I hadn't planned on going to the U2 Conference. I had just been to Chicago to see the band open the US leg of the 360 Tour a few weekends before, and the plan was to meet friends a few weeks later in Las Vegas for another show. The Raleigh trip would be sandwiched square in the middle, and I couldn't afford to take the time or spend the money.
But a nagging feeling pulled at me. Could I live with my regret if I didn't go? Just looking at the list of keynote speakers was enough to make me feel like I was going to miss something special, without even glancing at the rest of the schedule to see what kind of papers were going to be presented. I decided I couldn't live with myself if I didn't at least try. Then, as if to confirm my decision, the universe surprised me with a last-minute gig at my second job, which neatly paid for my transportation to the conference. I couldn't believe it. My hands shook as I purchased my airline ticket, physically ill with excitement. That's only happened to me once before.
I jokingly called it my Total Immersion Weekend, which was not far off the mark. It began as soon as I checked into the hotel, where @U2 staff member Sherry sat briefing some volunteers on their duties for the coming days. Quick intros, hugs and handshakes, and we were off. The agenda has been duly documented, so I won't rehash all the proceedings. Instead, I will offer one fan's humble view of these extraordinary events.
Friday, Oct. 2, 2009
Matt McGee and I were on the first shuttle to Bull McCabe's Pub. I'd been in Raleigh for a few hours and had already met U2 fans from all over: Boston, New York City, California, Alaska, Mississippi, Canada, Denmark, Norway and New Zealand..
We listened as Marc, our lovely driver for the weekend, told us about our special bio-diesel ride and how we would all be green as well as comfortable as we were being carted around. Once the bus got going, we cracked jokes about how bio-diesel didn't smell very green, but it turned out we were sitting near the bathroom at the back of the bus. Hilarity ensued, and we had yet to start drinking.
The pub is where I met most of the people whose names and faces would become familiar to me as the weekend wore on. The atmosphere was lively as fans mingled and noshed, U2's music pumping on the speakers overhead. Anthony DeCurtis, a rock star of music writers in my mind, was sitting in the booth behind the registration table. It was like running into The Edge at the grocery store. I was star-struck, but just for a moment, as he was perfectly gracious and willing to chat with everyone. I asked if he was the one responsible for landing Bono as the keynote speaker at the University of Pennsylvania's commencement in 2004 (where Dr. DeCurtis is a professor). He replied, "I wish." Also in the booth was Agnes Nyamayarwo, Ugandan AIDS activist and FOB (Friend of Bono), whom I had first met the day before that very commencement at the launch of the ONE Campaign in Philadelphia. This woman has had horrific things happen in her life, but she had a calm presence, a gentle face and an easy smile. There was a light behind her eyes that radiated out, like a Vermeer painting
Chatting outside with fans was Neil McCormick, an almost-rock-star of a different sort and another music writer I enjoy reading. Oh, and he just happened to go to school with U2. I was hoping he would be as generous with his wit in person as he is in his writing. He did not disappoint.
We walked around the corner to the theater for the double feature. Agnes and the filmmaker, Dominic DeJoseph, were in the room to answer questions about their experiences making The Heart of America Tour film. In comparing his movie to the main feature, Davis Guggenheim's It Might Get Loud, DeJoseph joked about the decidedly low-tech production value as "One guy with a camera: me!" Agnes explained that she had no idea who Bono was when they first met in 2002, but his impact was immediate. He provided funding for anti-retroviral medications for the volunteers of her TASO group who were also afflicted with the disease. She said, "He was like a messiah to us." A knowing snicker rippled through the crowd. We agreed that Bono did not need to hear this comment.
Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009
Up early and back on the bus to the conference, where Director Scott Calhoun and his wife Garilyn were amazingly organized and ready to go. Sherry, Tassoula and Matt had all been part of the planning process, so I wanted to do as much as I could to help everyone since I was so late to the party. I failed at my first task.
Anthony DeCurtis gave the first talk of the conference. His speech was prepared, but his relaxed delivery made me feel as if he might be speaking off the cuff. That's his secret to good interviews, I thought. He was insightful, funny and poignant. REM vs. U2? Did he know me, or what? A native New Yorker, he choked up as he spoke about what he called "The perfect gesture." I got so caught up in the Q&A session after his talk that I forgot I was supposed to check on the coffee set-up for the break just outside the auditorium doors. No thanks to me, everything was under control.
The breakout sessions were the crux of the conference, where the significance of people's involvement with U2 really became apparent. The presentation topics were more varied than what I had imagined. I was expecting the theological talks, like "Where Leitourgia Has No Name" and "Bono and North American Evangelicals." I also expected the political; "The Conservative Voice in the Songs of U2" and "Forming an Army Through the Politics of Love." What I didn't expect were things like "U2 and Igor Stravinsky: Textures, Timbres, and the Devil" and "The Rhetorical Strategies of Turbulent Emotions in U2." How about, "The Imaginative Experience in Yeats' ‘The Tower' and U2's 'Lemon.'" Wow! People are actually thinking about these things? I definitely felt out of my league here.
I thought Dr. DeCurtis was the perfect opener for the conference and was a little worried that we had peaked early and the rest of the speakers wouldn't compare. I was wrong! Jim Henke gave us an interesting view of the band's early days. They were on a parallel track back then: Jim eager to prove himself as a rock writer, the band eager to prove themselves on the musical front. Later, when they were all established, they collaborated on the U2 Exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and U2's Trabants from the ZooTv tour are on permanent display in the entrance of the museum.
The U2 concert turned out to be a night of near-disasters. We were lucky to have left early, because as concert time approached, the traffic was horrendous. We had no idea from inside the stadium, only that the conference director and our VIPs, Neil and Agnes, were nowhere to be found. (I did, however, recognize Brian Williams of NBC News on the sound platform.) We remembered that Neil was a Twitter junkie (a Twinkie, if you will) and, true to form, he provided us with his first, second, third and final update. They joined the ranks of walkers and made it into the stadium just as the show began, but because he had to park the car (which promptly died), Scott missed Bono's shout-out to the "confab," which may as well have been addressed directly to Scott by name. U2 was incredible, and the crowd responded in turn. The highlight for me was getting a text from Tassoula during the show that said, "We're Walking On. Watch 4 us in masks." Tassoula didn't have a ticket for the show until we got there, and she and Sherry were chosen to walk during the volunteer march. Unbelievable! I got one blurry picture of Larry Mullen Jr. directly behind her. She was thrilled!
After the show, we promptly parked ourselves at the hotel bar to let off some steam. Nobody seemed tired, despite the fact that we had all been up early and had been running all day. The craic was mighty, as they say in Ireland. So mighty in fact, that all of the sudden it was 2:30 a.m., way too late for any of us who needed to wake up early. We were leaving just as Anthony DeCurtis emerged. A quick run to our rooms to grab our copies of his book, and we were back at the bar. We had been trying to talk to him all day, but people continuously surrounded him and we didn't want to interrupt. He was kind enough to sign the books and offer his insight to a few rabid music fans. It was 4 a.m. when my head hit the pillow. It was so worth it.
Sunday, Oct. 4, 2009
Matt was worried. It had been a running joke all weekend about the timing of his talk, and if anyone showed up, they'd probably sleep through it anyway. The conference attendees were better than that. Not only did they show up, they were wide-awake and fully engaged. When Scott welcomed everyone back, the auditorium erupted into thunderous applause and Scott was given a standing ovation. He seemed bemused by the attention, but also pleased. It was a spontaneous show of gratitude, the best kind of feedback on the conference he could have received.
Matt's presentation was eye-opening as well. Why doesn't U2 hire this guy? Here's a person whose day job it is to teach businesses how to successfully utilize the Web to their advantage, something that the band has never fully grasped. It's a shame because they're always at the cutting edge of concert technology, but judging from Matt's research, they've let this opportunity slip through their fingers.
Before Agnes spoke, Scott said a few words, the lights dimmed and the onstage screen came to light. The crowd shrieked as Bono appeared and directly addressed the conference attendees. He had taped the video Friday morning, to the great surprise to everyone. His talk was serious, and I don't think he cracked a smile, but everyone was so stunned to see him I'm sure no one noticed. Agnes took the stage; again the crowd erupted and gave her a standing ovation. She quietly told her story in halting English to the rapt audience. Garilyn sat next to me, wiping tears away as Agnes described how she didn't want to believe that her youngest son was dying of HIV. I understood. I have carried her story around since I first heard it in 2004, to remind myself how incredibly lucky I am and, by the same token, how others are not so lucky. Agnes puts a face on the devastation of this disease. That she's able to tell her story continually is what makes her such a powerful ally in an endless fight. "Dangerous" is the word Bono used to describe her. I'd have to agree.
The only keynote left was Neil McCormick, who had just decided the day before to write something down for his presentation. His first inclination was to wing it, but he ended up with more than 20 pages of notes! My three hours of sleep had worn off at this point and I was starting to fade, but the hilarious videos of an obscenely young U2 in shiny white disco outfits were enough to keep my eyes open. I was surprised to hear Neil speak with such high regard about Mount Temple and some of the teachers there. I think the natural tendency is to dismiss high school as a necessary evil once you have left the building, but his point was that during the '70s, Ireland was repressed and depressed, and the school gave students the freedom to try on different ideas while also providing a safe environment to do so. Maybe my children will be lucky enough to find a place like that when it's their turn.
After watching U23D on the IMAX with a hundred other hooting, yelling, bonafide U2 fans, Neil graciously fielded questions during the last conference event. He tweeted only once, at the very beginning. Some interesting tidbits emerged: "U2 is not my favorite band;" "My favorite U2 gig? The one I'm at." And my favorite, "There's a version of 'Playboy Mansion' with a full gospel choir." Gasp!
For me, the best part of the conference was the down time when we had time to talk to each other … during lunch, or on the bio-bus, or walking to or from an event. This is when we told our own stories about why we were there and what we hoped to gain from the experience. In describing first meetings or sharing rooms with online friends, more than one person said to me, "It should have been weird, but it wasn't." We live in an amazing time when geography holds no boundaries on friendship. To put faces to names I've seen online, to meet a former @U2 staff member in person for the first time, to hear arguments for everyone's favorite song or album; these are the moments I won't forget.
Lately, I've been increasingly discouraged by the lack of true discourse in our current political climate in the U.S. (and elsewhere, as witnessed here). The simple act of listening and talking through the tough issues seems to have been chucked out the window in favor of yelling over each other to make a point. Coming to this conference reinforced my desire to find people who continue to learn, and who choose to create dialogue with reason and civility. I felt like we were in the famed salons of 1920s Paris, having passionate discussions about art, philosophy, religion, music and social concerns. No judgments were being made; no theories or ideas were dismissed, at least in the conversations I was a part of. All egos had been checked at the door. It was so refreshing.
I left the conference feeling that U2's greatest contribution to the world is not their music, or the progress they've made with humanitarian issues, but something simpler, yet profound. They have the ability to bring out the best in people. Through the music and actions of the band, U2 fans are motivated to grow, think, learn, dream, and most importantly, take action. Leave it to Neil McCormick to sum up the conference perfectly.
© @U2/Maione, 2009.