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"I think [U2] push themselves harder than any other group I've worked with." — Steve Lillywhite

Like a Song: A Sort of Homecoming


[Ed. note: This is the 32nd in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]

Like A Song

As I awoke Nov. 17, 2001, I had one thought running through my head. It's a rather absurd thought, since most people who ever have it don't really want it to come true. After all, it's awfully final and consequential. And yet, I often fall back on it to help sum up a short five minutes of my life that, for me, represent the most incredible culmination of dedication, devotion, and years of U2 fandom into a total dream come true:

I can die happy now.

On Nov. 16, 2001, I had the good luck and fortune to play "A Sort of Homecoming" onstage with Bono and Edge in Oakland, Calif., and it is without a doubt one of the greatest moments of my life. "A Sort of Homecoming" has always been among my favorites in the U2 catalog, for reasons both musical and lyrical. Obviously, it took on a whole new meaning after that night.

Music has been my passion ever since I can remember, from the days of forced piano and trumpet lessons, to me "learning how to play the guitar" by retuning my Mom's beat-up old ukulele to my liking, and hacking away at it as U2 videos I had taped from MTV played in the background. I soon graduated to real guitar, and have since been playing and singing both solo and in various bands for a good 20 years. U2 (The Edge, in particular) have been the single biggest inspiration and influence on my playing style and taste in music. If I had a dime for every different type of guitar, amp, effect unit, string or pick I acquired over the years in an ongoing quest to achieve The Sound, or for every two hour concert bootleg I played along to in my living room in a never-ending attempt to refine The Technique, I'd now be filthy rich.

My first U2 concert was at age 16 during The Joshua Tree Tour at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y. Halfway into the show, Bono pulled a girl onstage and let her play guitar on "People Get Ready." Though I was in the nosebleeds, you can imagine what this spontaneous-appearing moment did for a young rock star wannabe. Ever since, it's been a dream of mine to one day get plucked from the crowd to play a tune. Fast forward to 2001 and the third leg of the Elevation Tour when Bono starts pulling folks up every now and then -- I knew I had to give it a shot.

For years I'd been dreaming about what I might do if I ever got up there. Rather than play one of several "three-chord cover tunes" that had been typical of previous onstage moments, I knew that if this ever happened to me, I would try to make the most of it by mixing it up and playing a U2 song that they had either never played or otherwise wouldn't think to play.Songs like "Acrobat" and "When I Look at the World" were initial ideas, but I figured I'd better not get too far-fetched or they'd laugh me right off (especially with Bono's knack for forgetting lyrics). I needed something rare, but not totally out of the question. "A Sort of Homecoming" seemed like a good option -- an older tune that hardcore fans would just about die to hear, and a song they'd only played once in the last 15 years, at the first Slane Castle show I went to earlier that summer.

The Oakland Elevation shows were my 10th and 11th of the tour. I was with about 10 friends, so this seemed like a good time to give it a go. Geek U2 fan that I am, I made a sign -- Me + Guitar = People? Knockin? Watchtower? Anything! -- and camped out on the rail at the inside tip of the heart for both shows. I thought it might happen the first night when John Sampson, Bono's head of security, saw my sign and asked if I could really play. I said yes, and my friends all vouched for me. He told me I'd better not be lying, since the band hates it when someone gets up who can't actually play. We all convinced him that I could, and he said he'd give Bono the "okay" sign if they decided to do it -- which they didn't. No worries, always the next night. But holy heartbeat...

So, Oakland #2. I'm again right at the inside tip of the heart along the rail. The band is in a very spontaneous mood, and the show is already fantastic. For some reason, the stars seem aligned. Bono keeps checking out my sign as they're finishing "Angel of Harlem" at the tip. He and Edge are smiling, almost taunting me. I keep mouthing "I can play! I can play!" while holding up one of Edge's blue Herdim picks that I use all the time, as if to prove I really do know what I'm doing. Bono says, "There's a gentleman here who wants to play a tune with us." And what do you know -- Bono nods and tells me to come up.

Oh my God.

I shake Edge's and Bono's hands, and Dallas hands me Edge's new Taylor acoustic. "It pays to advertise," Bono says. Moments later, I'm picking the beginning notes to "A Sort of Homecoming" while Bono and Edge try to figure out what is happening. Bono leans in to ask which of the three songs on my sign we should do, but I just grin and try to let him listen to what I'm playing. My friends tell me that Edge was watching and listening with a "What the...?" look on his face for a few seconds. Bono figures it out and starts to sing the first verse. The crowd realizes what's happening and lets out both a roar and a gasp at the same time, since no one is expecting "A Sort of Homecoming" to make an appearance. Having joined in on guitar, Edge leans in and says, "If we're gonna do this one, we're gonna have to go up to the main stage." So I follow him up the left side of the ramp until I'm smack dab in the middle of the stage, in Bono's usual spot, looking out at everyone. Talk about surreal... For some reason I wasn't really nervous, since I was just focusing on taking Bono's cues and not screwing up.

After the quieter first verse and chorus, I broke into the main chords while Edge continued with the main lead, and the crowd roared again. Bono told us to keep going for a bit while he tried to figure out the lyrics. I guess he was looking for a lyric sheet but didn't end up finding one, since he ended up adding a lot of improv about Oakland, Van Morrison, etc., in true Bono fashion.

It was absolutely incredible being up on the main stage, looking out over the crowd, making eye contact with Bono at the tip of the heart and with Edge at my side, trying to follow all the cues and leads. We took it to the bridge and then a shortened final verse. Before we ended, Bono talked about turning the song into a prayer for the U.S., given what had happened on 9/11 just two months earlier. The crowd again roared their approval, and we ended with Bono singing, "I am coming home," and everyone on cue.

Oh my God, again. I'm sure it looked like I had died and gone to heaven. I walked over to Edge for a quick handshake and hug, and thanked him for a dream come true. Edge then actually thanked me for bringing out "A Sort of Homecoming," since they hadn't played it "in quite a while." As I walked back down the right side of the heart, I saw Bono standing at the tip, waiting and clapping for me -- a truly incredible moment. I gave him a hug, but I don't really remember exactly what was said, other than numerous thank-yous on my part. He asked my name, and then said, "This is Scott!" to the crowd. What an amazing feeling. I jumped back onto the floor, and hugged and thanked all the folks around me who had helped to make it happen. The rest of the show was a complete blur, as the reality of what had happened set in. Despite not being nervous while up there, immediately afterward my stomach became a single, joyously painful knot as the biggest shot of adrenaline I've ever experienced kicked in and lasted for hours.

I met and talked with tons of people after the show, and at the Vegas and L.A. shows a couple of days later, which helped me relive the experience and fill in some of the details I had missed due to the whirlwind nature of it all. Luckily, several people around me managed to capture some great photos and even a couple of video clips (still looking for video of the whole thing!). I barely managed an hour of sleep at the hotel that night, but that certainly didn't matter one bit. On a funny note, I called my parents the next morning to tell them what had happened. My Mom answered the phone and I told her that "I got on stage and played guitar with U2 last night!" She paused and said, "What?! Who got sick?!" As if I had filled in for The Edge that evening... Ha!

I had the opportunity to chat with Bono for a few minutes when he spoke for the World Affairs Council here in Portland in 2004. He signed one of the pictures of the two of us onstage, writing "'A Sort of Homecoming'... Scott comes of age... - Bono." A great way to close the loop on the whole experience.

Thank you, U2, for helping to make this happen and for going along with me when I decided to deviate from the setlist. You've truly made one fan's dream come true. And although I could die happy now, I certainly don't want to. I hear there's a pretty good new U2 album out, and a tour in the works...


© @U2/Perretta, 2009.