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The internet is a weird and wonderful thing. It's a little bit like a magic box, the "joy can" of Venture Bros fame (later appropriated by the busy little appropriators on Lost). A few clever keystrokes and you can reunite with lost loved ones or study a closeup of DaVinci's Codex Leicester or trace your ancestors' voyage to the New World or nuke Mississippi or download Lithuanian amputee pornography. In my case tonight, I'm listening to a recording of a U2 concert from April 2, 1987 at the Arizona State University Activity Center. It's not a great recording, there's this idiot in the crowd who won't pipe down--most likely me, from the sound of it--but who cares. God, it's stunning to hear this again. It was the very first night of their North American tour for the Joshua Tree album. I'd sold plasma to afford my ticket. I think. Unless Marc paid for it, I can't remember.

Anyway. We get there, nervous, excited--I mean, my god, U2!--never was a band and a little girl from the trailer park better matched. Full of themselves, epic, pretentious, strident, but with an undercurrent of blackly comic Irish cheek, and at that moment, their muse was the exact desert I lived in. We were in perfect sync. I was 18 and naïve and I can't say nobody'd laid a glove on me, but as rough as it had been, I had no idea what was coming. Now I'm 38 and naïve and I'm sure that last bit's still true as well, and fine. Given the alternative of being a hardened, bitter, eaten-up cynic I'll keep my Keane-eyes, thank you very.

The first thing they did was to send out A Guy With A Statement. A few months earlier, Arizona had elected a new governor, a crotchety used car dealer named Evan Mecham. One of Mecham's first acts was to cancel the state's legally-dubious Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. He had sensible, prudent, fiscally sound rule-of-law reasons for doing so, all of which were forgotten the moment he told an African-American church congregation that "King doesn't deserve a holiday" and "You people don't need any more holidays, what you people need is to get a job." Oh, and that it was perfectly fine for white Republicans to refer to Black children as "pickaninnys" because "it's a term of endearment." Oh, Mecham, how I miss you. As a muckraking high school journalist at the time, I had lined my trophy case with awards based on my coverage of Mecham's relentless gaffes. By the time U2 got to town, Mecham was being simultaneously recalled and impeached. And with U2's biggest hit to date being the MLK-inspired "Pride (In The Name Of Love)", we were just praying they were going to weigh in. And weigh in they did.

"I would like to read this statement to you on behalf of U2," sayeth The Guy. "We were outraged when we arrived in Arizona last weekend and discovered the climate created by Governor Mecham's recision of the holiday honoring Martin Luther King. Governor Mecham is an embarrassment to the people of Arizona..." and here the crowd roar became almost deafening--"We condemn his actions and views as an insult to a great spiritual leader. We urge all of you forward thinking Arizonans to support the campaign to recall Governor Mecham. We support the Mecham Watchdog Committee and have made a financial contribution to this cause. On behalf of U2, we urge all other artists to make a similar protest."

You have no idea what it felt like. It was like some guy knocks you down and steals your purse and then Superman comes down and beats his ass. Mecham was indeed an embarrassment, but guys like Mecham were a dime a dozen in Arizona--he won the election, remember?--and until the MLK thing blew up, "forward thinking Arizonans" were as rare as Irish cowboys. Somebody on our side. National attention. A white-hot light on that doddering old racist fool. Finally.

The crowd was going wild. Righteous indignation and rock music mix very well. The Edge kicked in the opening notes of "Where The Streets Have No Name"--the first time it had ever been played in the United States. The keyboards swelled. Adam's bass came in. Larry smashing the cymbals. A revival meeting. A sense of destiny in the air.

And then Bono croaked the most agonizingly bad note ever sung in the history of human vocalization. Fingernails on the blackboard don't begin to compare. Hearts sank. The bones of the long-dead shuddered. Somewhere, an angel died at the sound of it. Bono, the lead singer of the greatest band on earth, had chosen opening night of the biggest tour of his life to get horrible laryngitis.

Why is Bono a rock star and I'm not? Because he stood there in the merciless glare of the spotlight, alone in front of 20,000 people, a singer unable to sing a note, the actor's nightmare incarnate, on the brink of failure and humiliation on a historic scale. And he turned it into an opportunity.

"You're gonna have to help me out with the singing tonight" said Bono. "Looks like for once I'm a little stuck for words."

And we did. 20,000 people sang every note, every word in unison. I'm listening to this recording and it's just as I remember it--you can't hear Bono at all in some passages, not because he's not singing but because we're singing over him. I don't know if his voice simply warmed up, or if he was heartened by the crowd, but he sang his heart out the rest of the night until he had nothing, not a single note left to give. I haven't had a lot of great communal experiences in my life, moments where I truly felt part of something greater. Too much of my life has been spent alone. But that night, I felt that oneness. If I write about it like a religious experience, that's what it felt like. There was, as the man said, a lot of love in this room tonight.

I'm older now than Bono was that night. In the warm discomfort of middle-age I can chuckle a little listening to him try to sell the clumsy, overwrought lines in "Bullet The Blue Sky", but I still remember how I cried during "Running To Stand Still", how I sang myself hoarse on "A Sort Of Homecoming". And how we went home, well, we went to somebody's home and picked up guitars and sang every song again until the sun came up. Sometimes I think I screwed up, wasted the last 20 years. Wasn't brave enough, didn't work hard enough, lived too much in fear, was too easily discouraged. But it's foolish to think like that, and it misses the point Mr. Hewson tried so hard to get across to me that night--that as long as you don't give up, every disaster carries the seed of future triumph. So here's to not giving up, and more's the point, to finding your voice.


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August 2009

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