An open letter to U2
Sunday, July 12, 2015
To Adam, Bono, Edge, and Larry,
It seems like yesterday, that fall day in 1980, when I first heard that ringing, the count off, the buzz saw guitar, and those punishing drums propelling that voice, “If you walk away, walk away, I walk away, walk away.” The first strains of “I Will Follow” leapt from the speakers of my radio on local Boston station 104.1 WBCN. The song tore a path right through me and seized my Sixteen-year-old heart. I was in love.
The following weekend, I scoured the Strawberries Record Store on JFK Street in Harvard Square for a copy of an album by this unknown band called U2. The first store employee who I asked about it had never heard of U2, and tried to sell me an album by the band U.K. A second employee overhead us and said, “I know what you’re looking for.” He had a sparkle in his eye, like he knew a secret and he was about to share it with me (“They say a secret is something you tell one other person, So I’m telling you, child”). He then handed me an LP with a black and white cover. It took a few seconds to realize that the cover image was four profiles that had been stretched. It was perfect.
Even today, when I play the album “Boy” I flash back to that first time I placed the needle to vinyl in my parent’s basement and that joyous sound burst forth. “I Will Follow,” followed by “Twilight,” “An Cat Dubh,” “Into the Heart,” and “Out of Control.” I was now faced with a dilemma, re-play side one or turn the platter over and listen to what this band had in store for me next. I chose side two, as I knew I would just turn it over and start from the beginning again when I was finished, and so it went.
I didn’t listen to much else for a couple of weeks. I already owned copies of “London Calling” by The Clash and the eponymous album by The Velvet Underground & Nico (complete with unpeeled banana), which were my go to records. There was something in this new music. Much like those other albums, it had urgency. It was passionate and the four parts were distinct. The three instruments and the voice all occupied their space and nothing more. So much of what was being said was in what was not said. I immediately understood this music and its lyrics about the uncertainty of leaving childhood behind, and what lay in store for me as an adult. The album was an enormous gift at just the right time.
WBCN continued to sell U2 to its listeners as if they owned stock in the band. As a result, tickets to U2 shows in Boston always sold out within minutes of going on sale and this was quite some time before the advent of the interwebs. If you didn’t get a ticket in that initial rush, you weren’t going to the show. In November of 1981, WBCN broadcast a U2 show live from the Orpheum Theater in Boston. I taped that show on my Panasonic tape recorder and had that tape for years until it got lost in one apartment move too many. That concert covered the first two albums and helped solidify “Boy” and “October” among my desert island discs.
Over the following thirty-five years I have grown with U2, living inside each new album. From “October” to “Pop” and “Zooropa” to “No Line on the Horizon.” I was pleasantly surprised when I woke up one morning last year to find a copy of the album “Songs of Innocence” waiting for me to download to my iTunes library. That was very thoughtful of you and I couldn’t wait to find the deluxe edition CD so that I could hear “Lucifer’s Hands,” “The Crystal Ballroom,” and the acoustic songs included there.
Sometimes it took time to find the right moment where each album found me. For “Pop,” it was about a year into my sobriety when I was able to process the musical cacophony mixed with the spiritual messages about love and death and resilience. It was also around this time that I went back and re-connected with “Running to Stand Still” in a whole different light (“You’ve got to cry with out weeping, talk without speaking, Scream without raising your voice.”)
I scoured each album looking for the songs that spoke to me even as I embarked on my own musical adventures. I like to think that I managed to add a bit of the spirit of U2 to my songwriting and music along with Lou Reed, The Clash, Dylan, The Dead, and other inspirational writers.
Now, the legacy is a couple of shelves full of CDs, deluxe reissues, and concert DVDs, situated between albums by The Clash, Joe Strummer, and The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, as well as a collection of countless audience recordings by fans that have accumulated over the years.
Tickets to U2 shows have always been hard to come by in Boston. Whether it was the Paradise, The Orpheum Theater, Worcester Centrum, Boston Garden, or Foxboro Stadium and later Gillette Stadium. Despite a couple of near misses in the fall of 1984 and summer of 1992, I had never attended a U2 concert. I watched as U2 reached a new level of recognition following their performance at Live Aid in 1985. Bono Vox went walkabout at that show and came back Bono.
Three years ago, on July 5th, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Through the miracles of modern medicine, good health care, and the help of family and friends, I received care that beat back the disease and sent it into remission. During that summer of 2012 as I started treatment that prepared me for a bone marrow transplant, I went on a binge of listening to U2. Songs like “If God Will Send His Angels” carried new meaning and weight. I grabbed onto the power, the peace, the grace, the joy, and the love. The humanity of the music steeled me at a time when my body was rebelling against me. I kept an online blog for my family and friends so that I could let them know how things were progressing with my treatment. The first blog entry titled, “Maybe the Mayans were right…” opened with the following quote that was on my mind quite a bit at the time.
Some days are dry, some days are leaky
Some days come clean, other days are sneaky
Some days take less, but most days take more
Some slip through your fingers and onto the floor
We won that round and held the upper hand for two years until January 2015. A re-emergence of the disease now requires ongoing treatment and while the medical miracle, health care, and amazing family and friends are all still present, the personal end of this is a little heavier than last time. There is a feeling that opportunities should be seized quickly, as they may not present themselves again.
So, on Monday morning this week, I found tickets to the upcoming U2 shows in Boston for sale online. A quick text with my wife and, next thing you know, we have tickets in hand. So on Saturday night, almost thirty-five years after that fall day in 1980, we made our way to the Garden and shuffled inside with the rest of the crowd. It was one of the first times that I’ve attended a concert without any thought to songs that I’d like to hear, but you didn’t disappoint. It was like being sixteen all over again. Hanging onto the lyrics, the riffs, and the sound like it would deliver some higher truth that can’t be found anywhere else.
Thank you for the years of music, the countless hours of joy. Thank you for putting in the time and effort required to find something new to say, or a new way to say it. For saying things that people don’t want to hear, or things that they want to ignore altogether. You’ve had your share of praise and taken the heat more than most (Remember, half of what they say about you is true), but you have always soldiered on, looking for a greater good. But most of all, thank you for the personal sacrifice required to do what you do. The time not spent with family and friends. Each path has sacrifice and reward. Sometimes the hardest part is figuring out if the former is worth the latter.
The bottom line is, all these years later, my world is a better place for having U2 in it.