On U2 and the Influence of Place

U2 are releasing a record or going on tour or, more probably, going on a promo tour, and that’s all fine or not fine or the very heart of all of the world’s problems, depending on where you stand on Irish stadium rock. There’s a lot about U2 that makes one groan: Bono’s Mavis-Staples-trapped-inside-an-Irish-white-genuflections; the numbing thumpity-thump of the bass and relentless sixteenth note drum patterns played by guys named Adam and Larry; the same parts of a band’s sound shuffled around to make new songs that don’t sound very new at all; and the Edge’s dark skull cap, although I realize that’s a stretch, because you’d probably wear one, too.

Still, way back in the dirty 80s, U2 played an enormously impactful role in my life. This was partly because, other than a few Canadian bands I knew, they were the first group that I identified as coming from a place: Dublin, Ireland. I knew about Dublin because of James Joyce, which I knew about because two of my York University TA’s were Irish. Before this, Ireland had never struck me as a destination, and I discovered later that, for a many years time, it wasn’t: instead of visiting Ireland, most people left it. U2 had left, too– coming to America to make it big as rock stars– but, during live shows, they made it clear that Dublin was where they lived, and where they’d return to. After playing “Out of Control” at Massey Hall, Bono said, “We’re an Irish band, we come from Dublin City, Ireland.” Before that point, I never thought it was important, as musicians, to tell people the name of the city you lived in, but it’s what the Rheostatics started to do. This led to a whole exploration of nationhood and self. We all know how that ended up.

U2’s songs were never my favourites, and the band’s albums haven’t left the shelf in awhile, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t important to me in other ways, which a funny thing about art and music: the idea can almost be as strong, or stronger, than the art itself. U2 stood for who they were as Dublin artists– because of them, Irish kids could sing Irish anthems without mimicking their ma and da’s tin whistle freedom songs– and there was a fearlessness in all of that, especially at a time when rock and roll was still mostly about New York, London, and LA. One of the greatest rock shows I’ve ever seen was U2’s homecoming “Unforgettable Fire” stadium show at old Croke Park in Dublin. What was great about it was that it wasn’t simply a victory lap or a coronation of a returning conquering band. Instead, the crowd– the local crowd, including a mass of the band’s neighbours, friends, family and classmate– started the set by doing something I’d never seen done in such huge numbers at a rock show: they stood there and listened. The Edge did that thing he does– a chiming echoing build until it could build no more– and, finally, when the drums kicked in to start “I Will Follow,” people leapt and screamed and roared with life. There I was– a Canadian kid in Dublin City away for the first time–  and so I roared with them, too.

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