BEFORE THE JOSHUA TREE: U2

U2

What were YOU doing when the Irish rockers were touring behind The Unforgettable Fire? Here’s how a die-hard U2 fan (with more than just a little at stake…) found himself one night in the bowels of an arena, swapping slugs of red wine with Bono himself and ruminating upon the twin poles of fandom and stardom.

BY FRED MILLS

On October 1, 1984, U2 released their groundbreaking album The Unforgettable Fire. Almost exactly three decades later—this week, to be precise—U2 releases their Songs of Innocence album.And while it’s too early to say what the critical judgment will be—based on online commentary in the wake of that debatable move to offer it for free via iTunes a month ahead of the physical release, there probably won’t be a clear consensus—it’s a shoo-in to be a commercial smash and seems destined for multiple Grammy nominations. That latter notion is underscored by the rather cynical strategy on the part of the band’s label to slide a small handful of white label vinyl LPs to retail a few days before the deadline for Grammy consideration this year.

Having listened to it pretty steadily since the digital unveiling and then again this weekend when I got a copy of the two-CD deluxe edition, I suspect my own comments will be qualified but mostly favorable, particularly when comparing it to 2009’s atrocious No Line on the Horizon, which hold the unique position in my U2 collection of, er, well… not having a position at all in my U2 collection, as it’s the one U2 record I’ve never bothered to purchase. And I say this from a position of being a more than just interested observer: from 1983 through 1988 I edited and published a U2 fanzine called U2/USA, diligently expressing my sometimes—okay, frequent—over-the-top fandom with two equally enthusiastic writers and photographers and a host of contributors who’d been permanently bitten by the U2 bug. For me, it turned out to be not so permanent, as I became gradually disillusioned in the aftermath of the Rattle and Hum film, partly due to a nagging sense that U2 had outgrown its grassroots fanbase and partly due to a realization that said fanbase had expanded exponentially and things were steadily getting weirder. (Some of this I’ve documented previously, in particular the so-called “Miranda incident” in which I was privy to some of the same unpleasantness detailed in Vanity Fair’s 1999 expose The Miranda Obsession, by veteran journalist Bryan Burrough.)

U2USA 4b

But that would come later. In 1984, I was dealing with a pretty big obsession of my own, and that was U2. I wrote a lengthy, impassioned review of The Unforgettable Fire for the fourth issue of U2/USA, and then when the tour promoting the album hit the states in the spring of ’85, I immediately grabbed tickets for the magazine staff for the April concert in Hampton, VA, and I also requested backstage passes through the group’s management, aiming to take in the soundcheck and, with luck, conduct an interview with Bono.

On the morning of April 10 I arrived at the Hampton Coliseum, had coffee with the Coliseum manager in order to get his take—based on the number of people already in the parking lot and sitting on the sidewalk outside the venue—on what was shaping up to be a pretty sizable crowd. He seemed nonplused, although he did note that other bands in the recent past had posed problems: “Duran Duran and Van Halen were our worst shows, crowd-wise. Too rowdy, lots of alcohol you know.” Following that I met with U2’s Production Manager, Steve Iredale, who already knew about our fanzine and who soon steered me to the group’s manager Paul McGuinness and his assistant Ellen Darst. McGuinness in turn called Bono over and introduced us. Everyone was gracious towards me and seemed genuine interested in the ‘zine and what we were all about; recall that at this point in U2’s career the musicians were not megastars, as that wouldn’t come until The Joshua Tree era, so it was probably a no-brainer to treat with respect those folks who were actively helping to promote the group. I was handed a blue/white laminated “U2 Tour 85 The Unforgettable Fire – Backstage” pass and invited to hang around and watch the soundcheck if I wanted to. Later I learned that the pass wasn’t just for the Hampton show—it would get me backstage access for any dates on the entire tour.

U2 passes

***

From my original notes and report: U2’s soundcheck was fun, even a few surprises. I heard some unfamiliar riffs from the Edge that progressed into a casual version of “The Three Sunrises” and possibly some of “Love Comes Tumbling.” Adam danced around on the stage a bit, perhaps out of restlessness but I prefer to think he was just in a good mood because he also stepped up to the mic and sang. The band dutifully responded to the soundman when he requested them to do this or that: a bit of a capella from Bono; a quick bass run from Adam; give us one more cymbal crash please, Larry; let’s check out the sequencer intro for “Bad” and your “New Year’s Day” piano part, okay Edge? The Edge, in fact, seemed to play the part of conductor rather than Bono, with Adam and Larry cueing off his nods and looks. Which was a good thing, as there has to be some semblance of order in a live situation—who knows what Bono might do on any given night.

Later, after the check, Bono walked up and plopped down next to me on the instrument cases I’d been sitting on. “Are you doing okay?” was the first thing out of his mouth, and as he gargled lemon tea we chatted briefly about the ‘zine; he apologized for having to keep things short but his throat was in rough shape and he had to save it for the concert. Pledging to continue the conversation another time, he signed some record sleeves then politely excused himself and headed off for some much-needed pre-gig quiet time. I was able to get the records signed by the rest of the band, and then I settled in to watch the deluge.

At promptly 6:30 pm the doors opened and it was more of a stampede to be the first to get in the front row, if you can call it a “row” since the entire Coliseum was general admission and there were no actual seats on the floor. Later I’d observe some of those lucky first-arrivals become the first casualties of the evening when security would have to haul them over the metal mesh barrier in order to keep them from being crushed by their overly excited fellow concertgoers. There were tons of U2 teeshirts in evidence, some from previous tours and others just-purchased and hastily-donned. Programs and posters were waved in the air, cigarettes were smoked (yes, this was in the pre-no-smoking-in-public-buildings era), soft drinks guzzled, and emotions were steadily heightened. An hour and a half or so later opening act Lone Justice was finishing up its set and the U2/USA crew had found some seats a few rows off the main floor, waiting for the main event…

Setlist: 11 O’Clock Tick Tock, I Will Follow, Seconds, MLK, The Unforgettable Fire, Wire w/Give Me Some Truth, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Cry, The Electric Co. / Amazing Grace (snippet), A Sort Of Homecoming, Bad w/Ruby Tuesday/Sympathy For The Devil, October, New Year’s Day, Pride (In The Name Of Love) // (encores) Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, Gloria, 40

After the concert, the backstage scene was strangely calm—no mob of fans, other than about 30 kids outside at the loading dock, hoping for a sight of the band; no crazed groupies (well, almost: one tenacious young lass slipped past security and was immediately scouring the area for souvenirs, mutting something about needing to find “bits of Bono”); just the crew tearing down and starting the load-out process. U2, in fact, had already left, being exhausted and looking forward to a day off before heading to New Jersey for a three-night stand at the Meadowlands. En route back to the hotel, I stopped in the parking lot to look at the wares of a bootleg teeshirt vendor; I’m not normally a teeshirt junkie, and I’d already bought an official program (pictured below) but this one seemed apropos of the evening, as it read “U2 USA Tour.”

Tour program

 

***

April 29, Atlanta: Fresh from a four-day vacation in the Florida sun, U2 arrives at The Omni and prepares for soundcheck. I’d already picked up my ticket (and discovered it included an additional “work personnel” pass, although I wouldn’t need it since I already had the aforementioned laminate) so I’m wandering around when I bump into Larry and Edge; the former remembers me from Hampton, but Edge doesn’t until I mention the fanzine, at which point he grins broadly and tells me how much he likes it, adding “Hope to see you later tonight” in his unmistakable soft Irish voice as he ascends the steps to the stage.

There’s a lot of clowning around during the check. They do “The Three Sunrises” as well as an untitled funk-rockabilly number during which Bono does some impromptu off-the-wall scatsinging. Bono also walks slowly around the entire upper level of the arena stopping periodically to listen and making sure the sound is acceptable at all points. “Sounds very nice,” is his judgment, when he returns to the stage. Initially I’m sitting in the stands myself, but one of the crew comes over and politely informs me, “They’d prefer not to be observed.” Gesturing at some cases, he suggests I go sit over behind the stage. Members of opening act the Red Rockers join me to watch the rest of the soundcheck. When U2 is done Bono comes over to talk with me and RR drummer Jim Reilly and he pledges to finally get that interview done after the show.

Setlist: 11 O’Clock Tick Tock, I Will Follow, Seconds, Two Hearts Beat As One, MLK, The Unforgettable Fire, Wire, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Cry, The Electric Co., A Sort Of Homecoming, Bad, October, New Year’s Day, Pride (In The Name Of Love) // (encores) Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, Gloria, 40 [source: U2setlists.com]

The post-concert scene backstage at the Omni is the polar opposite of Hampton. There are tons of folks with day-of-show backstage passes stuck to their silk blouses and satin baseball jackets, and it seems like there is more per capita teased blonde ‘dos (for the females) and mustache-and-shag hair (the males) than any concert I’ve ever been at since the ‘70s. Atlanta is a music biz town—although not necessarily the most sophisticated one, I determine, after observing an excited girl thrusting a tour program in the direction of one of the Red Rockers only to be disappointed to learn that he’s not a member of U2.

U2 passes 2

Brown triangle

 

Security eventually begins herding people this way or that way depending on the type of access designated by their passes (VIP, Hospitality, Press, etc.). And I do mean herding: “All of you with the Brown Triangles must do down here and wait.” “No, you must go back around to the press area.” “Anybody without passes must leave the area immediately!” Me: “Where do I go?” Security, squinting at my laminate: “Uh, you can go wherever you want.” So I follow the Brown Triangles down the corridor past the dressing rooms and showers to a medium-sized room serving as the official Hospitality Room. It’s quite a layout of eats: two, count ‘em, 2 bowls of chips, one bowl of dip, one bowl of peanuts, one plate of sliced cheese. I grab a canned Pepsi and a handful of chips and go perch on a table in the far corner of the room, trying my best to look cool and detached. This isn’t the easiest thing to do when you’ve got crumbs of chips smeared around the edge of your mouth but I resolve to make the best of it.

After about 15 or 20 minutes of people talking amongst themselves and steadily eyeing the doors, Bono comes in, still wet from his shower, ready for a standard music biz town meet-and-greet. Initially, folks approach him tentatively, offering him flowers and candy and books (plus the de rigeur stuffed animal) and shyly asking for autographs. Then the more aggressive label-and-radio people take over, demanding kisses and hugs and posing for photos with him. I swear at least 10 different guys with shag haircuts and mustaches tell Bono that they were the first local DJ to play U2 in Atlanta or the first record company employee to push U2 product in the region. I think to myself that these folks will be saying the same thing in a few weeks to Elvis Costello and Ted Nugent when they play Atlanta.

But there are some genuine fans in there as well, including some old friends that Bono obviously recognizes and greets warmly. There’s also the guy who was lucky enough to be pulled onstage during U2’s set and play guitar during “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”; I talk to him some and learn that he’s also a friend of Irish fiddler Steve Wickham, who played on U2’s War album (and would go on to Waterboys fame). I also learn that Bono’s father was in attendance at the show, although I don’t know if he’s in the Hospitality Room with me. Eventually Edge and Adam show up (no Larry), as do the Red Rockers. Meanwhile, security and tour manager Dennis Sheehan are busy screening people who want in, including one guy with a briefcase full of albums whom I’d spotted earlier borrowing another person’s pass. Somehow he manages to slip in, but just as he’s about to corner Bono with the LPs, Sheehan rushes over, grabs him by the shoulder (“I warned you!”) and firmly escorts him out.

It’s fascinating to crowd watch in a situation like this. People behave differently in the presence of stars. One guy engages Edge in a conversation about guitars, and judging by the look on Edge’s face, the two are hitting it off nicely. Then there’s the girl who’s quite vocal about not being able to get the absent Larry’s autograph (later she will literally chase Bono down the hall and beg him to take her to the drummer). Small crowds form around Bono, then slowly break off to re-coagulate in the vicinity of Edge or Adam, as if they are drawing a psychic “celebrity fix” with each mini-encounter. The Red Rockers guys obviously understand their place in the pecking order and pretty much hang out with each other, with people occasionally drifting over to them; they seem to be getting a pretty even mix of actual fans who know their music and U2 nuts who are frustrated they can’t penetrate the aforementioned mini-crowds but are still determined to get some type celeb-fix. I admire the Rockers’ resilience as much as I admire U2’s patience.

At one point Bono looks up from a conversation and spots me a few people away from him, observing the scene. I smile and nod at him, and he offers, “You did make it back here. How are you feeling?” “Great, never better!” “That’s great—so hang on, we’ll talk in just a bit.”

In about ten minutes (by now it’s approaching midnight) Sheehan buttonholes Bono and informs him time’s up. Bono shakes a few last hands, then comes over to me, grabs me by the arm and says let’s go. We head out into the corridor—yes, a part of me is aware of the people staring at the back of my head and wondering who the hell is that asshole with Bono?—and over to a dressing room lounge. We plop down on stuffed sofas opposite one another and he reaches over for an open bottle of red wine. He takes a deep swig then passes the bottle over to me. The back of my mind dimly registers the fact that maybe I should try to figure out some way to keep it after we’re done as a souvenir.

“I’m really drained,” Bono says, sighing for emphasis, as I hand him back the bottle. “That was a good show.” Although I had the proverbial laundry list of questions I’d wanted to ask him for U2/USA, I sensed that our time might be limited (the group is headed back to Florida tonight where they’ll get ready for the final four shows of the North American leg of The Unforgettable Fire tour). So I instead opt to freestyle, first asking him who were all those people back there?

“I’ll tell you who they are. They’re people who work selling our records, salesmen, radio people. The sort of people who are just normally cogs in the machine, you know? And they use words like ‘product’ and ‘tonnage’ and ‘shifting units.’ I go in there, and they all bring their wives or girlfriends—that’s why there are so many in there—and I try to be, just who I am, you know; I try to show them that I am a fan of music. And I hope that when I leave the room, I leave a room of fans of music. Because a lot of people who are working in the music business started off that way! So I hope that they should continue the way they started.

“But some people are also old friends that I haven’t seen in a long time, too; people who were like, when we first came to Atlanta, working our record, going down to the radio stations and saying, ‘Why aren’t you playing this!’ So these people I like to single out.”

I point out that U2/USA gets letters from fans who bemoan the fact that they only get quick glimpses of the band before it jumps into limos and speeds away after shows. At that, Bono turns defensive, blurting, “It’s not true!” He takes another swallow of wine, hands me the bottle, and thinks about it for a moment, the frown on his face telling me that he’s bothered by the implication that there’s a clearly defined hierarchy of fans.

“I think I see,” he begins, choosing his words carefully. “Well, normally I meet people just about every soundcheck, just about every night when I leave the venue. Like today, I must have met about a hundred people in and around the venue. I was just hanging around opening doors, inviting people in and out. I meet people—I like to meet people like that! One on one, even if there’s 10 or 20 of them, I don’t mind, once they treat me one on one. But I will not, cannot be expected to, or… I don’t expect myself to stand there and be treated like a thing, you know, an object…”

Just an autograph signing machine…

Yeah. If there’s a hundred people and they’re trying to pull, um, bits off you, I know that in those hundred people there may be 25, or 75, that really have something to say to me, and want to say something, and I wanna say something back. But I can’t go out there and have all that, ‘cos somebody’s gonna get hurt and damaged. So at times like that we just have to drive back.”

When he mentions the part about “bits” I think back to Hampton, and the nutty girl wandering around backstage trying to find “bits of Bono” like she was going to spot a discarded boot or something. I draw the scene for Bono and he nods vigorously, as if I’ve confirmed what he was saying: “See, they’ve just got it wrong.” Per the other side of the equation, I hand him a folded piece of paper from a young girl who’d spotted my laminate and, having had no success convincing security to let her backstage to give the note to Bono, asked if I could deliver it for her. He unfolds the paper and scans it, smiling, clearly pleased. (“Yeah, I do get a lot of gifts from fans. It can be a bit much, but it’s nice.”) We talk a little more about how people act around celebrities, and how in particular the emotional investment music fans make tends to make things intensely personal for them. Noting how there was a major crush of fans at the stage barrier in Hampton that required security to hoist some of them over for their safety, he adds that it bothers him sometimes about the lengths to which fans will go to get close to their heroes.

“The thing about being a fan,” he says, between swigs, “is that when you’re into a band, it can be the most important thing in the world to you. The only thing that matters is when you’re in your room listening to the records, or waiting for the band to come out onstage.

“It’s a rare occasion, very rare [that people get hurt] at our concerts. [We have] security down front, either trained police or our guy, a policeman from the Boston police force who’s worked with all the groups. He comes in and briefs the security in every single hall. He tells them, ‘The people who come to see U2 play are paying your wages and our wages. Treat them as such.’ And there’s also no security people from any venue actually allowed on our stage. Only our own people. We’re very aware of all this and very concerned that everything is handled properly.”

One of the crew pokes a head into the dressing room to let him know it’s almost time to go. Bono nods then asks me how everyone at the ‘zine is doing—the previous December in Detroit my fellow editor had also done an interview with him—and tells me that he appreciates how we focus on the music itself and the social issues that the band raises. “I think one of the things we value most about U2,” he says with a knowing chuckle because it’s something he’s said a number of times in the past, “is that we never forget we’re just four people. Just four jerks! Like everyone else. So I like that side of the magazine… the music’s what’s important, not the musicians. And it’s all kept on an intelligent level, the comments, and the positive stuff.”

Bono offers me the wine bottle one last time, then he finishes it off and stands up. He gives me a sincere handshake and wishes me good luck with the ‘zine. As I wander back down the corridor, I’m thinking about how this is a man who, at one point in his life, was just another civilian—read: music fan—like me, just like the fans clustered outside at the loading dock hoping for a glimpse of the band. That he’s on the other side of the security barrier now, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that his perspective has also taken a 180. Here in Atlanta, in April of 1984, he’s a guy who remembers what it was like to be a fan and who apparently cares about the people who pay money to come see him perform.

On my way to the exits I somehow make a wrong turn and wind up in some kitchen area. There’s a tub of ice full of beers, so I glance around, grab one, then head towards the parking lot, feeling pretty cool.

***

Memories tend to be rose-tinted; for some of mine, I’m fortunate enough to have documented things in near-real time, so recreating the scenes outlined above was not only pretty easy, I had a transcript I could refer to. Literally recreating how I was feeling and what I was experiencing, however, can be tricky—and I’m not about to subject readers to that anyway! (As with most writers, some of the stuff I was spewing out 30 years ago, or at least the way I expressed myself at the time, is best left un-dredged. And there are probably stray copies of the fanzine still floating around anyway, awaiting your bemused perusal and/or my deep embarrassment.)

But the thing is, U2 in 1984-85, and by extension U2 fandom back then, was a markedly different beast. Think of all the foregoing, then, as a handful of snapshots from one particular, very personal, photo album. To my fellow fans: I’ve shown you mine—now it’s your turn.

U2USA 5

Editorial postscript/addendum: I do realize, gentle BLURT readers, that the headline at the top of this page is slightly erroneous; the concerts discussed in the story were in April of 1985. But the album was released in the fall of ’84, and hey, “It was 29 ½ years ago today” as a title doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. So allow me that small concession to literary license. Yours in U2 fandom, FM

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