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Our definition of art is putting your head above the parapet, and be ready for the custard pie. I happen to love the taste of it. -- Bono

U2 reaches out, touches Coliseum

- November 19, 1987

by Jim Washburn

At one end of the LA Memorial Coliseum there were former Sex Pistol Steve Jones and band members doing their best to sound like a bad Southern boogie band, even on the one-time punk anthem "Anarchy in the UK" (featuring an equally tuneless girl pulled from the audience to sing). To the far end of the field, past neatly ordered rows of people, garish flashing lights drew customers to a stand marked "novelties," where U2 T-shirts printed with the image of a screaming child and the lyrics "I can see those fighter planes" were selling for $17.

Standing even a way back from the stage one could hold a thumb out at arm's length, and the persons seated at the far end of the stadium were so distant that 100 occupied the space of a thumbnail. For them a thumb could obliterate everything on stage. They paid $19.50 to see the show, as did all the 71,000 in attendance (Over a $1.3 million gross, if you reduce people to dollars).

In this setting U2, the eminent post-punk band, was soon to sing its songs of compassion, humanitarian concern and dissatisfaction with material values. What's wrong with this picture?

Well, everything, or nothing.

If one goes by the standard rock-criticism touchstone that sincerity, commitment and integrity are the measure of a band, then U2 is hopelessly sullied. How can the band members be trumpeted as the spiritual leaders of rock when it cost about the same to get into their "church" and buy their trinkets as it did to see that critically despised material girl, Madonna?

When Bono Hewson drops the predictably cheer-evoking "LA" references into songs and his stage patter, or relies on expensive lighting tricks to orchestrate audience reactions, how is he different from Bon Jovi?

But, at the same time, big deal. No matter how much rock's practitioners and supporters might crow about the rebellion inherent in rock and its purity of intent, it's also showbiz, with the tremendous amount of money to be made in it placing a decided accent on the "biz."

And like everything else in the field, it should be possible for rock to have mixed motives and still be valid. No one questioned the artistic intent of Oliver Stone in making "Platoon," though his film probably earned more money than some of the arms suppliers did in that ugly war.

Accepting U2 as entertainers -- enlightened entertainers perhaps, but still ofthe family that includes Madonna, Sammy Davis Jr. and Don Johnson -- its show Tuesday was pretty wonderful. Though a more concise and crowd-pleasing show than its arena-level swing through the States earlier this year, the Irish quartet played with fire and intensity that more than filled the giant venue. Hearkening to the hilltop blazes in its filmed Red Rocks, Colo., performance, the Coliseum's Olympic flame was lit as the U2 took the stage, and if the 11/2-hour show wasn't a marathon, it was a fine sprint.

The show opened with powerful versions of "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "I Will Follow," and rarely dipped below the level of intensity set then. The 17 songs were motivated by the nimble yet lock-precision rhythms of drummer Larry Mullen and bassist Adam Clayton (who also worked bass pedals for the real low notes), and textured by the Edge's echoey, jangling guitar lines, while the mixed Celtic romanticism and primal rock drive of Bono's voice worked its stuff with the lyrics.

The band stuck mostly to its known songs -- including "Sunday Bloody Sunday, "Bad" (featuring the now-standard forays into the Stone's "Ruby Tuesday" and "Sympathy for the Devil" and Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side"), an exceptional "In God's Country," and the always moving tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., "Pride (In the Name of Love)" -- and to songs from the "The Joshua Tree" album, including the hits "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "With or Without You."

The only full-length cover in the show was Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," which offered Bono's most impassioned vocal of the evening and also the official audience interaction of the evening. Explaining his minimal guitar technique, Bono told the crowd, "That's all you need, three chords and the truth," and then shouted, "Wanna play my guitar?" LA being LA, the audience member pulled up on stage not only played the rhythm guitar admirably to finish the song but also had a demo tape of his own band ready to force on Bono.

A deeper bit of theater went into the searing encore version of "Bullet the Blue Sky," the band's indictment of a runaway America and the suffering it sees us causing in other parts of the globe. The song closed with a description of women and children wounded by war. On the album it finishes by describing these victims "running into the arms of America," leaving it intentionally open-ended as to whether America is to be their oppressor or savior.

In the concert, Bono halted one word early, intoning "running into the arms of . . ." and finishing the line by focusing a hand-held spotlight on the upheld arms of the crowd. Whether that challenge of individual responsibility was communicated in such a large forum or not, and whether such gestures are now hopelessly diluted or not by the band's open-armed embrace of fortune, that is the dividing line between U2 and most other performers; that they at least still try to have an effect on the hearts and minds entrusted to them by their fans.

As for the rest of the show, opener Steve Jones was simply abominable, playing tuneless crunch-rock while striking such silly rock star poses that one kept hoping the Pistols-period Jones could come through a time warp to upchuck on his current self. Chrissie Hynde, joined by ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and whoever else is passing for the Pretenders these days, delivered a well-performed if slightly dispassionate 13-song set, with only "Mystery Achievement" catching any of the old spunk. As solid a performing unit as is Hynde's current band, the special chemistry of the original Pretenders seems to be long gone.


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