’s usually one of the drawbacks to getting stuck upstairs, that people yell at you to sit down. There were plenty of us standing up, dancing, and jumping around at the upper reaches, including both bridges (the new seating areas that are up at the roof of the Garden).

Back tomorrow night for night four.

JULY 27, 2015
Section 111, the Larry Mullen Jr. Special

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I pulled these tickets thinking they were at the other end of the arena, and only afterwards realized I’d bought tickets behind the stage. (In my defense, this was a very stressful ticket pull.) But this wasn’t a problem: behind the stage is one of my favorite places to sit at Madison Square Garden because the seating bowl is so close to the stage, unlike most other arenas. It’s either a perspective you love or you don’t, but I do, and I am all too happy to be here because I am able to look over Larry Mullen Jr.’s left shoulder all night and watch him play. I can see him hit the kick drum, I can observe his set up, I can watch him play all of the songs, watch him on “TWO HEARTS BEAT AS ONE” (emphasis mine) and “I Will Follow” and even “With Or Without You,” which is my least favorite song, but on which he plays tremendously.

“Two Hearts,” which hasn’t been played in 25 years. I thought it was going to be “Out of Control,” but then the baseline is utterly unmistakable. The people around me must have thought I was possessed; a lot of them probably knew the song, but may not know how long it had been since it had been played live last. It was fantastic and they need to play it more often. “Angel of Harlem,” which I haven’t seen since 1993, was something my heart needed to hear, and I am so glad to hear it here, at home, and glad that it wasn’t relegated to the “one and done” list. We just visited Memphis the first time earlier this year, and literally stood in the exact place the band stood when they recorded that song, while everyone else was trying to stand where Elvis stood (although to be fair it was largely the same; the room is not that big)—although to me it will always be more of a New York City song than a Memphis song, Memphis horns or not.

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“Bullet The Blue Sky” was next on my list to observe, and watch carefully, especially from this angle. I am not sure it fits in the set, exactly, or if it’s there because it’s the only way Bono can work some of the themes he touches on what is listed on the teleprompter as “Bullet rant” (another advantage of the rear stage is being able to do something like read the teleprompter, and the boyfriend brought binoculars to do just that. [Don’t look at me like that. It’s interesting]). The theater of Bono turning his mic stand into a shoulder rocket launcher is absolutely stunning. I wasn’t sold on the use of the megaphone (and made jokes about a Mr. Stipe wanting it back) but he seemed to feel more comfortable with it by the third night, and made better use of the stage and the space. But the rant either has to be completely rewritten, or omitted completely, because bringing in lines like “a man breathes into his saxophone” from the “Joshua Tree” days feels forced, even if the followup—“and everyone stares into their cellphones”—is perfectly apt. I’m not sure that part of the show has to echo back to make people understand it. The footage of Wall Street is stunning on its own. I’m curious how this rant will transform now that the band is moving on to Europe. (I’m equally curious how many Mixlr feeds we can count on over there.)

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The crew had Larry’s drum setup in place before I could even notice, just as Bono announced that they were going to do something they had only tried a few times before: “The Troubles”. It requires that he sing against a backing track, since the song is built against the duet with Lykke Li, and Edge can’t sing quite that high. It was definitely unfamiliar to the people around me, but it was well-executed, ethereal, and compelling enough to make them shut up and watch.

There was something definitely off a little tonight; some missteps, some miss-starts. “Invisible” feels very out of sync, and I blame the screen. I wondered if Bono was sick, other fans thought he was having trouble hearing himself in his monitors. Having the crowd start “One” is a total train wreck, it’s as though different sections were singing different parts of the song, at the same time. Bono stops us: “The rhythm has t’ come from th’ drummer,” he says, pointing at Mr. Mullen. “I’m not a fussy rock star, just picky.”

Four down, one to go.

JULY 31, 2015
GA Floor, North Side

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So many things could have gone wrong on the last night of the U.S. tour. The line could have staged a revolt. Someone could have run ahead, pushing and shoving (although that did happen, just further back). The (Red) Zone could have been let in before the general queue and gotten our spots. But everything went right, and I ended up exactly where I wanted to be, front row at the corner closest to the catwalk, Adam’s side. (Nothing personal against the Edge, but it’s a really popular spot over there, and it’s easier to watch Edge from the other side anyway.)

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The Springsteen rumors amp up, but they have been amped up for the entire run. People were telling me he would be there on a night where his tech was spotted at a bar in Asbury Park, setting up during a soundcheck at which Bruce songs were played. I got text messages on the Wednesday night (when I was not anywhere near MSG, but rather at a Muscle Shoals tribute show to see Sam Moore), because someone who is friends with Steve Van Zandt tweeted that the special guests would be amazing. This would not be the first time Bruce would come see the band play and not get on stage.

But, I get ahead of myself.

A good thing about Innocence and Experience is that the show generally starts on time, and you don’t have to sit through an opening band. You watch the crew set up the stage; you check Twitter for celebrity spotting. The technicians check the instruments, Dallas Schoo turns on the Edge’s amps to warm them up, and Stuart Morgan walks around the stage with Adam’s bass on, playing a bass line that sounds suspiciously like “Born To Run.” Hillary and Bill arrive.

The opening tape could be my iPhone on shuffle, whether it was the version playing the early punk hits, or the more grunge-flavored one that swapped in halfway through the NYC run. But we all spring to attention as Jay Dee Daugherty’s drum roll spills out through the PA, and Patti Smith’s “People Have The Power” fills the arena. I am ride or die for Patti Smith; she saved my life in high school, and I consider myself beyond lucky that I still have the chance for her to give me a spiritual beatdown every year when I get to see her play her December residency somewhere. (I consider it a mark of maturity and restraint that I didn’t rip the head off of the fan standing next to me the first night who tried to tell me that I only knew the words to PHTP because I’d been at the SOI shows.)

Sometimes, the second to last night of a run, or a tour, is the night to remember, the night you wish you were at. But everyone said the crowd was bad, and strange Thursday night, and the only thing I am sorry that I missed was the Lou Reed tribute, and “Satellite of Love,” right out of ZooTV, and the dedication to Laurie Anderson. (I am not sorry about missing Paul Simon, and ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ is the only part of the set I truly dislike and find unnecessary.)  But I needn’t have worried: tonight was running on all cylinders from the second Bono began the call-and-response to “The Miracle,” when the roof threatened to blow off the top of the building from the volume of the response. It was a loud night; it was a strong night; it was a night where the North Side challenged the South Side as to who could jump harder and higher. (I think we won, but I am biased.)

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If you want to ask me if 36 hours of line shenanigans was worth it to be in this spot for this show, I will tell you without hesitation that it was. It was intense and emotional and loud no matter where you were, and it was all of those things x100 in the very front. I have been front row for U2 in the distant past (seriously, like October and War,) but that was before Bono was Bono. Out of all of the band members, being that close to him was the experience that felt the oddest, and yet the most fascinating. I still worry that he is fragile post-bike accident, that even with private jets and four-star hotels that his constitution will not hold up to a long tour. I note, again, that his leather jacket is too big for him, sleeves folded up and not tailored neatly, wonder if it is his from back in the day, when Guggi snuck them all in to see the Ramones at the State Cinema in Dublin.

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I watch the eye contact between the band members, between Edge and Bono, the eye contact that is part of the normal course of doing business onstage, and then the eye contact that goes beyond that, the eye contact that is about connection and about the years of generating the energy that is U2. I watch Adam come to the edge of the stage and smile at the fans all night, really smile, making eye contact, starting to remind me of Billy Zoom of X and how he interacts with fans. I watch the technical production elements, I can’t help it, I can’t be that close and not take advantage of it: watch the stairs coming down, watch Edge running up (while he’s playing guitar. I find that particularly impressive), watch Bono disappearing into the “rabbit hole”. I watch the band’s security in action; all four of them require the level of personal security that, say, only Bruce Springsteen requires when he is onstage. I can’t see much of Larry besides his eyes peeking out over the top of a cymbal, which is the only unfortunate element of this particular position.

The man, the hair. Adam Clayton #u2ietour

And last but not least, when you are that close you are completely immersed head to toe in the music, in the songs and the guitar and bass and drums blasting at me from the amps on the stage, surrounding me in the arena. I yell; I sing; I dance; I wave my arms in the air. I laugh hysterically because it is so absolutely unbelievable to witness the show from this location; I cannot stop smiling for one second. The only thing that suffers sonically is the between-show patter when Bono is on the runway or at the E stage. And you also cannot see any of the visual elements on the screen at all whatsoever. It’s a price I’ll happily pay tonight.

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The first four songs are rocket fuel, “Out of Control” in the wild card slot, and accurate for the audience this evening. The people behind the stage were on their feet and losing their shit. Raised By Wolves drama is more intense down here, and “Until The End of The World” is the best I have seen it since 1993. It is huge and enormous and overpowering, and I am a wreck by the end of it, grateful for the wall descending and a moment to catch my breath. I collect hugs from friends new and old at intermission.

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Unless you are standing up against the center runway rail so that you can lean over and see your way down the security gap, you will see very little of the E stage. I was sorry I missed the South American fans who dressed up like U2 as the Village People in the “Discotheque” video, sorry we didn’t get a little bit of that song somehow during the end of “Desire,” the song that was the Meerkat song for the night. But even “Desire” was full of heat and energy and rhythm, and I can hear Edge and Bono singing harmony together, and I love “Desire” and I honestly love Rattle and Hum and think it gets a bad rap. Bono tells a story about how the Edge went out for Halloween on Venice Beach dressed as the Edge, and no one knew it was him.

“What are we doing now?” Bono asks, possibly seriously. And then, a series of unmistakable chords on acoustic guitar, and the heavens opened up and the stars rained down, and “It’s a special night; we’ve a special treat, for for anyone who cares to remember back this far.” ME! ME! I DO! “WOO HOO,” I yell in triumph, arms in the air. It is “Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl,” and I have not heard “Party Girl” live since 1987, when I called in sick to work and ran down to Philadelphia to see one more show, one last show, I was going to be moving overseas and I was worried about when I’d see U2 next, I was broke but I did it anyway, taking NJ Transit to SEPTA (which was the old, cheap backdoor into the city), and finding a ticket at face value from a fan at the box office, and dancing to “Party Girl” in the aisle on the floor of the Spectrum. It is my favorite song; it will always be my favorite song. It is my best U2-friend’s favorite song, and although she lives on the other side of the ocean, I make sure to Tweet at her even though it’s the middle of the night where she lives. She is there with me, too, no matter what time it is. There is a bottle of champagne, just like old times; Larry will abscond with it later, back to the mainstage.

I am a wreck again.

I regain composure to get through “Every Breaking Wave,” amazed that they would allow this jewel of a song to get compressed into MOR sludge on the record, and hold my breath during “Bullet The Blue Sky,” Edge doing battle with six strings, singing “Pride” as loud as I can, continually amazed how much Bono gets away with on this one (“I can’t breathe, I’m an American” he sneaks in more nights than not, during the “Hands That Built America” reference that takes us from BTBS into “Pride”). Bono is down at the E stage when he works a “Hungry Heart” snippet into “Beautiful Day,” and I wonder if that is all we are going to get.

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I feel like I am drowning in euphoria and happiness at the intro to “City of Blinding Lights,” an intro that so perfectly captures the champagne bubbles rising feeling in your stomach of the first time you glimpse the city skyline, or see it on an important night, or see it on a night where you need to be reminded of why you live here.  Bono keeps taking out his in-ear monitors to hear the crowd properly, and I know it is not just me, that we are that loud, that there is that much energy in the air. I am ready to take off well before Bono exhorts us at the beginning of “Streets,” “Come on! Let’s see ya!” I cannot see the stage through the tears in my eyes. I am not sure where I am finding the energy to bounce like I am in my 20s, but it is effortless, the energy of the floor and the stands and the people up against the roof in the bridge seats carrying us all. “Streets” tonight is a steamroller, it is God and the universe and the solar system walking through Madison Square Garden. It is visceral, physical, tremendous, the middle bridge where Larry hits that martial drum roll before hitting cruising altitude and the Edge weaves in and out like a jet fighter. If you ever witnessed this performance, or one anywhere like it, you would not ever be able to be cynical about this band, and if you were, I would feel sorry for you.

I am barely recovered from this, when Bono starts talking about someone who gave them a reason to be a band, a reason to continue to be in a band, and I know who he is talking about but I am still really not convinced, except that OH MY GOD THAT IS BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN WALKING IN FROM STAGE RIGHT, AND HE IS CARRYING A GUITAR.

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If you have ever read this site, you know that I have spent decades writing about and seeing him perform. Seeing him with U2 was a bucket list item, and I thought it would never happen, until I ended up at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary show (and got Patti Smith to boot; she did not show up at this run, btw, because she was in Europe the entire time). I was in Times Square when Bruce subbed for Bono last December.

And, well, I am here right now. I am in the front row, waving at Bruce: Hey there, buddy. Nice to see you. Been a while.

I guess you can criticize this part of the show (as some did) for not being something new or original, but that would just be foolish. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is church music. It is rock and roll gospel. It was written for a large crowd to sing, and Bono doesn’t have to ask the Garden twice. It’s a great song for Bruce to sing, and he is singing it well, and it is good to hear him, and the crowd is loving it. But then the improbable happens, and Bono walks over to Edge and says something to him, and then goes back to Bruce and tells him, and Adam kind of peers over at Edge’s hands and then there’s a glance between him and Larry–and it’s a freaking audible, called on the fly, into “Stand By Me.” Yes, they did this in 1987, the first time Bruce showed up with U2 in Philly. I don’t care. They’re doing it now, and it wasn’t planned, and probably wasn’t rehearsed (the intel I had said they’d rehearsed “Promised Land,” if that was even reliable).

But you can count on Bruce Springsteen to know the words to “Stand By Me,” and all of Madison Square Garden also seems to know the words to “Stand By Me,” and we’re singing “Stand By Me” with U2 and Bruce Springsteen on the last night of the eight-show run, and pretty much no other surprise that turned up is going to come close (although a close second, easy, to the Roots and ‘Angel of Harlem,’ the only guest I’m sorry I missed).

Bruce departs swiftly, and Bono steps to the mic again, telling us about Dennis Sheehan, the late, beloved tour manager who passed away in May: “He drove the van. He drove us up and down streets and cities and towns in this country…we feel very much that he is here tonight, and so we are gonna sing a song that he made famous, called ‘40.’” That’s when I notice that, of course, Edge and Adam have switched instruments (I am sorry I did not get to see it happen), and the bass notes rumble in. I cannot think of another band that has a closing number like “40,” that mixture of sacred and profane and band and audience. I have seen it before and I have seen it as recently as 2005, I saw it the last night of PopMart in North America in Seattle, and I saw it on October and I saw it on Joshua Tree, and it is heart-stopping and it is awesome and it is beautiful. It is just beautiful.

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And at the end, Bono picks up the spotlight; Edge, still playing, heads down the center runway, followed by Adam, Bono sending the light right down the middle, illuminating the walkway. The audience sings, and sings, and keeps singing. Bono asks for the lights to be cut, Larry keeps playing, and the spotlight points at different areas of the arena. And then th, the final drum flourish; then the drums halt, Larry heads down the runway, spotlit by Bono at the other end, as we keep singing. The audience knows what to do, and it is loud and I don’t know how loud it is anywhere but down where I am, but the audience is singing “How long, to sing this song” and it’s all I hear. The lights stayed off for a good long while, and at least on the floor we were singing and singing and singing, not wanting it to be over, not wanting it to end.

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Then the house lights came back up, and the carriage turned back into a pumpkin, and the (sigh) Macklemore song (“Same Love”) that was played at the end of every other night, squelching any other chances for the refrain to echo through the stairwells and the lobby as we went out into the night. As soon as I could peel myself off the rail, I hugged my new friends, and hugged the boyfriend, and stepped onto the floor and turned circles, “Woo hoo!”-ing in triumph, skating through the bottles and flattened beer cups like Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, still stunned at everything that had happened, feeling like the music was still resonating through my bones.

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They’ll be back, and you should be there when they do. See you in Berlin in September.

==
IF YOU LIKED THIS…you might like to read my first novel, about how a woman’s life changes the night Joey Ramone dies.

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Until The End of the World: the Directors’ Cut

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In 1991, Wim Wenders released the film “Until the End of the World”. I am not a movie person by any stretch of the imagination, but I am a music person, and in 1991, I was a label manager for Warner Bros. Records. Warner Brothers released the soundtrack, and an advance cassette of the soundtrack landed on my desk, introducing me to art that would make an indelible impression on me.

The album’s contributors read like a who’s who of 1990’s rock and roll: Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, U2, R.E.M., Patti Smith. All of the artists contributed original material, but these weren’t cast-offs or random studio outtakes. The album is brilliantly sequenced and perfectly paced. R.E.M.’s achingly vibrating “Fretless” remains one of their best songs ever; Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ (I’ll Love You) Till The End of the World” is equal parts hilarious, and epic; Patti and Fred Smith contributed the dirge-like “It Takes Time,” the first new work from her since 1988’s Dream of Life. And, of course, the title track. “Until The End of the World” was a riff on a discarded U2 demo until Wenders met with the band about contributing to the soundtrack. They pulled out the demo and turned it into the title track as well as a pivotal cut on Achtung Baby. There isn’t a dud in the entire collection, from Jane Siberry to T-bone Burnett.

This hugely ambitious project, Wenders’ ‘ultimate road movie,’ filmed in 7 countries with a budget of 23 million dollars (unheard of for a non-mainstream production) was reduced to 2 1/2 hours (158 minutes, to be precise) and released commercially. The soundtrack was tremendously successful; the film was not. But there was something about the film that spoke to me deeply. I was never a fan of science fiction, but the sci fi in this movie felt realistic to me. There was something in the bleak futurism combined with Claire’s chase around the world that matched where I was at the time, living halfway around the world in a country where I bought dollars on the black market, was befuddled by the operation of pay phones (they required a token and I could never ever get one to work for me), and found myself in the improbable position of sleeping in a bomb shelter and carrying a gas mask in a cardboard box slung over my shoulder like a purse as though it was nothing during the first Gulf War. My entire world was turned upside down, so it’s no wonder that I could grok Wenders’ futurist vibe so strongly.

Until The End of the World remained one of my totems; I would make potential boyfriends watch it as a kind of litmus test. In the DVD era, I naturally began looking for a release, only to learn about the film’s trials and tribulations. This was when I became aware of the four and a half hour directors’ cut, which was shown at the University of Washington in 1996. By the time I found out about the screening, tickets were long gone, and it remains one of the few events in my life I could not get myself into, despite waiting outside for hours. I would chase the Directors’ Cut for 25 years, until this past weekend, when it was shown at the Museum of Modern Art as part of a Wenders retrospective. I planed my ticket purchasing with the same discipline I apply to get tickets to a highly popular concert, and with good reason; the screening sold out immediately.

On line to get into the theater, I noticed that most people were there alone, or with a friend; most people readily confessed their obsession with the film and how they’d been trying to see this version for decades. Everyone seemed to be a writer or an artist or photographer or film maker or pursued some kind of creativity. We all talked knowingly about the difficulty of finding out about screenings, people who missed the one at the Museum of the Moving Image; me, feeling grateful that 2015 was the year that I decided to pay for a MOMA membership, without which I would not have ever found out about the screening. People spoke knowing about the Italian and the German DVD’s (both of which I never bought because I would have to also get a multi-system DVD player and that seemed somewhat excessive just to watch one movie). When the doors opened, people dashed into the theater with very deliberate purpose; there were those who ran for the front rows, others who took sides, and aisles, and random single handicapped seats. Many confessed that they’d deliberately stalked out the theater at previous screenings to determine the optimal seat in which to sit to watch a 4 1/2 hour screening. (I opted for an aisle seat in the second row that didn’t have another seat in front of it.)

Wenders spoke before the start of the film, confessing to the goal of creating the ultimate road movie, that it was the work he was the most proud of. And then there it was, restored in 2014 from the original negative. It was shocking to me how vividly I still remembered the movie; the last time I saw it was at least 10 years ago, around the time we all stopped using VHS on a day to day basis. Watching the story unfold again was like visiting an old friend; the cinematography did not disappoint, and it was amazing to hear the music in context again, and unlike the shorter version, you got the full songs and not 10 seconds here and there, and there were two additional songs from Peter Gabriel and Robbie Robertson that were not on the soundtrack. By the time “Until The End of the World” rolled over the end credits, I had tears in my eyes, not just for finally seeing a thing so pivotal to me that I had chased for so very long, but from the very physical act of being so immersed in a piece of art for such an extended period of time. (There was one 10-minute intermission; people ran out to the rest rooms as soon as the word appeared on the screen, and then everyone stood around and snacked surreptitiously until the lights went down again.)

At the end, Wenders spoke again and took questions; before I could raise my hand to ask about the soundtrack someone beat me to it. Wenders explained that he had knew he wanted a big rock and roll soundtrack to go with the movie, but that it was important to him that it sound like 1999, the year the film was set in, and not 1991; so made a list of 20 of his favorite artists, and asked them if they would be willing to provide a song that sounded like the future. 16 said “yes,” which Wenders said, never happens – if you’re lucky you get five. (And this was another reason the director’s cut was so important to him, the ability to hear the songs and not just snippets of them.) What’s most striking about the film’s futurism is how much of it Wenders got right; he equally got a great deal of it wrong, but it remains remarkably and unintentionally prescient, and as impactful as it was 25 years ago.

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Springsteen & U2, World AIDS Day Concert, Times Square, December 1, 2014

I still haven't found what I'm looking for. Sing it New York! #springsteen #u2

It seemed like the most improbable New York thing, this 3pm announcement as I come out of a meeting that U2 are performing — with Bruce Springsteen! — in Times Square a few hours from now. I text friends. I make up setlists on Twitter. I go through an executive presentation until 5:40, at which point I say, “Can we wrap this up? Bruce and U2 are playing in Times Square, I need to get a move on.”

I walk out to a chilly rain, which did not figure into my plans. I buy one of those obnoxious saran wrap tourist ponchos at Duane Reade, and get on a subway. I am counting on being smarter and stealthier than your average concert attendee, but by the time I make my way up to 52nd Street and then down Broadway—all the side streets were cut off—I was not entirely sure that I would be able to pull this off. Now that I think about it, there was probably a way to make it up to my friend who was just a few rows from the stage, but I found a good place in the second barrier, just behind a tall dude, but in front of an area that had to be kept clear for the camera crane. I had an unobstructed view of the stage and that was fine with me.

Luckily, with advertisers and a webcast, things need to run on time, and sure enough, we are informed that we are going to start in 15 minutes, then 9 minutes. They announce the list of artists, and we cheer appropriately (or inappropriately, in the case of Chris Martin). We sit through someone from Bank of America and then Bill Clinton (who managed to drop a Hillary reference), and I’m watching the Edge’s guitar tech standing there holding a guitar that looks suspiciously like the Edge’s Explorer, not expecting Larry, Adam and Edge to walk onstage right after that. Unfortunately they are also joined by Chris Martin, who proceeds to butcher “Beautiful Day.” He is wearing a tshirt that reads “SUBSTITU2” which is actually pretty funny, but I still actively despise him. “With Or Without You” is my least favorite U2 song, and I take notes and amuse myself by texting a friend who is uptown at Bob Dylan about how painful this is.

But then there is a moment where the collective noise being made by the three gentlemen in U2 not-so-gently reminds me that they are on that stage, and they are making that noise that only they can make, and I am lucky to be here listening to it.

I have nothing against Carrie Underwood but did not find her songs particularly interesting. The NYU kids behind me, who were super-excited to see Kanye, kept remarking how great her voice was. But then the second-best moment of the evening took place, as Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. came out to introduce Kanye West. Larry’s voice BOOMED, “NEW YORK, GIVE IT UP FOR KANYE WEST!” with a grin so big you could have seen it all the way up to 57th Street.

The crowd absolutely came alive to Kanye more than any other artist during the course of the evening. Hands in the air, dudes jumping up and down…and all of those people made their way out of the front as soon as he was done. Kanye was sharp and I enjoyed his set.

Kevin Buell is checking a mic stand and so I know who is next on that stage, although I guess if I’d looked at a clock or something I would have figured that out, or even simple process of elimination. But I’m kind of glad I had that external cue, because when Edge, Larry and Adam came back out, put on instruments, and Mr David Evans began to strum the unmistakable opening notes of “Where The Streets Have No Name,” the world stood still.

The opening of “Streets” is like that, you know? It’s that gentle arpeggio, that cascade of notes, that deceptively calm moment before the storm. It’s the sparks from the second you light the fuse, the opening hiss as the bubbles begin to escape from a bottle of champagne. Jump Jump Jump, I am surrounded by tourists holding up cell phones and I do not care if they think I am a madwoman, I am going to REPRESENT and they can all go to hell. This is Streets. This is what you do. It is muscle memory. It is involuntary response. It is tribal, it is ritual, it is everything.

Part of the artistry of “Streets” is the way it builds from section to section, and we go from that cascade of notes into second gear where the rhythm section engages and the notes speed up and even though he’s been out there for half a minute, nodding and vibing, the Edge yells, “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, MR. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN,” as he walks to the front of the stage, mic in hand, and the crowd cheers and Bruce roars those opening lines, absolutely roars. He is singing, he is soul shouting, he is absolutely motherfucking BRINGING IT.

Not that he had any choice, you know? It’s “Streets.” It’s the song where God walks through the room, according to Bono. “It’s the point where craft ends and spirit begins,” he says, and if you don’t like Bono you will find that statement pretentious, but if you have ever stood in a stadium or an arena when this song is played and every single person is on their feet and jumping up and down, you will just nod your head because you know that he is right. And Mr. Bruce Springsteen is standing in the Crossroads of the World, substituting for one of the world’s most infamous frontmen–there was no way he was going to do anything less than give it everything.

“Streets” is being in the middle of a pogoing mass, “Streets” is abandon and freedom and heart, your heart opening up wider than you ever thought it could. “Streets” is knowing those moments when the song changes pace, that section at the end of the first chorus, where the band stutter steps just a second before the last verse, where the rhythm section pivots in razor sharp lock step and Larry executes those almost martial rolls into a more syncopated beat, while Edge is peeling off a wall of shimmering guitar notes that seem to be intertwining with the raindrops, echoing off the skyscrapers, bringing the world’s revolution to a halt for a split second.

And all of this is happening in the middle of Times Square, with the light and the energy and the surge of the city underneath my feet, and my guy is up there singing one of the biggest songs that you can sing onstage with anyone, ever. I turned my face up into the raindrops and let them fall like liquid sunshine, and not like the freezing cold drops of slush that they actually were. It was huge and big and bright and beautiful and felt like you were standing in the middle of a lit firecracker.

I have seen a lot of amazing Bruce Springsteen moments. I have seen a lot of amazing rock and roll moments. This one was absolute magic, pure and simple.

As the song ends, Bruce walks to the edges of the stage, pumping his fist the way he always does when he KNOWS that he’s nailed a particular performance. He is leather jacket clad, looking thin, but that voice is full of so much energy you couldn’t possibly worry. “Thank you New York…I want to send this out to Bono in Ireland,” he says, “Be well, my friend.” It’s the obvious choice for a second number, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” obvious because he’s done it before (twice) and it’s U2’s version of a gospel hymn and Bruce’s heart is so very there there days. The crowd knows this one, even more than “Streets,” and they are more than ready to sing when we get to the chorus and Bruce says, “Take me to church now.” It is sweet and strong, and utterly heartwarming, the singalong echoing through the midtown canyons.

Bruce turns to sings with Edge in the harmony lines, he then turns to sing to Larry and Adam. It is a touching, beautiful thing to watch; there is a big mutual admiration society up there. (I saw when I got home and could watch the video that Larry and Adam applauded Bruce after “Streets.” It’s high praise indeed when Larry Mullen offers you applause.)

We are entranced, until the musicians take off their instruments and Kanye and Carrie and Chris return, and then we remember that this enchanted carriage had to turn back into a pumpkin, and it has been both the quickest 45 minutes of your life, and also the longest. The rain has turned to sleet, and I trudge up Broadway towards the subway. I hit my train and my bus and feel like a goddamn rock and roll Audrey Hepburn, walking home an inch or two taller, vibrating with amazement and wonder. This is why we live here; this is why we put up with the rats and the crazy people on the subway and apartments the size of a kitchen for the price of a mortgage. In a split second, your day can change and you can walk uptown and into a miracle.

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Patti Smith performs U2’s “Until The End of The World” live

Definitely did not see this one coming last night!

I am so divided on this cover of the song. I think she starts off strong and think the initial attitude and perspective work, but then feel like the performance loses its way a little bit–and not just because of the lyric changes, or that she forgets the words at one point. I think it’s that I just want it to work so incredibly badly that I will forgive it a million sins, which robs me of true objectivity.

More on the show later.

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my best shows of 2011

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Even I am not immune to the year-end listing process. Here’s my list of favorite/best shows of 2011. It’s so skewed as to representative of nothing except my particular universe – but it’s not like I’m pretending that 2012 isn’t going to be a laundry list of Springsteen and Afghan Whigs shows.

1. Twilight Singers, San Francisco
2. Wild Flag, Bell House
3. U2, Montreal night 1
4. Big Audio Dynamite, Roseland
5. Horrible Crowes, Bowery Ballroom
6. Twilight Singers, Webster Hall
7. Gaslight Anthem, Asbury Park Convention Hall [I feel the need to footnote this show by pointing out that it was amazing before Bruce showed up.]
8. U2, Giants Stadium
9. Bryan Ferry, Beacon Theater
10. Patti Smith & Lenny Kaye, St. Mark’s Church

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In Search of the Joshua Tree

I care a lot about visiting the various sites of rock and roll history, whether it’s the former site of the Cavern Club or the Finsbury Park Astoria or the Palladium or 213 Bowery or the bank that used to be the Fillmore East. But clearly I am close to something very much resembling insane to wake up at 6 a.m. in Las Vegas, rent a car, and head four hours into the desert to look for a dead tree.

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Yes. We went looking for The Joshua Tree.

This all started a few years ago, when I brought up a Bono quote from a Rolling Stone interview back in the day, about how they didn’t remember where the Joshua Tree that was photographed on the album was. Bono thought it was a good thing, because otherwise some fan would turn up at a concert with it: “Bono! I’ve got the tree!”

“That’s not true,” the boyfriend said. “They found the tree. It died a while ago, but the fans know where the tree is.”

Now, contrary to popular belief, the tree is not in Joshua Tree, or even in the Mojave Desert. It’s not even technically in Death Valley National Park, but rather just outside its boundaries. Thanks to the internet and the industriousness of the U2 community, within a few hours we had photographs, Google Earth screen captures and GPS coordinates at our fingertips. We just had to wait until a trip to LA or Las Vegas gave us enough time to make the trip ourselves – and this year was the year.

We watched videos and talked to people who had gone and planned and planned and planned some more. We rented a car with a GPS and satellite radio, stopped at a Starbucks on Windmill Lane (not kidding), and headed up into the mountains.

This would have been an excellent plan had the satellite radio worked, and had the GPS accepted longitude and latitude coordinates. This is a dead plant in the desert, it wasn’t like we could just enter “the Joshua tree” into the GPS and it would take us to where we wanted to go (although we ended up having data signal–of all things–and it’s now on Foursquare). So much for being sure we were absolutely in possession of the exact coordinates.

But we are not stupid. We were smart enough to have brought a RCA plug for our iPhones and the SO had even burned some emergency CD’s of a 1987 Chicago radio broadcast, just in case. He plugged the last intersection before the location of the tree into the GPS and we figured out how to reset the trip odometer on the car so we could find the location by watching mileage. We had printed out maps, we had screenshots of Google Maps on the phones.

Off into the desert we drove.

The Oceans 11 quote about still being in the middle of the fucking desert once you get out of Las Vegas becomes relevant about 15 minutes outside of town, as you head up and over actual mountains and into the middle of nowhere. Pahrump, the only town of any substance between LV and Death Valley was a blip of casinos and strip malls, and 10 minutes later we made a left turn towards Death Valley and two stop signs later had left all of that behind.

We saw wild horses. We saw a coyote crossing the road. When civilization of any size approached, you could see it miles ahead in the distance, because there was nothing else out there. We had brought water and snacks–and if I had to do it again I would have doubled the water and the snacks and brought more warm clothing, because if the car had broken down we would have been waiting a very long time for help. We never passed one law enforcement or official vehicle, and for the entire four hour drive, I never had a car in front of me. We would see cars pulled over on the side of the road and I would mentally prepare to stop and ask if they were okay, but in every single case, there was someone with a huge camera on a tripod taking advantage of the winter morning desert light.

We made a few stops to take photos and one to pay our national park admission fee, but mostly, we kept driving. I was worried about finding the tree and losing the light and so we would do any extra sightseeing on the way back. We talked about U2 driving around between Death Valley and the Mojave for three weeks 25 years ago (25 years ago the week we were there, just by coincidence), and how overwhelming all of this must have been for four guys from Ireland, where there was nothing at all like the wilderness surrounding us on all four sides.

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For me, the desert is all about the silence. I guess it’s the thing that stands out for a city girl, more than anything else. And then the light, that amazing desert light, especially in the winter. The air, even when there’s dust blowing it’s cleaner than an average city street corner. The stars at night, the true, deep black, the absence of ambient city light. The colors are muted, the horizon stretches so far ahead you have to strain to see it, no dead-ending in New Jersey at the edge of the island.

I took the wheel for the drive out and am almost sorry that I did because I couldn’t take any photographs. I kept telling the SO to take his camera out and take pictures of the things I couldn’t. I would set up the shot in my head and tell him, “Take a photo of that. Now, take a photo of that. Wait, that. Did you get that?” He set up a tiny tripod on the dashboard and filmed movies of us driving through the desert. The scenery is unbelievable, awe-inspiring, purple mountains majesty and all of that. You feel tiny and insignificant and wonder about the people crazy enough to walk through this place on foot hundreds of year ago.

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We reached our first official stopping place, Panamint Springs, a little before noon. Gas was $5.38 and we were at half a tank. We got out of the car and stretched, put $20 worth of gas in the tank, used the bathroom and their wifi, and bought some drinks before getting back on the road for what would end up being the worst part of the drive. The mountain pass before the valley before Panamint Springs was a steep grade and twisty and windy but the road was wide and felt reasonably safe. The road out of Panamint Springs felt tiny and the absence of guard rails less than comforting. (It got to the point that when we did see guard rails, we really worried.)

I started to get excited. It was close, or at least soon, and we would be there. The odometer clicked slowly towards the magic 107 mile mark. I didn’t know what it would be like to stand there and see those mountains. I saw clouds in the distance and scowled at them, mentally telling them to get lost, that they were ruining my photographs even as I was on my way there.

And then we came around a curve and sloped downward and the odometer crawled toward the 107 mile mark and I looked to my left at the mountain range shrouded in clouds and tapped the window gently saying, “There. There it is. Look. We’re here.” The SO glanced up, but back at the map, telling me to watch for the curve to the right and that there would be a dirt road on the left and I should pull over there.

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And then there was a curve to the right and the dirt road fading into the distance on the left and with a pro forma glance back and forth to make sure there was no oncoming or following traffic, I pulled off the road, stopped the car and opened the door.

“KEYS,” said the boyfriend.
We always do this when we rent a car but the special emphasis was not lost on me. We would be SOL for a very long time if we locked the keys in the car. I held them up in the air.
“NO REALLY, KEYS,” he said.
I held them up and waved them vigorously.
We assembled everything we thought we needed, went through “KEYS” one more time, shut the door and headed into the desert .

The SO took out a map and some printouts of photographs and squinted into the distance. “There,” he said, pointing at a solo, non-branched Joshua Tree plant in the distance. He held up a photo printout to get my assessment. “We start walking towards that.”

But as we reached where we were heading, we realized quickly that it was not the right place. We studied the terrain and the maps and the printouts again. (Astonishingly, I had data coverage–I couldn’t pull up Facebook on the Strip, but in the middle of nowhere Google Maps was working.) I entered the GPS coordinates, it pinpointed the location of the car. I entered another set of GPS coordinates, it pinpointed the car again.

We looked at the map one more time. The boyfriend walked over to a concrete block in the middle of nowhere but it was a sea level marker. We looked at a solo tree in the distance but it seemed too far away to be the location of the photo. They stopped at this one location because there was a tree that stood out alone and wasn’t surrounded by other ones. We considered that the solo tree in the photograph we had, adjacent to the now-dead tree, had also died. That would make things difficult without a compass or a hand-held GPS.

I started to consider the futility of this effort. I started to consider that we might not find the damn thing, after all of this. I wondered how long we would have to walk through this particular stretch of desert before the boyfriend would be willing to give up. I wondered how stubborn I myself would be about all of this. There was no way I was going to give up after coming this far. I reminded myself that we were within sight of the main road, that it was still daylight, that it wasn’t the middle of the summer, and we were not going to get lost like those Dutch tourists. The boyfriend did insist that I be within his range of sight at all times, however, and I wished I had worn my cowboy boots and not sneakers.

After a few more minutes of walking and looking at pictures and more walking, the boyfriend stopped, and pointed to two trees in the distance, down the road away from the car.
“I think we should walk this way.”
I looked in the direction he pointed in, and agreed, with the provision that there was a small rise just ahead. I wanted to get to the top of the rise, and then discuss how we would split up and do a grid search, like I was in a CSI episode, or something.
No sooner did I get to the top of the rise than I saw something, something in a color not native to the desert. It was bright green.
“Honey…” I said.
“Yeah, I see it,” he said.
We started walking briskly in that direction, and then all of a sudden, we were there.

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The green box was a plastic crate that has replaced the former “U Tube,” the PVC pipe that held the logbook for people who visited the tree. The box was full of messages and mementos and had been signed by people–some very recently–from everywhere on the planet. I was slightly humbled to see signatures from Poland and Serbia, that these people from the other side of the world would make their way out to this godforsaken place in the literal middle of nowhere.

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Speaking of dedicated, whoever created this plaque wins the ‘dedicated’ title. It wasn’t just that they made a bronze plaque for the location of the tree, it was that they had to truck out cement, a cement mixer, water, and shovels, and a couple of people to help dig the hole, form the frame, pour the cement, and then wait around for it to cure. Did they drive an ATV into the desert? Did they push a wheelbarrow in from the road? It would have taken several trips to figure the whole thing out, and even if you ‘lived nearby’ you’re still talking about 8 hour round-trips at a minimum.

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There were some people who had made signs out of wood or metal and brought them along, but aside from writing in the logbook or on the box, the popular way of marking your presence was to create something out of rocks. There was a peace sign; there were U2 logos; there was the heart-in-a-suitcase from a previous tour. I didn’t bring anything to put into the box because I disliked the idea of adding refuse to the desert, but it might have been smart if one of us had considered bringing a pen to write in the logbook (luckily there was a working pen inside the two ziplock bags holding the very wet logbook).

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The boyfriend started picking up rocks. “So, ‘dream out loud,’ or something else?”
“Dream out loud.”
“We’re going to take a picture of this and send it to our friend, and she’s going to respond, ‘You know, they’re still not going to play ‘Acrobat’.”
We laughed hard, considered that no one who wasn’t a U2 fan would find that remotely amusing, and went back to picking up rocks and positioning them in the hard winter desert ground. No soft sand in the winter.

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I am amazed that the now-dead tree is still there. I am amazed that no one has stolen it or sawn pieces off to sell on eBay or even taken a leaf or a branch. Trust me, U2 fans (just like intense fans of any band, to be fair) can be a brand of crazy I don’t even want to stand near, but yet, this site was left to exist in peace without being selfishly scavenged limb from limb. Sometimes people manage to rise to their expectations.

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We were starting to lose the light, and the clouds blew away from the mountains but were now over the sky as a whole, and it was getting to be time to start heading back. I took as many photographs as I could think of, although I now look at them and wonder why I dismissed certain angles, or why I didn’t walk back far enough to get the tree location properly positioned against the mountains. We took pictures of each other, we did the goofy thing where you hold up the iPhone with the tree and the mountains in the background. I thought about bringing a tripod but it was okay that I didn’t, because no photograph will ever show what it was like to stand there, to be there with someone who wanted to be there as much as I did, who didn’t think that it was dumb or stupid or idiotic to make this trip, to stand in the middle of the desert in December because 25 years ago, a Dutch photographer and four guys from Ireland decided they would shoot photos for their next album cover here.

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And then, almost at the same time, we decided that we were ready to leave.

The walk back to the road from the tree was infinitely easier than our walk to it (If you park at the turnout, walk back to the drainage culvert and head in from there.) and then we were back at the car and heading back towards civilization. We stopped back at Panamint Springs for lunch (recommended, mostly because there ain’t much else, folks) and use of their free wifi, and drove back over the mountains and through the desert once again. We stopped one more time, at Zabriskie Point, the site of the album cover proper, but it was almost 4:30 by then and getting dark so any hiking around in imitation of the band had to be shelved because we still had a long way to go.

Zabriskie Point. Album cover.

It got dark quicker than we had ever imagined and it even started snowing as we were heading over the last mountain pass between Pahrump and Las Vegas, making the drive difficult and nerve-wracking at the very end, before we descended into the bright light city again.

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It was about pilgrimage, even if you look askance at assigning such a word of weight and import to a journey that seems trivial on the surface. But we go to these places because we are seeking connection, because we are looking for something divine, magical, at least other, seeking meaning or significance above and beyond what’s on the surface. I look at the vast enormity and wild beauty of the desert and wonder how it felt to four young men from Ireland. I listen to the silence and wonder what it does to the imagination of someone who constructs sound for a living. I look at a place and see it through my eyes and the eyes of everyone else who has seen that place. I stand there and try to figure out what I feel and wonder if it is what others felt standing in the same place.


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Dublin, 1984.

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I reminisce about rock and roll tourism, U2 style, in ye olde pre-internet days over at Scatter o’ light.

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Remembering Achtung Baby, 20 Years On

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I remember Achtung Baby as the record where it was not just about what and who U2 were as it was about what and who they weren’t. At the time, people weren’t just U2 fans, you were either fans of the Joshua Tree– era U2 who didn’t love what was perceived as this sudden change, or you were the people who were starting to — not so much lose interest towards the end of that particular phase (including, by all accounts, the band themselves), but might have tired of some of it just a tad, and you loved Achtung Baby not because it was U2’s next album but because it was Achtung Baby. To me, it was closer to the era where they made their bones. For all of the insistence on noise rock influences and Einsturzende and their ilk, I heard the Stones at Nellcote, I heard Marc Bolan’s gold lame pants, I heard the Silver Factory, I heard the Bowie of Heroes, the Lou Reed of Transformer, the Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center. It was Manchester meets Motown.

It was iconic, it was ridiculous, it was groundbreaking. It was overwhelming and exciting – if you wanted to be overwhelmed and excited by all of the above, which I most certainly did.

“The Fly” flooded MTV and after years of gritty black and white earnestness there was a pulse, there was rhythm, there was Edge’s guitar shimmering around the edges like runway lights, reminding us that this was still U2. The video or the promo for the video or the ad for the album was on MTV once every fifteen minutes, and I am not sure that is an exaggeration of any kind. It’s no wonder that by the time that ZooTV went live on tour that the iconography was already so comfortable and familiar to everyone when this was burned into your brain nonstop for so long.

When the record was finally in our hands – and oh, this was still the day of the record – the cover was Robert Frank in technicolor, and the music did not disappoint. It opened with a one-two punch and it closed with a triad taking you in the other emotional direction. “Zoo Station” was a clarion call, chanting “I’m ready” every line. “Even Better Than The Real Thing” felt and sounded like the sun rising. “Ultraviolet” was liquid hope (“baby baby baby, light my way”) anchored by the rhythm section, “Acrobat” was despair set to 6-8 time, “Love Is Blindness” was quicksilver anguish channeled through Edge’s guitar strings.

The sounds and the spaces were colossal. It was big and brash and loud and dark and shiny. It was huge. It wasn’t what we had expected, it was more than we needed, it was what we dearly wanted. It walked that edge between dark and light and between heaven and hell. This record wasn’t about being in God’s country, these were songs about walking the planet every day.

It is a record of anthems, of battle cries, of hymns. After 20 years of hearing “One” in grocery stores and while shopping for jeans at the Gap, it’s hard to remember that you could ever listen to that song and find it evil, haunting and too close to the bone, but the first listen of that song had me on the floor the first time I heard it. I used to sing it at karaoke with my best friend and we’d piss everyone off. We pissed off the guys we dated, who knew we were trying to tell them something but couldn’t figure out what. It pissed off other women in the crowd because we were reminding them of things they didn’t want to think about. It pissed off the other guys in the crowd because our anguish was hot and we always leaned into each other when we sang, which gave them ideas that had no basis in reality. Of course, we sang the song and put on the performance because we wanted to piss everybody off. We sang “One” to each other over the phone. We sang “One” to each other on our answering machines. I marvel that now “One” is a song during which I take a break during a show, and certainly wouldn’t stop the car and turn up the radio if it came on, but back then, it rated that kind of reverence.

I got into the most trouble with the “Ultraviolet”/”Acrobat” axis at the end of the record. I would walk to the beach at sunset with the record on tape or I would sit in my living room with headphones on at sunrise, usually coming home after being out all night, back when that was something I would do. “Oh, sugar, don’t you cry,” Bono would sing, but I would usually be doing just that, exactly. “You I need you to be strong,” he would sing, and I would shake my head to myself in assent. It was the anti-“One,” it wasn’t about regret, it was about moving up and on: “light my way,” over and over again. I would listen to the song grow and expand and open itself up into the bridge, where Larry and Adam were right up front in a giant cavern that filled my heart with sound, and Edge was in the back scratching and Bono singing, pleading, begging, with a voice that sounded like it had been dragged through sandpaper or whiskey or both.

And then, just when you’d recovered, you’d be thrown into “Acrobat.” I should not like “Acrobat.” I do not like 6/8 time, not in a rock song. If you had told me “U2 have a song on this record that’s in 6/8 time” I would have dismissed it out of hand as being entirely too precious. But it works, that’s the thing, it works here without being pretentious. It is the perfect device to give the feeling of being on edge, the manic madness that takes you into another perfectly orchestrated break where the drums parry the guitar and Adam is holding them all down so they don’t swirl into the ether. “You can dream/so dream out loud/and you can find/your own way out, and the Delmore Schwartz reference (which once woke me up in the middle of the night as I was falling asleep to the record and finally placed the line), it’s another rung in the ladder to climb up or out, whatever you need at the time.

You think you’re going to be able to relax by the time “Love Is Blindness” shudders into your ears, and that’s just what they want you to think. They want you to be off-guard, they want you to take a breath or two and listen, and that’s where they get you. They get you with those initial guitar licks in the background, glowing, glimmering, before taking over and shrieking into your brain and your heart at the end.

And then you would start it all over again.

This record stayed with me. I never needed to put it away or give it a break and even with every very specific, very raw, very emotional association I had with it, the music trumped the memories and I never had to give it up. I would drive late at night with the roof open and it ringing in my ears, I would walk through the rain with the volume up just enough to not overshadow the raindrops, I would lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling and look for an epiphany. Nowadays I walk with it, I let it take me through the streets of New York City at twilight, for comfort or strength or solace or all three. I let it power me up when I have something to do or somewhere to be. I decided that if I was a Major League Baseball player, I would choose “Even Better Than The Real Thing” as my walk-up music. When I am facing the public or giving a reading, I will have listened to side one at some point before I got there.

So on the 20th anniversary of this record, it is being revisited and re-examined and re-explored, and I am at a loss at all of this RE-ing because it was the second or third album that went onto my first iPod in 2003 and I have never stopped listening to it long enough to be able to re-anything when it comes to Achtung Baby. It’s hard for me to revisit that which has never left.

In 1993, I was living overseas, and had been there for over five years already. I was living this odd no-man’s land of not being quite American but not being quite European either. In a way, Achtung Baby also occupies that emotional space, the band still being who they were, despite the previous few years of pursuing their Kerouac-like On The Road fantasy through the USA. Joshua Tree was white lights and cowboy hats, Achtung Baby was strobe lights and leather pants. When the tour rolled out in the US, despite being thousands of miles away, the magic of MTV made you feel like you were there. We knew everything that was going on, we knew about the calls to the White House and the pizzas and the video confessional as well as if it was in our backyard. I wanted to see it live but I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen – until my sister’s wedding in August of 93 required my presence back on the East Coast. I could route myself home via London just in time for Zooropa at Wembley Stadium.

I will tell you that nothing, not a damn thing, not a MTV News report or a photo essay in Rolling Stone or in-depth Q Magazine coverage prepared me for the sheer size of things. Part of it probably had to do with the fact that I had been living in a country that would neatly fit inside the state of New Jersey, everything was going to be massive by comparison. I had seats in the stands, about 1/3 back, halfway up. I looked at the mass of humanity on the pitch and wished I was there. I was by myself; despite the obsession my particular circle of friends had over this record, I don’t remember why I ended up traveling solo. It was an odd, disjointed time in my life, where I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Everyone around me streamed into the stadium in large, laughing groups, and I found my way to my seat by myself, feeling like a country bumpkin.

I was utterly not prepared for this. I was a girl who didn’t do stadium shows, who had sworn them off after surviving the Who and the Stones at the beginning of the 80s, who skipped her beloved Bruce Springsteen by the time Born In The USA got to the blimp nests because it wasn’t about watching the show, it was about spending some time in the same physical space as an artist and I wanted more from my music than that.

And then the lights went on, Edge hit the intro riff, Larry smashed the drums, and every single person at Wembley got to their feet. There was Bono, silhouetted against the blue, the fly against the TV screen. There were the leg kicks, there he was, humping the microphone stand. The music reached out across the enormity and pulled me in like I was standing at the edge of the stage.

I knew what “Zoo Station” was going to be like because I had seen it so many times, it was almost familiar, the first number had been in countless tv broadcasts. I even knew small details, like that last song before the band came out was going to be “Television, the Drug of a Nation” by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphopiacy (just like I’d known that John Lennon’s version of “Stand By Me” was the last song before the band came out on Joshua Tree). But nothing was going to prepare me for being there, and even being so far away from the stage – I didn’t! Do! Stadium! Shows!- it was overwhelming, even from where I was. I was glad I wasn’t closer because it would have swallowed me whole if I had. I held my breath through “Zoo Station” and “The Fly” because I was in shock. I was physically, mentally, emotionally unprepared for the spectacle, the power of the music live, the energy generated in such a large space. For London greeting U2 at Wembley fucking Stadium. 

And then the trabants went up and the lights flashed on and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” roared out of the speakers and into the center of my chest and it was like I had just woken up, like I had been frozen and had thawed out, that moment in the WIzard of Oz where everything goes from black and white to color. It was so big, so bright, so all-encompassing. It’s going to seem stupid when I tell you that that was the moment that I realized that I was moving back to America, that I had been heading in the wrong direction, that I thought I was doing the right thing with my life but that I had been doing anything but. Even at the time I said something to myself about being so cliche as to having a catharsis at a stadium rock show but there was something about the loop being closed, the circuits being opened, seeing this record live. It was the size, it was the sound, it was the power, it was something shaking you upside down until you came back to your senses.

I laid awake in bed that night staring at the ceiling and not believing I was going to do it again the next night.

There was a problem with my tickets the second night. They were legit, but they had been given to someone else more important than me, so a security guard took me to the production office to find another place to sit. Apparently I was the only person who didn’t walk in there ready for a fight – to be fair, would you want to find out there was a problem with your U2 ticket? – but I was just so happy to be there, to be able to be part of the circus one more time that as long as I had a ticket, I would be okay, which is what I told them. That’s when they noticed the accent, and asked me if I’d come just to see the show, and I said yes, and before I knew it I found myself on the same side of the stadium (Adam’s side, stage left) and a much much lower row. This was still Wembley, so I was still miles away, but after the previous night, I knew it wasn’t going to matter.

I got to my seat and noticed the entire row behind me were wearing MacPhisto horns. No sooner did I sit down than I felt someone tapping me on the shoulder and proffering a set of horns.
“What’s this?” I said.
“You have to get into the spirit of things,” he said.
“Don’t worry, I’m in the spirit of things.”
“You’re American!”
I nodded.
“I brought enough for everyone,” he said, “But you have to wear them.”
I put them on my head immediately.
“Now, that’s the spirit!” he said, standing up and waving at the people behind him who were not wearing devil horns. “Look, the girl from America put them on.”

This was the best possible section of people to be with for this show, people who stood up and danced and sang and shouted all night long. Tonight was participatory, yelling comments at Bono as though he could hear them, my new friend imitating every single one of Bono’s moves onstage with gusto (especially the crotch-in-camera ones, to much hilarity). You haven’t quite lived until you’re imitating belly dancing moves during “Mysterious Ways” with a motley group of kids from the London suburbs, all wearing devil horns. Everyone knew all the lines because they had been watching and listening and paying attention for the past year or so: “You didn’t come here to watch TV, now have ya??” we yelled with Bono as though we had heard it every night of our life.

In a way, of course, we had.

When the show was over, I walked out of Wembley with my new friends, several of them insisting on getting me back to the tube station even though I kept telling them I knew where I was going just fine. I didn’t realize I was still wearing my MacPhisto horns until I got off at my stop and walked into the off license to buy a drink. The elderly shop clerk looked up at me, saw the horns, did a double-take and I caught my reflection in the window just as a big smile broke across his face.

He said, “So, who did Bono ring up tonight, then?”

I wish I knew what happened to those devil horns.


(For the record: the first night was — I believe — the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Bono and the crowd sang “I Just Called To Say I Love You” and the second night was the coach of a football team whose name I have long since forgotten, but understood enough about UK sport to get why we were singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” I am hoping a kind commenter will fill in that gap.)

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“For Clarence”

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It was inevitable, it being New Jersey, and it went on all night – adding “Promised Land” at the end of ISHFWILF, thanking Bruce for the loan of the hall, getting the crowd to “Bruuuuce” them. It was inevitable, and I knew it was coming, but when Bono went to the front of the stage and pulled out the sign – and that person had to have gotten online at the stroke of dawn to get that spot – it didn’t make it any easier, as he proceeded to dedicate “Moment of Surrender” to the E Street Band. And again, again, even with all of that, even though I knew it was going to happen, I’d seen the video, I’d heard the song files from Oakland, Bono invoking the last verse of “Jungleland” in New Jersey, across the parking lot where we stood and watched them all there not that long ago – well, goddammit, you learn from the best, you Irish bastard.

I didn’t expect Bruce to play and I realized on the train home that I had no real need or desire for him to play.

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