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U2's way to God


Bono and Larry Mullen Jr on stage at U2360, Melbourne, 3 December 2010In the queue to see U2. Cooped like chooks among plastic barriers. Standing, sitting, sprawling; waiting, some for many hours, wearied by dumps of rain and sweltering sun. Humanitarian crows swoop upon this vulnerable yet sympathetic flock. Volunteers from two NGOs, who flit among us, collecting signatures and email addresses, tagging each chook with the 'gift' of a black wristband, thus marking their progress.

U2 is a band with substance; frontman Bono a rock star plagued by dreams of God and suffering humanity. A ridiculously wealthy humanitarian, Bono is an object of scorn among many grassroots human rights advocates. But there's no doubt he inspires passion and compassion. He is prone to rages against injustice. U2's catalogue contains songs for El Salvador, Bosnia, South Africa, Burma. To be a fan is, by default, to have concern for your fellow man. No wonder NGO volunteers see us as a captive audience.

True, these days the passion is mostly choreographed, stage-managed and scripted. This is evident later, inside the stadium, as 100,000-odd people jostle about the broad stage with its halo of lights and lunging arches. Rock jaunts as vast as U2's '360' tour are, necessarily, endlessly rehearsed and sound-checked. For a band such as U2, so is the politics. But they have perfected the art of advocacy as theatre.

Consider this triptych of songs cast as a call to fight AIDS and poverty in Africa: the gorgeous 'One', an aching rendition of 'Amazing Grace', and the relentless 'Where the Streets Have No Name', whose lyric Bono wrote while on a humanitarian trip to Ethiopia. The bracket is heralded by a video address from Desmond Tutu, spruiking Bono's ONE aid campaign. This is less a rock concert than a political rally.

The band's 2001 single 'Walk On' was written as a tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi, while she was under house arrest. Following her recent release, the song required recontextualising. U2 achieves this by playing, as a prelude, the prayerful 'Scarlet', with a spoken-word tribute to Suu Kyi from Bono. Bono then rededicates 'Walk On' to those who continue to suffer for the cause of freedom in Burma. This is an efficient way to include a popular single in the setlist without allowing its significance to diminish.

Stirring stuff, but, still, a far cry from the rawness of U2 past. Of Bono roaring 'Fuck the revolution!' during a performance of 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' on the night of an IRA massacre at Enniskillen. Or, during the Rattle and Hum version of Pride, declaring, simply: 'For the Reverend Martin Luther King: Sing.'

Similarly, at U2360, the most affecting moments are those free of stagecraft. Bono, a self-confessed egomaniac, is visibly humbled as the crowd continues to sing songs' refrains after the band has subsided. During the gospel song 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' he holds the microphone aloof and lets the crowd carry the verses; nowhere outside a church (and perhaps rarely there) would you find so many voices declaring in unison: 'I believe in the kingdom come.'

In fact the venue at times seems more like a church than a sports-stadium-cum-concert-hall. Amid Bono's prayerful appeals for peace and compassion, the worshipful dimensions of 'Elevation' ('You make me feel like I can fly so high!'), 'Mysterious Ways' (read: 'She moves in ...') and 'Magnificent' (I was born to sing for you/I didn't have a choice but to lift you up') seem more profound. So, too, does the tragedy of 'Until the End of the World', a reimagining of The Last Supper with Bono cast as a cheeky, tortured Judas ('In the garden I was playing the tart/I kissed your lips and broke your heart').

Later, the numinous is made manifest by the elated guitar licks of 'City of Blinding Lights'. The halo descends in a honeycomb of colourful strobes as Bono yowls 'Oh! You! Look! So! Beautiful!' This sublime moment is matched only by an ethereal rendition of 'Ultraviolet'; Bono, like some repentant demon pincushioned by red lasers and wispy smoke, implores: 'Baby, baby, baby, light my way!'

I have written before about the moment in music when God shows up. Arguably, U2 fans know that moment better than anyone.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Inside Film and The Big Issue magazines, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail

Topic tags: U2, 360 tour, Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr, Adam Clayton, Where the Streets Have No Name, Pride



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Existing comments

I will attend the U2 concert on Monday, 13 December, here at Sydney. I'm both looking forward to it and dreading it. I seem to have developed a deep distaste towards what I believe to be the singer's pseudo pursuit for humanitarian unity. He is like a staged play, and in a way, so is his politics. Once upon a time, Bono was consumed with the politics of rock and roll and the "creative freedom" permitted an artist; it was about music, lyrics and entertainment. Now he is like a priest who has dipped his hands in party politics.

His music however speaks for itself, like Blake's poem, "Auguries of Innocence". His music *is* poetry. I look forward to hearing the songs through his interpretation. And you're right Tim – there is a moment there in his music where there is no Bono, no politics, no audience – just God: sometimes in a dress, sometimes as a prostitute, sometimes as a singer waiting to exhale.

Helen Koukoutsis | 09 December 2010  

Helen, I think you put it well when you say Bono 'is like a priest who has dipped his hands in party politics'.

I think I give Bono, like Peter Garrett, more credit than he maybe deserves; both men have put in the heady, hard yards of being 'consumed with the politics of rock and roll', and have now chosen to play the game a different way, 'within the system' so to speak. Unfortunately this has come at the cost of their credibility in the eyes of many who once admired them for their raw passion and artistic freedom.

Tim Kroenert | 09 December 2010  

Great article Tim, I too miss the passionate, almost unhinged rants that characterised R&H, but as a fellow attendee at the second Melbourne concert I too loved the fact that Bono didn't know how to stop us singing the chant in Pride! They may follow a script, but they believe in their message, and it shows. Despite the jostling, the beer spilt on my toes, and the sore feet from standing that long, there was something quite truly transcendent that night that took me to that "other place" Bono sings about. Thanks for capturing it so beautifully here.

Michelle Coram | 09 December 2010  

I attended the U2 concert in Brisbane last night with my teenage daughter. It is about as close to church as probably the vast majority of attendees would get. Archbishop Tutu's video address on the "one world" subject even mentioned God once. There was the quasi-religious circling with lit candles on the circular walk by Amnesty International supporters. Every little bit helps, so I can't quibble with Bono's championing of just causes. At least he is a better role model than many others in the entertainment industry.

Frank | 09 December 2010  

No one who truly loves Jesus Christ belongs in the crowd at a U2 concert.

Gavin | 10 December 2010  

Gavin - what a peculiar remark. Do you care to qualify it?

Charles Boy | 10 December 2010  

great article well done.

Irena Mangone, | 10 December 2010  

When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the LORD shall lift up a standard against him. (Isaiah 59:19)

Gavin | 13 December 2010  

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