"[T]he lyrics aren't literature; they are only part of the story."
Like A Video: Welcome to Zoo TV, Y'all!
November 29, 2011
[Ed. note: This is the 4th 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 Zoo TV tour was the ultimate video, a two-and-a-half hour traveling performance-art piece with a live rock band. U2 changed its sound, its look, and the transformation was most evident in its lead singer. In the liner notes for the Zoo TV: Live From Sydney DVD, author Adrian Deevoy wrote, "... Bono revealed himself to be what The Edge described as 'a lovely bunch of blokes.'" Bono always had a flair for the theatrical, and for this tour, he stripped off his "angry young man" persona to stretch his dramatic wings.
The characters were just as strong visually as the songs were sonically, and they morphed and adapted as the tour traveled the planet. In the guise of these other "blokes," Bono was fearless in performing the songs, and in his hilarious phone calls to the White House, world leaders, famous footballers and the Maestro himself, Luciano Pavarotti, among others.
In an MTV interview for the Zoo TV tour, reporter Kurt Loder, pushing Bono to explain his new visage, wondered what happened to the "normal guy, wearing normal clothes." Bono responded, "You didn't like me when I was me, so I found somebody new."
His retort pretty much sums up the impetus behind the band's transformation. Normal wasn't working for them. How could it? They were the biggest thing since, well, anyone else, and normal wasn't a viable option. Why not have fun with it?
The story has been told ad nauseum, how Bono put on the glasses and would nary be seen in public without them again. The view was different from behind the shades, and he could do and say what he wanted while wearing them because his eyes were covered and couldn't give him away. He could be staring into your eyes or into your cleavage and you'd never know the difference, nor would you care. There's something intriguing and creepy about a guy who won't take off his shades at midnight, long after they've been rendered useless. It didn't hurt that he was also wearing leather pants and a jacket that looked like they had been painted onto his body. He'd been around, seen some things, and done some, too. He didn't care what you thought of him, which gave him the freedom to do what he wanted.
The whole tour was based on this character, and Bono relished his time as the dark lord of post-industrial funk rock. The stage was his playground, equipped with a bunch of high-tech toys at his disposal. He strutted out to "Zoo Station," flirted in "Even Better Than The Real Thing," shimmied his way through "Mysterious Ways." He teased those poor girls mercilessly in "Trying To Throw Your Arms Around The World" before spraying them with champagne, and of course, preened in his very own theme song, "The Fly." The leather was a like conduit of electricity, a force that caused his body -- parts of which he seemed to have just discovered -- to convulse, twitch and shake uncontrollably.
It was dirty, it was sexy, it was proper rock star behavior and there hadn't been anyone quite like him before, or since. In this performance, The Fly gets personal with some equipment, therefore allowing several thousand people to likewise have an intimate encounter with their bug-eyed leader.
The Mirrorball Man
U2 couldn't run away fast enough from their Rattle And Hum experience. The movie featured one of Bono's more famous diatribes, which showcased his contempt for the preachers "stealing money from the sick and the old." He declared, "The god I believe in isn't short of cash, mister."
A couple of years later that derision was distilled through a spin cycle of absurdity and Bono was born again as the Mirrorball Man. The residue of the band's roots-rock adventure of their previous two tours wouldn't wash away completely, readily apparent in the southern accent he affected and the 10-gallon hat topping off his dapper silver suit. "I believe in you. I believe FOR you," was his message, absolving the viewer of the need to do anything but sit back and watch. Televangelists promise salvation through the airwaves for a steep price, but the Mirrorball Man's intentions didn't hide behind religion. This reverend of irreverence didn't want your money. In fact, he was more than happy to give it away, throw it away, into the crowd. The only thing he was promising was his vision, his brilliant, glorious, ecstatic vision, and -- admit it -- you'd sell your soul in a heartbeat for him.
The Mirrorball Man was a thoroughly American guy, and his antics didn't translate as well once the tour moved out of the U.S. Luckily, the Mirrorball Man had an English cousin, an old thespian who had been languishing out of the spotlight for awhile, named Mister MacPhisto. The red-horned MacPhisto preferred gold to the Mirrorball Man's silver, and had a penchant for greasepaint and cosmetics. He was like his cousin in that he also loved to prank unsuspecting victims via the telephone, but he was needier and more tragic than his American counterpart. Was he truly a devil, or a misunderstood fallen angel? His vulnerability was enticing, as are most things you know you shouldn't want.
Not nearly as flashy, sexy, or melodramatic as the other blokes, the Commando made his appearance during "Bullet The Blue Sky," "Running To Stand Still," and "Where The Streets Have No Name." The earthiest (and probably closest to the singer's true personality) of all the characters, Bono emerged in a military-styled hat, vest jacket and aviator glasses and, for the first time, a headset microphone. The smarmy swagger disappeared, and the songs were performed almost reverentially during the "heart of darkness" portion of the show. This character allowed Bono to make peace with his past while still pressing forward. Despite all the changes, he still had the ability to wrench your heart from your body as you stood by, helplessly.
All of the boundaries that Bono may have felt were present for the previous tours were missing during Zoo TV. The band sounded more accomplished than ever. The songs, as is often the case with U2, exploded in the live setting. The stage was designed so that Bono didn't have to climb over equipment to connect to the audience; there was the B-stage and space to move around, and hand-held cameras to help him. Perhaps most importantly, underneath the leather, sequins and makeup, he seemed most comfortable in his own skin, not only as a singer, but as a full-fledged performer. The band knew they had the best job in the world, and they were having the time of their lives proving it night after night. They were only limited by their own imaginations and in spite of the necessary technical choreography, the performances were uninhibited. In their zeal to recreate themselves as artists, U2 created a revolution of sights, sounds and emotion. Anything was possible, and all it took was a cool pair of shades.
© @U2/Maione, 2011.