Last Tuesday morning, I went down to our basement to grab my cyclocross bike and ride to my office. Commuting to work on a bike is my heaven. It’s a way for me to get into the day and ready myself for whatever will cross my desk in the course of a day, but on this morning, I would be woken to a rude awakening. I knew rain storms pelted us the night before, but as I opened the crawl space door and turned on the overhead light in order to retrieve my bike, my heart sunk. I saw a half dozen Rubbermaid Roughneck tubs turned upside down and tossed about the floor of our basement. I knew immediately what happened. We were flooded.
As I walked closer to the upheaval, regret was beginning to sink in. Six weeks prior, I unstacked these tubs, which was my undoing. Had I left them stacked, they would have survived 8 inches of water and never tipped over. I would have escaped losing a chunk of my bachelorhood rock n’ roll memorabilia, including the last five tours worth of U2 programs. I was upset, but I couldn’t let it get the best of me. I had to find resolve and get to work. I ditched the idea of riding my cross bike. Instead, I returned upstairs and pulled my wife from her slumber in order to show her the devastation.
In my heart, I knew no one could take my U2 memories away from me. Yes, I was heartbroken, but I had to press on. My wife reminded me, as I headed to our front door with my messenger bag over my back that things would be okay. She was right. I had written a book about all great things U2 in life and my work would stand the test of time. It gave me the lift I needed in order to get out the door, but of course, I was unable to contain my guilt or sorrow. When I reached my office, I broke down. My emotions caught up to me and I could not stop the tears. I was clearly upset, but I had to stay focused.
Upon my return home, I went to face the devastation and grabbed whatever I could salvage. Luckily, I contacted a library archivist who told me how to ensure what was salvageable could be saved. Unfortunately, the glossy pubs had to be tossed, but the Zoo T.V. programs survived. Achtung Baby was a life changing album for me and a lot of other U2 fans. The person behind the mixing of this U2 masterpiece is Mark Ellis, otherwise know as Flood. The irony here is that a natural flood took away a lot of my U2 collection, but it took a Flood to bring U2 to me. As engineer of U2’s sound, Mark brought U2 to the forefront of music with their epic album The Joshua Tree, followed by Achtung Baby.
When an album of such stature as The Joshua Tree comes in your life, it’s life changing. Especially when you need something to hang onto that’s stable. Being in college and deciding life’s path can have its moments, but with U2 in your Walkman, you feel safe. Thanks to Mark Ellis, his Flood stills survives within me. For that, we can all be thankful.The loss of the physical can be replaced at some moment in time, but it’s the memories that cannot be erased.
It’s a day after Thanksgiving and time with family this year has allowed me to reflect on my life of recent. As I am reminded all too often that my mother is very ill, I take solace in the fact that three years ago this week I planted my literary foot into the ground and began to see my U2 book project become a reality. What has happen since that car ride to Napa, talking to a self-publishing firm on our way to Thanksgiving, has been nothing short of a life fulfillment, meeting people who are ardent U2 fans and some close connections to the band.
Writing a story about how music can make such an impact on your life is not easy otherwise shelves would be full of them. It is the fact that I even made an attempt to write a book is shocking let alone have this project come to fruition. I say shocking because my parents are English professors and the last thing I ever wanted to do as a child was read. Being a graphic designer by trade, it is visuals with which I speak to the world, making someone else’s language come to life. Also, I am a horrible typist too, which makes it even more intriguing. Nevertheless, my life’s story is out there in someone’s backpack as we speak.
What my book taught me was that we should all try to make an impact in some way to another person’s life. I am not meaning that you all head to your computers to begin the arduous task of writing your life’s story in order to be an influencer. Instead, I feel we need more heartfelt connectivity in this cold world of cyber relationships. I say this because recently, a friend said that she was having a case of the ups and downs. She expressed her need to have her friends write and say hello to her in a very public way, an on-line interview. Interestingly enough, I needed her shortly after her expressive need and what was great was that she was open to it. I was grateful because she understood where I was coming from as we both battle anxieties of one form or another. And this brings me back to my quest to see my book about being a U2 fan come to life. If it was not for my writing of said memoir, we would have never become friends in this day and age of short lived Tweets and see what I am doing Facebook posts.
I moved to Chicago some 23 years ago for a few reasons. One was the better opportunity to catch a U2 show. I knew that their coming to Iowa City on the Joshua Tree tour, when I was in college, was a fluke and that they would not really see the likes of Iowa again as a place of visit on their next tour. Actually, I was wrong. They did play Ames on the Outdoor ZOO TV tour, but that is neither here nor there in this blog conversation. What is of importance is how I got introduced to this great city and for that I have to thank the likes of Roger Ebert. I fell in love with Chicago, not from the movies shot here such as The Blues Brothers or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but from film criticism in the form of two guys sitting in a theater and reviewing movies. The show, Sneak Previews, was based in Chicago and featured two bantering film critics, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, who became like close friends through Public Television. I glommed onto the show because my parents took me to the movies every Sunday as a kid and I loved to get lost in film.
Once I moved to Chicago, I still tuned into Gene and Roger’s show, which had now moved onto commercial television with a hokey thumbs up or down reviewing system. I didn’t care for the new stamp of approval, or disapproval process, but I still was a habitual viewer to hear what they had to say, which to me was more important. Gene and Roger seemed to have an air of attitude, especially Gene, but that wasn’t the case as I found out soon after I moved to the city. One evening, after we closed our Starbucks store in Glencoe, a familiar face came to the door, requesting in. A very apologetic Gene Siskel was looking for a birthday gift to take to a party. We obliged and let him in even though our registers were closed out for the day. Without hesitation, we waited on him and got him on his merry way like we would do with any customer of ours, well known or not. The cool thing was it was Gene Siskel and I was not star-struck. It was Gene being a normal Joe. A few years later, when U2 was in town for PopMart, my aunt recognized the same film critic in a store on Michigan Avenue and asked to have a picture taken with him, showing the thumbs up. He was grateful and so was Roger in ever bit the same manner.
Roger passing last week dimmed out city lights once more. Gone was the second half of a great team in film criticism and one of the reasons why I glow when I talk about this great city of mine, which I have called home for the past twenty-three years. Chicago was a newspaper town when I moved here in the early nineties. Conversations about what we read in the Tribune or the Sun Times were commonplace. Thanks to the Internet, those days are long gone, but for Roger he embraced the Internet and marched on, still reviewing a gob load of movies even as he became more and more ill. For that, we are indebted to him. We may not have agreed with him, but we can agree on one thing, we have lost a “Classic,” as noted in the headline, gracing the cover of Chicago’s Red Eye newspaper the day after his passing.
Peter Rowen is the iconic boy on the cover of U2’s War album. He is the younger brother of Bono’s good friend Guggi and is the only non-U2 subject to grace the covers of their records, which makes for an interesting discussion about album covers. What is it that makes an album great? Well, it’s the songs, but coming from this graphic designer, I have to say the imagery has to follow suit. Nirvana’s Nevermind is an album cover that comes to mind immediately for its iconic status. What is even cooler for this discussion is that Nevermind has commonalities with U2’s War album. Besides children gracing the album cover, both were breakout records for their respective careers and delved deep into a darker side.
Since I am only discussion imagery in this blog about War, let’s step back for a moment and dissect the image gracing the album’s cover. It’s a tight crop of a stark looking youthful kid staring right at you. The expressionless face is one lip quiver from sadness that you cannot run away from no matter what. Just looking at the image we can figure out that he has one arm bent around the back of his head and I assume the other as well. Is he kneeling or standing? We don’t know, but the boy’s eyes are telling us that he is the gatekeeper to the record at some cost to him. And, what is the price he paid you ask? He could have lost his parents or been separated from his family. It’s hard to identify his situation other than he has been placed next to a word that hits home – war. A harsh word that means many things, but in this case, we can assume the worst as it reminds us of those old photos of wars such as World War II. What is interesting is how this sets us up for what we will find when we peel back the shrink wrap and place it on the turntable for the first listen. From the marching drumbeat that opens Sunday Bloody Sunday to the last cymbal crash of “40”that bleak stare stays with us.
After reading many articles about Peter Rowen, it seems as though he outgrew this iconic image. He has stated that he does not own this album nor the Boy album for which his face graced a few years earlier for U2. He went on about his life, as he became an icon to all of us, and to those just mindlessly flipping the record racks at the now almost forgotten record store. I do, however, remember his face on the backdrop of the stage set at Red Rocks in U2: Live Under a Blood Red Sky. It was as if Peter became a fifth member of the band. In fact, it’s fitting to grant him that more than any other who has come across the U2’s creative path in their 30+ year career. You could say that Steve Lillywhite, Brian Eno or Daniel Lanois crafted the sound of U2. Yes, you can add Anton Corbijn and Steve Averill as crafting their image, but one can honestly say that it is the stare, seen by millions, but owned by one – the boy of War – that broke out U2.
I am sure by now you have heard the news about the new U2 album to be released later this year. Its working title is Ten Reasons To Exist, which I think is a solid title albeit I do not think this will stick. Especially if the album has eleven songs, but that is neither here nor there for this discussion. What I am doing with this blog entry is to answer that question – why do I exist? Even better, why do we all exist? It’s a pretty heavy idea and I’m not sure one that I could answer completely. If I went on the street and asked this question, I’m not sure what sort of answers I would get. I think a lot of dumb looks or really off the cuff remarks. However, I think as humanity, we should take in consideration existing.
Let’s say that Bono exists to make change in the world. It’s a fair assumption. He took his rock star famed and turned it to good use. It is a fair assessment. We as a whole have to use that measuring stick to figure out our existence, which I believe we do not learn about until we get older. For example, I exist in order to help solve others’ creative problems. I am a graphic designer and this is one of my callings, if I wish to say it that way, in life. But is that enough to exist? Let’s go a bit further into the emotional. I also exist as a loving person to family in need, such as my wife or my mother who has dementia. These are solid reasons to exist but are they? I think that existence is doing something with your life and not being selfish. So far, I have only come up with two reasons and not ten. I have to say the following eight are going to be more difficult and I am going to take my time to come up with them. So let me ask you, what is your reason to exist?
This morning, I received a tweet from a Twitter acquaintance who overheard a conversation on a train in Dublin about my interview with Irish news talk DJ, Tom Dunne, concerning my book about U2. Since the interview was a month ago, I’m amazed that there still is a buzz floating around about the event. To me, Tom’s interview seems like it took place a lifetime ago. Since then, I have packed up my life and moved houses, refinished an antique table, helped my wife choose new lighting for our new space and lastly, getting caught up on life that was left in limbo months ago.
On the morning of my interview with Tom, I had to rise at 4:30 a.m. in order to make the 5:30 a.m. time slot. I was being interviewed over the phone from our house, therefore I could be in my pajamas but I had to be awake. More importantly, I wanted to listen to Tom’s show just to get his vibe, because when it came to my turn to be interviewed, I wanted to tie into the previous conversation. I opened jokingly tying into some Irish boy bands performance in front of some new water feature. I said that Lake Michigan is Chicago’s water feature. It broke the ice for us as we moved into a conversation about how I became a fan of U2. The toughest part of being interviewed live is that you don’t know what questions will be coming at you. I did spend a few days before prepping by reading the book’s press release and then reviewing the highlights, which I knew I had to cover. The most important thing was to be patient and not jump the gun with Tom. Pause and make the interview feel like a natural conversation. This is so not like me, as I can be, not only impatient, but also long-winded. I knew I couldn’t get off track from the questions. I needed to make myself come across, not only coherent, but as a seller of my story.
Tom made me feel comfortable and his professionalism was grand. Everyone I had talked to before the interview told me he was straight up and gracious with his guests. I returned the favor when he asked me about the Paradise Club in Chicago, which doesn’t exist. I didn’t correct him, but marched on with an answer that would satisfy his audience. As I said, I had to think quickly on my feet as it was 5:30 in the morning in Chicago and I was dragging due to packing up our house and readying my wife and I for a life changing moment. And that is where I made my biggest blunder, not selling the book’s web site. You hear it all the time in interviews “Go to my web site where you can get more information at www.blahblahblah.com.” Those conversations bore me because they take fifteen seconds out of the conversation to send me somewhere. More importantly, I would lose focus for the rest of the interview, as I would probably be looking for a pen trying to write down the URL where I could get more information. I didn’t want this to happen to Tom’s listeners. I wanted to make myself believable and inviting.
After listening to the interview, and revisiting the tweet from this morning, I feel as though I did just that, left an indelible mark on someone on a Dublin train in the past few days. Discussing one’s life with a stranger on the radio is tough, but making it inviting is even tougher as you have to peel off your skin and reveal what’s inside. Think of it as an invitation to one’s inner soul. I did just that with humility, but it was a hard road to get to in life. I guess the stars were aligned just so for this to happen. I am sure someone’s looking out for me, wanting me to succeed. Maybe it’s my Mom, who is once again pushing me out to be free as she is about to leave us in the not too distant future. I am not sure, but in any case, none of what has happened with the book has gone to my head, even when a stranger tells you the conversation is about the interview is ongoing.
Click here to take a listen to the interview.
News broke last week about Bono’s potential cash windfall, thanks to his Venture Capital Company, Elevation Partners, investing a few years back into a small internet site, Facebook. This would be just a secondary headline if it wasn’t for the amount of money that Bono was going to reap from his investment, close to a billion and a half dollars. When the news hit the Internet, Twitteres could not get enough of the story. In fact, the redundancy of retweeting this story became mind numbing. However, it was his firm, Elevation Partners, which would reap the 1.5 billion dollars for which Bono would probably get about 10% or about 150 million dollars.
To me, I couldn’t comprehend making that sum of cash at one sitting until I broke it down into terms I could understand. The challenge was how I could I put this I.P.O. into language everyone else could understand. As we are about to embark on summer, it came to me, my childhood memories of running a lemonade stand. Once I translated Bono’s investment, into Facebook, into those terms, it made sense.
So, I am eight years old and I have a lemonade stand on a semi-busy street. Business is slow in the late morning, as the sun begins to brighten the sky, but I feel positive with my pitcher of tasty, refreshing citrus drink and glasses ready for my prospective customers. A few stop by and my pitcher is beginning to lessen its capacity. However, I’m making money and I have income. The major issue is I need manpower to cover my stand as I go get more lemonade. So, I ask my best friend, coercing him with an incentive that I will give him ten cents for every cup he sells. My financial dilemma begins as I now have an employee and I need to buy more lemonade in order to keep my customers happy. My Mom, who helped me start up the company has run out of spare time and is now onto her own chores. I needed help, cash for one thing and how to use my time wisely.
As I left for the store with cash from my morning sales in my pocket, my uncle just happened to stop by and asked me about my business. I told him that I had just enough cash to get one gallon of lemonade. My uncle opened his wallet and gave me thirty dollars, which was more than enough money to keep my stand going until the middle of the afternoon. However, during my venture back from the store, I noticed there were kids in the park that needed my lemonade. Now, I needed to branch my lemonade stand business out by hiring another friend, create another distribution channel and build a customer base. I went back to my uncle with a return of his initial investment, plus a request more cash infusion into my now small corporation, which he graciously capitulated.
I know it’s a simplistic way to look at Bono’s situation, but it works and we can understand it. If my uncle Greg didn’t infuse my start-up with the thirty dollars, I wouldn’t have been able to grow my business. I would have been using my own profits to buy lemonade, one gallon at a time, while wasting time running to and from the store, let alone any thought of opening a satellite stand. Therefore, his small investment, which was big for a lemonade stand, kept growth up with demand, which is really what Elevation Partners did by their initial investment into Facebook at 93 million dollars. Both investors took risks in each scenario, but something gave them the faith that in the end they would reap a reward.
I cannot believe it’s been 25 years since the release of U2’s epic album, The Joshua Tree. First off, the album has stood the test of time. Secondly, I have gotten older. Actually, we, who were in college during that era of the band, have all gotten older but still remember the day the album broke. It’s equivalent would be The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers or The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street hitting the street. Take your pick of the enormous catalog of great albums released during one’s college years and U2’s sits with the finest. Stealing from The Doors, U2 “broke on through to the other side” with this record. It launched them into the stratosphere.
In a day in which albums were created almost by an algorithm, or as we called it “by formula” i.e Phil Collins, U2’s album was quite the contrary. U2 created something fresh. There was a story behind each of the 12 songs and the album built a tension, especially if you bought it on a compact disc. (History lesson: it was the first album ever to be released on CD, cassette and vinyl at the same time.) From the opening track of Where The Street Have No Name to Mothers of the Disappeared, The Joshua Tree was a reflection of America with a hint of Irish ambition. Even better, the album’s artwork was a reflection of the starkness of the songs. It was a cut-to-the bone record about America’s interaction with El Salvador in Bullet The Blue Sky as well as visiting U2’s favorite narrative, Christianity. The contrast, or as artists call it chiaroscuro, between religion and politics is not new to the band, but on this record, one wafts from tune to tune not knowing there on this ride. This is what makes this album special.
What would have happened if this album were released as a double LP as it was initially discussed? I feel it wouldn’t have been as great. Don’t get me wrong. Sweetest Thing and Silver and Gold are awesome tracks, but the album would have been too much for us to take on. I don’t think it would have been as tight. It would’ve fallen apart, just like the second side of The Unforgettable Fire does with it’s huge musical landscapes, only be fitting for an album. I like the second side of that album, but to do it again with Race Against Time, a Joshua Tree b-side, wouldn’t have been a smart move. It would have taken away from the tension of the record. Remember, we are in the vinyl era when The Joshua Tree was released and us listeners to the record had to get our butts off the couch to flip the LP. Therefore, I believe the decision to make it one disc and not two was smart.
As for the image for this blog, this is my reaction to The Joshua Tree I painted it in college, shortly after U2 came to Iowa City Iowa in the fall of 1987. For those who have shirts from that leg of the tour, you will notice that Iowa City is not mentioned on them. Cedar Falls is. They did not play on that campus because the band was told to change venues due to their want of putting up their outdoor stage, which would take seven days to put up and tear down. The University of Northern Iowa didn’t want this to happen or so it was the rumor flying around Iowa City at the time. So, they came to my campus. I bought tickets and had the worst seats in the house, but that didn’t matter. It was U2 and I celebrated the night shortly after by painting this jacket in celebration of this event and landmark record.
What would your mother say if she heard you say this? Mine would freak. Actually, I would be saying this to my wife. Her response, “where in the hell are we going to put a Trabbie in this 1,600 sq ft condo? I mean seriously! Were you thinking about this when you entered U2.com’s album cover design contest?” I would not hear the end of it. In fact, I am sure the dog and I would be sequestered to the car parked on the street in front of our condo. I would have to beg my wife to let me into our condo, just to use the bathroom.
With that in mind, I am sure the car that U2 is giving away is not from the ZOO T.V. tour. In fact, I am pretty sure it isn’t. I think the one they are giving away was used for some auto show, pushing the 20th anniversary release of Achtung Baby. The real question is what would I do with a car, painted like Mondrian on acid, which probably barely runs? That is the $65,000 question, which I have no answer for and I am not sure many in this competition do. Add to the fact that we are going to have to pay the expenses of taxes and shipping on this item. Since it’s a car, it will need insurance. I hardly feel anyone has thought among those lines, even me.
But there is something cool about hanging a ZOO T.V. era car from your ceiling, if the ceiling would hold it. You could look underneath it and see its underbelly. With this well made East German before the wall of separation came down poduct, you never know if the transmission might fall out or even worse, spill motor oil on your bearskin rug, which would be a bitch. One idea is turning into a lawn planter. You may have to after three weeks of driving it and paying hundreds in your hard earned currency to get it to your house. It may die somewhere on the side of the road, possibly when you are out running groceries. It will become a lemon (Yes, the pun is intended.) because it is made out of pressed cardboard and been out of production for years. But it’s a Trabbie and you won it with your great graphic design, redesigning an epic U2 album. It can’t die.
Oh, I can see it now. You calling Edge on the phone and asking him to come over and fix it. He’s handy, you think since he has all of those guitar effects that make sweet music. He must know how to fix it. Even better yet, let’s call Willie Williams. He gutted these cars for the Zoo T.V. tour and put lights into them. I am sure he has a set of manuals around somewhere. These thoughts run through your head as you sit in the Trabbie on the side of the road with your cell phone that barely has one bar of reception. People drive by slowly just to look at the brightly painted car with smoke creeping out from under the hood. You think the worst.
So, I ask you, what would you do if you won a U2 Trabbie? Me? If it was one of the classics used on the ZOO T.V. tour? Donate it to a museum and keep the headaches away.
Welcome to this week’s podcast of This Week in U2 History. On this week’s tribute to Martin Luther King show, we celebrate U2 fandom with Tami Falus and Dayna Shereck’s new documentary: General Admission “Layin’ it on the line for U2” and follow up on what Bono has been up to in Africa. And of course, close out the show with gig of the week, celebrating the song – Pride (In The Name of Love).