U2 Uses Mysterious Brush With Death to Defend the Idea of America 

My wife, known here and on my social media as the goddess, has saved my life yet again; she took me to the U2 Innocence and Experience Tour 2018 five times.

Yeah, five concerts, same band, same show.

Five times gave me the gift of studying U2’s show and thinking about their intent. From what I see, U2 delivered a novel, repurposing songs to reflect chapters of their “hero’s journey” (a phrase actually projected during this multi-sensory tour de force), even naming one (“This chapter is called ‘Vertigo’, appropriately,” says Bono, “since it is the time in the story when the band lost its mind”). and what a classic it was.

Amazingly, U2 presents an Irish myth of four lads overcoming all odds to realize a dream, nearly squandering it, and fighting to get it back, earning wisdom along the way. But it is also a Great American Novel about the Idea of America and how we may be killing it via petty infighting and the exact distractions that nearly killed the band, with a climax that shows fellow immigrants calling us all, left and right, Conservative and Liberal to remember what makes the Idea of America worth working together to save.

All in one impressive two-hour show.

And like most classic tales, this story starts en medius res, in the middle of things, namely in an MRI chamber.

“Breathe in. Breathe in,” a voice asks. “Exhale…. thank you.” And then a blast of mechanical doom as a simulated MRI machine slams through the arena, as frightening for us as it must have been for Bono during his mysterious recent “brush with death.”

On an arena-spanning screen we see ominous brain scans. And then the enormous screen rises to reveal Bono alone, quietly lit as one might imagine it would be when one is facing the Pearly Gates and awaiting that crucial meeting with St. Peter. Here he stands in the center of the arena (Madison Square Garden, among others on this tour), a thin band of light gliding over him at intervals a la an MRI, singing “Love is All We Have Left” blissfully, and so very still.

Love, love is all we have left

You argue ’cause you can’t accept

Love is all we have left

A disembodied, angelic falsetto (The Edge, arguably always a voice in Bono’s consciousness) sings
Hey, this is no time not to be alive.

The suggestion of final moments, maybe even an out of body experience, is there. Whether he is speaking personally or metaphorically is a discussion for after the show.

Bono is then consumed by the looming screen, and the band comes to crackling, booming life within it, appearing in flashes of electricity not unlike defibrillator shocks as they perform “The Blackout”. Here the narrative doubles more palpably, simultaneously commenting on Bono’s mysterious near death experience and American current events:
Statues fall, democracy is flat on its back, Jack

We had it all, and what we had is not coming back, Zac

A big mouth says the people, they don’t wanna be free for free

The blackout, is this an extinction event we see

“Lights of Home” follows, with more cryptic allusions to fatality:
I shouldn’t be here ’cause I should be dead

I can see the lights in front of me

That is as straight up as Bono gets, with one exception later on in the song:
I thought my head was harder than ground

I can see the lights in front of me

The chorus suggests his coming back from a near-trip to The Undiscovered Country, but it also serves to suggest a possible “life flashing before his eyes” moment. So many of us have had similar stresses  from the chaotic news cycles of recent times our own spirits have been challenged.

The band now takes us back to the beginning, to their punk roots, with their breakout song, “I Will Follow”, the first of many musical and spoken references to the driving force in Bono’s life; the loss of his beloved mother, Iris, at age 14. 

In this first hit, he speaks of searching for her, and later he mentions the hurt of her name never being mentioned in the house where he grew up with his widower father. Bono sings about both his mother “Iris” and his home on “Cedarwood Road”. She and a house holding two damaged people, father and son, created the wound that Bono would spend the rest of his life trying to heal through his art:
If the door is open it isn’t theft

You can’t return to where you’ve never left

Blossoms falling from a tree

They cover you and cover me

Symbols clashing, bibles smashing

Paint the world you need to see

And sometimes fear is the only place

That we can call our home

Cedarwood Road

And a heart that is broken

Is a heart that is open

Open, open

Here the band examines its own roots while inviting us to do the same (Bono literally says as much) and also setting the groundwork to have us consider how we define home these days, an uniquely American challenge we are currently struggling with once again. 

Yes, in 2018, Americans are uncomfortable with “the other” all over again. From Native Americans to African slaves to the Irish, Italians, Jews, Japanese, and so many others, each new group to these shores (for the record, Native Americans were here first and Africans were dragged here in chains) were treated as monsters, as suspect, as a threat, as criminals (Sadly, most brown people still are) while the Idea of America beckoned them here with a promise of hope, a chance to become what they dreamed of being. 

The challenge of becoming can be overwhelming whether you an angry Irish youth living in a home shattered by heartbreaking loss or a South American mother and daughter fleeing dangers in their birth country, and an animated flood at the end of “Cedarwood Road” evokes that … And the dark times descend.

“Sunday Bloody Sunday” is played as a solemn dirge confronting the darkness of U2’s youth and calling for justice for the victims as the band members stand spread across the arena, illuminated by their country’s colors and below projected animation of their country and community being torn apart by The Troubles. It is impossible to pay attention to this performance and Larry Mullen Jr.’s drumming leading up to the exploding of three car bombs on the giant screen and not think of the violence visited upon these shores in recent years. School shootings, club shootings, street shootings of African American men, and other evils have plagued us in the time of U2. Troubles, indeed. 

It is almost as if our country is possessed…

 …creating a perfect time for the return of Macphisto.

Following “Sunday Bloody Sunday” an animated cartoon recounts a twist in the band’s heroes’ journey, as they are gifted with talents beyond their dreams, advised not to lose who they are, immediately ignore that advice in favor of material indulgences … And fall from grace, “losing their minds”, according to Bono, to their “Desire”.

Enter MacPhisto, Bono’s demonic incarnation who hasn’t been seen since the Pop Tour of th late ’90’s. It is fitting that Macphiso emerges on the immense screen via a social media filter, relishing how we are tearing each other apart on social media, on the streets, and most definitely in Washington. He delights in how we have succumbed to the illusion that serving the left or the right is more important than defending the Idea of America, howls his surprise at how easily we’ve put children in cages, and seems to have completely possessed Bono and subverted the band…and then the U2 spirit fights its way out, and U2 becoming the truth tellers and America lovers they have always been:

Don’t believe what you hear

Don’t believe what you see

If you just close your eyes

You can feel the enemy…
Broadcast across the dominating screen through a scratchy, sketchy filter, it is as if the conscience of the band is fighting through all the noise of today’s social media trolls and 24-hours news stations’ talking heads. As Larry, Adam Clayton, and The Edge create a sonic maelstrom, Bono defies his Macphisto side despite “the baddass hat” and glammish eye make-up, calmly intoning encouragement to a reeling America:
And I must be an acrobat

To talk like this

And act like that

And you can dream

So dream out loud

And you can find

Your own way out

And you can build

And I can will

And you can call

I can’t wait until

You can stash

And you can seize


And I can love

And I can love

And I know that the tide is turning ’round

So don’t let the bastards grind you down

U2 has always practiced two traditions; undercutting their sincerity with self-deprecating humor and repurposing their music to make social commentary. They do both here with “Staring at the Sun” which they claim not to remember writing and not to know what it is about while recounting that it was written when Ireland’s Good Friday Peace Accords seemed endangered by a few “willing to go blind” to the importance of progress.

Sound familiar?

Building on the drama of “Acrobat”, the comparably calm “Staring at the Sun” is paired with footage from one of America’s most recent low moments, Charlottesville. Scenes of white supremacists with tiki torches give way to KKK demonstrations with angry whit people clearly screaming”White Power!” The scenes grow more violent as Bono stretches out the last line about being “willing to go blind” and the grabs a bullhorn painted to evoke the American flag. He points to the images and bellows:


A familiar beat arrives like the calvary, and the entire arena leaps to its feet.

In a dramatic cut to the opening chords of the next song, the klan and neo-nazis are replaced by the Reverand Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.

The arena erupts, faith and hope saved from the nightmare grind of modern history. MLK merges with modern protests marches, and the band’s message is clear: America can be its own savior if we wake up to who we truly are and defend the Idea of America.

The remainder of the show celebrates “American Soul” and our beautiful potential as a “City of Blinding Lights”. Bono gently insists that “there is no Us vs. Them, there is only US” (the word evoking our country’s name, of course), and reminds us we are “One”.

It does not escape us what those lyrics say. Yes, they evoke an attempted reconciliation between hurt lovers, but in the context of this show, they also can be reread as a desperately needed conversation between the disparate, warring sides of our America:
Is it getting better, or do you feel the same?

Will it make it easier on you, now you got someone to blame?

You say one love, one life, when it’s one need in the night.

One love, we get to share it

Leaves you baby if you don’t care for it.

Did I disappoint you or leave a bad taste in your mouth?

You act like you never had love and you want me to go without.

Well, it’s too late tonight to drag the past out into the light.

We’re one, but we’re not the same.

We get to carry each other, carry each other… one

Have you come here for forgiveness,

Have you come to raise the dead

Have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head

Did I ask too much, more than a lot

You gave me nothing, now it’s all I got.

We’re one, but we’re not the same.

Well, we hurt each other, then we do it again.

You say love is a temple, love a higher law

Love is a temple, love the higher law.

You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl

And I can’t be holding on to what you got, when all you got is hurt.

One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should.

One life with each other: sisters, brothers.

One life, but we’re not the same.

We get to carry each other, carry each other.

One, one. 

The final two songs serve as reminders performed to give us strength and return us home renewed and perhaps reborn into the innocent belief that the potential for love inside each of us can save the Idea of America. We are told that “Love is Stronger Than Anything in its Way” and that ” There is a Light”:

A And if the terrors of the night

Come creeping into your days

And the world comes stealing children from your room

Guard your innocence 

From hallucination

And know that darkness always gathers around the light

If there is a light

We can’t always see

If there is a world

We can’t always be

If there is a dark

Now we shouldn’t doubt

And there is a light

Don’t let it go out


When the wind screams and shouts

And the sea is a dragon’s tail

And the ship that stole your heart away

Sets sail

When all you’ve left is leaving

And all you got is grieving

And all you know is needing

If there is a light

We can’t always see

If there is a world

We can’t always be

If there is a dark

Now we shouldn’t doubt

And there is a light

Don’t let it go out

‘Cause this is a song

A song for someone

Someone like me

I know the world is done

But you don’t have to be

I’ve got a question for the child in you before it leaves

Are you tough enough to be kind?

Do you know your heart has its own mind?

Darkness gathers around the lights

Hold on

Hold on

There is a light

We can’t always see

If there is a world

We can’t always be

If there is a dark

That we shouldn’t doubt

And there is a light

Don’t let it go out

And this is a song

A song for someone

This is a song

A song for someone

Someone like me

Someone like me

Someone like me

Bono actually lifts a light -a bare light bulb hanging from an electrical wire like he had in  to light his childhood bedroom- from a model of that childhood home. He releases it and lets shine out to the audience even as he disappears amongst us, his journey through experience to a more informed innocence complete, ours just begun.

Let’s go….

About chrisryanwrites

I do my best to tell fast-paced stories with humor and heart. My fiction work is available on amazon.com. Here, I’ll write about the sources for those stories from what I read, watch, listen to, and observe to my experiences as a former award-winning journalist, high school teacher, actor, and producer.
This entry was posted in America, Music, politics, pop culture, Spirituality, U2, U2 Innocence and Experience Tour 2018, writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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