- 29 Mar 01
...or was it? U2's recent Irish dates were greeted with everything from wide-eyed adoration to open hostility. BILL GRAHAM was in the crowd at Pairc Uí Caoimh and the RDS and puts the Zoo TV experience into perspective. Pix: COLM HENRY
SOME DAYS, I'm a gardening correspondent. Other days, I write about golf and knitting. Supreme qualifications, as you can imagine, for my editor, who rang me up and sent me to the RDS to cover U2.
"U2" I said. "Those four boyos moulded and masterminded by the arch-guru, McGuinness?"
"The very same," he replied.
"Who for some uncanny reason are lucky enough to know Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington and who swilled a lot of silly conscience money over Sarajevo?"
"Exactly and I've got a special assignment for you."
"Well," he quipped good-naturedly with that playful hint of menace I'd learned to love, "if you don't want to spend the rest of your gainful life on the District Court roster, I want you to infiltrate the hospitality area and get a few pars from Mick Jagger . . .
"Whether he and Jerry Hall share the band's views on the Leaving Cert results."
Same as it ever was. Whenever U2 come out to play in Ireland, you have to hack through all the clutter that makes them ciphers, a blank screen on which everyone gets to scrawl their own preoccupations. What U2 do becomes far less important than what they are misleadingly believed to represent. In a media environment that believes The Rolling Stones are most significant because of their long associations with the Guinness family, rock becomes only a passport to fame and its parasites, a matter merely of money and its social connections. The state of Edge's marriage becomes far more important than his guitar-playing.
In other words, rock becomes a social battlefield for competing elites, a story of the hospitality suites - for further investigation, refer to "After The Race" in Dubliners - while the fans get excluded from the equation. Their love may be blindness but that doesn't equally mean that others' blindness is love.
So whenever U2 release an album or play a show, there's this unhappy reminder for some that rock, the mongrel, has become the top dog that's taken over the kennel and unsurprisingly there are those who prefer to examine its fleas. Rock gets trivialised exactly because there are those who account it a far more trivial pursuit than attending the latest unilluminating retread of Tchaikovsky at the National Concert Hall.
My apologies for that grumpy preface but you really do have to cut through the static before you can even start to evaluate Zoo TV because now that U2 have finally taken it to Ireland, you realise you're not only judging it in the context of rock, but also within Irish culture itself.
So what is Zoo TV? Perhaps the final white heat, supernova death of stadium rock spectacle, a bravely ridiculous effort to revitalise an impossible and paralysed form by a band who've decided to celebrate and unleash all the contradictions they now know they can't control?
Or a strangely flexible and inclusive validation of a new and only partially-formed Irish identity, achieved by throwing a party and pirating a backdrop from Steven Spielberg that neither Neil Jordan nor Jim Sheridan can afford?
Or a unique effort to take the avant-garde to all those who'll never attend an art gallery installation that in passing makes the point that Lou Reed is alive and well and not a conveniently dead hero, (blood) suckers?
Or even the return of Lypton Village to a deserted Gate Theatre of the seventies where Bono can't work out whether he's Gavin Friday or Michael MacLiammoir?
There is a difference from last year's indoor experience. In the great outdoors, there is some slight and predictable stiffening of the joints. At times Zoo TV does become less interactive, a far more reliably scheduled affair than any Irish Rail timetable. It's Saturday night, my third Irish experience of Zoo TV and I know Bono will close with his "Elvis is still in the Stadium" line. But likewise that "Zoo TV" is not set up for six or even two-timers but rather for the 90% of the audience who'll only catch it once.
And then, of course, there is the charge of inanely loitering in the vicinity of Nazi imagery. True, it can be argued that just about all use of Nazi imagery has become hackneyed and drained of any useful insight or purpose, an overly trite device to symbolise the dominance and submission ploys of stadium rock but any charges of intentional or unintentional flirtation with fascism are plain stupid.
Especially since these moments occur in their most explicit and radical political song, 'Bullet The Blue Sky'. Ku Klux Klan fiery crosses - and remember how in Central America, the Contras and their ilk were allied with right-wing fundamentalist sects - are, for twenty seconds, transformed into swastikas while the smaller screens, front-of-stage, carry the message "pray." Only the most oblivious wouldn't realise this is a comment about the dangers of death-dealing dogma.
Besides it's rich to simultaneously criticise U2 for both meddling with Nazi imagery and naively supporting Bosnians who are being reviled and purged as Muslim scum. But then if the Zoo TV experience is about confusing multiple realities, so often are the responses to it.
I get to see three shows from three different vantage-points. In Cork, I can't see all the video screens yet somehow feel the band are sometimes dwarfed, as if they're neutralised conductors of the energies released between the images and the audience's appetite.
The first RDS show is ideal. From the stands, I catch everything and marvel at Bono's ability to focus the show. But next night when I'm far from The Fly at the back of the pitch, my companion laughs and says: "This is the first time I've been to a drive-in since high school."
Backstage at Cork, the atmosphere was utilitarian not social. Albert Reynolds may be the guest of promoter, Oliver Barry but the U2 organisation is installed in a stockade of six basic white portakabins and there's no champagne bar in Paul McGuinness' quarters. Schmoozing is at a minimum and the inner circle flies back to Dublin immediately after the show. It all seems opulent until you think of the hotel and other expenses saved on a tour that has put all its investment into the technology.
At the start, U2 do really look as if they're going to be snowed under. From the stand, the audience seems to be gorging themselves on the hail of imagery and their own collective idea of U2 - which may not necessarily be that of the four small figures on stage who almost seem to be surrendering to all the million contradictory images of themselves. It's almost Kraftwerkian. U2, you momentarily think, could put four robots or impersonators on stage and watch "themselves" from the sound-desk.
Gradually you learn that, yes, there is real life on Planet Zoo Bono dedicates 'One' to "all the Irish workers in places where politics has not presented a solution," The Edge sears into 'New Year's Day' and 'Where The Streets Have No Name' and you just have to laugh at the audacity of the stroke of the duet with the heavenly presence of Lou Reed on 'Satellite Of Love'.
But is the spectacle so overloaded and saturated as to be ultimately devoid of meaning? Are we watching faith being sucked into the black hole of nihilism? Are U2 caught between their previous explicitness and their recent embrace of chaos? For me, each night, one song, one performance, 'Running To Stand Still' fights against those currents.
I admit my bias since it's my sentimental favourite U2 song, possibly because it's their best and most detailed Dublin song. The Edge has renewed it with a bluesy guitar figure but it's through Bono's addition that U2 make a stand amid and against all the Zoo TV chaos of sensation. At its end, he's singing "Hallelujah," still testifying to some hope and faith that needs not be Christian if that creed isn't your own. Then he gets drowned in pink and ochre smoke, symbols of re-baptism through the Holy Ghost or re-entry into the burning bush of salvation? I can't be categorical but only make my most personal interpretation of a moment that fuses both the old and the new U2 . . .
Back to Dublin and the social static. Like the inevitable pro-files of Paul McGuinness, the only member of the congregation the mainstream media believe they can begin to understand - though they also conveniently forget that, despite all his ability, he doesn't play drums, bass or guitar, sing or write their songs. For some, it remains far more culturally consoling to reinforce their elitism by thinking of U2 as his creation.
Still Thursday on the corner of Wicklow Street, I bump into Paul, Bono and American Musician editor, Bill Flanagan on their way to the studio. Later I call by, discover that even now U2 are still fiddling with tracks and leave a note. Three hours later, Bono, Flanagan and Gavin Friday drop by Whelan's to catch Katell Keineg.
Later I'll meet Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner and also Eileen Blackwell, sister of Island's Chris. Yes, she confirms, her late father, Major O'Malley-Blackwell really was the chieftain of the O'Malley clan. From the Clare Island of Grainne Mhaol to the Jamaica of Bob Marley, buccaneers still rule.
Friday afternoon, there's an extra show as from over half a mile away, I catch a pristine soundcheck. I can even hear them playing 'Babyface' and can only surmise it isn't included in the set for visual reasons. Walking to the RDS, the atmosphere is far from the stress of Croke Park, years ago when U2 were caught in the crossfire of the contradictions of the inner city and not those of Dublin 4.
Now U2 make their own brand of adult entertainment and Zoo TV claims for itself an artistic weight neither Michael Jackson nor Dire Straits make for their entertainments. It confuses exactly because U2 refuse the roles some would prefer to allot them, as they neither deliver predictable pop entertainment nor slim down to a more manageable scale of rock imagination.
It's also Lypton Village goes to Las Vegas, for there's echoes of the Virgin Prunes and Gavin Friday in both Bono's goose-stepping entry and the fruity grandiloquence of McPhisto. And yet they're still constrained by the demand for their greatest hits, with only two Zooropa songs on offer - 'Numb', backgrounded by footage of women armaments workers and 'Stay' which Bono, on Friday, cheekily announces as "a song Wim Wenders wrote for The Beatles, we're stealing it back."
Furthermore U2 haven't changed into nihilists. Despite 'The Fly', their liberal conscience is still a pest. On Friday, Bono prefaces 'One' by saying that there are many things "that cannot be said in public but the siege of Sarajevo is not one of them." They still pledge themselves to the ideals of Martin Luther King and want to transport their audience to the promised land. Receiving King and the cut-up logic of William Burroughs on the same channel can be not so much a sensory as a philosophical overload.
And yet it does fuse at the end. 'Love Is Blindness' powerfully summarises the whole Zoo TV experience, a song that works both as a personal statement and as a commentary on celebrity and the profanities of media politics. And is it just my imagination or do Eno's star-maps drifting across the vidiwall include both the constellations, Crux and Chameleon?
For the crux is that Zoo TV is a chameleon. You get the laughing gas from the video confessional, watch the planes flying overhead out to sea and wonder if U2 have made a special deal with Dublin Airport's flight controllers. You can be silly and hatch a foolish theory that just because they show footage of Bobby Moore and England's '66 World Cup victory, U2 are secret West Ham fans and then later feel strangely uneasy exactly because Zoo TV enigmatically refuses to point the way and is simultaneously both so meaningful and meaningless, a crazy quilt of patchwork visual sensations that becomes for every interpreter exactly what she or he wants it to be.
And of course, that is what every interpreter did. As U2 fought to transform not slay the monster of stadium rock which isn't so much a good or a bad but an unavoidable thing now that a mere six major record companies, all needing their superstars, girdle the globe. Now no U2 show can be small. It's a contradiction of the rules under which they're compelled to play and their status still causes problems of scale both for indie-oriented rock fans and for all those Irish culturati who'd much prefer to cheer artistic endeavour in any other damned form but rock.
Yet if Zoo T.V. is a spectacle, it must also perform other tasks. Rock is peculiar exactly because the expectations of its audience are so personalised. In any other art form, you're allowed create some distance between your work and your personality and your credibility need not be affected by your lifestyle. Nobody ever argues that Steven Spielberg's wealth detracts from his work or demands that he personally administer the sacraments but U2 must be both the directors and the focus of fantasy.
On one level, Zoo TV is no more and no less a mirror; on another a validation of unruly Irish energies; on another, a behemoth that bulldozed through the Irish media.
Somewhere there may be The Meaning of Life but U2 weren't giving away any secrets now that they're a non-prophet organisation.