Earlier tonight, I met my parents as I often do on Friday night for dinner at the local pizza place. And, as is equally often the case, they were a few minutes late — allowing me a chance to browse through the bins at the little record shop a few doors down that sells bootleg DVDs.
It's not my favorite record shop in the neighborhood or anything. But every once in awhile they'll have a gem sitting there ripe for the picking — and tonight was just such an occasion. Because sitting there in the middle of the bootleg concert DVDs was a copy of U2's performance at the 1983 US Festival.
Be still my beating heart, I thought to myself — because you see, I was actually there.
It was my second time seeing U2. The first was actually the night before in Seattle, but I had to cut that one short in order to make my plane to California to get to — you guessed it — the US Festival. This was my very first honest-to-God rock festival. And if there ever was a final rite of passage for a rock geek like me who came up in the sixties and seventies, by God this was it.
As a kid, I'd read the stories. And I'd seen the movies. Sly and the Family Stone and Santana at Woodstock. Janis and Jimi at Monterrey. Oh yeah, and lots of naked hippies taking lots of drugs and wallowing about in the mud. But that wasn't what interested me most — it was the music, and the fact that even as a pre-teen I knew that history was often made at these things.
I wanted to be there. Dammit I wanted to be there. But as a thirteen year old living in Hawaii, my parents simply weren't having it. It was all I could do to get them to even allow me to go to a Jefferson Airplane concert back then (accompanied by my grandma).
There was just no way I'd be going to the 1969 rock festival at Diamond Head (where Carlos Santana and Buddy Miles ended up recording a live album).
Flash forward to 1983.
As a then twenty-something-year-old record store manager in Tacoma, Washington, I was free at last, free at last! And come hell or high water, as soon as I heard about it, I was going to the US Festival at Glen Helen Park in San Bernadino County, Southern California.
The setup was perfect too. A former girlfriend had a place we could stay at in Hermosa Beach, CA — as long as she could tag along. I also convinced a record store customer/buddy of mine to make the trip with me. Rock N' Roll history, here we come.
And boy, did watching the video of U2's performance at the US Festival take me back to that time tonight. I remembered their performance quite well anyway as a standout among my three days at the US Festival of seeing everyone from The Clash and The Stray Cats (who headlined what was billed as "New Wave Day") to The Pretenders, David Bowie — and of course, U2.
There was a lot of great music that year. From Bowie's Lets Dance and the Police's Synchronicity, to Echo And The Bunnymen's Porcupine and U2's own War.
Watching U2 at the US Festival on DVD tonight — some twenty five years and counting from the fact — a lot of memories came flooding back for sure.
I knew right then that these guys were much more than just another really good rock band. As good as a lot of the other bands that I saw that weekend were, I knew instantly that U2 was going to outlast them all, and go on to be one of the truly great ones. Seeing U2 that weekend was, for me, my "Janis at Monterrey" moment.
You can watch U2 videos from that same 1983 tour behind the album War — most notably the Live At Red Rocks DVD — but nothing beats this.
Bono in particular knew he was on a potentially history-making stage before an audience of some 300,000 people in the California desert that weekend. The memory that sticks most in my own mind is when he risked certain death by climbing the sky-high scaffolding to hoist the white flag of surrender during "Electric Co." But damned if he didn't do it anyway.
That was a great one that really sticks out. But the US Festival is a memory I will never forget for lots of other reasons.
Watching the U2 DVD tonight, a lot of those came flooding back too. I got out my old pictures from the event — which for some odd reason are all the size of a postage stamp — and saw I guy I barely recognized, long haired and proudly bare-chested with only the slightest hints of a beer gut. Damn, whatever happened to that stud-muffin?
I also have memories of staying at that ex-girlfriends house in Hermosa Beach, with another ex-boyfriend who wouldn't take no for an answer passed out in the backyard — knee deep in beer bottles and dogshit. We had to force feed him burgers, we were so afraid for his health — but that's another story.
What I mainly remember is the music.
The Stray Cats turned a crowd of 300,000 into a gigantic sock hop. I got to see Springsteen's guitarist Little Steven fronting the Disciples of Soul in a rare solo gig. And I got to see The Clash break up onstage, as Joe Strummer berated the crowd for selling out by attending the Apple sponsored US Festival, while Mick Jones just wanted to play out the gig. U2 even referenced this in their performance by saying "nobody twisted our arms to be here."
More than anything though, I remember the 1983 US Festival as a unique snapshot in time where it seemed like anything was possible. When you look back on it now, a lot of it seems silly. Bono had his mullet, and to be perfectly honest I did too. Hell, everybody did back then.
But I'll tell ya' what — looking back at the way this hungry young band was so ready to grab that big brass ring reminds me a lot of not only a younger, more innocent time, but also haunts me in a lot of ways in regards to opportunities missed.
I know it's not possible now, but I'd go back there in a second if only I could. At least U2 got their ring.
Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some leftover pizza to finish…