An excerpt from the new book of selected writing by Wellington journalist David Cohen.
To the best of my knowledge I am the only journalist in New Zealand to have had his own printed words performed by Bono. It happened in front of 40,000 fans at the U2 concert at Wellington’s Athletic Park, on November 8, 1989. That was when Paul Hewson—pardon the deviation from standard arts writer style, but formally identifying a 55-year-old family man by a childhood nickname doesn’t seem quite right—took an unscheduled break from the song set to solicit a collective opinion from the crowd on one of their countrymen’s less than ecstatic appraisals, published in that day’s afternoon newspaper, of his post-punk supergroup. Going by the response, they were about as impressed as he had been.
Warming to his task, Hewson riffed on a couple of lines from the offending critique—most notably an aside about the white-bread band’s late-bloomer obsession with American black music. (As critics Eric Waggoner and Bob Mehr note in their own classic put-down, Hewson’s injunction to “Play the blues, Edge!”, as captured on the documentary Rattle and Hum, does indeed stand out as “one of rock history’s most unintentionally hilarious moments”.) This, too, aroused yowls of disapproval at the Wellington show, and over subsequent days, a number of abusive letters and phone calls, evoked by what I supposed at the time to be a mildly critical rewind through the Irish band’s foozle-headed politics and frequently unremarkable music, along with a bit of a personal trip down memory lane—to do with what until that point had been my only U2 concert-going experience here.
To be fair, the venue where I had earlier seen the group belt out their hits—Wellington’s old Winter Show Buildings—had always been a dubious setting. The acoustics tended to be problematic, the line of vision to the stage a visual tease. But on the night of the show to promote their fourth LP, Unforgettable Fire (“such an album of contrasts”, as the band’s Englishman guitarist, Dave Evans, later put it to me in an interview), rock’s soon-to-be greatest stars seemed the dodgiest item of all.
Walking onstage, enveloped in a cloud of dry ice, the band members certainly gave no indication of hard times ahead; neither did their 5000 expectant fans, murmurously hushed as the venue’s Zeppelin spotlights momentarily dimmed to make room for the announcer’s stentorian boom, “Ladies and gentlemen … U2!”
Achtung, baby! The stage bloomed in pink incandescence as Hewson marched out of the wings—black garbed and looking for all the world like a dead ringer for actor Robin Williams. Then came stern-faced, virtuoso guitarist Evans. Next followed no-nonsense rhythm section: drummer Larry Mullen, Jnr—wearing a black T-shirt and someone else’s shoulders—joined by the bespectacled Adam Clayton, peering out from underneath a curly rug of hair.
And the rest, as they say, was hysteria—of a certain kind. For nearly two hours, the crowd appeared to surrender itself to the band’s every emotional command. They howled their appreciation for Hewson’s political pitter-patter; they trembled to every last totalitarian guitar solo—shunning chords, for the most part, in favour of big, colourful figures that tended to sound suspiciously like reworked renditions of whatever had been the previous solo—by Evans; they stood obediently for “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “New Year’s Day” and sundry other hits from the group’s socially conscious back-catalogue.
About halfway through the set, during a hothouse rendition of “Two Hearts Beat as One”, Hewson plucked a plainly over-refreshed girl out of the throng, yanking her, not a little unsteadily, up on stage. Draping her arm across his shoulder, the singer proceeded to attempt a fast shuffle while Clayton played the song’s signature burping bass line, over and over and over again; alas, the girl appeared frozen in the headlights, and even Hewson nearly tripped on his own black heels. A couple of stagehands quickly rushed out to drag his unwitting, and by this point virtually comatose, partner to safety.
Okay, perhaps it was just another anthemic rock gig, and, to be fair, at least a few of the songs weren’t half bad. Yet, beneath the genuine theatrics of the evening there seemed to lurk a weird spirit. It was as if both the band and their fans were doing nothing more (or less) than going through the expected motions of … well, of what exactly? A musical performance? A revivalist rally? A high-octane rendition of The Landmark Forum? Whatever it was, the alchemy felt purely reflexive, signalling neither genuine recognition nor real passion.
How long, as someone else once asked, how long must they sing this song?
Greatest Hits: A Quarter Century of Journalistic Encounters, Cultural Fulminations and Notes on Lost Cities by David Cohen (Makaro Press, $35) is available at Unity Books.