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Why I dig U2 and always will

So completely overwhelmed was I when I received an electronic invite from Heineken for U2’s 360° concert that I promptly declined it. Twice.

One sheepishly penitent, slightly humorous email to a kindly executive producer and my RSVP was reversed as the tickets were being dispatched.

The puerile excitement was just that. Puerile. To the point where I wondered why attending this gig meant so much to me. It’s just a show after all. A 160-tons-of-equipment, like-nothing-you’ve-ever-seen-before show, but hardly one that’s going to change the course of one’s life. So, why the desperate, not-so-subtle beseeching of anyone I thought might have U2 tickets?

If you’re wondering why I didn’t just buy them, I didn’t get to Computicket in time for the general standing tickets and under the influence of Suze Orman I decided not to dislocate my credit card’s recently reconstructed spine by buying the fantastically exorbitant Red Circle tickets at R2 500 a pop. Also, I was a little put off by the vast number of anaemic geriatrics queuing to buy the same tickets.

I SMSed a pal to ask why I was surrounded by extras from Space Cowboys and she said “because that’s how old U2 is and that’s how old you are”. Spiteful beeyatch. I’m not that old, or am I? I was born in the same year the band initially known as “Feedback” was formed by Larry Mullen Jr — 1976 — and when my 16-year-old nephew, Sachin, asked me who U2 was and if they were anything like Linkin Park, I detected a faint whiff of formaldehyde in the air.

I tried not to sound like a zealot as I took him through their socio-political activism before explaining the occasionally self-deprecating depth of their lyrics. And as I dribbled pearls of information along the lines of “Bono has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize three times”, “they’ve won 22 Grammys” and “they’re not just fashionable activists, they were anti-apartheid campaigners and they really believe in eradicating African debt” yada yada yada, I realised that my pontificating would’ve gone perfectly well with a saffron dhoti and a kurta adorned with religious Hindi mantras. Then again, if I was a properly preachy pundit I would also have to throw in a soupcon of inebriation, a drizzle of misogyny and a bowl-full of hubris.

So I stopped mid-sermon and told Sachin to Google them while listening to any of the albums I had collected over the years. Yes, I have most of their albums, some of them in that already archaic format known as vinyl.

He did as instructed and was not only impressed after his initial research, but he was truly interested, not just in the band but in their issues too.

I know you think Bono’s cheesy and you may not like U2’s music because just about everyone is fond of them, and that’s fine by me, but I do shmaak them stukkend and here’s why: many bands are known for their philanthropic work but I can’t think of many (or any) who measure up to U2 in the scale and consistency of their work; while they established themselves as hugely successful rock superstars, they never lost the ability to reinvent their music and the genres in which they would always excel; Bono is downright dishy and has been married to an erudite human-rights activist (Ali Hewson) for 29 years without either of them falling victim to the all-too-fashionably nihilistic B-grade betrayals and their music almost always has a deeper, underestimated meaning even when they’re clearly ripping themselves off.

What appeals even more is how Bono always talks about his own darkness, about not being the peace-loving person the world thinks he is. “There is a rage in me and it is not all injustice. I have developed good manners to disguise it.”

“Your nature is a hard thing to change; it takes time. One of the extraordinary transferences that happen in your spiritual life is not that your character flaws go away but they start to work for you. A negative becomes a positive: you’ve a big mouth: you end up a singer. You’re insecure: you end up a performer who needs applause,” says Bono in the book U2 by U2.

Sure, that sounds a tad corny but at least he’s not the saccharine twerp everyone thinks he is.

I suppose what it comes down to, is who’s the next U2? Which band, which lead vocalist is going to pull his/her head out of their arse and do more than just live up to the stereotypical coked out, constantly raging, self-involved schmuck being attended to by a retinue of suitably servile personal trainer, astrologer, numerologist, drug dealer, masseur, chef, yoga instructor and fashion adviser?

So I admit that I’m a U2 fan because with alleged musical greats like Lady Gaga, who thinks it’s cool to dress up like a freshly slaughtered cow (what a waste of a heifer), icons are hard to come by and I’ve decided to stick with what I know.

And on Sunday night, U2 reaffirmed themselves as one of the greatest bands of our time. The 360-degree stage with the gigantic 360-degree screen and banks of speakers pointing in all directions ensured that everyone at FNB Stadium felt close to the action. As Bono says: “Our ambition with the production has been to create a piece of emotional architecture, to use engineering as a way for us to get closer to our audience to surround ourselves with them … to make the audience the fifth member of the band.”

Opening acts Amadou & Mariam got the crowd crackling with a selection of some of their more popular tunes such as Welcome to Mali while the Springbok Nudies also stuck mostly to tried-and-tested hits such as Daisy and Blue Eyes. And while these bands are on opposite ends of the musical continuum they were both well-received.

But when those four Irish lads burst onto the stage singing Beautiful Day no bums were left to warm the seats and when Hugh Masekela joined Bono during I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For the stadium erupted in the sort of thunderous rapture that must’ve sounded louder than when Siphiwe Tshabalala scored the opening goal in Bafana’s World Cup match against Mexico.

U2 are consummate entertainers, each one getting involved and performing at their peak — as bass guitarist Adam Clayton says “if you’re a musician that’s what you do, you get up on stage and perform your songs. It’s a necessary discipline … we bring something different to the live shows, which is why they’re a real continuation of the U2 story. The live show is the story of our journey”.

And what a journey it’s been.

Bono paid tribute throughout the show to Madiba, to “the Arch” (Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu) and then dedicated a fair amount of time to Aung San Suu Kyi and the 2 000-odd political prisoners in Burma. As he did so, I wondered if this is what a U2 concert might’ve looked like in the 1980s with a much younger Bono campaigning for Madiba’s release.

They performed a few new songs from their most recent albums such as Put on Your Boots, Vertigo, Elevation and Magnificent, but it was the older tunes such as Sunday Bloody Sunday, Where the Streets Have No Name, Pride and One that had every one of the 98 000-odd fans singing in uplifting unison.

As usual, Bono urged us all to get involved in changing the world, to join Amnesty International, to sign up for the One campaign and he also had us turn FNB Stadium “into our own little Milky Way” with the light from our cellphones to wish Madiba a speedy recovery.

It was quite simply the greatest show on Earth and if you weren’t there you really missed out. More importantly, Sachin partied his face off and then asked me about Amnesty International as we were leaving the stadium. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside about the newest U2 fan in our family; for the young man honing his awareness of global issues thanks to a rock band using their mysterious ways to help transform the world.