My son and I went to see U2 in concert last night in Boston. I’m sure this is true for many longtime fans and couldn’t have been lost on the band: The Ramones were their miracle, and they were ours. Every single word they sing about Joey Ramone in The Miracle, I (and you, too) can sing about them.
I was in high school when U2 surfaced in the early 80s. My younger brother told me about them. I don’t remember his exact words, but it was in the ballpark of “They sing about politics. And god. You’ll like them.” [My brother frequently clues me into music, books, and many other things. He really should have been the older brother.] He was right. I liked them. I loved them. Maybe even needed them. They came along at a time in my life when I needed a miracle. Well if not a miracle, then something that felt like one. And they were a miracle as such. For me, and many other Gen Xers who were feeling trapped by the existential hopelessness that can be high school, they were a punk miracle. What happens to punk when you throw in hope? U2.
We need hope. I need hope. Perhaps hope was the greatest gift of the miracle that was U2. I couldn’t pin it down until this morning, but something was tugging at me during last night’s concert as Bono took off from I Will Follow into a theatrical multi-media journey through his adolescence, the death of his mother, feeling suicidal in its wake, and finding music and faith as a way out. U2’s catalog contains many songs about death and suicide and depression. I Will Follow is Bono feeling suicidal in the wake of his mom’s death. Early songs A Day Without Me and Electric Co. are about suicide and electroshock therapy. Exit is about a psychotic and Stuck in a Moment about the suicide of the band’s contemporary, Michael Hutchence of the group INXS. Bad and Running to Stand Still are about heroin addiction.
I grew up in Leominster, MA in the 70s and 80s. During the time I was in high school and shortly thereafter there were multiple suicides involving students from Leominster High School. (There’s a lot of information, including links to various articles and sources in this discussion thread). Our classmates were killing themselves, there was a lot of drug use, and a religious cult-like group claimed our Blue Devils mascot was the cause of the deaths. U2 didn’t sing about my hometown directly, but they did give voice to the experience of being young and grappling with drugs, death, and depression. At the same time, there they were stumping for Amnesty International, on a boat with Greenpeace, and visiting famine stricken Ethiopia in the wake of Do They Know it’s Christmas. Even if the world sucked, you could make it better. I believed it. I graduated from high school, fought back from a crippling depressive episode, and started an Amnesty International group at my college.
We are all world-changers when we’re young. We’re easier activists and revolutionaries. We’re new to being aware of the suffering of others and injustices that make little sense. And at the same time we’re also unaware and ignorant of the difficulty of change, the slow pace of progress, and the stubbornness, ruthlessness, greediness, and viciousness of power and oppression.
Thirty years ago it was a miracle to find U2 giving voice and emotion to the explosion in my heart for social justice, dedicating myself to making the world a better place, and grounding this in the best part of the spiritual traditions of humanity that have advocated peace, kindness, compassion, mercy, and justice.
Now, thirty years later, there they were singing about the same things: ending poverty, reducing the spread of AIDS, and peace. The One Campaign had volunteers in the arena hallways and the RED campaign to end the spread of AIDS was part of a powerful rendition of Where the Streets Have No Name which segued into a cover of Paul Simon’s Mother and Child Reunion. The plea for peace ran throughout the show. The Dublin and Monaghan car bombings were part of Bono’s multi-media Cedarwood Road journey through his and the band’s formative years. The single deadliest incident of the troubles was evoked through images of a car on Dublin streets and the screen going blank with an explosion. This was sandwiched between a stripped down version of Sunday Bloody Sunday (including Larry Mullen, Jr. on a single marching military band snare drum) and Where The Streets Have No Name. Later in the show, Bono talked about the Boston Marathon Bombing and by the time he was working through his introduction to Pride he was able to subtly but powerfully connect Ireland and Boston to Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston as all being terrorist incidents. The gist was: We’re from Ireland. We understand prejudice and violence and terror. You understand it, you’re from Boston (“#Bostonstrong” displayed on the screen), so we must do better recognizing the racist terrorism still going on and understanding it as terrorism. The gentle linking of “our experience” to “your experience” to “their experience” had to have been intentional.
Yes, there have been some favorable Supreme Court rulings lately, but the intensity of the issues we face feels burdensome and unending, from poverty to environmental collapse to racism. I’ve been fighting the good fight as best I know how and listening to U2 for encouragement for over thirty years and still, at times, all I want to do is run away from the world. But there I stood, thirty years and ten U2 concerts down the road from attending “Suicide High” and spending my adult life as a peace and justice activist, educator, and minister and U2 is still preaching peace and justice. And the need for the preaching has not gone away and it certainly won’t in my lifetime. And instead of being depressed that I hadn’t been able to help change the world in the last thirty years, I began to remember that progress is two steps up and one step back. I’m a Gen X mixture of hope and hopelessness, of saving the world and giving in to cynicism. This is how I’ve been feeling. Jeff Gordinier sums up my emotional and activist life, my ministry, and many of my rumbling thoughts during the concert in his book X Saves the World: How Gen X Got the Shaft but can Still Keep the World from Sucking (although I’m 49 and my kid is going off to college now, no longer screaming in the house):
I’m writing this and I’m forty and my two kids are downstairs screaming at the top of their lungs, and there are moments when I’m f-ing exhausted and paralyzed and the very idea of working harder, of delivering more, of saving the world, strikes me the way it probably strikes you when it’s late and you finally just got the kids into bed and there are smeared dishes tottering in the sink. Ridiculous, right? Nuts. But the price of inaction is too high…we’re all we’ve got. Nobody else is going to do it. All we’ve got to be willing to do is drop to our knees over and over again like the godfather of soul-over and over again-until we no longer wince, until we no longer notice the scars. I will Dare. There it is right? A way to keep things from sucking. Dare.
Dare. That’s the miracle Joey Ramone gave U2 and the miracle U2 gave me. The courage, the inspiration, and the soundtrack to dare, to give a shit, to care, to love, to try, to live even though the world can be full of pain and war and crazy and injustice because there is also love and kindness and compassion and peace and justice. And that’s also why I cried. Twice. During Gloria and 40 (neither of which have made the set list too often for a number of years now, so another grace and gift).
Gloria was the first song the first band I was in learned to play as a band. I was overcome emotionally, out of nowhere, like crossing the street and being hit by a car I didn’t see coming. “Gloria in te domine, gloria exultate. Oh Lord, loosen my lips.” – I don’t believe in God the way the Christians who originally wrote this do. I’m a theist in the most generous way imaginable, in that I have a sense of, and respect and awe for, the underlying mystery and wondrous fabric of existence. And yet, Gloria knocked me over. Maybe it’s because God or no god, this is what we’re all called to do: speak (and live) our truth, even when difficult, even to the seemingly invincible powers of oppression.
The tears came again during 40. The psalmist(s) is probably the most accessible author of the Hebrew Scriptures. The psalms are so utterly human. The pain and the joy so completely on the surface. U2 used to end every single show with this song. Last night it was a treat. I hadn’t heard it live in years. Thirty years ago, during one week in the spring of 1985, I walked out into the New England night air in three different cities singing the refrain with thousands of others, not until the lights went on in the arena, but until we were walking through the streets of Worcester and Hartford and Providence. How long to sing this song? Thirty years and counting.
During Beautiful Day, the first song of the encore, Bono pulled a girl out of the front row. She was waving a sign I couldn’t read from my seat. When she got to the stage, Bono turned her around and her sign said “Best 13th birthday ever. One Love.” He sang happy birthday to her. What a beautiful day, indeed.