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The Rockologist: My Love/Hate Relationship With Bono And U2

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About a week ago, I got an e-mail from a colleague of mine here at Blogcritics offering me his tickets to U2's upcoming June show in Seattle at Qwest Field. As in free, no strings attached…

Hot damn!

To say I was absolutely thrilled at this quite unexpected turn of good fortune would be something close to the understatement of the year.

U2 is a band that I love passionately, and as far as big stadium extravaganzas go, they put on a show like nobody else out there. One thing is absolutely for sure though — they have certainly come a long way from the band I saw in 1983 at Seattle's Paramount Theatre, or even the band I saw at California's US Festival the very next day (I was already on a plane to L.A. before U2 had played their second encore in Seattle).

What I remember most about those back-to-back shows I caught on the 1983 War tour was that, much like Bruce Springsteen in the early days, this was a band that was all about making an intimate connection with its audience — and that they succeeded at this (rather wildly I might add) — beyond all reasonable expectation.

In the confines of Seattle's 3000-seat Paramount Theatre, this was most demonstrated when Bono allowed the crowd to carry him on his back, long before anyone had ever heard of anything like moshing or crowd surfing.

At the US Festival, playing before 300,000 people in a God-forsaken dust bowl desert setting in the middle of what I remember as a scorching hot day, what stands out is Bono's death-defying climb to the top of a stage that was several stories high (at least) to hoist the white flag of surrender during "Electric Co."

It was one of those awesome concert moments you quite simply never forget.

In all of my years of attending thousands of rock concerts by everyone from Hendrix to Springsteen, I've seen more than my share of wild stuff.

But that one will forever stand out in my memory. I've never seen a rock performer, not before or since, literally risk his life to deliver whatever his message might have been — which I might add that despite the heroics involved, is one that I am still quite sure was mostly lost on the largely stoned, dehydrated masses that day in the freaking, absolutely scorching desert.

Oh yeah, and there was also that damn mullet.

We won't go there here. But looking back now, it was a rather spectacularly silly looking one. The point is, that whatever it was that Bono was trying to say that day out there in the Southern California desert — and I'm still not exactly sure what it was — he felt it important enough to risk life and limb to climb a sky-high P.A. tower to make it.

Right then and there, I knew that U2 was going to be one of the great ones.

I have since seen them several times over the years. There was the big stadium show I saw in Anaheim during the Zoo TV tour during the era of the first Bush presidency, with its big screen images of random news broadcasts. I thought the rafters were going to come straight off of their rims that night, as much as they shook during "Where The Streets Have No Name". It was an amazing thing to see.

And there was also the spectacularly staged spectacle of the Vertigo tour five years ago. But here is where the rub starts to come in…

The thing that got U2 to the big dance in the first place, at least in my mind, is that these guys — more than just about anybody outside of Springsteen and the E Street Band — have always positioned themselves as this wonderfully populist band. U2's message, aside from the brief misstep of the '90s PopMart period — has always been consistent. They have always been the band of the people.

The thing is, I still think that they really believe that — all evidence to the contrary aside. Well, at least to a point anyway.

And by the way, if you expect me to start bitching about the concert prices for the 360 tour here, trust me, I'm not going there. Rather, the thing that bugs me most is that for all of Bono's efforts as a big-time player on the stage of world politics, he may have lost his connection to the common people he was once so desperate to connect with.

Ya feel me here, Bono?

The same guy who once had enough blind trust to allow himself to be carried through a crowd of complete strangers at the 3000 seat Paramount in '83 — or to scale a several stories high scaffold at the US Festival back then — is these days spending as much time hob-nobbing with the likes of Bill Gates and his kind, as he is glad-handing with us mere peasants and common folk.

Does it serve a greater good? Perhaps. The thing I fear most though, is that he has lost that connection with the people who got him there in the first place.

And then, there is also that whole Christian thing.

From U2's earliest days on out, the band has worn its collective Christianity on its sleeve (with the exception of noted hedonist Adam of course).

And, in appearance at least, they still do. Still, it doesn't take a genius to connect the dots between lines about "the victory Jesus won" on 1983's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and 2005's "Yahweh." Nor to recognize the common thread of Edge's beautifully ringing guitar, which at the end of the day binds them together.

But then you get to the song, "One."

Earlier tonight, I went back and watched the DVD of U2's 2005 Vertigo tour from Chicago, and was particularly struck by the performance of that song. You see the thing is, as a Christian myself, I know a thing or two about biblical prophecy, and that's exactly why this performance disturbed me a little.

Don't get me wrong. I love the message expressed in this song about "one love" and all that wonderfully altruistic stuff. I really do.

But there is another point on this DVD, where a spectacular display of all these national flags come down, and the message is that all nations should come together as one. It's a beautiful sentiment. But it is also one that I'm quite sure Bono, as a professed Christian, knows all too well sets the stage for the end-time, one-world government prophesied in the Bible.

So am I going to go off into a wild tangent about things like the Rapture and the Antichrist here? Nope, not at all. Fodder for another time and another place. I only point these things out in order to suggest two things:

One, that somewhere along the line Bono seems to have confused his spiritual beliefs with his larger political ambitions. And two, that in doing so, he is steadily distancing himself from the very sort of populism that got him to where he is now. This is where my love/hate relationship with the leader of the biggest rock band in the world really begins to kick in.

My only suggestion here is that it is food for thought, and that I am going strictly by the parameters of the same personal belief system that Bono himself established early on in the game. And that by all evidence, is one that he continues to subscribe to. Or, at least you'd think that he does, right?

These are the rules that Bono continues to play the game by. And they are the same rules that I, as a lowly, somewhat nerdy observer of all things rock and roll, have to likewise consider him by.

Make sense?

It's not like I don't already know that the heroes I grew up with — from Lennon, Dylan, and Jagger on down — didn't have their own drug and sex addled faults. Not at all.

I completely recognize that. It's just that Bono and U2 set themselves a much higher standard from the git-go. And for whatever small place I hold in the much wider universe of rock and roll, I intend to hold them to that flame.

I am very much looking forward to seeing U2 next month at Qwest, and am equally sure it will be an amazing show. Hell, it always is.

Just don't forget us little folks, okay Bono?

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Don

    Interesting article. I would think that with the level of success that Bono/U2 have had juggling those beliefs, the influence that he has with those world & business leaders, and the fans expectations must be quite difficult.
    But it also reminds me a joke a once heard. “What’s the difference between God & Bono?” “God knows he’s not Bono” :)
    Regarding the other comment, I think Achtung Baby was their watershed.

  • Kelly

    Opinions are like a*******. Everybody has one. U2 is still my favorite band, nobody can claim to still be making music together after 34 years with an intact lineup. You made several good points though.

  • Greg Barbrick

    Interesting points Mr. Boyd. Maybe we can argue them over a brew at Qwest.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I’m sure we’ll have a very spirited discussion indeed, as well as hoist a few and then some, next month at Qwest Mr. Barbrick. Hell, we always do, right?

    Till’ then….

    -Glen

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    “and as far as big stadium extravaganzas go, they[U2]put on a show like nobody else out there.”

    Yea… I’d save those honors for Iron Maiden.

    Kelly:“nobody can claim to still be making music together after 34 years with an intact lineup.”

    Yea… again, Iron Maiden. Oh and let’s not forget RUSH.

    As for U2, unfortunately, they have become more about the message and less about the music. You can say what you want about Bono’s passion but it was also the band’s commitment to focus on supporting that passion with their talents. That is what made albums like “The Joshua Tree” pretty damn good.

  • zingzing

    haven’t there been some lineup changes in iron maiden? rush counts… if they count for anything. ugh.

  • Jim

    Enjoyed your article. I was a huge U2 fan, and saw them 9 times between 1983-1996. You right on about the way U2 connected to audiences. However, I noticed that connection slipping away, and almost began to resent Bono. It seemed like the focus went from the music and building that sense of community to self aggrandizement. I understand he’s a rock star, and that’s part of the show, but when I’m in the audience I want the band to be playing for me, for the moment. What it felt like to me was that Bono started playing for himself, and went beyond connecting to the people in front of him, all the way to making himself the point and spectacle, rather than the music. I remember being disgusted at the last show I saw, because he spent so much time playing to the cameras that it seemed like we barely saw his face—and really that was a huge part of the connections he made.

    I still love the music, but can’t stand watching the messenger . . .

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    zing, with the exception of Blaze, I believe the original lineup has been intact for 28 years. So, I guess I’m a few years off but if you actually count what U2 has released in their official discography, it counts to almost the same amount. Not 34 years. OR, in my opinion, if you actually count anything past “Achtung Baby” (and I’m being kind) as “music” and not just successful demographic marketing. But, again, that’s my opinion…

  • http://pwinn.tumblr.com/ Phillip Winn

    Glen, exploring “biblical prophecy” is an almost uniquely American pasttime, one on which I suspect Paul and Dave haven’t spent muh time. There’s certainly a large strain of thought within Christianity, especially historically, that Christians will help to usher in a bright future here on earth, and it could be that Bono is of that school of thought.

    Or, he could simply be expressing his wish for the here and now without any regard for the future. Either way, I doubt any fear of a one world government crossed his mind at any point when writing that song.

    Since then, I’m sure someone has brought it up. :-)

  • zingzing

    brian, i think u2’s first recorded stuff was in 1978 (maybe 79)–some ep which i’ve never found–but they did form in 1976, so i guess that’s where the 34 years comes in. it is a remarkably long time for a band to stick together, and they did make pretty good music for the first two decades. zooropa is interesting. pop had its fair share of stinkers, but it had a few good ones as well. everything past that, however, is pretty bad. still, i don’t think they’re one of the bad guys in music. they really were quite experimental during their time as the most popular rock band in the world (87-95 or so), and that has to count for something.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    The prophecy thing is a minor point with me within the larger scheme of things, but I also think its valid to bring up, given the fact that Bono has expressed his Christian belief on a number of occasions.

    This was especially true early on, but continues to manifest on somne of U2’s latter work (like the aforementioned “Yahweh”), and certainly in Bono’s efforts on issues like AIDS and world hunger (which he should be lauded for).

    What bugs me more though, is the often delicate balancing act between Bono’s rock-star posturing, his occasional messiah complex, and the sort of populism that I actually believe he is still sincere about — but which he continues to distance himself away from in a variety of ways (from ticket prices average fans can scarcely afford to his sometimes naive association with the “one-world” crowd, whose agenda actually looks kinda scary when you give it a closer look).

    Hey, I still love these guys, and I think they get it right more a lot more often than they don’t. But if you wanna’ save the world, sometimes its best when you start in your own background, and in this case, with your own original fanbase.

    -Glen

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    zing… I,personally, wouldn’t call what U2 did after “Achtung” “experimental”. Actually, I feel that “Achtung” was a successful attempt at blending just the right amount of experimentation without losing their sound. But, that’s where my appreciation ends. Everything after that album is terrible. Funny enough, I used to call Coldplay “U3″ but with the current U2 material, I actually don’t hear any difference between the two. It’s like Enya Rock.

  • zingzing

    zooropa was pretty experimental, on a relative scale (being a scale for a huge ass rock band). definitely more purely experimental than achtung baby. i think it gets over on most of the songs, although it would have been better as the ep it was originally going to be.

    my point about them being experimental while on top of the rock popularity pile has more to do with the huge chance they took with achtung baby. although that could be explained by the relative, and mostly deserved, failure of rattle and hum. but even then, rattle and hum was very ambitious (and really strange). what is that album? crappy live tunes, bits of interviews, hendrix samples, covers, completely warped songs (god part 2), superstar collaborations… it’s either a hodgepodge or the most misguided attempt at completeness i’ve ever seen. i like it in theory, but listening to it is a chore.

    but then they completely rewired their sound with achtung baby. as mike love said to brian wilson, “don’t fuck with the formula” when you’re #1, but that’s just what they did. they had balls, at the very least. zooropa (recorded during breaks on the achtung baby tour) is of a piece with ab, but goes further out there. if the songwriting suffers, the sounds they were going for were freed up. it has to be one of the stranger #1 albums of the time.

    by pop, their muse (or luck) was abandoning them. from there on out, it’s just product. disappointing. meh. they got old.

  • Tom Johnson

    I’m off-topic here, but just to address Brian about Maiden, in addition to Bruce Dickinson leaving, there was also Adrian Smith leaving and being replaced by Janick Gers. Both came back about 10 years ago (and Janick also stayed) so they’re intact now, but they haven’t been intact the whole time.

    As for Bono’s Christian message, my guess is he toned it down because he realized it was offensive to non-Christians, and he’s smart enough to realize there’s a huge world filled with people who deeply believe something other than what Christians believe, and that doesn’t make them wrong. The message is what he focused on, not the specific religion or god, and really that makes sense because the religious aspect in their early material really wasn’t all that prominent anyway.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    free tix? hope he buys some in LA/OC and can’t use them.

    When you ask “Make sense?”, I have to say no, there’s a whole lot here that confuses me.

    why bother saying you won’t talk about the mullet only to talk about it in the next sentence?

    I was at that Anaheim show and there were no rafters. It’s an open stadium as anyone who has seen the Angels play can tell you.

    Not sure how they weren’t a band of the people during Pop. Sounds like you might have missed the lyrics as the songs cover similar ground.

    “somewhere along the line Bono seems to have confused his spiritual beliefs with his larger political ambitions.”

    How so? They seem to be working together. I don’t see how you’ve made this point. Sounds more like you are upset that he’d rather spend time with Bill Gates than have a beer with you, yet who is doing more to better the world?

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “his occasional messiah complex”

    So he’s not practicing his beliefs but actually thinks he’s a savior? what proof do you have of that?

    “ticket prices average fans can scarcely afford”

    then how are they still filling arenas and stadiums?

    zing’s right, both AB and Zoo were experimental sounding for U2. After Pop, everything was safe and familiar, occasional good songs but essentially Joshua-lite.

    I like R&H but it’s a soundtrack album about the band touring America, physically on tour as well as musically through its past as they play with different styles and ideas. If it hadn’t followed Joshua, I don’t think expectations of it would have been so high. Something more for fans to seek out like Dylan’s Basement Tapes

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Bicho…

    I’ll try to address all your arguments at some future point, as a lot of it falls under the “you say tomato, I say tomatoe” category anyway.

    But one thing I want to go straight to now is those “rafters” at Anaheim…

    I was down on the field during that show and I have a vivid, very distinct memory of looking up at the “rafters”…okay maybe you call them “stands,” I don’t know…But during “Where The Streets” everyone was jumping up and down on them, and the whole structure was moving up and down. I honestly was a little worried for those folks safety, as that whole structure looked like it might fall off its hinges due to the force of all those people going nuts.

    True story.

    -Glen

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    If Rattle and Hum proves nothing else, it demonstrates (viz. “Van Diemen’s Land”) that The Edge is a far better singer than Bono…

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    #17…

    Whatever they were, rafters, stands, or whatever…it was structure that hung out over the back of the stadium like a leaf, and I swear it really looked like it was going to come down.

    -Glen

  • Dan

    Shit man you would never catch me doing that during a concert hell i would be like ” I AM A ROCK ARTIST NOT A ROCK CLIMBER”

  • Erica

    Does anyone know why we humans tend to forget that other humans don’t necessarily think the same way we do? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been shocked to rediscover that; it could be in the 100,000s.

    Bono’s motivation, his behavior, what he says and how he says it, etc., belong to him. He alone knows what he is or isn’t doing; everyone else is projecting.

    I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be famous, and it wouldn’t surprise me if most famous people would choose differently if they knew then what they know now.

    Bono and the rest of U2, are people no doubt doing the best they can, when you get down to it. Just like the rest of us, except they’re doing under a microscope.

    Interesting article; thanks Glen.