I've never been ashamed to be a U2 fan. But sometimes it does mean some forgiveness of the band is in order.
This could be for matters trivial, like, say, Bono’s early-’80s mullet (several years before I came aboard anyhow), or more serious, like the whispers of tax evasion that have dogged them for several years (and that, for the record, U2 has steadfastly denied). Their most recent, and maybe biggest, PR misstep, the Songs of Innocence/iTunes debacle, was at least coming from an honest place — the way I understand it, the band only wanted to make the album free to those who wanted to download it. It just didn't quite work out that way.
Perhaps the backlash wouldn't have been quite so harsh if Innocence had been on the level of The Unforgettable Fire or All That You Can't Leave Behind — not untouchable like War or Achtung Baby, even, but a fine record nonetheless. Alas, it didn't quite work out that way either. But that's okay. Some of their best songs since the early ‘90s are on there; unfortunately, most of them are buried on the deluxe edition. And personally, I've long accepted that U2 will always rub some people the wrong way, for any number of reasons, and that those people will probably never come around. But the band, and especially Bono, have never stopped trying to convert them all the same. It's tough not to admire tenacity like that.
The first time I remember really being aware of U2 was around sixth or seventh grade, when The Joshua Tree was new and “With Or Without You” and “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For” were on the radio all the time. Top 40 at that time was otherwise dominated by throwaway dance-pop (Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson notwithstanding) and cocky pop-rock poseurs like Bon Jovi and Poison. U2’s songs were mysterious, longing, not at all adolescent. In hindsight, they barely even hinted at what a difficult, political, anguished and heartbreakingly humane record The Joshua Tree becomes once it gets to songs like “Bullet the Blue Sky,” “In God’s Country,” “One Tree Hill,” “Exit” and “Mothers of the Disappeared.” It also rocks like a mother.
But all that didn't set in until a little later. Short an older sibling or a household with MTV, it took until my mid-teens for my fandom to take root for good. The way I really came to love music was by playing it in high school; the first time I saw U2 live, at the Astrodome in October 1992 on the Zoo TV stadium leg, their music carried the same transcendent thrill I recognized from rehearsing Beethoven and Brahms in the orchestra — a maelstrom of emotions, with the adrenaline-fired joy of performing right out front. The album they were touring at the time, Achtung Baby, is partially about U2 finding where they fit in the shifting pop-music landscape of the early ‘90s, but it’s more about the treachery of desire, the illusion of intimacy and what it really means to say you love someone, and the way two people in a relationship "get to carry each other." Considering I was going through all of those feelings as a 17-year-old, I fell for the band even harder. Achtung Baby is still my favorite U2 album.
A couple of years later, Bill Flanagan’s superb biography U2 At the End of the World filled in the rest of the story to that point for me — the band’s teenage years idolizing The Clash, Lou Reed and Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott; their unlikely rise to the top of the UK charts from Boy through War, as three of the four band members struggled to reconcile their faith with the hyper-secular environment of the early-'80s rock scene; how Brian Eno helped them become household names through The Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree; the great overreach of Rattle and Hum (which I’ve got a soft spot for all the same) and, just as the Cold War was ending, the crisis of self-confidence that resulted in Achtung Baby; plus Live Aid, Bono’s trips to Africa and Central America, and his deep interest in the AIDS crisis, all of which culminated in his efforts to help end global poverty and disease as a founder of the ONE campaign. I plan to read the book again next month on the plane to the UK and Ireland, which my fiancée and I will be visiting for the first time.
Other reasons I love U2 aren't nearly as serious. In 1997, the band played the Dome again on the PopMart tour; many fans consider Pop the band’s first real misstep since Rattle and Hum, though songs like “Last Night On Earth” and “Please” aren’t so easily dismissed as relics of their ill-fated experimenting with electronica. Many Houstonians still remember what a nightmare the Dome’s bathrooms could be, and this night was no different. My brother and I were sitting there watching Smash Mouth’s opening set when we started smelling an unmistakably fecal odor. We’ll have been laughing about that story for 20 years come November, and to this day have no idea how human excrement could have wound up on that floor, except that the Dome’s bathrooms really were that awful. Thank God we managed to get his shoes cleaned off — no easy feat in those bathrooms, either — before U2 came on.
I've seen U2 in Houston every time they've been here since that PopMart show, and each concert — on the Elevation, Vertigo and 360 tours — has been better than the previous one. Thinking back on that tour now, though, that night at the Dome stands out as a perfect example of what it means to be a U2 fan. Never be ashamed of who you are or afraid to stand up for what you believe in, no matter how popular or unpopular that may be — even if that means you love a band that once thought it was a good idea to put a huge golden arch onstage and dress like the postmodern Village People. Or else you’ll probably have to deal with some crap on your shoe at some point. Certainly other people in my life have helped me come by those beliefs, even other entertainers. Thing is, none of them have ever rocked me quite as hard as U2.
U2 brings their Joshua Tree 30th-anniversary tour, with special guest the Lumineers, to NRG Stadium, 1 NRG Park, Wednesday, May 24. Gates open at 5:30 p.m.; tickets start at $67 through ticketmaster.com.
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