U2: Will Pop Stardom Ruin a Band That Parodies the Parody?
Photos and Story by Clay Butler
Originally published in The Santa Cruz Sentinel
April 27th 2001
Back in the 80’s U2 built their fortune and reputation on being a solemn and serious political rock band. With the release of Achtung Baby! In 91′ and subsequent Zoo TV tour, U2 went on a journey to deconstruct their own image and the concept of fame and pop stardom. With the release of 97’s Pop album and supporting Pop Mart tour, the band took the concept one stepfather by becoming a parody of the parody. It got to the point where anything and everything they said or did could not be taken at face value. As intended, their motives and intent were always suspect. It was with this in mind that I decided to the checkout U2 show at the San Jose Arena. Could I still enjoy a band that seems so detached, so cynical?
I’m leaving my car on my way to the Arena when I notice a giant charter bus pull up and about fourty, thirty-somethings pour out into the street for a group photo. After some whooping and cheering the crowd leaves to the show. I walk up to the bus driver. True to the description on the side of the bus as a self-proclaimed land yacht, the driver is decked out in sea captain gear.
“So what’s the deal, did these people rent this to come to the show?”
“Oh yes, they’ve been going crazy back there…”
“Were did you guys come from?”
“That’s only six miles away, kind of excessive, don’t you think?”
The driver looks at me, cocks his head, and gives me the international worker’s shrug of the shoulders gesture that translates loosely into ” Hey, I just work here… it’s not my decision.”
On my way to the back entrance of the Arena I pass by radio row. 104 FOG, Mix 106, 98.5 KFOX, 104.8 Channel and Star 101.3 are all out today, each one blasting their music from their 8 by 8 foot booth. In front of radio row is the local anti-rock Christian brigade that have become a standard fixture at all Bay Area shows. One is holding a huge six-foot sign that says “Beware Drunkards, Fornicators, Thieves, Adulterers, Idolaters and Queers.” I pause at the use of such a contemporary word as “queer” in the midst of such antiquated biblical King’s English. I imagine the meeting where that one was decided.
“No John, not homosexual, we use the word queer now… it’s much more inclusive. Plus it appeals to the MTV youth. We don’t want to appear too stodgy you know.”
The photographers are waiting by the back entrance of the San Jose Arena when a petite woman with short white hair meets us. She holds up a paper diagram and points with a pen.
“Okay the stage is here and coming off from each side of the stage is the top of a heart-shaped catwalk. Inside the heart is the audience as well as around the outside of the heart. There’s a narrow path that follows the catwalk for the photographers and security. For the first song the band is lit by the house lights only. For the second and third songs the lights go down and Bono comes down the right side of the heart while the Edge comes down the left. They make their way to the bottom of the heart where they’ll do this mock bullfight routine where Bono makes little horns with his fingers and the Edge makes feedback sounds on his guitar”
Now, we all know that the big, expensive Arena rock shows are well planned and heavily scripted. From the lights down to the number of encores, everything is on a tight schedule. But when the details of the “improv” routines are spelled out in dispassionate outline form, it’s downright comical, yet, intriguing.
I imagine a debriefing room where Bono and Band wait patiently. A tall man in a dark suit and sunglasses enters the room.
“OK Bono, here’s the situation, tonight you’re in San Jose CA. The last time you played here was in a High School gym, so be sure to reminisce about that. Our ticket sales indicate that the majority are not from the city of San Jose but from the surrounding towns, so it would be good idea to mention those as well.”
The man hands Bono a list. Bono grabs a pen and begins to write on the palm of his hand.
“Hello Oakland, Hello Sunnyvale…Hello Los Gatos…”
“Our focus group studies indicate that the Bob Marley references are still popular so be sure to work in one or two during the first set …and the “fan” who hands you the Irish flag during Sunday Bloody Sunday will be to your left wearing a red hat. His code name is COBRA… oh, and please don’t drop the flag, the backup one was destroyed at the Alabama show.”
I’m waiting at the bottom of the catwalk with the rest the photographers and begin to scan the arena. Directly across the other side of the catwalk, about eight feet away, is the general mission audience. About every six feet stands a security guard in a bright yellow windbreaker. I notice one person with a camera, then another and then another. I start counting and estimate that every other person has a camera, some whit professional gear better than mine. One guy stands on his toes so I can see him over the security’s shoulder.
“What are you shooting?” He says holding up his camera.
“800 color print…what are you shooting?”
“Oh, you have worries…all your shots will to come out great!”
I’ve never seen a big concert where you can bring your cameras. You could easily shoot video if you wanted. Then again, at $45 bucks for the floor and $130 for the seats, I suppose they should throw in a gaffer or an assistant to boot.
P.J. Harvey opens the show and a handful of us decided to take some shots. I’m completely unfamiliar with her work, but it’s enjoyable enough. She plays her first song solo. Her stage makeup, glittery dress a tiny frame are contrasted buy a certain fierceness, an unspoken confidence in her persona that is quite appealing. Of course, she’s just the opening band so the Arena is half empty with people who are mostly biding time till U2.
After a short break, U2 casually takes the stage. The house lights are left on and the effect is exhilarating and disorientating at the same time. Without stage specific lighting everyone in the Arena is lit equally, each face standing out on its own, yet anonymous at the same time. As scheduled, the house lights go down for the second song and Bono and Edge make their way down the catwalk. Bono, of course, is posing and preening the entire way, stopping every couple of steps to caress the outstretched hands, roll on the floor and seduce the MTV camera crew. The Edge concentrates on his chords and watches Bono out of the corner of his eye so as not to reach the bottom of the catwalk before him. This continues for another hour and a half with some minor variations.
So back to the question. Could I enjoy a show by a band that seems so cynical, calculated and enthralled by its ability to manipulate its image and audience. Sure, much in the same way I can enjoy a good pro wrestling match. Just because it’s fake, doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. Just check your brain at the door and go along for the ride.