"This is the stuff that in the end makes us what we are. It's the stuff that you can't leave behind, the personality of the band, the way we interact with each other."
-- Edge, on All That You Can't Leave Behind
He's Got the Job
October 16, 2001
In their reviews of U2's fourth Boston show earlier this year at the Fleet Center, both the Globe and the Phoenix newspapers reported that a fan got up onstage, thanks to Bono's intervention after a struggle with security staff, and then picked the singer up and swung him around in a bear hug. Both papers winked at the moment's "spontaneity." In Chicago, a woman in full bellydancing regalia (a la "Mysterious Ways" during the band's Zoo TV tour) appeared from the floor during that song, and danced with Bono all around the heartshaped catwalk. The same night, a young man joined the band during their acoustic segment at the tip of the heart and played the piano, note-perfectly, for their little-known gem, "Stay" (from '93's Zooropa album). The Trib also wondered in print if these were planned stunts. They were not.
Judging by the reports of fans online, these are the spontaneous moments, like Bono's electrifying improvs, that make their evening. Also online are the stories from the lucky sots themselves who actually ended up onstage. Their stories -- respectful, mature, but overpowered by a gratitude that would not be contained -- offer a glimpse into the grace and intuition of a frontman at the peak of his substantial powers. When I first read about "the fan" in Boston, I thought it thrilling, but um, presumptuous to actually PICK BONO UP -- except that Bono himself seemed cool with it. Well, accosted by such a moment, turns out he was better than "cool" -- who'd have guessed that it was his OWN idea? And for me, that tipped the scales, already heavy with new awe and gratitude for him after the Elevation show I attended. He astounded me, a fan for nearly twenty years, with how humble and giving, yet still masterful, he was up there.
I'm not one to declare "best evers" -- you know, not unless I've actually SEEN to compare Elvis and Jim Morrison and James Brown and -- well, I have seen Bruce enough times to know he's on the list, too. Performing artists are powerful beings, for a bunch of complex reasons. We need them to take us down to the deep places we're afraid to go alone. They all have gifts of charisma and intuition, and the bigness to carry and guide a crowd into a paradoxical intimacy. They understand the psychological value of the theatrical Moment -- that is, in catharsis, not melodrama.
Bono -- U2 lyricist, lead singer, and fireball -- is a master, natch. It can be said of no artist more than it can be of him, that his art is an extension of who he is. Not a mere part, but an amplification of his whole self. His very nature is just that big: his rage is a chilling rap pumping with cannon-shot drums and bass; his gratitude is a roof-shaking anthemic "Hallelujah!"; his compassion is a top-note rallying cry, "I'm WIDE AWAKE..." His mind is the multimedia onslaught that was Zoo TV! That arena-sized nature, plus training, experience, and instinct (Live Aid comes first to mind) all serve him onstage. Of course. He's a musician, and a rock star, it's his job. And yet. Notwithstanding my reservations about pronouncing "The Best," I left U2's Elevation concert knowing it was, in fact, the best concert I'd ever seen, and one of the richest nights of my life...because I felt something beyond the pale of mere entertainment -- elevated, yes; I was galvanized, bigger than I'd been before. Not only elated, but changed. Bono reached something deep. And after what I've read of his performances over the weeks surrounding his father's recent passing -- indeed, over this whole tour -- I sense that something above and beyond his innate showmanship is igniting him this year. The last week of Bob Hewson's life, the son kept a vigil at the father's bedside, departing only to play as scheduled each night, where he raged and prayed, and wept through the new song, "Kite" -- a song he'd written as a father, for his own children. "Who's to say when the time has come around?...I know that this is not goodbye." The day after the funeral, the band played a much-anticipated homecoming concert at Slane Castle, and turned it into a soul-rattling, rock 'n' roll Irish wake that left few dry-eyed and many speechless. Grief -- open, angry, lonely, our own -- has never been so cleansing.
Back in April, I called Bono "radiant," glowing with a new, gentle joy and humility that lit every person in the venue. And he has never been more transparent than he is now. There was nothing contrived or maudlin in his difficult performances through August. That may seem so obvious as to sound insulting, yet I can't imagine any other artists in the same circumstances -- assuming they chose to perform at all -- coming off as anything but manipulative or simply false. But we have a history with Bono. We know he doesn't contrive; the most tiresome and shallow criticism of him, in fact, is an "over-earnest" sincerity. The stage is an extension of his kitchen table, I think (and vice versa: I bet MacPhisto showed up to make a point over beers once or twice): he works stuff out up there. With us, risking emotional and physical vulnerability because that's what's REAL. Imagine some big guy coming at you out of a mob of 20,000 people. You pay people to keep nutcases away, and there are nutcases in the world, and there are guns in America...Bono sees the big guy's eyes, angrily ditches his guitar to say, "Lay off!" to the goons. The music is playing, he's in the middle of a song, he's IN the spotlight, he's gotta concentrate! But he makes the connection -- Security believes in fear, but Bono trusts in Grace and invites the man to share the spotlight with him. Forget out on a limb, he goes out on a wire and says, unheard by the audience, "Do you think you can pick me up?" He perceives with his theatrical senses the physicality of it. He's seen the love in the big guy's eyes. He feels the love in his own. "Pick me up," he has said, and he is swept off his feet and twirled around like a ten-year-old by an uncle, in a moment so joyous it transcends the idea of "rock show."
Just like the young woman who determined that her greatest tribute to what U2 had given her, would be to LEARN and then to bellydance ("She moves in mysterious ways...") for the band...and she did! And Bono, seeing her, accepted it, and then discreetly helped her carry the moment, guiding her around the stage even as he followed, because he knows in his bones that surrender is an aspect of love: "If you wanna kiss the sky, you better learn how to kneel -- on your knees, boy!"
And finally, Slane. Bono sang TO his father that night, honoured his father's life and spirit in song, because singing out his feelings is simply what he does; furthermore, it's doing so as if he's singing for every person who ever lost a father -- which, of course, he is. Accounts of that performance more than any other, under such duress, revealed to me his tempered-steel spirit and his indomitable stage presence (when he had little else to operate on), that is, his connection with his audience, more intimate and guileless than we ever knew. It showed me what he's come to be made of. Intellect, conviction, passion, and creativity have all been honed over Bono's 41 years by success and parenthood, by (real) politicians, by life's tests of faith. He has walked his considerable talk, and trips a lot less than he used to. Over the years, too, he has been growing gracefully into a sideline role of orator (proper Irishman that he is), seemingly as gifted with a prepared speech as with a wordless falsetto. His Harvard address last June was witty, sharp, and deeply inspirational -- just like Elevation.
I had an epiphany at that show: if we are to make the world a better place, it must be not "in spite of" what we are, but because of what we are. Bono knocked our Ideals heartily out of the realm of Theory, and into the body and the blood of every one of us, together. The world we wish for is right in front of us (behind us and within us, to the right of us and the left of us...to borrow from St. Patrick), in this motley hockey-arena gathering. Mindblowing.
The album All That You Can't Leave Behind, as several journalists have observed, has proven prophetic in some way, in its leaving irony and artifice behind for plainspoken fear and love for life. The current tour has done the same, joining people together in a place of healing fellowship almost before they knew they needed it. Now we know, of course. I was unwittingly fortified for September 11, I see now, by April 13. I was better prepared to take on the darkness of that September day, having been illuminated by that Good Friday Elevation. "God is in the room," said Bono as the tour gathered momentum. Truly. In a much bigger sense than even he knew. U2 has always known why we hurt, even if at times our denial has drowned them out. Well, we can't deny it now.
I can't help feeling that Bono in particular is playing a part in a much larger movie, a part none but him could play. How many other "pop stars" can bring an awestruck fan onstage and whisper the things that will make him, too, a big enough vessel for the energy of 20,000? How many are strong enough to chant the name of Mark Chapman -- Lennon's assassin -- like an exorcism, make a love song ("In a Little While") a lullabye for the dying, celebrate a son and a father as each passes through the Door in different directions; take on love and death and the incomprehensible around the globe for most of a year, without dropping and breaking something -- breaking us, breaking faith? And how many have ever had so huge an audience at one time, have had not only the ear of the world, but -- yes, I'll join the chorus -- of presidents, finance ministers, a pope? Any others? Ever?? Bono was born to do this, as none ever were. He is a creature of his time, his nature, and his faith, a man for this moment; a vast spirit (given a vast stage) for overwhelming times. Even I never believed rock 'n' roll was big enough to heal the world. But out of that unlikely, adolescent wail of rebellion has emerged a figure as motivated as MLK, as soulful as Bob Marley, as electric as Jerry Lee. "One heart, one hope, one love, with or without you." "Hear us comin', Lord, hear us call, hear me scratchin' at your door...will you make me crawl?"
As I hear those lines in my mind, his confusion is a ringing declaration, his weakness is an exhilarating howl of faith. Once upon a time, I knew Bono only as an icon, my creative Muse, too big and overwhelming a figure to envision in my living room. One night last April, I met him as a man, and my understanding of being human burst its constraints. "One life, you got to do what you should."
All he did was hold up a mirror, I know that. The mirror is God. Bono's light, his way, his truth, is Christ. Through his long career, he has led millions in prayer, his choir of Adam, Larry, and Edge behind him, on the radio and from the biggest stages in the world. Sexy, angry, jubilant, they've put their prayers in the Top Ten, they've made conversing with God, like Third World debt relief, "pop." Larry once said of his bandmate's Drop the Debt campaigning, "It's probably the most important thing he's going to do in his life..." which I thought a gracious, astute observation from a man whose own creative work sat on the back burner because of it. But I'm no longer sure he's right. I do agree, a rock band without their singer is nothing, compared to the reality of half the world crushed by poverty and terrorized by violence. Compassion, humility, Love, however -- the very songs that U2 sings -- they need a voice, now more than ever; there can be no more important work in anyone's life. They need the greatest frontman in the world. And Bono's got the job.
© @U2/Denman, 2001.