In celebration of the 20th anniversary release of Achtung Baby, here is an excerpt from my memoir about the day I bought the album.
With a mouth full of Novocaine, I walked into Rose Records on Achtung Baby’s release day, close to mid-afternoon. One side of Jamie’s store was plastered in photos of U2 while the other was covered with a displaced Garth Brooks promo poster from an earlier fall release. The wall of U2 graphics was mind blowing. Square images, of highly stylized photographs, covered the space in a mosaic pattern, mimicking the new U2 album cover. The subject of each square, measuring roughly 15 inches by 15 inches, was like a small vignette. One had all four U2 members dressed in drag while another had a profile shot of Bono in black and white with a half-nude woman, standing behind him. I was overwhelmed in the transformation, as the creative team behind brand U2 had left behind their 80s ideals of decorating album covers, except for the October album, with a stark black and white image.
I cannot believe it’s been twenty years since I sauntered into Rose Records to purchase Achtung Baby from my pal, Phyllis Jones. It seems as though a lifetime has passed by since that fateful day in 1991, but in others it hasn’t. I can still remember the weather. The overcast sky hung low. There was dampness in the air. All the trees had given up their leaves in preparation for winter. As for me, life was good albeit I was still working retail and I had issues with my career. Luckily, nothing disastrous in my life had happened. It would be a year and a half before my stepfather would pass away and Mom was quite a ways away from being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. So, I can say I was in a good spot. More importantly, hope was in the air as a new U2 release was tucked under my arm as I left the record store.
By 1991, I had been a U2 fan for close to a decade, but I was leery about where the band was going. I think we all were. We didn’t know if the band of the 80s would put up the white flag of surrender and call it a day, much like their discussion, which is circumventing in the press as we speak. I was afraid of what would happen if there was no U2, but I had faith in the powers that be as the music world was changing as well. In just a few short weeks of U2’s most ambitious release to date, Hair Metal would be long gone and replaced by crafty lyrics of personal demonism in Nirvana’s Nevermind album, which already blanketed the radio waves. U2 was waiting in the wings with their new metamorphosis. It was given a name, Achtung Baby .
The play of that harsh German word, Achtung, that we grandchildren of WWII knew well against the solemnest of things, a baby, was hard to wrap your head around. It was grabbing. It was provoking. We all wanted to tear into it. However, we did it with skepticism. U2’s first release from the album, The Fly, scared the shit out of older fans. They ran away, like a disappointed children not getting what they wanted, saying that this was the death of their beloved Sunday Bloody Sunday band. In spite of this, I got in the ring and took that Rose Records’ bag home, which sheathed my newly minted disc.
I threw my coat on my director’s chair and shoved the disc into my CD player. I turned off all the lights and sunk into my futon. The stereo was arm’s length away from me, just in case I heard a tune and wanted to go back or hit fast forward to get to the end of the song. I can say in all honesty that I wasn’t converted the first time around, but I was close. I actually knew what to expect because I had heard their cover of Cole Porter’s Night and Day, from the Red Hot +Blue album. Therefore, I wasn’t completely overwhelmed. Well, slightly.
The Rose Records’ store in downtown Evanston, where I bought this classic disc, is long gone, but the memory of walking into that store that day still remains with me. Achtung Baby was a turning point for U2, but as I’ve pondered what is being released in the deluxe set these past few months, I’m a little underwhelmed. I was hoping for more content from those stolen studio tapes from Hansa. Maybe there wasn’t enough there.
Or as my pal close to Midnight Oil told me a few months back, “some of the stuff should have stayed on the cutting room floor and should never see the light of day.” I agree to some extent. However, Achtung Baby and it’s accompanying tour, ZOO TV, revolutionized music and live performance. It’s sad that we fans couldn’t get one more nugget out of the band. If it were up to me, I would have added two more discs, which would include the whole concert from their live radio simulcast of their Royal Dublin Stadium show in 1993, but it’s not. I may have to wait another 30 years for the 50th anniversary box set, hoping there will be new material. I expect to still have my hearing at age 73.
I am sitting at my desk with our dog curled up on his bed, lying next to me, as I write this brief blog today. I’m safe. No one is knocking on my door bothering me. I have no child in my house crying because of lack of food. All of my family are in pretty good health. Lastly, my wife and I have ample clean drinking water. The only thing keeping me up at night is my career or lack of it. For Bono, it’s different. He hears those cries of need in his head and has to extinguish them. As a young man, he decided to take on the world and make change. He’s non-stop in his beliefs of getting the world on a better track, even if it is at the cost of a few sleepless nights.
A couple Sundays ago was John Lennon’s birthday and I have always wondered what would have happened if John had lived to see Bono’s good deeds. John, in some ways, was a mentor to Bono. The “Give Peace A Chance” movement was one that Bono has clung to. Even though the real humanitarian in the Beatles was George, it was John who had the most profound impact, I think, on our Irish rocker. The difference between them is John was more of a pacifist in some ways where as Bono has been more in your face. I think it ‘s the difference of where they are from to be quite honest – Bono being Irish and John being English. There heritage is neither here nor there in this discussion what is up for discussion is how the nay sayers completely do not understand how Bono has made a dent in the world as they, those nay sayers, have done nothing but sit on their hands.
If Bono wasn’t in a rock band, would he be down at Wall Street? Hell yes! He would not only be marching with them but designing the flag and carrying it. I believe he would find a common theme about the disgrace of corporate greed and get everyone to rally. One would argue he is the part of the issue as he, and the band, have move all of their finances off the Emerald Isle, but I said he’s taking up Wall Street as a citizen. The question would be if he could be the loudest to garner the attention. I believe so and in his current status of rock star, he is doing just that with the One campaign.
As I look at the picture shot of him in the Paris office of the One campaign yesterday, I see that same man I saw singing his heart out on the Joshua Tree in 1987, only much tamer and mature. The pensive look in his face, as he looks out the window, tells me that he still has much more work to do, but is satisfied with what he has done so far. He’s taken the plight of the humankind; much like Atlas has carrying the world, without abandon. He’s tireless in making change and for that, there’s hope we will have a better world.
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.
In this celebratory year of U2’s 20th anniversary release of Achtung Baby, I wanted to focus a couple blogs on songs that sit under the waterline on the record. The first of which is the song So Cruel. As most U2 fans know, this song is about Edge’s divorce. It’s probably the most gut-wrenching lyric ever written in any U2 song. The funny thing is that Bono, who has the most long-standing relationship with his own wife, probably wrote it. However, he gets it right when it comes to love falling apart.
Pretty much anyone can identify with this song. We have all been in relationships that have fallen apart or have come to a close, whether we wanted the finality or the other person wanted to call it quits. So Cruel gets it right. It speaks to the human frailty of relationships. Once one gets into a lovers bond, you give of yourself. You sort of melt into the other person whether you want to or not. It’s that self-extraction, when the relationship ends, that makes it very difficult and painful to move on.
What I like about So Cruel is its simplicity. The song rests in the middle of an album filled with texture, loops and newfangled sounds. The opening piano lulls you in to Larry’s drum tapping. Bono begins, almost in a spoken word style, about the recognition by the protagonist that something has gone wrong in a relationship. It is an amazing set-up as we move into the second stanza where Bono begins to lull us into the story. Much like the Siren’s song, we want hear more. Sirens usually sing songs of beauty yet this is not beautiful song, however Bono makes it that way with his new found falsetto. When he mentions wearing “love like a see through dress,” we can identify with the pain because love is suppose to be thick and in this situation, it’s painted thin.
As the song closes out in the third stanza, the orchestra crescendos there’s no turning back. The relationship that was splitting at the seams at the beginning of the song has now come to an end. Bono speaks that “in love there are no rules.” He verbalizes the harshness of love and not the beauty of it. Bono brings us to the finality of this relationship by ending the song with “Sweetheart, your so cruel.” The shattered glass of a relationship can never be put back together. It’s time to move on. So ironic, on this unrelenting emotional roller coaster of an album, that the next song on the record is “The Fly,” which has it interpretations in some corners as a “Bar Fly.”
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 tourfans.com,” 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 U2tourfans.com 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.
The industrial dance influence that came with Achtung Baby was really no surprise to me. I saw it coming when U2 released the track Night and Day on the Cole Porter tribute Red Hot + Blue. Many stars previous to U2 had covered the song, a certified classic. In fact, it’s the anchor tune in the Great American Song book. However, U2 takes Night and Day to another level by bringing in an industrial backing track, a drum machine, Edge’s guitar and a conga. What true blue U2 fans were seeing in the fall of 1991 was the makings of what is to come in U2’s next studio project Achtung Baby.
The Night and Day recording is really is a one-off and it’s the bridge song from The Joshua Tree / Rattle and Hum era to the new beginning of U2. What those four minutes or so of recorded was taking a risk and running with it. Bono begins to give the song its darkness by almost speaking the opening phrase. As the chorus rolls along in its brilliance, he keeps the darkness as he wails for the late night lover who lives in the narrative. What Bono is really working towards is the falsetto, which will become his bread and butter vocal for upcoming tracks on Achtung Baby.
The video, on the other hand, displays the band as actors, at the very beginning, as they hold their instruments while letting their lead singer take over. Each band member seems to be pondering not only the lyrics but also the existence of the band. We see the signs now that this was the turning point of this great group. What we were unaware of was what was really around the corner as U2 progressed into digging deeper into a darker side of themselves as Achtung Baby was coming to life in the studio which was a push for them to move into uncharted waters of alternative rock, industrial and dance music.
In hindsight, Night and Day is a gem of a track and it’s ageless. The band, without pressure of a full-length record to produce, sits in and works out a new sound without hesitation. U2 followed their edict of going home to dream it all up again as they said they would. For the next seven years, U2 completely changed their sound. There were bumps along the way but in my mind, this recording session was the seed of their expansion and escape from the overexposure they had in the late 80s from their success with The Joshua Tree.
Sometimes in life, things happen for a reason. Like the day I walked aimlessly into Rose Records in downtown Evanston in the early fall of 1991. I was quiet and shy back then. You’d never know that today but I did have a quiet streak or at least it happened when I first meet someone. In this case, I met someone far more outspoken than me and that person in question is Jamie. She’s an African American gal who is a year older than me and loves her Pinot Grigio.
When I first met Jamie, I was in need of some U2 information. I was tired of trying to get the news from the trades and MTV. I had a gut feeling that someone in Rose Records may know the answer I was searching for about the band. Far be it for me to ask anyone at Musicland across the street. They just wanted to be independent like Rose Records. On this day, I got more than I had bargained for in my meeting of Jamie, Assistant Manager of Rose Records. I found an old soul who just happened to be a fellow Iowa alum and one who was more than just a student at Iowa, her father was the Director of Student Affairs at the university. I felt like I was at home.
Jamie and I hit it off immediately. She became my inside connection to everything music. When INXS’s Live Baby Live album came out, she hand delivered the CD to my studio apartment. She kept me informed with the moving and shaking around U2’s Achtung Baby release as well. I will say she was a little pissed that I wasn’t the first one in the door on the day the album went on sale. I tell this story in the book verbatim as she plays an older sibling disappointed in my lack of enthusiasm for getting my choirs done on time. I let it roll of my back like rain trying to stay attached to a plastic bag. I knew I had disappointed her for all the great things she had done for me. In the end, she sold me the Acthung Baby digi-pack and shoved a bunch of swag under my arm that the label had given her as I left her store. I was lucky. She looked out for me.
Our paths would cross several times after the album’s release. I kept up my appearance in her store and on her answering machine. In time, I took her to one of those brilliant ZOO T. V. shows at the abysmal World Theater, which is a story for another day. Actually, that is wrong. She had a car and the World Music Theater is about 30 miles away from Evanston, which is why we went together. No, I didn’t use her. She wanted to go. In fact, she was more interested in the opening acts – Public Enemy and Big Audio Dynamite II than U2 until they hit the stage. As an honor, we hit McDonald’s on the way home for a post show snack and our lives began to drift apart.
Jamie would come in and out of my life at odd times and she never had enough time to chat when we did run into one another. When I first moved to Uptown six years ago, we crossed paths on the street as she was trying to hop on a bus. I didn’t have enough time to say more than “hello.” A few years later, I was taking our dog to get bathed at Soggy Paws. From the back of the store came a familiar laugh. I recognized it immediately. It was her. “Jamie!” I screamed. We hugged and caught up. She spoke a mile a minute, nothing had changed, and within five, I was at her life beginning in the new millennium. She thought of me recently as one of her other big U2 fan friend was speaking about the band. The irony was that I was in her store within a matter of days. It is how it always works with our friendship. After I had washed the dog, she asked me what I had been up to. I told her my mother was an Alzheimer’s patient and I had written a memoir. When I told her the title, she looked back at me with her usual grin and laughed. “Eric that is very cool. It’s so you, “ She said. It was the last time I saw her.
Jamie comes in and out of my life like the wind. If she read the book, she would recognize herself instantly in the record store clerk. I wanted to make sure that readers knew how special, and lucky, I’ve been when it comes to making friends along the U2 fandom path. Jamie is no exception. This is why things happen for a reason. Life, if we allow it, let’s us meet people who make an impact on us for a long time. My Pinot Grigio, African American big smiled gal does just that and I hope she will find this blog very soon.