remnants: all because of you - U2 Take Manhattan, November 22, 2004

this is a love song to the Who

remnants: all because of you - U2 Take Manhattan, November 22, 2004
I took this with a very small point-and-shoot camera I bought because it was so small I wouldn’t have any excuse to carry it with me at all times

Blast from the past, almost 20 years ago, the day U2 launched How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb in New York City by playing a ‘surprise’ gig under the Brooklyn Bridge.

This was the worst kept secret gig in the history of secret gigs. Apparently they wanted to play Washington Square Park but that got rejected, so instead they played Brooklyn Bridge Park. You had to request a ticket but after using every email address I had and still no ticket someone somewhere on the internet noted that they weren’t picking people above 40. I fudged my birthdate and voila, ticket.

For some reason I decided I should try to work that morning but I ended up in a pretty good spot, second row off to Adam’s side in front of the speaker stacks. The woman behind me complained endlessly that she couldn’t see anything1, the people in front of me kept trying to talk to Phil Joanou (who, I will point out, was working).

While we stood there waiting the band drove through Manhattan on the back of a flatbed truck, in a move straight out of the Stones announcing the 1975 tour (which is probably why U2 originally wanted Washington Square) from 125th Street to Lower Manhattan, across the Manhattan Bridge, and then down to the park. I was so mad I didn’t know about that because it would have been a lot more fun and there were a ton of fans who made that choice, including the guy who ran into a bodega, bought some cans of Guinness, and ran after the truck until he caught up and got Bono to take it.

I always think publishing these reruns are time-saving until I end up spending half a day pulling them together. And in this case I had to take a break because watching the footage made me burst into tears. I miss New York, I miss 2004, I miss a world in which U2 could do this and not have the entire city melt down and not have how many thousands of people in Brooklyn Bridge Park who couldn’t name a member of the band beyond Bono holding their phones up the entire time to film a concert they’d never watch again.

I remember turning around when they’d finished and making my way out, thinking I’d just walk back to Manhattan across the Manhattan Bridge (they’d closed the pedestrian path on the Brooklyn Bridge for obvious reasons, it’s bad enough on an average weekday) when I ran into my friend, the great photographer Debra L. Rothenberg, who was at the back of the park standing on a berm above the crowd with the rest of her colleagues. She reminded me that the F train stopped at the other end of DUMBO and we should try that before walking home. That seems like a fairly anodyne memory to be carrying, but it’s the kind of NYC serendipity I loved, how you could be in a crowd of thousands and find at least one person you knew; she knew the city, she wasn’t pulling it up on her phone; everyone had to walk somewhere in order to get home, whether it was up the hill to where they could hopefully hail a taxi, there was no ride share pick up spot; it was completely reasonable to say, “Let’s try the train but if it’s nuts, we can totally walk back across the bridge” because part of what makes NYC great is that you can pretty much walk anywhere.

A very good friend, a rock and roll lifer whom I met because we ended up next to each other in GA at a Springteen show in 2008, said recently that she’s actually very much okay with not going to concerts any more because the old ways of doing things no longer apply and she’s not interested in learning the new ways, whether it’s fighting the stupid Ticketmaster Verified Fan / algorithm bs or figuring out if she can bring a purse to a show or just about anything else that you have to numbly comply with just to watch some rock and roll. I did not try to convince her she was wrong. But this is one of many of the reasons this particular trip backwards into the time machine is making me so emotional.

As usual, lightly edited for clarity, and this was written almost 20 years ago so I beg your indulgence.

There was actually a time when this was all brand new. There was a time when no one knew who U2 were, when the people who did felt like they were part of some odd club of outsiders, espousing this odd Irish rock band who weren’t dark or moody, who were eager and striving and earnest, who did things with sounds and guitars we hadn’t heard before, not put together in the way that they did. Shimmering, echoing guitar together with lyrics that were half jigsaw puzzle, half psalm.

There was a time when no band had done anything like this before, when it was the most exciting thing in the world, when we would ask the DJ at New Wave Tuesday or Thursday to please please please play some U2 for us, please, we come here every week, dressed to the nines as best we could, Converse and Capezios and Boy of London and Reminiscence and Fiorucci. Toward the end of the night, he would humor us by putting on “I Will Follow” (since he stood a chance of more than us just knowing it), and we would pogo around the dance floor as though our lives depended on it, stake out the parameters of the floor like it was our own private territory, daring anyone who wasn’t one of us to participate. No one ever did, of course; U2 just weren’t cool. We knew this, and we didn’t care; we weren’t cool either and we didn’t care.

It’s a love-hate relationship with this band, isn’t it? They are just so astronomically enormous that it’s just easier to hate them; and funnily enough, now they are considered classic rock, a band full of old men. It’s easy to wish Bono would shut up sometimes (okay, we’ve probably thought that since the days of “This is NOT a rebel song!” was a running joke); it’s even easier to claim overexposure and oversaturation and close your ears. I know this, because I almost did it this time.

Luckily, luckily this band of fools that have always thought big are still thinking big, and decided to take over New York City, staging a video shoot-cum-record release extravaganza by playing on the back of a flatbed truck all over Manhattan (stolen, oops, borrowed from the Stones), ending up on the East River, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, as twilight faded over Manhattan and the city lit up as magically as ever. With this as a backdrop, here are U2. I am glad in the end it didn’t end up in Central Park or Washington Square Park (Sunday morning’s rumor du jour), because this setting was magnificent, and they deserved it; it did them justice.

Of course, they spent the day driving around the city, while I waited in line in Brooklyn, and then stood in front of a stage in Brooklyn, and then, all of a sudden, someone in the crowd says, “There they are!” There they are, driving across the Manhattan Bridge, playing, and we are asked to wave and cheer (like we needed to be asked), and Bono actually starts jumping up and down and waving at us.

They walked onstage kind of unceremoniously, no fanfare; just – there’s Edge! and the rest followed. Of course, the first song was “Vertigo” and even though it feels like you have heard it so much you never want to hear it ever again as long as you live (and I don’t listen to commercial radio and don’t watch much tv), it’s a great fucking song. You feel like they wrote it in 10 minutes – because it’s so great and so classic U2 and feels like something that wrote itself. “Hello, Hello,” sings Bono, and then holds the mic up so we know to sing “HOLA!” along with the Edge. It’s brilliant, I tell you, brilliant.

Both Bono and the Edge look better than they did on SNL (and Edge at this point is timeless); Bono in this natty leather coat with military silver buttons that I covet irrationally. Larry is wearing the same shirt that he wore on SNL — “The only man in this band hard enough to not wear a coat in Brooklyn in the winter,” Bono announces, after pointing out Adam’s elegant fur or velvet or something soft and plush and warm-looking coat. Now, let me tell you, Adam Clayton has aged so well, the rough edges are gone, but he still could play the next James Bond. We’re talking debonair here.

I’m sorry, did I digress? I guess I did.

“All Because of You” (which should have been played on SNL and may have been played once the cameras were off), “Miracle Drug” with a long and interesting explanation about the song’s inspiration (former Mount Temple classmate and poet Christopher Nolan) that isn’t going to hold up once they hit arenas and/or stadiums. “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” once again dedicated to Bono’s father, two years deceased now – about how when people leave this planet, sometimes they leave a gift behind, and for Bono, the gift was getting those beautiful glorious high notes back (which were very much present tonight as well).

“City of Blinding Lights” is introduced with a lovely description of the first time U2 came to New York. And I know he’s done this before, and I know it could be seen as staged or tiresome, but they fucking love this city; it was magic to them as children. If you weren’t lucky enough to grow up here, or be close enough to it to take it for granted, you cannot ever know how powerful it is to someone far away from it. “This chorus is about New York... looking over at Brooklyn.”

that sky!

I am admiring this big green shiny guitar onstage, that is for Bono; I joke earlier about its use as a video shoot prop, that lead singers shouldn’t play guitar. And when he does pick it up, Dallas (the Edge’s guitar tech) has to come out and seemingly spend 10 minutes explaining this instrument to him. And then, he steps up to the mic, but then stops himself, steps back, and asks “Plectrum?” to Adam, who shares one of his picks with him. He realizes, then, that it’s a bit of a show, and we know it is, and he starts to feel bad about it, almost, acknowledges it with a shy smile and a murmur I don’t recall exactly.

“Is there a light on the Edge? I know there’s a light in the Edge, but...” he says, since Edge is in the back on keyboards. Bono explains that this one’s a bit new, and they’re going to work it out acoustically (“Original of the Species”). Now, this is when all my grumbling about ‘spontaneous, my ass,’ stopped. Because they didn’t have to do this on this stage, now, in front of everyone. There are enough handlers, and, you know, people who can do things and arrange things and insulate them and communicate with MTV or what have you and explain how important it is that the band be displayed in their best light.

Or you can be U2, you can be Bono and Larry and the Edge and Adam, and go up there and wing it, and make mistakes, and show the frayed edges of frustration (Bono angry that “I Will Follow” didn’t end as sharply as he wanted; wonder how the band feels about his lyrics-as-constant-improvisation;). And you can be in that moment after taking a chance, when your fingers tentatively hit the guitar strings and want to try something, and there’s enough love in the crowd and enough bravery onstage to try it. It can’t be, can it? No, I’ve got to have the song wrong. I don’t have the whole catalog on my iPod (for some reason yet unknown to me), I just must not be remembering it right.

“Darkness falls and she
Will take me by the hand
Take me to some twilight land...”

“She’s A Mystery to Me,” which was tentative and poignant and heartfelt, and I realize that this song could be written about this city as much as it could be about a lover or any woman. But it’s not rehearsed and it’s clearly not planned, and Adam has to go over to work it out with Bono, or maybe it was for support, but it was mindblowing because it came out of nowhere.

The best “Beautiful Day” – or the one that felt the best – that I have ever heard was next, tons of crowd participation, everyone knows this, even the jive talking, blathering frat boys behind us, and then, those chords I love so much, you know, I listened to Boy for hours and hours and days and days, I am pogoing, along with Bono, along with the crowd, it is frantic and rocking and liberating and joyous, and in that moment, it was the same feeling as being a teenager just becoming an adult and finding my place in the world, and finding out what was mine and what I would claim as mine. Even with the sloppy lyrics and the slightly askew performance, it was still blindingly powerful and inspiring.

The encores weren’t planned, “Out Of Control” was, exactly that. And then, Bono steps forward with deliberation, and says, “This one’s for us,” and it’s “Vertigo” again, and yes, it is for them, they are going to bash it out, they are going to conquer it publicly, they are going to win this one, thank you very much, and we’re going to watch them.

The sun has set, the sky is dark, the Brooklyn Bridge is brilliantly lit, the other bridges stretching across the river and beckoning us home. This performance was nothing short of fucking magical, you know? There is a reason they are huge, there is a reason they have fans in every corner of the globe, there is a reason they are still here: because they are a completely amazing band, who are still trying to grow and set new challenges and try to conquer them. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but I’ve learned my lesson about giving up on them.

  1. Even though she arrived early enough to have plenty of opportunity to find a better vantage point, she just wanted everyone in front of her to let her up to the rail and she seemed in disbelief that we weren’t just stepping out of her way.