By Matthew Hennessey
Even as their ongoing 360° Tour tops out as the highest grossing of all time, news comes that U2 is recording a new album.
This was much on my mind recently as I climbed behind the wheel for a long car trip all by my lonesome. Luckily, the car allows me to plug my iPod directly into the sound system, so I can easily search my entire music library while steering the car with my knees.
“I’ll have a little U2,” I thought as I pulled up the highway on-ramp. I had one track in particular on my mind: “Yahweh.” Not among their biggest hits. It’s one of the later tracks on their 2004 release, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.
As I clicked around for it, I had a thought: I wonder how many U2 songs I have on this thing? Eighty-eight, as it turns out. I was looking at three-and-a-half hours in the car. I wondered: An all U2 trip? Would it work? Could I stand it?
“I’ll put it on random, listen to a few, then bang up to ‘Yahweh’ and move on to something else,” I thought.
There’s got to be at least five other acts that I’d put ahead of U2 on my list of favorite bands, and another five that I might put ahead depending on my mood. But this little experiment brought me to a sudden and disconcerting realization: This music has dominated my life.
Every song held some meaning. Trapped in the little bubble of my little car, I was transported elsewhere by every track.
One of the first to play was “Sunday Blood Sunday,” which is Not a Rebel Song but sure looked like one on my MTV in 1983. I was only ten-years old then, but the white flag? The sleeveless T-shirt? The high-stepping? These guys are a rebel army if ever there was one. And if they aren’t rebels, what are they doing riding horses in the snow, again with the flag, and playing that single snare drum in the “New Year’s Day” video?
October. Boy. War. Under a Blood Red Sky. My sisters had these tapes. They were older, and I looked to them to learn what was cool. “These guys are Irish,” they told me. What could be cooler? “We’re Irish too,” I said to myself. These guys belong to us.
About the tenth song to come through the car’s speakers was “Pride (In The Name Of Love).” In 1984, this was huge. Do you hear what I’m saying? It was a huge, huge hit. Iconic. My sisters went to see The Unforgettable Fire Tour at the Brendan Byrne Arena in April 1985. I wore the T-shirt they bought that day until it was threadbare and nearly transparent. I still have it somewhere, though I wouldn’t embarrass myself by trying to squeeze into it now.
We watched them perform “Bad” on TV at Live Aid that year, and “Pride” on the Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope concert the next year. I had the VCR ready when MTV broadcast the 1986 Self Aid concert from Dublin. How many times did I watch Bono prowling the stage like a demented Jim Morrison, dressed in a fringed leather jacket, shining a spotlight at the audience and howling, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more”?
These guys are really Irish, we thought. And cool as hell. Political. Passionate. Sincere. Bono was maybe a little too sincere. But so what? At least he wasn’t boring. Like Sting.
By the time my iPod started spinning out The Joshua Tree, I was lost in my reverie. The record was, of course, monumental. The videos equally so. See them charming the tourists on the Las Vegas strip in the video for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” See them defying the cops to film “Where The Streets Have No Name” on the rooftops of L.A.
See them at your local cinema in Rattle and Hum. You better believe I was there. The very first show on the very first night. “Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” Somebody had to do it.
I’d listen to “With or Without You” on my Walkman as I pedaled my 12-speed bike to a girlfriend’s house in high school. My feet flew fastest during the plaintive climax of “O-o-o-oh,” which sounded to lovesick teenage ears very much like The Truth Laid Bare.
Achtung Baby was among the first CDs I ever owned. I got it mail order through the Columbia House Record Club. (Ten CDs for a penny!) A rip-off, but a great way to kick-start your collection. Those songs provided the soundtrack for numberless wine-soaked parties in smoke-filled Manhattan apartments. I was a young bohemian by then, trying to throw my arms around the world.
She moves in mysterious ways. Indeed she does, sir.
Now the dashboard was telling me I had listened to 50 out of 88 U2 songs on my iPod. In the mid-90s I was living like a vampire in Los Angeles with the weird and moody Zooropa in heavy rotation. I thought of Wim Wenders’s films about angels walking the earth. And I heard the distant echoes of my loneliness and frustration played back to me in “Stay (Faraway, So Close!).”
All That You Can’t Leave Behind was released in 2000. I was back in New York, stuck in moment that I couldn’t get out of. That song was about Michael Hutchence of INXS, but a friend suggested that it was the perfect description of our mate Angelo. Like Hutchence, Angelo died far too young. As I cruised down that highway in the dark, I swear I could hear him laughing.
I was getting up into the high numbers now. Some of my later favorites started to poke through: “All Because of You,” “One Step Closer to Knowing,” “Moment of Surrender.”
But where was the one I was looking for in the first place? Where was “Yahweh?” As I hit the eightieth out of 88 U2 tracks on my iPod I began to wonder, “Would it be the last to play? Could it be the last to play?”
I want you to realize that I wouldn’t make a thing like this up: As I turned the car onto my street, 250 miles from where my trip began, the song that I was hoping to hear three-and-a-half hours earlier finally came on. I let the car run as I sat in the driveway and listened to the whole thing.
What a wild journey. What a beautiful day.