The Setup (skip down to the title to dig into the official post) – With the pending release of U2’s newest album, Songs of Experience, this memory of Bono’s rock-n-roll redemption came back to me. Upon hearing their bright and dancey new song The Blackout, a friend told me it reminded him of something from Pop, U2’s ninth studio album. That thought took me back to twenty years ago when I was a young father, just figuring out the balance between innocence and experience myself. I was also learning more about my own spiritual life and what it means to conduct myself as a Christian man in a post-Christian era.
I was also a big U2 fan. I went to three of their shows on The Pop Mart Tour; Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Seattle. After the Seattle show (where this story takes place), I was so moved by the experience that I told the story to anyone who would listen. I even sat down and wrote it all out to send to the U2 fan magazines. It was never published.
So today, on the eve of new music from U2 (You’re The Best Thing About Me, the first single from Songs of Experience comes out September 6th), I dug up my original typed pages and copied them word for word here. Actually, that’s a lie. I spent some time editing it to make it ready for prime time. But after I did, I’m still quite convinced that, despite my penchant for hyperbole, this description is very accurate to what actually happened.
Regardless, I hope you enjoy the view from the front row.
God Went Shopping At Popmart
(or Here’s a Song U2 Stole from The Almighty. He’s Stealing It Back.)
For U2 fans, there’s nothing quite like that perfect “U2 moment.” That’s the moment when With Or Without You broke your heart and when One put you together again. When Bono danced with a girl from the audience and it felt somehow like he was holding you. That moment singing Pride (In the Name of Love) at the top of your lungs from the back of a stadium and you swear Dr. King can hear you. That’s the spiritual feeling that keeps U2 fans coming back; the defining moment that turned us into fans.
I’ve been a U2 fan for a long time, and I’ve actually experienced many “U2 moments.” But none will ever compare with the spiritual rediscovery and transformation that I experienced at the U2 Pop Mart show at the King Dome in Seattle on December 12, 1997.
I’m still not sure how it happened, but dreams became reality and I found myself, along with thirteen friends, lined up along the stage barricade between Bono’s mikestand and Adam’s bass rig. Each one of us, U2 fans since Jr. High or before, had built this moment up in our minds as the pinnacle of youthful glory. We had convened from locations all across America, reunited for the chance to stand in the front row at a U2 concert.
And yes, it was all that we had ever imagined; the closeness, the eye contact, the favorite songs, and the deafening roar. Being as close as we were, the very front row, we could see every expression, technical glitch, nuance, and emotion that others couldn’t see from the stands or on the screen. At this range, we allowed ourselves to be enveloped and united under the sights and sounds of U2’s Pop Mart.
Everything about it was incredible, until…
Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me, a single released with the Batman Forever soundtrack, opened the final set. It’s a cool, hard rock song that wears like gold lamé – baudy and bold. I know the song by heart, but in seeing the images on the screen and hearing Bono’s intense delivery opened up the meaning of the words to me for the first time.
Flashing across the screen, they showed Warholesque images of Marilyn and Jimi, Janis and Kurt, Morrison and Mercury, Elvis and Tupac – all pop icons who died young. Then, mixed in among those tragic souls were quick cuts of Bono himself, dressed as his devlish alter-ego, Macphisto.
In that moment I realized that I had completely missed the meaning in the lyrics?
“They want you to be Jesus
They’ll go down on one knee
But they’ll want their money back
If you’re alive at 33”
He’s right. Pop stars like Bono live to hear people calling their names. But they’re never truly revered or loved unconditionally until after they die like sparkling messiahs. As the song reached its crescendo, I heard Bono’s cry for help. He was no longer begging “hold me, thrill me, kiss me.” Rather, he kept calling out to us, his worshippers, “kill me, kill me, kill me, kill me!”
This song is not about Batman! It’s a suicide note.
Does he mean it? Is this an act? Has Bono reached his pinnacle? Is there nowhere left to go but Popmartyrdom? Does he want it all to end?
I couldn’t help believing that Bono was signaling his anguish – revealing to us that, like the fractured stars that went before him, he is indeed broken. Behind the flash and celebration of good new-fashioned rock-n-roll, I saw despair in his expression and on the screen. What more does a worldwide audience want from its celebrities than to live fast and die young so that they can idolize them all the more?
Shaken, I realized in my heart that I was responsible for this. With all my worship and fanaticism toward this ragtag group of photogenic Irish men, I put Bono on that stage – a man made god, to die, not for my sins, but for my entertainment.
I was shocked with the thought that I had brought him to this. I wanted to reach out to him and apologize. Bono, If I ever deified you, if I ever worshipped you as my god, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to raise you up so high that you could never come down without a crash.
I wondered if I was making something out of nothing. Was the excitement of the night leading me to believe a charade? To see something that wasn’t there? I looked around at my companions, my brother and our friends, to seek in their faces the confirmation or invalidation of my presumption.
They looked back at me with the same confused expressions I could feel on my own face. Like children walking in on a violent parental quarrel, we had all caught the same sensation that we were witnessing something extremely intimate and disturbing.
In that moment, we became united under a desire to do something to put Bono back together with “God’s Glue” – not back together as the rock star we’d idolized, but as a regular person who is loved for being human, not deity.
The band played Mysterious Ways next. It’s a crowd pleaser, but I didn’t hear much of it. Frankly, I was distracted by Bono’s apparent desire to die. I did however come to the realization that it has taken me three albums and two tours to listen closely enough to hear Bono’s previous cries for help – If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel.
Next, Bono dedicated their unifying hit One to Kurt Cobain, Seattle’s golden grunger who had joined the ranks of self-martyred rockers three and a half years previously. Ironically, Bono’s tribute came with him surrounded by corporate logos wearing a blue pixel suit in the land of flannel.
One, a glorious love song to U2’s fans and the human race, was supposed to be the final “feel good” moment of the night, and a triumphant wrap-up of the North American leg of the tour.
Then the technical problems began.
I was at the first show of the Pop Mart tour in Las Vegas. I watched as all of the band members struggled to keep in time and in tune while their cutting edge in-ear monitors malfunctioned and nearly wrecked the show. In a show this big and ambitious, with audio loops and video screens to stay in sync with, the speed of sound to stay ahead of, and to simply hear themselves play, the in-ear monitors must be functional.
Humiliated, U2 had to start Staring at the Sun over. This is something that should not happen to the biggest band in the world. It dogged them throughout the tour. Pop Mart technology couldn’t keep up with U2.
In Seattle, one verse into One, Bono began signaling to the techs that his ear monitor was not loud enough. He tried to be subtle by pointing to his ear and pointing up but the problem continued. He then started hitting his right ear with his hand and broadly motioning for volume, all the while still trying to play his guitar part and sing the song many in the audience had travelled many miles to hear.
Bono was frustrated and angry. He seemed to be thinking, “This is the last show of the tour. The last show! I just dedicated one of our most popular songs, the finale, to a hometown hero and I don’t even know if I’m singing in the right key! Why can’t you get this right?!”
Furious, Bono stripped off his guitar and dropped it on its back sounding a boom throughout the stadium. He finished singing, but in a tantrum. He couldn’t shake the anger. In a fury, he began smashing his microphone into the stage. Bashing and smashing, enraged and hateful, while the last lines of the love song ended around him.
He crouched there on the stage gripping the ruined microphone, huffing and puffing. The song ended and he stood. Bono shouted a furious staccato grunt into the hunk of metal in his hand. Only those of us close enough could hear it because no sound came from the speakers.
A roadie, reluctant and afraid, crept onto the stage with a fresh microphone and held it out to Bono who snatched it from him indignantly. The roadie turned quickly and made for a place in the shadows. He couldn’t, however, escape the hateful stare of the man on stage.
The Edge began playing the chords of Wake Up Dead Man and Bono sang the first half of the song still glaring with the eyes of a martyr on fire at the poor fool who gave him the mic. I stared in disbelief as Bono, known for his love and compassion, shot daggers of hate at his sorry employee.
Wake Up Dead Man is a song that has been tough for me to enjoy. I have spit, thrown up, and choked on it, but I still haven’t been able to swallow it. Mostly because it disturbs my Christian sensibilities. The “dead man” in the title is Jesus and the singer is frustrated that He’s nowhere to be found (Read the lyrics to here).
I’ve argued with myself over it since I bought the album. It’s it blasphemy? Is Bono actually saying that God is dead or, if He is alive, He doesn’t care anymore? Or is this a song like I Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, which praises the greatness and mercy of God, yet still searches for more from Him?
Perhaps it’s a call for the Church to wake from its complacent slumber, a call for revival in the hearts of people who call themselves children of God. Maybe Bono is calling to the Christ he knows lives in him to wake up and show himself – a Christ who Bono has cherished but has been slowly burying beneath a rock star’s clothes and all the garbage that goes with being a hero to millions. Or surely Bono is crying out to himself, a dead man in need of waking from his own hypnosis of fame and fortune.
No matter what the song actually means, in that moment, all I could hear was Bono’s anger toward God, something I had never heard from him before.
And so I stood there listening as Bono, angry and tired, sang this frustrated and hopeless song. From that distance, just a security barrier away, I believed I could see into his heart.
I saw a man who has worked his whole life to change the world, to have a voice that the world will hear, to reach the masses with a message of hope and love. At the very least, I could see that he had wanted to make this last show on the U.S. tour a great experience for the thousands present, but instead it was a disaster.
I couldn’t help think of King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, looking back over a life filled with accomplishments and worldly gain only to realize it was worth nothing. And he sang those words over all of us there in his “King Dome” asking, begging, “Is there one of you here who is awake? Are you all dead men? Am I dead? Has God left building? Is He anywhere?”
I heard his cry. And so did my friends.
As if to say, “Yes! God is still here! He is awake in us and we are awake in Him,” we began, in unison and at the top of our lungs, to sing.
“How long to sing this song? How long to sing this song? How long to sing this song?”
These are the closing lines of U2’s concert favorite, 40. It’s a nearly word for word rewrite of Psalm 40 that U2 used as their closing benediction at nearly every concert since it’s release. That is until they reinvented themselves for the cynical 1990s and the song was shelved.
Now we no longer chanting for one more song. We were singing to Bono, reaching out to him, ministering to his heart like he had done for us so many times. We hoped he would hear the Christ in us, hear the Christ in himself, buried beneath his anger at the equipment, hidden by his fear of mediocrity and his demented longing for dead rock star status – to hear the Christ calling from inside one of his own songs – the Hallelujah of King David that he had sung so many times before.
Then, just as he was waving goodbye to the audience for the last time and turning to leave with Edge, Adam, and Larry, he heard us.
“How long to sing this song?”
The Psalm was spreading from my group of friends throughout our section of the arena.
“How long to sing this song?”
Bono turned back to us, his face still shrouded in sadness. He looked like a boy on the last day of his greatest Summer crying for the loss of his youth.
“How long to sing this song?”
He looked at us with an expression saying, “You didn’t hear a thing I said these past seven years! You call yourselves U2 fans but you understand me less today than when I last sang that lost song. All you want is for me to come out and play the U2 jukebox. Well, I won’t be made a novelty.”
“How long to sing this song?”
“Why are you doing this? Why are you trying to change me?
“I’m comfortable in the pain.”
“Leave me alone!”
“It’s so hard to wake up.”
“How long… to sing this song?”
Just then a smile crept onto his face – a smile of relief, comfort, of peace – the smile of a man meeting a long lost friend.
He turned and stopped Mr. The Edge, asking him if he could mock up an impromptu 40. Edge protested a bit, probably because he hadn’t played the song in 7 years. But Bono, along with a mass of emotional fans, insisted.
We needed to sing this song.
The familiar chords rang out from the golden arch. Bono looked directly at our group and sang.
“I waited patiently for the Lord. He inclined and heard my cry. He brought me up out of the pit, out of the mire and clay. I will sing, sing a new song. I will sing, sing a new song.”
He paused, struggling to remember the words that his heart knew.
“He set my feet upon the rock and made my footsteps firm. Many will see. Many will see and fear. I will sing, sing a new song. I will sing, sing a new song.”
And the audience finished the song for him.
“How long to sing this song? How long to sing this song? How long? How long? How long? How long… to sing this song?”
The Edge stopped playing, closed the chord and took off his guitar. As Bono waved goodbye, his eyes met mine and we both saw changed men, awakened men.
The stage cleared, my friends and I came together hugging and crying in the realization of what we had all just experienced. This had been a spiritual rediscovery unlike any we had ever experienced before – not in a church, not in nature, not in a lonely cell, but at a rock concert.
As I walked out of the arena I thought about Bono. I wondered what he was thinking just then. Was he thinking about going home to his wife and girls? Was he thinking about the technical problems? About dying? About living? Was he thinking about me and my friends? About God?
I know I can’t speak for him, but I felt in my soul that he was thinking about the song, the Psalm, the ascent that he’d lost but found again that night.
How long to sing this song? Forever.
Epilogue: A lot has happened with Bono and U2 in the last twenty years.
Anybody who has followed the band’s album releases would note that the music is more joyful and spiritually deep than ever before. Their very next album after Pop, a return of sorts to their exultant musical roots began with Beautiful Day and ended with Grace.
Bono’s activism took on an even greater power as he linked arms with political leaders to cease aggression in his home country of Ireland, spearheaded the Drop the Debt campaign and Jubilee 2000 to forgive the debts of the world’s poorest nations, and created the One Campaign to bring awareness to the problem of HIV/AIDS across Africa, and continues to be a bridging voice of unity and compassion in world politics and culture.
It’s probably silly to think that that moment in Seattle had any effect on Bono’s life over all. Although, 40 does still make its way into their concert playlist now and again.
Also, YouTube became a thing. Who would have ever imagined that we would ever see this drama unfold again before our eyes on a web page that rhymes with U2.