With or Without U2

‘Are you a U2 fan?’ is a question I’ve been asked so many times I’ve lost count. The question reads differently depending who I’m with. I shirk when asked in a certain circle of friends, those brought up on a diet of post-punk and indie rock that is particular. When in other circles it serves to open up a conversation. ‘Yes, but….’ I hear myself say. Or ‘it’s weird, because I listen to the older stuff a lot.’

I have so many memories of U2 it seems strange to say I’m not a U2 fan. It feels like exorcising a part of myself. And yet, to answer affirmatively jars with the fact I haven’t bought a new U2 record for at least twenty-five years, and haven’t gone to see the band live on any of their recent tours. So my relationship with U2 is what I’d call complicated. A few years ago, I stayed up late to watch the band headline Glastonbury on TV, and became increasingly unhinged as Bono crunched down on the stage like a ballerina while singing the truly ghastly ‘Vertigo.’ It was too much to bear. So it’s all the more incredible that last month I sat at my desk on a Monday morning at 9am, tapping my credit card details into the Ticketmaster app, ready to pay three hundred euros for tickets for The Joshua Tree 2017 gig. Ticketmaster reminded me of how hard they were working ‘behind the scenes’ until I was eventually informed that the gig was in fact sold out. I sighed, sometimes working tirelessly behind the scenes just isn’t enough.

I then had a brief a dose of call center sickness, having realised that the voice (or whatever) behind the scenes is really a simulated computer program designed to keep my frustrations at bay. Call center sickness comes from knowing no amount of silly and angry outbursts over the phone will change anything substantive in your life. And there’s a simple reason for this: those we complain to and get angry with are victims of the same Kafka-infused bureaucracy as ourselves. ‘I’ll run it by a superior, and if tickets become available you’ll be the first to hear,’ a voice says, both of us knowing that no tickets will be available and no call be made to me, EVER. But we go through the motions anyway, in the pretense that cordial intercommunication might make a difference, knowing, implicitly, that it won’t change a thing.

I miss out on the tickets and begin reasoning that I never really wanted them in the first place. The gig is on the day after my son’s birthday, and I’d be hamstrung in getting to the gig. These commemorative gigs are money-spinning endeavours, designed to extract as much cash from the consumer/fan as possible. That the concert is sold out means destiny, fate, intervened. Better to hold on to the memory of being in Croke Park in 1987 as a 13 year old with my Dad and my sister, than attempt to relive the experience in 2017. Of course, in ‘87 bombs were going off across the UK, news was breaking on a daily basis of killings in the North. Bono’s embrace of the tricolour at the Croke Park gig was, I recall, a political and moving act. But now, he’ll probably go on about Trump or Brexit. ‘Do I really want to hear a sermon from the pulpit of Croke Park? The voice in my head asks. ‘No!’ I whisper to myself, ‘Thank you Ticketmaster.’

But none of this seems to work. I want to go because I was there in ‘87 with my Dad, and attending the 2017 concert will commemorate that. I remember sitting in the lower Cusack Stand, as a boy and girl embraced passionately behind me, feeling teenagerly uneasy. We had driven up from the country to Dublin and I knew that I was lucky to be there at my age. I don’t think I saw anyone else my age there that day. By attending the 2017 concert, I would be paying homage to that day. Maybe I would bring Anton, who is, after all, the same age as I was thirty years ago. In the days that follow my failed attempt at buying tickets on that morning, I begin listening over and over again to The Joshua Tree, I stare at the mesmerising cover photo for the album, and I try, as hard as I can to banish all legitimate reason for liking it. ‘It’s dated Dadrock,’ that voice declares again. ‘Let’s face it Dara, this isn’t really your cup of tea anymore, is it? But it’s not working. By the time ‘With or Without You’ plays, I recall vividly the first time I heard the album. I’m thirteen years old and I’m lying on a bed in the Grove hospital in Tuam, having just had my appendix out. I ran home the day before from playing football at school, to lie on the couch while burping up the most insidious odour, thinking I had some bizarre stomach bug. My Mum and Dad returned and guessing I had an issue with my appendix rang their surgeon friend and asked if he could visit.

The next day, having been operated on and awoken from an anesthetic induced slumber, I turn on my side and see my parents slowly come into focus. We talk about the operation and the usual things and then my Dad takes two tapes out of his pocket, one of which is The Joshua Tree, the other Men and Women by Simply Red (‘Money’s Too Tight to Mention’ had rustled by newly teenage feathers). Later that night I take out my yellow Sony sports Walkman, and listen to The Joshua Tree straight through, and the album, whether I want it to or not, becomes intricately tied to the onset of my teenage years. Even now, as I listen to the album again, thirty years later, I can see all too clearly why it left this mark on me. So many of the songs are infused with desire, the rush of chasing something we can’t quite seem to grasp. It begins with ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ with Bono shining a light on desire, the sensual delight in constant striving, and the idealism of ‘I believe, in the Kingdom Come, When all the colours with bleed into one’ feeds into the fully affirmative ‘yes, I’m still running.’

It doesn’t surprise me that ‘With or Without You’ is the most popular U2 song on Spotify, because its lyrical potency always brings me back to lying in that hospital bed. ‘My hands are tied, my body bruised….nothing left to lose’ Bono sings, as if speaking directly to me at that time. I feel a shudder, an affect. It’s 1987, Ireland is in recession, emigration is most young people’s only option of employment, and the blackspot of Tuam, my hometown, is awash with the desire of youth: the yearning to chase and dream. I don’t care what U2 became, or what they might stand for today, because that night in the hospital I had an encounter, plain and simple. I felt as if the entirety of The Joshua Tree was offering me a gateway to the wider world: the dried up deserts of the Americas, the war-torn economies of South America, the beaten up mining valleys of Wales, and the heroin-infused tenements of inner city Dublin.

The Joshua Tree, because it came to me in tape form, although I would own the album on vinyl later, has always been an album of two sides: the more overt and direct A side, with the more poetic and subtle meanderings on the B Side, to which I am now more drawn. Today, when I listen to ‘Running to a Stand Still’ I think of the news reports in the ‘80s of the heroin epidemic in Dublin, and the association that formed in my mind with the impoverished and destitute. The girl who is ‘Running to a Stand Still’ will always summon in my mind the desolate grip of addiction, and the song brings all the yearning and desire summoned earlier on the album to a shuddering halt. To talk without speaking, and to scream without raising your voice, is a perfect image of the repression that exists on the other side of teenage desire, repression that is also the focus of the next song. ‘Red Hill Mining Town’ is a song about the mining strike that marked British History so directly in the ‘80s. Few of us who lived through the ‘80s can forget the nightly TV reports on the strikes, and Thatcher’s incessant desire to break the will of these soon to be impoverished masses that would come to represent the changes in political economy across the West: the rise of neoliberalism.

Bono focuses now on the families who have been turned against one another, replacing the emphasis on yearning with the need to maintain and hold what we have. While the first half of the album is about desire, the focus now turns to love. ‘Love, slowly stripped away,’ Bong sings, in a reference to the integral bond that keeps workers together. Love is also a reference for once secure families; broken by the intensity of the strike between worker and state. In both songs, the influence of postpunk echoes out (that golden era of inventiveness and social activism Mark Fisher has called the pinnacle of popular modernism). The thrust of Joy Division’s sublime ‘No Love Lost’ finds a subtle echo in ‘Running to a Stand Hill’ (as well as ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’), however much infused by the Americana the band uncovered while touring the US. Ian Curtis’s talk of inserting that needle slowly into the body is mirrored in the story of a young heroin(e) addict in ‘Running to a Stand Still,’ encouraging the listener to forge an empathy with her. In addition, the punk folk of Billy Bragg, which draws on the protest song as a source of inspiration, reverberates in ‘Red Hill Mining Town,’ this time however, in less partisan form, the song focusing almost entirely on emotion.

The Joshua Tree begins with energy and zest. It ends, however, with a melancholic lament for the dead: children who have disappeared without trace. As I hold the album cover in my hand, I remember the curiosity I felt when I first saw the photo that adorns the front of the album: the work of photographer Anton Corbijn. Corbijn is the portal through which I came to appreciate the photograph as an artform in the ‘80s, around the most iconic portrait and band photography of that period. Corbijn’s shot for the front of the album is mesmerizing in its simplicity; one side of the frame is given over to the band, the other, the wide-open spaces of the desert. Bono is the only member of the band whose face is turned to the side, so we only see a side angle. I remember having heated discussions about the significance of this stance in the midst of the Troubles, when some argued that Bono makes direct reference to Padraic Pearse in his stance, suggesting, in no uncertain terms, his solidarity with him. This time, however, the stance is suggesting that revolutionary change can take place through art, and the healing that Ireland requires as a country should be sought in art.

Whether or not this is true, or has any relevance today, is, of course, a matter of opinion. Yet years later, when I stood in a delivery ward, and agreed, with my wife Ylva, that we were calling our first son Anton, I often think that a part of that album cover, that lay dormant within me, was making its presence felt. Because the name Anton resonates with my discovery of music and art, when the two come together to remind us of a yearning sometimes called youth, other times, freedom.

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