The release of Rattle and Hum in the theaters twenty-two years ago this week is the one time U2 came into my life that’s not covered in depth in my memoir I’m A Fan – How I married U2 into my life without going to the altar. How could I skip this event you ask? I don’t know. I think the jury is still out on why the movie has not made such a big impact on me. Maybe the reason is that Rattle and Hum was a reflection of the live side of the Joshua Tree tour and didn’t give me enough insight to the band. However, I do remember the anticipation that filled me as the cold November night wrapped around us as we walked across campus to the Englert movie theater to see the film. I had high hopes for the film and that changed shortly after I left the theater with my Rattle and Hum t-shirt and poster in hand. I was excited and wanted to see it again but not so eager to return immediately. Within days, the film had left campus.
My immediate reaction was mixed. I loved the up close and personal feeling that director Phil Joanou used to get us near the band as compared to my near the back of the hall seats I had a year earlier when U2 came to Iowa City. What I missed was the tangible content. I felt cheated in some respects. I wanted more banter and documentarian aspects to the film such as you see in Wilco’s I Am Trying To Break Your Heart from 2002. What I got was a concert tour interrupted by boredom as the band visited Graceland, much like Spinal Tap did four years previous. U2, I think, was trying to portray the impact of American music on them but it fell apart.
Where does the movie stand in the pantheon of music documentaries?
When you have The Last Waltz and Gimme Shelter as the precursors to your road movie, you have a tough row to hoe. Each of these movies gets it right. The Last Waltz is a reflection of The Band’s final show and the brilliant musicians showing up to pay tribute. U2 tries to work this in by getting B.B. King into the studio to cut some tracks. King is merely introduced to us as Bono rambles out the lyrics to When Love Comes To Town in front of him. What we are missing is them working together in the studio. Instead, we get them working on the stage before a show. It’s a nice narrative segue to a live show. Narrative is a very key component to these films and Gimme Shelter, like The Last Waltz, works how the end of the summer of love was not all that loving throughout the whole movie. The film hangs on the suspense of the band learning there was a murder while they performed at Altamont. Gimme Shelter builds steam as Maysles brothers intersperse live footage from Madison Square Garden, the pre-Altamont interviews and then the climatic show with the Hells Angels causing havoc. The Rolling Stones movie is just as reflective as The Band but Rattle and Hum fails to make that leap of faith of why America was so important to them as the Joshua Tree tour rolled on across the United States. The magic of the Rattle and Hum lives in the live footage but in comparison to the other two films, the interviews are where it’s lacking.
Now lies the rub. Stop Making Sense, the concert documentary by the Talking Heads, is above all the best concert captured on stage since The Last Waltz. What Jonathan Demme created was a masterpiece. Actually, the Talking Heads created the brilliant stage show; Jonathan decided to capture it from beginning to end. The brilliance is the storyline, which is in the songs lyrics, and carries the burden of the narrative. I believe this is why the Talking Heads need not be interviewed. Also, Stop Making Sense shows an art house band, ahead of its time, integrating video with still images as a way of selling the story. In comparison, the Joshua Tree Tour, captured in Rattle and Hum, was very stark. The stage at times was dimly lit, which created a tension felt by the audience. The use of black and white film, in Rattle and Hum, is what makes this movie work. The choice of grainy film gives the live footage depth with a haunting fear about how dangerous this band is live and the shaky back stage camera scenes a grittier personality, which will set it to equal to Stop Making Sense.
In closing, Rattle and Hum serves us as a reminder of what this band was like when they broke into America with the Joshua Tree. We cannot take that away from them. Some people are visual and this was the hook to get them on board. It’s a good hook. However, I wish there was more tooth of the band when the cameras were really not on them. The interviews are forced. What was it really like when they were relaxed or working? We didn’t get that. Instead, we got an extension of the Joshua Tree, which put the band in jeopardy as Bono stated at the Point Depot years later by stating that they had to go and dream it up all over again. The Joshua Tree tour, more specifically Rattle and Hum, became their burden and our favorite band almost became eaten by their own success. It’s too bad because I have always felt there was a better way to make a film about that American journey. Maybe they will by adding in a retrospective interview on the commemorative DVD. Or more importantly, the movie will be rereleased, like Stop Making Sense was for its 15 anniversary, and I can go back to see it for a second time in its brilliance and on the big screen.
Me at Sun Studios under the platinum disc for Rattle and Hum.
If I told you it was for anything other than U2, I would be lying. Actually, that is a half-truth. Chicago is the Midwest Mecca of advertising and I wanted to break into the biz. The city is closer to Iowa than New York plus I had family here who I could bunk in with if I needed to. More importantly, everything that was art related stopped in Chicago on the way to the either coast, which was very vital to me. I knew the city well as I grew up just down the road in Champaign, Illinois and had visited Chicago numerous times as a kid. When it was time for me to make a decision of where to live after college, the Windy City choice was a no brainer.
Think about it. Chicago, in 1990, was at the beginning of a rebirth. People were starting to take notice of this town and I wonder why. Can we say Michael Jordan and the Bulls amazing championship run? Let’s add another piece to that magical Bulls team, B. J. Armstrong, who graduated a year ahead of me at Iowa and playing along sir Michael. I’m sure that is really why I moved here and not seeing U2. Maybe but that three NBA championship run alone made living in the city a blast. Everywhere I went on vacation, people would ask if I had been to a Bulls game or to an Oprah taping. The city was getting its dues after being dormant for so long. I remember walking near the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy after the third NBA title and seeing a huge poster of MJ in the window. It was a reminder of home. More importantly, Chicago was on the map.
In hindsight, I have never felt one ounce of remorse for hopping that Greyhound bus in August of 1990 and chasing a dream of working in the creative field. I was joking about moving here because of U2. If I had stayed home and lived in Des Moines Iowa where my father lives, I’m a Fan wouldn’t exist. I’m sure I would be a U2 fan but not to the level I am today. It would have tapered off. For the twenty years I have lived in the city by Lake Michigan, U2 has only played one show in the state of Iowa while playing at least twenty shows during that same span of time here in the Second City. I have seen almost every single one.
Chicago is a U2 town. From the band visiting the Chicago Peace Museum’s exhibition aptly tiled The Unforgettable Fire to stopping here on the Amnesty International tour plus taping of a concert for a DVD, this is their home away from home. I’m not sure if it is our Midwest values or the Irish emigration but there is something special here for them. A friend of mine calls our city “Sugar Town” in reference to the live taping during the Vertigo stop here a few years back. My wife and I call it home. We live here every day. U2 just likes to visit.
Seriously, in this day and age I commend those who can do it. In the 70’s when I was growing up it was easier. Upon return from our sabbatical in England, my parents literally threw the television out the window. It was an old set that my mom inherited from the divorce and it was dying. In fact, I remember trying to watch the World Series that fall during fifth grade and the players were turning bluish green color. Not long after, the set was gone and never replaced. My parents could give up Columbo and Kojak but my cartoons were long gone. I had to watch football on Sundays at my buddy Derek’s house a few blocks away. He not only had regular television but cable too, which in the 70s was few and far between in subscribers.
Instead of television, my parents relied heavily on the local University of Illinois college station feeding NPR and All Things Considered. It was their way of bringing the world into the house. Oh and the radio stayed on for most of the day tuned to that station. Except when opera came on and I could hear my mom shout, “Berni, the fat lady is singing again. Shut her off!” Which I thought was hilarious. Mom could only take so much of the Saturday simulcast of opera. My stepfather had hearing loss due to the Korean War so every now and then the radio would go up a notch or two in volume. Even better, he would be in another room adjacent to the kitchen where the radio lived; he would turn up the volume even further which would get under mom’s skin.
Let’s stay with NPR and my mom. Fast forward to when I moved to Evanston, Illinois after college and had my very television with cable no less. Mom flies in for a four-day weekend. I am sure she was researching at the Newbury Library and wrote the trip off which is neither here nor there. Regardless it is a Thursday night and I am watching ESPN. My mom arrives from the bathroom wearing some facial mask and sits down next to me on my futon. ESPN breaks to a commercial featuring Larry Bird commemorating his final season in the NBA. Mom was glued to the advertisement and restrained me from hitting the mute button. With her facial mask on her face, she turned to me and asked, “Are we going to see him tomorrow night?”
I replied, “who?”
“Larry Bird. Are we going to see Larry Bird lay against the Bulls?” She asked as she wore her facial goop.
“Ah, how do you know about Larry Bird? How do you know he plays with the Celtics whom the Bulls are playing tomorrow night?” I asked.
“They interview him all the time on NPR.” She said with a straight face behind her mud mask.
I burst out laughing. How life from throwing out the television to NPR had taken a 180-degree turn. I never again questioned my mom’s connection to pop culture visa vie NPR.
I would say tough. With two PhDs roaming the house, I lived under the intelligence microscope. It started when my parents expunged the word “ain’t” from my vocabulary during first grade. Then in second grade, I had to stay in my room for an hour after school and read. I usually read the same things over and over. In fifth grade, the band teacher visited our classroom with a trumpet student. I immediately went home and proclaimed my love for the trombone. My euphoria was depleted when I was handed a violin and played Mozart under my KISS posters.
It sounds like everyone else’s household does it not? Yes and no. I was not the A+ student. I had more interest in playing with my friends than reading an hour a day. Add to the fact that my heroes were four dudes dressed up in leather, covered in black and white face paint and had pyrotechnics exploding behind them. Nevertheless, my parents had an innate ability to be educators of art, culinary and travel. I think I was the only one in class taken to Kabuki Theater when I was eight. Let’s also add that I was living in England, while my stepfather was on sabbatical, at the age of ten and then in France at the age of fourteen four years later. The spoils of academia were great but so were the pressures to perform as well. Especially when I was enrolled in Prep School where the intensity of the class load added to the mix of the studious household. I needed an escape from time to time and music was there for me. It was an interest I could share with others without the use heavy words such as “benevolent.”
I wouldn’t change growing up in said household but I wished my parents had less of an insular life. Academics tend to live in a protective bubble where the social network doesn’t venture too far away from one’s interests. I don’t see to many PhDs hanging out with the plumbers. Not that they would have shared interests but I’m using the extreme that educators live amongst the commune of themselves. The Achilles heel to my upbringing was academics don’t have is the inherent skill set to play in the corporate world, which is where I went with my graphic design degree. My upbringing didn’t prepare me for the issues I would face after college. Even if my mom and stepfather were the greatest parents in the world, they’d still fall short preparing me for the design world but they didn’t. They took me to Europe and exposed me to art, which have both had a profound impact upon my life and my story written inside I’m a Fan.
No, I never had any intention of writing about my U2 fandom. You’d think I would because the band has been an integral part of my musical interest for a good sum of my life and I do have some interesting stories to tell about them. However, I wanted to keep those tales to myself and only share them with my close friends. They’re part of my intimacy. The idea to write the book was spurned in 2005 at lunch table conversation but I blew it off. I knew how much work went into writing a book because my parents wrote many critical works in their field of expertise, English literature. And that is where the rub lies in me taking up the family passion.
My mom and stepfather were English professors and if you asked me as a child if I would ever sit down and write a book I would have said, “Hell no!” Add to the fact that I hardly had any interest in reading. Except for what I had to read in high school English, I had no desire curling up in a corner with a book. Magazine articles, no longer than 12 paragraphs in length, kept my attention outside of school because they were easy reading. Remember, I come from the MTV generation where we have an attention span of 20 seconds vs. today’s kids who prefer under 5 seconds before moving on…anyhow, it’s a wonder I sat down to write this story at all. Maybe it was U2 that kept me on the path of staying the course or maybe I had finally succumbed to the family business and now garnered interest because the writing process of my memoir really started by chance.
The book began when I sat on the train headed to Iowa, to visit my folks, and I brought along my wife’s computer. The blank screen that stared at me after I turned it on meant I had to make a call, watch a DVD or start to write for the next six hours of two-rail travel. Why I wanted to write was beyond me but by the time I got to my destination later in the evening, I had fifteen single space pages in the bag. Over the course of the next three days, I kept chipping away. Something needed to be expunged and upon my arrival back to Union Station in Chicago, I had fifty more pages under my belt. The story read as a stream of consciousness while not really going anywhere. Think of it as Michaelangelo taking about two swings at a hunk of marble and stepping back saying, “HMMMMM.” That’s about what I had but the “Hmmmmm” was being underlined with something very familiar to me – how U2 had been with me through the thick and the thin.
I had surrendered to a nervous breakdown four months prior to the train trip and the rambling life confession glowing back at me on screen was telling me how important the band had become to my well being. I was struggling with my career and my mom’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. I knew the outcome of her disease and wanted to suspend her in time. I wanted to remember her for the good times before she got sick. I think that is why I wanted to write because it kept her alive and well in a moment in which she would never return. More importantly, writing became my escape because there were no rules, no clients to worry about, no time line or budget, just me and the computer working out life’s issues, which became the groundwork for I’m a Fan.