"I feel like it's always raining in our songs, that bittersweetness. . . . We surrender too easily to the blues. We, if we're not careful, are bleeding all over the world."
Like A Video: Bad (Vancouver, 2015)
May 29, 2015
[Ed. note: This is the 27th in a series of essays by the @U2 staff about U2-related visuals and videos. Some essays may be informational and educational, while others may be more personal.]
The spirit of “Bad” is alive and well. I was in Vancouver with a dozen other @U2 staffers, and I saw firsthand the power of this iconic U2 song. Check out this multicam view that Matt McGee, Sherry Lawrence and I shot there on May 15, 2015.
Before I make some comments about this specific performance, first some context for the song.
Originally written for a friend, Andy Rowen, the song has an intimate history with U2 and an appropriate place within the set list for the current tour. The Rowens lived just up the street from Bono on Cedarwood Road. Long before taking the nickname “Bono,” he first met Derek Rowen at the age of 3. The boys were destined to be lifelong friends, later forming a street gang known as Lypton Village, in which Derek was renamed “Guggi” (rhymes with “cookie” but with “g”s). Bono spent precious time with the Rowen family after his mother died, and, with Larry and Edge in tow, often attended a church where Guggi’s father was the pastor.
Several other brothers also played important roles in U2’s early days. Trevor “Strongman” Rowen started a band called the Virgin Prunes with Richard “Dik” Evans (Edge’s brother), Fionan “Gavin Friday” Hanvey and Guggi. All were part of the Village and all have successful careers in music and arts today. Another brother, Peter Rowen, was on the covers for Boy and War, appeared in the “Two Hearts Beat As One” video and currently makes his living as a professional photographer in Ireland.
But it was Andy (christened “Guck Pants Delany” by the Village) who struggled as violence rocked Dublin in the ’70s and heroin flowed freely through the housing projects known as the seven towers. It’s the subject of “Raised By Wolves,” in which Bono sings from the perspective of Andy, who witnessed the carnage of the May 17, 1974, bombings. “The scene never left him,” says Bono in the notes for Songs Of Innocence. “He turned to one of the world’s great pain killers to deal with it, we wrote about him in our song, ‘Bad.’ Andy says, ‘Heroin is a great pain killer until it kills you.’”
Fast-forward to the tour opener in Vancouver. More than 40 years later, during the first portion of the concert, using vivid staging, graphic media and intense music, the Dublin explosions were re-enacted in Rogers Arena, remembering the injustice of 33 innocent lives lost. Through a fountain of images and sound, emanating from state-of-the-art audio and visual systems, the devastation of violence, pain of drug addiction and anger of the punk movement spilled out onto the audience, culminating in “Wolves.” The moment was solemn, almost sacred. The pain was heavy, like a wet fog over the crowd. I cried.
But U2 doesn’t leave the audience there on this tour. Joy and release followed. Which is why “Bad” was particularly important for that second show in Vancouver. Bono’s introduction to “Bad” that night felt more like an altar call than a rock concert. “Anyone free from addiction tonight? Anyone want to be free from addiction tonight? Draw something. Tell someone. Read something. You’re not alone!"
What followed was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve experienced at a U2 concert. With one spotlight on Edge, and another on Bono, he began to sing quietly and sympathetically, “If you, twist and, turn away ....” And as the music swelled, so did the spirit of the place, exquisite stage lighting rising and falling with the mood of the beat.
Along the way, one specific effect was particularly important, but not immediately evident. In the preceding song, “Miracle Drug,” vertical light poles (apparently proprietary to the U2 tour) were set up around the perimeter of the stage. During “Bad,” matching lights, positioned horizontally, were lowered by cables at seemingly random intervals. When illuminated, the intersection of these lights created a kind of optical illusion, in which abstract crosses appeared to be the backdrop for the stage. And something more happened that I didn’t see from the floor, but Sherry Lawrence easily identified from higher up in the stands -- the entire stage was lit up in the shape of a cross. Amazingly, this cruciform had become the source and the center for our corporate call to surrender. Completing the effect, Willie Williams’ brilliant lighting scheme transitioned from the bruising pain of “blue and black” to an explosion of pure white light, bathing the audience in something akin to a spiritual blessing. At the same time, Bono held hands high, either in forgiveness or submission, repeating, “Let it go,” in what appeared to be a movement on behalf of and in partnership with all in attendance.
U2 also performed “Bad” in California on the tour’s fourth stop, but this time it wasn’t scheduled. In San Jose, on May 19, Bono spontaneously called for and introduced the song, asking Willie Williams to turn on the arena lights, saying, “This is a song of surrender. Whatever it is you want to let go of tonight, let it go. You are free. We’re made free -- our music, and the God who gave us it.” Reminiscent of an earlier line from “Iris (Hold Me Close),” in which the crowd sang, “Free yourself to be yourself, if only you could see yourself,” and of John 8:36, “So if the Son sets you free, you are free” (The Message), a pronouncement of freedom wove its way throughout the show.
I’m not sure how many times “Bad” will show up on the tour. It’s a tough song to sing, and Bono’s 55-year-old vox struggles a bit to make it happen. However, though age has tempered some ability, this experiment called U2 has never been built on pure talent or precise musical performance. Their mission has always been to create a communal -- in many cases tribal -- experience among fans, transcending the sum parts of four musicians in a crescendo of spirit and light. “Bad” perfectly encapsulates that experience, redeeming the brokenness of “Wolves” earlier in the show, and completing the story of a lone light bulb hanging in a small bedroom up on Cedarwood Road.
(c) @U2/Neufeld, 2015