By: Maggie Gerrity
In the beginning, there was Bono.
When I was thirteen, much of my life revolved around religion, its rules as rigid as the pleats of my gray wool Catholic school skirts. But this isn’t about God. That’s just where it started, my love of music, my loyalty to musicians, with Bono. Not with his mid-80s mullet, not when he scowled pensively in the desert a few years later, but with Bono circa 1992. Dyed black hair, silver hoop earrings, giant fly goggle shades, skin-tight black leather pants and a jacket to match. The cheroot dangling from his lips. The Cuban-heeled boots. The Heineken, the screaming girls, the chaos of it all. In the beginning, there was the thrust of Bono’s hips, stolen glimpses of him on MTV, even though I wasn’t supposed to watch. My adolescent world clattered to a halt.
I’d been aware of U2 for a few years before that, since the afternoon when I was eight and heard “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” on the radio of my father’s black Chevy pickup truck. I want to say it was summer, because when I think of that moment, I think of how hot the sunlight felt, but I can’t say for sure. What I do remember is being allowed to stay up late to watch the Grammy Awards with my father some months later. He rooted for U2 to win Album of the Year for The Joshua Tree, so I did, too. What still sticks with me most, though, is my shock at seeing Bono’s long hair. The only other man I had ever seen with long hair was Jesus.
But this Bono, he was different. He made me do bad things. Over half my life later, I still feel like I owe my mother an apology. The day before Mother’s Day in 1992, my father took me to the mall to buy her a present. I don’t remember what I got her—slippers probably, or maybe a pink terrycloth robe embroidered with garish flowers—but what I do remember is this: whatever it was, I chose it because I’d have enough money left over to buy a cassette copy of Achtung Baby. As terribly selfish as it seems, I still can’t bring myself to say I’m sorry, because inside the cellophane wrapper and hard plastic case, I found something that changed my life forever.
The album, of course, was a rebirth for U2, even if I didn’t know it then. After a New Year’s Eve concert in their hometown of Dublin in 1989, they’d disappeared from the music scene. During that last show, Bono had claimed they needed to “dream it all up again.” When they reemerged in November of 1991, their earnest Joshua Tree-era image had been replaced with bigger shades, tighter pants, and a mischievous smugness, on Bono’s part, at least, that suggested the band’s days of dreaming beneath a desert sky were behind them.
And there I was, during the spring I was thirteen, trying to make sense of it all. In the mosaic of photos on the cover of Achtung Baby there was a coded message, I was sure of it, one that if I was cool enough and smart enough, I might be able to decipher. I just had to keep trying, the way I fought most nights with pre-algebra problems. Except this time, what I learned would be something useful—how to convince my parents to switch me to public school, or at least how to work up enough courage to talk to the group of artsy older kids at my school who didn’t even know I existed.
That thrash of guitar at the start of “Zoo Station” cracked my world in half. I’d come home from school and neglect my homework, something I’d never done before. Instead, I’d crank up my stereo. Music was suddenly something new, something dangerous and sexy and so far away from the sheltered life I led between those four blue bedroom walls, on that dead-end street, in that dead-end Pennsylvania town that the steel mills and factories had abandoned long before I was born. For the first time, I felt like music had the power to take me somewhere, even if I’d never flown in an airplane, or been to see the ocean.
Somehow, from U2’s most personal album since Boy, sprang their most over-the-top tour: Zoo TV. Achtung Baby celebrated decadence, at least in its sound, and Zoo TV became a celebration of all its spoils: every excess possible in a world possessed by consumerism. More. Bigger. Faster. Better. Now. Giant video screens flashed snippets of commercials and slogans as tall as buildings. Brightly painted German Trabant cars swung out over the crowd. Bono rose up at the center of it all, slick with sweat and reaching for the crowd: a prophet, a salesman.
And when, that summer, U2 brought the Zoo TV Outside Broadcast to Hershey for a week of rehearsals, that world that had seemed so far away suddenly sprang up a mere twelve miles from my front door. Fans camped outside the stadium, hoping for a glimpse of the band, or the chance to hear reworked versions of their new songs. U2 was everywhere that week—in every newspaper, the topic of gossip on every local radio station. It wasn’t the full moon making people act wildly; it was Bono turning up at a McDonald’s drive-thru, or the Edge dancing around his hotel room without realizing he’d forgotten to close the shades. It seemed like the most exciting thing that had ever happened—that ever would happen—in my life. To me, though, stuck home alone, too young to work, too young to drive, those twelve miles might as well have been twelve hundred. I scoured the local papers for articles and pictures, clippings I taped up beside the full-page magazine photo of a leather-clad Bono on my closet door.
Near the end of the week, the band announced it would play a full-length dress rehearsal open to the public. Finally, I thought, I’d get my chance—until my mother refused to let me go. No way. Too young. Not even if my father took me. Not even if I cried for two days and refused to come out of my room and blasted side A over and over, just loudly enough for the windows to rattle with Adam Clayton’s bass line, but just softly enough to avoid being grounded.
My father tried to get tickets anyway, tried to be that hero he’d always been, but they sold out in minutes. Even if he had, I don’t think my mother would’ve let him take me. They’re probably all on drugs, I heard her tell him at one point, not quite sure if she meant the band or the audience. My parents saw what drugs did to people every day; my mother worked in the district attorney’s office, my father as a deputy warden at the county prison. They watched kids not all that different from me, kids who came from good homes and who had bright futures, saw them get lost in prescription pills or heroin and never find their way back. They couldn’t possibly know it then, but they had no reason to worry. The only thing I ever stashed in my bedroom during those years were grunge albums I’d copied onto blank tapes, the Pearl Jam and Nirvana albums I knew they’d confiscate after one listen. As it turned out for me, Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain weren’t gateways to anything. My life would remain painfully boring for a long while. But at least I was safe.
When I think of being thirteen, it’s not my parents’ strictures that I remember first, or even all the tricks I used to try to block them out. No, I think of that poster of Bono on my closet door. Because in that moment when my mother said no, when she insisted I was too young, that it would be the wrong kind of crowd, she canonized Bono, made him the patron saint of everything I wanted, but couldn’t have. O sweet swivel of hips, o sweat, o stubble, o grand world I would someday grow up and take part in, until as late as I wanted, every goddamned Friday night.
Nothing captures my teenage years, for me, the way Zoo TV does, even if I never got to see it in person. Slick and seductive, but overwhelming, too, a glut of overexposure and no time to process it all. The leaders, they’re not listening; the buffalo are about to tumble off the cliff. After school, I watched the video of Zoo TV Live from Sydney until I knew every note, every word, every cymbal crash and costume change, every near-subliminal message. At school, when Deacon Wentzel wrote believe on the board, I couldn’t stop myself from seeing lie first. “EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG,” my favorite catchphrase flashed across the giant video screens, became so commonplace to me that it started sounding right, and maybe, in a way, it was. I never quite figured out the high school social scene, never liked the same music as most kids my age, always cared more about books than makeup. Around my beloved Bono poster I taped magazine clippings, pictures, and headlines, a mosaic of constant reminders that life wouldn’t be like this forever, that someday I’d finally leave this small town, that I’d meet people who liked the same things I did, that maybe—most importantly—someday I’d be cool.
When I finally got tickets to see U2 for the first time, five summers after their week in Hershey, I convinced myself it would be nothing short of holy. From February until the second week of June, it was all I would talk about to anyone who would listen—friends, classmates, teachers, even college admissions counselors. I didn’t care about the acceptance letters and scholarship offers; they were hoops I jumped through to please my parents so that they’d let me be in the same place as Bono for an entire evening. My favorite teacher had died the previous fall. Mr. Connor, my religion teacher, my confirmation sponsor, the one who’d actually listened to the U2 tapes I brought him. Grief sent me so far back into myself that despite their apprehension at letting me go all the way to Philadelphia, my parents seemed overwhelmingly relieved to see me happy again.
My best friend, two years older and already in college, took me to the show, where we met up with some of her sorority sisters, a guy she was vaguely dating, and that guy’s amazingly attractive older brother. I said maybe five words to them the whole night, then sat staring at the glowing yellow PopMart arch and the giant video screens, transfixed. Never mind that we were halfway back in the stadium and that Bono would be the size of a toy figurine. Never mind that some days he wasn’t even my favorite member of the band anymore, that I’d careened through a brief crush on the Edge, then settled into glassy-eyed longing for bleached blond Adam Clayton. When the screens showed Bono, shadow punching his way up the center aisle toward the stage, a boxer displaying his swagger before the big fight, I cried.
I cried so hard, in fact, that I missed all of “Mofo” and “I Will Follow” while I sat with my head between my legs, because my friend thought I was going to pass out and mortify her even more. I didn’t care. I already knew I wouldn’t ever see these people again after tomorrow, that she wasn’t really dating this guy anyway, that in a year or two, our friendship would gradually fade, the way the Edge’s last note in “I Will Follow” did.
Finally, the swirling guitar riffs at the start of “Even Better Than the Real Thing” pulled me back to my feet. I was eighteen, college bound, so overwhelmed by the world rushing at me all at once, that it felt like I’d come to this stadium not for entertainment, but for salvation, a familiar voice ringing out in the night that could keep me from floating too far away from everything I’d always known, but had always wanted to escape.
And that’s exactly what U2 did for me, that night and so many times in the years that followed. By the time I turned twenty, I was sure the most turbulent time of change was behind me, that since I’d survived Catholic school and had gotten out of Lebanon, PA, that life would get easier. Of course it didn’t. But with every heartbreak or disappointment, every grad school rejection letter or late night spent packing boxes for yet another move, first to Florida, then two years later to upstate New York, those albums remained mainstays, one thing I could count on never to change, even if everything else in my life did.
It took me eight years to get to my second U2 show, a Sunday night in spring, at an arena just miles from where I dropped, weak-kneed and crying, into my stadium seat when Bono came out on stage. This time, instead of faraway seats, I’d gotten general admission tickets for the floor, and on the day of the show, I warned the grad school friend who came with me about how I’d reacted to U2 all those years before.
“If you pass out, I’m leaving you,” she insisted. “No—I’m taking a picture first, then I’m leaving you.”
I had a hard time believing I’d react half as strongly to Bono this time, even though he’d be so much closer. Sure, my teenage crush on him had faded, and he could never fit into the leather pants of 1992, but that wasn’t all. Standing in line outside the Wachovia Center, I remembered the mix of exhilaration and fear I’d felt that night I’d seen U2 for the first time. Things were changing so quickly then, but I kept assuring myself they’d slow down. The last eight years had shown me, more than anything else, that things never really slow down. You speed up, you keep going, you find ways to adapt to change after change after change. But then life had thrown more changes at me than I could manage all at once: a move from sunny Florida to dismal upstate New York, a breakup that had blindsided me, yet another new beginning at a new school, this time in a Ph.D. program where, unlike college and my master’s program, I struggled to make friends. Life seemed to need more from me than I knew how to give. Instead of adapting, I just stopped. Depressive episode, my doctor had called it before handing over a prescription for 50-milligram Zoloft tablets that I’d swallow dutifully with my coffee each morning for eleven months.
Gradually, I grew tired of the thin film that seemed to separate me from everything, of that sensation that my life was on a two-second tape delay. If I stubbed my toe, I was aware of the fact that it hurt. If someone told a joke, I was aware of the fact it was funny and I was laughing. I hadn’t felt anything, truly felt, for nearly a year, and I was terrified that if I kept taking the pills, it might be like that forever. A few days before the concert, I took the bottle of Zoloft from the medicine cabinet, stared at it for a few moments, and put it back, unopened. I didn’t wean myself off them or consult a doctor. I just decided it was time to start living again.
I clapped that night when the arena lights went down and Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” began pouring from the P.A. system, signaling the band would soon take the stage. We hadn’t gotten lucky enough to get in the inner circle down front, but we were only one row back from the catwalk that arced out around it. My heart thumped hard with anticipation, and I cheered when the Edge began playing the first notes of “City of Blinding Lights.” Red and white confetti poured down on the crowd, and I reached up and tried to grab a few pieces of it, though the foil fell through my fingers and onto the concrete floor. I could see Adam Clayton on the right of the stage, with Larry Mullen Jr. in the back behind his drum kit, but I couldn’t find Bono.
My friend tapped my shoulder then, and lightly turned my head to the left. There, only a few feet in front of us, stood Bono at the tip of the catwalk, barely out of reach. All the women in front of us extended their arms and waved their hands, desperately hoping their fingers would graze his. Even though a part of me wanted to lunge forward and join them, I couldn’t move. I didn’t cry. My knees didn’t shake and threaten to give out. I only smiled and let my head drop back as I screamed. After nearly a year of numbness, the lights seemed brighter, the music clearer, my arms strong and filled with warmth as I raised them above me. Bono began singing the first verse, and I shouted the lyrics along with him, so loudly that each word scratched my throat. In that moment, I felt the same calmness I used to feel when I put on my headphones and listened to Achtung Baby. I felt transported. I knew in two hours I’d be back to the rest of my life, and that the problems I left behind when I handed over my ticket wouldn’t disappear, but, just as they had for years, U2 seemed to reassure me that things would be okay.
I have a picture from that night, of Bono standing at the tip of the catwalk again about halfway through the show. He’s taken off his shades and sings with his eyes closed and his head dropped back. His hair, matted with sweat, falls limply against his neck. There are a few heads from the crowd at the bottom of the picture, a child on his father’s shoulders, and hands reaching upwards. What stands out to me most, though, is the halo of light around Bono’s head. It’s faint, probably just from dust or a reflection, but it makes him appear holy.
Bono is no longer my patron saint of anything. I don’t need him to be. I finally understand I don’t need saints to save me—I just need to believe I’m strong enough to save myself. I confess that my love for U2 has begun to fade. Other bands have swallowed up my attention, and, as I write this, I realize it’s been months since I last listened to even a single song by this band whose music once poured from beneath my bedroom door or out of my rolled-down car windows almost constantly. I can’t say for sure if I’ll see them again, even the next time they perform within driving distance.
But, every trip I took to see Bono sing, every minute I stood outside employee entrances with a Sharpie in my pocket and a quick drumbeat in my chest, I like to think I did it for that 13-year-old who once loved him. I can’t have everything she ever wanted. In the years since I first unwrapped that cassette copy of Achtung Baby, the world has unfolded before me, more marvelous and terrifying and heartbreaking than I ever could’ve imagined. Some nights, when Bono held a long note and the crowd thundered, I caught myself thinking, that might be the closest to salvation I’d ever get. Sometimes, I still think it’s true.