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The @U2 Interview: Jerry Mele

U2's former security chief talks about almost 10 years on the road with U2

@U2, February 21, 2008
By: Matt McGee

 

A man in Arizona wakes up each day, walks his dogs, does some gardening. He works out. He spends time with his wife and watches his son's ballgames. It sounds like a peaceful, quiet life. But he'd just as soon be back with the "circus," as he calls it -- a rock 'n' roll tour, in an arena or stadium somewhere, protecting his bosses and the kids who want to see and hear them.

His name is Jerry Mele, and longtime U2 fans probably know who he is. Jerry led U2's security team from 1989 to 1997 and earned a reputation in the touring industry as someone who did things differently. Better. He talked about the crowd as "our kids" and told local security to work with the fans, not against them. This Vietnam special unit veteran believed it was better to talk to a troublemaker than to fight him. This was crazy, revolutionary stuff in the security industry!

Jerry's security career came to an end in 1997, after an incident at U2's first show in Mexico City. He was, of course, trying to protect people from getting hurt. There was a fracas with the sons of then-Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and their security guards; guns were drawn, cars sped away, and Jerry Mele was seriously hurt trying to help fellow security team member, Jerry Meltzer.

That's just one of the stories Jerry will tell in print: He's writing his memoirs with author Tamara Hawkinson, who also helped arrange this e-mail interview. He talks about several unforgettable occasions from his work with U2, and the great times he had with U2 fans like you and me. He still calls us his "kids" and cares as much about us today as when he was watching us watch U2.



Matt: How are you feeling these days?

Jerry: Guess it depends on what day. Physically, I'm always in a fair amount of pain from the nerve damage, so I have to manage that. I work on keeping my health stabilized by walking several miles and working out every day so my muscles don't atrophy. Some days are easier than others. The main thing is I'm not giving in.

And now that I'm working on my book, I'm getting in touch with a lot of guys from the industry, so that is great fun.

What's a typical day like?

Not what I'd like them to be since I'd rather be hanging with you kids somewhere on the road.

But these days I'm usually up around 5:30 to walk the dogs, then I work in my garden and koi pond. I designed different areas to represent parts of the world that I had the great fortune to visit during my 20 years in the music industry, so I'm always surrounded by those memories.

And living in Arizona, I get outside a lot on my recumbent bike and trike motorcycle. My legs can't hold up a regular motorcycle any more.

Most importantly, I get to hang out with my son, Sam, and his friends, go to his hockey games, baseball games and, whenever possible, take him to see some of the bands his ole man worked with.

What concerts have you guys seen?

We try to see most of the bands I worked for when they are in Phoenix: David Bowie, Michael Bolton, Slayer, Pat Benatar, Ozzy, Peter Frampton and, of course, U2. But other than that, it's just too frustrating. I can't help but watch what's going on with the security, how the fans are treated, all the details ... and I can't get involved. I'm powerless. And just imagine me trying to keep my mouth shut.

You mentioned your book. Why are you writing your memoirs now?

After being out of the music industry for 10 years, I realize I was one lucky bastard to be in the business when it was fun, at the height of rock and roll when we made up some of the rules as we went along. I mean touring back then was like traveling with the circus. Now it's more like a business trip.

But mainly I want the book to be a tribute to you guys -- the fans and the bands I worked with for 20 years. I credit the music industry for helping me survive the aftermath of my deadly Vietnam special units experience. I used my special ops training to promote nonviolence instead of death and destruction, which has been my penance of sorts.

How much will you talk about your work with U2 in the book?

Quite a bit. Since I worked with those guys for almost 10 years, there's no shortage of stories. Man, I burst out laughing half the time just thinking of all the fun we had. And they supported so many of my ideas that were all geared toward making the concerts safer and more fun for you guys. Just don't expect a lot of gossip or behind-the-scenes dirt. My legs may not work so great, but my integrity isn't broken.

What are some of the ideas you had? What did you do differently?

Well, like bringing you guys in around the B-stage. Or taking kids from nose-bleed seats and bringing them down front so it wasn't a bunch of "sit-on-their-butt" credit card guys in the first few rows. Made it a lot more fun for the band to play to screamin' jumpin' fans.

And the barricades. I'd been out with Slayer between U2 tours and making my own barricades out of bicycle racks. Because of the moshing, everything was geared toward making it a safer environment for the fans -- things like no sharp angles, pads on the floor behind the barricades, wrapped corners, using materials that wouldn't collapse, stuff like that. When I told the band (U2) about what I'd been doing, they had me design barricades that worked with their stage design and had a barricade company build them.

Back to your book: Will you explain what happened in Mexico City on the PopMart Tour?

Yes.

It's been 10 years since that happened. Does it seem that long to you?

In one way it seems like yesterday and in another, a lifetime ago.

We've read several different versions of what happened there. Can you set the record straight for us?

There's no way to go into all the details here, but I can clear up a couple false stories:

For one, the rumor that I laid down in front of an SUV to stop it is absolutely false. I was hired to protect Bono, Larry, Edge and Adam, and that's what I was doing when I was hit by the SUV and dragged.

Also, I'm not brain damaged from being pistol-whipped. Security employee Jerry Meltzer was hit in the forehead with a gun barrel and was stitched up at the local hospital.

I've been hurt and worked in pain so many times I just figured this was another episode. Now I realize the Universe was sending me a message, but I didn't want to hear it. So I worked the next night's show [also in Mexico City] and then went on to Vancouver and Seattle, where I saw a lot of you regulars because it was the end of the PopMart North American leg. I still have this great big card you guys made me, and a lemon covered in silver sequins. I hang it on my Christmas tree every year. And I still have the lemon juicer [@U2 writer] Sherry Lawrence gave me.

Anyway, we [U2] were in South America six weeks later when I collapsed. My body finally forced my mind to accept how hurt I was. And that was it. The life I loved was over.

Do you miss being out on the road?

You gotta know the answer to that one, man. Can you imagine going from something you absolutely loved, I mean loved every minute, and BAM!, it's all over, gone forever. Yeah, I miss it.

Let's turn back the clock. You started with U2 on the Lovetown Tour. What were your initial impressions of the band? Was it different to work with them, compared to the bands you worked with before?

I was there to do my job whether it was for U2 or Slayer or Liberace. But I traveled the world with U2 for nearly a decade and, jeez, we had a lot of fun.

What about the shows and the fans? We -- U2 fans, that is -- like to think we're different than other rock fans. Are we?

I'll say this: I had a special relationship with you guys because of the nature of the U2 fans. You are like a big family, and you took me in. No other group of fans called me Uncle Jerry. And the cards and gifts you've given me, especially after the Mexico incident -- Matt, please let everyone know how much that friendship still means to me and how I've kept every single item I ever received. In fact, we'll be featuring some of them in the book.

Were you ever able to enjoy the concerts, or were you too busy working during the show?

Honestly, I don't think I ever heard the music. I'd bounce around to the drums but I hardly ever looked up on stage. I was checking the crowd, always on guard. That's how I happened to see that fire start in Mexico [on the Zoo TV tour] -- the one Bill Flanagan talks about in U2 At the End of the World.

Tell me that story. I remember reading what Bill Flanagan described from his vantage point.

Well, like I said, I was always looking around, and I noticed an area in the balcony where some fans were moving away from an area. There's only a couple possibilities: a fight, maybe someone collapsed or something dangerous people are trying to get away from. I was already on my way when I saw a puff of gray smoke. Like Bill said in the book, I was flying, so I reach the area and a guy has a leather coat in his arms. I grab it as I run by and use this poor guy's coat to beat out the fire. I apologized to the guy and offered to replace the coat, but he wanted to keep it. Everyone was back in their seats and I was back on the floor by the time the next song started.

Did the security detail change on Zoo TV, when there were so many supermodels and celebrities following the band around?

You mean other than me getting to walk around with Naomi Campbell on one arm and Cindy Crawford on the other?

Ha! Sounds like one of those "tough job, but someone has to do it" things. What about Salman Rushdie's appearance at Wembley Stadium? What was that like for you and the security team?

Man, that was something else. Salman Rushdie was a hot target considering there was still a bounty of £1.5 million for his execution. Having Rushdie on stage made the band a target as well, so I worked with Rushdie's security team to devise a secret and safe way on and off the stage. This is a good example where my reconnaissance experience in Vietnam came in handy.

What was your reaction when you heard that U2 wanted to go into Sarajevo and play in the summer of 1993, right in the middle of the war there?

I think it was Bono's idea, but because of the danger that was shut down so fast it never even made it to me for discussion.

As for the 1997 concert, I was all for it. Music is the international language, so I figured it could only be positive. The security precautions were intense. One thing I did is require the security detail to be a mix of the previously warring nationalities to reduce the possibility of any ethnic issues during the concert, and it worked.

Do you have a favorite U2 gig?

Not really. I guess any favorites had more to do with where we were. David Bowie taught me a lot about architecture, so I always rode my bike around whatever town we were in. If I had to pick, though, I'd say the Sarajevo show.

A favorite U2 song?

Probably "Where the Streets Have No Name," because of the lyrics.

What do you think or hope your legacy is where concert security is concerned?

That I fought for the kids. Matt, if it wasn't for you guys, the fans, I mean -- you're what made me want to work as hard as I did. And when I say kids, I mean fans of any age.

With the support of the bands and their fans, we proved that good security doesn't have to include violence. And I believed in communication with respect and have 20 years of positive results to prove it works.

Matt, before we finish up, I just wanted to thank you guys and Sherry for mentioning my birthday recently. [Ed. note: Sherry wrote about Jerry's birthday in a recent edition of @U2's OTR column.] I can't tell you how proud that makes me feel -- and that what I did with security for U2 was all worth it.

Let's talk again before long. I'll keep you posted on how the book is coming along.

[Jerry Mele's book is in its early stages, and doesn't yet have a title or target publication date.]



© @U2, 2008.



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