Jukebox Hero 4: I’m Wide Awake – U2 (Part 2)

I’m occasionally posting some chapters from my “rock memoir,” Jukebox Hero. April 29th is always a day I think of this little story.

Jukebox Hero 1: Queens of Noise – The Runaways

Jukebox Hero 2: I Will Follow – U2 (Part 1)

Jukebox Hero 3: Right Here, Right Now, Watching the World Wake Up From History

Jukebox Hero 4: Feed the World U2 (Part 2)

April 29, 1985 is a date that will live in infamy, and not because it was the day the president declared May “National Elders Month.” It was the day I finally became a rock star. It was also the last day of classes of my wild college career. I was about to graduate from Emory with a double major in Sociology and Political Science. It was also No Business As Usual Day, a day of national protest against Ronald Reagan, the military industrial complex, and the race toward nuclear annihilation. I had organized a major teach-in on campus that afternoon that was the culmination of my college activism. And perhaps, most importantly U2 was playing at the Omni Coliseum. I had used my connections to get tickets right up front and couldn’t wait.

By 1985, U2 was on their way to being the biggest band on the planet and people knew I had an inside line. “Introduce me to The Edge!” The best I could do was suggest that if you wanted to meet the band in Atlanta, just hang out at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tomb on Auburn Avenue. They would surely be there to pay their respects to the man who was all over their new album. He was born and rested in Atlanta. I’d have been there if I hadn’t had classes and the big rally. That advice paid off as Bono, Larry, Adam, and Edge stopped by and were mobbed by white kids.

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At the show, the crowd was beyond excited. Those who hadn’t seen the band before knew, from videos like U2 Live at Red Rocks, that U2 shows were more like religious events, with Bono risking his neck to get close to the fans. At most concerts, after 20 minutes, you’ve pretty much got the experience and are ready for the next stimuli. At a U2 show, you just didn’t want it to end. The Red Rockers did a fair job opening the show, but when the Irish lads opened with a rare B-side, “11 O’Clock Tick Tock,” the place was transformed.

As usual, I had girl drama at the time. I was sort of between girlfriends. I had been dating Mary, who was a manager of the Record Bar at Lennox Square. I had just started dating Starla, who was an Emory freshman and working model. That spring I was in love with a Bangle (another chapter), so of course I went to the show with my friend Paige, who was a friend from Athens and manager of The Kilkenny Cats. Mary, and Starla both managed to find me on the floor of the arena, which added to the vibe that I was at the center of something big.

Throughout the show, I pressed against the stage and tried to catch Bono’s eye. He finally saw me and in the middle of a song, shouted, “Randy!” Paige smiled and the people around me looked at me curiously. When he came over to me, I handed him a No Business As Usual flyer hoping he would announce it to the 18,000 people at the Omni. He looked at the piece of paper with confusion and just went into the next song. Bono mentioned spending time with MLK that afternoon and then they finished the concert with “Pride.” But no one was going anywhere.

The crowd was singing, “How long to sing this song,” from the U2 song “40” when the four came back on stage. Bono talked about how anyone can be a rock star and then asked if anyone in the audience could play guitar. He pulled a tall, curly-haired guy out of the front row who was more than happy to be on stage with U2. Bono carefully removed his biker gloves and handed him an acoustic guitar. Turns out after all that, the dude couldn’t play the guitar at all. Bono looked down to me in a bit of a panic and asked, “Randy, can you do this?” I looked at Paige and then at Mary, who beamed a big smile, and I gave my hand to the rock star so he could pull me on to the stage. I was magically lifted through the barrier that divided fan and band.

Bono, placed the guitar on my shoulders and gave me the chords for Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” – G-D-C, G-D-Am. I knew the chords from my Folk Guitar class at Redan High, and had learned to play a few Dylan and Neil Young songs since then. I could do this. Of course, I was on stage with my favorite band, in my hometown, in front of 18,000 screaming fans, including Starla, who I was really hoping to impress. In the one picture that survives from that night, I look like I belong in the band. I did. I was in U2!

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We rocked out on “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” I couldn’t really see the crowd because of the lights, or hear them, because I was trying to hear myself play the right chords through the monitors. I just remember looking at the carpet on the stage and thinking, “OK, this is just like jamming in a living room in Dublin.”  It felt so right, like I belonged there. All those years of playing air guitar in my room to Who records, imagining thousands of screaming rock fans. There was no Eddie Van Halen solo but I went for the power chord, especially on the E minor. I focused on getting it right but I knew everyone there imagined it was them on stage. I was there to represent the dream of every rock fan. I think that was Bono’s idea of the whole bit.

At the peak of the song, Bono, Larry, Adam, and The Edge walked off the stage and left me to play by myself. I could now hear the crowd cheer. I did my best Gene Simmons imitation and wagged my tongue at them. The band returned and ended the song in a big crash. I’m sure it was better than I could’ve imagined, but I barely remember it. It was a truly out of body experience.

I climbed back down to my seat, acting like the whole thing was planned. U2 launched into “Gloria” and I got a thousand hugs, including from Starla. After the show, I saw the band’s tour manager who said that Bono had been trying to call me. In the days before cell phones and cheap answering machines, I relied on my dorm mates to answer the phone in my room. Turns out Bono had called my room and somebody on the hall hung up on him, thinking it was a crank call. Mary let me know she had backstage passes and if I would say goodnight to Paige, I could meet up with the band.

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I ditched poor Paige and Mary and I joined the “special” people who had after-show passes. Lots of record business types and maybe a few contest winners. I hit the deli tray and scarffed cheeses while Mary got the band to sign her Boy poster. I was a friend not a hanger on. The Edge came up and gave me a pat on the back, complimenting my crappy guitar playing and then Bono approached me, with a handler keeping the over zealous fans at arms’ length. He seemed really wiped out by the show but we laughed about how funny it was that I was in the right place at the right time to help out. He suggested I come by the hotel for breakfast the next day and then he disappeared into the catacombs of The Omni.

The next day I rode my scooter down to the Ritz-Carlton on Peachtree for my breakfast date with Bono. They were heading off to the next show in Jacksonville, Florida so we didn’t have too much time to socialize. The Maitre ‘D didn’t want to seat us because of our attire. Bono was in ratty jeans and a gypsy shirt and I was wearing a blue tie-dyed jump suit I had bought on King’s Road in London. Fortunately, a young waitress whispered in his ear. Probably something about him being the biggest rock star around and me being a guy in a tie-dyed jump suit. We caught up and talked about our demo project and my love life. Why on earth I spilled my guts to him about my failed romance with a Bangle, I’ll never know. But he listened intently. Then we talked about the activism on college campuses around issues like the contras in Nicaragua and apartheid in South Africa. I explained to him the whole No Business As Usual Day thing and he said he’d wish he’d announced it at the concert. Bono also mentioned he would be doing a record with Steven Van Zandt protesting apartheid, which ended up being the brilliant “Sun City” record.

I noticed a change in this version of Bono who had suddenly become a global icon. He paused before he said anything, like the wanted to make sure he said the right thing. Maybe he thought people were going to start quoting everything that came out of his mouth. He was certainly more thoughtful, but I missed the more playful guy from The Summit in Howth.

I have to admit that, things for me seemed to change a lot after that show. I couldn’t go a day without someone shouting out, “Hey, aren’t you that dude that played with U2?” Half my friends were convinced the whole thing was staged, including the bit with the guy who couldn’t play guitar. I tried to tell them that they did that bit at every show on the tour. I gave up on my romance with The Bangle and gladly became Starla’s boyfriend. But June was around the corner and I knew that I needed to be in Europe for the summer of 1985. I had rigged up a scam with Steve and Babs to keep each other in the transcontinental loop. We devised a way to call each other collect to payphones on specified times. They would be standing in a payphone on Rathmines Road and I’d be in a payphone on North Decatur Road and one of us would tell the international operator it was a collect call. We did this for months and the Irish and American phone companies never caught on. When Steve told me that U2 was playing in Dublin on June 29 with In Tua Nua and R.E.M., I had my summer agenda.

The fact that U2 was playing with R.E.M. made it like a summit of the new generation. Both were at the peak of their coolness. They were brand new sounds that had been around long enough to prove they weren’t one hit wonders, like Men Without Hats. Since R.E.M. was from Georgia and everyone is family in Georgia, I had plenty of back-stories about them, especially the patron saint of the hipster South, Peter Buck. One of those stories involved my flight to Dublin for this show.

The June 29th show was at Dublin’s Croke Park and since In Tua Nua was on the bill I got in again as a drum roadie. Arriving back in Ireland for my fourth summer abroad, I felt like a seasoned traveler. I had graduated from college and been accepted to graduate school in the fall. When I heard about the U2 show, I had only saved up enough to buy a one way ticket but I figured I had a few months to worry about how to get home. I’d be living the high life of a drum roadie now that In Tua Nua was on Island Records and my A&R work was being sponsored by Bono himself.

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The show itself was wonderful. Pete Buck was surprised to see me backstage and I told him the whole Babs-Steve-Bono story. It was a sunny day and U2 had pulled a massive crowd. Squeeze was also on the bill. The Irish crowd had not yet caught on to the Southern gothic charm of R.E.M.. Their swirling music was an extension of the red clay in my blood but the lads and lasses just seemed confused. Fortunately, In Tua Nua, again at the bottom of the bill, dipped enough reels and jigs in their modern rock to keep the crowd warmed up for the Kings of Dublin. My all-access pass got me around all the security, but by this time U2 was, collectively, becoming as big as the John Paul 2, so I only briefly got to chat with Bono (who himself wasn’t the pope, yet). I got a friendly hug and up they went to the adoring adulation. Their encore included a version of Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown.” I felt in that moment how the kindred souls of artists crossed oceans and decades. I wanted in on that.

That summer I really began to feel like I belonged in Dublin. I knew my way around. I knew the locals. I knew music writers and music makers. I would go to birthday parties for B.P. Fallon, the famous Irish DJ. I’d go the home of Bill Graham, the famous Hot Press writer, and listen to Aretha Franklin records. Babs had even planned to fix me up with their new roommate, the very cool Clodagh Latimer. The problem was, I had quickly gotten over my ill-begotten romance with a Bangle and now had my first actual girlfriend. Although, my love of Starla didn’t stop me from spending a lot of time that summer with Clodagh’s friend, Sineád O’Conner, who was working delivering telegrams dressed as a French maid.

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Being in Dublin with my double degree from Emory in my back pocket in Sociology and International Studies (turns out I was one credit shy of the Political Science major) made me relish my nights in the pubs even more. I fell in love with Irish pubs on my first visit. Here were halls full of people who were not watching prime TV, but having conversations. The political conversation was part of the DNA of the Irish. I learned more about U.S. policy in Latin America from a guy at the end of the bar at the Rathmines Inn than I did in all of my Ivy League courses and American “liberal” media. With a pint of the black water (Guinness to you), there were no strangers or off-limits topics. Way back in London, in 1982, I had learned to sublimate my Americaness. After all, Ronald Reagan was willing to make Europe the frontlines for his nuclear strategy. (When two tribes go to war, one point is all you can score.) But by 1985, my Irish accent seemed real.

There wasn’t as much roadie work as I had hoped so when In Tua Nua booked a show in London, I hitched a ride. I’d been planning on making it to London for the massive Live Aid show on July 13th and In Tua Nua’s show was on the 12th. Nowadays, I imagine most folks just fly, but in those days it was common practice to take the ferry and then train or coach it the rest of the way. I was becoming a veteran on that ferry. The band boarded together and we sang and played in the lounge as we made our way across the Irish Sea to Wales. Once we docked in Holyhead, the band hopped the speedy train to London and I was stuck in the more “scenic” coach.

The show was a big one for London as it was the coming out of The Communards, Jimmy Sommerville’s new group. I had been indoctrinated to his previous combo, The Bronksi Beat, earlier that year. I had moved around at the Turtles Record chain. After the Stone Mountain store, I moved to the Emory Village store, across from the university. Then I ended up at Ansley Mall Turtles. It was a great store, next to Piedmont Park and in the heart of Atlanta’s gay community. It was a big growing experience for a kid from a Klan town who was trying to leave his bigotries behind. And at the beginning of the summer of 1985, if a guy with a mustache and an undershirt walked in the store, there was a good chance he wanted a copy of Tina Turner’s Private Dancer or Bronski Beat’s Age of Consent. On cassette. I could see how the popularity of an out gay group meant so much to my gay workmates. Atlanta might have been an urban enclave but it was still in The South. So I was excited to see Sommerville’s new group.

Live shows in London are always about more than the music. It’s a scene. A global scene! Fans from all over the world are there, especially in the summer. In Tua Nua was on fire that night. Their new single, a cover of “Somebody to Love,” was getting airplay. I remember bassist Jack Dublin in rare form and Steve sailed away on the fiddle. After the show, a few jokes were made about the “gayness” of the audience but music fans were music fans and The Communards sounded amazing. I could feel the old homophobia melt away as Sommerville sang “You Are My World.” Love is the thing. Unfortunately, after packing up the gear we left the show early for a big dinner in London. I had one of those filet of sole dishes where the fish face stares right at you. But I knew I would need protein for the next day’s marathon.

I snuck out of the hotel early the next day to find my ticket for Live Aid. I had given a half-assed attempt to get one from Island Records, but I was never very good at that. It was too much like asking directions from your car. The Live Aid phenomenon was sweeping the globe and the concerts promised to be the definite music event of my generation and U2 was right in the middle of it!

It all began in late 1984 when Bob Geldof, of the Boomtown Rats, cornered Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher about butter. While famine gripped the people of Ethiopia, Britain sat on tons of surplus butter that could be used for cooking. One thing led to another and Geldof invented the celebrity all star single. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” featured all the biggest British pop stars of 1984, including Adam and Bono from U2, billed as Band Aid. It was a moving moment in music, that’s been imitated a thousand times since. That Christmas, instead of gifts, I donated money to African famine relief in peoples’ names. I was hugely unpopular.

But the famine relief began to gain momentum. Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones did an American version of the Band Aid single called “We Are the World.” It was a cheesy mess, only rescued by the weird appearance of Bob Dylan. After that talk, began about the Live Aid concert. There would be two major ones, at Wembley Stadium in London and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, with a host of smaller shows around the world, connected via satellite. I was only 5 years-old when Woodstock brought a generation together in 1969. I was 21 in 1985, and not going to miss this gathering of the tribes. The line-up was announced and was the who’s who. Most of the people who had been on the Band Aid and USA For Africa singles would be performing. Dylan would be in Philly, but Paul Weller, a major icon during my mod phase, would be playing with The Style Council in London. There were plenty of surprises as well. Led Zeppelin would reform for the US show and The Who would play Wembley. Paul McCartney was top of the bill for the UK show, so there was a massive rumor that there would be a sort of Beatles reunion, with Julian Lennon filling in for John. How the hell could I miss that?

With no real plan to get in, I hit Oxford Street and looked for touts selling tickets to the sold out event. Sometimes they hung outside record stores, like HMV, to scalp hot seats. It was too early and the streets seemed bare for a Saturday morning. I knew every music fan in London was on their way to Wembley. So I hopped a train north.

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The train was full of musos talking about this phenomenal event. Queen would be there, and David Bowie. Somehow Prince Charles and Lady Diana were on their way. Phil Collins was supposed to play at both the London and the Philly shows. Were The Beatles performing? And of course, lots of excitement about the U2 set. I arrived at the platform and the word was out that the Bobbies were busting ticket scalpers right and left. This was a charity event, after all. A scared looking kid sold me a ticket for face value and then disappeared into the crowd. I was in! Miracles happen.

Inside the massive, sun soaked stadium I wasted no time in making my way right to the front. Since I was by myself, there was no reason to sit in the stands. I was going to see pretty much all my favorite performers in one day. I had to be as close as possible. I had gotten used to the crush of European shows and knew I would be getting intimate with a few thousand folks. With the flush of Royal Guard horns, the show began with Status Quo playing “Rockin’ All Over The World,” beamed in to TVs all over the planet. I instantly noticed the unity of the crowd. Heavy metal Quo fans bopping with trendy London kids who were there to see Nik Kershaw, along with the classic rock fans, all grooving to save the starving children of Africa. It was a unity that was sadly lacking when I went to the first Farm Aid concert later that year in Champaign, Illinois.

The summer heat was tempered for the crush of us in the front by hoses that sprayed down the crowd. This only created more heat as girls climbed on their boys’ shoulders to get the attention of the hosers. It was hard to focus on the films on famine in Ethiopia or the presence of Princess Diana with super-cool English girls being hosed down by men in front of the stage.  When the live satellite link came in from the U.S. show things heated even more. It was The Beach Boys performing “California Girls” half a world away as the drenched London girls bobbed and danced. The world seemed united by rock music. I felt like I was part of something monumental, a global jukebox.

There wasn’t much down time between sets as the stage was sort of a rotating Lazy Susan and when one act would finish, the stage would just rotate 180 degrees and the next act would begin their short set. As Sade rotated away, the equipment for U2 rotated in. The crowd exploded. Yeah, a Beatle reunion would be godhead but, now that The Clash were gone, U2 was the only band that mattered. When Bono, Larry, Adam, and The Edge walked on stage you knew it would be one of those Woodstock moments, like Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” that people would talk about forever. After all, U2 CARED.  If there was any band of island guys that could save Africa, it was them. And they did not disappoint.

Each band got only 20 minutes to perform. It didn’t matter if you were Elton John or the Boomtown Rats. That meant that each act got about four or five songs. U2 played only two. They came on to the strident “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” which seemed an odd choice in this moment of planetary unity. Were they trying set the Irish and English fans against each other? “I’m so sick of it!” I tried to get as close to the stage as possible. Maybe Bono would see me and pull me onstage to play another song. The crowd bounced to the marching beat of the hit.

But then they slid into “Bad,” the hypnotic song I had seen brought to life a year before in Windmill Lane. It was a perfect balance. The group had taken to extending the song live to work random songs into the simple structure. Today Bono carried them through the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Ruby Tuesday” and Lou Reed’s  “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Satellite of Love,” which seemed perfect for the feed the world message that was being beamed around the Earth. Then something beautiful happened. U2 was playing to the 82,000 people in the stadium and the untold millions around the world (including every MTV viewer in the United States). But in the global audience, Bono brought it down to the most personal level.

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He climbed down from the stage, apparently something organizer Bob Geldof had prohibited, and found one person. One girl. He hugged her while the band played the riff. He hugged her for a long time. It wasn’t a rock star hugging a fan. It was one person hugging another in a world full of pain and starvation. The whole thing took on a different feel at that moment as the embrace was projected on the massive jumbotrons and off to the satellites. People began hugging each other randomly. I looked up and saw Princess Diana wipe a tear from her eye. This wasn’t just about music. We were saving lives. Our own.

The rest of the day was an extension of the bliss. Dire Straits debuted their new song with Sting, “Money For Nothing,” which I would hear a million more times in 1985. Phil Collins did a set and then hopped on the Concord to make it to the Philly show to play with Led Zeppelin. When the supersonic jet flew right over Wembley, everyone in the stadium waved goodbye. Bryan Ferry was smooth and The Who were hard. David Bowie played my least favorite Bowie song (“Modern Love”) and my most favorite (“Heroes”), which brought another round of tears. Queen staged a massive comeback and had the entire place acting out the video for “Radio Ga Ga.” And then Paul McCartney appeared, complete with a broken P.A., to end the show with a version of “Let It Be.” It wasn’t a Beatle reunion, but it was a Beatle. My first. Everyone came in for the finale and then, in the middle of July, Bob Geldoff kicked off, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Feed the world.

The crowd continued to sing the chorus as the house lights came on. The stadium began to empty out and I realized I had been jumping up and down for 14 hours. No food, No bathroom break. Just pure musical bliss and I was as close to the magic as possible. There was a mad dash to the trains to get to any pub that had satellite TV (a rare thing in 1985). People had not had enough and wanted to see the rest of the U.S. show. I’d hope to catch it on RTE, the Irish network, as members of In Tua Nua, including Steve, were manning the phone banks and taking donations. I got to a pub in the West End in time to see Dylan, with Keith Richards and Ron Wood, play something. I couldn’t tell what. Some rambling thing that might have been a song. And then the far cheesier “We Are The World” finale, which didn’t really seem that cheesy any more. The talk of the pub was how much better U2 was than Bob Dylan himself, even if they were Irish.

I spent the next few days bumming around London. I put up about a hundred Nightporters stickers around town, especially outside cool clubs, like The Marquee. I took Sineád shopping on Carnaby Street and picked up some new mod clothes and caught a film. And I headed back to Dublin to spend the rest of the summer listening to fiddle players in pubs, tracking down rare Thin Lizzy and Christy Moore records and trying to not be American. Steve and I ran into Larry Mullen in Howth. He said he remembered my performance at the Atlanta show. Even if he didn’t, it didn’t matter. I was in the band.

When I finally came back to Atlanta, I had to find a new place to live. I lived in the dorms all four years of college and during the breaks I would stay on couches (usually Tim’s) or sneak into the dorm and camp in my room. Anything to stay out of Stone Mountain. So I was happy to land a very Parisian apartment in North High Ridge. It was an ancient apartment complex wedged between the punk rock neighborhood of Little 5 Points and the yuppie neighborhood of Virginia-Highlands. My first week there, I only had a sleeping bag, my stereo and a Jonathan Richman record. The third floor flat had branches from a massive oak tree that came into my porch overlooking North Avenue, so I dubbed the place The Treehouse. There were two murders on the block that week. I was right where I wanted to be.

As U2 became megastars, I heard less from Bono, but I still sent him tapes. The following spring he sent a short letter to the Treehouse to let me know the project was still on.

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Randy,

Just a note from me… at the bottom of the sea…learning how to swim? Are you riding the crest of a wave – Are you still in love??

I see Steve and Babs and Mike Scott quite a bit now that I’m home. I still haven’t done a full appraisal of the USA tapes but so far so good. I will ring… and thanks again.

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By 1986, Tim had left The Nightporters to form drivin’’n’cryin’, with Kevn Kinney. Tim had moved into the Treehouse and Kevn was sleeping on our couch. I sent Bono a tape of the band performing like on WREK, the Georgia Tech station. The news came around that U2 would be doing a big benefit tour for Amnesty International with a reformed Police. I had started the first Amnesty International chapter at Oxford College, so I was happy to see we were still on the same page, saving humanity.

Someone made a call somewhere and I found out that I was having lunch with Bono the day before the June 11 show at the Omni. It was actually Babs’ mom who arranged the thing. Mrs. Kernel was proud that her son-in-law was in show biz and invited Bono out to lunch, along with several U2 fans she knew. We met at a small bistro in midtown and when Bono arrived, he said hello to Mrs. Kernel and her flock and then made a B-line to me. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Randy, I am a drivin’’n’cryin fan.” I was quite pleased. First of all, he was actually listening to all this music I was sending him. But secondly, I thought Tim’s new band was something unique and really had potential. About a year later, drivin’’n’cryin’ was signed to Island Records, U2’s label, and I have to think that getting that cassette tape to Bono had something to do with it.

The lunch was fine. Bono ignored the guests for the most part as he and I talked politics and I munched my tuna melt. In the past year I had been getting deep into the Van Morrison back catalog. The previous summer in Dublin I had asked Steve Wickham what led him to move from playing classical violin to rock fiddle. Steve just slapped on Side 2 of Van’s 1979 album Into the Music, and it blew my fucking mind. And when I discovered Astral Weeks it was all over. I could see the direct link from “Madame George” to “Bad.” In a pause from the geo-political discourse, I looked at Bono and said, “You know, I understand where the magic of The Unforgettable Fire comes from. It’s Astral Weeks!”

He smiled and just said, “Shhhhh.” He then laid it all out. The magic of the Irish muse. “Randy, it’s like a river. It’s always there. You can just step into it. There’s a constant flow of creative energy. It’s available to all.” It was there in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.  It was in the poetry of William Blake. And it was in the music of Van Morrison and U2. Could I tap into that? Wasn’t that how Jack Keroauc wrote? “First thought, best thought.” Maybe I should just start with a poem or two. That conversation had a huge impact on me. Yeah, I had zero musical talent, other than being able to stumble through “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” on an acoustic guitar. It gave me permission to step into my own river. It might be writing or it might be teaching. I would just let it go.

That afternoon we had a sociological conversation that I have been relating to my students ever since. We got into a deep discussion about the dysfunctional Irish family. Bono related how it all starts with the lack of birth control in Ireland. You can ban anything you want, but you can’t stop young people from having sex, which occasionally leads to pregnancy. Since Catholic nations frown upon “illegitimate” children, young couples get married at an early age. The young father is now stuck in matrimony. The older he gets, the more children that follow.  Dad escapes to spend an increasing amount of time down at the pub with the guys. (For ages, Irish pubs were manly domains.) The absent father leaves a void back home that is filled by the eldest son. A close bond develops between the son and the mother, who misses the intimacy she had with the father. But when drunk dad comes home, there’s the classic male conflict over the protection and possession of the mother. It’s pure Freud.

Bono’s story became a staple for me for a couple of reasons. Ireland’s Catholic prohibitions created a black market for birth control (and no doubt back alley abortions). Each trip to Dublin I’d smuggle in a box of Trojans for my friends. Since they were a banned item, the rubbers would often end up tacked to a wall as a symbol of defiance. Fortunately for the women of Ireland, the island began allowing the sales of condoms in 1993 and legalized divorce in 1995. But the main reason I’d pull out Bono’s story is that it gives an example of why incest is a universal taboo, found in all cultures. Such conflicts can destroy the most important social unit there is, the family. Fathers and sons fighting over mothers or mothers and daughters fighting over fathers. Not good. Maybe Irish families are a little less functional than average. Maybe it’s a good thing that pubs close at 11 pm and not later. Regardless, when the topic of cultural taboos comes up, I can drop into the lecture, “I was having lunch with Bono one day…”

The Amnesty International show was great, of course. It was wonderful to see The Police back together again. And it was strange to see Joan Baez doing “Shout,” the Tears for Fears song. Peter Gabriel brought the house down with “Biko,” the song about the South African political prisoner. U2’s set ran through their more political a fare, all your MLK songs, “Sun City,” a Beatles song (“Help”) and two Dylan songs (“Maggie’s Farm” and “I Shall Be Released”). They were in full salvation mode.

My summers in Dublin in 1986 and 1987 I didn’t see Bono much. I was firmly in the Waterboys’ camp by then. Aside from running into Adam Clayton in the occasional pub, they were occupying the stratosphere. I had heard glimpses of their new album, The Joshua Tree, through Steven who was still the on-call fiddle player. It was clear that they were still in love with Americana and that this album would be a monster.

When it was released in the spring of 1987, I was in LA for one of my rock and roll holidays. My friend Kelly Mayfield had lent me her Nissan Sentra and I was cruising the city with KNAC blasting when they began debuting the new songs. I drove up to Mullholland Drive to the winding sound of “Where the Streets Have No Name.” It was bliss. The radio station had a special announcement – U2 tickets for a concert at the Forum would go on sale in 10 minutes. I saw several cars make U-Turns and head toward ticket outlets in Hollywood. I bombed down Lauralhurst Canyon Boulevard to “Bullet the Blue Sky.” By the time I got to Sunset, KNAC announced the show had sold out but a second would go on sale in a few minutes. More radical U-turns as kids heard the news along with the brilliant new songs. All over LA, the streets must’ve looked like a Seventies cop movie as U2 fans raced to ticket booths. I would be back in Atlanta on the date, so I just enjoyed the music with the windows rolled down in the Nissan. As I headed toward Beverly Hills, a third show went on sale. They were record sell-outs and every cool kid had to be there.

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That summer I was back in Europe with a Eurail student pass. I needed to expand my radius of travel from my Dublin HQ. I explored Switzerland, Southern France, and Northern Italy, where my (now former) girlfriend, Starla, was living. I had three tapes in my Walkman; X’s See How We Are, Run DMC’s Raising Hell and The Joshua Tree. I was in Paris when The Joshua Tree tour stopped in the city of lights. I made a call and got two passes to the July 4th show at the Paris Hippodrome.  A female friend of mine from Emory, Sharon, was going to school at the Sorbonne and I agreed to take her in exchange for a free place to sleep. The band was brilliant and I watched squeezed against the barricade. I got a bit angry at the French fans who tried to sing along to every song. This was my band! I lost my concert shirt in the crush and there was tear gas fired into the crowd, but the concert was eventually released on DVD and you can occasionally see my blonde head bobbing in the sea of bad French singers.  The next morning I snuck out of the girls’ dorm at the Sorbonne (with the dorm master chasing me down the street and yelling rude things in his native tongue).

I had only been back in Atlanta a day when I got the call to head to New York to become drivin’n’cryin’s manager. Their deal with Island had them in RPM studio with Anton Fier  producing. I had barely unpacked when I headed back to NYC to begin a month of big-time recording. I was sad that my big garage band project with Bono had fizzled, but if it had played any role in getting DNC on U2s label, that was enough. And now I was managing a band on Island Records.

U2’s tour finally hit the east coast while I was at the studio. On September 10, they were scheduled to play the Nassau Coliseum in Long Island. DNC’s A&R person, Kim Buie arranged three tickets for myself, Kim, and actor River Phoenix who had been hanging out with us in the studio. For some reason, on the night of the show, neither could go. River was nice enough to send his limo to haul me out to Uniondale. I was feeling blessed at being inside of U2 mania and gave the spare two tickets to guy who looked like a hard-up fan hoping for a miracle. Once inside the arena, I found those two seats occupied by a pair of college girls. They told me they had just bought them from some guy outside for a hundred bucks each. The dude owes me. With interest.

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The band was now firmly in the zone. They were doing the shows that would become the Rattle and Hum film. Bono was older and more dramatic, lapsing into Morrisonesque spoken word bits about televangelists and El Salvador. He was morphing into a cult leader. Teenage boys were now dressing like him, with mullets and wide-brim hats. And girls would follow the Bono Boys around the arena hoping to touch the wannabe hem of their wannabe garments. I saw it many times. While I waited for River’s limo to rescue me from Long Island, I wondered where all this adoration would end up.

The tour finally made it to Atlanta on December 8, but I didn’t go. That’s the anniversary of John Lennon’s murder and it was the first annual drivin’n’cryin’ benefit for the homeless. Fortunately, U2 was doing two nights at the Omni, so I caught them on the ninth. My seats were on the floor, close to their little island stage that they would do a short set from. They opened with “Where the Streets Have No Name” and the crowd was rapt in ecstasy. When they came out to the little stage to sing “People Get Ready,” I caught Bono’s eye and got the nod.

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We had breakfast at the hotel the next morning and, again, had trouble being seated because of our attire. But this time there was a copy of a recent Time Magazine in the lobby that just happened to have my breakfast date’s picture on the cover. Apologies all around. I slipped Bono a rough mix of the new DNC album and talked to him about how Starla had dumped me for some guy she met in Paris. (Why did I always feel the need to talk to him about my girl problems???) Mostly, we talked about the music and what it’s like to be at the center of a phenomenon. Bono paused for a moment and said, “I’m just a kid from the bad part of Dublin who wanted to be in a punk rock band.”

That was the last conversation I had with Bono. The popularity of drivin’’n’cryin’ didn’t keep pace with the supernova that was U2. Peter Buck told me he was asking for me backstage at the 1992 Zoo TV concert at the new Georgia Dome, but I no longer ranked high enough for a backstage pass. It seems like each show I was farther and farther away from the band. Just another fan. Bono had become a world actor for social justice. He got George W. Bush to significantly boost aid to African AIDS prevention. He kept his sunglasses on during his audience with the Pope. He’s the biggest rockstar on earth! And I’m just trying to rock my sociology classes. But I was at the Agora Ballroom in 1981. And yeah, that was me onstage, playing with the band.

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Incels: Just the latest chapter in the war on women

April 26, 2018

When Donald Trump told CNN that the “again” in his “Make America great again” was the early 1950s at lot of white men rejoiced. Not only was that before the Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) and the pesky civil rights movement, it was before the modern feminist movement and all this nonsense about women being human beings. “Masculinist” alt right groups like the Proud Boys emerged with their own “again” slogans, including “We venerate the housewife.”

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This week’s mass killing in Toronto by a self-described “Incel” (Involuntarily Celibate) is just the latest version of this creeping misogyny by men who can’t handle the growing empowerment of women and want to drag us back to the early 1950s (or before), to a time when men’s authority went unchallenged by hashtags and rape allegations. These men have cultivated their hate online over the last decade in discussion sites like Reddit and 4chan, safe places to express their hatred of women, feminism, as well as their fantasies about raping and murdering females.

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The backlash against female empowerment of women is nothing new. It was there in the 1920s when suffragettes fought for the right of women to vote. MAGA men claimed that women’s vote would turn the White House into the “pink house.” In the 1970s a “men’s movement” emerged to counter the women’s movement (that often characterized sexist men as “male chauvinist pigs”). In her seminal 1991 book, Backlash : The Undeclared War Against American Women, Susan Faludi describes how these men’s groups would meet in the woods trying to reclaim their “true” caveman selves while “their women” struggled for equality in a “man’s world.”

The internet has given the male supremacy movement a new safe space to dislocated men to clamor for the return to the “natural order” in which men didn’t have to worry about sexual harassment claims, being shamed for their love of porn, or the “weaker sex” busting their balls for whatever gender transgression they’ve committed this week. The Manosphere is full of the most toxic masculinity they can muster because, hey, that’s their right, and bros before hos, right fellas?

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Which brings us to Alek Minassian, the socially awkward IT guy who drove a rental van onto a Toronto sidewalk this week killing 10 people, mostly women. Before the attack, Minassian posted on his Facebook page, “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys!” (Chads and Stacys are men and women who have normal sex lives.) He also posted praise for Elliot Rodger, who went on a 2014 shooting spree at a college campus in Santa Barbara, killing six people and injuring 14 others. Rodger posted YouTube videos and a manifesto about his hatred of women who had sexually rejected him. Minassian referred to Rodger as the “supreme gentleman” on his Facebook page.

The alt right has often been derided as “losers in their mothers’ basements” waging a troll war from behind their laptops. A better description is young white men unequipped to manage the demographic changes occurring in the world. Civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, and other liberation movements feel like assaults on their “God-given” authority. The erosion of the their privileges feels like oppression to them. The shift towards a more fair and inclusive society threatens to drag them out of their castle, so it’s time to man up and end this “equality” nonsense.

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I spend way too much time with these bros in their online boys club. Some of their bitching has merit. Factory jobs have been replaced by low-wage service sector jobs. But instead of focusing their anger on the globalization of capitalism, they blame everyone else, from immigrants to feminists. In 1953, women often married the first man that asked them. Now women actually have lives of their own and these boys hate it. Shockingly, their retro views of gender get in the way of them getting any satisfaction. (Mick Jagger figured it out, but they seem incapable.) They are perpetually cock-blocked by empowered women who are in control of their own sexuality. Past generations of sexually frustrated nerds had comic books or video games to calm their blocked libidos. These guys have the internet as a platform for their frustration. Spend 15 minutes in the echo chamber of these “incels” and you’ll get where the violent rage comes is headed. It’s not their fault they can’t get laid. It’s everyone else’s fault, especially the “sluts” that won’t have sex with them.

We shouldn’t worry too much about an “incel rebellion,” but these men’s inability to navigate the changing gender landscape should be cause for great concern. In the political realm they’re determined to drag us back to 1953 (or even better, the Dark Ages, because, you know, Game of Thrones and all that “awesome raping”). But there is likely a further body count to come, adding to Santa Barbara, Toronto, and all men who kill “their” women for not submitting appropriately. If we don’t find a way to reach these boyish men with a more meaningful and loving version of masculinity, their hatred of women will turn even more frightening.

Talking About Gender and Violence in the Middle East

April 19, 2018

How do you talk people out of becoming terrorists? I’ve spent this week in the United Arab Emirates at a workshop on the role of gender in countering violent extremism. The three day conference in Abu Dhabi was sponsored by the United Nations’ UN Women and Hedayah, a UAE group that works on counter-terrorism issues. My role was to brief the global participants on the state of right-wing extremism in Trump’s America, something I’ve been talking a lot about lately.

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It was a pretty amazing gathering at the Bab al Qasr Hotel, right across the street from the Emirates Palace. Three days of intense conversations with people doing work in Kosovo, Lebanon, Uganda, and the rest of the world afflicted by violence done by both men and women who have been sucked into the rabbit hole of extremism. I made friends and colleagues that will last a long time, but more importantly we saw how much of our work overlapped. My work studying white supremacists sounded a lot like the reports on ISIS and Boko Haram.

Extremists of any stripe, including right-wingers and jihadists, are often guilty of dehumanizing the targets of their anger. Similarly, we are often guilty of dehumanizing them, casting them as “animals” or “savages.” In reality, they are products of their environment on a path we rarely get to see. They often have real life grievances. It may be the evaporation of the livable wage in the U.S., or the death of family members in Iraq under U.S. bombs. Someone gives them a devil to blame and an action plan to address their emotional rage and you have a freshman terrorist.

In this context, it’s not a stretch to see a young person, who has been been bombarded online with images of real world horrors and persistent recruitment by radicals framing the horrors as the product of a vast conspiracy, heading off to join ISIS in Syria or walking into a black church in Charleston with a loaded gun.

The gender factor is clear, these calls to violence are targeted at young males looking to perform some heroic act of masculinity to defend their race or religion. While there are occasionally women warriors in both the Aryan and jihadist movements, it’s typically the guy with the gun defending “his” women. Women (in heaven or on Earth) are often used as lures like they are in college fraternities. ISIS fighters are promised wives, sex-slaves and 72 virgins in paradise. White nationalists are liberating “their” women from feminists, homosexuals, black rapists, work, and whatever else conspires to keep them out of the kitchen making sandwiches.

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The three-dray conference in Abu Dhabi was a chance to share stories from across the globe about what might work in developing strategies to rescue men and women, and boys and girls from violet extremism. Former jihadists and academic researchers worked together brainstorming on action items that would translate into UN policy proposals. We dined together and then shared more stories and refined the plan to craft a message that was more than the trope that mothers should stop their sons from becoming terrorists.

Over the course of the workshop, I thought about my own daughter on the other side of the planet missing her daddy. If she was a girl living in Cameroon or Albania, her life could be so much different. Married off as a war bride or convinced to rebel against her circumstances by being talked into strapping a bomb to her chest. The way extremism affects girls like Cozy around the world adds yet another level of external trauma the daughters of this world consumed with hyper-masculine violence face.

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I could not be more proud to do this work countering violent extremism. It makes sense to be doing it in the middle east, but it should be done everywhere. The UAE, stuck between the war zones of Iraq and Yemen, has demonstrated how it is possible for a population not to go down that path. Each morning I looked out my window, past the Persian Gulf, to the cradle of civilization. This was the world of the goddess where the weapons of war were absent for 4000 years. Committed people are working to find our road back.

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Dropping F Bombs and White Privilege

April 12, 2018

Fuck. It’s just a word. One syllable. Why should we give it power over us? People are born because of that word, and killed, and fired, and fined. (Just ask Bono.) I used to do a whole lecture in my Intro Sociology class on the social construction of profanity in which I would make each student say it out loud. The point was that the taboo on this word is so strong that some folks can’t even bring themselves to say it out loud.  They can think it, or say “the F word,” which is pretty much just saying it. But they fear God or their mother or their own internalized morality and keep their mouths shut. Free yourself! Fuck!

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Sometimes in the classroom I’ll drop an F Bomb for emphasis or just to make sure students are paying attention. “Antiquated gendered double standards. Don’t you think that’s fucked up?” In my mind it makes me more like the students and less like the stodgy caricature of a college professor. More relatable. Let’s break down the fucking wall of pretense. I put my jeans on one leg at a time, too.

I had an “aha” moment about that whole thing in a class I was teaching this week. I was trying to express the frustrations educators have trying to compete with technology in the classroom. I can’t lecture when students are on their phones or staring at God-knows-what on their laptops. I laid out a perfectly biting use of the word in question and it immediately sounded wrong. Like who am I just to throw this word around? I tried to make sure the students understood the context, but it bothered me all night; probably more than it bothered them.

Then I remembered an African-American student of mine at Portland State who always wore a suit to school. I regularly taught his Social Theory class in jeans and a t-shirt. He pointed out that, as a black man, his authority is not assumed like it was for me. He had to dress up to not be put as far down. As many women and people of color know, you have to work twice as hard for half as much when you are not a white male. My white male privilege allows me to dress like Mark Zuckerberg and drop the occasional F bomb without my authority being diminished. It’s good to be the fucking king.

If I was a female or a woman with the same speech pattern, it would be met with shock, disdain, and condemnation for my whole category. “She swears like a sailor.” “Well, black people are kinda thuggish.” And on and on. I would be viewed as from a less civilized demographic. Sluttish, animalistic, etc.. There’s a great video of a 14-year-old boy doing a slam poem called “White Boy Privilege.” He drops some F bombs and then says, “I can say ‘fuckin’’ and not one of you is attributing it to the fact that everyone in my skin color has a dirty mouth.”

My white maleness gives me free reign. Earlier this week I was giving a presentation in Chicago about white nationalism to a group called the Government Alliance on Racial Equity. On the opening slide of my PowerPoint it said, “Randy Blazak, PhD.”  While talking to these folks, I realized it was stupid to put the “PhD.” up there. My expertise is assumed. I just made it overkill. If I was a woman or a person of color, it might have been the opposite dynamic. “Please listen to me. I have a PhD.” I’m often worried people won’t listen to me, but I should remember that my race and gender carries more weight than any letters.

If my goal is to dismantle my privilege, it’s time to lay off the F bombs. If all my students, friends and colleagues don’t have the same linguistic freedom, why should I exploit it? After all, it’s just a word.

Jukebox Hero 3: Right Here, Right Now Watching the World Wake Up

I’m occasionally posting some chapters from my “rock memoir,” Jukebox Hero. This seemed like a relevant piece in the wake of Generation Z’s moment in history. Here are some others:

Jukebox Hero 1: Queens of Noise

Jukebox Hero 2: I Will Follow

Jukebox Hero: Bridge Chapter A– “Right Here, Right Now”

I took a break from my trips to Europe after 1987 when I got the job managing the Atlanta band drivn’n’cryin’. The Europe I knew was on the frontline of the cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Frankie Goes To Hollywood song, “Two Tribes” was more of a cautionary tale than a dance hit. “When two tribes go to war, one point is all that you can score.” I had marched in CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) parades in London and a cheered when 70,000 protestors blockaded the RAF Greenham Common nuclear missile base in Berkshire, England in 1983. The window of my squat in Brixton looked out at a massive mural of a nuclear holocaust. Western Europe was Ground Zero for the beginning of the end.

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I met a Russian kid named Yuri in Denmark in 1986 who had recently defected to Finland and told me that the Soviet people were deathly afraid of the madman living in the American White House, Ronald Reagan. In 1984, I had tried to see George Harrison’s English house in Henlely-on-the-Thames only to be told that Beatle George had moved his family to Australia out of fear of nuclear war. I made it to West Germany twice, only to witness a heavy presence of the American military and anger that American and Soviet egos were pushing Europe towards nuclear annihilation.

The U.S. policy that was just a budget item or back page news story to most Americans was more than life and death to Europeans. It was mass extinction.

By 1989, I had a good 7-years in protesting the Reagan-Bush arms race under my belt. In 1983, at the tender age of 19, I became a lobbyist in Washington DC for the nuclear freeze movement. When Mikhail Gorbachev began the Soviet period of Glasnost in the late 1980s, it seemed like World War III might be avoided and, more, importantly, that I could finally get into the Soviet Union with a duffle bag full of Levis.

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So it was with intense excitement that I watched the Iron Curtain begin to crack in the last minutes of the 1980s. I watched East and West Germans take sledgehammers to the Berlin Wall from a TV in my apartment in Atlanta with tears streaming down my face. People were escaping the oppressive regimes in Romania and Hungary and by 1991 the Soviet Union was collapsing.

I had to get back to Europe to be a part of this moment in history. Just like I had to be in London in 1985  for Live Aid, I had to be back at the frontline for the end of the Cold War. The door to Eastern Europe was finally open and their was a blank slate for the new decade. When I was offered a teaching assistantship in London for an Emory study abroad course, I packed my bags.

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In 1991, I was 27-years-old and fully invested in the rock-and-roll lifestyle. I had been teaching undergrads at Emory but spent most of my time on the road or in the studio with drivin’ n’ cryin’. With my long bleached hair and black stretch jeans, I probably didn’t look like the typical university TA.

Once in London, I tried to turn on the American students to the city I knew and loved; shopping in Camden Market, seeing bands at the Marquee Club, and endless pub crawls. While there, I got hooked on going to the theater in the West End, seeing Les Miserables four times. I sent a postcard to my girlfriend, back in Atlanta, that said, “I’m still straight but I LIVE for the musical theater!” And it wasn’t just American university kids in those seats. I started to notice a new subculture in the West End, Russian tourists.

One of the places I loved to take the students was my favorite dance club, the Camden Palace.  The hall opened in 1900 as the Camden Theater but had been the Palace since 1982. It was at the Palace in 1983 I had met a nice German girl at the bar. I was trying to chat her up when she realized the guy at the bar next to me was Limhal. Limhal was the poofy-haired singer of Kajagoogoo who were topping the pops that summer with the airy hit, “Too Shy.” Despite the rumors that he liked boys, Limhal scooped in and purloined my fraulein. Damn you, Limhal!

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In the summer of 1991, Thursdays were “guitar rock” nights at the Palace. Kids from around the globe met to dance to R.E.M., Happy Mondays, and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. There was a song by The Wonder Stuff, “The Size of the Cow” that always filled the dance floor; Americans, French kids, Italians, and the ever-trendy London scenesters. I loved Thursday nights at the Palace because the music kicked ass and you didn’t need a partner to dance with. It was like being at a rock concert. You just hit the floor of the old theater and felt the energy of the crowd.

One particular night in late July, I dragged a few students to the ornate club. I wanted to share the fun of dancing to the new music of the decade with the youth of the world. London always felt like the center of the hipster planet. In London, you can find the best African music, the coolest Middle Eastern late night cafés, and the most over-the-top South American dancers. Going to London, was never like going to “Merry Old England.” It was always like being present in all that was important to the world.

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On that night, the floor was particularly rocking. There was a new wave of kids making it to London from the newly free Eastern European countries. You could identify the “Easterners” because they grew up completely removed from any black culture and danced like it. It didn’t matter. For the first time since before Hitler fucked everything up, Europe felt truly united. The next song was Jesus Jones, “Right Here, Right Now,” which was inspired by the fall of communism. The Russian kids and the Czech kids crammed on to the dance floor. Taking their lead, the German kids and the Swedish kids followed.

There were so many people on the dance floor for this song, no one could move. Instead, everyone hugged and jumped up and down and wept. This is what freedom felt like. We weren’t East and West anymore. We were kids who wanted to dance and not get nuked. I had danced at the Palace in 1982 amid fear of atomic bombs. In 1991, I danced in love with the world. We had all survived the long war. You know it feels good to be alive.

I was alive and I waited for this

Right here, right now, there is no other place I want to be

Right here, right now, watching the world wake up from history.

I still get chills every time I hear that song. I’m sure there are Baby Boomers who have one song that crystallizes what it meant to be a part of that generation, but for me it’s that Jesus Jones song that finally plugged me in to my time on Earth; a song that would later become a K-Mart ad and a Ford commercial.

Later that summer, while traveling through Eastern Europe, I was on a train pulling into a station in East Berlin. It was 3:30 in the morning and there was one East German kid on the platform with a beat up boombox. He was playing a tape of the Scorpions’ new song “Winds of Change” over and over. I just listened to the lyrics about the new Europe bounce around the crumbling old regime. Music had the power to ferry us through massive historical shifts. For the rest of our human existence, historians would muse about this massive global right turn, but, in the moment it occurred, it all came down to a song.

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In 2003, Vladimir Putin told Paul McCartney that it wasn’t Ronald Reagan that ended the Cold War, it was The Beatles – that once Russian kids heard that sound, they stopped caring about the Communist Party and just wanted to join the world party. When they grew up, they pulled the plug on the USSR and came out to dance.