For every person who’s ever told me or my colleagues to stick to the music, I’ve answered with U2. Also Bob Dylan, and the Beatles, and Neil Young, and Mavis Staples, and Bruce Springsteen, and the Clash, and Beyonce. Stick to the music? Have you read any of the lyrics? Ever?
You think homecomings are about nostalgia, but they’re also about where you are now. For U2 to revisit “The Joshua Tree” is to think about what a huge mark it made on 1987, and how it resounds in 2017. For us to revisit that music, those lyrics, and those images with them is an opportunity to reflect on the distance traveled and the miles yet to go.
“Chicago! We’ve always felt more at home here than almost any other city,” said Bono. “It’s a real home-coming.” And of course the band launched into “A Sort of Homecoming,” which is what it felt like in the very full and friendly Soldier Field. People waving to each other, hugging, sharing beers. I turned around in my seat, and found my cousin Julie. Down the row were XRT friends who saw U2 first play Park West in 1981, and others who were yet to be born. In front were fans who high-fived as soon as Larry Mullen kicked into the killer opening riff of “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and sang along with every word: “I can’t believe the news today, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.” Bono mentioned the recent terror attacks in London and gun violence in Chicago while singing a song about a 45-year-old tragedy in Northern Ireland. Because this wasn’t just a nostalgia trip: the guys are clearly connecting what they loved about America then with where we are now. And they think we need a little pep talk.
So we punched the air as we sang along to “Pride (In The Name Of Love),” rededicated to Dr. King’s dream complete with text of his speech on the enormous screen behind the band.
As U2 moved on to The Joshua Tree with the ringing guitar of “Where The Streets Have No Name,” I was transported back to 1987: finishing school, working a full-time radio job hosting Sell and Swap on weekdays and playing Pat Boone’s gospel show on Sunday mornings, and trying to figure things out. This album played non-stop in my student apartment in DeKalb and in the cassette player of my old Ford Escort as I drove through northern Illinois cornfields as lush as the desert landscapes Anton Corbijn used to illustrate the record were stark. I definitely hadn’t found what I was looking for, but it was thrilling then to hear rock music that was brooding, thoughtful, beautiful, that exhorted us to listen to our better angels. It’s thrilling now, with the subsequent 30 years proving that what we are ever looking for has to be rooted in love.
“All are welcome here, left or right,” said Bono as the band moved through some of the biggest songs of our generation. “Bullet The Blue Sky” still sears, all the more meaningful with film of Americans of all sorts donning a soldier’s helmet. A reminder of the many Irish immigrants who found shelter in Chicago and the US before “Trip Through Your Wires.” We saw women holding candles during “Mothers Of The Disappeared.”
Then the encore, and The Passengers’ “Miss Sarajevo” – introduced by a 15-year-old Syrian teenager in a refugee camp who hopes to come to America. We passed a large silkscreened banner showing her passport photo over our heads and around the stadium while images of the refugee camp passed before our eyes. It was a transcendent moment.
Some people might see this and tune out: too controversial. They fail to see that controversy is merely an argument, in this case over whether we should welcome the stranger into our midst, as so many faith traditions command. What U2 suggests is that if we connect to this Irish quartet who were once strangers in a strange land, then we must consider welcoming newcomers. We, and they, should not be the only ones who get to have a homecoming.
The music U2 closed out with, including “One,” “Beautiful Day,” “Elevation,” built up to a rousing stadium singalong. Without a crack band and a backbeat, this complicated life is not much fun. Without the ideas grounding them – truth, justice, peace, love — for me, it would be a loud cymbal, a clashing gong – meaningless. In 2017, we needed this pep talk.
Stick to the music? What’s the point of that? See you next time, boyos.