When Love Came to Town

Thirty years ago, three days after I turned eighteen, my brother Kip took me to see U2 on their Joshua Tree tour. The tickets were a birthday present, and he drove up from Ohio University in our mom's hand-me-down Chevette to my dorm at Kent State to pick me up.

My memories of that show have been reduced to a very few but vivid snapshots. The first involves the two of us stuck in one of the narrow stairwells adjoining the outer hallway to the inner ring of Cleveland Stadium. While the sudden surge of the crowd didn't ignite in me explicit fear, I finally got a sense of how concert-goers at the Who's 1979 concert died of asphyxiation. Handrail pressed firmly into my left hip bone, a looping refrain of "stop pushing" at increased levels of panic, a growing feeling that I could almost lift my feet and be fully supported and suspended. Then, as quickly as it began, there was a break at the front of the crowd and everyone continued onto the field shrugging off the situation as a misunderstanding. 

Our seats were on the field, one of several thousand rickety folding chairs bound together in long rows with plastic zip ties, and we immediately joined the crowd in climbing atop (learning quickly to keep our weight shifted to the foot on the front of the seat, as not to suffer the tragic fate of some of our drunker colleagues). I didn't notice the projection screen until my brother pointed it out, up the pole at the end of our row. We were exactly parallel to it, which meant that we were far enough away from the stage to need a screen, but too close to see it. 

As for the show itself, I have only three specific memories - Bono wore a cowboy hat, his arm was in a sling, and it was absolutely the greatest concert I'd attended to date. This might not seem significant given that I was still within double-digit days of turning eighteen. But I'd attended probably a dozen shows by then--mostly New Wave or burgeoning metal bands--and felt confident in my assessment. (Which held up until the boys outdid themselves five years later with ZooTV, which remains my favorite show of all time...)

Joshua Tree '87 closed with "40." For those unfamiliar, its a song that became a traditional concert closer for the band in the mid-80s because the crowd would continue the refrain (Hooww looooonnnnnnnnnngg to sing this song ... HAAAAAWW LOOOOOOOOOOONNNNGGGG to sing this song) well into the parking lot. To get the full effect, fast-forward to 5:45 of this clip from the Paris show of the same tour. It's a straight-up manufactured gimmick on the part of the band, but I assure you that, like a acupuncture needle applied in the right place triggers chemical that provide relief from pain, so does 40 in the middle of an academically fraught first semester.

A lot has changed in 30 years.

The most significant is that my brother is ten-years gone, a notion utterly unimaginable then. I attended the next three tours without him, a combination of his waning interest in the band and my greater reliance on friends. The decaying Cleveland stadium is also gone, leveled and replaced by a hopeful state-of-the-art facility for long-suffering fans of a long-suffering NFL team. As for U2, they've experienced a fair number of major changes themselves, ones that I've either embraced or scoffed and later reconsidered (or held strong in my opinion). Rattle & Hum was a concert movie of the Joshua Tree tour that came out the following fall. It was one of the first CDs I purchased (transitioning from a mostly cassette tape collection) and the film was screened on campus. It was not well-received by the critics, the band accused of taking itself too seriously (well, duh), and Roger Ebert called the footage "poorly lit" (way to be old, Ebs). I've decided that my critical judgement on it is irrelevant since my becoming a more serious fan of music in general runs tandem to the band's launch into super stardom. Not that I didn't have my moments of pissy disapproval (the heartbreakingly dismissive cynicism of Pop Mart, and, well, the public rightfully pushed back against the hubristic move of Songs of Innocence). But my favorite artists are always the ones inclined to "go too far" and be willing to accept the consequences. 

On July 1 of this year, I attended the 30th anniversary of the Joshua Tree tour. My personal logistics--attending with friends who were as smart and fun and accommodating as they were enthusiastic--matched those of the concert organizers--a seamless shuffle through a snaking security line onto a significantly smaller-seeming stadium floor blissfully absent of chairs (and flooring clean enough to sit on during the two-hour wait).

I'd seen pics of the screen, from friends' FB posts of shows across the country, but those didn't prepare me for the enormity of it. Even when the band initially came out and played its opening set of four songs with no projection at all, I thought it to be merely a large backdrop. How much further could they possibly go, technologically speaking, from the 360 tour? A lot, it turned out. Just like ZooTV launched the era of multimedia spectacle (that, today, looks downright quaint), the highest of HiDef will become commonplace. But U2 did it first. They do it all first.

Of course, I couldn't help thinking of my brother throughout the show, certain he would have loved, if nothing else, reliving the nostalgia with a matured sensibility. Alas, there was no "40" at the close, which both disappointed and impressed me in equal measure. But there was more then enough energy to send the collective us off into the night, back into our daily existence, with some hope and a little swagger.