MEMORIES & THE BEGINNING OF MEANING
I suppose The Unforgettable Fire remains, for all intents and purposes, my "first" U2 album. That is, not at all the first one I heard or the first one that excited me about U2's fresh, varied, hard-to-categorize sound, but the one I first remember playing endlessly. The one to first sink into my bones, as the spinning of it on the turntable or in the cassette deck built and sustained - in my bedroom or in my car - an entire aural environment, an ambience all it's own (thank you, producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois). Yes, the tape deck in the car. That was significant. The album was released on October 1, 1984, and just under a month later, in the fall of my junior year of high school, I turned 16, allowing me to drive at all hours on my own. For the teenage driver in the 1980s, and for boys, especially, the tape deck and the ability to rule over what blared from it, was, without question, as important as the car itself. And let's be clear: the 1977 Audi Fox I drove, with it's 4-speed manual transmission connecting a ferocious 83 horsepower to the pavement had very little going for it in the sexy or speedy departments. So, I upgraded the tape deck and speakers and added an equalizer, recorded The Unforgettable Fire - like so many others - from vinyl onto a TDK SA-90 medium-quality, blank cassette tape, and played the hell out of it. For nearly the next five years.
Surely the April 1985 concert experience described in the previous post also accounts for the place-of-pride in my memory that The Unforgettable Fire holds. For one thing, there was a short burn-time from first hearing the record in October to catching that first, in-person glimpse of U2 live just over seven months later. The intervals would have been pretty minimal between first hearing the songs, eagerly sharing them with each other, the announcement of the tour, the purchase of tickets, and the making of plans (the trip was out-of-town and overnight, after all), with constant anticipation throughout. While, on one hand, the days surely passed incredibly slow for a bunch of 16-year-olds in the midst of the headiest days of high school drama and angst, they also would have been days of truly enjoying - together - our favorite new music - and not just the latest U2, either. While preparing a sermon for my homiletics class in seminary, I believe in 2007, the appointed scripture brought to mind a scene from that same fall of 1984: an impromptu tag football game on a cold, overcast November Sunday after lunch, as a bunch of us waited to get on the bus home. We'd spent the weekend on retreat at Young Life's Windy Gap camp in the mountains of North Carolina, just a bunch of high-schoolers curious about how we were supposed to be better followers of Jesus amidst the turmoil and questions and dilemmas of our young lives . . . but mostly just to be together, away from home, goofing off (up to and including 'romantically'), and forgetting school for awhile. And what really, really stood out for me as I remembered that moment? What held the scene together in my mind's eye? R.E.M.'s Harborcoat blaring from the cassette deck on someone's boom box: "A handshake is worthy, if it's all that you've got."
All that's to say, I suppose, that our music was very important to us in those days. Our memories are closely and powerfully associated with the music. Each of us in the middle-class American suburbs could easily speak of a "soundtrack to our lives:" the best memories almost always come with a song or album attached.
So, my first U2 show was focused on this funky album named after an art exhibit about the 1945 atomic bomb attacks on Japan . . . this funky album with it's purple cover and fuzzy, mystic photos of the band hanging around castle ruins in Athlone, Ireland . . . this funky album with its mystic ambience. No wonder I remember these songs so fondly, even if only one or two stand out as all time favorites. Heck, it was my first big rock'n'roll show of any kind. First overnight trip with friends and no parents. First time cheering and singing at the top of my lungs with around 12,000 others. First time seeing campaigners for Greenpeace and Amnesty International in the hallways outside the arena. Hmmm . . . what was that all about? Environmentalism? Human rights? I was intrigued and could begin to see the connections with the themes in certain U2 songs (Pride, with Martin King it's focus, being the most obvious) and the increasingly clear religious, social, and 'political' commitments this band sang about, talked about, tried to live out . . . yes, the human commitments U2 was bringing to light in a variety of ways.
More in my next post on specific songs from The Unforgettable Fire and the meaning they came to have for this fan and seeker - of the cool, of the musically inventive and moving, of the truthful, and sure . . . of the holy.