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To see like a songwriter is the easiest. . . . Hearing like a writer is a lot harder; you've got to really listen. -- Bono

Book Review: U2 LIVE - A Concert Documentary

U2 LIVE - A Concert Documentary by Pimm Jal de la Parra Omnibus Press

In the interest of full disclosure, let me play a few cards right at the start: The first version of U2 LIVE was my favorite U2-related book from the minute I bought it. I've been waiting anxiously for this update, following its progress online over the past year. What's more, I've known the author of this latest update of U2 LIVE for nearly ten years now, and I consider her a friend. In short, I'm not an unbiased writer as I sit here to offer a book review. With that out of the way, I'll say this: If you ask for just one U2-related book for the holidays this year, ask for the new update of U2 LIVE.

It's been well-documented how Caroline van Oosten de Boer came to take over the updating of U2 LIVE. Pimm Jal de la Parra, who wrote the original that was released in 1994 as well as an incomplete 1997 update that included only the first handful of shows from the PopMart Tour, died in April 2002. His family asked van Oosten de Boer to take over the book and complete the work Pimm had started. (They were close friends who worked together on the terrific Collectormania magazine and the original U2 LIVE.) She did, and with the help of countless fans around the world, the third version of U2 LIVE has just hit book stores.

The new edition of U2 LIVE includes the full text and photos of the original version untouched and unedited. What's new, then, is more than 70 pages of concert recaps covering the PopMart and Elevation tours, an accompanying collection of color photos from those two tours, and an appendix that provides updates and corrections to the previous printings. What's gone, due to space restrictions, is some of the statistical information from the original, such as the lists of concerts per country, per year, etc. The new content follows the successful format of the original, presenting basic facts about each show -- date, location, attendance, setlist, etc. -- followed by a written recap highlighting the noteworthy elements of each show, and sparing no words on those nights when U2 couldn't conjure anything noteworthy on stage to write about.

In fact, it's the book's unabashed honesty that makes it such a worthwhile read. U2 is a great live band, but we all know that not every concert is two hours of unadulterated magic. When the band is bad, U2 LIVE calls them on it. Consider this description of the opening night of the PopMart Tour:

"As The Edge puts on his guitar he finds out it's not working. He needs to kick a switch on one of his foot pedals which is conveniently covered in smoke. Blinded, The Edge goes down on his hands and knees to find it by touch -- which although it must have been embarrassing -- has him in stitches. He manages to get his guitar working and a truly awful version of Discotheque follows. It doesn't even come close to the power it has on record and Edge's guitar malfunctions for most of the song."

Likewise, on those nights when U2 is making magic, U2 LIVE captures the spirit, and does it without cheerleading. There are a couple references to shows that have "gone into orbit" or "left the planet," and terrific descriptions that tell why. You may buy U2 LIVE for the facts you'll learn about any given U2 show, but it's the writing that will bring back memories of the shows you saw, and take you to shows you didn't. Take this from the October 12, 2001, Elevation show in Montreal:

"After Walk On, Bono leaves the stage, hanging his Todd Lynn jacket -- with its American flag lining -- over the microphone stand. The lights go out, a single spotlight remaining on the jacket and flag. After a few minutes, Grace is played over the PA as the crowd walk out the venue into the pouring rain."

Backing up the sharp writing is superb research about some of the little things that happen during a U2 show -- things that are often the only way to separate one show from the next. U2 LIVE is filled with citations of Bono's speeches and between-songs commentaries, behind-the-scenes information about the various celebrities and friends of U2 who were in attendance at many shows, and explanations of the non-U2 song snippets Bono often sings. You'll learn, for example, that Bono sang bits of a song called "The Sash My Father Wore" into "Bullet the Blue Sky" during the PopMart Tour, and that "Sash" is an Irish Protestant marching song that helped segue between "Bullet" and "Please."

The new content in U2 LIVE is not without flaws. There are an inordinate number of minor typos and misspellings which will need to be corrected in the next update. (If you need an excuse look no further than the fact that van Oosten de Boer had, by her own count, about three months to write recaps of the more than 200 PopMart and Elevation shows.) Beyond that, there are a few memorable incidents not mentioned in the book -- such as Bono donning MacPhisto's horns and gold jacket during the St. Louis PopMart show, a moment that was talked about for weeks in online discussion groups. But picking on these aspects of U2 LIVE is akin to knocking Bono for his salty tongue. Some things -- including typos, not having enough space to mention everything, and the occasional F-bomb from Bono -- are just to be expected.

As a lover of U2's history, I'm an even bigger fan of U2 LIVE after this update than I was before I read it. As U2 Tour Designer Willie Williams writes in the Foreword, the book is "an extraordinarily accurate record of how it was" on the road with U2. A great live band like U2 deserves a great tour documentary, and the updated U2 LIVE delivers. It's an encore that was well worth waiting for.

© @U2/McGee, 2003.