About a year ago, to the day, I took a day off from being a graduate journalism student to attend a "secret" U2 show in some greenspace between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges in the Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Or maybe it was technically RAMBO (Right Around the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Greater New York neighborhood boundaries aside, the show was hardly under anyone's radar.
First off, it was a U2 show. And nothing the band does is on a small scale. It plays huge arenas fitted with gaudy stages and multimillion-dollar pyrotechnics. It composes epic music that's produced to such a shiny and slick consistency, it's like a gold-plated Slip 'n' Slide in Nelly's back yard. Its one-named leader is a nonproselytizing Christian who's become a demigod. He cannot only sway an audience like a Category 5 hurricane could move a small forest, but he can fell a politician under severe inertia like Paul Bunyan could drop a stubborn redwood.
Second, the band had been cruising around town, gallivanting on the back of a flatbed truck, shooting scenes for its upcoming video "All Because of You," a song off its 11th studio album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. The group had essentially acted as pied pipers to its own show, filling the grassy knoll with well over 1,000 fans.
As U2 members took the relatively tiny stage at the convenient time of dusk with their backs to the New York City skyline, they launched into "Vertigo." It's a song built on classic U2 structures heard before on anthems of my youth like "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "Mysterious Ways." After the song concluded, Bono announced to the crowd, "You've been 'Jammed,'" meaning we'd just been part of an MTV show/publicity stunt.
I looked to my right. My classmate, an Irish Catholic guy just out of Notre Dame, looked pretty "jammed." But he may have been equally "jammed" by a House of Pain acoustic show, considering the nationalism at stake. I looked to my left, to a friend who was visiting from Atlanta. He, like me, didn't appear "jammed" at all. Here we were, staring down the world's most famous band, from a distance that most of its fans would eat each other to be at, and we couldn't be bothered to savor the moment.
Bono has said about the band, "We come from punk." But aside from the pictures, it's hard for me to think of U2 as punk. My conception of U2 is the era from the 1987 classic The Joshua Tree to Pop, when the band thought dance may be more effective than policy. I hear seminal early albums like Boy and War through the filter of Achtung Baby. The lyrical content makes sense then because, with about a decade under his belt, Bono had mastered the striking metaphor and jettisoned the acerbic call to arms.
He was becoming a diplomat both in verse and in life. He had figured out how to advocate for what he wanted rather than riot for it. He was an interventionist, not a reactionary. The music still had that singular sound that only the Edge could make -- his hypnotic harmonics, siren-call figures and loud/soft oscillations have always dictated the tone and supplied the context. Because of him, the group has never mixed its message.
Referring to the latest U2 records All That You Can't Leave Behind and Atomic Bomb, Bono told Rolling Stone, "For 10 years, we'd been thinking, 'What is it we don't have?' and going after it. Now, in order to keep it fresh, we say, 'What is it we do have?' and let's go after that."
To me, that thought is a problem. Instead of continuing to strive -- which Bono does in his political life, which is arguably his real passion -- the band is resting on its laurels fending off Coldplay for the title of "politically aware, mawkish band that writes too many love songs." Now, mind you, U2 wins on both accounts: Chris Martin's "Make Trade Fair" pleas are no match for Bono's ability to actually meet with political leaders for more than just a photo shoot.
Bono single-handedly turned North Carolina's bigoted Sen. Jesse Helms' head on the issue of AIDS in Africa. He's greatly responsible for the monumental debt relief package agreed to at the G-8 Summit in July.
Bono's political work now has the ability to do what his band could do -- unite the punks and the balladeers, the left and the right, the Red States and the Blue. I no longer believe in U2's power to change the world with its music, but I still believe in the power of its celebrity.
Why else was I between those bridges last year?