Included in the essay collection Reservoir: Tales from the Other Jersey, available for purchase on Amazon.com
We were still singing when we walked out of the Spectrum that night, an ecstatic mob that flowed across the big parking lot and then down into the subway station, where we waited on the platform for the train to Central Station. We stood and sat on benches and leaned together, swaying and singing. When the train finally arrived, we all piled in, and when the doors shut, we kept singing:
“I will sing a new song / I will sing a new song / how long to sing this song / how long to sing this song.”
The subway car was crammed to capacity with kids from the suburbs, all of us grinning like fools, amped up and shivery. We were all under 25, in jeans and sneakers and boots and concert Ts. There was a guy with a shaved head wearing a mint “London Calling” shirt, clearly showing Paul Simonon smashing his bass guitar in an iconic fit of punk rage; the girl primped up like Robert Smith from the Cure, looking like a gloomy transgender vampire with black eyeliner and spiky hair; the frat boys in baseball caps and polo shirts; the two girls wearing black fishnet stockings under jeans mini-skirts who clung to each other like sisters, singing at the top of their voices.
In the 1980s, the Irish rock band U2 would often end their concerts with “40,” a song based on the words to Psalm 40, written and recorded in about twenty minutes at the end of the band’s recording session for their their 1983 album War, by the three Christian members of the band, Bono, Edge, and Larry Mullen. It is one of the most explicitly religious of U2’s songs and one of the most beautiful, but that night, our rendition of it was lighthearted and agnostic, like we were all daring each other to see how long we could in fact sing this song. Some of us were drunk and high—true—but there was also a tenderness and authenticity in the air between us. We were reveling in that big wave of solidarity that swells out from the final fifteen minutes of a great stadium show—a tangible feeling of fraternity with your peers, that ache of not wanting the night to end because you know that tomorrow you will land hard back in your ordinary life. But there was something else too, that intangible vibe that only U2 could summon in the mid-1980s. It was innocence and apocalyptic fear and exuberant defiance mixed together with hope and a sense of progressive political purpose.
Earlier that evening at the Spectrum, before the concert began, someone hung a white sheet over the second tier balcony with the word “Jesus” painted in black letters, and I remember thinking that it was not strange to see Christians showing respect at a U2 concert. I had grown up with Christians and I had attended Christian rock concerts in high school, but I knew that this would be different. There would be no cheesy altar call and no earnest talk of salvation. The people who hung that banner probably knew it too. Bono was selling something more Catholic than Protestant in the 80s, grace pouring out through the absolute certainty of human imperfection. This would be Jesus for the Centurion and the prostitute, for the adulteress nearly stoned to death at the well. Jesus for the plump girl with black eyeliner wearing the Bauhaus t-shirt. Jesus for the castoffs from a dozen different churches who would maybe go to church if they could find a church for spiritual bastards like themselves. Jesus for the Project Mayhem wannabes. Jesus for the lost boys who swarmed out of the suburbs and into arenas and stadiums hoping for a few hours of transcendence. Jesus without judgment.
More than any other memory of the 1980s, this one best captures the zeitgeist for me. That tender moment on the train unmasked the spiritual longing beneath our suburban lives, a genuine thirst for meaning and connection that most of us had never experienced in a church or synagogue but could nevertheless touch and feel in the ad-hoc congregations that assembled around the rock musicians we loved. The stadium show was a temporary autonomous zone, a here-today-gone-tomorrow frenzy of worship held inside a vaulting hi-tech cathedral—the speaker stacks, the lights, the electrified instruments—all of it wired up to summon the prehistoric tribalisms that are always simmering just under the surface of our civilized lives.
There was a whiff of mania in popular culture back then. The year 1968 might have been “A Crack in Time,” but my generation was the first to come of age inside of this cracked world. Everything had an edge to it—the parties, the drinking, the masculine chest-thumping. Animal House. Risky Business. The frenzy of Road Warrior. The fall of Pink in The Wall, with hammers goose-stepping across the screen, because fascism is always right there, inside of your own mind, never very far away and always hungry for expression.
And who could blame us. Frenzy was an appropriate response to the world we inhabited. The Cold War had been waiting for us when we were born, that Great Wall of Terror looming over everything. Our parents had been children at the beginning of it, when the government was still trying to convince Americans that it was rational to prepare for a nuclear war. They had “duck and cover” drills and the space race—an entire society living under the spell of rockets. There was a sense of existential purpose in the early days of the Cold War, but for us, any hint of reason or rationality had evaporated from it. Only the numb terror of it remained, invading my dreams.
But there was more to it. It was also the long shadow of the Vietnam War, which had engulfed our grandparents’ notion of a “Good War” in a scream-filled napalm firestorm. What was left of American honor after that war? It was the bulldozing of all that was beautiful and noble and pure about the 60s counterculture, not by “reality” as the cynics said, but by capitalism, which tolerates no opposing philosophy. It was Nixon and Watergate. It was the destruction wrought by narcotics on families and the War on Drugs. It was Reagan, that wizened high priest of no-apologies American capitalism and empire. It was gluttony and materialism and greed unleashed in a country that had clearly lost its soul.
* * *
I attended that concert with three friends from college. We were students at Trenton State College from 1983 to 1987, the years between War and Joshua Tree when U2 quickly ascended from Indy group to rock superstardom. When the video for “With or Without You” would come on the TV, my four roommates would suddenly appear in the living room of our two-story apartment, drawn in from every gloomy, dusty corner. We would watch transfixed. There was Bono, shot in a glowing sepia tone, preening in a sleeveless leather vest with a guitar slung around his back, casting sideways looks at the camera, already a sexualized pop star. We watched in reverent silence, as if we were participating in sacred rites.
Later that year, in August, I remember calling in sick from my job as a landscaper to watch U2’s 1985 Live Aid performance. During the second song in their set, “Bad,” Bono climbed down from the stage into that space between the security guards and the audience, and he arranged for a girl to be pulled up over the barricade and placed into his arms. I had seen him pull the same stunt at the Spectrum that night. While he danced with the girl, the band was still on stage, playing the same two-chord progression run through heavy echo effects. This was the part of U2’s set when Bono would improvise, usually by riffing on a medley of pop or rock songs. Bono danced with her for about a minute before he managed to climb back onto the stage. The camera pulled back to show the crowd at Wembley Arena, a sea of people swaying in a giant mass.
I recently watched a YouTube clip of this performance. I thought I would be able to reconnect with the excitement I felt as a twenty-year-old, but I was wrong. Now in my fifties, I cannot see beyond the awkwardness of this hammy attempt at improvisation. I see Bono reaching for an inspired moment and falling short. He wants to conjure a moment of intimacy in that vast sea of anonymous faces and wired-up sound equipment—to create a little spark of something real and human—but now I can see the futility of it. Bono was already a pop star by then, but he had not yet accepted this fact. That would come later, after Achtung Baby, when U2 would finally embrace the cavernous concert hall rather than trying to shrink it down to the intimacy of a pub show. From the 90s onward, U2 filled the arena with spectacle, with giant screens and costume changes and choreography. Bono played characters—Satan, Mephistopheles, The Fly. He adopted an ironic pose that never felt quite right to me.
A few years ago, Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker, commenting on the band’s lavish and heartfelt “Innocence + Experience” tour, lamented that the band should “bring back the irony” of the 1990s, when U2 reveled in experimental music that poked fun at popular culture. But I am nostalgic for the U2 before irony, when Bono wore a black t-shirt with a white flag on the front and dove into the crowd from atop a big speaker stack, when the punk flame of spontaneity and raw honesty was still lit in the band. “There is but one flag,” he said during the iconic 1983 Red Rocks concert. “And that’s the white flag.” For a while in the mid-80s, I could relate to Bono’s almost-pacifism, his fierce politics of non-alignment. In 1983, I could feel viscerally the prison of ideology. We were all locked into the terrible logic of the Cold War, of war itself. U2 wanted to escape that box. Many of us did.
There was something in that echoey guitar sound that was so perfectly attenuated to the discord I was feeling in the 80s. When they were recording “Bullet the Blue Sky” for the Joshua Tree album in 1986, Bono urged Edge to “put El Salvador through an amplifier,” but I have always thought that U2’s entire soundscape before 1988 was like putting Western Civilization through an amplifier, with its melodic minor chord progressions and its echo effects, like the last electric guitar on earth ringing through the ruins of a bombed-out city. They were choosing the right metaphors and images to overlay this sound. "Under a blood red sky." Everyone in my generation had looked at those fallout shelter signs and wondered, what hell, what unforgettable fire, would await us if the bombs did fall?
I once saw Bono rip up an Irish flag onstage. He tore it into three pieces—green, white, and orange. When I saw that, I understood the gesture immediately. When ideology narrows your choices to two sides---for us or against us---sometimes you can choose a third.
The 80s ended. Nations did not dissolve. No new republic of peace and equality took root to replace the republics of flags and armies and the state. History did not end. The bombs did not fall, but the Wall did, and a future I could not have imagined at age twenty unfolded through my life. We were spared the atomic nightmare, but not Srebrenica or the 100 bloody days in Rwanda, or 800,000 people killed so far in the Syrian Civil War.
* * *
I remember a conversation with another U2 fan at a party in New Jersey in 1987. I don’t recall his name, but he was a tall and angular kid who stood sort of bent forward at the waist wearing a black felt hat and picking through the host’s record collection one album at a time, sliding each album out from the vertical stack just far enough to see the cover art and then sliding it back in again. That was the summer of Joshua Tree, and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and U2 fans were enjoying a moment of vindication. This band that had been maligned as naive and puritanical, talentless and “one note” had, in just a few months, surged up into the rock stratosphere.
I remember the party for its sounds. The cicadas had hatched that summer, and their raspy calls were rising and falling all afternoon from inside the treetops surrounding the property. We could not see them, but they were all around us, like a restless army rattling spears against shields and calling out in their ancient raspy ululation. I remember that the Deadheads were sharing their favorite lyrics from “Terrapin Station” in a drunken circle in the backyard, smoking cigarettes and drinking Heinekens. A guy had brought his guitar to the party, and after everyone was drunk, he took it out of the case and started playing, but all he knew were snippets from REM songs, jangly repetitive arpeggios that went on and on until they trailed off into awkward silence. The Deadheads had never heard of REM, but they listened patiently anyway, because they had respect for the guy who brings his guitar to the party.
I remember that “Touch of Gray” was on the radio that month, and all the Deadheads at the party were apoplectic and complaining that Jerry had finally sold out. “The next thing you know,’ someone said, ‘they will be selling tie-dyes at Macy’s and arresting people for making bootlegs.’ Every one of them had been in diapers in the Jersey suburbs when the Summer of Love was popping off in San Francisco, but to hear them tell it, the 60s were finally over. This was the definitive proof, they said, the day the Dead had a hit single on the radio. Game over.
I remember that the conversation with the U2 fan began at the stereo. We had both drifted inside the house to see what album we might put on next. He was thin and intense, with black hair and a faraway look that I recognized in myself. After a few beers, we jumped right to that shared groove we had somehow intuited in each other from the moment we met.
“I saw them two years ago on the Unforgettable Fire tour,” I bragged.
“Yeah, that was amazing, right. Where’d you see them?”
“The Spectrum,” I said.
“I saw them at the Meadowlands.”
We shared a moment of quiet solidarity.
“Seriously, I don’t go to Church,” he said, “but if Church was more like that, I’d go.”
* * *
One of my students, a true audiophile and connoisseur of vinyl, recently listed U2 as one of the most overrated bands from the 80s. I didn’t argue with him. He has yet to learn that there is no winning this kind of argument and no reason to have it in the first place. Every American generation turns against the music of its fathers and mothers. Such is the churn of this most nontraditional society. But every generation also finds the sound that synchronizes with the spirit of the age. For many of us who came of age in the 1980s, that sound was roaring and jangling out of a speaker stack at a U2 concert.
Throughout my life, I have watched irony take root in American culture like an indestructible weed. Maybe irony is the safest response to a world that proves itself immune to moral progress, but as I grow older, I've begun to despise its false poses, the way it cloaks cynicism and hopelessness in a slick veneer of wit, as if to say that a clever turn of phrase is more valuable in the world than a pure heart. If I were to answer my student’s challenge, I would say that U2 presented a pure heart. They stood for the unvarnished desire to build a better world. It was easy to mock them, to call them naive, but I miss their honest idealism. I miss the way I once could speak those desires out loud, because we were young and we didn’t yet have the scars that come with the faltering steps of our idealism as it stumbles through the world trying to remain upright. I miss the way I felt on that train platform in 1985, when the fragility of human existence was tangibly felt and change was something I could still reach for, with my bare hands outstretched in the damp night air, if only we could keep the song going all night long.