Riding the subway to MSG with a pair of U2 tickets burning a hole in my pocket, every person was a suspect. Did they know about the treasure in my back pocket? I walked up 34th street, fighting off umbrellas and wet commuters. Entering the Garden’s gates, I was Charlie cashing in my golden ticket, entry to Bono’s House of Worship.
My fanaticism for U2 started at fifteen, back when I made an entire cassette of the song “Love Comes Tumbling,” eighteen times in a row. At sixteen I started Apartheid activism, a white suburban Jewish girl in an all-white Long Island high school. Apartheid activism led to environmentalism, which led to anti-fur activism—and Bono ignited the spark. It was the inspirational lyrics, Bono’s voice, my teenage hormones; I was hooked. I even entered my wedding reception last year to “In God’s Country,” tambourine in hand.
Madison Square Garden restricts photographers with a “first 3 songs, no flash” rule. I’ve shot U2 at MSG several times, only to be forced out early, tears rolling down my face. For the past six months I hounded the U2 publicist for press tickets. Standing on the floor last night with the other general admission plebeians, I was a lovesick disciple.
Patti Smith opened for U2 with a voracious fervor. Her voice was ablaze. She sang “Free Money” and “Kimberly” and set the political tone for the night by declaring, “Nobody’s talking about why are we in fucking Iraq! There is no righteous war.”
Two songs later, after the crowd booed her audacious political remarks, Smith responded to the conservative crowd, “I’m sorry, I lost myself. I got hypnotized.” She concluded her set with a fierce and brilliant rendition of “Gloria.” After Smith’s exit, a red-faced frat boy screamed out, “Get off the stage freakin’ hippie!”
Forty-five minutes later, smashed in between a crowd of beer-guzzling fans and a hot blond chick, who helped me pass the time by sharing her ideas for breaking through to the front row, U2 finally appeared. Confetti falling from above, Bono emerged on a heart-shaped catwalk like a bona fide rock star. There I was, getting lightheaded with bubble-gum glee.
Although I jumped up and down like a battery-operated pogo stick to “City of Blinding Lights,” “Vertigo,” and “Elevation,” my heart practically stopped beating when The Edge began the riff for “I Will Follow.”
Bono thanked Patti Smith, saying, “We would not be here if it weren’t for Patti Smith setting fire to our imagination.” Stirring the audience to sing verses of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Bono—the preacher—transformed the Garden into a cathedral of unified devotees. Even the red-faced frat boys were converted into harmoniously singing choir boys. What makes Bono’s political manifesto so easily consumed while Patti Smith was so bluntly rejected? It could have been the venue. Smith had never played the Garden and is not accustomed to large theatres. U2, on the other hand, is one of the most famous bands in the world and has been playing to coliseums of thousands of people for more than twenty years. They’re used to communicating en masse.
Like a rapper sampling classics, Bono inserted the chorus of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” into refrains of “Beautiful Day,” “Rock the Casbah” into “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and “Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” into “Bullet in the Blue Sky.”
“America, this is your song now,” Bono continued, as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” filled the stadium. Bono put on a white bandana imprinted with the Islamic moon, the Star of David, and a cross. He shouted, “All of these symbols are all sons of Abraham. Same family. A family feud. All are sons of Abraham! Father Abraham, what have you done? Speak to your sons. Tell them no more, no more!”
Dedicating “Bullet in the Blue Sky” to the “brave men and women” of the United States military, Bono kneeled down, raised his arms, and blindfolded his eyes as if he was about to get shot by a firing squad. Why this dramatic act was so widely accepted by U2 followers while Patti Smith’s earlier anti-war declaration was so vehemently rejected exemplified Bono’s ultimate star power and poetic influence. Bono knew he was a ringleader, a ringleader with a political agenda.
“Pride in the Name of Love” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” followed. International flags made of lights bedecked the stage and Africa became Bono’s next issue at hand. Now that he had the audience drunk on American patriotism, he could really slip the crowd a mickey.
He asked everyone to turn on their cell phones, to “turn the darkness into the Milky Way.” Soon the lights filled the stadium, as if he was directing a cell phone commercial. By text messaging your full name to 86483, he instructed, you can show support for One.org, the campaign to make poverty history.
“We’re asking for 1 million to sign up for the One Campaign. TWO million Americans signed. By 2008, there will be 5 million signed up. That makes us bigger than the National Rifle Association.” Speaking for the AIDS emergency in Africa, “Nearly 400,000 Africans owe their life to this country,” The crowd roared.
There I was, 16 years later, a die-hard fan of U2, and Bono is still advocating for Africa.