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"We've never been cool; we're hot. Irish people are Italians who can't dress, Jamaicans who can't dance."

-- Bono

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Column: off the record ..., vol. 13-564

@U2, April 28, 2013
By: Tim Neufeld


off the record, from @U2

Do you know that exhilarating feeling you get when you go to a U2 concert? Do you remember the thrill of being together with other U2 fans, singing the hits, celebrating a common good or standing with a community in solidarity for a cause? Or at a deeper level, have you ever camped all day in the GA line with a group of strangers who gradually become friends and companions on a musical journey?

That's what 130 of us felt like at the U2 Conference this weekend. It was, without a doubt, the next best thing to an actual U2 concert.

April 25-27 marked the second U2 Conference (the first was held in 2009 in Raleigh, N.C.). The gathering was held in partnership with the U2 Conference planners (directed by Scott Calhoun), the @U2 staff (led by Matt McGee) and hosted by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. For full details of the event, check out the conference website.

I could say so much about this conference. It was unique, inspiring, fun, thoughtful and even emotional at times. The main sessions included presentations by some distinguished guests. I'll comment on three of my favorite.

Jim Henke kicked the conference off on Friday morning with a wonderful presentation about his 16 years at Rolling Stone as an editor and writer, and 18 years at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum as vice president and chief curator. Henke was responsible for a classic article about U2 in 1981 labeling U2 "the next big thing." His candid discussion of a bygone era of journalism was fascinating. I had the good fortune of sitting with Henke for a couple of hours in a bar the night before. He shared story after story of U2's early years and of his travels and interviews with the band. See my @U2 article for more details. 

Bill Carter was one of our keynote speakers. Carter, director of the award-winning documentary Miss Sarajevo, recalled the nearly impossible task he had as a broke, 26-year old humanitarian worker in the capital city of Bosnia. He convinced U2 to do interviews with residents of war-ravaged Sarajevo via satellite links on the Zooropa tour in 1993. It was these live, unedited interviews that focused attention on the Bosnian atrocities for tens of thousands of fans at every concert. Conference participants were mesmerized as Carter shared stories of covert rendezvous, armed check points and perilous journeys, all in an effort to facilitate the interviews. It was a further thrill to sit with Carter and have drinks later that night, and listen to the ongoing ways he is engaged in activism on behalf of the disenfranchised around the world.

Steve Averill, senior art director at AMP Visual, has personally supervised the graphic design and visual art for every U2 studio album. Averill had a remarkable presentation in which he displayed and commented on each of the album covers. Starting with a description of the photo shoot involving Peter Rowen as the model for Boy, and ending with an explanation of the equal sign on the wrapper for No Line On The Horizon, he methodically traced a progress of influences and motifs across the U2 catalog. Averill even displayed some alternate and rejected album covers. You probably didn't know that one possible color scheme for How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb was based on yellow. And you can thank Averill for not allowing the cover of Unforgettable Fire to be a bomb target over Tokyo! But, most important, Averill announced that he is meeting with band members next week! Since he is responsible for designing album covers, we're hoping ...

There were many seminars and panels -- too many to mention all of them here. Some were designed with fans and popular interests in mind; others were aimed at an academic audience. I was delighted to chair one of the academic panels titled "'It's No Secret': U2's Process of Transformation & Representation." Dr. Ted Trost, in the first of three presentations, looked at the spiritual implications of the album Pop, calling it the most theological statement in the U2 collection. He convincingly argued that U2 refuse to make a distinction between sacred and secular and, in fact, are most likely to find God where he is least expected ("looking for baby Jesus under the trash"). In a final bold assertion, Trost suggested that "pop" is not only a cultural movement and a style of music, but also a synonym for "father," ultimately signaling U2's ongoing loyalty to and search for the divine.

In the same seminar, Dr. Chris Garrett asked if U2 were prophets or poets. He contended that U2 use grace and love in artistic and poetic ways to challenge the culture. They function as critics, advocates and preachers, but not as prophets, said Garrett. That generated quite a bit of discussion in a time of Q&A. The final presentation of this session compared the work of U2 to the Eucharist. Co-authors Kristen Pungitore and James Menkhaus suggested that just like the Eucharist, U2 honor the past, call people to action and facilitate unity and community. While the presenters admitted that U2's songs are not necessarily about Eucharist, they asserted that the songs do point us to and help us understand the Eucharist.

Finally, I'd like to comment on the most significant session I participated in. I, along with @U2 staffers Angela Pancella and Jessica Guadiana, led "Stories for Boys and Girls." In this session 10 participants each shared seven-minute stories illustrating how U2 had influenced their lives. It was an emotional time. We laughed. We even cried. And everybody in the room agreed, hearing the stories of others helped us feel connected, created trust through vulnerability and encouraged our souls. I'm certain U2 would be honored and proud. I'll conclude with comments from a few of the stories.

One woman shared about the meaning of her tattoo: "Leave It Behind, Walk On."

Another recalled the most exciting phone call she has ever received: "Hello, Lori-Jo. This is The Edge."

A musician told about a time of darkness and depression. It was after hearing the "The Fly" that he noted, "Oh my God, I started to feel again."

Another storyteller recalled that after seeing Rattle and Hum, "Everything changed."

After experiencing a crisis of faith, one woman proclaimed, "U2 brought me closer to God than any church ever has."

Did you miss the conference? Stay tuned, we'll keep bringing more material from that event in the near future. And start saving your money. We'll definitely do this again.

(c) @U2/Neufeld, 2013

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