Saturday, June 25, 2011

My Favorite U2 Story

As the excitement builds here in Nashville over U2’s July 2nd appearance (their first since playing MTSU in ’87), I’ve been reminiscing about one of my favorite concert experiences from the sixteen times I have seen this stellar band.

It was early spring of 1985, and The Unforgettable Fire Tour was sweeping across America, much like the burgeoning sales of the album of the same name. Fueled by the massive success of “Pride: In the Name of Love” on MTV and radio waves, the band’s popularity was moving well beyond the collegiate market. That single, an ode to the power of activism draped in love, was given more focus than any previous U2 song that had addressed the same theme because it was about the ideologies of a single man: Martin Luther King, Jr.

Upon arriving at the Omni Arena in Atlanta with a carload of friends from central Tennessee, I needed to verify if we were to get our backstage passes. I went to a bank of pay phones outside the coliseum to call my contact inside the building. While I was placed on hold, I turned to the person who was trying to make a call to my right. I say person, because for a few moments, I couldn’t tell if it was a girl or a guy. Wearing bib overalls, combat boots, blackened nails, heavy black eye liner, dozens of piercings about the eyebrows, nose, lips, tongue, and ears, sporting a 15 inch black-spiked Mohawk with shaved sides and tattoos too numerous to count covering neck, temples, arms, and Lord knows where else. This was one fierce looking soul.

As they were fumbling to find sufficient change, I offered a few quarters. Establishing eye contact, my gesture was met with a grunt, and the coins were grabbed out of my hand without the slightest hint of gratitude. I love to “people watch,” and was fascinated. I finally realized this was woman, perhaps early twenties, when she began to talk with the person on the other end of the receiver. I didn’t want to appear to be eavesdropping while I was still on hold—but I could tell she was vexed about something. A few times our gazes would meet, and she would glare at me as if I was representative of everything she scorned.

She was growling numerous invectives towards her caller and her circumstance, and then she was placed on hold. I asked if everything was OK, and she just frowned intensely and turned her back.

She wore her anger not only on her sleeve, but on and in her skin. I wondered if all the pain she went through to make these statements even came close to what she really felt even deeper. She didn’t have to say “I’m pissed and fuck you for noticing”…her entire being radiated it.

As I continued to wait, I thought, how on earth can anyone break through with someone this distraught with themselves and their lives? We are all given numerous divine appointments each day to show something of Christ within us to others, or for Him to reveal Himself to us through someone else. Even though this woman was a complete stranger, and she rejected my meager efforts to be kind, my heart went out to her. I prayed something along the lines of “Lord, I know you love this girl. But she sure is making it hard for anyone else to. Whatever you can do to reach her, please do it…she seems so mad at everyone, and I’m afraid she’s even angrier with herself. Please help her, ‘cause I sure know I can’t.”

Finally my band management contact got back on line, and I finished my business. The punk chick resumed her argument on the phone, and I nodded at her one final time as our eyes locked. Once again, she growled and turned around.

Upon returning to my group about twenty feet away, several mentioned they had never seen such an intense looking person in all their lives. I concurred and, to my chagrin now, condescendingly laughed that “only God could reach someone like that.”

After a great opening set from Lone Justice, U2 proved they were indeed ready for the transition from theaters to massive structures. The starkest of light shows gave all the more power to Bono’s gift of breaking down that invisible wall between performer and audience. The crowd was on their feet for the duration, bopping along, dancing, pogoing, and swaying, holding lighters aloft by the thousands during “MLK.” And singing--Lord Almighty, were we singing. Many times louder than the band’s tens of thousands of watts could produce.

The band seemed particularly energized by special guest Coretta Scott King, Martin’s widow, that evening. She had hosted them at his Peace Center and her home earlier that day. It was obvious they wanted to show her their best as a way of honoring her husband’s legacy.

Bono had flown his father, Bob, over from Dublin for this gig, too. It turned out it was his birthday, and he wanted his dad to celebrate it for the first time outside of Ireland. Bono even introduced him to the audience at the same time as Coretta King as they sat by the soundboard in the center of the hall, and they were warmly greeted by the diverse concoction that made up the gathering.

About an hour into their set, Bono shared one of the most heart-felt introductions I’ve ever heard from him:

“We are so humbled that so many of you came out to see us tonight. No one thought we could fill 4,000 seats at the Civic Center here last year; let alone what has happened tonight. We are so thankful to be this little rock band with a dream. We come from the lower middle class in Dublin, and while we’ve been so blessed with success, we know that many of our friends are still stuck in bad situations back home.”

“Take my mate, Benny, for instance. Benny was the smartest kid in our neighborhood. Good lookin’ too. He got all the girls. Funny. Even a way better singer than me. But, like so many in a country torn by political strife and an unforgiving economy, Benny just didn’t catch a break like we did. He’s been struggling with unemployment for the last few years. His confidence was shot. Benny, who had once been so full of life, was now giving in to depression…anger...resentment. He had given up hope. He started getting involved in booze, and other shit that sucks all hope out of your soul.”

“A few weeks ago, Benny had his 23rd birthday. We were all hoping it would help get him out of his funk. Unfortunately, his girlfriend gave him just enough heroine---as his gift---to kill him. This is for Benny. This is “Bad”.”

Edge began the contemplative, pulsing staccato tones that frame the building emotion of one of U2’s most powerfully empathetic songs, and Bono began the painful recollection of his friends’ plight as he sang…

If you twist and turn away
If you tear yourself in two again
If I could, yes I would
If I could, I would let it go
Surrender, dislocate

If I could throw this lifeless
Lifeline to the wind
Leave this heart of clay
See you walk, walk away
Into the night
And through the rain
Into the half-light
And through the flame

If I could through myself
Set your spirit free
I'd lead your heart away
See you break, break away
Into the light
And to the day

If you should ask then maybe
They'd tell you what I would say
True colors fly in blue and black
Bruised silken skies and burning flack
Colors crash, collide in blood shot eyes

If I could, you know I would
If I could, I would let it go

This desperation
In temptation

Let it go, uh-huh
And so fade away….

Bono’s yearning wail hearkened to those thoughts of the Apostle Paul, who longed so deeply for his readers when he claimed he’d be willing to take on their infirmities, doubts, and fears in order for them to find freedom in God’s acceptance and grace. As the song was churning upward into one of its many crescendos, Bono held his hand behind him to signal the band to bring the volume down, quietly vamping on the rhythm and chord changes as he paced the stage.

He was looking for someone—he wasn’t sure whom—but he was surveying the crowd. Many on the main floor had their arms outstretched as if to say “Me! Pick me!” He suddenly stopped his search and pointed towards a cluster of people about seventy feet from the stage and signaled for a particular person. The crowd grabbed a guy, and hoisted him up and were going to “hand pass” him over the sea of people to the stage.

Bono wildly signaled No! No!...not that one. Then pointing again as if to say Yes, THAT one! Suddenly, pushed up over the throng, I saw a spiky punk. As she was being shuttled by enthusiastic hands towards the stage, I looked at my friends down my row, and we all simultaneously said, “it’s that punk girl from outside at the pay phones!”

Once she was pushed up over the barricades onto the stage, it became apparent to everyone in the building that Bono had chosen the most undesirable person he could find. Someone that most would turn away from. Someone who would choose that alienation as opposed to being vulnerable.

As the band continued playing the throbbing riff over and over, Bono took her by the hand, meekly whispered in her ear, and then, like a complete gentleman on prom night, he began to slow dance with her—his right arm around her back, and the other holding her right arm aloft so sweetly. Slow, unhurried, tiny lock steps between the two moved them in a small circle. She slipped her arms around his shoulders and leaned into his neck. He embraced her so tenderly, and they rocked quietly back and forth to the somber beat. After about thirty seconds, it became obvious that she had started crying…her shoulders heaving, her whole body vibrating in deep sobs. She was now leaning heavily into Bono, and he kept them gently swaying.

I looked through flooded eyes at others in my row. All of my friends were crying, too. I looked behind me to see people wiping their cheeks and chins. I surveyed everywhere around, and it was the same. I looked out to the sound/light riser where Bono’s dad and Mrs. King were seated, and they were weeping and dabbing their faces with handkerchiefs. It is twenty-six years later, and I’m still reduced to tears as I type this.

That was one of the holiest moments I have ever experienced. The crowd, which had been a surging cacophony of rock celebration just a few minutes earlier, was utterly hushed—enraptured by this redemptive dance.

After perhaps another minute, Bono stopped their movement, and placed his hands on her shoulders, holding her out at arm’s length in a strong, admiring, kind gaze. Again he pulled her close and whispered into her ear. Having gotten to know Bono during those early tours, and from what I gleaned from other associates who know him well, I imagine he told her something along the lines of “You know, you don’t have to try so hard. I love you, and so does Jesus. There are others who want to love you. Let ‘em…it’ll be alright.”

He then took her hand like she was royalty, and led her regally over to the side of the stage where he instructed the stage manager to get her safely back to her seat. The charismatic singer turned to Edge, Larry, and Adam cranked his fist several times and they launched headlong back into the primary rhythm. He exclaimed with all the power he could muster, and we joined in full-throated accompaniment…

Let it go
And so fade away
To let it go
And so fade, fade, fade away

I'm wide awake
I'm wide awake
I'm not sleeping
Oh, no no

This wasn’t a dream. We witnessed God in action. We all sang along through tear streaked faces, many of us with a catch in our throat. But we did sing. I believe the Holy Spirit was so thick in the Omni that night that you could almost reach out and touch it.

God most certainly did something wonderful for that girl. I often wonder how her life changed from that point forward. As for the other 17,000 in the arena, I wonder if they are still impacted by that moment as I am.

As for me, I do know this—I will never forget how God reminded me that even the most off-hand prayer that I offer can sometimes have dramatic consequences. He wanted me to know that even half-hearted intercessions for strangers are sometimes part of the fuel needed for His redemptive energy to spark into action. I need to remember this always.

It was indeed a divine appointment that I will treasure. It causes me to be wide awake—not sleeping—in anticipation of what He can and will do if I make myself available.

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