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ROCKIN' ALL OVER THE STATES
As "With Or Without You" hits No. 1 in the US singles charts, Liam Mackey joins U2 on their biggest - and most successful - American tour to date.
Liam Mackey, 18 Jun 1987
IN AMERICA you don't take the lift, you ride the elevator and in all of the Big Country there call be no more deliciously spine-tingling, stomach heaving and literally ear-popping an ascent than that which takes you, at a top speed of 600 feet per minute, from the crowded pavements of 5th Avenue and 34th Street to the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building, where, at an altitude of 1,250 feet above sea you stand beneath a red neon-tube sign proclaiming 'The Top Of The Big Apple' and - deep breath -take in the dizzying panorama that made King Kong swoon. (Apologies Fay Wray!)
On the way up, you have to change elevators at the 80th floor and join the long queue where ticket stubs are presented to the checker before proceeding skywards on your journey. It's here your correspondent does a double-take, for fastened with sellotape to the turnstile is a sheet of white paper bearing the hand-printed inscription: 'Wanted U2 Tix'.
Well, signs of the times and all that symbolism, but, really, is this ever a long way front another day and another wanted notice, one that was pinned to a bulletin board in a Dublin secondary school ten years ago by a fifteen year old who played the drums and wondered if anyone else shared his enthusiasm for forming a rock'n'roll band. For a millisecond, all the gigs, songs, words, labours, travels, traumas and thrills of a decade in the life of four young Dubliners, crash, collide and resolve into this corny but irresistible metaphor for U2 in America as of May 11th 1987. "Wanted U2 Tix" - a small sign with a big plea, 1,000 feet above New York City. This is top of the tops, higher than higher - and right now, U2 are up there with the world at their feet.
A lofty perch but a downcast mood - the girl checking the tickets in the Empire State Building knows her chances of seeing U2 live this time around are slim to nothing. "Friends of mine were raving about U2 from the very first time they came here, saying 'you just have to see this band'," she tells me. "But I never did. Then last year I saw the Amnesty tour on TV and decided 'right I'm not going to miss them again'. But when I went to get the tickets I couldn't believe it - they were gone just like that."
She's not alone in her disappointment. Such has been the excess demand right across America, that scalpers at the concert in Hartford, Connecticut, for example, were asking $115 for tickets with a face-value of $15. And in New York, the shock to the system of Aiken Promotions man Peter Aiken upon receiving a dental bill for $600 was outweighed only by his utter astonishment at the dentist's suggestion that he'd waive the fee if Peter could get him two tickets for one of the five sold-out 20,000 seater concerts in New Jersey. Re-write the script - an eye for an eye and a tooth for a U2 ticket.
To borrow from Americanese, the bottom-line is that at least for the duration of this first leg of their US tour, which began in Tempe Arizona on April 1, U2 are the biggest thing in rock in America, triggering off a massmedia landslide in the process. By the time they've finished up in Meadowlands, New Jersey on May 16, the band will have topped both albums and singles charts, seen all their elpees re-enter the Billboard Hot 100, appeared on the covers of Time and Rolling Stone, been featured on the major TV networks, become the top grossing live act in the country and played to a pocket-calculator knows how many people while thousands more rued their misfortune at missing out on a certified highlight of the 1987 touring calendar.
But then that's riot the bottom-line it all. The real bottom-line is that the four people who make up U2 have still to do what they've been doing an awful lot for the last ten years, albeit now against a backdrop of staggering dimensions -they've got to walk on-stage, pick up their instruments, and for around one hundred minutes, show committed fans and first-timers - and perhaps even remind each other - just what it is they've got that's raising all the fuss an' holler.
The Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum in the multi-purpose Civic Centre of Hartford, Connecticut is packed for the last of U2's three concerts in the Constitution State. This summer the band may well be one of the biggest things to roll through, what the Lord Mayor of Hartford not inaccurately calls "this green and pleasant corner of Southern New England" but even U2 must on occasion play second-fiddle to the attractions of other leisure pursuits. Thus their three concert stint was interrupted for one night so that the Coliseum could accommodate an ice hockey play-off. It sounds like a major logistical headache but these American arenas are nothing if not adaptable - and, so, inside 24 hours they simply took out the stage, installed the ice rink, took out the ice c rink and reinstalled the stage. QED. In fact, it's an ideal venue for a rock concert on this scale - big but not gargantuan. Positioned three-quarters way down the arena, the stage, with the PA suspended in circular formation above it, is completely enclosed by seating that rises tier upon tier, offering perfect sound and vision to every member of the capacity 16,500 crowd. Looking down on the scene tonight you begin to suspect that, for promoter Jim Aiken, over here to finalise arrangements for the U2 and David Bowie concerts in Ireland, this kind of American concert arena comes close to his concept of professional heaven.
U2's arrival on-stage is so low-key and almost casual that it momentarily catches the audience by surprise. For the past minute and a half they've been singing and swaying to the sound of "Stand By Me" coming over the PA when, without fanfare, U2 are on-stage, seamlessly taking up from where John Lennon's "Rock 'n' Roll" cover of the Ben E King song left off.
Performed with the houselights on full, the opening says two things – one that there are effective (albeit, in this case, ingenious) alternatives to the standard curtain-raising theatrics of Stadium rock and, two, that as Irish fans discovered at Self-Aid, U2 are no longer the world's worst cover band.
But the time for such reflections comes later, as with the houselights still up - and paradoxically heightening rather than detracting from the drama - The Edge rings out an instantly familiar intro and both band and audience are surging into " Pride In The Name Of Love". After that there's a first pause for breath, the houselights dim, and the emotional temperature is readjusted completely with the serene and quietly dignified "MLK".
In the course of a twenty song set, ranging in mood from rage ("Bullet The Blue Sky") through sadness ("Running To Stand Still") to boisterous good humour ("Trip Through Your Wires" with Bono blowing a raspberry of a harmonica solo), and which embraces the band's history from "Electric Co" (The Edge strapping on his Explorer as of yore) to their brand new no. 1 American single, "With Or Without You", U2 play with confidence and conviction, only Bono's occasional but obvious throat -weariness, cutting up rough. Yet while in itself sufficient to confirm the band's stunning mastery of the medium, it's doubtful that the show will be remembered among the tour highlights. Invariably, there's more to the memorable concert experience than a band's performance alone, and while the missing part of the equation in Hartford might have been the unfamiliar spectacle to Irish eyes of a rock audience - albeit a noisy and upstanding one - staying right where their tickets told them to stay, or simply something as subjective and mundane as my own creeping exhaustion after a long haul by air and road, either way, as I head backstage to the sound of a cast of thousands singing the refrain from "40", I'm already relishing a second chance to see them a again two days later in New Jersey.
But first it's time to unwind and cool down with a beer. Backstage a hospitality room has been set aside where the band can mingle with friends, industry figures and the visiting Irish press corps. I recognise Carter Allen from his appearance on Today Tonight's U2 report earlier in the week. A Boston dee-jay, he was the first person in America to spin a U2 record on radio and remains a firm friend and fan of the band.
So too does fellow Bostonian Peter Wolf, formerly lead singer with J. Geils (whom U2 supported on one of their earliest US forays): apparently Wolf had come to the show on the previous Thursday and passed on a compilation tape of country songs to Bono, whose interest in American roots music appears to grow daily. Robert Johnson, Hank Williams and Luke The Drifter are just three of the names he'll later tell me have "become part of the record collection." Carter Allen, for his part, has brought along a tape of vintage blues he's promised to give the singer.
Poring over schedules and lists with Chris Roche and Jim Aiken is Alvinia Bridges, who's in charge of press publicity for the tour. A tall, striking black woman for whom the word statuesque could have been coined, she's previously worked in a similar capacity with The Rolling Stones and was at Slane Castle for their concert in 1982. How does working with U2 compare with the Stones job? "When there's greatness there," she says diplomatically, "it's all great."
The band wander in and fan out into separate conversations. The Edge is well pleased with life. "We're really into the swing of things," he says of their string of shows to date. "Once it would have taken us a month - now it's happening in a week."
As highlights of the tour so far he selects gigs in Los Angeles and Boston, as well as the single going to number one. "I really didn't think it would do that," he reflects- "I just didn't think it was an obvious song for radio at all." Then there was Bob Dylan's joining them on-stage in L.A. As Edge tells it, the performance was improvised on the spot. The band suggested doing "Knocking On Heaven's Door" to which Dylan replied he wasn't sure if he remembered all the words. Finally agreeing on the song, they all then huddled in a knot onstage trying to decide on the key, while 20,000 people screamed themselves hoarse. In the end they performed both "Knockin’ …" and "I Shall Be Released" and another little piece of rock history was written. I suggest that, after tonight, a further collaboration might see Dylan giving harmonica lessons to Bono. "Ah, that's all part of the act - Bono's really a great harmonica player," replies The Edge deadpan.
The Demon Harper himself was in a more pensive mood, concerned about all the attention the financial aspect of the tour was getting. All this emphasis on what he called "The Money Tree", when he would rather talk about the music. As he did so his mood brightened. "We're already writing new songs, and The Edge is just brilliant right now," he enthused. "Y'know, I feel like we're really entering our hey-day."
He discounted reports that Bruce Springsteen would duet with him in New Jersey as "a total fabrication" and on the general subject of media attention, was obviously concerned at how the British press had sensationalised some comments he'd made in America about his relationship with his wife Ali. But if the fibs are getting bigger they're not entirely a new thing. "Remember the one about Maire Ni Bhraonain," he laughed, "first Adam was supposed to be having an affair with her, then me - in the end we thought we should have a picture taken of all four of us in bed with Maire. That would've confused them."
Ah yes, bed. It's time to go our separate ways - the band in a fleet of stretch limos accompanied by a wailing motor-cycle police escort to Bradley Airport where the Viscount they've chartered for the tour awaits to take them to New York; and mise and the rest of the Irish press contingent back to our Hartford hotel, where the porter, who hasn't seen his native Waterford in 40 years, points to a ghettoblaster and tells me: 'You know what we call those boom-boxes over here? We call them third world briefcases.' It's time to rest my weary head.
On this humid Sunday afternoon in Manhattan, Tommy Makem's Irish Pavilion is playing host to a throng of media people from Ireland, Europe and America, who occupy themselves at the free bar and munch on such classic Emerald Isle delicacies as green, white and gold vegetable pate crackers, until the arrival of U2 and manager Paul McGuinness, amid a hailstorm of camera clicking, signals the start of what's billed as a pre-European tour press conference.
As the CBS and NBC television cameras roll, an Italian journalist rises to address the first question to the five gentlemen seated behind individual mics placed on a long linen-covered table. She requires a basic point of information about the concert in Rome and Bono having duly obliged regains her seat. A long, embarrassed silence ensues. "Is that it then?" quips Paul McGuinness. "What are you doing for your birthday?" an American voice calls out - for today does indeed mark the beginning of Mr. Hewson's twenty-seventh year on the planet.
"Well," says Bono, "my wife got me drunk this morning (laughter). I was supposed to get up early and think about all the things I'd like to say to the European press. But we've had a few Cups of Coffee and I'm feeling well on the way to having the best birthday I've ever had actually - No. 1 single, No. 1 LP, what more can you say.
(Ali's arrival overnight was apparently by way of an unexpected birthday surprise and I hear later about the scam which had the other members of the group calling Bono from his hotel room to open the large, cardboard box - actually a fridge container -standing upright in the corridor, and which contained his human 'present').
The conference gathers momentum but little coherence, as for close on an hour and a half, questions and answers ricochet around the room, the subject matter careering from the trivial all the way through to the absurd - at one end of the scale, a question about why The Edge wears grey shirts, and at the other, the unanswerable 'when is the Northern Ireland conflict going to be resolved?' In between there are moments of humour and modest revelation.
Bono on his harmonica playing: "I play it so badly at these concerts (general laughter) and I keep meeting people afterwards, all these fans, and they just say 'Hey, y'know I really enjoyed the concert and everything - but listen, my brother, he knows how to play harmonica, perhaps I could introduce you to him.' (More laughter). In fact (produces harp from pocket), a member of the crew actually handed me the harmonica as I was leaving and said, 'y'know, maybe you'd like to practice... ' "
On the problems with his voice in Arizona that forced them to cancel a show for the first time ever:
"A very important man came and looked down at my throat and told me that no, this wasn't just hoarseness - I had actually lost my voice. It's the first time it ever happened to me and it gave me a real fright actually. It really scared me. But it's okay now, sure."
The Edge on Bruce Springsteen:
"I think what he shares with us is an understanding of live performance, probably because like us he spent many years traipsing up and down North America and Europe in transit vans doing clubs and theatres. He paid his dues in that way, so he really does understand an audience and I'd like to think we do so as well. Bono: (leaning into the mic and grinning) "I think his wife's fantastic too." (Cheers and jeers from the floor).
Bono on the need for a good rock venue in Dublin:
"That would be something it would be nice to find a solution to, it's something we would be interested in getting involved in, but not something we should talk about until we've worked out how we could do it."
Bono interrupting a rambling question that appears to be straying onto familiar territory:
"Is this going to be a religious question? Because as you know we're all members of the Frisbeetarian Order. Just signed up since we've come to America. We believe that when you die your soul goes up on a roof and you can't get it down (general hilarity).
Bono on the music he grew up with:
"My older brother had a lot of tapes - The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who, The Beatles..."
Bono on the music Larry grew up with:
"The Sweet and Showaddywaddy." Larry: "And Abba, they were a big influence on my musical career."
Bono on the post- "Joshua Tree" U2 audience:
"There's a new audience there for U2 but the old audience is also there - the real fight is who's getting the tickets. But we never wanted to be an elitist group, we always wanted to play to as many people as we could. We set out to do that. I must say as we end this, that this has been some year for U2. We started off in 1977, I think it was September or October, just four people who couldn't play, just plugging into Adam's amp and I'm just amazed to see that ten years later, so much has happened to us that's been so good. So, thanks a lot for everything."
But perhaps the final quote from this press conference should go to Larry Mullen, whose well-timed quips throughout the afternoon had both band and audience in stitches. Towards the end, asked if he was worried that U2 might not sell out their second Croke Park concert, the drummer paused for a moment of sober reflection. "The fact that we would like it to sell out is not the reason we're doing it. We're playing America, and we're doing a lot of gigs in England so when the question of Irish gigs in Cork and Belfast came up and the first Dublin gig sold out, we just felt why should we underplay the country in which we started out. So if it doesn't sell out it doesn't make any difference. It's the fact that we do it, that's what we're here for - to play to the people."
After this, perhaps the longest public speech he's ever made, Larry sits back into his seat and says: "Fair play to me." The other band members lead the applause.
It’s Monday May the 11th and tonight U2 play the first of five concerts in the Brendan Byrne Arena, better-known as Meadowlands, New Jersey. Though they don't officially play New York until the return leg of their American tour in the Autumn, this is a real acid test, as near to the core of the Big Apple as makes no difference. The media build-up has been running at full-tilt for the past 48 hours. K-Rock Radio Station, whom one local journalist and long-time U2 fan claims are just recent band-wagon jumpers, have followed up yesterday's six hour A to Z of U2 - well A to W actually, beginning with "A Day Without Me" and ending with "With Or Without You" -by reporting live this afternoon from the soundcheck. "That's The Edge you hear tuning up behind me..." By six o'clock both NBC and CBS evening news have screened extracts from the press-conference, and as one presenter puts it, "The young Irish band are all set to rock New Jersey."
Tonight we take a ride, cross the river to the Jersey side, and with the Manhattan skyline behind us, darkening against the pale orange of the setting sun, swing left off the New Jersey Turnpike and draw up outside Meadowlands, a solitary, gleaming white super-structure rising like some huge, sci-fi apparition from a broad expanse of desolate wasteland.
The selling of beer may have been banned here since a riot at a recent Iron Maiden gig, but inside Meadowlands tonight, long before U2 take the stage, a crowd of 20,000 are already soaring on a natural high, whipping up their own DIY fervour, as the Mexican Wave travels in huge ripples around the stadium. The lively blues and country-based rock of support band Lone justice earns them a generous reception and while the electricity continues to crackle in anticipation of the imminent emergence from the tunnel of The Main Act, I learn that the girl sitting on my right is seeing U2 live for the first time. A seventeen year old New Yorker, her concert diary thus far in 1987 has been of the standard American FM variety: Bon Jovi (twice), Journey and AC/DC -though the latter she didn't "rate at all". She's only just bought "The Joshua Tree", knows some of the earlier material and is looking to be impressed.
She is. For tonight, U2 move beyond excellence and into the realms of greatness. From the opening "Where The Streets Have No Name", with The Edge's guitar riff scything across the moody organ intro before the band arrive in force, to the traditional denouement of "40" with Larry rapping out the beat and leaving the people's choir to do the rest, this is a U2 performance full of hunger, fire, artistry and surprise.
It's the constant innovation, the squaring up to new challenges, from a band who could easily play it by the book and still inspire a frenzied response that impresses most.
"You'll have to all keep quiet for this one," says Bono at one point introducing "Springhill Mining Disaster", the extraordinary Peggy Seeger ballad that's become synonymous with Luke Kelly. I'd been told that the band had faced problems performing it to a screaming audience at least once already on the tour, but tonight twenty thousand people sit enraptured as, with controlled passion in his Bono sings of bone and blood being the of coal. It's all utterly compelling and convincing performance - and even the singer himself appears taken aback by the impact it makes.
"I've never seen people sitting down at a U2 concert before," Bono tells the crowd after the song - "and I'm not sure that I like it!" Cue: the opening notes of "New Year's Day" and it's as if small explosions have gone off under every seat in the house.
The song over, Bono rims up a ramp stage right and begins gesticulating up at the balcony. Within seconds there's a rush of bodies down the aisle, and eventually two girls are helped onstage where they proudly hold an Amnesty International banner throughout a soaring "Pride In The Name Of Love".
"This is a song that nearly didn't make it to the record but I'm glad that it did," shouts Bono introducing "I Trip Through Your Wires" during which he flips The Edge's hat over the guitarist's eyes as the band manifestly enjoy this hearty dose of down-home rock'n'roll. They maintain the fun mood for "C’mon Everybody", Bono borrowing a denim jacket from somebody near the front of the stage, and throwing shapes all over the place. "U2 trash another classic," he tells the crowd.
"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", "Bad", "In God's Country", "I Will Follow", "Homecoming" - this is a concert bursting with a wealth of great songs, a testament to a body of work that leaves the band almost spoiled for choice these days. The most indelible mark however is left by "Bullet The Blue Sky". Played with scalding intensity, its sound evokes a vision of hell, as angry red searchlights scan the stage and arena Bono spits out the lyrics with venom and The Edge summons up the ghost of Jimi Hendrix, searing into the "Star Spangled Banner".
A deafening noise rocks the stadium when U2 leave the stage, a combination of cheering and screaming, unlike anything I've ever heard before at a rock concert, and which, incredibly, continues to rise in volume until the band return for encores that include "With Or Without You", post-scripted by a quote from "Love Will Tear Us Apart Again", "Gloria" and finally "40" when for the first time in my U2-watching career I notice that The Edge and Adam swop lead and bass guitars, even though the guitarist convinces me afterwards that they've been doing it ever since the song was recorded. It was one of those nights - a U2 champagne gig, even if these days, they might forget to bring the bubbly onstage.
Afterwards, I get a word in Edge-ways in the backstage bar that seems 99% populated with faces from home. "My legs were like jelly going on there," the guitarist cheerfully admits, before letting his mind wander back to an early gig in the Arcadia, Cork, when on another night of challenge, with prestigious British rock critics in the audience, U2 pulled the fat from the fire.
Now that they've so magnificently claimed the higher ground, it might seem ironic or naive to be talking about challenge and risk and adventure, and even of gigs long past, but on a hot night in New Jersey, this famous four showed that they've still got everything to play for.
U2 are running to avoid standing still. Catch them if you can.
ROCKIN' ALL OVER THE STATES