On the 30th birthday of U2’s best album, Achtung Baby, I’m sharing the moment I fell in love with the band and cemented a lifelong fascination with its extraordinary lead singer.
You’re reinventing yourself. You didn’t ask anybody if this was the right way to go about doing this. You have legitimate friends who don’t judge and don’t convict. If you wake up tomorrow in this apartment without realizing you passed out, it’ll be okay. They won’t blink.
It’s just another weekday night and you’re waiting for the video to premiere on MTV. Your friends’ television isn’t very big but it’ll do the trick. Just like the beer in your hand and the couple of cases in the fridge. Cheap stuff you’re used to. It’s like drinking water, except this stuff makes you gain weight.
You have a recognizable buzz. A familiar kind, the sort of feeling you might get when you see a kindred soul pass by on the sidewalk. A cheerful smile, an open and authentic conversation. Genuine laughter with no sense of loss. No one is diagraming your faults here. No one is demanding anything from you. Not in this safe place full of cigarette smoke and the sound of guitars echoing off the walls.
This video about to play . . . you’re genuinely curious. This is the melancholy band who produced the misty October which haunted you in its loving sort of way. The group from Ireland who became so popular at the Christian schools you went to, who became the band to embrace if you happened to be a cool believer. By the time The Joshua Tree arrived when you were in high school, you no longer could take them. It wasn’t about the music—the sounds were inspiring and epic—but it was about the images and the aura. The lead singer who seemed so earnest, so serious. And it was about that smug guy in your class with the locker next to you and his shiny new Doc Martens who acted like a fifth member of the group, proclaiming his love for this band. You didn’t want to love anything this guy loved.
Don’t let the bastards grind you down . . .
So it’s been a while after all the confusion of being with or without you and still not finding what you’ve been looking for. There was the movie everybody except you saw. They probably all went together on opening night with their shiny Doc Martens.
That was high school. 1987 turning into 1988 then into 1989. It’s October, 1991. You’ve grown to appreciate those songs and those albums. But you’re also dying to know what’s coming next.
Inspiration for you comes in Depeche Mode and The Cure and New Order and Morrissey. Sure, those are the groups from the 80’s, but you also love new genres of music. Sure, you’re part of the grunge scene, the angry sounds being made by Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But what excites you more are these so-called industrial bands. Front 242. Nitzer Ebb. Nine Inch Nails.
The music world has changed a lot since The Joshua Tree came out. So you’re dying to know what the first new song by U2 will sound like.
The video plays, and for a moment, you wonder if this is the actual video.
What’s Bono doing wandering in traffic? Why’s he look kind of different? What’s with the sunglasses? And this distant sort of music in the background . . . is this the new material?
Then comes the blast. The sound of a guitar waking up the dead. Cutting, electric, alive, and chock-full of character.
What’s this sound?
Then suddenly in the shadows emerge the band members.
Who are these people? What’s happening here? This is really cool. This is no Joshua tree.
The vocals—distorted, different.
“It’s no secret that our world is in darkness tonight.”
Wait, what, huh?
“They say the sun is sometimes eclipsed by the moon.”
This sounds kinda sexy. The Edge looks seriously awesome. What is happening here?
You chug half your beer and think of this in the context of your favorite groups. This doesn’t just belong. It seems to hover over them, hurdling their sonics and their image to this new place.
“Love, we shine like a burning star we’re falling from the sky.”
These lyrics, sung in falsetto.
I can’t take all of this in.
You finish your beer while watching the 24-inch television
Seriously the edge looks really cool dark lights shadow cage sunglasses sequence televisions videos graphics sunglasses strobe lights frenetic cigarette ambition bites the nails of success zoo what’s up with zoo I keep seeing zoo in the background has Bono lost his mind everything you know is wrong I feel like I’m on a roller coaster dizzy delirious this is glorious who are these guys it’s so secret Bono smiles Edge looks angry.
The stars have fallen from the sky and torn through this tiny living room. A soul suddenly feels ignited, stirred, shaken.
It’s a new decade, and it’s a new U2. They seem to fit right alongside the new you that you’ve become.
“Look I gotta go, yeah, I’m running outta change,” Bono sings at the end of the song. “There’s a lot of things if I could I’d rearrange.”
You can’t choose the moment music will move you. It arrives at intersections and crossroads and dead ends and open doors. It greets you only when you allow it to. Tonight, you know you’re ready for what’s next with U2 and their upcoming album, Achtung Baby.