Friday, March 20: THE BIG DAY

“New York is something else again, ” The Edge explains, “It doesn’t matter to them how good you were in Florida or Charlottesville. This is where it counts.”

A large crowd of fans has assembled outside the hotel and Bono has gone for a walk. His security man has taken up a position behind a wall in Central Park where he can watch the hotel entrance without being noticed.

U2 refuse to compromise their humanity for the sake of security. They don’t wear disguises. They never leave hotels by the back door. They won’t tolerate guns and they won’t have their fans shoved about. Their security team  – all martial arts experts – practise what the band preaches. At every venue they ask the two front rows if they wouldn’t mind if they brought some of the smaller people at the back, up to the front when the show begins and people get out of their seats.

Bono returns without incident, Pausing to sign autographs outside. As we go in, he tells me about ‘Frank and Harry.’

“I’m one of those people who has to work at being nice,” he says, “if I’m feeling hassled I can become very nasty so I have to work hard at being someone else when I have to meet people. It’s a Frank and Harry situation.”IMG_4787 (1)

Yes, but which is which? I call, as he climbs the steps to the revolving doors. He looks back and smiles that wicked Shining grin and disappears inside the bug eyed shades.

A little later, Bono and The Edge are about to leave the hotel foyer for the soundcheck at Madison Square Garden. A camera crew is to accompany them, detouring five blocks to visit Times Square and film the pair of them under the Sony Jumbotron giant diamondvision screen which is relaying a subversive one minute Zoo TV melange, every seven minutes.

High above the US Armed Forces recruiting shop and the CNN newswire loop, The Fly suddenly explodes onto the screen in live footage and that Caesar’s Palace romper suit, then WATCH MORE TV and IT’S YOUR WORLD, YOU CAN CHANGE IT. A rotating minute of film on the 50 by 60 foot screen costs $3,000 a week.IMG_4260

A snip”, says McGuinness, as this seditious message bursts through the ether of the most decadent square mile in Manhattan. “I mean, we’re in New York all this week, playing Meadowlands and Madison Square Garden. We’re not really advertising because the shows are sold out. It’s just a way of recording that the band are in town and behaving badly.”

DOWN AT THE SHOW IT’S BECOMING INCREASINGLY CLEAR that Madison Square Garden carries extra baggage. Even the news of Phil and Katie’s return from their madcap Las Vegas wedding has failed to relieve the tension. The Edge hints darkly about bad, unspecified omens, “I just know something will go wrong,” he mutters.

Bono’s onstage roadie (and cousin), the affable AJ is almost bounced from the venue by the chief of security. AJ’s job is to make sure Bono doesn’t get snagged on any leads as he negotiates the stage’s various ramps and corridors.

The soundcheck is even more rigorous than usual. Larry’s brow is set in furrowed concentration. The Edge engages in some intense discussion with his guitar technician . Only Adam appears suitably nonchalant, a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth as he poses for a photograph.IMG_4262

The soundcheck’s also longer than usual, bringing it right up to the six o’clock union curfew, when everything’s switched off for an hour. The Pixies miss their chance of a soundcheck, entirely, though it’s not the first time and they’re not that bothered.

Showtime! King Boogaloo! From the narrow passageway beside the stage is the cowled figure of the High Priest of Happiness, resplendent in a long, black cloak with a dramatic portrait of Elvis Presley wearing a crown of thorns on the back. He comes leaping out of the darkness and he looks far from happy. Two rather heavy house security men are in hot pursuit to grab and manhandle the cloaked Beep as he makes his way offstage and U2 crank up to chug-a-lug out of Zoo Station.

Spitting curses, BP is in no mood for reconciliation and these guys have been itching for a stomping all evening. “He’s with the show,” I scream at the melee of fists, though it should be painfully obvious, even to a bouncer, that a gatecrasher in The Beep’s threads wouldn’t make it past the First Aid tent. “Fuck off, you c**ts,” adds the Beep, helpfully. Bono is onstage singing, “I’m ready, ready for the crush…”

Tensions about tonight’s show slowly melt away as the band go into overdrive. While Boston provided an emotional highlight and Meadowlands, the technical perfection of a great show, tonight’s show is the theatrical tour de force. Bono has found the combination of demonic, mocking wit and emotive conviction he’s been striving for all week. His characters – The Fly, The Street Kid, the Las Vegas Rock Star – are pitched with the correct blend of tingue in cheek parody and listing, out of control, menace. IMG_4259

The Edge is even dancing, grooving under the weight of all those FX pedals and the startling mini-studio backup, below stage.

We get The Fly, a thundering Even Better Than the Real Thing, Mysterious Ways, during which Christina, the tour belly dancer, dances on a small stage on the arena floor while Bono gestures forlornly for the unattainable – Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses, Trying to Throw Your Arms around the World, which Adam swears is about a man in Donegal who locks himself out of his house after a splendid binge in a local bar.

Bono lurches down the gangway during this, grabs the overhead camera and rubs it on his crotch, treating us to a giant sidescreen blow-up of this shiny, black leather protrusion. He pushes his trashy rock ‘n’ roll excess to the limit tonight and it works. Angel of Harlem follows on the tiny, low slung, sidestage. There’s a Sinatra-esque arrangement of Satellite of Love and a soaring, anthemic version of Bad, which has returned to the set as the last surviving tune from the ‘heart of darkness’ section of the past, but its message remains undiluted, uncompromising.

For Pride, images and the voice of Martin Luther King fill the vidiwalls and later, Bobby Kennedy as well as the ultimate three card trickster, Nixon. The finish is a howling maelstrom of stomping and cheering.IMG_4258

Bono emerges in the schlock two piece, shining and leering, stumbling. During Desire, the huge screens fill with the image of Phil Joanou and Katie Hymen exchanging vows in the Gracelands Chapel while behind them, the spangle suited ‘Elvis’ croons and rocks. Art imitating life imitating art.

I’M POSITIONED RIGHT BY THE STAGE EXIST TO THE BACKSTAGE AREA when the show’s over and the silver-laméd figure of Bono bursts through the fire curtain, pale, disorientated, gasping for air, a security man by his side to redirect his stumble toward the dressing room. The rest of the band look equally shagged but also relieved.IMG_4261

Later, back in the Ritz Carlton bar, everyone’s relaxing with wine and champagne. There was a small ‘special hospitality’ party backstage with Peter Gabriel, Kim Basinger, waterboy Mike Scott and a somewhat scruffy and bearded Bruce Springsteen in a long, green, military coat. I ask Adam what he thought of Kim Basinger and, surprisingly, get a muted response, “lovely girl but I wouldn’t go for her.”

He’s immensely relieved that the show’s gone well, “you can’t really do a bad show in New York because they don’t want to know how good you were, anywhere else.”

Bono’s slumped in the corner quietly observing, sipping a glass of champagne. I tell him he reminded me of a young prat I used to watch on occasional Saturday afternoons giving free concerts in the disused stable yard in Dublin’s Dandelion Market.

You’re right,” he smiles, “but back then I was doing the same thing…throwing up the absurdity of rock stardom. All our music began to be interpreted by journalists who wrote about the singles from the later albums. They didn’t look at the earlier stuff. For every one of those songs, there was another to balance it. The image they created was distorted.”

In the early days the lines between avant garde shock-rockers, The Virgin Prunes and U2 were often blurred, with members of each band crossing over. Perhaps Zoo TV was a return to the theatrical performances of those days?

“Very much so. We’re becoming more conscious of it and I can play around with it more and more as the shows progress.”

In the eye of the contradictions,” he smiles, “that’s where rock ‘n’ roll should be…”

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10 thoughts on “The REAL Thing #3

  1. I loved your capture of all the backstage craziness!

    It reminds me of a book by David Daniell, Coriolanus in Europe, that follows the RSC on its European tour of that play in 1979. Mike Hands was the director, the extraordinary Alan Howard had the lead roll and the Berlin Wall was still standing. Among other things, Daniell captured the backstage craziness of this huge production dynamically shifting stages. It is lofty praise from me. I love this book!

    Thanks for posting it, Dermott.

    • The photos are all mine, too. A little Canon Sureshot. No digital photography or cell phones, then. Thank you for your assessment of the article, Tanya. As I explained, it was written longhand, first, on a transatlantic red eye, then I had to type and fax it to London, as soon as I got to Dublin. I didn’t sleep for 48 hours and wrote it out of notes in a reporter’s notebook. The biggest problem was deciding what to leave out. For example, there were three days hanging out in New York, before the Madison Sq Gdn gig.

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