I have found what I was looking for, Bono.

April 14, 2019

I have climbed the highest mountains

Whenever friends or family would come to my little Georgia town, we’d force them to climb its namesake, Stone Mountain. It’s the largest exposed piece of granite in the world and offers a pretty spectacular view of countless pine trees from its nearly 1700 foot summit. On a clear day, you can see Atlanta, which calls itself the “city too busy to hate” in an effort to claim a full agenda gets white people off the hook. We took everyone up that mountain, even my grandparents. There was something spiritual about rising above the tree line, while seeing the graffiti of lovers from the 18th century etched into the rock.

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As a kid I didn’t understand the historical significance of the mountain, which features the largest Confederate memorial carved right into its face. On Thanksgiving night, 1915, a group of hooded white men, including two elderly members of the original Ku Klux Klan, climbed the mountain, raised the Confederate flag, opened a Bible, and, for the first time, burned a 16-foot cross. The modern KKK was born on my mountain. The century of murder and terror it waged against Americans had its inglorious beginning on Stone Mountain. The land beneath it was owned by a Klansman and they still return to its summit, like a white supremacist Mecca.

Walking in the footsteps of those first Klansmen would lead the way towards a lifetime of studying hate and trying to understand organized racism. This included time spent undercover in the white supremacist movement. I’ve seen crosses set alight by men in robes and it made the blood freeze in my veins. This long career has been dedicated to trying to undue what those men started on my mountain in 1915. It’s taken me around the world and brought me to what I had been looking for all along, the antidote to hate.

I have kissed honey lips

Most of my life I have been untethered. I felt like I was floating from one 4 minute music video to another. Even when I was “in love,” I had a few toes out the door, ready for the next song cycle to carry me where it might. There were some epic romances, followed by a divine right to the blues and red red wine. My passport was full but I wasn’t going anywhere, locked in a Möbius strip.

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For much of that life fully lived, the music of U2 provided a soundtrack of freedom. The summer of 1986 I ended up back in Dublin (after working in Copenhagen for a few weeks). U2 was recording their soon-to-be revered Joshua Tree album. I was meeting with Bono as he wanted me to help him compile a release of unsigned American rock bands for their vanity label, Mother Records. (The compilation never was finished but he loved the tape of my roommate’s band, drivin’ ’n’ cryin’ and they were soon signed to U2’s label, Island Records. “Randy, I am a drivin’ ’n’ cryin’ fan,” he said, grabbing my shoulders.) The summer of ’86, I told him way too much about my challenging love life. Part of that summer had been spent with Sinead O’Connor in London, watching her shave her head for the first time. Part of my heart was back in the states with my girlfriend who was leaving me for a life in Paris. I was 22 and had no idea how love was supposed to work.

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He told me the new album would have more love songs and be less political in its themes. The band was exploring more colors from its sonic palette. The following spring, I was driving in Los Angeles when I first heard the final product on KNAC radio; “Where the Streets Have No Name,” soaring as I drove across Mulholland Drive on top of the Hollywood Hills. The world opened up below me. The definitive musical statement of the 1980s had been made and it reflected everything I was at that moment, searching, running to stand still.

You broke the bonds, you loosened chains

My work studying racism and finding an audience in the ancient world of the university earned me the top rank as a tenured full professor at Hogwarts. I had leveraged my position, pushing the faculty to strike against the swollen trolls of the administration to build a university the cared more about easing student debt than the ever-expanding supply of overpaid deans. (If you didn’t know, Hogwarts has more troll deans than you can shake a wand at.)

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All that fell silent when she walked into the room. All the colors bled into one. Angel or devil, I couldn’t tell. I tried to put her out of my mind and went back to my lectures about how romantic love was a “social construction of reality,” a lie that we believe because we’ve been brainwashed by sappy songs and rom coms. I was still in my Möbius loop. “Maybe I should try online dating,” I thought. I tried to avoid looking at her. I worried it would be like B’rer Rabbit and the tar baby. One look and I would be stuck.

After the class was over, I ran into her in a bar. She bought me a shot of tequila and asked if I’d like to go out sometime. “I don’t date students,” I said, feeling the floor slipping out from under me. She bought me another shot. I heard Bono singing, “I can’t live with or without you.” Our friendship became more than that. I saw in her the end of the loop. She knew everything about me. All my flaws and the way out. Why had I been paying a therapist all those years? I saw in her the future mother of my children. We would not be only two people for very long. I saw in her the person who’s dreams I wanted to spend the rest of my life supporting. “I’m with her!” Soon we were married and the parents of a miraculous child who was conceived in a moment of brilliant foresight. “Let’s make a baby!”

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The trolls at Hogwarts used this love of loves as a cudgel to silence a trouble maker. (It seems on-line wizard training is much cheaper than tenured full professors, leaving more money to hire more troll deans.) I was dragged in before the council of witches, their mouths dripping with the anticipation of scoring points for the queen troll. They treated our love as some grand violation. They wanted to destroy my lifetime of work against hate. Perhaps I should have fought harder, but I was in love with my wife and new baby and seeing the monsters that profited behind the hallowed halls of Hogwarts disgusted me. I was forced resign my position and left to create something new, away from their sickness. I let go of the hand if the devil and was free.

Felt the healing in the fingertips

I should have felt like a freefall, loosing the security of a salaried tenured position and the benefits that came with it. (It was easy to not go to the dentist when you have full dental.) Thanks, Obamacare! I became a hustler, selling assets, picking up random gigs here and there. She carried the cross as I stayed home with the baby. I’d hold my little girl and chant, “Everything’s gonna be alright. Everything’s gonna be alright,” hoping the words would be a magical incantation, bringing the answer in a mighty flash of financial stability. “Vengeance is mine!” I would say, as I put some money, any money into my savings account.

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Instead, a strange healing happened as my world, once so big, was shrunk down to three people. It was a bizarre love triangle, like we were our own holy trinity. Not really us versus them, because we’ve had so many amazing people on our side. Us and them (and we think about the trolls less every day). There is a burning sun in our home that has melted us like glass into one perfectly clear entity. It might look like a blob to the outside world, but we are three voices in harmony, and, too each of us, it sounds like it’s coming the tongues of angels.

Being bounced out of my university security gave me back the hunger of my youth. I published a novel and proposed a reality TV show and found my way into cable news commentary. Each experiment was latched to hope that this would open a door that I could take my family through. My wife had her own ascendency, through her art and academic paths. She now grades her students’ exams as I write about our seemingly endless war on racism, from Stone Mountain to Trump. We are recreating the world in our image.

In the middle of all that I found what I was looking for. Hearing our daughter sing in the bathtub. Watching my wife see how her presence can help heal the great divide. Being asked to bring my experience to table after table. I had to lose it all to gain it all. I was of the world and now I am of we three, in this world. All the pieces fit. Like a teenage rock band that’s ready to take the world by storm (as U2 was in its infancy), our vision is unclouded.

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When Bono wrote the words to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” he was still childless. He didn’t become a parent until 1989. I’m guessing he would have written a different song if he had been a dad the summer of 1986. Maybe I’ll ask him someday. (He’s about as accessible as the Pope these days.) That song seemed woven into my cellular membrane in those days. Now that I’ve found it, nurturing it is what drives my bass drum beat. Only to be with you. Only to be with you.

Postscript: A lot of us have lived that song. Have you finally found it? Or are you still running? In this unhappy time, let’s share our answers. Post it, tweet it, Instagram it, shout it from the top of the Hollywood Hills. #Ihavefoundwhatimlookingfor

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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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Jukebox Hero 2: I Will Follow

June 29, 2017

To break things up, I’m occasionally posting chapters for the memoir I wrote a few years ago about my adventure with rock stars. Here’s one of two about U2. Chapter 1, about the Runaways is here: Queens of Noise

Chapter 2:  U2 (Part 1 of 2) – I Will Follow

Soundtrack song: “Sunday Bloody Sunday”

The great thing about working at a record store was you got to get the new music first and listen to it for free. Before I got the job at Turtles, I would find out the release date of a new album and what time the store got its shipment and be there with bells on. In 1979, I was there to get new LPs by The Cars and George Harrison out of the box. First person in Stone Mountain, Georgia to hold a copy of Gary Numan’s Pleasure Principle in his hands. When I started at Turtles in 1981, this became a biweekly thrill; Tuesdays and Fridays. I had gotten the job thanks to David Riderick. David was the bass player for Riggs (who had two great songs on the Heavy Metal soundtrack in 1981) and worked at Turtles. When I was just a fan, he’d let me into the new shipments first. Finally he convinced Jimmy Cisson, the manager, to just hire this kid and let him open his own damn boxes. I’ll never forget opening the box for Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1982 with a crowd of fans lined up at the door. I wasn’t the only one who needed the music ASAP.

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Most of the world got U2’s first album, Boy, in late 1980. For obvious reasons (it was Stone Mountain), it didn’t show up at the Memorial Drive Turtles until early 1981. I was immediately interested because it was produced by Steve Lillywhite, who had recorded some XTC albums I was obsessed with (and my favorite Siouxsie & the Banshees song, “Hong Kong Garden”). It was exciting seeing how punk was evolving in the new decade. And I loved “breaking a new record;” selling an album or single to people who didn’t know they wanted it. Maybe that was a bit of my dad, the salesman, at work. A single by Diesel, “Sausalito Summernight” was a huge hit in America in 1981 largely because of my convincing people in Stone Mountain to buy it. Also, the success of The Go-Go’s. That was me.

I loved the ringing guitars and emphatic vocals of “Bono Vox” on Boy. The album just seemed important and I played it constantly in the store (and refused to play REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity). Jeremy Graf, the lead guitarist from Riggs, was working part-time at the store during a big sale and hated the record. He’d tell me the band was “whiney” and would never go anywhere. Riggs was a great rock band and I’ll just leave it at that. Boy was a hard sell in Stone Mountain. We were selling tons of Kim Carnes records, but not much U2.

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I could write a whole book about how the older Turtles, like Jeff Aronoff, Eric Wiggle, Nan Fischer, and David Remy, turned me on to real music. They would drag me to shows like B.B. King and say, “Randy, Eric Clapton is not the blues. THIS is the blues.” So I was thrilled when I saw that U2 was coming to the Agora Ballroom. The Agora was a small downtown venue across the street from the Fox Theatre that you had to be 18 to get in to. When I was in high school, I’d sit outside the stage door and listen to shows by The Pretenders, The Police, AC/DC, and The Clash (there is a picture from that show on the back of London Calling). My fake ID turned 18 on February 20, 1980 (my 16th birthday), and I became a regular at the Agora. The chance to bring my fellow Turtles to see my new favorite band would pay back all the great music they had turned me on to.

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On May 6, 1981, The Agora was maybe half-full but U2 filled the place up with sound. Bono’s stage presence was hypnotic. On “I Will Follow,” he dramatically threw his cup of water into the air and it landed on Larry Mullen’s drums, bouncing off the skins. The band embodied the punk ideal of erasing the barrier between bands and fans. I knew that this would be another of my “I saw them when” moments. No doubt the 200 who were there still talk about that night in 1981. And one of the nice things was that at clubs like that, it was relatively easy to meet the performers. After the show, the band came back to the stage to break down the equipment. We talked to Bono about the show and how we were pushing Boy at the store. When my enthusiasm got the better of me, my workmates described me as the “baby Turtle.” I picked up a Penrod’s matchbook from the floor and asked him to sign it. He wrote, “To Randy, the baby Turtle, Bono.” I still have it inside my copy of Boy.

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When their second album, October, came out, I got deep in to its mysticism. Was it a Christian album? I had wrestled with the wisdom of rejecting my Presbyterian roots, deep in the Bible Belt, for something more “spiritual.” I only knew that a rare airing of the “Gloria” video was the only reason to find MTV (which wasn’t available in much of the South yet). They opened up for the J. Geils Band and the Atlanta Civic Center on March 11, 1982. J. Geils had finally made it, thanks to their song, “Centerfold,” and U2 was still pretty unknown. Older rockers in the audience told me to sit down when U2 opened their set with “Gloria” and I leapt to my feet. By the last song, “Out of Control,” they had won over the crowd. After the concert, I tried to find my “friend,” Bono by the stage door but the opening band was long gone.

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In the summer of 1982, I went off to school in London. I wanted to get away from Stone Mountain and get closer to the music I loved (especially all things Beatle-related). I had finished my freshman year at Oxford College and when the opportunity came to study in London, I caught the first flight from JFK to Heathrow. I saw a million shows that summer, from the massive to the tiny. I caught the Rolling Stones at Leeds, The Clash in Brixton, and The Lords of the New Church in a hotel bar in Hammersmith, where I had my arm pulled out of the socket while slam dancing. When I saw that U2 was opening for The Police up in Newcastle on July 31st, I went to a West End ticket office and a bought ticket for the show and the coach to ferry me up there. Seeing U2 playing to the huge arena of people who seemed to know every word was both super-cool and a bit sad. I knew I wouldn’t be watching them play at the tiny Agora again.

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When I returned from London in the fall, I immediately began planning my return to the UK. If I had my summers off from college, there was no reason I couldn’t spend them in London, seeing bands and shopping for mod clothes on Carnaby Street. I’d work double shifts at Turtles and bank the money. Fortunately, I could use my employee discount on new albums, like U2’s third release, War. I really dug War because it was more political, like a Clash album. It captured the fear of living in Ronald Reagan’s Cold War, where the world could end at any minute. It only takes a second to say goodbye.

I was 19 and dating a women who was six years older than me with a young son. Reneé was a bartender at the 688 Club, the famous punk venue I was pretty much living in by 1983. Reneé’s best friend, Babs, was back from living in London for a bit and let me know her boyfriend, Steve, was the violinist on War. He added the chilling bit on “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” among other accompaniment. When I mentioned to Babs that I was planning my return to London, she mentioned that she and Steve lived in a squat in Brixton (sight of the 1981 Brixton youth riots where I had gone to see The Clash play in the year before) and I was welcome to crash there. Perfect; a free crash pad in London with a guy that plays with U2.

After catching U2’s big headline show at the Atlanta Civic Center, with The Alarm opening, (I still couldn’t get backstage) I headed back to London. I caught the Victoria line Tube to the last stop, Brixton and walked down Electric Avenue to a massive abandoned apartment building. Squatters had taken over the flats on Cold Harbour Lane and if London had a ghetto, this was it. I stood in the rain and loved it, The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” playing in my head. It was late and Babs looked a bit surprised when I knocked on the door, like, “Holy shit. This kid actually showed up!”

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I instantly hit it off with Steve Wickham. He wasn’t just a name on a U2 record, he was a sweet funny Irish guy who loved American music. Since it was summer, the flat was never too cold and two more Irish roommates and a cast of visitors made my new home seem very warm, even if the hot water only came on once a week. I had taken to my punk lifestyle, dying my hair fuschia and getting tips from German punks who used egg whites to keep their spikes up. The French girls next door would occasionally dress me and I played Velvet Underground songs with the Irish buskers and, one night, told stories about hobbits during a party where everyone was on LSD but me.

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Life on Brixton in 1983 was brilliant. There was a constant flow of reggae music bubbling up from windows and the market. There was a Marxist bookstore and an almost daily rally against South African apartheid. The squat was like a 24-7 scene from The Young Ones, with punks, mods, and Irish musicians showing up with cider and buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. I learned how to ride the Tube for free and would be yelled out by little old English ladies for blasting UB40 tapes out of my boombox in the subway.

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The highlight of the summer was going to be a trip to Dublin. U2 was wrapping up their War tour with a big show in Phoenix Park on August 14 with Simple Minds, the Eurythmics, Big Country, and Steel Pulse. Steve left a week early to rehearse with the band. I took the coach to Holyhead, Wales with two Irish flatmates and their French girlfriends and then headed across the Irish Sea. It was the beginning of a long odyssey in Eire that would open my soul to the true power of music and revolution.

In Ireland, Steve had been reunited with his band, In Tua Nua. They were headquartered on the island of Howth, just to the east of Dublin. Drummer Paul Byrne had a cottage on the sea that was my crash pad for the week. The quaint place, on a high cliff above Balscadden Bay, also housed band member Vinnie Kilduff, who played the Irsh uillean pipes on War. In Tua Nua were about to be signed to U2’s new record label, Mother Records, with their new singer Leslie Dowdall (who had replaced one Sinéad O’Conner).

After getting settled, Steve and I hitchhiked up to the top of Howth, to The Summit pub. At the time, The Summit was really the only place to get a pint of the black water (aka Guinness) and some Irish bonhomie on the island of Howth. There we ran into Bono, who was relaxing in the days before the big homecoming concert. Steve was going to introduce me when Bono walked up and said, “Randy, the baby Turtle!” remembering our brief meeting in Atlanta two years earlier. This was my first glimpse into Bono’s sponge-like brain. We enjoyed a pint, talked about whatever country Reagan was overthrowing that week, and shared excitement about Saturday’s Phoenix Park show.

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The concert was incredible. I spent some of it backstage (hanging out with The Alarm) but I was a big fan of every act on the bill. I was impressed at how European crowds sang along to every song and the Irish were twice as enthusiastic. The fans cooled the hot August afternoon by drinking from big mylar bags of cider that had been ripped from their cardboard boxes. Clouds of sweated-out cider and beer steam hung over the throng (I don’t think I ever went to a show in Europe were there were actually “seats”). When U2 hit the stage, the crowd was frenzied. It was like slam dancing with thousands of people. And when Steve and Vinnie joined the band, everyone cheered at two more of their hometown boys in the big league. I got to meet the rest of U2 after the show, Larry, Adam, and Edge, but it was all a blur. I was too excited to remember any of it.

I returned that fall to begin my junior year at Emory and have other musical adventures. I became the entertainment editor of The Emory Wheel and kept in touch with Steve and Babs and started saving for my trip back. After getting married, Babs and Steve left the squat in Brixton and moved to Dublin where Steve was going to devout his full time fiddling for In Tua Nua. It was agreed that I should plan on spending the summer of 1984 in Dublin and I could work as a roadie for the band.

June couldn’t come fast enough. Flying into Dublin from New York was much different than flying into London. The plane was filled with Irish souls heading home. There was much drinking and singing on the flight. Fiddles and whiskey were passed across the seats. It was a dose of the Irish muse that follows the Irish around, getting them through the hell of their history. Babs and Steve met me at the gate and we headed to their new flat on Rathmines Road.

The flat was small, but I had a little pallet in the back to sleep on. I figured I could earn my keep by telling tales of life in America, playing the latest cassettes, and, in general, being entertaining. There was also some big news that I knew about in advance. First, U2 was working on a new album at Windmill Lane Studios and Steve was going to lay down some violin parts. And second, my hero, Bob Dylan, was playing a massive outdoor concert on July 8 at Slane Castle. In Tua Nua was on the bill and I was going to be the drum roadie.

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In the past year, I had become a student of Irish history and “the troubles.” When I was a student in London in 1982, the IRA had set off a series of bombs. One was under a bandstand in Regents Park where I often studied. I had a marginal bit of knowledge, mainly from two songs from 1972, John Lennon’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and Paul McCartney’s “Give Ireland Back to the Irish.” I quickly added Eire to my radical history crash course after that, especially after my quick trip to Belfast in 1983, when British soldiers took the film out of my camera for taking pictures of the wrong thing (British soldiers). Slane Castle was on the River Boyne, near the site of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. It was there that the Protestant King William defeated the Catholic King James, beginning a long history of foreign rule of Ireland. The concert would be a chance to experience the intersection of Irish and rock history.

I rode to the show in the van with In Tua Nua past the 100,000 people who wanted to be in the same physical space with the legendary Bob Dylan. The band teased me about wearing shorts and I informed them that this appropriate attire for a roadie at a festival. UB40 and Santana were on also on the bill. In Tua Nua, who had put out a wonderful 12 inch single on Mother Records, was now being courted by U2’s own label, Island Records. An A&R man from Island, known as The Captain, was waiting for us backstage. The Captain was a guy named Nick Stewart who had signed U2 to Island in 1980. But we were all more excited about being close to Dylan.  He was a mythical character and none of us really knew what he looked like up close. I had seen him in 1980 at the Fox Theater, but I was about twenty rows back and the clouds of pot smoke and Frisbees were in the way. At one point, a guy that looked like the man walked by and a friend shouted out, “Welcome to Ireland, Mr. Dylan!” He turned around and with a smile said, “I’m not Bob but I’ll tell him you said so.” A guy that knew Bob Dylan, that was pretty close!

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I was about to go bother Carlos Santana, who was standing alone on the banks of the Boyne when Paul Byrne asked me to come to the stage and help set up his drum kit. I was working after all. The crowd was the biggest I’d ever seen and when In Tua Nua started the set they roared in approval. Leslie looked great in her black leather skirt and very un-Irish tan. Steve lept about the stage wearing a polka-dot shirt I had found in the basement of Walter’s Fine Clothes in Atlanta. The band was tight and my big job was to make sure Paul’s vocal mike swung in when he had to sing background vocals. Being on stage with the band, hearing the music through the monitors, and looking down on the huge crowd was such a rush. If only I had a bit of musical talent that would justify me stepping out of the shadows.

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After their set, Steve and I headed up the castle to watch the UB40 set. U2 had been recording there with Brian Eno, so it wasn’t that surprising that we ran into Bono in the VIP area. He gave me a big hug and we talked about how great the In Tua Nua set was. Steve snapped a picture of us there and I have the goofiest look on my face. It was such a great day and about to get better. As much as I loved UB40 and Santana, I only remember hanging on Bono’s coattails, hoping he would introduce me to Eno. However, my All Access Pass meant that I could watch Dylan from a castle on a hill or from a few feet way.

I found a perfect spot in front of the stage, in front of the barrier that separated Bob from 100,000 screaming Dylan fans. I think the Irish cared more about Bob than the Americans did because, unlike TV obsessed Americans, the Irish actually care about poetry and politics. Bob was still in a bit of a lost phase (that he really wouldn’t emerge from until 1997), but when he opened with “Highway 61 Revisited,” you would have thought that he was the fucking messiah. I was ten feet from him the whole time, snapping pictures and hoping I wouldn’t run out of film before something major happened.

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At the end of the show, Dylan announced a special guest and the patron saint of Irish music, Van Morrison walked on stage and the Boyne Valley erupted in jubilation. Bob and Van the Man dueted on “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Tupelo Honey” and you could just feel the cosmic synergy. Then it was over. But the sweaty Irish masses demanded more. The summer sun was still up and there were a million more Dylan songs to get to. So out comes Bob and tells people there is another special guest, “Bono from U2!” But he pronounced “Bono” like “Bozo,” like “Bono the Clown.” The crowd loved it. It wasn’t just Bono out their with Dylan. Leslie and Steve were on stage too! And of course, I was out of film. Bob launched into “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat.” Bono and Leslie, not knowing the words (who does?) just sang “leopard skin pill-box hat” at odd moments and Steven fiddled away.

Bob played three more songs but I raced behind the stage to meet up with Leslie, Steve, and Bono, all who could not believe that they just performed with the actual guy that every busker in Ireland was trying to become. The sun was now down and I helped pack up the bands gear, wishing I had worn long pants.

After the show, we went to the Pink Elephant basement bar to celebrate the great gig. It was a classic 80s small disco bar with plenty of mirrors and colored lights. I would regularly see Def Leppard there. They were living in Ireland as a tax dodge and would huddle in a booth together with their pints of lager. Dublin in 1984 seemed like the least heavy metal place on earth. I got a kick out of telling them that my little brother (not me) was a big fan. They seemed to be happy that anyone knew who they were. I spent the rest of the night dancing to Frankie Goes to Hollywood songs with Sinead O’Conner. But that is another story for another chapter.

I think reuniting with Bono at Slane gave Steve permission to bring me down to Windmill Lane Studios, where U2 was working on their new album. We stopped in the Temple Bar first where we ran into Adam Clayton, the bass player. He was wearing a printed shirt with images of the Ku Klux Klan and burning crosses. I told him about growing up in a Klan town in Georgia and he talked about how the new album was going to be full of themes about American culture. Forget being the first to get the record out of the box, I was going to hear this album before it was even made!

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In the studio, Bono was working on a song about the heroin problem in Dublin. He didn’t have any words for it but it would evolve into the epic, “Bad.” The band’s backing track played and Bono yelped and hummed and found words that fit the vibe. “Let it go!” The band was interested in Steve laying down some soulful lines on his fiddle and Bono gave him a demo tape to work with. I noticed a few cassettes in the trashcan and quietly slid them into my pocket. Bono seemed glad I was there and I later asked Steve if he could get me a job as a gofer in the studio so I could have a legitimate reason to hang out and watch the sessions. I got a call at Rathmines a few days later, while I was watching Miami Vice, to go pick up some bass strings for Adam. That was enough. And there is a song on Unforgettable Fire with a great bass part that are played on strings I bought.

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Skimming the edge of the U2 inner circle was a thrill, but I had my own rock career to nurture. Since 1983, I had been helping out a great Atlanta band called The Nighporters that I will write more about. (They were the band that morphed into Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, the band that would dominate my rock n roll lifestyle for years to come.) By the summer of 1984, The Nightporters had a single, were selling out shows at 688, and had opened for The Clash. So I spent a good bit of time trying to break them in Ireland. I gave Bono a copy of a tape and I’d hunt down RTE DJs at the record station’s commissary and put the 45, “Mona Lisa,” in their hands along with a photocopy of a picture of the marquee at the Fox Theatre with The Nightporters’ name right below The Clash’s. To my credit, “Mona Lisa” blasted out across the Irish airwaves one night that summer.

My love of underground bands was the source of great interest for Bono. He knew there were scores of brilliant bands that would never have the success that U2 had. We talked about the Paisley Underground bands in LA, the hard-core bands in Washington, DC, and the drunken post-punk bands in Minneapolis. Bono hit on the idea of using Mother Records to get some of these groups more exposure and deputized me to collect demo tapes from unsigned bands that would expose the real sound of America. This was an easy task for me as there was a vast underground of music sharing that had nothing to do with computers. Bands would come through town, sleep on your couch and leave a handful of cassettes, like musical Johnny Appleseeds. I was actually looking forward to my return to the States to begin my job as Bono’s hipster A&R man.

The rest of the summer was filled with music and travel. I went to London with In Tua Nua to meet with The Captain at Island and watch the signing of the record deal. Nick and I had bonded after the Dylan show. We spent the next afternoon running up and down Grafton Street looking for a leopard skin pillbox hat for Leslie to commemorate her song with Dylan. At Island, there was a large white board with hand-written info about tours and releases from various Island acts. Standing in front of the wall was a big haired guy I recognized as Mike Scott of The Waterboys, another Island band.

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I cut loose from the band to visit some students at my old London dorm. I made a trek down to Brighton in my parka, like a mod Hajj.  A friend from college took pictures of me on the beach, trying to recreate the images from Quadrophenia. Then I headed off to Paris (in the days when you had to go across the English Channel, not under it). I ended up meeting some American girls from Colorado on the Champs Elysees and watched the L.A. Olympics in their hotel room while they smoked hash and asked me what it was like to be Irish. I put on my best Irish accent in the hopes it would charm them into letting me crash on the floor. Or in a bed.

One of the girls, Debbie, seemed to like all things Irish, including U2. I told her about life in Dublin and working with the band and told her she should visit some time. She was on a package trip and they were headed to London next. We made plans to meet in a few days. As I waited her outside her London hotel on Piccadilly Circus, a female copper tried to get me to move away, assuming I was trying to meet a prostitute. In Piccadilly Circus? Fortunately, Debbie came out in time and I gave her an Irish boy’s tour of London, careful not to drop my brogue I had been practicing all summer. I gave my address in Dublin (really Steve and Babs’ address) and sent her off on her package tour of Europe.

When I got back to Dublin, I decided it was time to head back up to the North. I took a train up to Belfast. I learned my lesson after my trip the previous summer and vowed to be more discrete around any soldiers. This time I was armed with books about the IRA, the loyalists, Green Republicans, and Orange coppers.  On August 12, I took a train across the border into the North. This happened to be the same day that Martin Galvin was headed to Belfast. Galvin was an Irish-Lawyer who had been banned from entering Northern Ireland because of his leadership of NORAID. NORAID was an American group that provided supported financial aid to the IRA and Galvin was a major thorn in the side of the British government.

When I showed up in the Catholic neighborhood in Belfast where Galvin was going to speak with a bag full of books on Irish nationalism, I learned a quick lesson about global politics. I assumed that my American passport gave me international immunity from local conflicts. When the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) saw me snapping pictures of British soldiers (a serious transgression as the IRA targeted known soldiers), they questioned me, took my camera and my passport. They asked me if I was with NORAID. I tried to explain that my name was Czech, not Irish and, as much as I hated saying it, I was a tourist. That wasn’t good enough and I was held for questioning.

That might have been a good thing, since shortly after that, the RUC opened fire on the crowd that Galvin was speaking to. A guy about my age named Sean Downes was killed by a plastic bullet. The RUC questioned me on a side street. Once they realized I was a dumb American who had just listened to too many U2 records they let me go. They did wait until after the last train for Dublin had left and trailed me as I looked for a Bed & Breakfast to camp out in. The couple who ran it delighted me in tales of the “English savages.” When I made it back to college in the fall the whole experience became a part of my senior honors thesis, “A Marxist Analysis of the Irish Conflict.”

When I got back to Dublin from Belfast, there was a postcard from Debbie. She was coming to Dublin to see me. I went into a panic. I had pretended to be Irish because I thought being a kid from Stone Mountain, Georgia in Paris wouldn’t really get me anywhere. I explained my charade to Steve and Babs and they fell all over in hysterics. I begged them to help me keep up the act so I wouldn’t look like a complete idiot. When Debbie knocked on the door of the flat I quickly pulled her onto a bus for Grafton Street. Steve and Babs tagged along, constantly quizzing me on my Irish lineage and how Randy Blazak was actually a “very Irish name.” It was torture, We seemed to run into everybody the next few days. They all had the same puzzled look when I began to speak in my fake Irish accent. I’m not sure what Debbie made of it. Probably that I was an idiot.

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That fall, back at college, I busied myself helping The Nightporters and finding tapes of cool bands for Bono. It was always cool when a letter from him would show up in my Emory PO box. When The Unforgettable Fire came out in October it just blew me away. It was such a departure from the strident War album. I would listen to the hypnotic “Bad” in my dorm room and think about the early version I heard Bono working on in Windmill Lane. And I knew the tour was going to be a major event.

During the spring, I was on top of my game. I had become the leading campus activist, leading demonstrations against apartheid and whatever Reagan was up to that week. I was flying to LA to hang out with rock star friends. I was loving my “Philosophy of Marxism” course, taught by a Catholic priest. The dogwoods were in bloom and my little clique of campus freaks had colonized the steps of Cox Hall. And on one sunny day, while I was organizing a protest, or a road trip, there was Debbie from Colorado. “Randy! What are you doing here?”

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You can learn a lot from a rock star.

January 28, 2015

As a guy with a massive love of music but minimal musical talent, I’ve been lucky enough to get to hang around  musicians for most of my life. From local jammers to superheroes, like the guys in U2 and REM, I’ve had friends who know how to take a thought and turn it into a song that people want to sing. It’s a beautiful process. I’ve been working on a book called Mirror Star about some of these people and the excitement they’ve brought my life. But for now, I’ll just post this picture of me and Carrie Brownstein, of Sleater-Kinney, at the 2008 Obama rally in Portland.

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I’m on this topic because Cozy had her first backstage experience yesterday. We were at the KINK Bing Lounge show of Trigger Hippy, Joan Osborne’s great band with Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman. Steve is a very old friend of mine and a former roommate. In fact, I played a role getting him into the Crowes when I was Drivin’ N’ Cryin’s manager in 1987. It’s always great to catch up with Steve and the new group is really, really great, like a band I would have wanted to see in 1970.

Joan just fell in love with Cozy and my baby girl has the same birthdate as Steve (so we’re convinced she’s going to be a drummer). I was excited for him to meet her as he’s known my ups and downs for the last 27 years and gave me a lot of great father advice when we were still expecting (before he ran off to hang out with Dave Grohl and Ringo Starr).

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So what does a baby get from being backstage at rock gig besides the above picture to brag about when she’s older? Not that much and I don’t want to foster mindless idle worship or encourage some version of groupiedom. (I want you to REALLY listen to the lyrics of “Superstar” by The Carpenters.) However, there is something of value of having friends who are successful musicians.

Most of those people got to do what they love for a living for one reason, a lot of hard work. When I was in high school, I took a folk guitar class and was frustrated that I couldn’t already play like Jimmy Page. I’d think, “I should have started at 10. It’s too late!” And I sort of just quit. If I had just practiced my ass off from 16 to 20, I would have been able to play all those licks for the last 30 years. My friends didn’t quit. I learned a lot from my long conversations with Bono and Susanna Hoffs. I learned about the creative process and what it takes to do it right.

I love the chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers, where he compares The Beatles and Bill Gates. Both practiced obsessively at the the thing they loved. He calls it the “10,000 Rule.” You need 10,000 hours of practice before you can really get good at anything. Macklemore wrote a song about it called “10,000 Hours.” I’d like to think I have 10,000 hours of teaching in and I’m working on 10,000 hours of writing now. I know my friends who have put in their time drumming or songwriting can now enjoy the fruits of their labor.

I want Cozy to know that to do the thing you love well takes a lot of commitment. If she wants to play the violin or write speeches or fix refrigerators she needs to go all in. People aren’t born rock stars, they pay their dues. (I will save the required discussion on the evils of American Idol for another time.) And it’s often not very glamorous. You are alone in a room or playing in a tiny club to 4 people who are ignoring you. But you are working your craft. So yes, she will have piano lessons and, unlike me, she won’t quit.

Well, I guess some people are born to be rock stars. Steve Gorman wasn’t the first star she met at a show. Before she was born she met Beatle son Sean Lennon after a great Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger show. I’m sure she’ll meet more in the future. (Does Bono baby sit?) And I hope they tell her how you get to Carnegie Hall. Practice.

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Hanging out with Beatle baby Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl of the GOASTT, Mississippi Studios, May 24, 2014.

The following book was mentioned in this blog and you can buy it from Powell’s by clicking the cover below.