Reflections of Nelson Mandela at 94

What would this world be like without Nelson Mandela? Cold is the first word that comes to my mind. Empty would be another. I say this because I studied world history in high school back in the 80s where we read numerous articles about Apartheid. I was in no way the aware child back then as I am today as an adult. In fact, South Africa and its issues were so far away from my interest that I slogged through social studies without a care in the world other than wanting to be on my bike, training for another race. It wasn’t until a few years later when U2’s song Silver and Gold brought back my history lesson from high school and threw it in my face. The thing you have to know about me is that I went to a Catholic Preparatory school in Tulsa. Sadly, it wasn’t a melting pot of cultures. We only had one African American kid in our class of thirty-five, which made my well-rounded life a little more insular on the home front. It wasn’t until I got to college, which is where I started to explore issues, thanks to U2 and being surrounded by young, forward thinking students. I don’t regret my parents wanting me to have a great high school education, but it came at a cultural cost.

As my senior year in college was venturing to it’s spring semester, word was hitting the streets that Mr. Mandela was going to be released from prison. I never thought it would happen. If the word was true, there would be a huge cultural shift in South Africa as the whites had been in powers for years and leading with Apartheid, a system of racial segregation enforced through legislation by the National Party governments, who were the ruling party from 1948 to 1994. That is almost fifty years of rule that had to be overturned. I could not fathom such change in short order. Especially when the United States had its own issues with the racial divide that has gone on for a much longer period of time. What made the events of February 11, 1990, Mandela’s release date, would be one of the biggest cultural shifts of all time.

Now, Apartheid wasn’t abolished on February 12, but South Africans knew that there was a sea change coming. Mr. Mandela began laying the new groundwork for his party, the ANC or African National Congress. He made a statement upon his release to commit to peaceful struggle with the minority white ruling class. In time, he became president and changed the country for the better. The list of his achievements is lengthy, but what he did in four years is a stunning accomplishment. To get 1.5 million children into the education system and provide 3 million with telephone service does not sound like much, but these actions put in place the movement towards a healthier South Africa. Mandela earned accolade upon accolade for moving his country forward. Today, at 94, and long since retired from presidency, South Africans can feel his heartbeat through their country. U2 feels that pulse when they are on tour, playing live in the month of July. They will stop the show and sing Happy Birthday, not to one another, but to Mr. Mandela.

To err, U22, is human, to forgive divine

Yesterday, I finally received my U22 booklet and discs. It came to me late because I was moving residences when it was shipped, but I had no fear it would eventually find me. And when it did, I was excited to open it up and start playing the discs.

As Edge’s wah pedal effect on Even Better Than the Real Thing was wondering out of my speakers, I began to cruise some U2 forums in order to see what others were saying about U22. I, obviously was late to the show, but decided not to do this until I had my prized copy in hand. One such forum had conversations that covered the gamut from what we deserved from the band in our membership to to songs that were not chosen for the final product. I read deeper as the conversations were becoming more catty than analytical. My saving grace from this school-yard behavior came when I fell into a forum in which someone mentions a printing error he caught in the booklet. My eyes took a double take. I turned around in my chair and retrieved the U22 booklet out from of its protective mailing sleeve and searched for the mistake. As you may not know, I am a graphic designer and searching for printing errors is a hobby. The statement, made in the forum, refers to the printed date next to Even Better Than The Real Thing, which states that it was recorded in Mexico on the 15th of November in 2011. The date doesn’t jive. U2 played Mexico in May of that year and the tour’s completion was in August of 2011. The band was on vacation by November so something was wrong.

I am not here to criticize the proofreader or the designers because these things happen all the time. Trust me, it has happened to me on a few occasions. Luckily, some of my mistakes were caught as we were going to press, but in this case, it wasn’t. So, I ask is this a collectable, such as Billy Ripken’s 1989 baseball card with the expletive written on the bottom of his baseball bat? Probably not, as I do not seeing this piece being reprinted for the masses. Instead, U22 is a collectable for all of us to cherish, regardless of the printing error or not. The booklet, and discs, commemorates one of U2’s finest achievements in touring, next to ZOO TV, which subscribers can admire from afar.

In closing, we live in a fast paced media world in which mistakes like this happen more often than not. Grab any magazine as you are checking out of the grocery store and look at all of the syntax errors in the headlines of advertisers. That alone would drive any English teacher absolutely crazy. In our case, it probably was human error and I forgive the oversight. Instead, the two discs of live tunes included in U22 will forever remind me how I went from the back row on the Joshua Tree tour in Iowa City in 1987 to the pit on the 360 tour. It took me 22 years to get there and that is why I will cherish U22.

Buskin’ on Grafton

Bono Buskin

I purchased a ticket to Dublin for a flight last Thursday, landing in the early hours of Friday morning. With a little luck from the web, I found a B&B and got some rest near the River Liffey. Hours later, I would emerge from my nap and head out into Dublin’s bustling streets, just to take in the Irish air and possibly a pint or two. Maybe, I would have a passing conversation with a local and discuss the rich heritage of the country or sink deeper into the bar near the hearth where I could keep myself warm from winter’s damp air. Either way, I would immerse myself into Joyce’s city.

The following morn’ would be Christmas Eve, the 24th of December. I would wake wearily, yet excited to be out of America to celebrate St. Nicks Day or Christmas in a foreign town. I would be bathed in excitement, wandering St. Stephen’s Green and taking a gander at the book of Kells. I would find myself the Irish version of Fish n’ Chips in order to fill the order of hunger of the day as I was still fighting jet lag.

Eventually, I would saunter back to my room and slip under the awaiting comforter for a quick afternoon shut-eye, knowing I would be up late to catch midnight mass at a local church as suggested by my innkeeper. My slumber was helpful as I dreamt of travels before to Dublin with my parents in the 70’s long before I was a U2 fan. My father was a scholar in James Joyce and this was a second home for him. When I awoke, I could feel his spirit in the room as the last rays of afternoon’s light broke through the tiny crack between the curtains. My laziness wanted me to stay in bed, but I felt a pre-dinner jaunt would do me good.

I slipped out the front door of the abode and into the evening. There was a slight wind and I clutched the top of my jacket closed while I walked down the unevenly paved sidewalk towards the city center. I was on my way to Grafton Street, a road of many a Joycean romp from my childhood, which was burned into me with pleasant memories. This night would be no different. My pace was brisk and as I approached the fable street, Dubliners were again taking to the streets. There was an air of excitement. One could sense that the something big was about to happen as I saw may burdened by bags swooshing against one another. I paused and took it all in as the light was now above me in a streetlight.

As I stood there, I noticed a crowd gathered across the street. There was singing and cheering. I looked to my left and saw no car approaching as I put my foot down on the cobblestoned street. A fellow Dubliner joined me in the automotive gap and we crossed the street in concert, pausing for a quickly passing taxi that whaled on his horn for our attention. Once upon the other side from where I crossed, the crowd had grown yet there was no pushing or shoving. It was festivity at its greatest as guitars were strummed and the unison signing of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home.) It was a happy Irish gathering and one in which one of Dublin’s own was in the center. It was Bono carrying on with those who would join. I was happy to be added to the group.

I awoke Friday morning after the dream and had a gut feeling that Bono would yet again hit Dublin’s street to busk. I was on my way to Iowa with my wife to see my parents and my grandmother, who is ninety-seven years young. The thought of a spontaneous flight to the Emerald Isle was a passing fancy as I was packing for a different trip, but I had a gut feeling that what has now become a ritual would happen again in Dublin. I leaned into my wife’s ear on Christmas Eve, at midnight mass, and said, “I think Bono was busking on Grafton Street in Dublin tonight.”

1991 – The year Achtung Baby broke

Music is my lifeblood. It’s a plain and simple fact. From Bowie to The Cure to Nirvana to U2 and well beyond, I listen to a very eclectic group of genres. However, I’m no longer a consumer of music like I was in my post-college years. I still “listen” to newer bands, but have not been very impressed with recent releases. The last time we had a major shift change in music was in 1991.

Call me old, but is was a vintage year. I believe it was the last great year of musical releases. R.E.M., The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana and U2 all put out records that changed music and all of those works have stood the test of time. There haven’t been too many runs since then that have made such an impact. Yes, I may be naïve to the fact that other great albums have come out, indie or otherwise, and changed the world, but these were commercial releases. Releases that took risks, bore their soul and stood out of the crowd. Of the three, Out of Time by R.E.M. is the weakest. I would call it a filler album in R.E.M.’s catalog as they began to wander through their Warner Brothers contract. Not so with The Red Hot Chili Peppers whose work on Blood, Sex, Sugar, Magic stands tall amongst others in their catalog. It’s their brilliant masterpiece, which was aided by producer Rick Rubin. Another producer, Butch Vig, worked with a little known Seattle band, Nirvana, who would make as much of an impact on the musical world as the Sex Pistols did 14 years earlier, with their album Nevermind. Added to the mix was the debut release of Pearl Jam’s Ten, which aided in exploding the flannel wearing Seattle grunge scene into the musical landscape of America at the time. And then came Achtung Baby, U2’s long awaited release.

For this U2 fan, Achtung Baby was one of the most anticipated albums. We had no Internet back in 1991. One had to stay in touch with “someone in the know” in order to get release information. My insider worked for Rose Records here in Chicago. I can still remember the day I bashfully set foot into her store looking for answers to my questions about U2. I had not heard news of them for a while and feared that they may have split up. I would have been heart broken if that had happened. I walked into Rose Records on Sherman Avenue, in Evanston, on a late spring day in 1991. I asked the store clerk about U2. She asked me if I was a fan. I said yes and she proceeded to review her cluttered surroundings for a release list. Her search ended with success. She gave me the date and then introduced herself as Phyllis. She became my “someone in the know” as she settled the unease in my stomach. I was now filled with anticipation. What I wasn’t prepared for was how much of a metamorphosis would take place in Hansa Studio where the Irish quartet initially recorded the album.

On the day of the U2 release and with a mouth full of Novocain, I bought the newly minted U2 disc and headed home with wariness and excitement. I put the CD into my player with trepidation. I turned off all the lights in my apartment and let the gray, overcast sky outside my window blanket my room. What seeped out of my stereo moments later was something so different and transformative that I asked myself if this was still U2. I would come to learn that Bono and Edge were knee deep into the Manchester dance sound. Those influences can be heard on Even Better Than the Real Thing and Mysterious Ways. By the end of the first run through of the disc, including a couple song repeats, I wanted to hear it again. U2, like Nirvana and all of the other releases that year, were transforming music. The likes of which have not been seen since.

U2’s month – October

And the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear
What do I care

And kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on…

At the beginning of every October, I play this track. I don’t know why, but I just do. The song is a haunting song, consisting of 26 words and two themes.

The first theme has to do with death. Obviously, it’s Bono’s reflection of a tree losing its leaves, which I think is a metaphor about losing his mother. The mother I feel he is speaking of is Mother Nature, stripping us bear of our emotional being as we take on winter. As I listen to the track, I envision a heavy, grey sky above me, almost suffocating. A lone tree, away from the forest on the horizon, stands naked before me. The image is not in color but in high contrast black and white. The starkness reminds me of those days trekking across the University of Iowa campus as fall slipped into winter. Harsh wind, howling through the through the streets flanked by buildings made of brick and limestone, wisps dry leaves from unsecured spot to another.

The second theme spoken here is one of kingdoms and very little has been said about this other that it may be a reference to the Russian revolution. It’s interesting how these two themes meet in this song, especially when the band was still in their religious phase as the album October was being worked on. Kingdoms could also loosely refer to the Kingdom of God or Jerusalem or Babylon or Rome for that matter. Yet, it is has been said that Bono was reflecting on the Bolshevik October uprising and how that intertwines with the emotions of losing a mother is the biggest mystery here.

I will say this, October, for this U2 fan, has been the biggest month of my life. I saw the Irish quartet in concert for the first time on October 20th, 1987. I was just a sophomore in college at the University of Iowa when Bono et al came to Iowa City to play on the Joshua Tree tour. Our campus wasn’t on the initial tour schedule. We got the show by default thanks to the University of Northern Iowa not allowing the band to set-up their outdoor stage. It was a stroke of luck that they came and played Carver Hawkeye Arena on that foggy night where trees were stripped bare of all they wore much like in the song. A year later, I relived my Joshua Tree tour experience when the band released Rattle & Hum on compact disc. It would be another three Octobers before their next release, Achtung Baby, and I waited them out – patiently and impatiently.

My U2 Summer

I actually should call this my U2 year, but that would be too high and mighty of me as I am one who tries to be down to earth. However, it has been a great summer and one I will cherish for some time to come.

It started on the second Tuesday night in June at a Chicago bar called the HopLeaf. I was going to read a chapter from my memoir, however I couldn’t choose which one. I had only seven minutes to present my work and I didn’t want to bore the audience. Luckily, I had a section just long enough, and with just he right mount of humor, to hold any unlucky soul’s attention. I wanted to share with everyone my afternoon of a tough decision, back in the winter of 1992, buying scalped tickets and going to see U2’s Indoor Broadcast of ZOO TV with a gal whom I had no interest in going with. I really wanted to score tickets to the sold-out show and take my then girlfriend who had no interest in seeing U2. I knew the chapter of my “Tough Decision” would hold the audience’s attention as they sipped, or gulped, their craft brewed beers.

The evening went off without a hitch as I championed my own work and readied myself for even more public exposure at my first bookstore event. The excitement to stand up and talk about my worked scared the shit out of me, but I took it on knowing I came from a lineage of those who had defended their doctoral thesis and eventually went on to write great books on feminism and Joyce. So, I had faith I could do it and when my box of books arrived at home, from my self-publisher, for my reading, excitement and skepticism filled the air. I was hoping many would come, but reality set in and I had a little more than a handful of attendees. It didn’t matter as I plunged through my presentation, sweating profusely. I was nervous, but not trying to show it as the bookstore didn’t have air condition and everyone was in the same uncomfortable boat as me.

Although I didn’t pack them in at the Winnetka bookstore, I was feeling confident because my next promotional adventure was to take place on the day of U2’s Soldier Field stop on their 360 tour. I had everything in place. I had Cliff bars wrapped in faux cover of my book with info about my book and me. I knew how hungry fans can get waiting to see the Irish boy wonders. I also had a set list of people, whom I met on Facebook, and wanted to meet personally plus give them complimentary copies of my memoir. And then the phone rang five days before I was to crawl through the General Admission line outside Soldier Field.

“Hello?” I said.
“Eric, it’s Andres from U2,” Andres said in a hurried introduction.
“What’s going on?” I asked as I sat at my freelance graphic design gig trying to be professional.
“I have a question. Can you cover the U2 press conference on Thursday at Soldier Field?” he asked.
“You mean in two days? Let me see.”
Andres interrupted my thought and said, “You’re in Chicago and I need coverage.”
“What time is at…..”

The conversation moved forward. All of a sudden the biggest day of my life had suddenly shifted from the concert to the press conference. I was going to be privy to asking questions to U2 tour’s director about the tour, the stage and questions all fans wan to know ‘ have you ever caught someone sneaking in for a peak of the massive structure?” No, Bono et al wouldn’t be there, but that wasn’t the point to the event. I was asked to represent and the opportunity to be one of the few who would get an inside view to U2’s tour world was about to launch my ego through the stratosphere, but I wouldn’t let it happen. I cooled my heels and said to myself “this is what patience gets you.” My U2 summer was about to come full circle.

Within six days after that fateful phone call from Andres, I went to the press conference, met Andres personally, handed out 50 books in line and took in U2’s 360 event for the final time. It was a grand U2 summer and one that I will cherish. While all of this excitement was happening, my mother whom I dedicated my book too, was slowly slipping away into the night’s sky. I wish I could have shared in the U2 revelry with her, but I can’t. I can say this. The people I met this summer, thanks to my book and the doors it opened, have been supportive of my project and stood in where my mom once was. She may have not seen me interviewed on WGN about my memoir but I’m she felt the energy.