Sometimes a rock band can worm its way into your cranium and remain there throughout all the significant moments of your adult life. Most people have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, each whispering in one ear, each vying for attention. With me, U2 has always been the group playing in the background while that battle for my soul raged.
U2 came into existence around 1978, but I really didn’t catch the bug until 1986, when I made my first trip to Europe. I had never been outside the continent before, and I decided four weeks of backpacking by myself across Europe would satisfy my wanderlust, or at the very least allow me to sample some of the great beers of the world. I probably spent a few hours at the music store stocking up for the journey. A friend slipped me a couple of U2 tapes — “War” and “The Unforgettable Fire” — and said they would change my life. They did.
Accompaniment for lifeI had just finished my second season covering the Lakers for a Los Angeles newspaper, and then the NBA draft. That year, Len Bias was the No. 2 pick overall out of the University of Maryland by the Boston Celtics. The Celtics happened to win the championship that year, so it was unusual that they would also select first, since the draft is designed to strengthen the league’s bottom-dwellers. But Red Auerbach, the Celtics’ cigar-puffing patriarch, flim-flammed the Seattle SuperSonics in a trade and secured the pick for the franchise with the most NBA championships.
Two days after the draft, I was walking down a London street, my headphones on, with “A Sort of Homecoming” filling my ears. It might be the quintessential U2 song, or at least of their early work — a gentle, incessant beat, mesmerizing and ethereal, simple and without pretension. Down to the tube station I went, mingling with the throngs of rush-hour commuters, dodging bodies, searching for the right platform in a foreign land.
I stopped at a newsstand and noticed they had the international version of USA Today. On the cover was the headline, “Len Bias Dies.” He OD’d on cocaine shortly after the draft, and suddenly the promise of tomorrow for the Celtics, and for so many others outside of basketball, was momentarily threatened.
I was in disbelief, but Bono kept singing: “And your heart beats so slow/ Through the rain and fallen snow/ Across the fields of mourning/ Lights in the distance.” I wasn’t sure what he was singing about at the time, but all types of thoughts were commingling in my head — the pain of an old romance that ended abruptly, my future, cocaine abuse among friends, the excitement of exploring, the promise of tomorrow. “Across the fields of mourning/ Lights in the distance” seemed to play over and over. U2 provided mood music, and my mood was all over the map.
Music that makes you thinkTraveling by train across Europe, especially in England and Scotland, gave me an opportunity to think about the larger questions while U2 blazed. The countryside spread out for miles, under leaden skies: farmhouses, small towns, desolate roads, rusted hulks of industrial ruins, mountains, rain, lush pastures. U2 introduced me to it all, reminding me that there was a whole world out there beyond the little one I had been inhabiting, and it was eager to serve as tour guide.
Later in the trip, while in Germany, I happened to be occupying one entire rail car and sat there at the station, with “Seconds” from the “War” album blaring, a cynical missive that laments the use of violence for political means: “In an apartment on Times Square/ You can assemble them anywhere/ Held to ransom/ hell to pay/ A revolution everyday.”
While I sat commiserating with Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr., four obnoxious German slackers came into the car and disrupted my hypnotic state by horsing around and shoving each other. I would like to report that I then switched tracks to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and left them bruised and groaning on the train platform, but instead I took heed of U2’s nonviolent message and changed cars.
Even better liveA couple of years later, I saw U2 in concert for the first time. It was at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, which was considered a snazzy venue when it opened in 1959, but by the late 1980s was a relic. U2 playing there was like Pavarotti singing in somebody’s garage. But they made it seem like we were all friends, crammed into their living room for a party.
At one point in the show, an overzealous fan raced on stage. A few burly security guards quickly hustled him away before he could reach Bono. As they did, Bono called to the beefy bouncers, “Be gentle with him!” I related that to a friend who is a conservative, and he got a good laugh out of it, mocking Bono as a touchy-feely bleeding heart rock star. But whether it should have or not, that moment onstage emphasized to me that U2’s greatest gifts were compassion and a social conscience, even though in that particular case it happened to be directed at one thrill-seeking drunk.
After that, I was in U2’s camp for the long haul. I bought their earlier stuff, the “Boy” and “October” albums, and spent many hours playing the air guitar to “I Will Follow” and screaming into the air microphone to “Gloria.” I rode on their bandwagon through various musical phases.
As they experimented and matured, so did I, through “The Joshua Tree” and “Achtung Baby” and “Zooropa” and “Pop” and “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.” U2 has sold more than 120 million albums worldwide, and I was happy to contribute to that total. I like these fellows so much, I can even forgive them for the movie, “Rattle and Hum,” which made me want to track them down and stage an intervention before they careened off course.
U2 has a new release called, “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb,” and I’m sure it will speak to me. I already downloaded the single, “Vertigo,” and although it’s nothing like “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” or “New Year’s Day,” I’m certain it will reflect where they are — as well as where I am — today.
Michael Ventre is a free-lance writer living in Los Angeles.