If U2's Memorial Day concert in Washington, D.C.
was by no means pure spectacle, there were nonetheless plenty of double-take
prompting sights--in the audience as well as on stage. Both sides of R.F.K.
Stadium were abuzz with Chelsea Clinton sightings, and indeed, she and some of
her classmates were spotted heading for their place on the floor. The
Washington Post reported today that Chelsea's presidential pop met with
Bono yesterday afternoon at the Oval Office, so you can only assume that the
First Daughter had good seats for the show.
But Chelsea may have barely
held your gaze if 19-year-old Ted Neill was walking by at the same time. Neill,
attending a U2 concert for the first time, was decked out in full
Bono-MacPhisto regalia from the Zoo TV tour: gold suit (spray painted) over a
red ruffled shirt; gold glitter shoes; white pancake make-up covering his face
and hands; and slicked back hair crowed by a pair of red horns. And just so no
one thought him too old hat, Neill carried a pocket full of fresh lemons (a la
the 40-foot fruit that graces U2's current stage), which he would hand
out to happy passers-by.
"I've been listening [to U2] since I was born," claimed
Neill, whose parents dug the band when the members were mere lads. While his
friends snared their tickets to the show via the band's fan club, Neill
preferred to go the normal TicketMaster route. "I like to do my own thing," he
MacPhisto Jr. then asked if he could write a word
down in my notebook: "Bonorgasm." "That's what I came here for," Neill said
confidently. "That's what I'm expecting."
I can't imagine that Neill was
too upset when U2 took the stage...
I can't imagine that Neill was too upset when U2 took the
stage at 9:15, even though massive sections of their gargantuan video wall were
on the fritz. Later in the set, when two-thirds of the screen showed a field of
blue when it should have displayed live footage of Bono, the singer commented,
"Last time I came to Washington I broke my shoulder" (on the 1987 Joshua
Tree tour), and then remarked that now he couldn't get his face on the
Technical snafus aside, the mammoth visual display was an amazing
sight to see, even for those who, like me, absorbed it sometimes in spite of
themselves. I came to R.F.K. intending to marvel at the stage "trash" (as Bono
called it) briefly before the show, and then to get down to watching a
performance by four people in a rock & roll band. And yet for the first
several songs, I could do nothing but get sucked into the visual overload.
During "Even Better Than The Real Thing," the stream of consciousness
assault reached an early peak. As the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen
ground out their rock groove, my eyes were drawn to the video display, which
showed rudimentary cartoon renderings of soda cans pouring out their contents.
With this first reference to pop and Pop, the connections started
rearing their heads at every turn, intentional or not. Naturally the song and
image prompted thoughts of Coke, since "the real thing" was long the ad slogan
for that drink. The reference was promptly compounded by Bono's muscle outlined
shirt, suggesting for all the world Batman's rubber chest--and in the
Batman movies (always summer blockbusters, as the PopMart tour has
promised to be) there is nothing if not product placement, including that of
soft drinks, and fast food chain product tie-ins. Of course the fast food
allusions were already in full effect. No matter how much the PopMart set
designers claim the show's gigantic golden arch was inspired by St. Louis'
Gateway monument, when it shined in yellow and red neon during "Even Better
Than The Real Thing," there was absolutely no escaping the connection to
The reference barrage was enough to make over-analyzers forget
there was even a song being played. When the whole affair ended with a cartoon
depiction of human evolution, it was unclear whether the graphic was a comment
on human/advertisement/pop music growth, or a sly dig at we who presume we're
more evolved when we're actually ever more manipulated.
"The Real Thing" associative blitzkrieg, I decided to force my gaze on the
members of U2. Two songs later, they laid into "Pride (In The Name Of Love),"
and I understood fully T-Bone Burnette's comment many years ago that U2 was one
of the precious few bands that could make a stadium show intimate.
chorus came around, I could swear that every soul in that stadium sang along,
unprompted. It was a chilling sensation. Of course they chanted the "Oh, oh,
oh" lines as well, but the stadium--and mind you, not just a few people in
every section, but seemingly the vast majority of the thousands of people
gathered--also sang gloriously on the song' final verse of transformation.
It was a grand occasion, on a massive and yet fundamentally human scale.
Then Bono, in one brilliant sentence, managed to tie together all the
disparate elements--the imagery, the video, and pop references, along with the
human singing and the power of transformation. He was talking about the band's
fascination with America, and how this tour and stage set-up was something of a
church "built of pieces of neon America." He then described folks who go
to the beach or out to the county to find their peace.
"I find peace in the
neon," he said gently. With that statement, he underscored the essence of
Pop and the PopMart tour. For all its emphasis on dance music and
commercialism, this current adventure is by no means an exercise in irony, but
rather a continuation of U2's sincere gaze into life's mysteries. In one short
sentence, Bono had married the spectacle with the spiritual.
accomplished that, the concert to my mind could have ended right there (a mere
five songs into the set), but of course it didn't. The band offered other high
points to be sure. Bono's a cappella foray into "Stand By Me" was brief and
beautiful. "Bullet The Blue Sky" offered a fiercer but subtler associative
pummeling than "Even Better Than The Real Thing." When PopMart hits your town,
see if you too make the Strategic Defense
Initiative-Reagan-Nicaragua-Clockwork Orange-ugly American mindwarp
connection. Or maybe not.
You're probably better off just looking for
peace in the neon.