++ Needle Drops is now an occasional music column that a number of Neumu writers take turns writing. All columns prior to March 2004 were written by Philip Sherburne.
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Monday, December 6, 2004
++ I Will Follow
By Jesse Zeifman
++ It was in the winter of 1984 that I first heard U2's The Unforgettable Fire (Island, 1984). I was 13 and restlessly trying to find my way through that weird part of childhood, that in-between place, where you're still so obviously a kid to everyone else but yourself. I still had my comic books, still played videogames on the Commodore 64, and still watched Saturday morning cartoons. At the same time, I was forcing independence doing stupid things, cutting classes and screwing around, with drinking, with drugs, and with girls.
Things seemed uncertain and unclear. Clarity, on any subject, was hard to find. You'd go to school in the morning and not know whether you were going to get your ass kicked or (after being bombarded with miniseries propaganda like "The Day After") if the world was going to end. We had lots of questions, but none of us had the vocabulary to ask them.
Around that time, music really began to assert itself as an anchor. I had been exposed to good stuff by then The Cure, The Clash, Bob Marley, The Police, The Beatles, Dylan, and the Stones but was looking for sounds to call my own. And then I heard the The Unforgettable Fire, and then the single, the album's anthem, "Pride (In the Name of Love)," became a staple on San Francisco's new wave radio station.
Once I got the tape, I studied the cover the ancient-looking sepia-tinted image of the relics of a church or castle for hours. And I lived inside the music. The strange oceanic sounds emanating from Edge's guitar on "A Sort of Homecoming," and Bono soaring, singing "Tonight we'll build a bridge across the sea and land/ See the sky the burning rain/ She will live and die again/ Tonight" and then gently yearning when he closes with, "I am coming home."
++ And that was just the beginning. "Pride" has become so ubiquitous that it's almost impossible to listen to now. But trying, in writing this, to remember those thrills that came when hearing it for the first time has helped provide some distance enough to understand that that song is the sound of a band arriving. Putting all the pieces together, making a great pop song, a song with a statement, a song that seemed so natural, beautiful, effortless. And, of course, when something feels so easy, so natural, it's the work of real artists. To make it so.
The album's title song, a propulsive, edgy soundscape, became a staple on the mix tapes I would spend hours and hours sequencing and then executing, recording tape-to-tape, on the little boom box in my bedroom. It was so dramatic, strings slicing through the air, the track building on Larry Mullen Junior's steady work behind the drum kit. And then just as fast as it goes, it stops, drifting into the whispers of "Promenade."
Discovering a band that'd been around for a while also provided the delights of being able to go backwards, to hear, in unbelievable songs like "New Year's Day," "Sunday Bloody Sunday," and, of course, "I Will Follow" its guitars like razors where U2 had come from. That early work, so raw and immediate, made my heart race.
Over the next few years, U2 remained the center of my musical universe.
Their show at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in the spring of 1985 was my first
concert. We cut school and sat in line for hours, drinking warm rum and Coke,
eagerly awaiting the gates' opening. By the end of that night, my mind blown
by the enormity of the experience, by live music (!), I was a true believer.
When you love a band, you believe that they're speaking right to you that
the lyrics are meant to be a reflection of your experiences, or a key to helping
better understand what your life's about. You believe that the arrival of songs
at certain moments in your life is deliberate, because that's just when you need
I saw U2 again on a frosty night at Exhibition Stadium, in Toronto, during high school, and a couple of times in college, in Los Angeles, including a Halloween night show at Dodger Stadium, in 1992, when they were at the absolute height of their power. They did everything right that night, including reducing a friend, a jock who never wore his sentiment on his sleeve, to tears during "One." By then, U2 and I were old friends. They'd been by my side since middle school, a constant companion. A warmth descended over the stadium that night, the band embracing all of us, and us loving them back. Nobody wanting it to end.
++ And then, the next year, word of a new album. After the triumph of Achtung Baby (Island, 1991) the band stretching their sound in ways no one thought possible there was enormous excitement on that new releases Tuesday morning, when I ran to Tower to buy Zooropa (Island, 1993). At home, jewel case opened, CD in, play pressed, andů andů spacey synths and flaccid keyboards and Bono sounding like he had taken four Vicodin before recording his vocals. What the fuck was this? OK, next track, "Babyface." More of the same. Guitars relegated to the background, and Bono, Bono! Wake up, Bono, it's your new record. You're the one singing, bro. You're the singer. No one else is going to do it. So, do it. Sing. Sing, goddamn it! Sing! The album, with one exception "Stay (Faraway So Close!)," a song recorded for the Wim Wenders film was a disaster. Not just a disaster a betrayal. This wasn't rock 'n' roll. This wasn't even the electronica they were striving for. This was shit. This was my favorite band abandoning everything they represented and delivering an album that remains unlistenable.
And then those fuckers went and did it again in 1997, with Pop, which, as far as gradations of bad, was even worse than Zooropa. In my head I pleaded with them to leave big beat to the Chemical Brothers and be a band again.
I must confess I even attended the Popmart tour, in Oakland, in 1997. Hoping that it would be like old times that there would be some taste of past glory. Popmart was the tour that had them exiting a lemon shaped pod before taking the stage. That was the tour that had them playing the terrible song from Batman Forever, a terrible movie. It was all bad. Who were these imposters?!?
That was it for me. I gave up on U2. They were dead to me. I couldn't even listen to the old stuff. It just reminded me of what had gone wrong. Radiohead came along and made me wonder why I'd ever bothered with those boys from Dublin. My musical life, without them, was underway.
In 2000, rumors of a return to form. I didn't buy it. Someone gave me a copy of All That You Can't Leave Behind (Interscope, 2000), and I listened to it because it would have been rude not to. And? Well, "Beautiful Day" is a pretty great pop song. But it's like a synthetic thrill. It still sounds like it went through too many filters, like a song arrived at by polling and test marketing. It was calculated. And, after the band had swerved so far astray, it was insincere.
++ So why are we still talking about U2?
They've just released a new album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope, 2004), and it's not only the best thing they've done in more than 10 years, but it stands up when judged against their very best work, and just might be on the merits of sheer joy that come with each listen one of the year's best albums.
Now, arriving at these lofty conclusions hasn't been easy.
When the infectious single, "Vertigo," dropped, my ears perked up. The guitars were back! They remembered the weapon they have in the Edge. The song is bombastic and raw. A real band is behind this music. Four guys, no sound effects. Still, was this a trick? Were they raising expectations only to turn and make us suffer through middle-of-the-road mediocrity like "Walk On" or "Elevation"?
With the album in hand, and the already proven "Vertigo" the first track, it was time to see what else they had. "Miracle Drug" begins ominously (considering their recent track record), with light strumming and worrisome strings. Is it going to be more U2-lite? But 46 seconds in, the skepticism is shoved away as the song explodes a blast of hope into an exceptional, inspiring anthem, with huge hooks, huge drums, huge Edge, and Bono, back, awake from his decade-long stupor. Present. The singer soars again. And when he does, you forget the disappointments, the "Discotheques," the different personas, the Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, the bullshit.
There's truth in this music. It's optimistic, sincere. Dramatic. Real.
And it goes from there. When "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" opens with slow, acoustic strumming, I worry again. It's going to be soft and weak, spineless filler. I don't have faith. There's not enough capital for me to have faith. But then it builds and it builds with Edge backing Bono on vocals, and the guitars rolling, gathering momentum, and it hits its crescendo with the guitars now a wall of sound atop which Bono's vocals ride.
"Love and Peace or Else," with its gritty, fuzzy guitars, with Bono growling out his lyrics, is a nod, whether intentional or not, to the White Stripes. "City of Blinding Lights" is another stadium-ready anthem. It sounds, in the best way possible, like a song you've known, always loved. With the delicious "All Because of You" and its layers of crunchy guitars they teach bands like Oasis how Brit-pop should sound. There isn't a bad song on the album.
There is no logical reason why, 25 years in, U2 should have, could have, delivered an album so grand, so satisfying, so tough, so great to drive to, so clear, so focused, that's so much fun.
++ A few couple weeks ago, U2 were the musical guest on "Saturday Night Live." They opened with "Vertigo," and Bono was feisty, repeating the call, "Live, live, live," thus calling out the Ashley Simpson lip-syncing embarrassment. Live, they were. They played like a band with something to prove. Edge looked pissed. He attacked his guitar. He crushed the monkey that'd been on the band's back. Exorcised the demons, right there. Demanded your attention. Made sure you knew they were a rock 'n' roll band. No tricks. They played "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own" as their second song, and with Bono's voice cracking, poignantly, they drove the crowd wild.
At the end of the show usually just the host's thanks and the credits Luke
Wilson did, indeed, thank the cast and, with Bono sitting beside him, thanked
the band. But then, with a handshake and the cast's ovation, Bono got up, traversed
the stage and, found his mates, who had already begun to rip into one of the
band's early songs, the classic "I Will Follow." It sounded absolutely fresh.
Vital. A band I had written off 10 years ago made the hairs on the back of my
neck stand up again. They thrilled. Midway through, Bono, Edge, and bassist Adam
Clayton actually left the stage, playing on, coming closer, showered with cheers
from the adoring, awestruck audience. Bono then returned to the cast standing
together, all giddily screaming and he gathered a sobbing Amy Poehler
in his arms. Others cried too. Some just held their heads in disbelief. It was
one of the most electrifying live performances I've ever seen, television or
not. And it reminded me, now so far along on this weird, wonderful journey with
U2, why, once again, I will follow.