Wednesday, April 29, 2015

To paraphrase the Beatles, "It was 30 years ago today. God and Paul McGuinness told the band to play!"

Yes, thirty years ago tonight, more or less around the moment I'm writing, U2 was wrapping up their show at The Omni in Atlanta, Georgia  - on the 5th leg of their Unforgettable Fire tour - with a blazing, raucous version of their signature anthem "Gloria" - composed, incidentally, in the form of a canticle ("little song") like those used in Morning or Evening Prayer in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer . . . and then, to bring us down softly and send us on our way with a new song on our hearts, there was "40."

I waited patiently for the Lord.
He inclined and heard my cry.
He brought me up out of the pit,
Out of the miry clay.

I will sing, sing a new song.
I will sing, sing a new song.
How long to sing this song?
How long, how long, how long...
To sing this song?

As the band left the stage, one by one, the audience of 12,000 or so continued to sing the chorus in which they'd already joined: "How long to sing this song? How long, how long, how long...To sing this song?" Then the house lights came up. Some kept singing, even as they filed out of their seats and into the corridors of the basketball arena. What I remember most vividly, though, of the whole night - my first U2 show, at the impressionable age of 16.5 - is that the singing of "40" continued, erupting sporadically from pockets of exhilarated teenage and college-age fans: as hundreds of us surged into the MARTA station entrance; as the station attendants simply held up the metal boxes from the turnstile machines to catch the coins and tokens we tossed; as we stood on the platform waiting on the next train; indeed as we clambered onto the train and surged off toward the northern Atlanta suburbs to find our cars - or even our parents - waiting to ferry us home.

We kept bursting into song: "How long to sing this song? How long, how long, how long...To sing this song?"

I've never ever experienced anything quite like it. I had been introduced to the liturgy - the worshipful atmosphere and ethos of a U2 concert - and been a witness to how that ethos was carried right out of the room, like a torch carries the light from the fireplace out into the darkest of nights . . . held up, held onto, for as long as we concertgoers could manage.

Nearly 10 years later I'd made a new friend during my time as a grad student at UGA in Athens. Jeff had grown up in the Atlanta suburbs, like me developing a keen interest in history, culture, and politics. Equally important at that moment, though, he also loved good rock-n-roll that had a point of view, a story to tell. Indeed he'd become skilled enough on the guitar to be a part of a true garage-band, the dream of every male GenXer teen. Come to find out Jeff was at that 1985 show, as well . . . and what did he remember first and foremost? Singing "40" in the MARTA station, of course. Are you convinced, yet, that for those present, April 29, 1985 at The Omni was pretty special moment?

What else do I remember about that show? Oddly, perhaps - given how it marks the "official" beginning of the significant impact U2's music would have on my emotional, spiritual, and even intellectual development - I'm short on memories of the music itself, save for the almost haunting atmospherics the band created, much like on the Unforgettable Fire album itself. Now that, thanks to the stupendous Internets, a quick search pulls up the set list, I'm actually quite frustrated I don't remember more. For instance, this show was almost certainly the only time I've heard U2 play live their wonderful early songs "11 O'Clock Tick Tock," "Seconds," and "Two Hearts Beat As One." They simply stopped playing these songs live after 1985. . . and there you go. I'm missing out on those memories.

For a little help, tonight I called my friend Greg, who trekked with me and several other high-schoolers from 2.5 hours away for the show - and asked what he remembered about it. The key moment for him was the song "Bad," a lament for victims of drug (esp. heroin) addiction that the members of the band knew in their native Dublin, Ireland. Though he likely would have heard it a few times already, from spinning the vinyl edition of 1984's album "The Unforgettable Fire," Greg said that the version at the show solidified the song in his mind as U2's best. Ultimately, even with 30 years gone by, he can't think of a better song, by anyone, ever. Indeed, he recently convinced his youngest son to do a 5th-grade poetry essay on "Bad." Talk about hard-core GenX parenting...

Aside from the magical ending described above, I remember . . . Bono's bringing up a very lucky duck from the front row to join him onstage and play guitar for "Knockin' On Heaven's Door." There was some discussion about the chords required, some assurance that the fan could handle it, and off they went. All of us garage-band/artistic-rocker wannabees were floored...and jealous.

Then, there was Bono's enthusiastic introduction of his father, Bob Hewson, who was attending his first-ever U2 show in North America that night. As I recounted to my friend Greg Garrett for his book We Get to Carry Each Other: The Gospel According to U2, Bob was not terribly excited to be singled out in this way - a spotlight trained on him as he stood by the soundboard - and he shook his fist in (drunken?) anger at his younger son. Paul, a.k.a. Bono, always the brash, rebellious one in the family, seemed so proud to have his dad in the audience, so eager to please - yet the exchange was an early indicator for us, the fans, of how their tumultuous relationship (Bono's mother having died when he was 14) would be the inspiration for so much good music.

I do have a fleeting memory, as well, of feeling proud and special, as a more/less "local," when Bono introduced "Pride" by talking about Martin King as a son of Atlanta. It would be another five years before I would take up graduate studies in Southern history and the 20th-century civil rights movement, but I was already beginning to be curious about just who this MLKJr. had been, and much of the credit for that curiosity goes not to my textbooks or teachers, but to a rock'n'roll band from Ireland. And then, of course, there were the fans - my friends and me among them - singing "40" out the door and into the night . . . we simply did not want the experience - the envelope of beautifully textured sight and sound that evoked so many emotions and longings in us (ultimately spiritual longings, I would come to believe) - to end.

More soon on the beginning of my days as a U2 fan and concertgoer . . . and what this band and their music have meant to me - to my emotional life, my faith, my sense of politics and people, and more - in the coming days and weeks.

What's your earliest memory of a rock-n-roll (or similar) concert? Why has that memory lasted, do you think? What did that experience have you longing for, long after it was over?


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