Meeting a hero isn't always everything you want it to be. Some heroes are never as "big" up close as they seemed from a distance. I've met some of my musical heroes in serendipitous ways, but I've never met anyone in U2. They always seem too out of reach, too big to just bump into. And I'm not the sort of person who hangs out by stage doors or hotel lobbies waiting for the band to walk by.
But now, I do hang out at news conferences and speeches.
When the news broke earlier this year that Bono would be the keynote speaker for commencement exercises at the University of Pennsylvania on May 17th, my heart jumped. The wheels in my brain started churning right away. Penn is in Philadelphia, a few hours away. It didn't seem impossible.
I pestered my brother-in-law (a Penn graduate) for help getting a ticket, but to no avail. A couple days later, I checked my e-mail in what I call our @U2 staff "newsroom." Matt (McGee) had written the staff wanting to know if anyone was interested in going to Philly to cover the speech. I nearly died. It never occurred to me that Matt would want a reporter to cover the story. Of course he would!
I became extremely nervous when we finally determined that I would be the one to cover the speech.(A DATA rally on May 16th was added somewhere along the line, so I'd be covering two events.) It was that jittery, sickening feeling you get in the pit of your stomach, like when you first fall in love. All the symptoms were there: I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, and I was completely distracted. I was consumed by anticipation.
I was also nervous about doing a good job for @U2. It had been years since I had actually "reported" on an event and I felt woefully unprepared. My brother reminded me to "Be professional."
Somebody get me a bucket, I think I'm going to be ill.
When I told Matt how I was feeling, his advice was "Relax, have fun, and go to Pat's or Geno's and get yourself a cheesesteak." Great advice, but I'm a vegetarian.
I drove to Philadelphia with my friend and fellow U2 freak, Linda H. We arrived at the DATA rally on Independence Mall with time to spare. The rally was being held in a big grassy area next to the visitor's center. We checked in at the media table where they didn't have my name, but let us sign in and get our press passes anyway. We were told there would be a "media event" after the rally where we could take pictures and maybe ask some questions.
We walked off to explore, checking out all the tables of information and looking for a designated press area. When we couldn't find it, we walked back to the media table to ask. There wasn't any. We were on our own, so we scoped out a good spot, as close to the front of the stage as possible. We talked for a while to some really young U2 fans -- 16,17 and 20 years old. I asked if they did any volunteer work. They didn't. They, like most of the people at the rally, were there to see Bono.
As I was talking to these fans, Linda tapped me on the shoulder and pointed up to a balcony on the visitor's center. There were large TV cameras and loads of people, all hovering around someone. "Sh*t!" I yelled, and we tore off toward the media table. "Oh yeah," the guy says, "you haven't missed much. Go ahead up." At the last minute, the press conference had been changed to BEFORE the rally. Let's just say it's a good thing the FCC wasn't on the elevator with us as we rode up.
We ran through the lobby, through two sets of double doors, and, wham! We were smack dab in the middle of mayhem. I couldn't see Bono at first, but caught a glimpse of him behind a wall of TV cameras, reporters, and DATA organizers. My first instinct was to throw up, but I remembered my brother's advice, and dove in with everyone else, vying for a good spot to get a shot in. My hands were shaking as I fumbled with my camera.
The first thing that surprised me about Bono was that he's just barely as tall as me. I'm a towering 5'3 3/4" with shoes on. He's always loomed so large in my mind, I was caught off guard by it. The other surprising thing I noticed is that he's extremely soft-spoken. Reporters on the balcony were lobbing questions at him left and right, but his replies were drowned out by the din of the press conference. This is the same man whose voice has filled the largest stadiums in the world, and now, standing practically right next to him, I couldn't hear a thing.
He was standing next to NBA star Dikembe Mutombo, who is taller than any human I've ever seen. (It reminded me of that bad Billy Crystal movie My Giant. (It's so wrong, I know!) They were all up on the balcony signing the One Campaign petition before moving down to the platform to make the speeches. Bono stepped away from the table, and although there were more signatures to add, the crowd of reporters followed Bono. It looked like bees swarming around a hive. I moved up and took a picture of the other signers because I felt bad that they were being ignored. Besides, I was getting jostled by the TV crews, and those guys are big. We all went back through the double doors to the conference room, where it looked like lunch was set up (we weren't invited), and interviews were being conducted. Other people (who I should have known) were there, including Christian singer Michael W. Smith and Jars of Clay. But the buzz was all around Bono. Everybody was trying to get near him. He was always completely surrounded, but he didn't seem to notice. He spoke to whomever it was, looking each one directly in the eye, totally focused on the conversation at hand. At one point he stepped away from the crowd and went to sit at a table by himself to make a phone call. I snapped a few pictures of him and some of the others, but we were soon shuffled out of the conference room so the procession to the stage could commence.
Linda and I walked out to the small lobby outside the conference room on the mezzanine level of the center and looked out the window at the crowd, which had doubled in size since we had been in the visitor's center, filling the space allotted for the rally. It was cool being behind the scenes, watching the crowd, seeing fans lining up by the doors in anticipation of Bono's appearance. Normally, my view of any event like this is of the back of someone's head, so it was thrilling to be right in the middle of the action.
We took the elevator down just a few minutes before everyone else, so we could stand by the doors when they came out. I wanted to get the "rock star by proxy" effect.
The hum of the crowd around the entrance got louder when we stepped out, and directly behind us, all the speakers and performers started filing out to the cheers of everyone waiting outside. But the real screaming started inside the building, as Bono stepped off the elevator and into the hallway. The reporters were still surrounding him like a magnetic shield. Too bad they weren't invisible. I got a good shot of Bono as he stood right next to me, but he was fixed on his path to the stage and didn't notice. I was just one of the hordes, snapping thousands of images. He stopped to sign autographs, shake hands and give kisses, so a 30-second walk from building to stage took five minutes.
By this time, the rest of the crowd was on its feet, screaming and clapping. The rally got a late start, the sun was beating and it was at least 80 degrees out. But they were ready for him.
There was a small area in front of the stage that was fenced off from the crowd, so Linda and I scooted in there and staked our claim. She was worried. "Are we allowed to stand here?" she asked. "I'm sure someone will kick us out if we can't," I said. The speeches started, but no one ever came to boot us out, so we got a prime view of everything. It's the first time in my life I didn't have to tell a drunk guy in front of me to "Please sit down." Linda and I both had a hard time containing our excitement. It was hard not to stare -- thank goodness for dark sunglasses -- and harder still not to scream like little girls.
The speakers were in high spirits, each deferring to Bono in some way by saying things like "I know you don't want to listen to me," or "I'll finish so we can get to the real reason you're here." Each speaker mentioned the upcoming election, and almost everyone mentioned the war. A couple of speakers said something to the effect that yes, this was all very exciting, but the real work was to begin when the rally was over, when everyday life again took precedence.
I snapped about a million pictures while Bono gave his speech, and standing at his feet I finally realized exactly how high those sandals were! (I swear I won't mention it again.) He's an extremely charming speaker and he put the crowd at ease right away by cracking jokes about himself. He talked less of statistics and more of freedom, equality and justice. But instead of lecturing the audience, he seemed to be able to bring it all down to a very personal level. He gave the impression that he didn't think what he was doing was all that remarkable, just necessary, and that if he could do something, so could you.
When the rally was over, Bono left the stage and signed more autographs, but was whisked away more quickly, as now the dispersing crowd of 3 or 4 thousand were quickly descending upon him. We, of course, followed like lost sheep. We ended up back on the mezzanine, hanging out with a diverse group of media people: the local TV guys (perfectly coifed), radio guys (long hair and sneakers), CNN, AP, UPI, and us. We were told we could go into the conference room ONLY if we had a pre-scheduled appointment. We realized we should have lied about it because we were the only ones left standing out there once the announcement was made.
Despite the anti-climactic ending, Linda and I just couldn't stop talking about the events of the day. We were still in a state of disbelief long after leaving downtown Philly. The day was over, but I had to write a story and send in pictures for @U2. My brain was as fried as my skin. I was awake until 1:30 a.m., and had to be up in five hours to get to Penn for commencement exercises the following day. It was a largely sleepless night.
On Monday, I got up at the crack of dawn and headed to the University of Pennsylvania by myself. Like yesterday, they didn't have my name at the media sign-in table (they had Matt's), but the woman in charge remembered me from the many e-mails we had sent back and forth during the weeks leading up to the graduation. And again, there wasn't a designated press area, except for the TV cameras. I hung out with a small group of people from other fan web sites (a guy from Interference.com drove 10 hours from Montreal, and would drive back right after the graduation), and a reporter for Associated Press. We were sitting in the handicapped section, and the "marshals" (fashionably dressed, beribboned older women wearing extremely high pumps) kept shooing us from place to place, all the while giving us the crustiest looks they could muster.
We had to wait for the procession into the stadium to end before we could get on the field to take pictures. That meant 6,000 graduates, countless alumni, professors, scholars, and finally, the recipients of the honorary degrees. This part seemed to take forever, as the graduates moseyed to their seats, stopping, waving, and chatting on their cell phones to parents in the stands who were trying to find them in a sea of black robes. The procession was punctuated with screams from the crowd any time Bono appeared on the two large screens set up on either side of the stage.
Finally, the honorees started to enter the stadium. We only knew this because the screaming started up again, but this time didn't stop. As Bono got closer, we all jumped onto the field, and again, I had to swallow hard to keep the contents of my stomach down. He stopped almost directly in front of me to talk to a DATA staffer that I recognized from the day before. Bono was completely surrounded again today, but this time by some weird university Secret Service-type guys, also in black robes. I was able to get a quick shot before we all ran up to the front of the stage, where we were told not to go.
I thought we'd have to sit through a ton of boring graduation rhetoric before we'd get to hear Bono's speech, but it turned out that the president of the university, Judith Rodin, had a wonderful sense of humor and gave an excellent, short (!) address, and the other speakers followed suit.
Bono sat on the end of a row, fidgeting with his cap -- which he only wore long enough to get his honorary degree -- looking around at the crowd and applying lip balm. He hiked his pants up under his robe every time they stood to clap for one of the honorees. A young woman from one of the other fan sites was sitting next to me. I noticed her hands were shaking (like mine the day before), so I asked if she was all right.
"I've never been this close to him before," she said. "It's cool, isn't it?" I said. She let out a little giggle, but I could tell she was suppressing the urge to scream like a little girl. I knew just how she felt.
When Bono was finally introduced by President Rodin, I turned around to see the screaming crowd behind me. Normally, when I'm in a stadium with 15,000 other Bono fans, I'm in the last row watching the backs of all those heads. I wanted to see how the other half lived.
Bono seemed even more relaxed than the day before. He was very loose, giggling and laughing while mocking himself. About the academic robes he was wearing, Bono said he felt like one of those little dogs that people like to dress in tartan sweaters. "It doesn't make the dog any smarter," he joked.
His self-deprecating speech was all over the map in terms of subject matter. He talked about the Clash: "When they came out and sang 'this is a public service announcement, with guitars!' I was the kid in the crowd who took that at face value." He talked about Brown vs. the Board of Education (the 50th anniversary of that decision was the day of the graduation), Ben Franklin (founder of the University of Pennsylvania), mullets, Ireland, the war in Iraq, and of course, he talked about Africa.
Somehow, it was still a coherent, encouraging speech. He never said "This is what you should do," but again he was able to make it very personal by not lecturing the graduates about duty and appealing more to their sense of place in the world.
Near the end of the ceremony, I moved across the front of the stage to the side where Bono was sitting so I could snap up the last of the pictures in my camera. Everyone else was leaving the stage. The media had all left, and I was standing with a reporter named Ruth from U2log.com. We were the only ones left, and to my great surprise, Ruth called Bono over. Don't you know, he got up and started walking towards us. I couldn't believe it! I immediately started snapping pictures as he came forward, but my heart was racing and again, my hands were a jittery mess.
When he reached the edge of the stage, he leaned down and took something from Ruth (it was a picture). I was so close I could have pulled him down onto the field. He said, almost inaudibly, "Thank you, darlin'," and as he backed away, he said "The new album -- it's nearly there." Ruth didn't hear him, but I did. "When?!" I shouted, but he just repeated "the record -- it's nearly there." It was like he couldn't wait to tell someone about it, but no one had been asking. He turned around and walked toward the back of the stage, where his people were waiting to whisk him away again. I yelled "Hey Bono -- thanks, man!" That's when he looked over his shoulder and smiled at me. That one moment made it all worth it. The sleepless nights, the sore back and feet, the sunburn and fatigue, everything seemed inconsequential at that point.
After talking to thousands of people (two days in a row), after countless interviews with countless media outlets, Bono took one minute out of his impossibly busy schedule to come over and talk to two girls, screaming on the inside, smiling on the outside. He seemed genuinely pleased to do it, too. That's why I'm a fan of this man. That's why he will always be so large in my mind, and a hero that was definitely worth meeting.
© @U2/Maione, 2004.