It was cool. It was a big Happening with flashing lights, lots of color, inspiration, 100,000 people screaming along in unison, moved by the pure ... spectacle of it. If we were in North Korea, these songs would have been about the Supreme Leader and we would have been flashing colored placards in unison rather than putting on masks of Aung San Suu Kyi or waving our cell phones in the air. The comparison fails for any number of reasons, but it is true that when you stick this many people with a shared enthusiasm into the same space, the power of it is overwhelming — and can be a little scary.
But we’re in America at the gosh dang Rose Bowl, so the big-ticket mass happening is not trippy North Korean dancers but an Irish rock band with a charismatic lead singer, beautifully enormous love songs, a BlackBerry sponsorship and a lot of money to put on a high-tech, power-sucking extravaganza that delivers a noble and honest message of peace. Songs from the heart, to the People, for the People. To heal them. To inspire them. Everything is going to be all right.
Cynicism aside, we do need larger-than-life rock stars, and Bono’s good at that job. Even if some of us prefer our lead singers with a little more natural-born swagger, he’s an effective messenger: handsome, tuneful, personable, dedicated, smart and funny (he described himself last night as a combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito with a little bit of Dennis Hopper tossed in). What he lacks in funk, he more than makes up for in enthusiasm. Bono thinks BIG. He thinks BEAUTIFUL — which is the noblest of causes — and somehow avoids the platitudinal. Barely.
Maybe it’s the sunglasses. They exude detached gravitas. Standing in a circle-within-a-circle stage beneath a four-legged spider thingy that looked like the main terminal at LAX (U2 was situated where the luggage pickup is), Bono controlled the Rose Bowl. He was a master of a grand human orchestra. He lifted an arm, we lifted an arm. He waved it in the air, we waved ours. He demanded we sing an entire verse of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and we did so pitch-perfectly (more or less). He ran laps around the vast track that surrounded the stage, which added an extra dimension of U2 access, and we were impressed. He sang. He SANG. HE SANG!
Up above, a 360-degree video screen projected images of the band performing. Despite the fact that the band was right there onstage, our eyes were drawn to the screen, which offered so much movement and eye candy. One of the things, in fact, that U2 realize is that onstage they aren’t too naturally charismatic. Without all the bells and whistles, they stand there and play their instruments. Adam Clayton is no Flea, as far as getting into it is concerned. The Edge’s inclination is to stand in the shadow of Bono. Larry Mullen Jr. is a great rock drummer, one of the best ever, but he’s busy. And Bono is more a football coach than a choreographer. He delivers his songs with more muscle than grace, and where a Mick Jagger, Steven Tyler, Alison Mosshart or Thom Yorke get into bona fide grooves, Bono is much stiffer.
So with all that shit going on visually, it’s hard to concentrate on the music. The accordion-bending jumbo video tube was amazing. Movie cameras were everywhere filming everything. Pixelated chaos on a grand scale. So much visual stimuli that those with A.D.D. among us might have found it tough to let the music sink in. At a club or a midlevel theater it’s easier. But in a football stadium it felt like the information that everyone else was receiving from the Big Spider was being sent on a frequency that barely made it to my pleasure receptors. Like listening to Miami bass on a transistor radio.
But when the songs hit, they hit. “Beautiful Day” was thrilling, this primal burst of glorious momentum wrapped in a Zen message and one of the best choruses in rock. Last night it got me teary-eyed, a crystalline bullet into said pleasure dome. They kept coming. “Stuck in a Moment” was done acoustically, and exuded a grand magic. “The Unforgettable Fire” is one of my favorite U2 songs, this vast, open prairie of guitars and desire that carried through the Bowl like a surfer’s perfect wave. “Walk On,” which Bono dedicated to imprisoned Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was inspiring in all the right ways. “Where the Streets Have No Name” was pure power, the solid kind created by four musicians who have been playing rock & roll for the past 35 years and who are so in tune with each other’s rhythms that they are, nearly literally, One.
At their worst, U2 are all drive and inspiration without the swagger and sweat. They’re trying so damn hard that at times the rock gets lost inside the message. Great musicians, all of them. But there’s something that’s just so damned earnest about them, and it serves as a prophylactic. When I want to really rock, I want some direct dick-and-pussy action. I want Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith. But U2, bless their heart, always reach for the rubber.
Maybe it’s a personality type. Among the many different ways one can separate people into groups is this: arena/stadium people; and club people. Some like to gather with thousands and become one, enjoy music concerts as sporting events; others like to be in the same room breathing the same air and drinking the same drinks, and can only imagine truly losing themselves in the music when they can feel the heat of the amps. The distance, both physical and metaphorical, is too great in a stadium. It’s like the difference between watching porno and fucking. Porno happens on a screen, and you are very far away from the object of your desire. Fucking, well. ...
And if the U2 show at the Rose Bowl was like watching porno and not fucking, it was an amazing production that most certainly induced a lot of big O’s. A hundred thousand of them, give or take.