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A band on a mission: U2 has capitalized on its pop platform

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, July 20, 2011
By: Rege Behe

 

They were typical Dublin teenagers during the mid-1970s, certain their band was destined for greatness.

Like many of their peers in the nascent punk/new wave scene, they did everything possible to establish their credibility: The hair and clothes just so, even adopting cryptic pseudonyms to embellish their independent streak.

They had fans, but one rival band in particular was keen on not letting them steal the spotlight.

It turned out well ... for the other band. Neil McCormick's group, Frankie Corpse & The Undertakers, never quite made it. But the band fronted by McCormick's good friend Paul Hewson -- later to be known as Bono Vox -- did.

U2 will bring its 360 Tour to Pittsburgh on Tuesday with more than 60,000 fans expected to pack Heinz Field.

McCormick, a London-based music journalist and author of the memoir "Killing Bono," admits the vocalist, the Edge, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton no longer are the average, normal teenagers he knew in Dublin.

But how could they be?

"You can say they were normal guys when I first got to know them," McCormick says. "But the different kind of characteristics that made them U2, that drove them on to this incredible period of hyper-fame, were there. Bono was always a very jumpy, pushy, friendly, curious, over-animated person. The Edge was always a thoughtful, scientific sort of person. Adam was a bit of louche rock-star kind of person. And Larry was a very-tightly-wound-up-keep-the-lid-on-everything kind of person. So those characteristics were there. But fame is a prism through which everything gets distorted, and I don't think you could imagine for a moment that somebody could leave school with barely a job between them -- Larry did work -- and become a rock star, become some of the most famous people in the world, and become rich beyond your wildest dream, adored everywhere you go, and somehow remain normal."

Men on a mission

What differs about U2's fame is that it's not celebrity-driven; music is the engine of every U2 enterprise. According to Steve Catanzarite, the author of "Achtung Baby: Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall (331/3)" and the managing director of the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center in Midland, Beaver County, U2 has employed its art to draw attention to the causes the band champions.

"What they've done is actually make good on what a lot of people saw as the promise of the rock era," Catanzarite says. "Of actually being out there, and making a difference beyond just making pop records, which is a great thing in and of itself. There's nothing wrong with a great pop record; I think that's an incredible thing to do. But in terms of having an influence on the culture and society beyond just the realm of popular music, I think U2 has really fulfilled that in a lot of ways that bands like The Who have not. I think if you asked Pete Townshend now, he'd say The Who fell short of that, by and large."

Bono, in particular, has worked tirelessly to end world poverty and hunger. The vocalist engaged Jesse Helms, the late senator from North Carolina, and former president George W. Bush, to raise awareness and funds to battle the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

Bill Carter remembers a night in Verona, Italy, in 1993 as evidence of U2's commitment to causes beyond the pale of pop culture.

Carter, then a fledgling filmmaker, was leaving a party at 3 a.m. after an exhilarating day. He'd traveled from Sarajevo to Verona, scored an interview with Bono, and came away with a video containing a message of hope for the citizens of Sarajevo, who had been forgotten by the rest of the world. People who were under siege, being shelled and shot at by Serbian snipers.

"Hey, where are you going?"

It was Bono, beckoning Carter and his party to wait. Bono and the Edge wanted to go to Sarajevo, but any gathering of Sarajevans would draw an attack from snipers. More than it being dangerous for rock stars, Carter didn't want to see anymore Sarajevans die.

Instead, they hatched a plan: Via satellite U2 would take the cause of Sarajevo to the world, stopping shows on its Zoo TV Tour for video broadcasts hosted by Carter featuring Sarajevans telling their stories.

"In that moment, when he walked over, in that 20 minutes ... I think everything changed for what was going to be possible to do inside Sarajevo, and for Bosnia," Carter says. "And things were starting to change that rarely happened for the (Sarajevan) people, and they changed for me. I was dreaming of making a documentary but I had no idea how to do it. How was I going to show what I had filmed to the world? I knew it was going to be very difficult and I had no idea of how to go about it. But all of a sudden that was possible. And Bono, obviously, has that ability to make things possible."

With the help of U2, Carter was able to complete "Miss Sarajevo," his award-winning documentary. But did he change anything at all? Would the world eventually have turned its attention to the siege of Sarajevo, Carter's efforts notwithstanding?

Carter does not want to take any credit for changing history. But recently, he met an Air Force officer who told the filmmaker the satellite linkups Carter produced with U2 were essential to gaining approval for the bombing missions that freed Sarajevo.

"That was totally staggering to me," Carter says. "I didn't know this guy at all, and it was a little overwhelming to me. But I still don't know if what we did was what made a difference. I wouldn't want to take credit for that."

Men of faith and motion

The championing of causes small and large does cast U2 in some quarters as glory-seeking jesters more interested in the grand moment than tangible results. Bono, it is fair to be said, never shies away from the limelight in these situations.

But McCormick, who has known the band for almost four decades, says this philanthropy is rooted in the band's faith.

"It's all about their belief in God," McCormick says, noting that he and Bono often debate -- and disagree about -- matters of spirituality. "But I see that it has been a very positive thing in his life. It's very protective. If you have that strong belief in God, you actually think the good fortune that's happening is the result of a higher power. It's not 'I'm such great guy.' It gives your ego freedom to not get boosted up by the success. It also protected them at that early stage when rock bands go wildly off the rails because you can have whatever you want. Everything is laid out for you, and it's sex and drugs, but it's more than that. It's everything that just feeds the ego. And Bono has a very strong idea that he shares with the others, in that he has to give something back because of his incredible good fortune."

Even without that faith, the band's Irish heritage acts as a natural retardant to over-inflated egos. McCormick notes that if you get "too big for your boots in Ireland," the Irish will quickly knock you down a peg.

"They might even talk to you a bit rudely if they think you're expecting to worshiped," McCormick says.

There are numerous stories about visitors to Dublin who meet cab drivers, shopkeepers or other folk who claim to know Bono. McCormick calls him an itinerant character who, because his mother died when he was 14, "always has to be out and moving." In 1999, during a trip to Rome, McCormick witnessed Bono's deep-seated need to be with people.

Bono, Quincy Jones and others had spent the day lobbying the pope and politicians and giving speeches. At midnight, there finally was time for dinner. After the meal, everyone was exhausted.

Bono wanted more even though he had an early flight the next day.

"He just walked out into the street," McCormick says, "and brought Rome traffic to a halt by holding up his arms. A car pulled up full of transsexuals and Bono leaned in and asked if there was anything going on."

McCormick soon found himself lodged in the backseat with Bono and his new friends, en route for a night of merriment at a Rome disco.

"The owner immediately furnished us with vodka and champagne," McCormick says. "and we danced the night away."

Tour 'an adventure and a journey'

The biggest tour in the history of rock 'n' roll will play its penultimate show in Pittsburgh.

U2's appearance on Tuesday at Heinz Field will mark the 109th of 110 shows on the 360 Tour, which started in Barcelona, Spain, in 2009. Since then, the Irish band's extravaganza has crisscrossed the globe, with multiple stops in the United States and Europe, and concerts in South Africa, Russia, New Zealand and Australia.

Craig Evans, the tour director, has seen every concert on the itinerary. He compares the ensemble that includes 132 full-time crew members, 220 truck drivers and 12 bus drivers to a traveling city, a group of "really talented professionals" who have made the 360 Tour possible.

"It is an adventure and it is a journey," says Evans. who has worked on U2's past four tours. "It's project after project with all your touring mates. It's really quite an interesting lifestyle. People ask how can you do that, how can you work all those hours. You can't do it alone. What makes it easier is this tremendous group we have with us."

The most talked about aspect of the U2 set is the Claw, a four-pronged steel structure (with an imbedded 150-foot-tall center pylon) that houses a 360-degree rotating stage. It takes eight days to assemble the stage set. Evans says 1,500 local workers will be hired to help assemble the structure and provide security and other services.

"The impact is certainly in the millions in a positive manner to each community," Evans says. "But there's a lot of residual impact that goes beyond that in terms of people who will come back to a city because they enjoyed the experience."

It is estimated that by the end of the final show in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, the 360 Tour will have grossed more than $700 million and played before 7 million fans.

While the size of everything associated with the 360 Tour is gargantuan, Evans says the aim was to create a feeling of intimacy.

"That is what the band is after," he says, "that you can actually come into a stadium, and not be overwhelmed by the bells and whistles, but to have a direct connection with the band and the music. That was the ultimate goal when they were first designing it, and I think they've achieved it magnificently."

Evans does admit to being a bit melancholic as the tour winds down. But he will long remember one moment that occurs at every show.

"The lights go down, the crowd goes up, the band comes on, and Pow! the show starts," Evan says. "And that's the moment that the hair stands up on your arm every time. That's the moment that keeps us doing this year after year, tour after tour. That's the moment when you have that emotional connection for the first time between the band and the artist. In the case of U2, you get that over and over again in the show, a lot those incredible moments. But the first one that starts that night is the one that re-energizes you for everything it's going to take to make that show happen.

(c) Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 2011.

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