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Column: off the record ..., vol. 16-720

@U2, April 24, 2016
By: Sherry Lawrence


off the record, from @U2

“Every generation gets a chance to change the world” is a lyric that has been resonating with me this week as we’ve seen a generational shift in the lives of the U2 community. In the span of one week, two people key in U2’s lives have passed: Edge’s dad and former band head of security Jerry Mele. These two men directly influenced U2 in profound ways, thus impacting the band’s audience across the globe. Looking back over the past year or so, it’s been a very tough year of losses for the band: Father Jack Heaslip, Larry Mullen, Sr., Dennis Sheehan, Dave Goldberg, Tony Fenton, B.B. King, and David Bowie. For long-time devotees of U2, this week has felt like a sucker punch to the soul. Casual U2 fans may not realize just how much of a loss there has been within U2HQ. Add to that the passing of a generational contemporary this past Thursday, Prince. With that in mind, this week’s OTR column will be part tribute, part education and all catharsis.

Edge’s dad, John Garvin Evans, passed after a long battle with cancer on April 16. Edge shared his upbringing in U2 By U2, calling his father a “more than decent tenor.” Bono has shared some anecdotes during concerts from time to time about his father and Edge’s father singing as they’d go around the pubs in New York City. The May issue of Rotarian magazine features Edge and Garvin talking about family, community and philanthropy while in Dublin on Nov. 27 last year. I was taken by how much each shared about the Evans family and how Edge’s philanthropic endeavors were inspired by his dad. Edge said, “The thing about a father-son relationship is that you often end up not exactly doing what you were told but imitating what you saw happen. My father’s instinct for philanthropy, for activism and engagement, had an effect on me. And he definitely influenced what I do and say to my kids. When it comes to parenting techniques and philosophy, it’s funny to observe the echoes of what my mom and dad were like as parents reflected in me. I recognize that influence in tiny, trivial things. That’s the moment when it crystalizes and you think, ‘Oh, wow! There’s a lineage, a heritage here, and I’m part of that.”

Garvin then said, “Well, Gwenda (Edge’s mom) and I were never Victorian parents. When Edge wanted to choose the band over college, we talked about it and said, ‘Let him do it, let him get it out of his system. If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, at least you can never turn around and say we thwarted his ambitions.’ So we were pretty laid back about it. I think I could sum up our approach in these words, as advice to all parents, really: Never stand in the way of your children’s dreams – they might come true.”

That is almost the polar opposite of what Bono’s dad’s philosophy was. In one of the conversations Bono had with Michka Assayas for his book Bono: In Conversation, he said, “As I say, my father’s advice to me, without ever speaking it, was 'Don’t dream! To dream is to be disappointed,' which would be a pity, wouldn’t it, never to dream … And, of course, this is where megalomania must have begun. To never have a big idea was his thing. That’s all I’m interested in.”

While having supportive, reassuring parents isn’t quite punk, Edge’s parents were critical to U2’s early days, especially when it came to wallpapering the town with the band’s concert announcements and making sure Edge didn’t electrocute himself while he built his guitar.

The passing of a generation has now happened in the Evans family, and that torch is now being carried on by the next one. Many U2 fans had the privilege to say hello to Garvin at U2 shows, and he was always cordial and friendly. Garvin’s legacy will be a lasting one, and the Rotarian interview is a wonderful tribute to a life full of service and compassion.

Service and compassion can certainly be said of the next gentleman who passed away on April 12 at the age of 68, former U2 head of security Jerry Mele. Known as “Uncle Jerry” to so many U2 fans, Mele treated music fans with respect, and in doing so revolutionized the concert security industry. Prior to him, concert fans were seen as the enemy and were treated as such by authorities. He began as a limousine driver in New York City after serving in Vietnam as a long-range rifle patrol soldier. Bono has said that Mele was a “zen master with a psychopathic streak” as he battled his PTSD symptoms from his Vietnam days. Bono has credited Mele as being his inspiration for his performance of “Bullet The Blue Sky” and “Running To Stand Still” during the ZooTV tour.

As a limousine driver, Mele often found himself being asked to secure the belongings of his riders. A family friend shared that he would drive Liberace around and would be asked to look after his jewels while he dined. One night at a Thompson Twins concert, Mele reacted faster than the Twins’ own security and was hired that night by the band to work security for them. With the Thompson Twins incident, the minor who tried rushing the stage had a pair of scissors at the ready. Mele grabbed the boy and kept him in his limo, trying to talk sense into him and not allowing the police to arrest him. He felt that a minor shouldn’t have his life ruined by one stupid decision. The band agreed and didn’t press charges.

Mele worked with Pat Benatar, Duran Duran and Madonna in the early ‘80s, and was Julian Lennon’s first bodyguard as well. It was doing security for David Bowie’s 1987 Glass Spider tour that caught the attention of U2’s management. Mele looked after not only the audience, but also took great care with the artist and the touring entourage. Peter Frampton was on lead guitar for Bowie’s Glass Spider tour, and Mele understood how important sobriety was for Frampton. He would play backgammon with him while everyone else would be out partying. That genuine care and concern meant the world to Frampton.

Based on his reputation, Mele was asked to join U2 for the band’s 1989 LoveTown tour and remained under the band’s employ until the end of 1997’s PopMart Tour. Mele spoke with M2 about his time with U2 and the relationship he had with the band’s fan base in a 2008 interview.

He worked with over 40 different artists, ranging from Michael Bolton to Ozzy Osbourne during his career.

Mele understood the importance of the audience relationship to the artist. Mutual respect would not only strengthen that bind but would serve as a potential investment for the artists’ future. You were more likely to stick with an artist if you felt that personal connection. Mele would come out and “lecture” (as many U2 fans would describe) those waiting for autographs so that everyone understood the rules of engagement. He would take the time to answer any questions or concerns by the fans as well. He tried not to have a barricade between the artist and the fan line, and he worked hard to ensure everyone had their opportunity as well. At concerts, he would prep fans in a particular area about what Bono wanted to do in the performance and make a judgement call on how Bono could interact based on what he gathered pre-show. He was essential in finding ways of engagement so U2 could break down that fourth wall within the band’s performances, which carries on to this day.

Mele redesigned the metal barricades at concerts to be safer for fans. He worked with local security crews to ensure fan safety was paramount. He would take the time preshow to walk through the arena to identify die-hards who were in the nosebleeds and upgrade them to the first few rows close to the stage. He would also work with the fan queue before the show to upgrade people to stand along the B-stage barricade. He wanted the best for the artist he was employed by, but also to deliver a quality experience for those who paid good money to attend the event. He took his job very seriously, and in return he earned the nickname “Uncle Jerry” by us “kids.”

I am proud to say that I am one of his adoptive nieces. I had a few interactions with him both during the ZooTV and PopMart tours. At the start of the PopMart tour in Las Vegas, I had to be pulled over the front barricade during “I Will Follow” when the crowd surge nearly crushed me. After being told by local security to return to my seat (which was no longer there due to the mosh pit created by U2’s opening act Rage Against The Machine), Uncle Jerry placed me by the side stage and informed local crew that I was OK to stay there. I was able to thank him for that later when the band returned to Boston for the two shows at Foxboro Stadium. While at the last show of the PopMart tour’s third leg in Seattle, I gave him a lemon juicer, telling him that he was so busy taking care of the band and fans that the lemon was left unprotected – imagine what Zedillo’s guards would have done with the lemon?! - handing him the juicer. We laughed so much about that. When we caught up at the start of the Elevation tour in 2001, he brought up the juicer and how much it meant to him. I was floored that he’d bring it up again in his 2008 @U2 interview.

Uncle Jerry’s philosophy carries on to this day with how fans are treated by U2 and the band’s crew. For fans who began following U2 during his tenure, his approach to us cemented our relationship with the band. I know it did with me. Over the past two decades since his retirement, that mutual respect continues to be fostered at U2 shows, and in that regard Uncle Jerry’s legacy will continue to be felt.

The Mele family wanted all of Jerry’s kids know that he felt a kinship to the U2 fan community. He loved every minute he spent with us, and he held us in the highest regard. If I can be so bold to speak on behalf of all of his “kids,” the feeling is absolutely mutual. A family friend put together a 12-minute tribute video that was played at his funeral, and has given us permission to share it with our readers.

The stunning death of Prince has left us all re-evaluating our own mortality. The members of U2 were fans of Prince, taking inspiration from him. As generational contemporaries, both U2 and Prince started in the industry at about the same time. It’s no secret that the members of U2 listened to Prince’s music quite a bit. Bill Flanagan writes in U2 At The End Of The World that Prince would be playing on the band’s plane during the ZooTV tour, and recalled a night at a club where Ali passed a Prince cassette to a DJ to play. There was admiration and a fandom among the U2ers with Prince. Flanagan would challenge Bono to write more like Prince, which is where Bono took some inspiration for “Lemon.” It should be noted that Flanagan’s love of Prince dates back to his first album, so I’m sure he had a persuasive argument in his conversations with Bono.

Bono also took inspiration from Prince for "Get On Your Boots." "I always knew there was a great song in there. It’s punk rock now, where before it was Prince. There was a moment where Prince did a sponge-y seductive sound. I think that’s what was in our head for ‘Get On Your Boots.’ But actually the song is much more punk rock," he said.

Bono also shares in U2 By U2 that he tried to get Prince to join the lineup for Amnesty International’s 1986 Conspiracy of Hope tour. Prince’s manager told him to call between seven and eight, and if he’s passing by the phone he’ll pick it up. Prince doesn’t take appointments.

Bono spoke about Prince during his many chats with Michka Assayas in the book Bono: In Conversation. He said, “These white rock stars, they think they're authentic, and that Prince is just some sort of showbiz Christmas tree. But he has more soul in his little finger than a whole harbor full of these rock bands.”

Bono also shared an anecdote from a conversation he had with Prince in the early ‘90s about the word “slave” written on his face. He told Assayas, “There’s no excuse in the 20th century for intelligent people signing a deal they don’t understand. That said, Prince deserves the best deal in the world because he is the best in the world. He’s Duke Ellington to me!”

On March 30, 1995, Bono joined Prince onstage at The Pod in Dublin to sing “The Cross.” As a tribute, Bono posted the song’s lyrics on the band’s social media accounts on Thursday, with the message “I never met Mozart, I never met Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker I never met Elvis But I met Prince.”

Bono used Prince as an example of why he’s glad he’s in a band instead of being a solo artist. He told Assayas, “I think, in some ways, it's easier to realize a vision that's singular and in your own head, but it's harder to keep the vision going without argument. Look at Prince. He's one of my favorite composers of the 20th century. I really believe in him. But he needs an editor. He needs a row. He needs somebody in the studio to tell him to f*ck off. 'And guess what? There's six great tracks and four of them are pretty average. I'm sorry, sir. Your genius was having a bad day.' Does he have that? No chance."

Prince didn’t mince words about U2’s method of releasing Songs Of Innocence, stating that U2 had ruined it for upcoming artists. He told the Associated Press, “That’s a designer deal… Of course they got paid. But what about the others?”

I appreciate the admiration Bono has for Prince because you can tell he is a genuine fan; critical and respectful. Prince was just a year or two older than the members of U2, so his sudden passing may serve as additional inspiration and, perhaps, urgency as the band continues to work on Songs Of Experience. There is a great deal of mourning that will need to be processed, and if the album’s sound is as aggressive as Gavin Friday describes, it could be one heavy album to listen to when it’s finally finished.

Going back to the lyric “every generation gets a chance to change the world” … Garvin, Jerry and Prince each changed the world around them in their own unique way. We have been lucky enough to be part of a generation that got to reap the benefits of their efforts. For us, it begs the question – what are you doing with your chance to change the world?

And finally … in a week of heaviness, here’s a little bit of a distraction: Bono and Ali planting a cherry blossom tree at Liss Ard Estate in Cork back on April 17. Adam also joined in on the fun.

‘Til next time …

©@U2/Lawrence, 2016

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